The long-awaited Expo 2020 is now in full swing and, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re most likely familiar with the well-known pavilions – think: Saudi Arabia, Luxembourg, and Germany. But what about the underdogs? Here, we’ve compiled a list of the five most underrated pavilions worth visiting.
Situated right next to the Saudi Arabia pavilion, the Morocco pavilion is unique in its architecture, featuring a combination of earthen textures and greenery to highlight its commitment to sustainability. Visitors start their journey downwards from the top floor of the pavilion through a continuous ramp (an elevator at the entrance takes you up) and have the chance to explore various displays, illustrations, and interactive projections that showcase the country’s rich history and culture, economic opportunities, and commitment to the future. Some of the things you can see include a replica of the skull of one of the first homo sapiens, a room filled with hundreds of medicinal plant extracts, and a calming indoor courtyard with a slowly spinning Moroccan chandelier that casts shadows in intricate patterns around the room.
Unlike most pavilions, the DP World pavilion isn’t country-specific – it represents the eponymous Emirati logistics company. The pavilion is based on the theme, The Power of Flow. Through its various galleries, visitors can explore how ideas, flow of goods, data innovation, and sustainability can come together to keep the world connected and strengthen the ‘flow’. You can also experience what it would be like to sit inside a Virgin Hyperloop passenger pod through a life-sized replica. You can even plan hypothetical journeys! Did you know that the travel time from Dubai to Abu Dhabi could be as little as 10 minutes via a hyperloop? The pavilion also boasts a digitised waterfall show that’s illuminated by hundreds of LEDs and spans five floors.
The Philippines pavilion invokes a sense of nature and free-flowing openness through its design that imitates a coral reef (otherwise known as bangkóta). Through a series of artworks and media, this pavilion weaves a visual narrative of the history and heritage of the Philippines over thousands of years. Some of the attractions that visitors can expect to see include a three-storey tall helix that’s meant as an ode to the distant ancestors of the Filipino people who arrived at the archipelago some 65,000 years ago and an outdoor gallery of colourful floating sculptures of overseas Filipino workers and possibly their Neolithic ancestors.
The Kuwait pavilion is filled with unique high-tech and visually stunning experiences that highlight the country’s goal of sustainable development for its people, economy, and environment. At its centre is a giant water funnel that resembles the common elevated water tanks in Kuwait that hold large amount of freshwater – a symbol of the nation’s sustainability goals. Visitors can also learn about the country’s history through artifacts (such as the oldest model of a boat made from clay and dating back to 5300-4800 BCE). Another unique attraction? Interactive digital screens that explain Kuwait Vision 2035 and can be controlled merely by making hand gestures! The pavilion also boasts a rooftop terrace that’s bathed in blue lights and features a café and sweeping views of the premises.
The final corporate contender in this list is the ENOC pavilion by the Emirates National Oil Company Limited. The pavilion is based on the theme of Reimagine Energy, so visitors can learn about how energy has shaped human history, the science of it, and its future through a spectacular array of vivid and awe-inspiring light and sound projections and floor-to-ceiling LED screen shows. The little ones (adults, too!) will especially enjoy a mural that features electric paint that lights up when you touch it. Though the vantage point is not that high, you can also enjoy a 360-degree view of the Expo 2020 site from its terrace.
It’s hardly a hot take that scuba diving – like countless other sports – remains a male-dominated field, but leave it to Ehdaa Al Barwani to change the narrative, one dive at a time. The first and only female dive instructor from Oman, she earned her PADI Divemaster certification in 2018, but found herself in the spotlight in recent years after spontaneously taking a dive in traditional Omani attire.
Her mission? To showcase the symbiotic relationship between her culture and ocean health, while inspiring others to join her efforts towards marine conservation. Today, she’s the founder of Muscat-based dive centre Aura Divers and often likened to a mermaid, a nickname she refers to as “endearing”. A candid conversation with this pioneering woman in honour of World Ocean Day, today, brought with it plenty of takeaways. Here are our favourites.
Spontaneity pays off.
“I have a confession about my dive in Omani attire: I didn’t plan the photos as much as people think. It was supposed to be a little series for Instagram, but I didn’t expect it to blow up as much as it did. I had two dives scheduled that day and only an hour in between. One of my students just happened to be a photographer, so I asked if he could take a few photos, but I didn’t have a set plan or anything – we just went with it. We jumped in, he took a few shots, and it was time for the second dive by the time I came back up. I didn’t have time to change, so I got my students ready and jumped back into the water for the second dive.”
Omani attire is surprisingly versatile.
“Omani clothing is made to be versatile. Traditionally, women wore it while making fishing nets, they wore it while farming – it was a part of their daily lives. You can get the fabric to be thick enough to stay warm, but the beauty of Oman is it’s warm and we don’t have too many currents. The seas are very calm most of the time, so it wasn’t really a challenge swimming in those clothes. They were actually really comfortable – I didn’t even realise that I had an elaborate dress on. In fact, I was there, chopping away at a net I spotted.”
One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.
“There are strewn pieces of wood, plastic, and netting in the ocean and on the roads – there’s a lot of construction happening here in Oman, and wood that can be utilised is thrown out. My idea is to utilise these pieces in different sections of my boat, turning them into something that we can enjoy, that we can use. The boat came out of necessity. I own a dive centre and rent out boats, but I need one that’s comfortable for women. I need a boat with a hardtop and an all-female crew as well as a place for them to change. If I’m catering to women – especially Omani women – they need to feel safe. These are the little things that will encourage them to try diving.”
The term ‘female entrepreneur’ isn’t always sexist.
“We’re still governed by our traditions and family values, and men and women have very set roles to play in society. In my case, terms like ‘female diver’ or ‘female entrepreneur’ help create a community, a safe space for women who are interested in scuba diving, but uncomfortable doing so around men. I understand women who’d rather keep gender out of their accomplishments, but here in Oman – where it takes courage for women to move away from what’s expected of them – it’s essential.”
We all come from water.
