A peak into Dubai’s historical background and the vibrant art and culture scene that paints a bright new picture for this Emirati Island .
In a non-descript lane of Al Musallah Road, in Dubai, a modest eatery is bustling with frenzied waiters scurrying around and serving Persian delicacies. The Al Ustadi, Special Kebab restaurant is a 41-year-old iconic property, off the tourist radar, unless you are fortunate enough to mingle with a local. The walls are plastered with photographs of patrons — images of Bollywood stars like Shahrukh Khan and Deepika Padukone intermingle with those of ordinary mortals. This is one place, where irrespective of your social standing; you are seated next to each other to promote the concept of community eating. Our host, Mohammed Kazim, a young Emirati entrepreneur (with a string of prestigious degrees from Boston University, US and University of London) may be traditionally attired but speaks in soft, well-bred tones. He was our guide for the day, eager to showcase the Dubai he grew up in and enthusiastically exposes us to the vibrant souks and hidden gems in this glittering city.
A hearty late afternoon lunch, comprising succulent kebabs in various permutations, gives us ample fuel for a guided walk as we meander through polished roads amidst mild rains.
Armed with large umbrellas, our group of five that also includes another local, Munira Al Bastaki, our host from Tourism Dubai, we venture onto the streets, soaking in the old city sights as we amble into the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood. This traditional neighbourhood reflects the Emirati lifestyle prevalent from the early 19th century to the late 1970s. There are winding pathways that expose you to barajeels or buildings with high air towers, aligned side by side, and homes that display no front windows, but large inner courtyards. One such Emirati home has now been converted into a quaint boutique hotel that offers guests the much-needed privacy amidst a restored luxurious setting. A bare courtyard that is embellished with a protruding tree, that has seen the test of times, serves the purpose of providing shade to its inmates during scorching summers. The entrance is flanked by a majlis area, where the male members discreetly bonded with their friends. A more private inner sanctum is reserved for the demure ladies..
As you step out into yet another winding pathway, you find many quaint cafés and little stores that peak out of fascinating corners, all subtly clamouring for your attention. This location is close to the spectacular Dubai Creek, whose sheer beauty comes alive at dusk amidst the sounds of the Azaan on one side and boats parked for the night on the dark waters. Traders who visit from lands afar, rest their tired bodies on these boats at night, while they wholesomely engage in business by day. You can opt to travel by an abra (boat) to commute between Deira and Bur Dubai and the ride though short gives you a bird’s eye view of the skyline at night.
The Gold souk is brimming with activity as stores display chunks of gold to attract buyers. It is a fascinating walk as it gives you insights into the culture of the locals and expats, who head here to haggle at their favourite stores.
After walking endlessly, we head to the hip Mad Taylors restaurant, a plush new hangout in the famed Jumeira locale, with art decor interiors. Art has become a way of life in Dubai now and this is showcased here in the form of eye catching artworks by artist Fad Jokhadar that gels with the eclectic fusion cuisine that we savoured on a Wednesday night.
After a refreshing night of rest, our sojourn the next morning saw us heading to the Dubai Frame by the metro rail, which like any international city ensures that we don’t get caught up in traffic. Considered an architectural landmark, this building in Zabeel Park with a strikingly large Frame, termed, “the biggest picture frame on the planet” by The Guardian offers panoramic views of the Burj Khalifa and an opportunity to view the world below from a strategically placed central glass pane on the top most floor.
Dubai is bustling with art activities. There are numerous galleries and installations at almost all prominent neighbourhoods in the city. The Al Serkal Avenue was an industrial compound that has now been converted into a fashionable art hub. Two art galleries run by Indians display same thought provoking works. The Ishaara Art Foundation, which focuses on South Asian Art and run by NRI Smita Prakash and 1x1 by Malini Gulrajani, brings Indian Modern and Contemporary Art to Dubai. From here we head to the Jamil Art Centre, located in Jaddaf Waterfront which is an imposing art space with an extensive research library overlooking the Dubai Creek. This year-old property stands testimony to the Emiratis love for artistic innovations. This three-storey multi-disciplinary space has been designed in such a manner that it enables flexible settings depending on the artist’s requirements. An evening spent exploring art works and seeking gratification in the varied themes ends with a pre-dinner languid sojourn near the creek before we head to another traditional restaurant, Madfoon Al Saddah for a sit-down local meal.
Friday is when the weekend begins in Dubai so a trip to the Dubai Design District saw a calm morning with most people staying indoors. As the name implies this venue is solely dedicated to promote design be it interiors, fashion, art and functions as a unique platform for the creative merger of all things visual.
Our lunch was at Munira’s grandparents’ home, where three generations of the family hosted us to a lavish traditional meal. The mansion done up in Italian designs with French crockery was an insight into the Emirati lifestyle. And contrary to the perception of locals being clannish, we witnessed the warmth and hospitality that was reminiscent of India. After a languid afternoon, we headed to Sketch café, where we attempted to paint over coffee cups, while we soaked in some more art before heading out to the Dubai Mall for some chill out time. Dinner at the local favourite Parkers saw us gorge on the must have delicacy a Truffle burger, sinfully delicious but worth every bite, just like this trip, an indulgent experience in art!
— The writer was invited by Dubai's Department of Toursim and Commerce Marketing