blog-header
Click here to subscribe

My Accidental Dinner Date with Royalty

Connect with me on

I didn’t know what to do with my hands.

I thrust one out to shake his, but that didn’t feel quite right.

I hung my arms by my side and that felt worse.

Finally I compromised. I clasped my hands together in front of me, waiting for a sign from each of the white-clad Arabs entering the cavernous room. To shake or not to shake?

I’m not often at a cultural loss but then, I don’t think I’ve ever been surrounded by so many men who are dressed alike.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

My intense discomfort had such a benign beginning.

A quick check to see if a friend would be available for a light dinner during my brief stopover in Dubai suddenly turned into an invitation to Iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast, at the palace of one of the most powerful royal families in Abu Dhabi.

“The Sheikh told me to bring you along,” my Dubai friend told me.

Bring me along?

I was stepping off a flight from Sri Lanka, having spent a month at an ayurvedic retreat. I was rumpled, ruffled, and a little disoriented.

And rather underdressed in my hiking sandals and crinkled linen trousers.

Dubai mall

Dubai Mall, the world’s largest, with its 10-million-liter aquarium

As soon as the plane doors opened I scurried off to Dubai Mall, apparently the largest in the world.

A pair of sandals with bling.

A colorful but conservative top that covered my shoulders.

And a quick hotel stop, barely long enough to make myself presentable (and stub my toe so badly I could barely slip on my new blingy shoes).

All of a sudden my chauffeur-driven friend was downstairs, rushing me along.

It wouldn’t do to keep the Sheikh waiting.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I felt somehow disembodied. For the past month I’d watched swaying palms and the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean from my seaside room in Sri Lanka. And now Dubai’s skyscrapers whipped by like so many ramrod soldiers, threatening me with whiplash as I tried to focus on them from below.

Dubai skyscrapers

The most common perspective in Dubai – looking upwards

We followed the signs to a highway so smooth not a single crack or bump jarred us, a road so straight, so linear I prayed for the distraction of a curve.

As we rode towards Abu Dhabi, the capital of the largest of the seven United Arab Emirates, greenery seemed to increase and buildings levelled out, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see Dubai and Abu Dhabi united someday, touching tentacles and intertwining themselves as is the custom with menfolk here.

As dusk settled, the searing heat of the summer day softened. I opened the window, breathing air that while not fresh, was no longer nearly liquid heat. A vague scent of exhaust fumes mixed with sea and green hedges and the desert, an odd melange I was at a loss to name.

Sheikh Zayed Mosque UAE

Sheikh Zayed Mosque

Arriving on Abu Dhabi’s outskirts we passed Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the world’s third-largest and an architectural behemoth I would have loved to visit.

We turned down a leafy street, the young greenery wrested, wrenched even, from the desert at great effort.

Only a few men, all foreign, walked along the wide sidewalks. Everyone else drove, or was driven. Walls screened off the everyday life of houses and compounds, sealing it from the hustle beyond.

We reached an automatic gate whose guards barely glanced at us. I’m told we were undoubtedly photographed and filmed and that security was high.

We swept around a broad driveway bordered by hibiscus and date palms and I enjoyed sitting back, clinging to the coolness of the car interior until my door was opened, one of the “privileges” of being a woman in an all-male setting.

At the top of marble steps, glass partitions silently slid open, welcoming me. Or at least tolerating me.

Men milled about, dressed in identical white kandouras or thobes, their heads covered by a guthra held in place by a black circlet, which was once used as a rope to hobble a camel at night.

We were guided into a wide hall, a majlis, a monumental receiving or living room, its floor clothed in the finest of carpets, Persian perhaps, the burgundies and beiges and blues swirling into fountains of Islamic design, inspired by nature and geometry.

Tall windows were framed by heavily brocaded curtains and the room was lined by plush banquettes along which we took our place. In front of each banquette sat a small table with a bowl of dates – fresh dates, not the wrinkled little things I’ve become accustomed to – and bottles of water, waiting for the sun to set and the fast to be broken. Soon.

At the front, one of five seats of honor would welcome the Sheikh, his immediate (male) family and a few dignitaries, including, tonight, a European Ambassador. A brief appearance by a high-ranking Christian cleric in his red sash was the only other spot of color in the room (this video, taken after the fast, will give you an idea of the room and the company).

 

Each time someone entered the room, we all rose. The new arrivals would start counter-clockwise at the door, greeting their way around the room, with a nose kiss for intimates, an embrace or kiss for close friends, and a handshake for everyone else.

