No pomp, no skyscrapers, and no traffic noise: if you visit the historic Al Fahidi district in the heart of Dubai, you will get to know the Arab metropolis from a completely different perspective. Narrow, winding streets, traditional wind towers, and low-rise mud houses dominate the image of the so-called Al Bastakiya.
Founded more than 100 years ago by immigrants from Iran, the district in the immediate vicinity of Dubai Creek has meanwhile transformed into popular art and cultural district with museums, galleries, cafés, and cultural centers. In the 1990s, the quarter was almost on the verge of demolition, which a prominent prince was ultimately able to prevent.
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It is very quiet and almost deserted when we stroll through the maze of the old town in Dubai at early noon. The sun is burning, but luckily it is pleasantly cool in the shade along the light clay facades. The first settlers already knew how to deal with the high temperatures on site. The narrow and dense development has created small, windy streets. With the help of wind towers in the houses, the wind could be “captured”. The so-called Barajeel works like a natural fan and directs fresh air into all rooms.
Although the district was renovated over 10 years ago, the architectural legacy of that time is still clearly visible: the houses are made of plaster, stone, shells, limestone, teak, palm, and sandalwood and impressively embody life in Dubai before the Oil boom. In the 1990s, however, the ruling sheikh planned to tear down the Al Fahidi district. But the district had a prominent advocate: none other than Prince Charles of England is said to have campaigned for the preservation of the district during his visit to Dubai.
The narrow streets repeatedly lead past small, ornate, and inviting squares. These are equipped with trees, palms, colorful shrubs, and seating and offer an ideal opportunity for a relaxing break.
Modern street art paintings can be found on many house walls and abstract sculptures can often be seen in the squares. The works of art are exhibits at the Sikka Art Fair, which takes place annually as part of the Dubai Art Season and shows the work of young Emirati artists. While walking through Al Bastakiya we discover a multitude of charming cafés, handicraft shops, galleries, and museums that can be visited for free or for little money. These include the Coffee Museum, the Coin Museum, and the Architectural Heritage Society. Signs indicating facilities in the district that are worth seeing make orientation easier.
A special highlight awaits us at lunchtime in the Al Fahidi district. We have an appointment for a cultural lunch at the Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU). Housed in a traditional wind tower house, the SMCCU would like to bring the culture, religion, and tradition of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) closer to visitors and enter into an open dialogue with them.
According to the motto of the organization – open doors.open minds. In a beautiful open room, we take turns taking a seat on flat Bedouin cushions, while many local dishes such as lamb machboos, chicken biryani, vegetarian dishes, and dates are spread out on huge plates in front of us. The moderator of the Cultural Lunch Ahmed Al Jafflah welcomes all guests and first introduces the food rituals of the Emiratis. Meanwhile, we are served a delicious coffee with cardamom and saffron to start with. Emiratis traditionally only eat with three fingers of their right hand, the left one is considered unclean. However, the visitors are served the dishes on plates and cutlery.
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After the meal, an open question and answer session begins on the topics of cultural traditions, religious customs, or the position of men and women. Astonishing findings emerge that refute one or the other prejudice about the behavior and attitudes of Emiratis. In the UAE, for example, there is a new law that guarantees women the same wages as men.
There are also surprises when it comes to clothing: the widespread black overgarment used by women – the abaya – was originally imported into the UAE by Iranian immigrants. For women, however, there are also colored garments with lots of decorative embroideries.
During the cultural lunch, both female and male guests can try on traditional robes and test homemade perfumes and feel like a real Emirati. The events of the SMCCU are very informative, humorous, and definitely worthwhile.
The Majlis Gallery
If you want to forego eating in the SMCUU, you will also find other recommended dining options. Above all, the Arabian Tea House should be mentioned here, which is almost a must for a stay in Dubai. Here you can experience and taste classic, Arabic meals in an authentic ambiance with a beautiful backyard terrace and friendly, courteous service.
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In the presence of the gentle twittering of birds and comfortable wicker armchairs in the shade of the many trees, guests can enjoy a sumptuous meal or just take a short break with a glass of tea or the refreshing mint lemonade. Those who still have a taste for art can examine modern works by international artists in the adjoining The Majlis Gallery in a charming backyard. A visit to Al Fahidi is also worth seeing in the evening, the district then turns into atmospheric light and the alleys are pleasantly warm.
The Al Bastakiya is located in Bur Dubai near Dubai Creek. From the Al Fahidi Metro Station (green metro line) it is a 10-minute walk to the entrance to the historic district. Alternatively, the district can be reached from the Deira side by means of an Abra and a 15-minute walk. Admission is free, galleries are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., cafes and restaurants mostly from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.