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4 Multicultural Couples in the UAE Discuss Challenging Norms and the Joys of Blending Traditions

Navigating the complexities and joys of blending traditions, four multicultural couples discuss challenging norms, and choosing each other above all else.

Sheikh Rashid Bin Ahmed Al Maktoum and Natalie Lankester

Natalie wears dress, CH Carolina Herrera; earrings, necklace, Boucheron. Photo: Sam Rawadi

With more than 200 nationalities living and working in the UAE, it’s not surprising that multicultural marriage is on the rise. Sheikh Rashid bin Ahmed Al Maktoum wed British-born Natalie Lankester, a fellow equestrian, in 2015. They share two daughters and a passion for competitive horse riding. Both participated in the Asian Games last month, with Lankester in dressage and Sheikh Al Maktoum in show jumping. “We’re representing the UAE together and it’s amazing that I’ve been accepted by his country and have the honor of competing under its name. Our two countries have kind of come together, and now we’re on the same team,” Lankester says. “We’ve really managed to blend a very powerful family with a very humble family from Shropshire in the UK.”

Sheikh Al Maktoum admits that challenging norms is not always easy. But Dubai has been a welcoming place for the family. “Dubai is open-minded and multicultural, and there is understanding. Of course I wasn’t just nervous to get married to a European, I was, in general, scared of marriage – full stop. But it was the best decision I’ve made in my life,” he raves. When asked how the two make it work, Sheikh Al Maktoum insists that respect, communication, and a commitment to cherishing one another’s cultural roots is key. “A lot of people are scared their children will lose tradition, but as long as the parents stick to it, their children won’t lose it,” he says. All holidays are celebrated in the couple’s household, from Christmas to Eid to Ramadan to Easter, and their children are around their Emirati relatives regularly throughout the year in Dubai. Come summertime, the family visits Europe to connect with their English side and heritage. “I hope we’re a couple people can look up to and realize that it does work, that two cultures can come together successfully,” Lankester says.

Chanel Ayan and Chris Pillott

Chanel wears top, jumper, pants, Fendi; earrings, Ringstone at Poison Drop. Chris wears blazer, Fendi; T-shirt, 12 Storeez; jeans, Mango Man. Photo: Alex Kermakov

When Chanel Ayan saw the childhood home of her husband Chris Pillott in Boise, Idaho, which at the time was decorated in twinkling Christmas lights, she had one thought: “You could fit my whole village in this house.” Ayan, born in Kenya to a Somali father and Ethiopian mother, tells this story with the dramatic flair that fans of The Real Housewives of Dubai will recognize. Known as Dubai’s first Black supermodel, Ayan is one of the show’s six female stars who charmed audiences with her humor and moved them with her decision to speak out about her experience with female genital mutilation.

Having grown up worlds apart, finding common ground has never been easy for Ayan and Pillott. But it has also never stopped them from trying, even to this day. When they met at a Nairobi restaurant, Ayan had just finished high school and was engaged to her cousin. She spoke little English and had never left her country. Pillott was an American university graduate based in Brazil who often traveled to Europe for work and was enjoying his independence. The first time he tried to kiss her, Ayan rejected the advance out of fear that she’d get a disease. “That was when I realized, wow, I’ve got to think differently about things,” Pillott recalls of grappling with the numerous misunderstandings that would result from their vastly different upbringings. He wanted to take things slowly to see how their budding romance could mature with time. She, on the other hand, wanted a guarantee of marriage, because choosing Pillott meant giving up everything else.

Photo: Alex Kermakov

“Running away with a white man, that’s unheard of. The people in my community are thinking that’s unacceptable. She’s marrying outside our culture, that’s unacceptable. Her kids are not going to look like us, that’s unacceptable,” Ayan explains. That was 23 years ago and, against all odds, she and Pillott have since married, moved around before settling in Dubai, welcomed their son Taj, now 17, and started businesses together – they recently cofounded Ayan Beauty and the model serves as CEO. Ayan’s relatives eventually came around to her blended family. Two of her 10 siblings even ended up marrying outside their culture as well. The couple has overcome a great deal to get here – culture shock, judgment, doubt, gossip, racism, threats – and according to Pillott, embracing life’s gray areas has been crucial in remaining united. “For any divisive issue, you don’t necessarily have to solve it every time. You don’t have to say it’s this way or the highway,” he shares. As for the people who try to throw them off course, Ayan’s message is clear: “No matter what you do, people are always going to talk. So give them a show.”

