The UAE majlis: a treasure to be cherished

The UAE’s famous majlis has made it to Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage register thanks to its role in transmitting oral heritage and its importance as a symbol of family and neighbourly unity throughout the years.

Umm Saif, second left, with, from left, her sons Ali Saeed and Saif, and her daughters Najla Saeed and Mouza, at the majlis area of the family home in Hatta in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
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It has been listed as one of the world’s great cultural treasures, to be cherished and treasured for future generations.

For Umm Saif, it is an afternoon in the sun with friends, family and good food.

According to the UN cultural organisation Unesco, the majlis of the UAE contributes to the world’s heritage by “playing an important role in the transmission of oral heritage”.

In December, Unesco added majlis, along with gahwa and al rafza dancing, to the Intangible Cultural Heritage register.

An afternoon at the majlis of Umm Saif in Hatta is a reminder that the idea of a gathering place remains as important in the 21st century as it was 100 years ago.

The welcome from the family of Al Saif is also a reminder of the friendliness of the people in the mountainous eastern enclave of the emirate of Dubai. In the Su’air district of Hatta, Umm Saif has a reputation as the most gracious of hosts. She rises before the sun to begin preparing the food for that day’s guests.

“My house is open for guests, every day,” says the mother of seven, with a beaming smile. Her guests, mostly women, are usually escorted to her majlis, which translates as “place of sitting”. Soon, they are being served Emirati food and of course, a cup of coffee. Surrounded by four walls, the talk turns to everything from life to school and family.

“Inviting people over for lunch or dinner to our majlis is a legacy our late father left behind,” says Shaikha, a daughter of Umm Saif. “During our father’s time, his compatriots would visit him almost every day. They would dwell in a world filled with men.”

After the death four years ago of Umm Saif’s much-loved husband, she maintained the tradition.

“His friends still visit us in the majlis to this day,” she says. “They check on our affairs and greet us.”

One of the most frequent guests is Mr Hamad, an elderly man. “Often, he would eat breakfast in my place and leave to work,” Umm Saif says.

Like most houses in the Arabian Gulf, their home has a space for female and male gatherings, which do not overlap.

Umm Saif is lucky to have a house set against the backdrop of mountains and greenery. She knows everyone in the neighbourhood. Their home is open to her and hers to them.

“I bear so much love for Hatta, do you know why?” she asks. In Abu Dhabi, she says, neighbours barely know each other, so that gatherings like hers are slowly dying out. “My daughters work in Abu Dhabi and I have observed how much less people interact among each other.

“In Hatta, as you can see, houses are glued to each other. My neighbours are at my fingertips. I have been living in this house for the past 18 years. I sit with my neighbour in the majlis, sip coffee and indulge in enjoyable collections of long gone days. My life is beautiful,” she says, laughing.

It is obligatory in their family to eat at least one meal together. “We all eat from one giant plate. Then, each person gives updates on the latest in their life.

“The benefit of our majlis is that it unites us all under one umbrella,” says Mouza, the eldest daughter of Umm Saif. “Our relationship gets strengthened and our gathering gets stronger, especially in the holy month of Ramadan.”

During Eid, they visit each other in their traditional clothes without donning an abaya. “That’s how close we are,” Mouza says.

Throughout history, the concept of majlis has taken different forms and shapes. Some are designed for VIPs, some for commoners, some for educational purposes and other for meeting and greeting people.

“At the end, the purpose of all majlises is to reconnect,” Umm Saif says.

“Today, you see youngsters creating their own version of majlis in the coffee shop,” she adds. “It all boils down to how we preserve this social gathering.”

For Shaikha Al Mansoori, her majlis in Abu Dhabi is her private sanctuary as well as a place to welcome others.

“We moved to this house three years ago,” she says. But she was more concerned about building a majlis outside than focusing on building her dream home in Mohammed bin Zayed City.

“My mother recommended we focus on building the majlis before the completion of our new home,” she says.

Unlike Umm Saif, Mrs Al Mansoori’s majlis is outdoors and is a fusion between Arab and western design with the concept that guests feel they are entering a garden filled with roses. Her majlis can accommodate about 50 people.

“Everything was meticulously designed by me and my husband,” she says. The red wallpaper has a Victorian touch to it and traditional Arabic-style seating on the floor. Next to it are the fruit basket, coffee and dates – known as “fualla”.

On every corner, there are relics of the past, including a gramophone, old radio and a water well made from fronds.

Two sparkling chandeliers make a statement.

“We live in a fast-paced society and I do not have time to welcome guests all the time,” says the mother of seven. “I have an indoor majlis, but it is not furnished yet. So this is our main gathering spot.”

During her childhood, she remembers, there were less formalities in majlis. “It was easier to visit families, neighbours and friends,” she says. “Now there are some restrictions, as people are busy in life.”

Originally from Ras Al Khaimah, Mrs Al Mansoori is a perfectionist. When she has guests, she serves energy and enthusiasm. “I am usually busy with children and the house. When I have guests, I need to give them their rights too, by chatting and attending to their needs.”

Thursday and Friday are her “meeting the loved ones” days. Usually children and adults cancel all their plans on such days. “It’s reserved for the family,” she says.

“On Friday, we have families coming over. They’d be seated in the majlis and we’d all reconnect and share our latest. We would talk about life, children, past, almost everything. The meal we have to gather reinforces the bond.”

To Mrs Al Mansoori, her majlis is like a place of relaxation and tranquillity, seeing the faces of her loved ones and feeling a sense of togetherness.

“The majlis unites us.”