Wind tower in Bastakiya

Wind tower in Al Bastakiya

Dubai is perhaps best known for its futuristic skyline, its just-a-wee-bit-over-the-top shopping centres and luxury hotels, its record-breaking skyscrapers, and its slightly indulgent lifestyle. But there’s more to this affluent Arabian city than first meets the eye.

Near Dubai Creek lies historic Dubai. This is where you’ll find Bur Dubai, an area mostly populated with immigrants from the subcontinent. I enjoy this part of Dubai, feels like I’m in India. Hindu and Sikh temples are just metres away from mosques, and there’s a lively textile souk. You’ll also find Al Fahidi Fort, housing Dubai Museum which tells the story of Dubai before the oil; dioramas bring the area’s 5000-year-old history to life.

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Dubai Museum, Al Fahidi Fort

Then there’s Al Bastakiya, my favourite part of Dubai. What I like about it? Well, firstly, the breezy courtyard of the Arabian Tea House (formerly Basta Art Cafe), my fave breakfast spot in town (the Arabic one – tea, bread, cucumber, tomatoes, halloumi cheese – is my default brekkie here, along with a particularly delicious mint/lime juice).

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Carpets and blankets for sale in Al Bastakiya

I also like wandering along the narrow winding lanes between the wonderful old wind towers (ancient, all natural air conditioning: designed to funnel cool air into the house). In the late 1980s, Al Bastakiya was in imminent danger of being demolished in favour of yet another skyscraper complex. Thanks to Rayner Otter, a persistent British architect, and to Prince Charles, the district is preserved. Who says royalty can’t play an important role…

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Al Bastakiya also has art galleries, restored traders’ houses, pretty B&Bs, as well as the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding, SMCCU for short. The centre describes itself as follows:

The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is a cultural awareness platform in which expats and visitors to the UAE are invited to join in various cultural activities in a friendly welcoming environment hosted by local Emiratis.

SMCCU is located in a wind tower building, with yet another lovely courtyard, oil lamps hanging from the tall ceilings, and fab rooftop views upstairs.

Our little group is invited to lunch at SMCCU, where we join locals and tourists around a common spread on the floor. Entering, we’re asked to remove our shoes and have a look around. Then we sit down on plump, bright cushions where we’re served coffee and dates while learning all about this particular tradition. I’m reminded of my accidental (but oh so fortunate) visit at the home of a family in Bahrain some years ago. I’ve said it before, and am happy to repeat it: in my experience, Arabs are some of the most generous and hospitable people in the world.

We’re then given lunch, typical Bedouin fare: salads, machoos (chicken, rice and spices), fareeth (a meat and vegetable stew), ligamat (sweet, deep-fried dough balls) and heaps more dishes I can’t remember the name of. We hear how Bedouins have two ways of serving their guests: The host either serves the meal then leaves the room – because he/she doesn’t want to interrupt their guests while they’re eating. Or the host eats a little at the beginning then waits until the guests are finished before continuing. This is so the host won’t accidentally take just that piece of e.g. meat the guest might have their eyes on.

Eating is serious business, in other words. And lunch is the most important meal of the day. Here at SMCCU there’s plenty left over and we’re provided with take-away containers.

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Open doors, open minds

Afterwards, we’re free to ask any question we want – and we do. SMCCU operates under the motto ‘Open doors, open minds’. We ask about education (free public school for Emiratis), health care (also free for Emiratis), parental leave (40 days with pay), wedding ceremonies (usually 3 days) and average age for marriage (25).

The UAE is ruled by a sheikh (presently Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum), who appoints his successor. I ask whether a women might ever be appointed as ruler. ‘Why not?’ says our host. ‘I don’t think it’s at all impossible that a sheikha will be appointed,’ she continues.

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Our host demonstrating the different forms of Arabic women’s dress on a willing volunteer.

 

There are many women in government and diplomatic service in the UAE  – Sheikha Najla Mohamed Al Qassimi was ambassador to Sweden from 2008 – 2014 and Lana Nusseibeh is UAE’s ambassador to the UN. A woman president doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Our host is asked about women’s role in marriage, about the infamous 4-wives-rule, about dress codes, and much more. What we hear points to a modern society with a fairly high degree of individual freedom for men and women. Emirati men and women, that is.

If you’re in Dubai and are interested in learning a little about Emirati culture, traditions and religion, I highly recommend visiting the Sheikh Muhammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. In fact, I’d like to return – I’ve a few more questions I’d like to ask.

Visiting Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding – practical info

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Crossing Dubai Creek in an abra

  • Al Bastakiya is easily reached by taxi – or if you’re up for it, just a 10-15 minute walk from Al Ghubaiba bus station in Bur Dubai. You can also take Dubai’s new, cool metro and get off at the Al Fahidi stop. If you’re on the other side of Dubai Creek, cross over in one of the many abras (water taxis) for just 1 dirham, then turn left. Shortly after passing Dubai Museum (stay on the same side of Al Fahidi Street), you’ll see the wind towers in Al Bastakiya.
  • Breakfast is offered on Mondays and Wednesdays at 10am (AED 80). Lunch is available on Sundays and Tuesdays at 1pm (AED 90). There’s also a cultural dinner on Tuesdays at 7pm (AED 100) and a brunch on Saturdays at 10.30am (AED 100). Have a look at the Calender of events for more info. NB: Reservations are essential.
  • In addition to the cultural meals, tours of mosques and various other heritage activities are offered.

Disclosure: This time in Dubai, I was a guest of Emirates and Dubai Tourism. As ever, I retain full freedom to write whatever I want.