“I once read that the umbilical sac is composed of salty water, so humans quite literally come from water – those are your surroundings, which is why babies are quite comfortable in the water. The panic sets in much later in life because we’ve been away from it for so long. That’s why exposure to bodies of water early in life is a must, but not enough people are. I mean, the majority of my local students have no knowledge of swimming and are quite afraid of the water. They’ve just never been exposed to water, you know? I was lucky enough to go to a private school, where I learned how to swim, which is such a privilege – that doesn’t escape me.”
Fear amongst first-time divers is normal.
“Swimming underwater does feel claustrophobic, as contradictory as that sounds – it’s all blue, especially if you go really deep. There’s almost a sense of being lost in space, but there is a little trick that helps: see where your bubbles go because they always go up. I suggest diving in shallow locations at first. Most dives are done in the morning and, with the sun shining through the water, you can see all the colours of the coral, the surface of the water, and the seabed if you need to – it helps. Go slowly, and chances are you’ll be so enthralled by everything that you’ll forget you’re going deeper. But fear is very normal, so start by snorkelling.”
The region boasts beautiful dive sites.
“It’s only when I got a job in Salalah that I realised that, unlike other Gulf countries, there were no female dive instructors in Oman. That’s when I decided to encourage more women to come into diving because they don’t know what they’re missing. Red Sea aside, Oman has the most beautiful dive sites in the Gulf. We have the Daymaniyat Islands, a natural reserve, and Bandar Al Khayran, which is still untouched. These places are so pristine, so gorgeous.”
How you dive affects your environmental impact.
“I teach PADI, which is heavily focused on sustainable diving. Its Project AWARE movement, for example, is rooted in education on ocean protection. And it’s because of how I was taught that I’ve implemented this aspect in my own teaching. Everything my divemaster taught me was about minimising one’s impact on the surroundings – swimming with your hands close to your body so you don’t hit anything, ensuring your fins are nice and high so you don’t damage coral reefs. Then there are the bigger things, like using cotton nets because nylon doesn’t disintegrate.”
Plastic will outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050.
“It’s not a great statistic, is it? It tells us exactly where we’re going. And when I talk about conservation, I don’t mean that we need to get to a point where there is no plastic – we’re so far down this path where every other thing we use is made out of plastic, right? But what we can do – and should do – is minimise the damage. The damage has been done, but all we can do now is slow down. Hopefully, we’ll get to a point in the future where we can get rid of it completely.”
You don’t have to dive to make a difference.
“There are different ways in which you can contribute to marine health – you can monitor your carbon footprint and track how much single-use plastic you consume. You can also opt for reef-safe sunblock, volunteer for beach clean-up sessions, and remember to be mindful of where you dispose of your rubbish. In Oman, we take the car to go the shortest of distances, so maybe cycle if you’re close by or walk to the corner store once or twice a week? There’s also this idea that, as a small population, our actions don’t make an impact. But that’s just not true – every bit helps.”
Womb steaming may sound like yet another hippy-dippy wellness trend, but it’s actually an ancient remedy that has been used by women to support deep wellness with the help of herbal steam gently permeating the exterior of the vagina. Enter: the Womb/Yoni Steaming session led by Eva Louise Williams at SEVA. As for its benefits? Reduced pain around menstruation, increased fertility, healing the reproductive system after giving birth, and more.
You know what you want your life to look like – now start living it. The LightHouse Arabia is hosting a two-part Val-YOU 2022 workshop that will delve into all things vision boards. Led by a psychologist Christine Kritzas, it will guide participants on how to visually express their dreams, offer strategies on living a life of purpose, and provide practical tools to start actioning one’s goals.
Season 37 of Concert Series at The Fridge in Alerskal Avenue continues, with singer-songwriter Shilpa Ananth taking the stage for a night of South India’s dreamy landscapes fused with soul, jazz, and electronic influences. Opening for Ananth will be indie-pop artist Ananya, will be performing her upcoming singles in an original set at her debut performance at The Fridge.
Come summer, family-friendly excursions are always a good idea, and the Wadi Shabb and Turtle Trip wins our vote. Taking participants to some of the most scenic places in Oman, the two-day jaunt is rooted in the best time of year to see the baby turtles hatching and the big mamas laying their eggs in Ras al Hadd. You’ll also explore the canyon and waterfall cave of Wadi Shabb followed by a sea safari.
Like us, you’re looking to beat the heat, and the DXB Snow Run is just the ticket. Kicking off at 6:30am, this one-of-a-kind event returns to the slopes of Ski Dubai for its third annual edition. Fitness enthusiasts over the age of 15 will be able to go for a run like no other, jogging up and down the indoor ski area in temperatures as cold as -4ºC. Incidentally, there are two distances to choose from this time around: 3km or 5km.
The Green Planet isn’t simply home to over 3,000 plants and animals. It’s also a go-to destination for unique experiences offered amidst an indoor ecosystem. Case in point? Camping in the Rainforest, a popular offering that allows the chance to spend a night in the tropical biodome before enjoying a behind-the-scenes tour to help feed the animals their breakfast the following morning. It’s the perfect blend of education and recreation for little explorers and nature-loving adults alike.
We all know incredible things happen when women come together to support each other – and that’s where the Women Empowerment Circle session led by Annabel Lynch at Illuminations comes in. This onsite workshop is designed to help participants learn how to let go of sabotaging behaviours that are holding them back. You will learn about the art of self-love, what it means to see yourself in a more positive way, and not being so critical of yourself – all through the power of gratitude.
With laughter being the best medicine, catching comedian and Dubomedy co-founder Mina Liccione’s upcoming Growing Up Ringside show is a no-brainer. Taking place at Theatre of Digital Art and combining comedy, multimedia, spoken word, and rhythm, the highly acclaimed solo show weaves together hilarious and heartfelt stories from her New York upbringing as the daughter of an Italian-American boxing promoter and their undefeated bond through life’s highs and lows.
