As we drove away from downtown and toward the creek, the buildings got older, smaller, and darker; the alley ways dirtier. I thought I was in another country entirely. It’s incredible to see the creek, what once was the epitome of life in Dubai, still being put to good use by bringing in watermelons, refrigerators, soaps, televisions— you name it. There is a much more developed port closer to downtown, but seeing these old, faded blue, sun-kissed, wood-chipped dhows bringing goods from neighboring countries was a stark contrast to Dubai’s Marina, filled with yachts.
If you know of Dubai, you’ve seen pictures of the world’s tallest building Burj Khalifa, Bugatti Veyron police cars, the world’s only seven-star hotel, and fancy five-star restaurants. Tucked away in the Persian Gulf, Dubai has become a popular layover for global expats seeking a tax haven, where they can cash in big and spend lavishly. Although I won’t deny how incredible the development of this city has been over the last twenty years, there’s a part of Dubai that I want to shed light on – a part that may not be all that well known. I call it: the other side of the creek.
Before the oil discovery, money, and westward development, Dubai’s old town, known as Bur Dubai, was the “downtown” surrounding a small creek that saw life, settlement, and the beginning of a flourishing city in the Arabian Peninsula. Import/export along the creek continued to develop and bring in goods from Oman and Iran. This was mainly all there was to Dubai at the time, until they discovered they were sitting on liquid gold – oil.
“To visit Bur Dubai is to experience the stark contrast to what Dubai has become known for.”
With that oil, and with booming logistics and other industries, Dubai has become one of today’s most desired metropolises.
However, as development moved westward — further into the Arabian Peninsula — much of this older part of Dubai remained the same. To me, this proves Dubai wants to maintain its authenticity and provide visitors and residents alike a glimpse into what started it all.
I lived in Dubai for eight years, on and off; it has become a place that I am familiar with, yet still wildly surprised by. I first moved there with my family in 1995, to a neighborhood called Jumeirah, after my father was transferred on assignment. At that time, it was a very quiet neighborhood in a quaint city. We moved to a small suburban town west of Philadelphia in 2000, and then back to Dubai in 2005 — this time to Al Barsha, near the infamous indoor ski-slope mall. I finished high school at the American School of Dubai in 2008, and my father has lived in a peaceful villa in Al Barsha since, fully equipped with backyard pool and palm trees. I visit him often.
“Between the men fishing in the creek, the families opening their noisy steel garage doors to reveal their Gold shops … and the meandering, yet watchful police, I felt detached from the world records and futuristic urbanization — everything Dubai wants me to pay attention to”
On a recent visit, we decided to tour the old town again. Shamefully, we had only ever been there three times. Having spent many years in Dubai, we had become disillusioned, and sought a more down-to-earth experience in our own city. We were also compelled to learn more about the place we’d called home for many years — a place I still consider home, although I don’t live there permanently anymore.
As I strolled through the old town, I noticed a population based mainly of Indians, Pakistanis, and Filipinos. They were going about their daily lives, drinking coffee in cafes barely visible from the main street, sitting on the dock of the creek making phone calls, laughing, and smoking cigarettes. The much-publicized Dubai faded. Street side alleyway discussions, rubber sandals, plastic-curtained bodegas, and TATA pick-up trucks were prominent. Between the men fishing in the creek, the families opening their noisy steel garage doors to reveal their Gold shops, the fake Rolex offers, and the meandering, yet watchful police, I felt detached from the world records and futuristic urbanization — everything Dubai wants me to pay attention to.
To visit Bur Dubai is to experience the stark contrast to what Dubai has become known for. All within 500 feet of each other, there are the Gold, Spice, and Fish Markets. Each has its own flair, its own set of characteristics to light up the senses — from the luminance of gold reflecting in the vendors’ glass, to the Crayola-colored varieties of spices, to the scent of freshly caught Omani octopus. Taking a dhow across the creek led me to the Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House, where the former ruler’s palace illuminates how the royal family kept cool during the desert heat with wind towers. The grainy antique photographs in each of the different rooms took me back in time, depicting families next to desert wells, royal family meetings in the sandy palace courtyard, and neighborhood shoeshiners and mechanics. Another 500 feet and I found myself in the Heritage Village, where replicated houses made of hay provided memoirs of the primitive Arabian desert culture.
Having sprouted from the desert dunes in a matter of years, Dubai’s history is not well known, but this area will give a glimpse into what life used to be like, and what it continues to be like. Be it for the tourists or for Dubai itself, it’s comforting to know Dubai has not forgotten about its humble beginnings.
This piece was originally published on October 29, 2014.