December 18th this year sees the fifth annual International Arabic Language Day. The day was set up by the United Nations (UN) to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity. Arabic is one of the UN’s six official language and each has their own dedicated day. Events are held around the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to mark the day, but even if you’re not there at the time, there are some fascinating places in Dubai and Abu Dhabi where you can learn about Arabic language and culture.
Dubai has seen a meteoric rise in the last 50 years, becoming a world financial centre. One of the best places to find out how it came to be is the Dubai Museum. It’s inside the city’s oldest building – the Al Fahidi Fort – which was built in 1787. The museum takes you through the story of Dubai from its origins as a Bedouin village through recreated houses, souks and mosques that show how people lived before oil was discovered in the 1960s. Then you can see on a map how quickly the city grew into a modern metropolis with its forest of skyscrapers.
To find out more about Dubai’s cultural side, head to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre For Cultural Understanding. Located in the historic Al Fahidi District, it focuses on the customs and culture of the UAE. Their motto is ‘Open doors, open minds’ and visitors are encouraged to ask any questions they might have about life in Dubai. You can take an Arabic class or a guided tour of the mosque. Or join a local guide for a walking tour of the district, followed by a Bedouin-style traditional meal.
For something more unusual, visit the Juma al Majid Heritage and Cultural Centre. This reference library has over 350,000 Arabic language books. Founder Juma al Majid travelled all over the Middle East collecting the most beautiful and interesting manuscripts. Even if you can’t read Arabic, they have some beautiful calligraphy, as well as books about the region in English and other languages. The Centre also has a fascinating selection of black and white photos, where you can see what Dubai was like in the last century.
Fellow Emirate Abu Dhabi is also undergoing huge development, and one of the focuses at the moment is the Saadiyat Cultural District. The name means ‘Happiness island’ and this part of the city will be its new cultural centre. Local versions of the famous Louvre and Guggenheim art museums are being built and there’s also the new Zayed National Museum. The building has been designed by renowned architects Foster + Partners, with its shape inspired by the wing tips of a falcon – one of the symbols of Abu Dhabi.
The museum is due to open in 2016 and tells the story of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the man who helped form the UAE. As well as a gallery about his life and work, there’ll also be galleries dedicated to faith and Islam, science and learning, and falconry. The People and Heritage Gallery also explains all about the traditional values of life in the UAE, including its culture and language. As the largest museum of its kind it will be the ideal place to get an insight into the Arab world – on Arabic Language Day or whenever you’re visiting the Emirates.