When visitors arrive in Dubai the one sure place to find out about local culture and interact with Emiratis is the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.
The centre was established in 1998 under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum as a non-profit organisation. It is situated in a traditional wind tower in historic Bastakiya, one of the oldest districts in the city.
Under the banner ‘Open Doors, Open Minds’, the centre aims to promote understanding and awareness between people of different cultures living in the UAE.
During Ramadan, the centre opens its doors to visitors and residents for the traditional sundown meal known as iftar.
So popular are these evenings that it is a good idea to book early. Attendance numbers rose in 2011 by 21 percent on the previous year. Demand is expected to be high again this Ramadan.
The centre's general manager, Nasif Kayed, says: “Our guests love the iftar evenings because they get to watch us break our fast and pray in front of them. We also explain why we fast during Ramadan. Then they get to eat authentic Emirati food with us and mingle.
“These evenings allow people to ask what they want in a relaxed atmosphere as well as experience a little bit of our culture during Ramadan. Every iftar is really very enjoyable.”
Once the iftar meal is over, guests are taken on a short walk through the old district of Bastakiya to the mosque to witness evening prayers, followed by a final question and answer session.
“No one ever leaves us without learning something new,” says Kayed. “There are many misconceptions about this part of the world, our culture and about Islam. We get asked every type of question - nothing is off limits and we are happy to answer them.”
Unlike other iftar meals held typically at hotels across the city, the centre is the only venue in Dubai that guarantees contact with Emiratis - a huge plus, according to Kayed.
“We are few in this country compared to the expat population and there are not enough of us to go around,” he said.
“But those of us at the centre really do believe in promoting understanding, especially during Ramadan which, for every Muslim, is a time to increase spirituality and come together as a community.”
Throughout the year, the centre hosts corporate and public sector workshops, cultural awareness programmes, breakfasts and dinners - all designed to continue the work of cultural bridge building.
Figures reflect growing public interest in these programmes: attendance at cultural breakfasts rose by 64 percent and attendance at cultural lunches by 76 percent, for the period 2010 - 2011.
For more information about the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding Ramadan programmes, visit www.cultures.ae or contact +971 4 353 6666.
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