In the 30 years since I left Dubai to reside in Canada, I had returned to the emirate only once, eight years ago. But on that occasion, my host had focused on introducing me to the “world’s biggest” attractions that had sprung up in the intervening years and made Dubai the Las Vegas of the Middle East: Palm Island, Burj Dubai, Burj Al Arab, Dubai Mall, the theme parks, and all the “cities within the city” like Computer City, Sports City and Medical City. We had travelled down massive highways and traversed the urban sprawl that now connected Dubai and Sharjah, and Dubai and Jebel Ali, where once there had been only white sand desert between those points. None of these new places, monuments and concrete jungles had any significance for me on that trip. So when I returned this time in January 2017, I wanted to be right at the heart, where it had all begun for me, at the Carlton Tower Hotel in Deira by the abra boats that crossed the creek and had taken me back and forth to work twice-daily.
The airport is a bit of a shock—massive, is an understatement. Transferring from an arriving flight to the arrivals terminal can take 20 minutes by apron shuttle. The insides of the airport are opulent, littered with duty-free shops and built to carry expanding traffic for the next 20 years. On the outside, the airport stretches way past Al Ghusais which was once the outback for us. The airport taxis come in different flavours: metered, limos, and liveried with female drivers for women passengers and families. We took a liveried taxi with a courteous female driver who efficiently delivered us to the hotel, at a fare that was only a few dirhams more than the fixed rate of 30 dirhams we used to pay the stern, uncommunicative, male Emirati drivers burning rubber in Mercedes Benzes.
The Carlton Tower, where I spent my first two weeks in Dubai back in 1980, had been my initial refuge because Ramadan was declared a couple of days after my arrival and finding food during daylight on the street was impossible; the restaurant in the hotel had been most obliging. Today that restaurant had been supplemented with a coffee shop and two nightclubs, Thai and Russian, testament to Dubai’s growing diversity and boldness. Outside my window, the creek still bustled with dhows and smaller boats but many of the dhows, once used to carry cargo up and down the Gulf, had been converted into “dinner and show” sailing boats for tourists. The temperature in January hovered between 15-20 degrees Celsius, pleasant, compared to my initial entry on the hottest day of the year (48 degrees Celsius), in July 1980, when they fried eggs on car bonnets, and the exhausts from air-conditioners blowing out into the streets made a walk outdoors feel like stepping through Dante’s Inferno.
I walked over to the abra dock, formerly a flight of stairs leading down to the water where you jumped off the last step into the boat and hoped you didn’t fall in the drink, where the captain sat in the central well of the vessel and banged his fists on the floor boards midstream, demanding that the twenty passengers seated around the gunwale toss their 25 fils coin at him as passage fare (those who threw larger coin were frowned upon and those who didn’t throw anything were tossed overboard, or so the legend went), and where the smell of diesel fuel was so overpowering that you disembarked on the other bank with a petroleum high—the mark of living in a petrodollar state, the legend also said. This time the abra dock was secure with gates, and steps led right on board the many boats that came and went in rapid succession. The price for crossing the creek had climbed up to a dirham (still cheap!) and the captain courteously collected his money by walking around, handing out change where necessary, and doing all this before we took off. And now, an overabundance of gulls followed us, a population that had seemingly thrived over the years, diving in riveting formations whenever anyone threw food overboard—a spectacular show of aerial acrobatics during the ten-minute crossing.
I had learned by now, when visiting places after long intervals of time, to follow the road, for the road never changes, the buildings around it do. I decided to revisit the Souks, following the familiar pathways that had once taken me to them. The Textile Souk on the Par Dubai side covered most of the streets radiating out from the abra station. I remembered bargaining for silks to take back home as gifts that the relatives painstakingly tailored into saris, pants and blouses; now that practice was inconvenient, for we only bought disposable garments ready-made in China, sold with American brand labels. And yet bales of cloth in all colours and textures stood proudly displayed inside shops in the souk, manned by Indian merchants armed only with a pair of scissors and a calculator, ever-ready to “cut a deal.” And while we walked, the muezzin called loudly from loudspeakers in the many mosques that dotted this neighbourhood. On the opposite bank, in Deira, the Gold Souk and its companion Spice Souk, another set of narrow streets with canvas overhangs in the old days, had become tourist attractions; groups descended from boats and busses and flocked to these souks that were mazes of well-marked and illuminated streets glittering with the precious metal displayed in fragile windows and overflowing with bags holding rare spices from around the world. I wondered whether the Three Wise Men had stopped here en-route and stocked up on gold, frankincense and myrrh while following that elusive star—they had surely missed out on the red saffron that seemed to be everyone’s hot favourite!
The Dubai Fort had been a crumbling relic of the time when the Trucial States guarded the waterways of the Arabian Gulf and extracted tolls from merchants. Today, the outer fort remained the same, and yet below-ground was a vast museum: an array of subterranean displays built to depict the life of the Bedouin who had settled this area, including a room with artefacts from the Ruler’s private collection that provided clues to this civilization’s connection to the classical Abbasid caliphate, artefacts uncovered from archeological digs in nearby Jumeirah.
As I had no interest in Dune Bashing or Sandboarding, two popular tourist activities for the more physically agile, we decided on a sedate creek cruise. Back on the Deira side now, and after a brief bargaining session which satisfied both buyer and seller (one always bargained here – it was a cultural requirement), we took a water taxi for a ride down the creek in the opposite direction to the earlier abra rides. As we neared the Al Makhtoum bridge, I recalled that my two road accidents in Dubai had been on this very bridge—one while crossing Deira into Par Dubai and the other while returning in the opposite direction—results of the manic speeds that everyone behind the wheel of a vehicle in the emirate had to follow lest they be run over or side-swiped. I remembered the little park by the bridge on the Dubai side beside the British Council Library where I had tried to teach my son to play cricket; that attempt proved unproductive for he was snatched up by baseball instead when he got to Canada a few years later. There were newer bridges across the creek now, in addition to the Makhtoum Bridge, the more distant Al Gharoud Bridge and the Shindaga Tunnel of the past, but our boat had to turn around at the newer Floating Bridge as it was closed to water traffic during the day.
As we sailed back, the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, rose like a needle piercing the heavens, rising behind the very private, late-Qatari Emir Sheikh Ahmed’s palace (one of his wives was the daughter of the former Ruler of Dubai) that graced the banks of the waterway, a vast property secluded now as it was then, making me realize that for all the years I had lived in Dubai, I had never been offered a glimpse into the lives of the Emiratis. We expatriates, who vastly outnumbered the locals, then as now, had led compartmentalized lives within our ethnic enclaves, meeting for exchange and intercourse only when engaging in some kind of forced business or social transaction. The locals had always lived apart and had been our bosses and sponsors, whose assent gave us permission to reside and work in Dubai, and for some of us earning a sufficient amount of income, the opportunity to bring our families along with us.
(To be continued…)