Guest Post: Traditional Dubai

Hello guys, welcome to a guest post from Neha who blogs at Dubaiwikia

Dubai, the capital of glitz and glamour has a charming traditional side to it which brings to mind its transformation from a pearl diving and fishing village to the cosmopolitan giant it is now. Dubai’s history, along with that of the UAE, goes back for millennia. The city has a rich culture and a richer background which forms a tapestry of traditional jewels that adds to Dubai’s charm. Here are glimpses of Dubai’s traditional elements. You’ll see from them that the pearl-diving village still exists, underneath the glamorous layers.

Al-Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood

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The Bastikaya Quarter, or old Dubai, in Bur Dubai is Dubai’s oldest neighbourhood, built by Persian merchants in the 19th century, who named it Bastak, after a town in Iran. The Persian merchants were attracted to Dubai owing to the relaxed trade tariffs. This picturesque heritage neighbourhood has quaint lanes, sandstone buildings, and wind towers, an old but effective form of air conditioning. While in the Bastikaya Quarter, be sure to learn a bit more about Dubai’s history at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Visit the Dubai Museum, the Arabic Tea Garden, and other places of note.

Al-Fahidi Museum

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The Dubai museum occupies the old Al Fahidi fort which dates back to 1800. The front rooms showcase old weaponry, and various utensils that were used in Dubai from historical times. In a corner of the museum is a traditional “Sarasti hut” which is topped by a burlap wind tower. This is the sort of structure where Dubai’s past generations lived. The walls of this hut are made of palm fronds which allows plenty of air circulation.

Explore the museum’s underground displays which showcase traditional Emirati and Bedouin life. There are several rooms with life-size mannequins and dioramas that showcase every aspect of traditional Emirati life including prayer, traditional clothing, games, camels, falconry and local architecture.

The Dubai Creek

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The Dubai Creek is a deep seawater inlet which was used as a main trading route at one point. The creek runs through the heart of the city, splitting Dubai into Bur Dubai and Deira. Along the sides of the creek are modern hotels, restaurants, office buildings and old sandstone dwellings and wind towers as well apart from bustling souqs.

Souks in Dubai

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Souqs are traditional Arabian markets. There’s a souq on either side of the Dubai Creek – one on the Deira side and one on the Bur Dubai side. The gold souk is located at Bur Dubai. At this old market you’ll see traditional storefronts selling 24 carat gold, along with rubies, diamonds, emeralds and other gemstones, all decoratively arranged in windows. The gold price here is much cheaper than elsewhere in the world, as it is tax-free.

The narrow and colourful spice markets in Bur Dubai declare their wares from a distance when the delicious smell hits your nostrils. Follow the exotic aromas to the traditional open stalls selling cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, saffron, and a myriad other spices.

On the Deira side, you’ll find stalls selling carpets, Arabian clothing and pashmina shawls. You’ll find some gold souqs there too, but not as many as in the Bur Dubai side. You can set up a quick bargain for any item you wish to buy from any of the souqs, something you cannot do at Dubai’s posh malls.

Heritage Village

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The Heritage Village is a reproduction of an old Bedouin village. It’s an attempt to showcase the way life used to be before oil was discovered and the world changed. Here you can witness traditional palm-leaf huts and wind towers being built from scratch. Wander around the replicated village and admire the handicrafts and woven articles made by the women. It’s a fine place to pick up some souvenirs. Be sure to observe the falconer’s ability to train and control his falcons at the Heritage Village – it’s a treat!

The Dubai Desert

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The most ancient and most enduring aspect of Dubai and the UAE is its desert. The desert has been around for millennia, shaping the lives of the people of the Middle East. Sign up for a desert safari to truly appreciate the beauty of the mysterious, mystical red sand dunes. Even if you’re not into desert adventure sports, take a tripod and camera and capture some great sunsets or sunrises. The desert safari comes with typical Arabian entertainment such as the Tanura dance show and bellydancing, so it’s a good way to get to know the region’s culture as well.

The Dhow Harbour

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Don’t miss a visit to the old dhow harbour, where you can see old dhows lined up for repair and renovated dhows all decked up for cruises on the creek and on Dubai Marina. Observe the traditional methods of ship building that are still being followed. Dhows have been built in Dubai for many thousands of years. Today, dhows are being used not just for trading and fishing, but for recreational pursuits. If you’re in Dubai during May, be sure to catch the Al Ghaffal Traditional 60ft Dhow Race. Enjoy the emirate’s rich maritime heritage by signing up for a dhow cruise.

