In its cracks and crevices, its sidestreets and hotel lobbies, there lies a whispering beauty in Dubai. One of the Middle East’s most expensive cities and also one of its youngest, Dubai is a city with a peculiar tension that, like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, never quite sits comfortably between the past and the future. An ancient mangrove swamp lies beneath the underground sewers of Internet City; a shoeless courier rides a bicycle alongside a gridlocked, 12-lane highway; Chinese and Russian honeymooners pose for pictures next to fountains that sing out Fairuz and Celine Dion.
For many visitors to Dubai, the city is their first introduction to the Middle East, and the spoonfed itinerary is often the same: A trip to the top of Burj Khalifa, a camel ride on a desert safari, and a ‘curious’ saunter through the old gold souk. But a look beyond the room service menu and the city’s constant slew of corporate polished floors reveals a creeping joy in its small, offbeat pleasures: late-night African clubs, Pakistani ‘cafeterias’ serving fish curries to tired workers, local surfers slicing through waves in the Gulf at dawn.
One of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, Dubai is a proud city, always happy to tell the world about the 69.9 million people who passed through its international airport last year, or how its ‘if you build it, they will come’ approach has propelled it from a desert fishing village of dhows and Persian merchants to a world record breaker in a handful of decades.
During a trip to Dubai, it’s good to remind yourself that you are, in fact, in a geographical sandwich between Saudi Arabia and Iran – not on holiday in Florida. Embrace the disorientating whirlwind of images that meets you upon arrival: the gold-coin cash machines, the chatter of six or seven different languages in a few minutes, the old souqs and wooden abras gliding across centuries-old waterways, the pseudo-souqs and plastic abras gliding across artificial waterways, the awkward Arabic translations of chain store names like ‘Foor’eefar 21’ (Forever 21) and ‘Tha Boody Shoob’ (The Body Shop), the sandstorms, faulty towers, dreamy blood-orange sunsets and the rustle of palm trees on lazy afternoons, all make it an overwhelmingly fascinating city, unlike no other.
10:00am – Hassan Sharif
Three men sit around a table, stapling together pages of a glossy fashion magazine. A kitten runs across a kaleidoscopic vinyl floor. Bits of string and cardboard hang from the walls. Upstairs, a room lined with supermarket-like shelves is packed with bundles of spoons, towers of wire and plastic, and some of the most highly regarded and provocative artworks being made in the Middle East today.
This is The Flying House, the home and studio of Hassan Sharif – a pioneer of conceptual art in the region, and a critic and mentor to some of the UAE’s leading contemporary artists. Inside this unassuming villa, one of hundreds that line the otherwise anonymous streets of Al Barsha, Sharif spends every day working, often on his ‘Objects’ – heaving assemblages of items bought in local markets or found as cast-offs in Jebel Ali port – and his latest solo show, ‘Images’, at Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde.
‘People always say they’re going “to do some emails”. So this is what I do when I’m doing emails,’ Sharif says, pointing to a roll of glue and email print-outs.
Titled ‘Email 2’, it is one of many of Sharif’s works made of cheap scrap materials, such as mass-produced spoons, plastic sandals or flyers from local supermarkets, which he rhythmically weaves, cuts, ties, shreds and glues to reflect our own banal interactions with consumerism and the manufacturing of images.
‘I like cutting things and then tying them. The contradiction is: if the aim is cutting them, why are you tying them? Or if the aim is tying, why are you cutting?’ Sharif smiles, explaining the meticulous, almost obsessive, nature of his work. After decades of being misunderstood for his often controversial approach, over the past few years Sharif has watched his work be embraced by the UAE’s cultural institutions, while his attitude remains as irreverent as ever.
The Flying House, first established as an exhibition space for Sharif and his peers, now solely functions as a studio and archive for his work. Documentation is important to the artist. ‘It is important because if you look at the history of art, such as Futurism at the beginning of the 20th century, they documented their activity, their performances,’ Sharif explains, pausing to scratch a note in pencil on the wood of his desk and take a drag on his cigarette. ‘The aim of art is documentation. It is very important.’
11:30am – The Dubai Park
Under the shade of a teak pergola, Manupriam Seth gestures towards the landscaped garden below. ‘It’s the perfect little oasis,’ he says, as a granite fountain brims nearby.
Outside, the neighbourhood of Oud Metha may bustle on, but the garden’s neighbours – an empty sandlot and a bakery called Pumpy’s – are kept at bay; low, Aleppo limestone walls shield all but the domed roof and arched entrance of the adjacent Ismaili Centre from view. ‘This place is a hidden treasure,’ Seth repeats.
Inaugurated in 2008, The Dubai Park is a gift from the Aga Khan, the head imam of the Nizari Ismaili Muslims. The Ismaili Centre, which sits opposite, is one of just six such centres in the world and the only official jama’at khana in the UAE. Though walled, the gardens are open to everyone.
‘Its design was inspired by Fatimid architecture,’ says Nadeem Alam, referring to the Centre, where he works as an assistant facility manager. Seth, an architect, says the same of the park. ‘It’s based around a Mughal garden,’ he explains, noting how the water burbling over the fountain at his feet splashes down into the park via narrow channels that criss-cross the grounds and divide the park into quadrants, like a Persian charbagh.
Among the garden’s interconnecting water pools, tall palms, jasmine and bougainvillea provide scent and shade to those seeking respite, or random passersby. ‘The ambience is wonderful,’ says Seth, who, along with his wife, Halpreed, organise Sandscapes, a charity music and art festival, on the Centre grounds each year. ‘We try to show the park to others whenever we can,’ Halpreed adds.