Until they came to me.

Somewhat nonplussed, they would sometimes thrust out their hand. And sometimes not. A few hesitated, probably as much from their own surprise at my presence as from possible unease at the clash of customs they were undoubtedly experiencing as much as I was.

Logic told me I had been invited by the Sheikh and that I was welcome. My gut disagreed, intimidated by the possibility I might be in the wrong place, or that I had made a mistake and was breaching a protocol as old as the desert.

If I was, no one was rude enough to say so.

The room filled and we continued our rise and sit routine. The Sheikh had yet to arrive when the muezzin sounded. Some men left to pray and when they returned, everyone ate a few dates and drank some water.

fresh dates

We broke the fast with dates, yellow and red and fresh and crunchy, which had probably come from one of the date palms outside

The fast was broken, and it was time for the Iftar celebration: a major meal.

We rose.

The men – with me in tow – moved to another room, dozens of chairs surrounding a table heavy with mountains of food, the smell of meat and rice and yoghourt mingling with the jasmine in the air.

As I took it all in, one man deftly detached himself from the crowd and asked smilingly whether I’d like to see the family home.

I froze.

I was being evicted. I might have been welcome in the majlis but an all-male dinner was perhaps a bit much. Or maybe he thought I’d be more comfortable “with the women”.

I had to decide quickly. Part of me wanted to stand my ground as an equal. Another, more curious part, the journalist in me, wanted to see something unseen, to know something I couldn’t possibly know.

A harem, as in extended family and women’s quarters. Something my Ottoman ancestors would have been familiar with but which to me was a new world, curtained and secret, and, I thought, discriminatory and belittling.

Looking around at the formal men’s table I had a split-second to decide.

I would go to the women.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The palace grounds were neater than a Swiss-German village, no leaf unswept or speck of sand overlooked. The chauffer hesitated, unfamiliar with these more intimate quarters.

He eventually delivered me to a heavily carved wooden door, left slightly ajar. He pointed vaguely and sped off, almost afraid to be seen.

I pushed the door.

“May I help you?” The voice was British and blonde, probably a governess or staff member.

“I’m here for dinner,” I mumbled.

Was I expected? Was I crashing the family’s Iftar celebration? Was I even in the right place?

Two Malay servants came to fetch me and guided me into the women’s living quarters, the family majlis, two joined-up sitting rooms lined with sofas and banquettes similar to the one where the men gathered, but much cozier and more informal. A television screen blared against a large wall, while the women, perhaps as many as 20, stood up to shake my hand.

They didn’t seem surprised to see me, nor did they seem to know who I was or why I was there.

My mere presence guaranteed a courteous reception, a product of that deep vein of hospitality still coursing through the Arab world and Islam. I still remember my mother’s despair when my Turkish father would come home from his travels, dragging with him guests who would stay one or many nights, and the familiar rush to find bedding and to clear rooms in which to welcome them.

Oil wealth may have changed many things, but that innate hospitality remains.

The dining table filled an entire room, weighed down by enough food to feed a small kingdom: platters of rice, plain or with lamb or chicken; different kebabs and somosa-like pastries; salads; silver tureens of soup and harees, an unfamiliar mixture of wheat and ground lamb, unappetizing to the eye but delicious in the extreme, an Emirati staple; meats; vegetables; and mountains of strange foods at the end of the table, too far for me to see.

Dinner was a haphazard affair. I was served heaping platefuls I couldn’t begin to finish. My leftovers may well have struck everyone as rude.

The women came and went and no one stayed seated other than myself. They wandered in clusters, chatting amicably, nibbling and treating the table as one big buffet rather than using the heavy chairs that surrounded it.

Each time someone arrived or left, everyone would rise, touch noses or kiss, depending on the level of intimacy.

The older women dressed conservatively; one wore a traditional metal mask, part of a burqah, over her mouth. Many women wore black headscarves or shaylas but that may have been for Ramadan, I don’t know.

The younger women, including the Sheikh’s daughters, wore comfortable, long but relatively modern dresses, their hair down – elegant, stylish, and made up.

In my wrinkled linen trousers I felt terribly out of place.

I would have loved to photograph these women or at least their surroundings but the one time I did dare ask – in the dining room – the women quickly hid, making certain only food was in the shot. One of them even queried the mirror behind the table, concerned I might have captured a few women unwittingly. I had. I quickly cropped them out.