Hosted by Mirzam, the Chocolate Factory Tour & Dates Dipping workshop is an indoor activity that’s sure to release your endorphins. Not only will you tour the artisanal chocolate factory’s production facility, but you’ll also enjoy the rich, toffee-flavoured sweetness of chocolate-dipped Khalas dates and decorate them with spices, nuts, and fruits found along the spice route. Bonus: all ages are welcome.
5 Podcasts Defying Stereotypes about the Middle East
Headphones at the ready.
Considering the recent revival of hakawati, the ancient Arab art of storytelling, it’s no surprise that the podcast scene in the Middle East is booming. According to data released by markettiers MENA, there are 5.1 million regular podcast listeners in Saudi Arabia and a further 1.3 million regular podcast listeners in the UAE – numbers that are only rising as we speak. As for the podcasts that are helping defy stereotypes about the region on a global scale? Here are our favourites.
Bedouin’s Coffee Corner
Airing from the heart of the Middle East and hosted by Saudi journalist Sabal Almadi, Bedouin’s Coffee Corner is anchored in highlighting initiatives, progressive movements, and change-makers in the region. The episodes introduce local talents (photographers, designers, makeup artists, and more), helping fellow Arabs feel proud of their heritage and encouraging them to embrace their rich history. Simultaneously, the platform shines a light on the side of the Middle East that’s not seen in mainstream media, highlighting its cultural diversity while overcoming the most common prejudices around Arab culture. Win-win.
The first venture-funded podcast company in the Middle East, Kerning Cultures is also female-led, raising the bar for audio storytelling in the MENA region. Offering an alternative view on the Arab world, it spans the spectrum of what’s happening here and now – past episodes have explored the growing interest in K-pop in the region, racism towards black Arabs, the journey of Port of Mokha coffee from Yemen to a hipster coffee shop in America, and more. More recently, Kerning Cultures has signed with CAA, which will work with it to expand its projects into TV, film, and publishing.
Twice a week, the three ‘Kabsa Boys’ sit down to discuss trends, pop culture, relationships, music, and current affairs – and virtually no topic is off-limits, resulting in raw and uncensored views about life in Saudi Arabia. Vocal about its mission to serve the culture and people of the kingdom, it encourages its audiences to embrace their thoughts and individuality in order to become leaders and help inspire change, never shying away from the problems faced by the country’s creative community. The result? Insights that are brutally honest with a side of humour.
Over two decades after 9/11, renowned journalist and activist Noor Tagouri has set out to examine the misrepresentation of Muslims in US media and how this impacts American culture through her recently launched podcast, Rep. A thoughtful investigation of our beliefs and understandings – and how they exist within the dynamic of politics, pop culture, and public opinion – it features well-known faces (Brother Ali and Huma Abedin included) alongside stories that are deeply personal to Tagouri’s family history, like the 1986 US air strike on Libya.
One of the first podcasts to be launched in the MENA region, The Dukkan Show is the voice of Neo-Bedouins, exploring the concept of home and modern-day nomadism. Hosted by three third-culture kids, it’s also the first show globally to host a #TodayAtApple talk. Incidentally, the word ‘dukkan’ means shop in Arabic, resulting in a podcast inspired by the conversations held between friends as they hang out at their respective store stoops. As a result, everything from entrepreneurship and local events to hip-hop and motherhood are discussed in a manner that feels laidback and easily accessible.
If your mindless scrolls on Instagram are accented with enticing flatlays of culinary delicacies, you have one woman to thank: Haiya Afroze. Not only is she the founder of Haiyatea, a tea room and artisanal tea shop, but she’s also the creator of our favourite foodie account, Pass Me The Dim Sum. Haiya’s feed is focused on wholesome, educational recipes as well as offering a glimpse into her always eventful daily life. As a proud and practising Muslim, she talks to us about what Ramadan means to her and how tea fits into the holy month.
Why do Muslims break their fast with dates, and what’s their importance during Ramadan?
Dates are easily digested, making them a quick source of energy and nutrients. Eating dates after a long day of fasting can help the body’s blood glucose levels quickly return to normal. Our Prophet (PBUH) used to break his fast with dates, so it’s a tradition followed by all Muslims. Modern science also proves how beneficial they are on an empty stomach.
In what ways can non-Muslims help observe Ramadan with their Muslim friends?
To be quite honest, Muslims try to retract from worldly activities and do more self-reflection and worship than usual in the month of Ramadan. My personal struggle with my non-Muslim friends is the peer pressure to hang out, go out, socialise – and that’s just not something I enjoy as much in Ramadan. These are golden days, and any worship done is rewarded many folds, so that’s how I want to spend most of my time in Ramadan. I would love if my friends understood that.
What is your go-to dish to cook during Ramadan, and why?
My husband and I aren’t very traditional and, because we live alone and have no relatives here, we tend to keep our iftars (the meal at dusk to break the fast) quite light and simple. They often just comprise of the regular meals we would’ve had anyway. The one thing that’s different is that we’ll always have dates and Arabic coffee – flavours and scents I now associate with Ramadan – on our table. We’ll also have a fruit salad as it’s perfect after a long day of fasting. We avoid sugary drinks and opt for water, and sometimes we’ll have dahi phulikiyaan, a dish comprising of crispy rehydrated gram flour swirls submerged in whipped yoghurt. So refreshing!
How will you incorporate your love for tea into Ramadan this year?
My love for tea doesn’t stop during Ramadan! What’s amazing to me is that on a normal day, skipping my morning matcha will give me a migraine, but God just makes it easy during a fast. After we have iftar, I’ll fire up the humidifier with a refreshing scent of choice and spend the evenings reading Quran and refilling my pot of tea several times.
Do you always go traditional for Ramadan or shake it up with other cuisines?
Ramadan really is about revisiting and embracing traditional foods, but as I am not a very traditional person and don’t always relate to the culture I’ve inherited, I always merge traditional with untraditional. For example, I was once commissioned to create an Arab-inspired dish using oats. Saudi oat soup is the most traditional dish that comes to mind when I think of oats, but I couldn’t do that – that’s too easy. So, I made a savoury granola using za’atar, cumin, and pomegranate molasses, serving it alongside Turkish tomato sauce, grilled eggplant, and whipped garlic yoghurt.
