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The future of Old Dubai

1 January 2015

Words: Rasha Al-Duwaisan

Images: REM

The area beside Dubai Creek, known to many as old Dubai, will forever be rooted in the city’s past, but, boasting an abundance of creative cultural enterprises, it is now looking towards the future

There’s a place in Dubai where seagulls surf on gusts of wind drifting over an expanse of green water – where wooden ships still lie at anchor. Here, sprays of salt, sweat and gasoline blend with the smoke of agar wood as the same breeze makes its way through the adjacent souk. Further inland, a cluster of wind towers trap the air and send it into the once occupied rooms of the dwellings below. 

This area beside Dubai Creek is where the city began. It’s where tribesmen first settled and transformed a small fishing village into a thriving community of pearl traders. It’s also where, in 1892, low tax burdens attracted merchants from around the world to exchange their goods and establish businesses. 

“It was like a blueprint for Dubai Mall,” laughs Nasif Kayed, the man who runs the Sheikh Mohammed Centre For Cultural Understanding, an enterprise that offers walks through the neighbourhood as part of its superb cultural programme. “When you go to a mall you can choose products from many different countries. In the souk here before, you could do the same. You would find merchants from India, China, Iran, Malaysia, Indonesia, everywhere, selling their goods. There were some things you could find in Dubai that you couldn’t find anywhere else in the region.” 

The cosmopolitan legacy of the era has persisted ever since and continues to permeate the area’s street life. One bankside path takes you to markets reminiscent of Mumbai, where busy hands put together strings of marigold and offerings of milk, bananas and rasgulla. Around the corner, a Persian textile vendor stands a stone’s throw away from an Egyptian electronics supplier and a Korean man selling imitation handbags. 

Scenes such as these reveal the full spectrum of Dubai’s evolution, where the old, new, foreign and local coexist in a chaotic symbiosis. Over the years, this fusion has attracted the attention of artists, writers, architects and designers, and, in 2010, the Dubai government appointed the Dubai Culture And Arts Authority to repurpose the area’s historic quarters into cultural enclaves. Dubai Culture now manages Al Fahidi District and the Heritage Village at Al Shindagha, where they lease plots for independent creative enterprises and provide studio space for their own initiatives.


Majlis Gallery

Alison Collins was, in many ways, a trailblazer. The founder and owner of Majlis Gallery was one of the first to recognise the area’s creative potential. Arriving in Dubai in 1976 as an interior designer, she spent her mornings commuting across the creek by boat for one of her assignments. She fell in love with the surrounding area and aspired to live in one of the wind-towered houses of Bastakiya (now Al Fahidi District). 

Soon enough, a family of tea importers in the souk helped her secure a lease to the beautiful home that would become Dubai’s first art gallery. “It all happened so naturally,” she says of the chance encounters that led to its beginnings. “It was a very small community back then and a wonderful artist named Julian Barrow knocked on my door asking for the lady who he heard loved art. Three weeks later we took all the furniture out of the majlis, our living room, to put up an exhibition of his paintings.” 

Collins went on to host artists informally for ten years before the house became an official art space in 1989. Since then, spontaneity has continued to shape the way she manages many of her events. “The catchphrase these days seems to be ‘pop-up’,” she laughs, “but I’ve been popping up for years.”

XVA Hotel and Gallery

“You could always come for a staycation,” says XVA owner Mona Hauser when I tell her that I would choose to stay at her hotel if I didn’t live in Dubai. It’s not a bad idea. There’s something about the space that takes me to another place altogether. There are moments when I imagine I’m in the home of a Bahraini pearl merchant or the hacienda of an eccentric Ecuadorian sculptor. Hauser only adds fuel to the fire.

“When I first came here, it was really wild. There was no sidewalk, only sand with goats running around. I even heard that a man used to tie his horse to that tree,” she says, pointing to a trunk that’s sprouted out of the courtyard’s tented roof. The stylish interiors and modern art installations amplify the surreal atmosphere even further. 

XVA is one of Dubai’s finest contemporary art galleries and always has the quirkiest pieces on rotation. A doll’s petticoat straddles the ceiling of one entrance, while menacing mannequins in graphite suits guard another. “XVA is very particular, almost magical” says Julien Famchon, a graphic novelist invited to live and work there for two months by Dubai Culture and the Institut Francais. “Plus the standard of art and artists here is really something else.”