2:00pm – World Trade Club
In a city known for its record-breaking skyscrapers, it’s easy to pass by the World Trade Centre tower without giving it a second glance. Built in 1979, its 37 floors of white honeycomb- chiselled concrete appears like a modernist catacomb amongst Dubai’s skyline of meatier next-door neighbours (the 163 floor Burj Khalifa glitters in the near distance), however, for 20 years, the tower was the tallest building in Dubai and the first high-rise on Sheikh Zayed Road, surrounded by little more than desert.
Designed by British architect John Harris, an influential figure in the Gulf who also drew up master plans for Dubai in the 1960s, the building was commissioned by the late HH Sheikh Rashid — it’s also known as the ‘Sheikh Rashid Tower’. The structure stands as a testimony to the ruler’s pursuit of modernity and towering ambitions for the future.
Featured on the UAE’s 100 dirham note, it’s lovingly admired by Dubai’s longer-term residents, particularly the members of the building’s ‘World Trade Club’, an exclusive members’ club on the building’s 33rd floor.
‘We saw the World Trade Centre being built. Our neighbour in Jumeirah was the engineer, the late Mr Jim Bromley-Fox. We used to get all the news of the progress of the World Trade Centre from him. It was a very exciting time then, seeing a lone tower coming up,’ says Deena Bomi Motiwalla, who moved to Dubai in 1970 to join her husband, a few days after their wedding.
Now celebrating 45 years of married life in Dubai, Motiwalla is the proud founder of the World Trade Club’s regular Ladies Luncheon Club. Floating like a time capsule in the sky, the club’s three-course meals, plush carpets and remote-controlled roller blinds are both a tribute and a relic of a former era – one of corporate glamour and ‘Falcon Lounge’ handshakes. ‘During those days, the ladies, wives and lady partners were only invited for special occasions,’ she remembers. ‘It was such a pity and a waste that the “girls” knew so little about “Up on the Top”.’
6:00pm – Global Village
Orbiting over the sandy outskirts of Dubai, a fairy lit Ferris wheel – the ‘Wheel of the World’ – hangs over the entrance to Global Village. ‘Make Your Senses Come Alive’, instruct sun-faded flags buffeting around its 17,000-space car park.
Styled as a ‘unique shopping experience’ and ‘cultural attraction’ hybrid, to stroll around Global Village is to float across a surface of the world, Bubble Tea in hand. Arranged as a series of national pavilions surrounding a man-made Canal Grande, the flamboyant frontage and offerings of each are designed, with endearing earnestness, to represent the architecture, landmarks and culture of its nation.
Open in the cooler months, Global Village is a World’s Fair turned country fair – like Disney’s Epcot, if the ‘wheel of the world’ turned to a New World Order. Here, Kuwait is the size of Africa, Africa is one country, and Syria has been rebuilt with polystyrene. ‘In Global Village, Iran is number one,’ says Milad, whose kiosk in the blockbuster Iran Pavilion is stocked only with multipack bags of cheese-flavoured corn snacks called ‘Lucy’.
Behind its extravagant, peeling, theme park façade, Global Village is a market, a series of mini-malls. Emirati families, off-duty construction workers and the occasional tourists float around, pushing the red plastic shopping trolleys offered at the entrances. Saucy négligées can be bought in Morocco, Pyrex dishes are the UK’s biggest export, and Union Jack knick knacks line every shelf of a kiosk named ‘Fabulous Americas.’
Doors open at 4pm, when Global Village acts out its culture clash in theatrical slow motion. ‘These carpets are from Iran,’ says Mohammed, from Afghanistan, as he lounges sleepily over the piled rugs of his kiosk in the Africa Pavilion. Mohammed, like most of those who staff the pavilions, travels to Dubai each year for ‘the Global Village season’, returning to Kabul in mid- April, when the park shuts.
Fariq, a be-daggered vendor in the Yemen Pavilion, says he feels at home during his seasonal stays in Dubai thanks to the plyboards that top each stall, that are painted to look like the gingerbread buildings of his hometown. ‘Just like Sana’a,’ he says, pointing to a hand-painted mural that, in The Truman Show style, decorates an MDF boundary wall.
Fariq’s stall offers at least 30 different types of honey, all of which, he says, are authentic, and made in Yemen. He recommends a sample of the ginseng loaded ‘Only For Married’ variety – his favourite, he says, with a smile that suggests so.
9:00pm – The Sudanese Social Club
‘Thursday night is party night,’ says Issam with a glimmer in his eye, as he sips on a cup of chai karak at The Sudanese Social Club on a late Wednesday evening. ‘Many people come, and sometimes we stay until 3am.’
On non-party nights, a visit to The Sudanese Social Club – one of Oud Metha’s many sub- community social clubs offering Dubai’s diverse population a slice of home – is a more relaxed affair. Three friends kick back in plastic chairs, sharing a plate of shahan ful while watching ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ on a television screen. ‘When we were younger, in Sudan, we all wanted to be like him. Now he’s boring,’ says one. In another room, a lively game of whist plays out, its pace as quick as the ping pong rhythm of a table tennis game that’s taking place behind.
Perched on a cream pleather sofa in a back office, the club’s manager, Mamdoh, explains that the Sudanese Social Club was the first expat club to open in the UAE, in 1974; those flourishing around it – the Iranian Club, the Norwegian Seaman’s Club – are built on the land it once occupied.
After isha prayers, Dubai’s Sudanese community makes its way to the Club to socialise, attend weddings, funerals or anything else in between. ‘In Sudan, there are many tensions between its people,’ says Mamdoh. ‘Outside of Sudan, the same people are like one big family.’ Issam agrees: the members of the Sudanese Social Club treat each other like family. ‘He’s like my brother,’ he says, introducing one friend. ‘And he’s actually my cousin,’ he says, introducing another.