Does anything remain of ‘traditional’ Dubai? If we’re looking for ‘ancient heritage’ and ‘Arab culture’, the answer is: not much. The emirate has invested so much in becoming the business hub of the Middle East that the symbols of its past have been swept aside with little ceremony. Bye-bye, little port on the Persian Gulf whose fortune was initially established thanks to pearl diving. Bye-bye Bedouin culture with its heavy wool tents and desert camel drivers. But here and there, the authorities have been looking to reconstruct some vestiges of the past, as if prompted by overdue remorse and the fear of losing track of their history.
Al Bastakiya, the ersatz-authentic old quarter
Take Al Bastakiya, for example. This ersatz-authentic quarter recreated on the left bank of Dubai Creek, the short waterway that splits the historic centre in two, has brought back the sand and coral houses of early inhabitants. The Dubai Museum in the old Al Fahidi Fort is worth visiting, especially for its interesting reconstruction of everyday life in bygone days. Even the ‘souks’ (spices, gold...) have a clean and shiny side that can’t but disappoint those who have spent time in their equivalents in Istanbul, Fez or Marrakech. Madinat Jumeirah takes the ‘not-a-real-bazaar’ prize. This newly created quarter near the Burj al Arab claims a 100% marketing concept with canals, pedestrian docks, terraced restaurants and ‘Arab market-style’ shops. While there’s nothing unpleasant about it, business is very clearly business and tourists whose travel agencies lead them there are fleeced with a smile.
Crossing the Creek by abra
Those looking for tradition in Dubai are more likely to find it in the backstreets and old quarters. There’s a marked contrast between futuristic projects the likes of Sheikh Zayed Road, Palm Jumeirah and Dubai Marina, and the market-square effervescence of ‘Old’ Dubai, incredibly multi-ethnic and animated until nightfall.
The Deira Quarter, right bank of the Creek, 9 p.m. After taking the traditional wooden boat called abra (1 dirham per person; the boat leaves when twenty passengers have embarked) to cross the river, we find ourselves in the midst of the city’s biggest souk. It may be late, but the place is packed with a colourful crowd. This time of night along the interlaced pedestrian alleys, tourists are few and far between but there is a multitude of immigrants, businesspeople, salespeople, buyers, middlemen, wholesalers and porters.
Vendors from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and beyond
Busy in their bric-a-brac shops and stands, Indian vendors arrange stacks of tee-shirts made in China. A plump Afghan wearing a djellaba and a salt-and-pepper beard sits on a carpet outside, awaiting his regular customers. From within a shop resounds the laughter of Somali women bedecked in brightly coloured robes. They’ve come from Mogadishu to buy cloth and embroideries to sell in their shops back home. Nearby, a Nigerian merchant is on the pavement surrounded by boxes of household appliances that he’s energetically grouping together for shipping. Remarkably sure of themselves, a few African women squat near heaps of gold-coloured bracelets, negotiating prices with ease. Smiling and insistent, Pakistani vendors try to unload pashminas – genuine or fake – on the day’s last European tourists. Bengali porters seated in snack shacks wolf down samosas so they can unload newly arrived trucks with some food in their bellies. The smell of curry permeates the air.
This is the real Dubai, a melting-pot teeming with people of all origins; a business crossroad between China and the Mediterranean where East, West and the Arab world all join forces.
Old dhows from Iran
Next morning we walk up the right bank of the Creek. We can’t quite make out the riverbank across the water, as the quays are covered in mountains of boxes, electronics, tyres, plastic products, bags of food and so on. All are ready to be loaded onto dhows, old painted wood boats docked two or three deep that have arrived from Iran and the Bandar Abbas port a few hours away by sea. That’s where a share of the products made in the Emirates or China and imported into Iran enter the territory of the Mullahs. On board are sailors clothed in rags, their skin the colour of copper, their smooth midriffs bare, waiting. On the docks, Emirati merchants in dishdasha deal with import-export formalities, official documents in hand and sparkling new SUVs by their sides.