Mawaheb

“Are you the yoga instructor?” asks Alex Loveday, as I walk into the courtyard of Mawaheb, an art school for adults with special needs. I am tempted to say yes just so I can stay. I’m not the only one who feels that way – a bird has built its nest on a fan above the portico and doesn’t look like it plans on leaving. 

“We shouldn’t turn that on!” warns Wemmy De Maaker, the formidable force responsible for transforming the Al Fahidi District house into a vibrant capsule of talent. De Maaker had worked as a nurse for people with special needs in The Netherlands for 18 years before moving to Dubai. He arrived with a number of ideas. “There are some beautiful schools here, but there’s a cut-off age at 18,” she explains. “Many of my artists were at home, depressed.” 

Saddened by the situation, she decided to offer an alternative option for them and “chose art because it speaks a universal language”. The results are astounding. The paintings that cover the courtyard walls are a rare blend of controlled skill and unfettered creativity. 

Art instructor Gulshan Kavarana makes sure that artists have a theme to work on, while encouraging their trademark tendencies to surface. Last year they painted a series inspired by Frida Kahlo, a woman with her own disabilities, which ended up on display at one of the top galleries in the city.

Tashkeel

The monochrome maze of passages in Al Fahidi District is not easy to navigate. It’s easy to walk in circles and end up exactly where you started. Fortunately, an eye-catching mural lets you know if you’re moving in the right direction. “I wanted to add some colour to the walls,” says Ruben Sanchez, the Spanish street artist currently in residence at Tashkeel, a creative collective with subsidiary studio space in the district. 

“The mural is one of the first things I did in Dubai,” he says. “I was fresh and absorbing the culture. I started to research the area and tried to recreate in my mind how life would have looked like back in the day. I imagined a guy playing the oud, having coffee with cats around.” His spirited and skilful rendition encourages passersby to reconsider their surroundings, something another Tashkeel artist has accomplished in a very different way. 

In his guidebook Never Forget, Emirati illustrator Khalid Mezaina invites people to look “beyond Dubai’s tallest towers” to the “true heart of this young city”. He takes readers through Satwa, Souk Naif and the Hindu temple, asking them to add their own graffiti, patterns and classifieds to his black and white depictions of street life. In this way, he encourages us to keep interacting with these spaces and keep them in our memory.

Frying Pan Adventures

Arva Ahmed had doubts about taking her culinary tours to the creek when she first launched Frying Pan Adventures several years ago. She caters to a crowd that avoids tourist traps and was initially discouraged by the signs of change. “They are selling Chinese toys in the Spice Souk!” she cries in frustration before she describing the simplicity of the area when her family first moved here in 1989. After a closer look, however, she reconsidered.

“This place has so much to offer if you know what to avoid,” she says, and has since created an itinerary that past participants have described as the most authentic experience they’ve had in Dubai. It starts at the Deira Fish Market, where everything from shark to shrimp is smacked, stacked and sliced. After an abra ride across the creek, the group has an Emirati breakfast at Creekside followed by a visit to the Spice Souk. 

A highlight of the experience is the deliciously obscure insight that Arva literally brings to the table. “The souk is not just for spices. It’s also for a host of random ingredients like beetle cocoons and wasp galls. Many have medicinal purposes,” she says, explaining that she reveals these purposes with a cleverly crafted game of SPINGO, or spice bingo. “If you win you get a gift voucher for a discount on raw Yemeni honey,” she continues. “It’s a way to get people to go back to the souk!”

Creekside

Something about sitting on the bankside platform at Creekside makes everything seem more palpable. I’m seated at the corner closest to the water and feel like I’m playing a gargantuan game of Battleship, where my hands can somehow touch the battered boats that sweep by every five minutes. Even my taste buds feel distended, probably because the food is so good. The inventive takes on traditional Emirati dishes teem with flavour, featuring ingredients such as saffron, date syrup, rosewater, truffles and cumin-spiced aioli. 

