UAE tradition thrives on family values

The Jumeirah area of Dubai has been home to generations of local fishermen and traders, and many of their families retain a link to traditional Emirati ways.

Halima Al Suwaidi (right) sits with her mother Amna Al Noubi in the living room of their home off Al Wasl Road. Amna remembers moving to the area 25 years ago when they were forced to leave their beach home in Jumeirah. Razan Alzayani / The National
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Think of Jumeirah and the images that come to mind are of ladies who lunch, and enjoy treatments in beauty spas while shopping in expensive boutiques. But there is another Jumeirah: a home to many local families who have lived there long before the "Jumeirah Janes" moved in.

"Here we are all working women and if we buy something it is using money from our own salary, I don't think we count as Jumeirah Janes," laughs Halima Al Suwaidi.

Halima's grandfather belonged to one of the oldest Emirati families in the area and owned a one-roomed house next to the beach in Jumeirah 1, just a stone's throw from the shore.

When the area around their houses was being developed in the mid 1980s, about 20 families and neighbours were moved to new, bigger, homes, a street farther from the beach just off what is now Al Wasl Road.

Over the years, as the families have grown, their homes have been extended and modernised, but still offer a traditional way of life among the many newer homes rented by expatriates.

All the single-storey houses, which are almost dwarfed by some of the villas around them, have separate majlises for men and women, and many of them have chicken coops out the front.

Halima, 36, who is in the army and not married, lived in one room in her old home with her sister, two brothers and their parents. Now there are 10 of them living in what is now a six-bedroom home.

"We moved into this house a couple of days before the electricity was put on, we were so eager," Halima recalls. "Everyone moved here at the same time. We all knew each other so it was exciting."

Most of the families have maintained friendships spanning two or three generations. But despite having the best of intentions, it is clear things are changing.

"These days neighbours are not connecting like they used to, even though they have spent a long time together," Halima says. "To me, the old way of living in much smaller houses, was much cosier and comfortable. Even the kids now, they don't play with each other like we used to.

"Where we lived before we used to take care of all the neighbours' little ones, now it's different. Now the ladies don't really even go out together unless it's a special occasion like a wedding."

She also thinks there is too much of a split between the expatriates and the local families in the area.

"Personally I think people that come here as foreigners, they fear us or something, they don't want to mix with us. I would really like to meet more people and get to know other cultures."

Her mother, Amna Al Noubi, remembers Jumeirah as it used to be. Al Wasl Road, now one of the main routes through new Dubai, was a single dirt lane with traffic - usually of the donkey variety - moving in both directions, carefully sidestepping each other.

Halima's younger sister Abrar, 15, who has grown up in the house, struggles to comprehend the times her sister and mother speak about.

"I like knowing about the past but it just doesn't seem real," she says. "I can't imagine living with no cars and no roads."

Another of the street's residents who remembers how life used to be is Fatima Ahmad, who thinks she is about 55 years old.

Her house is one of the larger ones in the area and is also one of the most visited on the block. She has at least three separate majlises for men and women, and also a seating area - furnished with settees and a television - in the front garden.

There are also chickens in a coop by the road and a large parrot in a cage in the driveway. The doorway to her private compound - made up of a main house and several outhouses - is at least four metres high, overshadowing all the others in the street.

"It used to be an empty desert when we were living by the beach," she remembers. "Then the Government gave us this plot and we built this house."

Many Arabs moved away from the beach, she says, because there was a lot of development and the women did not want to be disturbed by the many men working on site.

Most families moved to Al Barsha and Mirdiff, but some remained in Jumeirah.

Living in the house now are Mrs Ahmad, her three sons, two of whom have wives and children, and her two nieces. Her two daughters are married and live in their husbands' homes. She also took in two of her brother's daughters about seven years ago.

Although she likes the old way of living, with all her family under one roof, Mrs Ahmad understands that times have changed and new families need their own space.

"Rents are really expensive and my sons here got married, but where are they going to go? When a girl gets married they need to be moving into their own houses because they get visitors and it's a very tight space here. They have a lot of extended family that doesn't come to visit because it's small."

Before she moved into her present home, Mrs Ahmad lived by the beach with her fisherman husband, who has since passed away.

Over time, her old neighbourhood has been razed to the ground to make way for palatial villas and high-end shopping malls.

"I am really glad and thankful for the development in the country," Mrs Ahmad says proudly. "Before, there really was nothing. You were born here and you grew up here but the movement was so limited, all you had was your legs, or a donkey or a camel if you had one.

"I'm thankful for the development of roads, cars and petrol. And now I look up at the sky and see planes. I am really glad that this has been the way forward for us."

With the recent school holidays, Mrs Ahmad's house has been a hive of activity with extended family travelling from all over the UAE to return to their childhood home.

"I wouldn't live anywhere else," she smiles. "But I hope my sons and daughters do move elsewhere. I want the best for them. They have children, and will have more children, so I want them to have a bigger space.

"A lot has changed as the older generation has passed away. When you enter someone's home, or you knock on their door, it's not the same any more. There would always be people outside and sitting having meals together."

In the house directly behind Mrs Ahmad's, another family gathering is taking place. Mariam Al Suwaidi, 33, moved away from her family's home to Doha, Qatar, 11 years ago when she married a Qatari national, but returns at every opportunity.

"It's not about the house you are living in, it's about how you think about your family and how you take care of them, I don't have to be here to do that," she says.

"It depends on the person. Our mother encouraged us to go to college and complete our education. This never used to happen so it is natural that people move on and move away."

Mrs Al Suwaidi, a mother of four, always returns to her childhood home when her own children are on school holidays.

"They are always wanting to come here," she laughs. "Every vacation they insist we come here because everyone is here. They have a great time, it's how it used to be."