My husband (a two years’ resident of Dubai) asked if I could take him to see a more traditional side of Dubai last week. A subtle realization dawned on me that to the naked eye Dubai’s culture can sometimes seem like an elusive mirage to chase.
I didn’t want to take him to a museum; I am not entirely convinced that’s where the emirate’s heritage resides yet. Instead, I managed to interest him in a walking tour of Al Bastakiya Quarter, organized by Sheikh Mohammad Center for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU). It is one of the government’s admirable efforts to bridge the gap between the past, present, and future.
That would be a good place to trace that pre-petrol, glitz and glam story I figured. At one of the earliest trade settlements in the UAE, which holds many of its valuable inception memories.
Al Bastakiya got its name from the Arab residents who migrated back here from Bastak in Iran in the 1890s. More importantly, it’s where the best-preserved examples of traditional courtyard houses can be seen today.
Side note – I secretly wanted to feed my Barjeel (wind catcher) fascination, which dates back to my early childhood. I clearly remember going through a Barjeel phase during art class around grade five.
So here we go…
10am on a Saturday, 8 of us followed Walid (our local guide) through the winding narrow alleys (Sikeek) of old Dubai. “These earth-toned buildings made of coral, mud, gypsum and palm wood were built so close to each other in order to maintain family ties and the sense of a unified community”, he said.
Visually and informatically, this tour was proving very useful for even myself. Born, raised, and lived nowhere else for 30 years apparently isn’t qualification enough to become an expert on a place’s heritage and history.
And here is my favorite part – “Before electricity, the beautiful wind towers adorning these houses were the eco-friendly version of central air conditioning systems; and old Persian invention that funnels cool air throughout the entire building” Walid added.
I think that’s where he lost me for the rest of the walk. Angel (my husband) on the other hand was satisfactorily getting his Dubai Heritage fill.
As the tour neared its end, we entered one of the houses for a final chat and some Q&A. We relaxed, Arabic coffee and dates in hand. And were reminded that placing the cup on the floor before draining its content is fatally bad Bedouin etiquette.
See, I don’t know that kind of information because I was born a full decade after dining and coffee tables arrived in the country. That’s light years in Dubai time!