Take a picture tour around a part of the city that time forgot
Dubai’s fast-paced lifestyle means it can be easy to overlook its rich cultural history. Rob Garratt heads to the creek to rediscover a part of the city that time forgot. Photography Lester Ali
We all know Dubai Creek: the pretty, picture-postcard location that lures tourists hunting for a glimpse of a more ‘traditional’ side of Dubai. Yet the creek is more than just a quaint reminder of a bygone era. It remains a thriving import-export trade hub that fuelled the city’s industry long before the discovery of oil. Today that industry is still sustained by primitive, rickety dhows that ferry cargo across the region to destinations as varied as Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Oman, India, Yemen and even Somalia and Sudan.
Each dhow that lines the historic waterway, and each sailor that crews them, has a story to tell as they help to keep this piece of Dubai history alive. A visit to the creek will leave you intoxicated by the sights, sounds, smells and flavours of the past. Scores of rusty, paint-flecked dhows bob by the creekside as the scents of seaweed merge with exotic spices; steel clatters against wood as diesel engines chug into life. Washing machines, rusty tools, packs of chewing gum, traditional fabrics, piles of tyres and old dilapidated sofas line the 4.5km of waterside that arches from Deira’s Gold Souk down to the dhow wharfage.
For the thousands of weathered workers who toil every day at the waterside, lugging boxes on and off boats in an endless cycle of import and export, the creek is both a way of life and a lifeline. We meet Mohezakar, who has spent the past 35 years driving goods back and forth from Sharjah to the docks. He works long hours, starting at 6am and finishing 12 hours later, but the 55-year-old Pakistani seems content. ‘Yes it’s too hot [now],’ he says, ‘but it’s not a problem. [It’s] just go, go, go. I like it here.’
Above, an Iranian crew of sailors preparing to load up for another voyage: the men usually make two return trips a month.
The bulk of vessels he supplies are destined for Iran, where trade links with Dubai prospered even before oil catapulted the emirate’s development. Today, there are an estimated 8,000 Iranian businesses in Dubai.
Further down the waterside we meet a crew of Iranian seafarers who are less enthusiastic about their twice-monthly voyages home. ‘It’s difficult [work],’ concedes 28-year-old Hossein Abbasi, his cracked English adding a gravity to his words. He points at a towering stack of 100kg boxes to illustrate his point.
Above, Hossein Abbasi and his crew wait for the morning’s delivery, enjoying a rare moment of rest before they begin shifting boxes – many of the crates weigh more than 120kg.
A couple of boats further along, we spot a weathered Iranian sailor unloading the morning supply of ice, a primitive cooling mechanism for the crew’s supplies. We approach him and discover he’s spent 30 years traversing the narrow 90-mile stretch of the Gulf that separates Dubai from Iran’s ports. After carefully counting a wad of notes, he looks up to offer us a crooked smile.
The luxuries of fresh blocks of ice and a diesel engine are among the few developments that have graced the dhows since the creek became a bustling trade hub around 130 years ago. It was about this time that Dubai’s status as a trade hub was kick-started: Iran’s rulers had started to tax Qawasim merchants docking at Bandar Lengeh, and later Bushehr, on the country’s southern coast. In a bid to entice the tribesmen to dock at Dubai instead, then-ruler HH Sheikh Hasher bin Maktoum Al Maktoum (1850-1886) abolished trade taxes, which is believed to have been the beginning of the city’s long-standing reputation as a tax-free haven. This move led to the influx of Iranian merchants – 500 arrived by 1901 – who were each given a free plot of land on the south side of the creek, which they used to build the wealthy Bastakiya neighbourhood, with its iconic air-cooling towers that are still standing today (albeit heavily reconstructed).
Above, ‘The Chief’ waits aboard as goods are lifted up to him.
Fast-forward to 2012 and we walk further inland, around the Deira side of the creek past the Baniyas abra station, to where larger vessels are docked at the dhow wharfage. Despite the heat and the long working hours of many of these men, we watch crews laugh and joke with one another while going about their duties. We approach the loudest crew first, a group of young Pakistani men dressed in white vests and long, brightly-coloured sarongs. They have the swagger of young men, full of energy, and are quick to exchange jokes with us.
After several minutes of laughter, 27-year-old Amir Ali stops to chat. He’s in Dubai to earn money, but admits he longs for home. Does he have a wife waiting for him there? He stares into the distance. ‘For one year
I had a wife, but it is finished.’
Above, Noman Ali (front centre) with the rest of his crew. The 28-year-old Iranian reveals that each journey takes a month – two weeks each way.
On the other side of the pier. another Pakistani crew are thrilled at the idea of being photographed, queuing up to pose with beaming, hooked grins. We ask about their routine. ‘Two weeks away – two weeks come back,’ explains 28-year-old Noman Ali of his boat’s regular trips to Iran. We ask him about his cargo. ‘What’s in the boxes? I don’t know.’ While the contents of the cargo are of no concern to him, the weight is. ‘Every box, 120kg – very heavy,’ interrupts his 30-year-old friend Wayal Ayli, motioning towards his back.
It’s hard work, especially in the heat, but as trade continues to boom the dhows continue to sail, day in, day out, and the time-honoured lifestyle of these men rolls on. Watching them go about their work, with the sun shining over the creek’s rippling waters, there’s an unshakeable sense that this tradition will continue for many years to come.
Above, Pakistani workers stop and smile between unloading at the dhow wharfage. Many come to Dubai to earn money, but long to return home.