We often talk about culture whether it’s about a live theatre performance, a type of cuisine or even someone’s dress sense. But what exactly is culture? Why does it matter and what is being done to protect it?
For many, our culture creates a sense of belonging; it’s about the ability to relate to and identify with other people. It’s an intangible concept that’s arguably one of the most difficult to define and yet one of the most important for a society.
“Culture means the understanding of our day-to-day behaviour and habits – how we live our lives and our day-to-day routine. That’s how culture is built,” explains Sumayya Alsuweidi, community events manager in the arts department at the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT).
“You identify a country by its culture. If you see a woman wearing an abaya and shayla you know that she’s from the GCC because that’s what most of the women from there wear. It identifies where someone is from.”
Despite being such a young country, the UAE has a vibrant culture, and as with most countries, it’s been strongly influenced by its past, with the blend of international influences and local heritage resulting in a unique culture.
Honouring the past, celebrating the future
“A great way to describe Emirati culture, and Emirati people, is that they are deeply rooted in their history, but also have a very futuristic outlook,” explains Khulood al Atiyat, manager of arts, culture and heritage at the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, which manages cultural hub Warehouse421.
“We remember who we are and where we came from, but we do our best to plan for the future and to take the country forward day by day in everything that we do.
“Bedouin culture is one of the founding pillars of UAE society today and is still an integral part of our identity as UAE nationals in many ways.
“I think the biggest part, which is something that we are very proud of, is the culture of hospitality, and that helps explain why the UAE today is a place for people from so many different cultures – people are welcome to visit the UAE or call it home, and that really is deeply rooted in a Bedouin culture and lifestyle.”
Despite the UAE’s rapid progress, these values are still evident today: “We’re always welcoming, we always like to do more and give more,” Sumayya explains.
“Even today, we still sleep in our houses with our doors open because we’re never afraid of who might come in. We always think good of other people, and are happy to meet new people and welcome them to sit with us and talk with us – it’s in our nature.”
A globalised world
Over the years, events such as Qasr Al Hosn Festival, Al Dhafra Festival and the exhibitions hosted at Warehouse421 such as Lest We Forget and Emirati Adornments, have helped not only bring old traditions to the fore and celebrate the past, but have also helped keep a culture alive with ayyalah performances, traditional handicrafts workshops and exhibitions displaying age-old garments.
Despite being such a young country, the UAE is remarkably proud of its culture and the way it defines the nation’s identity. But over the years, globalisation has meant that many countries are seeing their culture impacted by new ones as expats live side by side, tourists travel the globe and share their customs and social media opens up new channels of exposure.
But it’s not all bad – as Sumayya says, globalisation is opening up people’s minds to new opportunities.
“With time, habits change,” she acknowledges. “In the past, it was hard for people here. [Before, women] couldn’t drive, but now that’s become normal. It was difficult for women to work in an office environment, but now that is commonplace. Going out to dinner or to the movies was also not done, and again, it’s now normal. Today, we have women who are pilots, ballerinas, ice skaters – if you had told me this 20 years ago I would have said there’s no way.
“But I believe the essence of our culture is the same because we’re still very much into our everyday habits and our religion – we never left it.”
Maintaining this core culture, and all the values that go with it, is vital to keeping globalisation at bay. For Sumayya, the work that DCT does is integral to this.
DCT regularly hosts events and activities including workshops with Emirati artisans to learn khous (weaving with palm leaves), telli (hand embroidery), sadu (weaving with wool) and other traditional handicrafts.
Art exhibitions like the Emirati Traditional Games, set to return to Al Ain in November this year, showcase traditional pastimes that shaped the culture and allow it to be shared with future generations.
“There’s always a risk of losing culture, not only in the UAE but around the world,” Sumayya acknowledges.
“We get so mixed up in globalisation that we often neglect it. So then comes the job of the parents at home – how they manage to teach that culture to their children. It’s also the responsibility of our leaders to keep nourishing our culture and continue to have it as part of our life in events or whatever we do.
“That’s why what we do at DCT is crucial for generations to come,” Sumayya continues. “It would be tough to teach our children in 50 years’ time when they ask us about things and we won’t know how to answer.
“It’s important for stability for children today to know where they come from. For them to relate to the country, to have that feeling of belonging; they belong to something that’s very rich, very beautiful and very authentic. If there isn’t that connection, if we lose it, I believe a person would feel lost and wouldn’t be able to identify with the country that he or she lives in.”
At the end of the day, it’s not the parts of Emirati culture you can see that are the most important. The values that make up the culture – such as tolerance and humbleness – are a big element of the culture’s core.
“I don’t think that the culture will lose its history or tradition, because it’s not something that you learn at school or in books,” Khulood explains.
“It’s something that is really engrained in families, our way of life, our interactions with people and it even informs our personal values and morals. I think what it visible of [our culture] is just a fraction of it: the tangible and the intangible.
“The tangible is a fraction of the very intangible aspects of Emirati culture, and I think those aspects, be it in family relations or the way we treat others who are friends or guests of the country, or the way that we lead our lives with honesty, humbleness, passion – all of these values are intrinsic to UAE culture and the values of being an Emirati person.
“I don’t think that there will be a time where we’ll lose that, but I think that what we constantly try and understand better is: What are the needs of the future? What are the challenges of the future? How can we continue to build a better country for the community and the society and adopt that?
“It’s not about just staying in one place and remembering our history, it’s about moving it with us in our memories and practices as well, but with a futuristic outlook …
“And I think that when we talk about cultures, no matter how widespread globalisation is or how many people from all around the world come to the UAE, interact with us, coexist with us, there’s always room. We do not expect people to suddenly just take Emirati culture and behave as Emiratis. That is not the expectation on the other side either; we do not suddenly let go of our Emirati culture.
“It’s about developing a shared cultural space where people from different cultures can understand one another other, learn from one another and accept, embrace and celebrate these differences.”
WORDS Rachael Perrett