20 November 2021
Khor Dubai’s (Dubai Creek) water always felt dense with history. From the tinted double-glazed windows of the Hyatt Regency in Deira, we watched in wonder as the dhows glided majestically into the mouth of the Creek. Their names – jahazi, jalibut, pattamar, sambuk, baggala, boum – gave their origins away. We knew they had sailed from along the South Asian coast, Iran, the Arabian Gulf, East Africa, the Indian Ocean, and Madagascar to sell their wares in Dubai. It was always such a treat to see the boatmen offload colourful textiles and containers filled with spices, kitchen utensils, handicrafts, and accessories as we drove along Baniyas Road.
In those sepia-coloured days of 1980s Dubai, we accessed dozens of cultures at the Hyatt in whose furnished apartments we lived – ‘temporarily’, like the many families who had fled political conflict in their home countries. Others’ apartments in this American edifice built in 1980 were like portals to a plethora of countries and cultures. I was introduced to delectable pistachios from the Kerman Province in Iran and celebrated both Mother’s Day and Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on 21 March. Mrs Asfour, the paediatrician’s wife on the 17th floor, taught my mother how to make Palestinian kunafa with shredded phyllo, Nabulsi cheese and sugar syrup. Zeeshan, the Indian reception manager, gave Mom the recipe for murgh makhani (butter chicken) and sent a box filled with golden laddu semolina balls during Diwali, the Hindu festival of light. Everyone was invited to iftar at our home during Ramadan whether they fasted or not, and for Eid Al Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, and Eid Al Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, we wore new outfits and shyly and excitedly accepted wads of cash from our friends and family. Every December, we wrote our lists for Santa, lined up Christmas cards on the sun-drenched window ledge that overlooked the glorious Khor Dubai, and indulged in Mom’s apple crumble, courtesy of her Betty Crocker cookbooks bought from Al Ghurair Mall.
At school, it was my English teacher, Mrs Jaeger from Ireland, who told me my name was Gaelic and rolled the r as she called me ‘Murrna.’ It didn’t sound half as classy as Madame Hussein from Tunisia who called me ‘Meeghna’ in French class. My nine-year-old mind wondered if Myrna Bustani, the first female Lebanese MP after whom I was named, knew that Myrna meant ‘the beloved.’ In our teens, we covered Al Mutanabbi and Shakespeare, read Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby and Cry, The Beloved Country in awe, and cried in advanced geometry and Arabic literature. On trips abroad, it was offensive when people were surprised by how fluently we spoke English and how much we knew, well, about everything. Even worse was explaining where the UAE sits geographically. “They’re ignorant for not knowing,” my mother would say disparagingly.
No matter how many nationalities we were, we were one. It was as though we were all cooked in a pot called the UAE which produced the most aromatic, flavoursome dish. It felt like family wasn’t just ‘back home’; family was right here, next door, upstairs and close by. Many years later, I stumbled upon a term, Third Culture Kid, and identified with many of its attributes: TCKs have an expanded world view, see things from several perspectives, speak two or more languages, are culturally sensitive and highly adaptable. Interestingly, for a TCK, home is not a place; it’s in people, and mine are a colourful tribe from all corners of the world. I came to realise – and still acknowledge obsessively – that my exposure to all these wonderful cultures is a priceless gift, an education in and of itself, and it is owed to the multiculturalism of the UAE. It is through this diversity that I reaped many fruits, one of the best being tolerance.
From right to left : His Excellency Dr. Zaki Nusseibeh, Cultural Advisor to the President of the UAE ; Her Excellency Noura Bint Mohammed Al Kaabi, UAE Minister of Culture and Youth
Now, I don’t particularly like the word ‘tolerance.’ It sounds like there’s a command hidden within it and makes me feel like I am obligated to tolerate something. His Excellency Dr. Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, UAE Minister of State and Chancellor of UAE University shared my sentiment during a talk I moderated on 20 November 2021 with him and fellow titan, Her Excellency Noura Al Kaabi, UAE Minister of Culture and Youth at the UAE Pavilion at Dubai Expo as part of Alserkal’s Cultures in Conversation talks series. “Tolerance is a misnomer,” said HE Nusseibeh. “Samaha(forgiveness in Arabic) is a word that is closer to my understanding of tolerance that we use today; samaha is the ability to empathise with others.” I couldn’t agree more.
In the UAE, one can’t go too far in a conversation about tolerance without mentioning the nation’s founder, the late, great, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. In this country, tolerance flows top-down, bottom-up, and expands sideways. It’s a national virtue. When the UAE announced 2019 as the Year of Tolerance, I thought that, though tolerance is innate and natural, we ought to label it and, in so doing, emphasise it. Especially at a day and age when divisions are aplenty.
I’d grown up in the UAE during the Zayed Years, and heard tale after tale about the ruler’s humility, respect, and generosity. Later, during my research for Sheikh Zayed: An Eternal Legacy (Assouline, 2021), I came to know him better through his friends, family, and government officials. In an interview with HE Al Kaabi in April 2019, she cited Sheikh Zayed’s reaction when he was told about the discovery of a monastery in the protected island of Sir Bani Yas: “He said, ‘this is great news; it means I had ancestors who believed in another religion.’” She mentioned another example when a cleric told him to forbid the observation of Christmas because it includes the consumption of wine: “He said, ‘this is how they celebrate.’”
“You need to be human before being religious,” said Al Kaabi in November. “He left us a blueprint.” This blueprint has birthed many an initiative, among them the Abrahamic Family House, comprising a mosque, church, synagogue, and educational centre designed by Sir David Adjaye on Saadiyat Island. Rooted in the Document of Human Fraternity signed by Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmed Al Tayeb in February 2019, the project’s site states: “The Abrahamic Family House will be a beacon of mutual understanding, harmonious coexistence, and peace among people of faith and goodwill.”
Mutual understanding. Harmonious coexistence. Peace among people. That is how I feel in the UAE. Over the years, we’ve felt like the dhows too. Except now we know we haven’t come from somewhere else to offload or trade. We’ve come home.
Myrna Ayad is a Dubai-based cultural strategist, art advisor and editor. Her clients include Pepsico, the UAE Ministry of Culture and Youth, the Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group, Bulgari, Bain, Pelham Communications, Riyadh’s Misk Art Institute and Assouline, with whom Ayad published Sheikh Zayed: An Eternal Legacy and Dubai Wonder (both 2021). Ayad was formerly Director of Art Dubai and served as Editor of Canvas magazine.