Abayas and bakhoor
Further along, in the shopping ‘inferno’ that is Deira, we find the Naif souk. The term ‘souk’ is rather exaggerated, given that the two-storey bazaar - with escalators - resembles a shopping centre. Never mind. Set in the heart of a quarter inhabited by a good number of African immigrants, this gallery specialised in Oriental perfumes and clothing is frequented by groups of veiled Emirati women in black abayas, ever mysterious, buying the latest fabric or musk à la mode. Clouds of bakhoor, a powerful incense used as a home fragrance, fill our nostrils. Everyone seems to be affected by shopping madness in this Dubai ‘souk’ where tourists are rare.
Hindi Lane, the Hindu heart
Bur Dubai quarter, left bank, late morning. Near the overly touristy ‘souk’ of the same name, we unexpectedly happen upon Hindi Lane. This secret alley holds the hidden heart of ‘Indian’ Dubai. In shops owned by their compatriots, Hindus with red tilaks marking their foreheads haggle over offerings destined for the family deity before continuing on to their temples. We could be in Mumbai or Chennai. On the other side of Al Fahidi Street there’s Pakistan, where wholesalers from Karachi and Islamabad have their shops and bolts of fabric stand piled high in the smallest of spaces. It’s nearly 2 p.m.; the call to prayer peals out from the neighbouring mosque.
Fish preparers from the Indian sub-continent
A completely different atmosphere fills the fish market in this early afternoon. The semi-covered market holds dozens of lines of stands brimming with seafood from the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman: tuna, translucent white prawns, green-clawed crabs and many unidentifiable creatures. Nearly all of the ‘little hands’ busy scaling or selling fish in this market come from the Indian subcontinent. Their regulatory white and blue shirts make them easy to recognize. Like in every fish market everywhere, the background ‘music’ is provided by the hubbub and insults that fill the air.
Sharjah, guardian of traditions
Our ‘tradition’ experience continues in the neighbouring territories of Sharjah and Ajman, easily reached by bus from Dubai. Super air-conditioned coaches weighted down with Indians and Bangladeshis slip into the traffic, passing an uninterrupted series of buildings en route for these two entities of the UAE, reached in under one hour. Sharjah is the most traditionalistic of the seven emirates. Alcohol is strictly forbidden, unlike in Dubai, and the mosques are picture perfect. Wedged in the city, a 19th century fort rebuilt twenty years ago stands guard near an extensively restored ‘Heritage Area’. Near the obligatory fish market – more rustic than Dubai’s – young Pakistanis play cricket on a vast sandlot along the dhow docks. As proof of its deep traditional roots, Sharjah will be the Arab world’s Islamic Culture Capital 2014.
Ajman and its Punjabi tailors
A final stop in Ajman completes our tour. Dubai and its urban ‘frenzy’ seem very far away, even if luxury hotels are now cropping up along the sea front here. This coastal line-up of resorts fancied by Russian tourists screens a centre city where the inevitable gold market has pride of place, plus a nicely renovated fort and a brocade souk whose little clothing shops are all run by Punjabi tailors. Sharing a cup of tea among the multi-coloured fabrics is a reminder that if Dubai and the Emirates have become the world’s showcase, it is also thanks to these men and women whose rituals and customs offer a journey within a journey.
Tourism portal of the City of Dubai: www.definitelydubai.com
The official Dubai Emirate website: www.dubaitourism.ae
Where to stay
Ahmedia Heritage Guest House
Al-Ras Deira, Dubai
A charming, comfortable little hotel in the heart of old Dubai, Deira quarter. Rooms are listed at approximately 700 AED but prices are negotiable according to season and vacancies.
Pullman Dubai Deira City Center
PO Box 61871, Dubai
After a complete renovation and modern makeover, this former Sofitel reopened as a member of the Pullman group. 370 rooms. Snack bar, restaurant, cocktail bar, gym-fitness room, spa and pool-bar-terrace (8th floor). Excellent welcome and services, despite the very urban setting. Metro: Deira City Centre (four stations from old Deira).
Hotel Fairmont The Palm
Palm Jumeirah, Dubai
The building’s massive contemporary Arab architecture houses 381 fine rooms and suites on ten floors. Premium service and facilities. Seven restaurant options, four pools, beach, fitness centre, spa and much more.