Dubai, the modern city with pure luxury and extravagant lifestyle translated into big steel and glass buildings. The Burj Khalifa and the Burj al-Arab are some of the pearls whereby Dubai is showcasing its fortune of being situated within a hot spring full of oil. Because of this, people see the city as a shallow urban area, totally disconnected from its past and its environment.
‘Dubai has no culture’.
Well, Dubai’s entrepreneurs responded to that agitation. Sheikh Mohammed founded the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in 1995. This organisation is to build bridges between cultures and to help expats understand the norms and values of the true Emirates.
But what is true Emirates actually? Where can I find it in the Arab city? In the view of the Sheikh’s organisation, Dubai’s culture lays in the past (how surprising) and for that reason, old centres need to be preserved or, if not existent, be built up as it from scratch.
This happened to the place I am writing this article: Bastakiya Quarter. Dubai’s Old City Centre, when it was nothing but a place where people were diving up pearls in the Arab Gulf (internationally known as the Persian Gulf, but Emiratis can be quite sensitive about the name-calling). Totally renovated and rehabilitated in the late-20th century, with maybe the entering of the renowned Majlis Gallery in the 1970s as the crucial trigger.
And to be honest, it is a great place. It is clean. It is aesthetically beautiful. There are nice galleries to wander in or get a workshop in painting, the streetscape is fabulous, and it feels like a little labyrinth where you can get lost and find your own wonderful niche in terms of a nice bar, some local food provided by cultural organisations, or you can buy a marvellous yield after entering one of the magnificent courtyard houses. Well, the pictures should give you an idea.
But all this beauty, all the cleanliness, all the proliferation of Dubai’s cultural heritage seems too good to be true. And to be really frank, it is. Although beautiful, the Bastakiya Quarter in my view is nothing more than a romanticisation of the past without having a solid connection to the real city of the present.
One example of the ‘too-good-to-be-trueness’ lays in the fact that the streets are clean, and that there are hardly any people on them except the area’s guards, monitoring the quarter. It is sort of a drawback that the only people on the streets are some guards. And what makes a city and a culturally attractive area? That’s right: people do.
It seems Bastakiya is not able to attract people other than tourists. And that is what is at the moment: tourists wanting to see their romanticised view of how an Arab city should have looked like, with all the contemporary pleasures an international city has to bring: galleries, ‘local’ bars, and the like. And expats living that dream: painting and drinking Emirati drinks.
No, Bastakiya is not real. It is cultural preservation of the Disney kind. A great area to walk around in and enjoy the enclosedness of non-traffic labyrinth-like streets, but without a real soul: the people of Dubai.
You do not hear me saying that you should not go there. No, I would recommend you to. But if you want to see the real streets of Dubai, apart from the stupendous high-rise buildings in New Dubai and Jumeirah, there is only one space which will fulfil these needs, and if you know the city in any way, it should not come as a surprise.
You should go to Deira, where streets are dirty, where Emirati people walk, eat and spend their time. Where Dubai is real.