Rewind back to the time when you first landed in Dubai. What was it that you noticed first about the city? The twinkling skyline or the cascading waterfalls? The supercars on Sheikh Zayed Road? It’s not out of the ordinary to be awestruck by the new developments that make Dubai the world-class city it is today, but everyone should find time to step back from the glitz and remember the city for what it was in the old days.
Grandma might not be around to tell us a bedtime story about how Dubai grew up and outwards from the Creek or who its original residents were, but luckily, we have the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) to narrate the story of the emirate’s past for us.
The SMCCU is located in one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Dubai, making it ideally placed for historic tours. It’s a warm day, but when I arrive at the centre for the Heritage Tour, the sandy-hued walls of Bur Dubai’s Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood steal the attention from the beads of sweat forming on my forehead. So much so, that I head out to take photos of the low-lying, Arabian architecture and forget that I have to report to the main meeting point and end up being the last one to join the group. Oops.
The Heritage Tour starts in an air-conditioned courtyard, with everyone sitting on the floor on patterned Bedouin-style cushions, sipping Arabic coffee. As the presenter, Rashid Al Tamimi, tells us how the SMCCU was born, everyone nibbles on dates. Welcome to Dubai, you guys!
“His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, saw the need to reach out and educate expatriates in the traditions and customs of the UAE, and his vision saw SMCCU start in 1998,” Al Tamimi explains. “We’re here to not just educate the expats who call Dubai home, but also tourists who want to see something more than another high-rise building.”
Our group of 25 people, who appear to be from all over the world, are incredibly inquisitive about Emirati culture. The royal family might have been the hot topic of the hour, but Al Tamimi is more keen to discuss local fashion and style with our group. That’s my guy.
We spend the next half-hour learning about the variations in the national dress and why someone from Saudi Arabia wears a kandura with a different drape, while a UAE national boasts a unique style. Women’s abayas are also discussed, with Dolce & Gabbana’s luxurious collection getting a mention (and praise) for making a significant style statement among the younger generation of Emiratis.
After our lesson on Emirati culture, we head out for a walk around the historic neighbourhood. Al Tamimi explains its origins: “Because of the location of this area, the Al Fahidi district was an excellent hub for traders and pearl divers. About 100 years ago, the UAE had 80 percent of the Gulf’s pearls, and this Creekside district was bustling back in the day.” We then sit in Diwan Mosque and learn more about Islam and its origins, before heading back to our courtyard through the cobbled pathways of Al Fahidi.
As we wait for a lunch of traditional Emirati food to be served, it starts to dawn on me that until now, I didn’t know quite as much as I should about Dubai’s past.
It’s easy to get caught up in the brunches and Burj Khalifas of this city, and just as easy to forget that the heartbeat of Dubai will always be in the narrow streets of this part of town.
Distracting me from this moment of self-awareness is the waft of chicken biryani and lamb madfoon. The tour has given me a lot to contemplate, and contemplate it I will. But right now, there’s a delicious plate of rice with my name on it. Shukran!
Heritage Tour: Dhs65 per person (90 minutes). Sun, Tue, Thu 10.30am. Sat 9am. Cultural Lunch: Dhs90 per person (90 minutes). Sun and Tue 1pm. SMCCU, House 26, Al Musallah Road, Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, Bur Dubai, www.cultures.ae (04 353 6666).