Dubai isn’t just about muggy, oppressive summers, yellow sands, glitzy malls and glamorous high rises in a concrete jungle. That is only a uni-dimensional, not to forget,incomplete perspective of what this emirate is about. Yes, UAE history may not be as old as Europe’s. You won’t walk through opulent corridors of four hundred year old castles, nor will you see grand museums with art curated from the renaissance periods. If that is the kind of ‘history’ you’re after, you will end up disappointed. However, if you’re prepared to discover a land of beautiful dichotomies, Dubai can and will certainly stun you. Dry deserts co-exist alongside wet beaches, glamorous malls exist alongside quaint souks, ultra modern lives in harmony with conservative traditional. I got a flavour of some of these alluring contrasts through my discovery of Al Bastakiya.
Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood or Al Bastakiya as it is more commonly known is a historic district within Dubai, which dates back to the 1890s. In the 1980s much of the neighborhood was destroyed to make way for the development modern commercial establishments. A decade later, Dubai Municipality directed that the remaining parts of this neighborhood also be demolished. It was then, that British architect Rayner Otter, started a campaign to preserve the area. His efforts paid off. The demolition of Al Bastakiya was eventually cancelled and, a project was initiated for its restoration. Thank God for mercies like that, because in current times, the nighbourhood presents a dimension of Dubai that, though lesser known, is far removed from the any popular notion of what the emirate stands for.
Al Bastakiya is a quaint and charming step into Dubai’s cultural past. The many meandering lanes leading into the district are dotted with restored homes, art galleries, traditional cafés, and boutique hotels.
My discovery started at the charming Coffee Museum spread over two floors. The ground level contains various antiques and artifacts that relate to any part of a ‘coffee experience’ – from berry picking to weighing, roasting, grinding, brewing and drinking – you name it! It also has on display coffee beans from the various coffee producing nations of the world. The first floor gives you access to a wide range of books and documentaries related to coffee and also has a pleasant lounge where you can enjoy your favourite brew.
The highlight for me though, was the experience of an Ethiopian coffee ceremony – a ritualised form of making and drinking coffee which is a very recognizable part of Ethiopian culture. A lovely lady, from that region sat there, first brewing the beans over an open flame, then grinding them with a mortar and pestle and finally passing the grind through a sieve several times, before finally brewing it in a boiling pot called the jebena. She then poured the coffee for her guests into small, handleless cups and served it with a cube of sugar. This accompanied by popcorn is exactly as it is served in Ethiopia. AED 10 seemed a small price to pay, to be able to witness and experience such a humble, yet beautiful ritual.
After the coffee museum, I walked through the pleasantly old-fashioned lanes and picturesque corners of Al Bastakiya. Taking a pause every now and then to admire ‘pretty-little-things’ isn’t time wasted in my books. To that extent, the many art galleries and themed cafe’s of the district did not disappoint! From street art, to local and contemporary art, origamy, calligraphy and creative installations, there is a world within these alleys, that is waiting to be discovered. Some of these galleries also host art-house film screenings. I have never returned from Bastakiya without discovering something new, that I haven’t seen in previous explorations.
What is getting to know a culture without getting to know its food? The many traditional cafes nestled in the area, are a treat to the palate. On my various trips now, I have indulged in a range of eats, from falafels, to Arabic breads, varieties of humus, kibbehs and the (hold your breath…) camel kebabs. And oh, no meal is complete unless you’ve washed it down with the Saffron Karak Chai or the refreshing lemon and mint iced drink!
What I missed the first time, but discovered in one of my subsequent visits, is the last remaining section of the Old City Wall. Built in 1800 from gypsum and coral, the defensive wall surrounded the old town of Bur Dubai, which included Al Fahidi Fort and the old Grand Mosque. Later, it was broken down. There isn’t much to it, but it is a symbolic structure, representing the status and independence of the community it once embraced.
A short walk from from Al Bastakiya past The Dubai Museum, I sauntered into Souk Al Kabir – home to predominantly South Asian population, restaurants and shops. Walking down the crowded trails of this old market place was (and every time, still is) a sensorial experience. The colourful visuals, the heady aroma of raw spices, sweet-smelling fragrant flowers and incenses all combined together, the hustle bustle and sounds of bargaining, all come together to create a market experience that plush city malls are far removed from.
Past the old creek, I walked down to the 220 year old, Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum home – the very home of the Al Maktoum ruling family till 1958. What was the birthplace and residence of Dubai’s present day monarch, today serves as a museum to exhibit Dubai’s history. It displays a rare and varied collection of historic photographs of the royal family and how life in Dubai has drastically changed in current times. The experience of walking through the sections of this beautiful home and capturing memories in the evening blue-hour was one that will linger in the mind for many years to come.
Walking out back on the main roads of the Al Fahidi neighbourhood, i couldn’t help wonder, how deeply meaningful the popular catch-phrase #mydubai is. The city is almost anything you want it to be. Whichever lens you look at the city from, you will find something in it that speaks to your soul, something that will allow you to carry away charmed, your own version and interpretation of Dubai.