Exploring Old Dubai

"Old" is something of a misnomer when applied to Dubai. True, the Al Fahidi Fort was built in 1787 (and is the oldest building in the city), but the buildings that surrounded it are long gone. The current “old” sections of the city was rebuilt in the 1970s to appeal to tourists—which is Dubai’s number one industry. Although the buildings are not that old, most of the buildings were built in a traditional style. Al Bastakiya, retains its narrow streets and coral buildings and Al Fahidi its wind tower houses (the wind towers trapped the wind and funneled it down into the house as an effective form of early air conditioning). Both areas have been meticulously reconstructed and are now cultural offices, museums and galleries. The Shindagha Heritage Area in Sur Dubai has a reconstructed souk (market) whose vendors hawk pashminas, tee-shirts, caps and other souvenirs.


After a spin through these ersatz neighborhoods and the Bur Dubai textile souk (marketplace), you find yourself on Dubai Creek,which is plied at night by brightly lit tourist boats offering scenic one-hour fours of tours. Or, for one dirham, the equivalent of about 30 cents, you can take a water taxi across the creek to the historic Deira neighborhood, the home of the gold and spice souks.


While the spice souk has all of the traditional herbs and spices, it offers much more variety than many we have visited, with different versions of these spices, such as those from multiple countries and with different aromas and tastes such as those that are best eaten as they are, and others that are better cooked. Many of the shops also offer things we seldom see, such as dried and baked lemons (for use in cooking), entire branches of marjoram and more unusually, frankincense and viagra (which you dissolve in hot milk or hot water, with a bit of saffron). The windows of the gold souk, meanwhile, are wall-to-wall gold, including with necklaces that are almost big enough to serve as body armor.


Although these neighborhoods and souks do retain some of their traditional character and are fun to walk, the old town area also provides some wonderful learning experiences. Two in particular stand out:

  • The Dubai Museum, which is in the old Al Fahidi Fort; and
  • The the Sheik Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding in the Bastakia Quarter.

The Dubai Museum

The wonderful Dubai Museum provides what appears to be faithful recreation of Dubai’s history. After taking us through reconstructions of traditional homes and exhibits of traditional dress, weapons, musical instruments and so forth, we reached a timeline of the city’s history and development.

The exhibits proceeded through series of dioramas portraying various aspects of life and the trades of traditional Dubai, to exhibits describing the lives of the Bedouin, the importance and roles of camels and hawks, and the city’s maritime heritage, from the building of dhows, to fishing and pearl diving, and at the end, and exhibit of traditional pottery and instruments.



The Center for Cultural Understanding

The Center for Cultural Understanding provides a very different, but equally representative perspective of the nature of traditional and current Dubai. This organization hosts daily breakfasts and lunches (the latter of which we did) in which a UAE citizen who works with the center joins the groups to answer any questions you may have. Our traditional buffet lunch was hosted by a very articulate 20-year old college student. Nothing is off limits: politics, religion, the relative status and privileges of men versus women, sex, drugs–whatever members of the audience asks, your host was happy to discuss, fully, openly, honestly (at least her perspective of the issue) and articulately. Among the issues we discussed were:

  • The political system, which does not entail elections, but in which appointees who are not responsive are virtually never appointed;
  • Women’s roles in the country’s equivalent of a Parliament (about 25 percent) and management level government positions (about 50 percent);
  • The relative shortage of educated women versus men and the requirement that a man spend about a year (or about eight months for a college grad) in the army or the police before beginning their career;
  • How men and women meet, date and get married, such as where they meet each other’s parents before serious dating, marry at different ages (a minimum of 18 and typically about 21 to 23 for women and 24-26 for men)–and no intimacy in public or premarital sex;
  • Homosexuality which is disapproved of, but not discriminated against in healthcare, education or hiring or job advancement;
  • Drugs and alcohol, which are not permitted for Muslims, but where a user is assigned to treatment (rather than punishment) but a drug pusher is jailed;
  • Shari’ah law, such as where a thieves is required to pay back the money and be treated for the first two offenses and has a hand cut off on the third (essentially as a very visible warning for others who may deal with them). Our host thought this was a very fair approach;
  • Polygamy, where a man, as did Abraham, is allowed to have up to four wives, as long as he can support them and their children;
  • The many rights of women in marriage, such as to an education, to receive money at the time of marriage and to earn and save her own money while the husband supports her and the family, and to divorce (and retain her money, part of her husbands and almost always retain custody of their children); and
  • A full discussion on the dress of men and women (which we unfortunately had to miss to get to another appointment).

And many, many more–all of for which the discussion was open, frank and with no sense of reluctance to discuss or embarrassment. A very fascinating and rewarding ninety minutes. We wish we had more.

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