Janice Villamor and Christian Garcia

Janice wears dress, Roksanda at Matches; gloves, Post Meridiem; earrings, Marni at Poison Drop. Photo: Alex Kermakov

For Filipina influencer Janice Villamor and her husband Christian Garcia, a Danish businessman, preserving traditions from their home countries and also from their origin story as a family is an important part of how they’re raising their three children in Dubai. It is not uncommon in the Philippines, for example, to live with extended family members or in-laws, so when Villamor suggested that her mother come with them to Dubai, Garcia was hesitant at first. Now, Villamor’s mother has been with them for 11 years, sometimes cooking classic Filipino dishes such as noodles or chicken adobo for the children to enjoy. They celebrate Christmas the Danish way with long lunches featuring herring and rye bread – important staples in Scandinavian cuisine. On birthdays, they have traditional Danish layer cake.

Photo: Alex Kermakov

The couple first met through a friend in Villamor’s home city of Manila when Garcia was on a work trip. He still returns to the Philippines often, more often than Villamor herself, and points out that due to the historical influence of its Spanish and American colonizers, the country’s culture is familiar to him to an extent, and thus easier to adapt to as a westerner. Being able to communicate in English makes that process even easier. Language in general has been essential to the couple’s success in creating a multicultural home. Before moving to Dubai, Villamor and Garcia lived in Barcelona, where all three children were born and where they spend time in the summers. Both parents, along with their oldest child, speak fluent Spanish in addition to English, and the younger two are learning quickly. This has helped to shape the collective identity of their family that transcends genetic makeup. “They’re more Spanish than they are Filipino or Danish,” Villamor says of their children. Her husband agrees. For Villamor and Garcia, finding a life partner was always about the person, not their culture or background, and that’s the mentality they instill in their kids. “The world is getting so globalized that this is the way that you have to think, and the way you have to teach your children to think,” Garcia says. “It just has to be a natural part of life.”

Mona Kattan and Hassan Elamin

Mona wears dress, Dion Lee; shoes, Ferragamo. Hassan wears shirt, Bottega Veneta; pants, Cos. Photo: Alex Kermakov

Mona Kattan, the Iraqi-American co-founder of Huda Beauty and creator of Kayali Fragrances, faced societal pressure to marry and have children within her culture, and to do so as soon as possible. As the daughter of parents in an arranged marriage, she assumed she’d be set up with an Iraqi man. But after struggling to connect with someone from the same background, the expectation to partner up was mounting, and it chipped away at her self esteem. “I used to make a lot of bad decisions out of that pressure versus out of what I actually wanted,” Kattan says. This realization, along with exposure to her sister Huda’s marriage to a man who is Portuguese-American, changed her perspective on dating. “You have to open up your mind and realize it’s about what you are inside, not where you’re from… After raising my self esteem, I raised the bar, and that’s how I met a man who, for the first time ever, was worth having a future with because he’s a great guy, he has a lot of great values, and he treats me with so much respect.”

Photo: Alex Kermakov

That guy is Sudanese entrepreneur Hassan Elamin, whom Kattan describes as a kind and calming presence with a beautiful soul. Kattan and Elamin knew one another as friends for a while before things turned romantic in 2021. They were married the following year. Having both spent around two decades in Dubai, they consider the city to be a significant common denominator in navigating their dissimilarities. “Being in Dubai is a luxury because it’s so diverse and people are a lot more open to other cultures. There’s nobody who’s just from one place,” Kattan explains. “There’s been so much progress on so many levels. I feel like marrying someone outside of your race is part of pushing that.” For Elamin, the fact that he and his wife are both Arab means that “at face value” their cultures are alike, but they’ve broadened their perspectives when it comes to acknowledging distinct nuances in cuisine, expressions, and ways of interacting. He sees plenty of Iraqi dolma in his future, for example, and hopes that if there’s anything his wife learns from his Sudanese roots, it’s how to “chill out.” His advice for other couples in similar situations? “Make beautiful babies, have fun, and you will figure everything else out.”

Originally published in the October 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

Style: Polina Shabelnikova
Hair: Gael Sastre
Hair assistant: Iris Felix
Makeup: Jeizel Bautista
Style assistant: Lana
Producer: Ankita Chandra
Production assistant: Thanaaz Hisham
Location: One&Only The Palm 

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