Travel Advising with Cultural Tolerance and Understanding in the Middle East

When I received my invitation to attend the 2014 Virtuoso Chairman's Event in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I was thrilled.  The United Arab Emirates has been an up and coming destination that has become more and more popular in recent years.  However, as I planned for my trip and spoke to friends and family about my journey, the response was less than favorable.  Many people replied, "Wow, aren't  you afraid", "Don't you think it's a scary time to be in the Middle East" and "Please be careful" were some of many phrases I heard.  Having sent many travelers to the UAE in recent years, I wasn't concerned about safety in the least bit, but was curious how I would feel about the culture and way of life.  You see, like many people in the US, I have always looked at the Islamic way of life with curiosity and concern.  The news has been no help and I have to admit that I have always secretly stared at the covered women and felt an urge to tear off their head coverings and set them free from, what I perceived to be, a life of silent suffering.  I couldn't comprehend walking around covered from head to toe in the heat of the day, staring at the world from a one inch slit.

When we arrived in Dubai for our week of discovery, of course, I was immediately surrounded by the local attire and culture.   As my curiosity began to peak, I was incredibly pleased that our first stop was The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in the historical Al Fahidi District.  Our visit was an Emirate lunch of traditional dishes of chicken, rice, lentils and goat.  The aroma was intoxicating and the display of food that lay on carpets on the floor was like a work of art.   Sitting on pillows on the floor, you could feel a sense of truly being in the Middle East.  

Sampling the local cuisine
The program was an open forum about the culture and Islamic religion.  Their slogan is "Open Doors, Open Minds" and our speaker was a combination of teacher and comedian, which immediately made everyone feel comfortable and free to ask questions.  After a brief discussion on history and their way of life, the questions began to flow.  Of course, one of the first questions was about the abaya and sheila, known to most Americans as the dreaded "burka".  "Why would the women choose to wear such dreadful dark coverings in the heat of the day?"  "Are the men forcing them to do so?" were some of the first questions out of the gate.  Our lecturer described the history, the culture and the beliefs behind this tradition, which has been alive for centuries in this area of the world.  Certainly, being a Westerner, I could not comprehend wearing this type of attire, however, it quickly became clear to me that the women wearing these  coverings were looking at me and saying the exact same thing about my capris and shirt. Of course they were a lot less obvious than many of the tourists who glared at them with pity and curiosity, but still, they had a similar curiosity about us.  I began to realize that this was their upbringing, what they knew and their own way of life that was passed down over many generations, similar to the Levis and sneakers that we were brought up to adorn. 

Great discussion about UAE
We spoke about the Islamic religion, the Koran and the different levels of commitment to prayer.  We discussed violence and extremism and how this behavior was such an incredibly small number of people out of one of the largest religions in the world.   The most significant part of this discussion was the fact that we spoke openly and were allowed to break down the barriers that divide us as human beings.  This was the perfect way to begin our journey through the UAE and I couldn't have been happier.  The fears, the ignorance and misconceptions were washed away, which allowed us to travel through the country feeling comfortable asking questions that we may not have previously asked. 

Trying out the local attire
As our journey continued throughout Dubai and Abu Dhabi, two of the seven Emirates, I was able to speak to the local women and men.  Their warmth and openness, and English, was amazing and I felt so fortunate to gain a greater understanding of their way of life.  Throughout the trip I felt safe and comfortable, as crime is almost non-existent in the United Arab Emirates and I began to refer to this area as "The Travelers Middle East Starter Kit".  The culture in this country and level of service was unbelievable and make Dubai and Abu Dhabi the perfect destination for someone who wants something exotic in a very comfortable and controlled environment. 
As a travel advisor, I feel it is so important to visit destinations and understand the cultures that exist without judgment or prejudice.  I certainly may not agree with everything that exists but I believe that taking the time to learn about the culture and society allows me to be a better person.  This journey did just that and I feel so incredibly fortunate to have had this amazing opportunity.  

I'll be back Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and until then, I will send my clients to experience all that you have to offer.

by Amanda Klimak CTIE

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