The unknown sides of Dubai

Dubai is not just about its manicured skyscape and shopping. There is a lot more to relish in the country of Burj Khalifa. Read on to find out

A part of the New Dubai skyline.
A part of the New Dubai skyline.
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Romain Maitra

Every time I visit Dubai, this hybrid mega-space where multiple realities cohabit, collide, and cross-fertilise, I witness sameness and change simultaneously, depending where one is visiting. Whether in the seamy side of Dubai, the areas of intimate throbs and pulsations of old charm that vibrate behind the city’s lacquered exterior, or whether the Dubai of the mercurial present, where the human will towards material and palpable progress prances high to gallop into an utopian future.

However, if there is any monumental landmark that visually divides these two sides – the Old Dubai and its winding creek from the New Dubai – it is the resplendent ‘Dubai Frame’. Situated in Zabeel Park, the Frame is a gigantic picture frame of two parallel towers of 150 meters each, linked by a 100-meters-wide horizontal observation deck right on the top.

Each panel of the Frame is a stainless steel sheet that is coated with titanium nitrate to create a thin film of gold colouring on the surface, and over 15,000 square meters of gold cladding cover the Frame’s exterior. The choice of Zabeel Park, however, was due to the area’s location that provides an unobstructed panoramic view of the two sides.

A visit inside the Dubai Fame is a journey across time as it is designed into three areas reflecting the past, present and future of Dubai. To begin with, the visitors are meant to step into an enclosed section for an engaging experience of Dubai’s past - with reconstructed traditional façades, and an old-style souq with rows of shops with illusory traditional sellers in them, being manoeuvred with black-and-white photo projections.

I then take the elevator ride to reach the observation deck level that introduces the Dubai of the present. Through the designed openings on the walls on each of the two glass-covered sides can be seen uninterrupted views of the city’s two sides. The northern side provides a clear view of the old city and its winding creek, lined with traditional historic buildings and graceful dhows, and the southern side has a clear view of the new city, crowned by its towering and majestic Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest structure till today.

Apart from the zigzag designs of this floor and the beams that support this level, there is a translucent glass panel along the middle of the floor which looks deep down, at the road level way below, to diminutive palm trees and floral designs. This floor also has all sorts of technology-driven displays of images, and information about the city and the Frame.

I descend back to another hall which, through video projection around its curved walls, creates a virtual time travel experience into Dubai’s future. This immersive projection transports the viewer 50 years ahead into a fast-paced, futuristic Dubai – technologically hyper-developed, along with other utopian presumptions.

A traditional Bedouin tent
A traditional Bedouin tent

As much as I wish to relish Dubai’s smug futuristic aspirations, it turns out to be such a pleasure to visit two striking places of which one celebrates Dubai’s zeal for promoting the arts, and the other being a scenic haven for social and familial outings.

Promise Bridge
Promise Bridge

We may recall that the UAE artistic community’s roots were sown in Sharjah in the 1980’s by the Emirates Fine Arts Society, an amalgam of experimental local artists – apart from Sharjah’s own well-known Art Biennial. However, since then, Dubai has dynamically created the Emirati art scene to become Middle East’s leading player in the art market with the yearly Art Dubai fair being its notable part.

Another important part of the art market is the ever-flourishing art district Alserkal Avenue in Dubai’s industrial estate of Al Quoz. From an erstwhile marble factory, Alserkal Avenue emerged in 2007 as the brainchild of the Alserkal family and, since then - with the family’s generous patronage - the art district thrived in tandem with the Middle East’s burgeoning art scenario. In a few years, some of the region’s best contemporary art galleries moved in more and more from the Emirates and other parts of the world.

As I move along in the evening into the district’s precinct, the desolate rows of erstwhile warehouses hardly indicate that almost each of them houses a private art gallery or an art space. Today, this district is a sanctuary for thriving visual and allied art practices from the world over, turning this neighbourhood now into a confluence of edgy creativity and cultural events - from the visual arts to the performing arts, from architecture to wardrobe and furniture design, and from boutiques to culinary experiences.

Lately, the Alserkals have added a vast new area as well as ‘Concrete’, a Rem Koolhaas-designed multi-disciplinary exhibition space and announced the formation of the not-for-profit Alserkal Arts Foundation to foster artistic development and offering residencies and educational programmes in Dubai.

I make sure to visit the Yard, another worthy stop, which is in the process of further development. Located in Al Khawaneej on the outskirts of Dubai, the Yard is a 350,000 square feet property next to the street food truck park Last Exit D89.

With a sprawling complex, lined with a pleasant walking trail and a man-made lake along with street-art murals adorning the adjacent wall, the Yard’s main area is a well-designed courtyard with sporadic art installations and flowery garden enclosures with seats, an organic farmers’ market, and a few indoor and outdoor restaurants and gossip cafes.