What dessert do you always cook during Ramadan, and why?
I love basbousah! It’s a semolina cake of sorts, which is drenched in sugar syrup. I bake it with orange juice for some zestiness, and line the pan with tahini for more decadence!
Can you share your favourite Ramadan recipe with us?
I wanted to incorporate my treasure chest of oats into recipes that are popular this time of year, regardless of whether or not those recipes traditionally call for oats. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, where pull-apart cheesy bread is a common and standard teatime accompaniment all year round, but an especially popular item on the iftar table. Each little pillow of dough is stuffed with a cube of firm white cheese (mozzarella, halloumi, or Kiri) because there is no such thing as ‘too much cheese’ or ‘too many olives’ in the Middle Eastern vocabulary.
What is your most cherished Ramadan memory, and why?
My most cherished memory, without a doubt, are the iftars I had alone with my late grandmother at her place. She was the ‘hostess with the mostess’ and always expressed her love through food, but during the many Ramadans I spent with her when there were no guests? Those are my favourite memories. She would make two perfectly portioned bowls of fruit salad and a few pakoras for us both – pakoras are gram flour fritters and they’re my ultimate Ramadan weakness, but I avoid making them as they’re deep-fried and I could eat a plateful. We’d then go straight to dinner. Those iftars encompassed the true essence of Ramadan for me: modesty, simplicity, family, love. And no gluttony!
What’s a dish that you never thought you would try, but love?
Fermented green tea leaf salad. It’s a Burmese snack that’s sweet, savoury, spicy, and oh-so-moreish.
What tips can you share to help others through the Ramadan season?
When you’re fasting, you want to eat a horse. Don’t do it. Don’t go overboard with iftar preparations – make just as much food as you would for a regular dinner because chances are you’ll want to eat even less than you usually do. When you make too much food, though, you tend to overeat just so you don’t have to deal with leftovers. And obviously, drink lots of water between dusk and dawn. During suhoor (the morning meal before the sun rises), avoid spicy or greasy foods that will make you thirsty and try to have some yoghurt. I always find that yoghurt makes me feel less thirsty throughout the day.
Are there any other changes that you make in your life during Ramadan?
It’s not advised to change our religious inclinations during Ramadan and return to a lifestyle that is un-Islamic. However, we do try to better ourselves in whatever personal capacity we can and see ourselves lacking in, but with the intention of maintaining those ways – not just for a month. As Muslims, we are encouraged to give charity throughout the year. In fact, one of the fundamental pillars of Islam dictates that we must donate 2.5% of the savings we have had for over a year to the less fortunate in order to keep income disparity at bay. However, charity peaks during Ramadan because we believe that all good deeds are rewarded many folds during this blessed month. The spirit of generosity during Ramadan is truly palpable in the air.
For more recipes or just plain FOMO as Haiya dines across Dubai, follow her here.
Faith, First: In Conversation with Mathilde Loujayne
Meet an inspiring – and unlikely – face of Islam.
Raise your hand if your teenage years revolved around makeup, fashion, college applications, and dating. Mathilde Loujayne’s adolescence was no different, except hers also featured a nearly decade-long spiritual quest that eventually led to a life-altering decision. Today, as we continue into the holy month of Ramadan, Mathilde talks us through her journey to date. The Dubai-based author, who hails from the south of France and works in PR, converted to Islam at the age of 18.
“Trust me, I was obsessing over boys and makeup as well,” she says with a laugh. “Your teenage years are such an interesting time, there’s so much going on. But a common thread throughout my life, even when I was a kid, was a strong sense of spirituality. I was eight when I first started asking the bigger questions.” Ironically, Mathilde was born into an atheist family, making her questions that much harder to answer. “I was never taught about God. I had to find those answers myself. And when I learned about God, I was in France and asked my parents if I could get baptised. They agreed.”
Baptised at the age of 10, Mathilde reveals what prompted her decision: the death of her older brother, who was only 16 years old. “It really opened the door to wanting to understand what happened to him. Why did he die at such a young age? Where is he now? Where is his soul? I had to figure all that out as a very young child – and I was still grieving, of course. As a Christian, I was trying to find answers through my community at the time, but was unable to. That pushed me to understand other perspectives, other religions. And shortly after, my parents moved to Oman.”
Both nature and nurture come together to shape who we are, a fact illustrated by Mathilde’s move to Muscat at the age of 11. “I went to an international school, where there was so much diversity, so many different backgrounds and cultures and nationalities. My friends and I were really open about discussing our thoughts on certain topics, which prompted me to read more about other religions. But I was still thinking Christianity – maybe Orthodox or Protestant? I wasn’t really looking elsewhere.”
Mathilde pauses to warn me that what follows is a long story, but it’s a fascinating one. She discloses that her father survived cancer before she was born and was on a spiritual journey of his own. “It was something we’d never really discussed. But around that time, he told me and my mom that he had converted to Islam a few years prior. We had a Quran at home, and I would debate endlessly with him. I wouldn’t consider his point of view, I was very confrontational – a typical teenager, I guess.”
And then 9/11 happened.
“I was 17 at the time and, suddenly, the whole world turned against Muslims. I couldn’t understand what was going on because Omanis are so peaceful, so hospitable. I’d never met a violent person in Oman, and my dad was now Muslim. I figured that since I want to read about other religions, I might as well start with the Quran. I have one in my house, I live in a Muslim country – it just makes sense.” But while her decision to read the Quran was more about general knowledge and less about conversion, Mathilde approached it with an open mind. And an open heart.
“I was so surprised when I started. I found myself reading about the prophets that I knew in Christianity, the stories were so similar, the message was so similar. It felt so familiar, but so new at the same time. It felt like God was speaking to me directly. And the message was so loud – it brought peace to my heart as I was still grieving. It answered so many questions that I had about my brother. It eased my pain and gave me more than I was asking for. That’s when I asked my parents if I can become a Muslim. They were very supportive, so an imam came to our house and I said my shahada – the pronunciation of faith – in their presence.”