Iftar dinner Abu Dhabi

My challenge was keeping everyone out of the picture, so you can’t see the silver tureens filled with soups and stews to my left and the heaving mountains of meats and vegetables on a buffet behind me

It’s unthinkable to take photos without asking. Yet asking for permission – given everyone’s extreme modesty – would have been equally rude, placing my hostesses in the awkward position of having to refuse. I would have to rely on faulty memory to recreate the evening.

Chatting was easy as nearly everyone spoke English, having learned at Yale or Oxford or at university here. But conversations remained relatively superficial: our acquaintance was too recent to go beyond what was lightly polite.

I would have loved to ask them about the past, about the changes, so swift in the few decades since they left the desert behind. I would have loved to ask about Islam, about terrorism, about the position of women. Did they feel oppressed? Did they want more freedom? How did they feel about arranged marriages? How old were they when they married? But nothing invited that kind of incursion.

I do know the UAE has some of the best women’s protection laws in the region and the women surrounding me were highly educated: a documentary filmmaker, a chemistry professor (labs are coed, classes are not), a dental surgeon, and a radiologist who insisted I get my toe X-rayed as soon as possible. These were women who had seen the world, who knew what was out there, but who chose – I assumed – to live to a large extent by tradition. I would have loved to ask.

As we sat, servants passed around burners filled with incense, blowing it in our faces, on our hair, our clothes. “To smell nice,” they told me, “to smell your hair.” I don’t know if it was sandalwood or frankincense but it was timeless and the next day it would still hover on my skin.

After dinner tiny porcelain cups of tea were served, thimbles full of hot liquid laced with milk and another discreet aroma, roses perhaps, or cardamom or lemon, something that cut the sticky sweetness of cream and sugar and made the tea and milk mixture fine and delicate rather than sickly sweet.

The Saudi Arabian border is only 350km away but it might as well be a world away. One of the women, a doctor, guided me to her car and drove me to the men’s building, where my friends waited. She was leaving the palace grounds to get some petrol, a freedom unheard of in Saudi Arabia, where women aren’t allowed to drive.

Men and women lead different lives here and I don’t begin to understand what the women, educated beyond my own level, might be thinking of the contrast between their sophisticated modern lives and their centuries-old traditions. Yet they appear poised, not only in the confident way they move and speak but in their worldview, somehow claiming both the past and the future simultaneously.

Two generations ago they rode camels, not Mercedes. They moved their tents with the seasons, their wealth counted in pearls and fish from the sea, not oil from the ground.

Do they ever feel cut off from nature and removed from their heartland? Or have they adapted, as we must do, to the newness of it all?

I may have my doubts about how they live, about the separation between men and women and their apparent inequalities. I can’t judge because I simply don’t know enough. What I do know is that because of the privilege of travel, I was given a peek into a world few travelers see, an opportunity to take part in a traditional event not staged for visitors but born of the intimacy of culture. I will forever remember this dinner date with royalty.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

As I re-entered the men’s majlis the Sheikh made his appearance.

Most of his family, friends and acquaintances were by now gone and the room, now nearly empty, was far more welcoming.

He looked up and headed straight towards me.

“Welcome,” he said, and thrust out his hand.

“Thank you, Your Highness.” I shook it with relief.

I wasn’t an interloper after all.

46 Comments

  1. Wendy Marti on July 14, 2015 at 7:27 pm

    How interesting! I really enjoyed reading this.

  2. Joy on July 14, 2015 at 7:56 pm

    What an awesome experience! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  3. Mechthild on July 14, 2015 at 7:57 pm

    Thank you for a wonderful and insightful story. With kids grown, I am an increasingly avid (mostly solo) traveler myself. Thank you for your inspiration!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 14, 2015 at 10:45 pm

      Love solo travel! Not only, but often!

  4. Donna Armer on July 14, 2015 at 8:25 pm

    Oh Leyla, what a fascinating and challenging experience. Thank you so much for sharing such an extraordinary event. I wish you safe travels…..as well as ones equally as interesting as this one.
    Best regards from my travels in the region of Emilia Romagna as I head towards Umbria to visit with friends and then for my big birthday gift…….a night in Tuscany to hear Andrea Bocelli on his farm in Lajatico. Best regards,
    Donna

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 14, 2015 at 10:45 pm

      Your travels sound pretty exciting too – Umbria is one of my favorite Italian regions!

  5. Carol Busseau on July 14, 2015 at 8:26 pm

    Fabulous story, how fortunate for you to experience this!