However, the most striking place to me here is the love-lock ‘Promise Bridge’ over the lake that resembles the pedestrian bridge ‘Pont des Arts’ over the Seine in Paris. The iron grills along the bridge’s two sides are densely adorned with attached padlocks as symbolic pledges made by people to their loved ones. The Yard aims to further flourish into a stimulating complex of innovative idea and design for splendid outings and refreshments.

No encounter with gastronomy could be complete in Dubai without a visit to the Spice Souq. Located in the old district of Deira, the Souq area has a main passage and several narrow lanes which have stores lining up on both sides displaying neatly arranged rows of colourful and aromatic spices for sale. Seeking help from the sellers, I manage to detect sesame, saffron, turmeric, nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, cumin, caraway, allspice, black pepper, sumac, aniseed, dried chilies and so on.

Along with these, are numerous dry fruits, tea, medicinal herbs, and all kinds of incenses I have never seen before. Being a tourist hub, these stores are also stacked with souvenir items like densely decorated plates and pots, textiles, rugs, footwear and so on.

A little away from that market I reach the adjacent Souq Al-Arsa which is a large open space located between buildings. It was built in the mid-19th century AD and, historically, it was a type of seasonal, traditional open market where many Bedouins and merchants of the coast used to visit to sell their goods such as dates, charcoal, etc.

Despite the huge influx of expatriates bringing their cuisines along from their countries to offer new delicacies to a cosmopolitan Dubai’s already diverse culinary culture, it is in these old precincts that the traditional Emirati cuisines find their ingredients in accordance with the region’s culture, climate and history.

The ‘Cirque de Cuisine’ Carnival at Atlantis The Palm is about to begin in an hour along the hotel’s sprawling corridor but I head past the area towards the huge aquarium which claims to house several thousand fish of several hundred different species.

This state-of-the-art aquarium is conceived around the mythical Lost City of Atlantis and consists of mock ruins and chambers brimming with sea life from across the world. On a closer look inside the aquarium, I notice divers from the house feeding the aquatic inmates and this is doubtless the best time to take photos due of the concentrated rush of myriad creatures towards the source of food.

I make my way to the ‘Lost Chambers of Atlantis’, a separate museum of special collection of fish kept in separate aquariums. The place is tunnel-like, slightly dark, with specially focused lights and it has the most magnificent varieties of jelly fish and other rare fishes. Going through the tunnel, which is wheelchair and pushchair accessible, would get you up and close with hundreds of marine creatures, from sharks, rays, eels, and seahorses to piranhas, reef fish and so on.

I notice the Queensland groupers which are currently considered to be vulnerable to extinction as a result of overfishing. They are popular particularly in the fish trade of South-East Asia where it is considered to be of great medicinal value and is thought to bring good luck. There is the flamboyant hoover and there the cleaner wrasse with striking colours.

In a symbiotic relationship, the former keeps its mouth wide open while allowing the latter to move in and feast on the parasites. Another aquarium is occupied by arapaima gigas, one of the largest freshwater fish from the Amazon river.

It is here that I meet Aisuluu from Kyrgyzstan who is an expert on aquatic creatures who guides me over to the adjoining Fish Hospital of the Atlantis. It a big hall with large drums, pipes with water of different temperatures and several equipment. She explains lucidly how the baby fish should be taken care of.

The new babies from the Aquarium are brought over to the Hospital where they are monitored, fed, and grown big enough to go back to public display. In this Hospital, seahorses and jellyfish are bred with special plankton food which are fed to them and to other larval fish.

She informs that the new animals must go through a quarantine period to ensure that they are free of any parasite or disease. This prevents them from any possibility of affecting the healthy animals on display. The Aquarium’s specialists provide the best care possible to the sick and injured animals in the Hospital. Once treated and nursed, the animals are brought back to the aquarium for public display. Artificial insemination have been carried out in captivity, and eggs and babies collected from the wild are often raised in captivity.

Inside one drum, Aisuluu points out baby horseshoe crabs, one of the oldest living species of the animal kingdom. Further away from it, there is a corner with equipment for Artemia culture. Very tiny Artemia or brine shrimp cysts can be stored for long periods and, when necessary, can be hatched with aeration, heater and light in 24 hours. Further, Super Selco, a vitamin enrichment supplement is added for another 24 hours for Artemia to feed and its orange coloured yolk is nutritious food source for baby seahorses, cuttlefish, jellyfish, corals and anemones. The hall is also adorned with displays of corals, shark skulls, and a long and pointed stingray barb with serrated edges.

Personally, it was a great lesson to be in touch with these aquatic critters. We know that scientists have often categorised fish with regard to their refusal to join our exodus out of the water and referred to their inability to reach out beyond their murky environment. However, it would be wrong to ascribe this fact to their cognitive disability since experiments on several kinds of fish have indicated that they have trauma when they are abruptly pulled from the watery depths by marauding gestures, or have minds replete with memories to the extent of recalling associations from the past several days.

“Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes,” wrote Italo Calvino in ‘Invisible Cities’. While the desert and the gulf distantly embrace this Emirati El Dorado, I imagine the camel driver and the sailor to be gazing in wonderment at the same old city that is constantly being born.

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