Dhow Cruise Dubai

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You can sign up for a dhow cruise of the Dubai Creek or Dubai Marina. The piece de resistance in either case is the beautifully renovated and decorated dhow, done up in beautiful glass with gold accents. The dhow, when fully lit up, makes for a festive sight on Dubai’s waters. Enjoy the pleasant atmosphere, on-board entertainment, and a wonderful Emirati vegetarian and non-vegetarian buffet dinner on board. On the Creek, you’ll pass by the old town, Sheikh Saeed’s house which is the birthplace of Sheikh Saeed, the Dubai Golf Club, and several major landmarks including a distant view of the Burj Khalifa. If you’re taking the dhow cruise on the Dubai Marina, then you’ll see the Burj Al Arab and the Atlantis hotel along with the Palm Islands close up. You’ll also get to enjoy close up views of the super yachts moored at the Dubai Marina, the yachts that cost millions of dollars.

While modern Dubai’s distractions are great to see and admire, it is Dubai’s traditional aspects that actually feed the visitor’s soul. Don’t ignore what your soul demands. Take a trip down the lane of history and make good use of your time in Dubai by learning the story behind its stupendous success. Learn about the grit of the Emirati, the vision, the determination and the nerve to keep trying. Be sure to spend time at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding to know more about Dubai’s origins.

The Blue Star of the Lower East Side

I ended up in China Town the other day. I was ambling along Eldridge Street in Manhattan when I spotted this old building that towered above me with its many Moorish arches. The promise of magnificence drew me in. The plaque declared it to be a synagogue that has been turned into a museum. A free museum.

Now free museums thrill me. I queued up for hours outside the Museo del Prado in Madrid one freezing day, and got caught in a downpour, but did it deter me? No sir. It just meant that I spent the next few days laid down with a solid fever. Yet I had bagged a free museum visit. It is the same reason I love London so. The best of its museums are free. Now that I have mentioned the word ‘free’ enough times to reveal my inner freebie loving self, I might as well get to the subject at hand.

I was in an orthodox synagogue, built in the 1880s by Ashkenazi Jews who were fleeing from the anti-semitism in Eastern Europe. Inside, I met an old lady showing a trio around. One of them was a boy. The lady introduced him to me as a rabbi-to-be. Startled he looked at her, and said, ‘Actually I am doing my BA.’ He had mentioned studying in a yeshiva to her, and she, it turns out, had added it up in her own mind as indicative of his grand religious plans for himself. The couple, possibly in their mid-60s, were visiting their son in New York from Minneapolis. We later had a long chat about their sojourns in the various parts of India. And then there was I.

‘I am curious,’ asked this cordial old guide, ‘what brought you here today?’ This is the part where I come up with a memorable answer. Boy, I aced it. ‘Oh you see, I love visiting museums, and I was passing by, so I popped in.’ Having stunned them thus, I followed around in her footsteps, as she led us up wooden steps and antiquated wooden balustrades, past stained glass windows, the early evening light filtering in in a surfeit of colours.

Inside the main sanctuary, the senses exploded with the celestial quality of the vision that lay before us. A circular stained glass window in ethereal blues towered above us. It was the heroine of the old synagogue, this rose glass window of seemingly gossamer loveliness. I am not religious, as I have often stated, but I am swept away when the architecture of a place of prayer uplifts the soul. To make us believe that there are exalted things and beings, that there is a larger design at work.

This rose glass window, said to weigh 6000 pounds, depicts the six-pointed Star of David. Within it floats a plethora of five-pointed stars. The concept was that it should reflect the night sky by opening up to it. The main dome and the other ceiling domes, framed by rows of moorish arches, are studded similarly with glinting golden stars.

The woman who was showing us around had sat in the pews of the synagogue, as a child on a field trip from school, and she recollected its decrepit state at the time. ‘It was in the ’80s when I never could have imagined that it could look like this,’ she mused, as she pointed to a few photo canvases stacked along the pews. They were evidence that the synagogue had fallen into disrepair, its walls peeling off, the dome in a shambles. Membership dwindled with time as former members moved out of Eldridge Street into quarters like Brooklyn and Borough Park and then came the Great Depression bringing devastation in its wake. Pigeons took up residence in the synagogue till it was decided that it simply could not be allowed to fade away. Renovations began in the ’80s and the result was before us. There was something old about it, something new, and in between was that vast blue window that took your breath away.