The rest, as they say, is history. “I’ve never looked back,” she remarks. Striving to keep her faith strong, Mathilde has been on a mission to understand Islam from a female perspective. As for what she’s discovered? “I encountered many misconceptions that I had to explore. I did a lot of research to understand women’s rights and why certain things are forbidden. What I’ve realised is that it’s a religion of logic, it’s all for our own benefit. Like now, for example, we’re fasting not only for spiritual reasons, but also health. I researched the wives of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to understand their journey because I wanted to approach the story of Islam through the women of Islam. Even his daughter Fatima – I learned so much about the importance of modesty through her. Being French, I had a hard time with modesty,” she admits with a giggle.
Mathilde rightfully asserts that women from the early years of Islam – both Khadijah and Aisha were pillars of the community – aren’t recognised nearly enough. “If you think about it, a lot of the lectures focus on the companions of the Prophet, but not so much on his wives. Some of them were scholars themselves, they would teach the companions. No one talks about that. It’s such a huge achievement and something we should be proud of as Muslim women. Seeing how much knowledge they had contrasted by how many girls don’t get an education in Muslim countries today? It’s not right.”
Talk of influential women steers the conversation in the direction of Halima Aden, who famously gave up a thriving modelling career, stating that it was at odds with her faith. I ask if this act of sacrifice resonates with Mathilde. It does. “I always wanted to be in the music industry. And I was. After moving to the UAE, I worked for a company that put on major concerts and music festivals with A-list artists – Kanye West and The Prodigy included. It was a lot of fun, but you can imagine what the music industry is like. There were so many times when I thought, ‘What am I doing here? These are not my values.’ Don’t get me wrong, I still love music, but I knew I had to give up my job. I resigned and ended up in the corporate world, which was a sacrifice because I loved the work. It just wasn’t compatible with my lifestyle.”
But it’s not just behind the scenes in the music industry where Mathilde feels like a bit of a misfit, unfortunately. With Islamophobia at an all-time high in France, I ask how she reconciles the fact that’s she French, female, and Muslim. “It’s a confusing time because I love my country, but I can’t stand the news.” And yes, she hears about the hijab ban daily at this point. “That ruins it for me. I wish France would embrace its diversity, but it’s going in the opposite direction. I almost don’t know what to say because I feel very sad about the situation. It hurts when your own country goes against your values – I wouldn’t be accepted if people knew who I was.”
While Islamophobia is a relatively recent phenomenon, longstanding opinions about the religion are well-documented. “Islam is the best religion, and Muslims are the worst followers.” I read aloud this famous quote by late 19th century playwright George Bernard Shaw to Mathilde, curious about her reaction. Caught off guard, she chuckles before confessing, “When you’re a new Muslim, you embrace the religion fully and think all Muslims are perfect Muslims. It’s an assumption we falsely make because we’re all human at the end of the day – no one’s perfect. But living in the Middle East, you can’t assume every Muslim is practising – everyone is on their own path. I’ve learnt to not judge.”
This is a message reinforced throughout her book, Big Little Steps. “New Muslims come with an energy of wanting to be perfect, but I tell them to take their time. You have to understand why you’re doing certain things, understand the rationale behind it.” Aimed at both converts and those born into Islam, Big Little Steps breaks down the religion’s principles in a simple and inviting way with the aim of making it more approachable and highlighting its beauty. Published by The Dreamwork Collective, it tackles preconceived notions of Muslim women in a positive manner. Even the aforementioned Halima Aden makes an appearance.
“I wanted to share everything that I’ve learnt as a woman and a new Muslim,” says Mathilde, delving into the idea behind the book. “When you embrace Islam, there’s so much to learn, and it can be very overwhelming because people from every corner come to you with advice – unsolicited advice sometimes. It comes from a good place, but yes, it’s overwhelming.” The book was born as Mathilde sought the right words to explain why she chose to embrace Islam to her mother. “I wrote Big Little Steps with non-Muslims in mind – specifically my mom – because all this time, I was trying to prove to her that I’ve become a better person. I’m not very talkative, so it came out as a book.”
As someone who struggled to find material for new Muslims, she recalls, “I wish I had something like it growing up. I had to buy a children’s book when I was learning how to pray. That’s why I wanted to make it available to others.” Big Little Steps is also strategically designed to engage readers, encouraging them to take notes as they go along. “The idea is to understand Islam through my personal experiences, with the book serving as a guide to read the Quran. It’s not about my vision. I want the reader to start their own thought process.” Referring to herself as a mere vessel to spread the word of God, Mathilde says her goal is fulfilled if she can help even one person.
Ramadan is the time for hearty iftars, communal prayers, and late-night gatherings with family and friends. This year, as we return to normalcy, we share our top tips on Ramadan done right.
TIP 1: Be a Good Guest
As a guest in the Middle East, it is important to respect the traditions and cultures of the country you now call home. You can start to do this by educating yourself on the meaning of this month. Ramadan is the ninth – and most sacred – month of the Islamic calendar. It is a time of fasting, reflection on one’s relationship with God, togetherness as a family, and study of the Quranic scriptures.
In this holy month, it’s also crucial to know how to exchange greetings. You can greet people by saying ‘Ramadan Kareem’ or ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ to acknowledge that we are in Ramadan. You can also add ‘Al Salam Alaikum’ – the standard greeting when meeting people – to enhance your Ramadan greeting. Here are some short but useful phrases to brush up on during the month.
If you would like to know if a colleague or acquaintance is fasting, you may ask, “Sayem?” You may also hear ‘Emta El Maghreb?’ quite frequently. This means, ‘What time is the Maghreb prayer?’ The fourth prayer of the day, it indicates what time the fast is broken.
TIP 2: Timing Is Everything
Work timings often become shorter during Ramadan as Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. You should also be mindful of prayer timings as Muslims pray five times a day – two of which take place during working hours. It is important not to schedule meetings or deadlines that will interfere with prayers during these timings.
