The glitzy side of the Dubai, with the huge malls and skyscapers filled with million dollar apartments, is never far away, but a jaunt through the souqs and streets of the old part of the city around Dubai Creek is a journey to a different world.
I started on the Deira side of the Creek with a wander through the gold souq then the spice souq, seeing no Westerners at all till I hit a couple of tourist groups in the latter. I don’t like gold but all the shops with their glittering window displays are a sight to behold even if you have no interest in buying.
Suitably dazzled, I left the gold souq and wandered the back streets and into a part of the souqs that I’ve not found myself in before, with shops selling all manner of household things-you-never-knew-you-needed. I very soon came upon the spice souq and decided to go to one end and work my way back so as not to miss anything. It’s easy to get pleasantly disorientated in the souqs and I realised when I got to the start of the spice souq instead of the end that I had been walking in the exact opposite direction to what I thought.
The spice souq is a wonderful treat for the senses, with the competing aromas of spices and incense, the different colours, textures and shapes as you pass the sacks piled high outside each small shop.
The workers are generally from Iran or Pakistan and there are also many Omani traders wandering around (Omanis wear kandouras, the traditional long robes of the Gulf, but are distinguishable by the round hats they wear or the particular way they tie their headscarves). Whilst wandering I chatted with Pashtun shopkeepers about Peshawar (all bad), with Iranian shopkeepers about the election in their homeland (all good) and with everybody about the merits of frankincense from Sudan versus Iran versus Oman – no contest, nobody tries to argue the fact that the best stuff comes from southern Oman.
By the end of my wander back up and down the souq, shaded from the burning sun by the wooden roof over the alley, I was smelling of various different perfume oils which I’d had dabbed on me while pondering which to buy, stocked up with cardamom seeds and ready for one of my favourite things to do in Dubai.
For the princely sum of 1 dirham (15p/25 US cents) I took an abra (water taxi) across Dubai Creek, the inlet from the sea and one of the keys to the trading that has existed in this area for generations. The abras shuttle back and forth across the Creek from early morning till late at night, carrying mainly South Asian workers commuting between the crowded and congested Deira side with the gold and spice souqs, and Bur Dubai with its endless fabric shops in an area known as Meena Bazaar, touristy souq, and many other small businesses. Out on the water, cooled by the breeze, we passed the cargo dhows being loaded and unloaded as they always have, only the cargo changing over time. When laden they ply the waters of the Arabian Gulf to the ports of southern Iran.
A wander through the souq selling all the touristy stuff is always fun, this time the shop workers are mostly from Pakistan or Afghanistan and try to entice me in with dirt cheap pashminas. It’s all nicely low key and low pressure, even though I’ve somehow arrived when there are few tourists around and have every shopkeeper in the passageway chasing my custom. A couple place pashminas around my shoulders but it’s not, unlike in many countries, a transparent excuse to touch a woman as they never come into contact with me. With unasked-for pashminas around my shoulders what else is there to do except exclaim ‘how beautiful, a free gift, thank you so much!’ as I walk away and then quickly whip it off and toss it back to the slightly bemused man behind me.
I could continue up the Creek (so to speak) to reach Dubai’s oldest building, Al Fahidi Fort built in 1799 and now home to Dubai Museum, or meander further through Bastakiya, the heritage area with its beautiful restored old wind tower buildings, but it’s pretty hot so time to repair to one of my favourite cafes, Bayt al Wakeel. This eatery is housed in what was the first office building in Dubai, built in 1934 by the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai. Sheikh Rashid kick-started the drive to change Dubai from a small collection of fishing villages into the ‘anything is possible’ world city it is today. His son, Sheikh Mohammed, is the current, much-loved, ruler of the emirate.
The food in Bayt al Wakeel is distinctly average but the setting is sublime with outdoor seats on a platform jutting out over the Creek. I sit for a while drinking mint tea and watching life on the busy Creek. I could sit in this spot all day.
By the time I leave, having read my newspaper cover to cover and drank two pots of tea, it’s after 1pm and the streets are very quiet. It’s getting on for 40C and most sensible people are indoors. I wander in the general direction of where I think the metro station should be (I’ve only ever taken taxis in this area in the past), and come across a couple of Indian women whom I ask for directions – women are not too plentiful in the streets in old Dubai, where everybody going about their business seems to be male. They kindly go a little out of their way to point me in the direction of the metro station and bid me farewell outside the very colourful and large Bollywood clothing store. Bollywood is having a big sale, a permanent feature I suspect, but somehow I’m not tempted, just looking forward to the cooling a-c in the metro station.
The metro station itself is an attraction, it has lots of pictures of traditional pursuits and old buildings, of men riding camels and horses, of the old wind towers in houses and, my favourites, of falcons. A few photos later and I’m on the ultra modern, efficient and clean, four year old metro system, cocooned in air conditioning, making my way above the twelve lanes of traffic, along the grand avenue of high rise towers that make up Sheikh Zayed Road, to my home in what is very much ‘new’ Dubai.
It feels like a train journey from one era to another.
Arrival metro station in Deira – Al Ras on the green line
Departure metro station in Bur Dubai- Al Ghubaiba on the green line
Walking tour: National Geographic