With its plethora of modem developments Dubai is one of the last places you’d associate with history, but cultural-minded visitors searching for traditional Arabia can still find some hidden gems…
Look carefully amid Dubai’s avant-garde present and its pervasive emphasis on all matters futuristic and you’ll find its Arabian past. The enterprising Gulf state continues to display a brazen youthfulness as befits its short history – the UAE federation only celebrated its 37th birthday at the end of last year – but scratch beneath the glitz and the glamour and it’s still possible to find traditional Arabia.
With the possible exception of Shanghai, nowhere has grown quite as quickly as Dubai. When you stand by the waters of the Creek today, with the gleaming tower blocks behind and modem SUVs pounding the adjacent roads, it’s hard to believe that the city has transformed itself from a humble, laid-back trading settlement into a rapidly expanding modem metropolis in the space of just 40 years.
Black-and-white photos of the city from the early 1980s show the solitary Dubai World Trade Centre surrounded by desert, adjacent to the Sheikh Zayed Road which was a two-lane highway in each direction. Today, even when driving past it, you can miss the centre, dwarfed by high-rises on either side and a maze of lanes, roundabouts and overpasses.
Royal photographer Noor Ali Rashid has witnessed all the changes of the last five decades first hand and was one of the first to document the city in the pre-oil era. On his arrival in 1958 phone, electricity and communication facilities were being introduced by British companies and the country had no proper roads.
“Sometimes when there was high tide you couldn’t even go by car. Taxis – which were Land Rovers rejected by the British army – got stuck all the time.” Today the cars tend to get stuck too, only in rows upon rows of crawling traffic, as the city struggles to keep pace with its meteoric growth.
For those looking to rewind the clock a good historical starting point is the Dubai Museum in Bur Dubai. Housed in the Al Fahidi Fort, which dates back to the early 19th century, it is believed to be Dubai’s oldest standing building. The fort was originally constructed to defend the city’s early residents from warlike tribes in the region. Today, it welcomes all nationalities with open arms.
Outwardly, it’s not a fort with perhaps the same visual impact as the ones that dominate Oman’s landscape across the border, but not to worry because its interiors are the principal appeal.
Once you step inside and head underground, you’ll find a labyrinth of corridors containing black-and-white prints of the Creek in the 1960s, before oil changed the face of the region forever, as well as a range of military and cultural items such as antique pearl diving tools; copper, alabaster, and clay artifacts; antique khanjars and traditional musical instruments.
A short walk away from the museum is The Majlis Gallery in the attractive Bastakia district. In the early 1900s the area was home to merchants and their families and the Bastakia’s numerous wind towers were like a host of upraised hands welcoming visitors to port or bidding them safe passage as they sailed out to sea.
The square towers are divided diagonally to form four triangular shafts that catch any passing breeze, pushing it down the tower and then sucking it up again, creating a welcome draught in the interior of the building.
When Alison Collins came to Dubai in 1976 to work as an interior designer she fell in love with the country, its architecture and particularly the ambiance of the old wind tower houses. In 1978, with the help of two Iranian tea importers and an Egyptian curtain maker, Alison and her husband secured the lease on villa number 19, Bastakia, Bur Dubai.
Here, over the next 10 years, they raised their three young children and played host to many informal soirees in their ‘majlis’- hence the name of the gallery – introducing artists both professional and amateur to a somewhat culturally bereft community.
Twenty years ago, the Bastakia area looked set to be demolished but a reprieve was granted and the Majlis Gallery re-opened in 1989 and, to this day, has served as a forum for promoting local and international works.
Close by, the Dubai Heritage & Diving Villages and adjacent Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House also offer interesting insights into the city’s past. One of the oldest residences in the city, the Sheikh’s house dates back to the late 19th century and was constructed using traditional preparation techniques, while large wind towers helped keep the home cool even on the hottest days.
When the Al-Maktoum family first lived in the home, it boasted unparalleled panoramic views of the Arabian Gulf, but today the city’s ruling royal family is housed in palaces, living in the kind of opulent comforts their ancestors could hardly have dreamed of, while the view, like everything in Dubai, has changed dramatically.
The Heritage & Diving Center focuses on the Emirate’s cultural and social development in three fields: architecture, pearl diving and maritime. Displays and exhibits include a Bedouin tent village, an ancient armory and a wide range of excavated items from a nearby archaeological sight.
The Heritage Village is usually where most visitors can catch a glimpse of the past and see women in traditional abayas and burqas (mask) preparing pancakes on the open stove, a blacksmith at work, or Emiratis dancing and playing music.
While the bulk of the city’s archaeological finds arc housed indoors, drive across town to nearby Satwa and you can find one of the Arabian Pennisula’s most important archaeological sites, which provides another intriguing ancient-meets-modem juxtaposition, set amongst a backdrop of luxury villas and modem roads.