The prayer time you should be most conscious of is the one that takes place around 6:45pm because that’s when the fast is broken for the day. If you have house help who observes Ramadan, you can lessen their workload during this time as fasting is not an easy task – especially at the beginning of Ramadan. Those who fast are most likely to be tired later in the day, so if you can schedule chores in the morning while they still have energy from eating suhoor, it would certainly show your mindfulness.
TIP 3: Avoid Eating and Drinking in Public
Eating (including chewing gum) or drinking in public during Ramadan is not allowed in the UAE, unless you have a medical condition. In this post-pandemic age, you also need to be cautious not to have food or drinks nearby during Zoom calls. Even if you’re not drinking or eating, do not have water or food nearby so that these items don’t appear within your Zoom frame.
As for alcohol? It is not okay to drink or show alcohol in public – either online or offline. And what does this mean? Comments or photos that display alcohol products or consumption on social media isn’t allowed – yes, this means #winenotwednesday is best left for after Ramadan. Also be sure to not display alcohol during your Zoom calls. This does not mean that you should change your preferences or lifestyle during Ramadan; simply continue to eat and drink as you would, but privately.
Watch the Video: Must-Know Tips for Ramadan
TIP 4: Fashion, But Make It Modest
Ramadan fashion has some strict no-nos – even on Zoom calls. This means no tank tops, shorts, low V-necks, or sleeveless tops. Instead, you can opt for jackets, long-sleeved tops, or an embroidered kaftan if you are feeling adventurous.
Looking to get into the sartorial spirit? During this time, you’ll see that several clothing outlets, online retailers, and local designers run Ramadan collections ranging from the affordable to the luxurious. Keep in mind that even if you don’t fast during Ramadan, it is still important to dress responsibly to show respect to your host country and its people.
TIP 5: Err on the Side of Caution
During Ramadan, make sure that you do not behave aggressively, engage in public displays of affection, dance or play music in public (although you may listen to music quietly with headphones), and swear (blasphemy is considered extra offensive during Ramadan). Generally, it is best to avoid doing anything that might be considered rude or wrong in Arab culture.
TIP 6: Be Generous and Charitable
Gift-giving is considered a significant act in Arab culture, especially during Ramadan. You could gift sweets or dates as it’s a way to wish your Muslim friends or colleagues a sweet life as they break their fast. Patchi chocolates and Bateel dates offer beautifully packaged gift sets during Ramadan. Another option is tea sets or coffee cups from O’de Rose.
Charity is one of the pillars of Islam, so if you’d like to get into the spirit of Ramadan by giving back, look into the One Billion Meals campaign. The recently launched charity initiative by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum aims to donate one billion meals to the poor and hungry worldwide. Giving back at this time is another way we can show love towards both our community and the country we call home.
Kickstart the holy month on a cultural note, exploring the colourful neighborhood of Karama through a Gulf Photo Plus photo walk entitled Suhoor Strolls. You’ll be given night-photography tips to capture images that depict Ramadan alongside a special tandoori chai stop, insights on local history, the discovery of hidden gems, and feedback on your work.
Research shows that painting can be a very potent method for expression and emotional release – and that’s where the Process Painting session at Kave comes in. Considering the experience of painting is more important than the outcome, you’ll learn how to trust your intuition and overcome blocks by embracing their hidden message.
Ramadan Nights at Jameel Arts Centre are all about family-friendly fun from 9pm until midnight. You can explore exhibitions, participate in workshops for both adults and children led by a locally based creative, join a hands-on activity at one of many stations, and enjoy a late night treat at farm-to-fork restaurant Teible or one of the local food vendors. Bonus: entry is free.
It’s no secret that women tend to put themselves last, and attempting to remedy the problem is the Women’s Empowerment workshop at Illuminations. Taking place onsite, it will teach participants about the art of self-care – tangible tools and strategies included – in order to achieve more balance, energy, vitality, and well-being.
Hosted by SEVA, the Full Moon ThetaHealing session is a wonderful opportunity to free yourself from the limitations and energy blocks in your life because the full moon phase is downright powerful – it’s an optimum time for recharging your energy field and clearing your chakras. Unsurprisingly, many cultures have full moon rituals because there’s so much pure energy in the air that can be used to yield incredible healing results.
The Clay Art For Wellbeing session at The Workshop in Jumeirah is not about learning pottery. Instead, it’s about working with clay to release stress as participants will be directed by prompts to mold and create a piece of art based on the theme of the day, with a registered Art Psychotherapist leading the workshop.
With the pandemic resulting in a rise of eating disorders worldwide, the A Parent’s Guide to Eating Disorders webinar hosted by The LightHouse Arabia is a great tool to help parents gain a better understanding of what an eating disorder is and how they develop. The session will help recognise the warning signs, learn about treatment, and learn practical tips for supporting young people with such issues.
With the return of Earth Day, the time for action is now – and there’s still time to register for the Green Call Project hosted by Emirates Environmental Group. To get involved and help heal the planet, exchange old mobile phonesand tablets for an opportunity to plant a native tree sapling in December.
The beloved Ramadan Iftar Program at Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding returns, taking place in a wind-tower house in Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. Not only will guests have a traditional iftar with Emirati hosts, who will happily answer questions related to the holy month and local customs, but there will also be a visit to Diwan Mosque before returning to the center for dessert and tea.
According to Mayan belief, working with cocoa – a.k.a. food of the gods – allows one to cultivate awareness on an emotional and spiritual level, releasing what no longer serves you and guiding you in the direction that you need to take. And that’s where the Cacao Ceremony with Nacho at SEVA comes in. Led by a medicine man from South America, the ceremony will open your heart in order to help you see more clearly.
Knowledge of physical first aid is universally considered crucial and, now, The LightHouse Arabia is proving that mental health is no different. The wellness institute is offering a 10-hour course entitled Mental Health First Aid, which will teach participants how to identify, understand, and respond to the signs that someone in their life may be struggling with a mental health issue – depression, anxiety disorders, and addiction included.
