Tucked away behind the medical centres of Healthcare City and edged up next to Creek Park lies a haven of Emirati heritage and new generation modernity that until recently had been unknown to many Dubaians and visitors.
First opened in 1982, the area known as Al Boom Tourist Village has undergone a two-year face lift, taking it from being a tired and often forgotten area, to a beautifully curated arts space that blends local history with a modern vision. After its relaunch in December, the area is now known as Zaman Awal, named after the district’s centrepiece restaurant.
Spread across 15 acres along the Creek, the land was given to the Bin Harib family over 80 years ago, where they set up their maritime business. While it may be the older generation that established the foundations, it’s the younger family members that are breathing new life into the stories, artefacts and heritage left to them.
We meet 28-year-old Hamama Bin Harib, creative manager at Zaman Awal, for a tour of the area. Bin Harib oversaw the changes to the area, and first shows us towards a huge wooden boat called Al Aref, which stands at the heart of the venue. She tells us about her grandfather, Mohammed Matar bin Lahij, who built and captained the vessel. “He built this boat here in Dubai and sailed it to Iraq. I remember he would tell us so many stories about his travels and time out at sea.”
Visitors to Zaman Awal can walk through the ship’s hold, breathing in the smell of old wood, and head to the upper deck, which has been converted into an art café called Sketch. The café was designed by Bin Harib’s uncle, an artist, and attracts an equally creative crowd. “We have a guy that comes here almost every day for around four hours, and he just sits here, drinks coffee, writes and draws,” says Bin Harib.
And it is easy to see why. On our midweek visit, the place is peaceful and feels a million miles away from the bustle of the Sheikh Zayed Road and Dubai International Airport, both just a few kilometres away. The only occasional disturbance comes from the seaplanes taking off from and landing on the Creek.
Bin Harib tells us that the weekends and evenings are livelier as guests come with their families to the restaurant to sample traditional Emirati cuisine, or hire boats for private tours and parties.
Zaman Awal also houses a private art gallery with works from Emirati artists such as Fatmah Lotah, Farid Al Rais and Moza Al Falasi. Bin Harib’s uncle, Matar Bin Lahij, also has work on display – a grey-scale painting of the Al Aref ship, which has steadily been racking up bids.
Outside the gallery is a model of a boat called the MV Dara. Bin Harib tells us that the story of the ship is known locally as the “Titanic of the Gulf”. It sank near Umm Al Quwain in 1961, costing the lives of 238 passengers and crew. “This story should be like the Titanic here,” says Bin Harib. “People should know about this event, which is why we erected this model.”
Along the water’s edge, Bin Harib has installed simple but creative seating areas modelled on the traditional fishing cages known as Al Gargoor. Guests can sit majlis style on cushions and listen to the gentle waves hitting the shore.
Bin Harib plans to install more of the Al Gargoor seating pods by next winter, and also plans to create a fish market where guests can select local fish and have it cooked to their taste on site.
Zaman Awal also has a souk selling abayas and gifts, with stalls designed by another creative family member, Mohammed Saeed Harib, who is the creator of the popular cartoon series Freej. The Emirati cartoon characters are the inspiration for a ‘village’ within Zaman Awal, and a courtyard for events.
Harib tells us that it may be another year before all the new developments and extensions are complete, and once the Dubai Canal is finished, water taxis will be stopping at the venue’s pier. “My grandfather was going to sell this place,” Bin Harib explains. “But you only need to see it once to see just how unique it is. There are not many places like this in Dubai.”
More gems of Old Dubai
Arabian Tea House
Located in a traditional wind tower, you can enjoy more than 100 kinds of tea at this laid-back café and gallery.
Open daily 7.30am-10pm. Al Fahidi Street, Bur Dubai, www.arabianteahouse.co (04 353 507104 353 5071).
Peruse the modern art before heading to the beautiful courtyard café serving vegetarian Middle Eastern cuisine, all housed within the boutique hotel.
Open daily 7am-9pm. Al Fahidi Street, Bur Dubai, www.xvahotel.com (04 353 538304 353 5383).
The Women’s Museum
Founded by Professor Rafia Obaid Ghubash, this collection tells the story of Emirati women and their role in society.
Dhs20 per person. Open Sat-Thu 10am-7pm. Bait Al Banat, Sikka 28, Old Gold Souq, Deira, www.womenmuseumuae.com (04 234 234204 234 2342).