Roudha Al Marri, the co-author of UAE 101: Stories & Cultural Learnings, an award-winning guidebook to Emirati culture and founder of a new publishing house, talks about her new book
Words: Tamara Clarke
What inspired you to write UAE 101?
I was having coffee with my neighbour and she kept asking me questions about the UAE. She wanted to know why we do the things we do. She asked me why there wasn’t anything written to explain Emirati culture to expats so I suggested putting something together where she would ask me questions and I would answer.
We agreed to meet the next day to go over all of her questions and she showed up with a list of 100 things. I always joke around and say that I added only one. This was a natural progression. My neighbour, Ilaria Caielli is a published author in Italy, so she was the perfect bridge for me to enter into publishing, which has always been a dream of mine.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about the UAE?
This book [UAE 101] doesn’t answer misconceptions as much as it answers why we do the things we do. I believe that culture is not something that you get to teach someone. You have to grow up in it or you have to experience it and that’s why I want to introduce others to my culture. The second book I am writing, 101 Misconceptions About the UAE Explained, which is due out in February, covers this.
However, the wildest thing I’ve heard came from a German lady who’s been living here since the 1970s. She said that before she came here, she was told when visiting an Emirati, she would be offered the head of the lamb and expected to eat it’s eye. She believed that was common practice for guests, so in the beginning she was very afraid to go to an Emirati house. (Roudha erupts with laughter)
Earlier this year, the authorities gave directives to remove partitions in restaurants in the capital that serve food during Ramadan. This is a departure from tradition. How do you feel about recent cultural shifts in the UAE?
For me, culture is not at the surface, it is deep within the values. I once described culture as being like sand dunes – they shift in shape; they move but they keep their core identity and values and this is how we are raised – with values that we don’t just change. Emiratis are known for their hospitality and optimism for life and family, so these things don’t change. We are opening our doors to other nationalities, so we have to accommodate them.
In addition to writing books, you’ve established House 101. Tell me about that.
I established a publishing house because I feel like there are so many Emirati authors writing in English who are overlooked. It’s a problem that I faced because my book is written in English and it felt like publishing houses were only looking for Emiratis who write in Arabic.
My book is about culture and it’s actually promoting the UAE culture to others so publishing it in English makes sense. I want to get authors who write amazing books in both Arabic and English on board.
Where and how can readers connect with you?
My new book, 101 Misconceptions About the UAE Explained, will be released on 2nd February 2020 during the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and I will be giving a talk at the festival on 5th February. I am also on Instagram @rg.almarri.