W Dubai – The Palm’s popular wellness experience FUEL Happening returns, this time partnering up with leading fitness retreat BeFitreat to host an unrivalled week full of epic workouts and delicious healthy cuisine. Expect everything from Muay Thai sessions to mindfulness workshops will be offer, complemented by exclusive access to the Instagrammable WET Deck and overnight stays in the hotel’s Wonderful Room.
With the theme of International Women’s Day 2022 established as #BreakTheBias, the Joint Business Council event hosted by British Business Group at Hyde Hotel will delve into how gender equality factors into a more sustainable tomorrow. A number of inspirational speakers will share their own experiences in this area – Carly Dubery from (founder of Vegan Entrepreneurs UAE) and Nayla Al-Obeidli (founder of FixPro UAE) included.
With the seven chakras in the human body serving as potent energy centres that influence your life experiences in areas like relationships, finance, and career, knowing the flow of energy will help you make choices that can bring your desires to life. Enter: the free Online Chakra Reading with Bharti Jatti Varma workshop that is hosted by Illuminations and explores the chakra system in an interactive forum.
Yogafest Dubai – the largest and only eco-conscious wellness event in the Middle East – returns to the city, this time taking place at Dubai Internet City Amphitheatre. The yoga festival will consist of three days packed with sessions covering different types such as hatha, power, and vinyasa, complemented by pilates and meditation sessions and stalls selling yoga gear and health food.
Ideal for beginners and nature enthusiasts alike, the upcoming Gazelle Trek and Trail Notes led by UAE Trekkers will wind through hills and around a lake to see ancient villages, geological features, an old falaj, a gazelle enclosure, and more in Hatta. The first 40 minutes will be a gentle walk, followed by hikers climbing the first group of switchbacks and coming over the top of the ridge, back down the same side, clocking a total of 7.5km. Learn more here.
March 24: Explore Entrepreneurship
Taking place at Media One Hotel, the March edition of Female Fusion’s Firestarter Breakfast will delve into the challenges of entrepreneurship – and the roller coaster of emotions that comes with them. Attendees will therefore hear from three women who have not only faced massive challenges in life or business, but also managed to overcome them and thrive as a result. Expect to wrap up by noon with plenty of new wisdom to take home.
Few details are known about the closing ceremony of Expo 2020 Dubai, but if the pomp and circumstance of the global event’s opening ceremony is any indication, it’s not to be missed. While not everyone will be able to witness the spectacle onsite, it will be live-streamed on Expo 2020’s official YouTube channel. As for what happens after that? The site will transition into District 2020, a sustainable smart city that will reuse at least 80% of the Expo-centric infrastructure.
Jenny Lawson is broken, but in the best possible way – according to her latest book, that is. The New York Times bestselling memoirist is known not for her physical and mental health issues, but how she copes, using an unapologetic combination of sardonic wit and a hysterically skewed outlook on life. Her 2021 release Broken is easily her most personal book yet, chronicling the ups and downs of her life through a collection of essays that hold nothing back. Here, she gets candid on all things humour and health following her sessions at the 2022 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Listen in.
Mark Twain famously said, “Humour is tragedy plus time.” Is time the ingredient that helps you see the humour in a challenging situation or something else?
Personally, I’ve found that being able to laugh at terrible things as they are happening is a wonderful tool – if it works. There’s something about laughing at monstrous things that makes them somehow smaller and more manageable. It sounds strange, but my sister and I always end up giggling at funerals. In fact, we tend to laugh the most at the ones that are the hardest to be at, but I think that’s because laughing is such a wonderful way to counter terrible pain. The more I mourn something, the more I have to find a way to smile about what I’m mourning so that it doesn’t destroy me, so I guess I will consider myself a great success in life if there are people laughing hysterically at my funeral.
Your ability to put a light spin on a heavy subject has become a signature of sorts. What’s your earliest memory of using humour as a coping mechanism?
I’m not sure, but I do remember when I was about seven, my dad had to write a note to let me out of class early. We ended up creating a ransom note offering to exchange my teacher’s mother for me (at 2pm so I could go to the dentist), and I remember being absolutely delighted at how ridiculous it was and wondering why grown-ups didn’t always do these insane sorts of things. I vowed to always try to be ridiculous whenever I could, and it has served me (moderately) well. There’s enough darkness in the world, so sometimes, you have to take back joy in extraordinarily silly ways to counter it.
Around the world, access to mental health resources remains a luxury, which is why your An Open Letter to My Health Insurance Company essay resonated with so many. What did the process of fighting for adequate coverage teach you about yourself?
It taught me that, in spite of what the insurance company seems to think, I am worth fighting for. It taught me that depression tells you terrible lies about your worth, but that just because healthcare and coverage doesn’t come easy, it doesn’t mean that I’m not worth the time and effort. I’ve learnt that it’s okay to ask for help, and that includes asking for help from friends or family because when you’re in severe depression, you often don’t have the energy to fight for yourself.
Mental health is no laughing matter, but laughter has been proven to do everything from boost mood to diminish pain. Is laughing in the face of adversity a value that you’ve instilled in your teenage child, Hailey?
One thing that I’ve learnt is that not everyone deals with struggle in the same way that I do so, especially during the dramatic teenage years. I had to make sure Hailey understood that my way of dealing with things through humour didn’t mean that I was discounting how difficult or serious things can be. Just because that’s the healthiest way for me to deal with things doesn’t mean it’s the best way to parent because each kid is so unique in their needs. Luckily, Hailey has inherited a lot of our strange sense of humour, so we often find ourselves laughing at awkward situations and that makes it easier to discuss hard things.
You’ve addressed the overwhelming anxiety that comes with the responsibility of being a parent. Any advice for women who are first-time moms during such a socially isolated time?
It gets easier. And then harder. And then easier again. I discovered blogging when Hailey was a few years old and that really helped me to find other parents I could identify with. It is a really isolating time, but there are a lot of online resources that help. One of the best things I’ve learnt is that whatever decision you make is the right one for your child because you are their parent. Unfortunately, whatever decision you make is probably also the wrong one in some way, but in the end, it all works out. And if you screw up? It just teaches your kid that it’s okay to make mistakes.