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The Orthodox synagogue of Khal Adath Jeshrun on Eldridge Street with its stained glass windows and moorish arches. 
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The rose glass window towers above the main sanctuary where the congregation assembles on Fridays and Saturdays for services.
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There are stars everywhere you look and then there is the wonderful Moorish Revival architecture
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Elegant brass and glass chandelier
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Back to the Oculus from where I had to catch the train home. I cannot help taking multiple shots of this Calatrava ribbed structure that always makes me gawp.
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The white wings of The Oculus are for me a beloved part of the cityscape

A Day in Lund

As far as university towns go, traipsing around them in Europe awakes in me the urge to go back to a life as a student. Now that is stating something. The day I finished labouring over science in high school, which only drove me into the arms of my original love, English literature, I was doing fifty jigs a minute. And, that day that I held my first paycheck in the offices of the Times of India: Exquisite. I was empowered. By the control I had over my own life. I had left the world of studying and loathsome exams behind.

Yet finding myself in university towns like Leuven or Lund, makes me rethink my stance.

The beauty of the Skåne region in southern Sweden had started revealing itself when we took the train from Malmö to Lund. A flat countryside stretched out alongside the train tracks, patchworked by farms, forests, lakes and manors. As these plethora of scenes rushed by us, even on that bleak day in winter, it turned out to be a scenic journey. At the end of it waited Lund of the quaint cottages and cobbled alleys. It reminded us of pottering about Bruges, the Belgian town famed for its veneer of fairy-tale loveliness. It was as cold if less blustery than Bruges.

In this second oldest university town in Sweden, students bicycled upon uneven cobbled lanes, couples sat in intimate cafes, medieval timber-framed houses flanked the narrow roads. Occasionally bright pops of yellow and green on the facades introduced a startling element of colour. The leafy parks still held on to the flaming hues of autumn. The university buildings, the old library, churches big and small, ignited the imagination.

Again we ambled around in Lund, no particular activity in mind because we can be random like that apart from being touristy at times, peeping into store windows, spotting bakeries with wonderful breads that glowed like golden sirens and enterprising cakes (one was themed The Backstreet Boys, the mouths of all five boys, dressed in very blue suits, gaping open as if somebody had threatened to slap them for belting out overtly cheesy numbers). There, shivering in the frigid November air, we broke out into terrible renditions of As long as you love me, Adi teasing me because I (am so ashamed to admit) fancied them as a teenager. Which girl did not? My husband insists, cheesy ones like me. Blonde locks, exposed chests, all-white suits, synchronised dancing…open the gates of heaven. That display window was proof. I was not alone in my teenage fervour.

The conclusion to our traipsing around town was struck in the shadows of the Lund cathedral, a behemoth in weathered stone, beneath dismal skies. This cathedral that stood as a paean to Lund’s historical status, for it was the religious capital of Scandinavia once. That is how we found ourselves charmed by one of Europe’s oldest towns, where we were for a short while, in a time bubble with a giant troll called Finn sitting somewhere in the crypt of the cathedral for sparkling company.

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This Spring of Contrasts

I had my first sighting of the leaves. Tiny green leaves are sprouting on the smaller plants in fits and starts all over the park. But the older trees, they are stubborn. They are holding onto status quo. This is a spring when we have had snatches of days that could not have been more at odds with each other. If there have been days of liquid sunshine with skies to match, snow has coated the boughs on days, and then there was that day when the fog was thick and heavy, it sat upon my eyelashes as I went out for a run. And the sunsets, let me not even get started about their exquisite beauty as they flame out into the skies.

The squirrels have started showing in greater numbers. They look suitably plump after their hibernation with possibly a decent reserve of nuts. Oh, and there are robins too! Now I have heard that it is a misnomer that robins appear during spring, but oh they do. There are whole bunches of them hopping up and down the slopes of the park, pecking and looking delightful with their breasts of red. As I felt this spirit of joy quickening in their sudden presence, I remembered my mother’s obsession with the cuckoo who lives somewhere in the coconut trees in our backyard in Calcutta. She gets great pleasure from telling me in detail about its odd timings for calling out, till I start zoning out, and the other day, I realised (with a tinge of horror and amusement) that this apple has fallen not too far from its tree.

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Serendipity in the Upper West Side

One frightfully cold day, we were in the Upper West Side, lured by the promise of a bazaar of food trucks. The furious wind made indents everywhere. The exposed bits. Face, hair, ankles. And the unexposed bits. So that the sight of a fenced-in enclosure packed with rows of food trucks was comforting. As expected, a cornucopia of food and people. Kiwi-style pies, South Indian dosas, Lebanese grub. I can tell you that there were at least a dozen more trucks promising lobster to tacos and more. I can also tell you that we meekly fell at the last hurdle. Queues that grew longer by the second. There was not a truck left that was not besieged by a peckish crowd.