  6. DebbieT on July 14, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    What a wonderful layover you have experienced….. it was a rare peek into the Emirati culture indeed! So happy you had this opportunity. You’re right about the middle eastern culture being very hospitable. Here on the island, they were a community of traders, so they’ve learned many different means of making all foreigners feel welcome. Interesting place.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 14, 2015 at 10:39 pm

      Yes, fascinating and I definitely want to return for a bit longer.

  7. Frank on July 14, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    What a fascinating story … I would never expect to go from just arriving at an airport to dining with royalty a few hours later … travel can be a crazy thing!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 14, 2015 at 10:41 pm

      Hah – I didn’t expect it either LOL

  8. Laurie G on July 14, 2015 at 10:36 pm

    Kudos. It took composure to accept such a superlative invitation even though not “dressed” for the event. That took courage, and good judgment as well, to not broach deeper, possibly more awkward conversational themes. Some social occasions are just not the right time to slake one’s (burning western) curiosity. Your discernment is admirable.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 14, 2015 at 10:38 pm

      Thanks Laurie – keeping my mouth shut isn’t usually a skill of mine!

  9. Lisa Carnicom on July 14, 2015 at 11:04 pm

    What an arresting story, well-told! I’m amazed at your equipoise, too; good job! Enjoyed it 🙂

  10. Anne kennedy on July 14, 2015 at 11:30 pm

    Fantastic adventures. You are so blessed. Hav fun

  11. Amei Binns on July 14, 2015 at 11:48 pm

    This is admirable journalism! I always look forward to your blog and always get new ideas where to go although I have travelled 3-4 months a year since 2004. Many thanks.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 15, 2015 at 3:00 pm

      Thanks Amei – so nice to receive such a compliment!

  12. Suzanne on July 15, 2015 at 12:35 am

    Very interesting! I am a tiny bit envious. I have already taught in Abu Dhabi for two years and have read, studied, and asked many questions, so I have come to know quite a lot about Emirati culture; however, I have never had a first~hand experience like you have. Congratulations!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 15, 2015 at 3:01 pm

      It’s odd, isn’t it – how you sometimes happen to be in a place at a certain time… I’m incredibly grateful for the serendipity!

  13. Katie @ Second-Hand Hedgehog on July 15, 2015 at 1:26 am

    Such a fascinating post! And such a rare insight into a different culture – as you say, not staged for anyone, but genuine. Sounds like you navigated the difference in cultural expectation well; politeness and consideration go such a long way. What a great, interesting and unique experience!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 15, 2015 at 3:04 pm

      It was… and I won’t be forgetting it… and now I want more!

  14. Roseanne Jung on July 15, 2015 at 1:46 am

    What an amazing experience! I think I would have been sitting there in shock wondering how to get through the evening feeling I was the wrong gender in the wrong place.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 15, 2015 at 2:57 pm

      That’s exactly how I was feeling!

  15. Erin Donaldson on July 15, 2015 at 2:10 am

    What a cool experience. I have heard stories of the Mid East hospitality tradition from my brothers. They have both been to Turkey 3xs and the reception in similar….heaps of food…the desire to please. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall!!!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 15, 2015 at 2:57 pm

      If I’m not mistaken it has its roots in nomadic desert traditions, when hospitality wasn’t a kindness but a matter of life and death for travelers who needed food and water.

  16. Esther on July 15, 2015 at 5:09 am

    Astonishing serendipity! Ain’t travel like that? There are so many rewards for the brave.
    Plus you have a wonderful eye for detail. Thanks for being such a good writer, Leyla. I’m inspired.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 15, 2015 at 3:03 pm

      LOL – I focused on my surroundings as I sat there, on anything just to forget where I was! I memorized the detail on the carpets, the color of the water bottles (green) and the brocade… it’s amazing what you can remember when you’re trying to be insconpicuous and concentrated! 🙂

  17. Margaret Lewis on July 15, 2015 at 10:30 am

    A great read Leyla. Interesting insight into one section of society in Abu Dhabi, especially in relation to the recent story of the jailing of Jodi Magi and subsequent deportation for a social media offence.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 15, 2015 at 2:56 pm

      There have been plenty of questionable incidents… jailing of victims of rape, for example. I’d love to do an in-depth piece one day that looks at the negatives but also the huge positives of this part of the Arab world.