When Hailey was young and my depression was terrible, the only thing I could do was sit on the couch and watch Doctor Who episodes with them. And I felt awful because other moms were making organic dinners and setting up playdates and doing laundry. I was just trying to breathe and waiting for myself to come back. But when Hailey was older and I apologised for those periods, they thought I was insane because they only remembered how I was spending time with them instead of cooking or visiting friends. What I thought was failure ended up being a wonderful memory for my kid. We need to give ourselves credit for the things we don’t even realise we’re doing.
Yet another side effect of the pandemic is that we’re a lot more socially awkward than we were in the past. As a self-professed introvert, is there a sense of relief that comes with those dynamics?
This pandemic is a marathon of isolation that I’ve been training for my entire life. Honestly, I sort of love that I don’t have to make excuses to avoid parties and awkward interactions. That said, I did have some dark times in the past two years where I thought I was going to go a little stir-crazy. We ended up doing a lot of serial-killer-escape-rooms-in-a-box and I literally read hundreds of books because that was the best way I could escape into another world that wasn’t my house. Now that we’re all vaccinated and more likely to get out, I’ve sort of become even more socially out-of-shape than before. I love to see old family and friends, but after 30 minutes, I need a break to catch my breath. It’s a little embarrassing.
Not all your fans were privy to the bonus chapter of Broken, which chronicles your life in quarantine. Can you give us a glimpse of how that has changed since 2020?
It changes from day to day, but the biggest difference is that I started a bookstore called Nowhere Bookshop. I literally opened it as the pandemic began. We couldn’t open the doors because it was too dangerous for our staff, so we did online orders and curbside book delivery. We also started a monthly book club called The Fantastic Strangelings and became (I suspect) the longest running bookstore that had never actually opened its doors to customers. Luckily, we eventually all got vaccinated and now we’re finally open. I spend a lot of time reading advance copies of new books because picking titles for the books club is pretty much my favourite thing. That book club saved the store and, in some ways, it’s still saving my sanity.
Sometimes, it’s easier to confide in or lean on complete strangers, and your thriving Twitter community is proof. Can you share a recent anecdote or example of how it has helped you through a particularly dark moment?
It’s not unusual to be struggling with anxiety at 3am, but I know if I reach out on Twitter – even when I’m feeling incredibly alone – there will be people who immediately tweet back that they’re also awake wondering why they said that dumb thing in 6th grade or whatever else is haunting them. And for some reason, it’s comforting when you realise you aren’t alone. Also, there’s something about telling other people it’s all okay and they should go to sleep that makes you think that maybe it’s also all okay for you and that you can go to sleep as well.
You’ve frequently credited reading for helping you through the pandemic. Which three books can we turn to for our own diminishing sanity levels?
Oh gosh, I don’t think I could narrow it down to three. Some of my most recent favourite escape-from-my-head-books are Still Life by Sarah Winman, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, and Meaty by Samantha Irby. Oh, and The Witch’s Heart by Genevieve Gornichec. And The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. And Madhouse at the End of the Earth. You should stop me now because I could talk about books all day.
Written notes have played a special role in your life – from your mom leaving them in your lunchbox to remind you everything was okay to connecting with classmates at a time of social anxiety. Can your experience carry over into the smartphone era? Can a tweet or text ever replace the magic of a written note passed discreetly in class?
That’s such a good question. I think electronic notes can absolutely make an impact and I am so incredibly lucky that texting exists because I have a fear of the phone, so it makes it much easier for me to talk to people without actually talking to people. But I also don’t think it’s a substitute for an ephemeral, handwritten note. You know, someone came into my bookshop and set up a little station at the bar with coloured paper, pens, and a little sign asking people to leave a kind note to a stranger and encouraging people to take home a kind note from a stranger.
I would see people spend an hour going through all of the colourful notes left all over the bar, and I didn’t blame them – I did the same thing. Sometimes, they were confessions or words of encouragement or funny stories. I noticed that people left them, but seldom took them, probably because they wanted others to enjoy them. In the end, we had so many that we started tucking them into books as we shipped them out so people would find a little secret note from a stranger. That’s the kind of magic that makes the world go around.
The Virgin Radio presenter on marriage, social media, and more.
How did you and your husband meet?
Jeff and I met in 2010. We both had mutual friends, and 2010 was definitely the year that I was out pretty much every weekend at a club. I kept seeing him around and, one day, I thought I’d go up to him and ask him to dance. Jeff said no, so I went back to dancing with my friends. The next day, I got a Facebook message from him and it made me laugh. We started talking and I really didn’t think anything of it, but the more we talked, the more I realised how much we had in common! And the rest, as they say, is history!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received about relationships?
Communication is KEY!
What do you think is the key to the success of your marriage and being happy together?
Jeff and I are best friends, we love hanging out with each other – and I think that provided a solid base for our relationship. We really don’t look for time away from each other. Instead, we’d rather do new things with each other. I also think the best thing we have learned about relationships is definitely a basic understanding of each other, especially with both of our careers. It wasn’t always easy finding time together before the pandemic, so we had to have a level of trust and understanding knowing that we wouldn’t see each other for days.
What is your favourite way to spend time together?
Honestly, any time we are doing something together, it’s fun for us. It can be cooking, working out, going for walks/hikes, or even when I force Jeff to do TikToks… he eventually loved it.
Do you think constantly being attached to your phone can have a negative impact on relationships?
It definitely can. The boundaries need to be set from the beginning. A lot of my work revolves around me being on the phone, so although it does irritate Jeff sometimes, he understands that it’s just a part of my world.
How did you celebrate your first Valentine’s Day together?
We cannot even remember! BUT we did start a tradition in the beginning that we would always alternate Valentine’s Day celebrations. We’re not big on gifts that day, so each year, we take turns organising some sort of an outing – whether that’s a dinner or an adventure.