We ended up striding to Sarabeth’s, a classic NYC brunch hotspot, with French doors that swung open to reveal warmly lit interiors. The kind of place where wooden tables for two sit cheek by jowl and beautiful old women in black clothes dine with their girl friends. Where they serve potato waffles with apple-flavoured chicken sausages and where the calamari arrives perfectly crunchy at the table. For those moments, it felt like we were on holiday.

Senses humming with bellinis and beer, we emerged on Amsterdam Avenue, the long road previously known as Tenth Avenue. Sometime in the 1800s, a Tenth Avenue Cowboy rode a horse up and down it, warning people of approaching trains that used to run along the avenue. He is no longer to be spotted there. Instead, a worthy line-up of cafés, bakeries, candy shops, taverns and hole-in-the-wall Thai eateries impart this avenue, renamed after Manhattan’s first 17th century colonisers, with contemporary vibes.

It was so blustery that to walk was to brave the winds and cower. Just as Adi wondered aloud, what were we to do then, a church with a distinctly Byzantine personality turned up on the right (it’s the feature photo), and I said, ‘Just let’s step in for a second’.

Inside, as I craned my neck up to gaze at the dome, I heard a whisper, ‘Excuse me’.

An old woman, with a shock of white hair, sat in the pews towards the back of the church, and whispered again, so that I had to inch closer to her. ‘There is a movie being screened today.’

I gave a silly grin, and replied, ‘Is that so? How wonderful!’ What do you say when someone informs you, out of the blue, of a film showing somewhere? The woman carried on, as if I had not interrupted her. ‘There are refreshments. There is Gregory Peck.’

It being one of those days when you felt like indulging a stranger who promised Gregory Peck, because you had nothing better to do, we followed her directions, got out of the church, and spotted the parish centre adjacent to it. In a dark hall there, they were projecting a technicolour film upon the wall, in front of which sat a group of elderly people. We joined them discreetly when Christopher Plummer flashed upon the screen in the uniform of a Nazi military officer, standing upon some terrace in Rome, showing his children the city that he had fallen in love with before he arrived on duty. Soon Gregory Peck showed up in the habit of a Vatican priest.

The name of the film was The Scarlet and the Black. In about two and a half hours, I was tearing up at the solid performances delivered by Plummer and Peck…as they played out the real-life story of a Nazi officer, Herbert Kappler, and an Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, from County Kerry in Ireland. It is based upon a novel, ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican’ by J.P. Gallagher.

The time was 1943, when Allied prisoners and Jews were being persecuted by the Nazis in Rome, and O’Flaherty was doing his best to rescue them. By the end of it, he had saved thousands of people from Kappler, assuming various disguises to escape his clutches. It is quite the watch, if only to remember the bravery of the Vatican priest with the bulbous nose.

There we sat in that dark hall, with strangers for company, feeling snug as a priest circulated with a tray loaded with cookies, fat chunky ones that challenged you to stop at one. There was an old-world charm to the occasion, befitting the movie we were watching.

When it ended, and our minds were still floating around in that WWII bubble, the priest got up and circulated some papers. For a second or two, I was alarmed. Would he start talking about God? Time to pay up for the cookies.

But he took us by surprise. Those papers contained photos and quotes from the film. The priest talked about the storyline, with passion. That Monsignor George J. Murphy, who the centre was named for, had met O’Flaherty. That O’Flaherty had met Peck and had given him tips, but not lived long enough to watch the film. As the talk veered to Pope Pius XII, who was heading the Vatican at the time, an old woman with her ash blonde bob tucked beneath a beret, piped up. She had known the pope before he had assumed office. ‘I lived through the war in Rome and my aunts stayed behind. They were such difficult times,’ added this woman whose name was Giuliana.

The priest invited contemplation as he finished up with the thought, ‘When we are in heaven, will there be a special place for those who speak American English? It’s all rubbish, you know.’ That is how we found ourselves at an impromptu film club that evening in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In a bizarre but wonderful way, we had landed up somewhere we did not know we wanted to be.

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Orwasher’s. The kind of lab that suits me fine. 
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Sarabeth’s on the Upper West Side 
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At Sarabeth’s…
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…as we waited for food 
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The perfect burger
Potato waffles and apple-flavoured sausages served up with pots of sour cream, apple sauce and maple syrup
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Boarded-up church
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Ceramic mosaic in the 66th Street subway station
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Sights along the way

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Where we watched The Scarlet and the Black
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Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty
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 SS-Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler
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The redoubtable pairing: Christopher Plummer and Gregory Peck