The menu of activities is just as stimulating. Creekside is above all a cultural café and hosts a number of events that centre on architecture, heritage, art, design and contemporary culture. Activities range from talks on social entrepreneurship and poetry to workshops on graffiti and Arabic typography. 

The walls themselves are also strong talking points, displaying the photographs of Wilfred Thesiger from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford University. The images reveal scenes of the Creek in the 1940s and provide a fascinating indicator of how the place has changed.

Dubai International Writers’ Centre

It is Saturday morning and an international cast of characters has come together under the tented enclosure of a house in Shindagha. Accents abound as Arabic, English, Hindi, Swedish and Romanian bounce off the walls of the historic venue. We are here to listen to the stories of David Heard and Frauke Heard-Bey, a former petroleum engineer and historian who settled in Abu Dhabi after their marriage in the 1960s. 

“I remember when the banks of the creek were made of sand,” says Heard, “and when the abra would take you to the front door of the dentist.” This was one of the first events to be held at the centre, the latest offshoot of the Emirates Literature Foundation. Others have included an evening of Nabataea poetry and a writing masterclass by post-modernist maestro Ben Okri. 

“This is a place where writers can meet, where young talents are born and nourished,” says Abdulla Al Shaer, the director of the centre. We are seated in a majlis that overlooks the wind towers of the Heritage Village on one side and the waters of the creek on the other. “We find that many writers need to be removed from modern civilisation to be inspired,” he continues. To serve this end, the centre will sponsor a number of residencies, where established authors can think, write and enhance the skills of potential protégés.

SIKKA Art Fair

Every March the walkways of Al Fahidi District overflow with homegrown talent. SIKKA, the word for alleyway in Arabic, is an 11-day fair showcasing art, theatre, film and music produced by those born or based in the UAE. Established by Dubai Culture in 2011, it provides a platform for experimentation that continues to grow each year. 

Past programmes have included a series of workshops featuring Arabic calligraphy, film animation and origami among other mediums. A significant aspect of the occasion is the Open Studios exhibition, a debut display of works by those under the Artists-In-Residence programme. Formed as a partnership between Dubai Culture, Art Dubai, Delfina Foundation and Tashkeel, the residency sponsors five artists and one curator to work out of a designated house in Al Fahidi District for three months. 

At SIKKA, the artists invite visitors to their studios to reveal finished pieces or works in progress. Many of their projects have been site-specific. A dynamic example is a collection of wind towers created by the Turkish artist Deniz Uster. She reinterprets the architectural form into three renditions, one inspired by Dubai, another by Istanbul and a third by Glasgow. Using “reverse functionality” as her methodology, Uster repurposes the structures, “undressing them from their ‘capturing’ function and turning them into ‘disseminating’ monuments”. Her Glasgow wind tower housed a real tree growing out of a tyre. Above the tree, a foam cloud drenched in water created the illusion of rain in an otherwise dry Dubai spring season.

Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) Public Art Commission: InVisible

There’s an apocalyptic aura at the launch of the AFAC’s end of year commission, InVisible, at Al Shindagha. Maybe it’s the corrosive colour of the clouds or the boys in white playing football in the dust. Or perhaps it’s the installations themselves, the ominous and futuristic creatures that seem to emerge from their rustic surroundings. Vikram Divecha’s Boulder Plot is an impressive case in point. 

His assembly of gouged rocks appears like a congregation of behemoths, beasts the artist describes as “one-eyed cycloptic monsters”. Each one has survived blasts in the quarries of Fujairah, where explosives have failed to fully penetrate the cylindrical holes that have been drilled into them. The outcome is a contrast in form, where “mankind’s rational incisions” offset “the organic shapes of nature”. 

Alien Technology is another example of this contrast, whereby Kuwaiti artist Mona Al Qadiri has created a giant drill bit covered with iridescent paint. In an attempt to reconcile her alienation from Kuwait’s past, she sought to find a link between the sources of income that created two very different societies, namely pearl and oil. 

She discovered that they are made of the same colour and that pearls are simply a “lighter version of the same spectrum found in crude oil”. Her iridescent oil drill brings these connections to light and emerges as a mutant form of marine life that reminds us of the Gulf’s indelible links to the sea.

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