  18. Phyllis Armitage on July 15, 2015 at 9:50 pm

    Hi Leyla,
    A wonderful description of your visit to an ‘Iftar’ evening. Alanna forwarded it to us knowing that we would be most interested having shared similar experiences when we lived in Abu Dhabi in 2006-2007. And I will in turn forward it to a friend who worked there in the late 80’s. We visited them in 1988 and appreciated even more the dramatic changes that had occurred in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai after our earlier visit. A complex and fascinating culture and the desert is spectacular. I hope that you will have an opportunity to return someday. Warmest regards Phyllis

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 15, 2015 at 9:55 pm

      I would love to return – although I was captivated by my experience I recognize it’s quite uni-dimensional but it should give me a better perspective to understand the UAE when I return – and of course my appetite is whetted now! I’m delighted to have been able to capture this slice of culture with some accuracy…

  19. Mikaela on July 16, 2015 at 2:55 am

    I forgot I was in my bedroom while reading your story. I imagined myself there with you and feeling uncomfortable being the only woman in a room full of men clad in similar white clothing with black “thing” on their heads. I was like awakened from a dream when my niece called out my name and realized that I’m here in the comfort of my bedroom in the United States. But there’s one lesson that I learned from this vicarous experience that I had from your story. In the past, I also traveled around the globe and even worked with some of the men (and women) in your story while we were stationed in different countries but sadly, I never had the chance (or maybe the interest (?)) to get to know them on a personal level. I didn’t ask about their local customs and traditions, or the “symbolism” and the meanings behind those clothing and other stuff that they’re wearing. Now that I have trained to become a therapist, I regretted that I didn’t seize those opportunities that were laid-out on my way. My desire to get to know each and every individual person in a deeper level has become more of a mission now.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 17, 2015 at 10:42 am

      Such an interesting way to look at things, Mikaela… let me give you a parallel: for many years I traveled without a camera. Dozens of countries, hundreds of experiences, thousands of people – and not a shot to remember any of it by. Now I’m an iPhotography fanatic and will take pictures of every morsel I eat and every sign I pass. I so regret not having documented those experiences but never mind: I’m doing it now with a vengeance, and I’ll somehow make it up. Sometimes we’re just not ready. Getting to know people and cultures comes from a certain curiosity that we have in varying levels at different times, at least that’s been my case. There have been many times when I’ve cared far less than I do now… and your mission sounds fantastic!

  20. gfchopstix on July 16, 2015 at 8:32 am

    Such a surreal, yet fascinating experience, Leyla. Fortunately, you are well travelled, and although I’m sure felt extremely uncomfortable in your surroundings, you were still able to enjoy the Sheikh’s hospitality.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 17, 2015 at 10:38 am

      I truly did… but now I want to go back and find out so much more!

  21. Suzanne Fluhr on July 18, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    What a strange blog-worthy experience. Having visited the Topaki Palace in Istanbul, including the sumptuous rooms of the harem, I could picture your experience as I read your narrative. Serendipity is the best friend of travelers.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 18, 2015 at 5:30 pm

      No dripping jewellery or huge pillows along the wall, however 🙂

  22. Mary on July 19, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    Certainly a great experience . Lucky You!I have many Muslim friends and they send us food on Eid but have never been invited for an Iftar

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on July 20, 2015 at 5:18 pm

      I really do feel lucky – especially since I said Yes and in past I would have said No and found an excuse not to attend because I would have felt like an outsider.

  23. Michelle - Very Hungry Explorer on August 1, 2015 at 6:58 pm

    I enjoyed reading your post immensely. So beautifully written. I moved to Dubai two months and have very similar questions about Emirati culture. Not sure I could have kept my cool during that dinner though, I think I would have been terrified of doing something wrong 😉

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on August 1, 2015 at 7:38 pm

      I WAS terrified! I just reminded myself to breathe before talking, breathe before talking… just to make sure my mouth didn’t get the better of me! You certainly have moved to an exciting place… 🙂

  24. Izy Berry on August 12, 2015 at 12:44 am

    I love your post is always a story !!

  25. Josie on September 10, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    Hi Leyla,
    An extraordinary story, my dear! I enjoyed every sentence. Thanks for sharing.
    Josie

  26. Solo Female Travelers Over 40 | Adventurous Kate on November 16, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    […] Read: My Accidental Dinner Date with Royalty […]

  27. Solo Female Travelers Over 40 | TravelBro on November 17, 2015 at 2:49 am

    […] Read: My Accidental Dinner Date with Royalty […]

  28. Solo Female Travelers Over 40 - World Travel Around on November 20, 2015 at 2:11 am

    […] Read: My Accidental Dinner Date with Royalty […]

Leave a Comment