Something feels a little askew as I step outside onto the balcony at 3 am - the wind is blowing fervently, yet I feel like I'm standing right beside an exhaust, enveloped in unadulterated heat. I guess that's just the way Dubai is in June, even in the middle of the night. Along the murky horizon faint lights are aglow, the only suggestion of the skyscrapers that dominate Sheikh Zayed Road. Rhythmic pulses of light much higher than the rest of the hazy skyline emanate from the city's crowning glory, the Burj Khalifa. I've been to many of these buildings on previous trips, and feel a sense of boredom growing in me. Fighting off the jet lag, I sink back into bed, sinking even slower into slumber deep.
The following afternoon, deciding rather foolishly to brave the 40°C sun, I followed the path less travelled and opted to visit the city's heritage sites and traditional areas rather than the conventional tourist hotspots... on foot. These historical neighbourhoods are located not too far from where I was staying, a short twenty-minute walk. So, with earphones on and water bottle in hand, I begin my journey. Barely five minutes later, I cave and casually enter a roadside store to cool down. Forty minutes and multiple pit stops are what it really took to get there. Finally, with the mechanic hums of abras growing louder, the Dubai Creek materialises before me. My first thought: can I jump in for a quick cool-off? No? Aw shucks.
I walk north along the strangely blue creek, shimmering like topaz between the dull and dusty banks of Bur Dubai and Deira, towards Al Shindagha. In this neighbourhood I find a lost city, several sand-coloured courtyard houses huddled together, unimpeded by flocks of tourists. Surely other people must know about such an incredible place, or maybe I was the only one crazy enough to venture out in the heat at that time. Some of these buildings include the House of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, a former ruler of Dubai, and the House of Obaid and Juma bin Thani bin Majid. Today, they are open to the public as museums. Other houses are now mosques, restaurants or mostly galleries dedicated to different aspects of Dubai's culture, including art, architecture, calligraphy and poetry - part of the government's efforts in preserving the heritage.
What intrigued me most weren’t the contents of these houses, but the houses themselves. At the risk of sounding clichéd, I’m just going to put it out there – there’s something about the Arabian architecture and the late afternoon light that made everything appear magical. And let’s just say curiosity didn’t kill this cat as I took my time to tour through most of these spaces, including the ones that appeared to be closed, with feigned ignorance (ignorance is bliss) – it’s not my fault that some people don’t know how to fasten a lock. *
At the Juthoor Art Center, also known as the House of Sheikh Khalifa Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, I'm greeted by a rather confused looking security guard, probably not expecting company and wondering why I wasn't at home taking a nap like other normal people. Surprised that he’s speaking to me in Hindi, or quite possibly Urdu**, I’m told that there is only one room containing art. He directs me to a pair of petite wooden doors that I need to carefully squeeze through to enter a long and narrow (air-conditioned!) salon. The antiquated walls are covered in contemporary Chinese art. Though out of place, the bringing together of old and new, local and foreign is almost symbolic of how modernity and an integrated society drives and propels Dubai into the future.
Having had my fill of museums and galleries, I pull out the map I had saved on my phone the night before to see where I should be heading to next. I turn towards the creek and my eyes scan through the glaring reflection of the sun, but they fail to find what I seek. There should have been a bridge just a short distance from where I was standing to take me to the other bankside, but all there was was dusty air and hot wind. And right on cue as I scoff at my unreliable map, a group of men with fishing rods and ice baskets make their way out of what appears to be a small guardhouse-like structure at the foot of the non-existent bridge. Only when I get closer to it I discover that it’s actually not a building at all, but the concrete walls of an entrance. “AL SHINDAGHA TUNNEL – PEDESTRIAN UNDERPASS TO DEIRA”. Oops. Looks like my map didn’t lie after all.
After six minutes of powering through a horrific concoction of body odours that saturated the air, at long last I make it out the other side. I inspect the body of water I just traversed and the vessels that sailed overhead as Shakira incidentally sings to me, “Crossed a river of salt/Just after I rode a ship that sunk in the desert”. Perhaps because of my position, or the sun’s (or both), the river looks different now – lacklustre and complementary to its surroundings. Something about grass not being greener and glittering things not being gold cross my mind, but at this point all I can concentrate on is finding a bench.
Once I cooled down as much as the weather would allow me to, prompted by this walking tour, I briefly wander through what used to be a pearl merchant’s house and the school he built, one of Dubai’s oldest. Monochrome photographs stimulate my imagination and I try to visualise what life in this village by the creek was like a hundred years ago. I imagine a community sustained by trade, around where I stand. It’s chalky with dust and sand, but alive with uninterpretable chatter of its inhabitants, and sounds made by camels, goats and chickens. Locusts cruise in an abundant frenzy while the sun keeps tanning the backs of tired fishermen. Beneath the waves, divers quest after oysters and mussels on the riverbed in astonishingly large quantities – almost a ton of them have to be opened later on land in search of just two or three globules of nacreous mass. I doubt any of these people would have been able to fathom what their settlement would turn into one day.
Through narrow streets and back alleys, I make my way to the Spice Suq. Any lack of human contact that I had experienced earlier in the day was more than made up for here. Around every twist and turn of the marketplace, I encounter more and more people, tourists and locals alike, being cajoled by shopkeepers. Scents dissipate faster in the balmy air, so one smells things stronger and further away than usual – za’atar, cinnamon, star anise, cumin, sumac, cardamom, fennel, asafoetida, carom, nutmeg, caraway and hyssop, part of the miscellany of spices that waged a sweet war against my senses, sending my olfaction into overdrive. I’m tempted to dip my hands into the little piquant mountains of colour, intrigued by how they would feel between my fingers, but I refrain from doing so.
By now shadows have grown long and the sun feels more forgiving. At the nearby Old Suq station, I pay the fee of one dirham and climb onto an abra to get back across the slow moving river. Being so used to the fast pace of life in Singapore and London, the journey back moves in a cinematic slow motion. A light breeze gently tussles my hair and the golden hour paints the scene around me in vivid hues of orange and red, like turmeric and saffron. It’s a tranquil end to a somewhat hectic day and I’m happy knowing that I’ve experienced a different kind of wealth that Dubai has to offer.
* Forgive us our tresspasses as we forgive those who have tresspassed against us.
** In reality I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering more than 75% of the population of Dubai hail from the Subcontinent (India + Pakistan + Bangladesh + Nepal + Bhutan + Sri Lanka + Maldives).