The ruins at Jumeirah date back to the sixth century, when the desert culture was making the transition to Islam. Past digs have uncovered the foundations of numerous stone homes, a storehouse, a souq (public market) area, and a variety of tools and everyday items such as pottery, glassware and metal coins.
The Al Shindagha district, which houses the Heritage and Diving Village, is also home to many of the city’s oldest mosques. Dubai Municipality is in a race against time to preserve many of them though and it’s not just the harsh climate, when temperatures can top 50 degrees in the height of summer, which is causing headaches.
“One of our biggest obstacles is termites,” says Rashad Mohammed Bukhash, Director of Architectural Heritage Projects. “There is always a struggle between maintaining history and culture and moving forward, but this is the history, the heritage, the tradition of the land and it’s important to protect it.”
The municipality has set a goal of renovating 260 historic buildings in Dubai by 2015. The largest of the six mosques in this district, Al Shoukh, located next to Shaikh Saeed’s House, was built in 1897 out of palm fronds and rebuilt with sandstone in 1964, before receiving another restoration touch in 2002.
The mosque has been designed in a way that, even during the summer, prayers can be held on the roof where it is cooler. Standing at the west of the district Otaibat Mosque, built in 1914, is among the most decorated and the top of each pillar is crowned by a leaf design.
Other mosques in the area include Al Mulla, built in 1920 – the only one of the six with a minaret, Hareb Bin Hareb, Al Mur Bin Heraize (built in 1900), which has a large round well in its courtyard, and Bin Zayed, which was built in 1964.
Dubai still has that ‘land that time forgot’ feel when you visit the Bur Dubai and Deira Souks, which can be found on either side of the Creek waterway. To augment that old world experience you can dart between the two on one of the innumerable abras, traditional wooden boats which ferry tourists and residents across the creek, while taking photographs of the wooden dhows (ships) which still ply the waters between the Gulf, Africa and the Subcontinent.
Every visitor has to tick off the Gold Souk, a dazzling linear walkway containing all manner of earrings, rings, necklaces, bracelets and pendants, which is close to the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Deira district.
At any given time over 25 tonnes of gold is purportedly on display in Dubai’s jewellery shop windows – little wonder that the city earned the soubriquet ‘City of Gold’ for its trading of the precious metal.
The joy of shopping in the souks is as much verbal as it is visual, since shoppers are encouraged to ‘haggle’ for the best prices. As a general guide make a first offer of 50 per cent of the quoted price. Once the shopkeeper has accepted your offer you are expected to pay.
Nearby the Gold Souk are various other souks specialising in such things as spices and perfumes, as well as textiles and fish.
The spice souk is an aromatic treat, selling dried lemons, cumin, coriander seeds, cinnamon, rose petals, incense (including frankincense) and other pungent Arabic seasonings out of open sacks. A covered souk selling everything from household goods to toys can also be found on Al Sabkha Road in Deira.
The textile souk, which faces on to the Creek next to the main abra station in Bur Dubai, has plenty of small tailors displaying colourful rolls of cloth – including a stall selling finely embroidered shoes, known as mojris, which are sometimes made from camel hide. It is here you’ll most likely find some traditional wears to take home as souvenirs of old Dubai. For who knows how much of traditional Arabia will remain in another 40 years.
WHEN TO GO
Dubai’s peak tourism season runs between October and March, when the temperatures are at their most pleasant (20-35 degrees celsius), although with the growth in attractions, and year round air-conditioning in the hotels and malls, more visitors are coming even in the height of summer (35-50 degrees celsius).
WHERE TO STAY
Burj Al Arab – The world’s tallest hotel, built to resemble the sail of a dhow (a type of Arabian vessel) offers decadence like no other. Tel: +971 4 3017777, www.buri-al-arab.com
Park Hyatt Dubai – A luxury waterfront retreat adjacent to the world-famous Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club. Tel: +971 4 602 1234, http://dubai.park.hyatt. com
Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa – A unique desert experience within easy reach of Dubai. Tel: +971 4 8096100, www.jumeirahbabalshams.com
WHAT TO SEE
Majlis Gallery – Open: 0900-2000, Saturday-Thursday; closed Friday. Tel: +971 4 3536233, www.themajlisgallery.com
Dubai Museum, Al Fahidi Fort – Open: 0830-1930, daily; Friday 1330-1930. During Ramadan: 0900-1700, Saturday-Thursday; Friday 1400-700. Tel: +971 4 3531862
Sheikh Saeed’s House – Open: 0800-2030, daily; Friday 1530-2130. During Ramadan: 0900700, Saturday-Thursday; Friday 1400-1700. Tel: + 971 4 3937139
Heritage & Diving Village – Open: 0800-2200, Saturday-Thursday; Friday 0800-1100 and 1600-2200. During Ramadan: 2100-2400, Saturday-Thursday. Tel: + 971 4 3937151