Desert to Jungle

Three new expats, two human, one canine, countless adventures

Leaving the Glitz Behind – A Jaunt Through Old Dubai

A shop in the Spice souk

A shop in the Spice souk

The glitzy side of Dubai, with its huge malls and skyscrapers with their million dollar apartments, is never far away but a jaunt through old Dubai is a journey through a city with a different story to tell.  A story of trade, of people, and of exotic spices from faraway lands.

I begin my morning on the Deira side of Dubai Creek,the waterway that has been the key to trade in the area since the wooden cargo-laden dhows first began plying the waters of the Arabian Gulf.

I stroll through the gold souq and, shortly after opening time, I seem to be the only tourist here.  I’m not a fan of gold but the shops with their glittering window displays are a sight to behold even if you have no interest in buying.

Suitably dazzled, I move on from the alleys full of gold to wander the back streets and into a part of the souqs that I’ve not found myself in before, with shops selling all manner of household things-you-never-knew-you-needed. I very soon come upon the spice souq and decide to go to one end and work my way back so as not to miss anything. It’s easy to get pleasantly disoriented in the souqs and I realise when I get to the start of the spice souq instead of the end that I had been walking in the exact opposite direction to what I thought.

The spice souq is a wonderful treat for the senses, with the competing aromas of spices and incense, the different colours, textures and shapes as you pass the sacks piled high outside each small shop.

The workers are generally from Iran or Pakistan and there are also many Omani traders wandering around (Omanis wear kandouras, the traditional long robes of the Gulf, but are distinguishable by the round hats they wear or the particular way they tie their headscarves). Whilst wandering I chat with Pashtun shopkeepers about Peshawar (all bad), with Iranian shopkeepers about the election in their homeland (all good) and with everybody about the merits of frankincense from Sudan versus Iran versus Oman – no contest, nobody tries to argue the fact that the best of the best comes from southern Oman, just as it has done since long before biblical times.

By the end of my wander back up and down the souq, shaded from the burning sun by the wooden roof over the alley, I was smelling of various different perfume oils which shop keepers had dabbed on me while I pondered which to buy, and I was stocked up with cardamom seeds and ready for one of my favourite things to do in Dubai.

Old Dubai seen from an abra on Dubai Creek

Old Dubai seen from an abra on Dubai Creek

For the princely sum of 1 dirham (15p/25 US cents) I took an abra (water taxi) across Dubai Creek. The abras shuttle back and forth across the Creek from early morning till late at night, carrying mainly South Asian workers commuting between the crowded and congested Deira side with the gold and spice souqs, and Bur Dubai with its endless fabric shops in an area known as Meena Bazaar, the touristy souq, and many other small businesses. Out on the water, cooled by the breeze, we pass the cargo dhows being loaded and unloaded as they always have, only the cargo changing over time. When fully stocked they cross the Gulf to the ports of southern Iran.

A wander through the souq selling all the touristy souvenirs is always fun. This time the shop workers are mostly from Pakistan or Afghanistan and try to entice me in with dirt cheap pashminas. It’s all nicely low key and low pressure, even though I’ve somehow arrived when there are few tourists around and have every shopkeeper in the passageway chasing my custom. A couple place pashminas around my shoulders but it’s not, unlike in many countries, a transparent excuse to touch a woman as they never come into contact with me. With unasked-for pashminas around my shoulders what else is there to do except exclaim ‘how beautiful, a free gift, thank you so much!’ as I walk away and then quickly whip the wrap off and toss it back to the slightly bemused man behind me.

Another view from the Creek

Another view from the Creek

I could continue up the Creek (so to speak) to reach Dubai’s oldest building, Al Fahidi Fort built in 1799 and now home to Dubai Museum, or meander further through Bastakiya, the heritage area with its beautiful restored old wind tower buildings, but it’s getting hot so time to repair to one of my favourite cafes, Bayt al Wakeel. This eatery is housed in what was Dubai’s first office building, built in 1934 by the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai.  Sheikh Rashid was responsible for kick-starting the development of Dubai from a small clusters of villages to the ‘anything is possible’ world city we see today and is father of the current ruler, the much-love Sheikh Mohammed.

Bayt al Wakeel’s food is distinctly average but the setting is sublime with the outdoor seats on a platform jutting out over the Creek . I sit for a while drinking mint tea and watching life on the busy Creek. I could sit in this spot all day.

Bollywod clothing store - I suspect the 'sale' is a permanent feature

A store catering to Dubai’s huge South Asian population

By the time I leave, having read my newspaper cover to cover and drank two pots of tea, it’s after 1pm and the streets are very quiet. It’s getting on for 40C and most sensible people are indoors. I wander in the general direction of where I think the metro station should be (I’ve only ever taken taxis in this area in the past), and come across a couple of Indian women whom I ask for directions – women are not too plentiful in the streets in old Dubai, where everybody going about their business seems to be male. They kindly go a little out of their way to point me in the direction of the metro station and bid me farewell outside the very colourful and large Bollywood clothing store. Bollywood is having a big sale, a permanent feature I suspect, but somehow I’m not tempted, just looking forward to the cooling a-c in the metro station.

The metro station itself is an attraction, it has lots of pictures of traditional pursuits and old buildings, of men riding camels and horses, of the old wind towers in houses and, my favourites, of falcons. A few photos later and I’m on the ultra modern, efficient and clean, four year old metro system, cocooned in air conditioning, making my way above the twelve lanes of traffic, along the grand avenue of high rise towers that make up Sheikh Zayed Road, to my home in what is very much ‘new’ Dubai.

It feels like a train journey from one era to another.

The Info

Arrival metro station in Deira – Al Ras on the green line

Departure metro station in Bur Dubai- Al Ghubaiba on the green line

Walking tours:; the Latimer trail:…

Dubai public transport journey planner:…


3 comments on “Leaving the Glitz Behind – A Jaunt Through Old Dubai

  1. hnd
    September 17, 2013

    I’m sure I’ve read something slightly similar a few months ago, I’ll see if I can find it and post the link!!

  2. Billy Riley
    March 7, 2014

    Sounds superb.

    I watched a program once about the world, Andrew Marr possibly, and spices from the east were a huge trading commodity – worth massive amounts of money and the trading lanes had to be kept open – one of the reasons Britain had such a huge and powerful navy.

    • Noor
      March 16, 2014

      It seems funny to us now that control of the spices routes was so important and they were so valuable. Something to think of next time you buy some black pepper in Tesco!

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