Romain Maitra enjoys the ease with which tradition blends seamlessly with modernity in Dubai.
I have heard that Eid in Dubai is indubitably the time to look out for. It is when this Arab land turns its back on tradition. After the holy month of Ramadan, the Emiratis indulge in festivities; roads, malls, and every major landmark light up. I decide to stay off these urban festivities but instead see how Dubai continues to remain at the cusp of faith, tradition and history.
The best, and perhaps the cheapest, way to have a summary introduction to the city is to take the Big Bus Tour. Double Decker Buses start at regular intervals from Burjman Centre and with a single ticket you can hop on to one and get down at any of the many stops. And then hop on to another bus to another place in the tour’s itinerary. I do exactly that and have quick glimpses of Creek Park, the Gold Souk (Market), the Spice Market, Dubai Museum, and the distant Burj al-Arab, the seven-star luxury hotel that stands tall on an artificial island in the sea, connected to the mainland only by a private bridge.
But this is not what I am in Dubai for. The desert beckons and I decide to disappear from the festive city. A few miles after crossing the city limit, Al Badayer, a busy doorway appears. This is where the desert safari will begin. Hefty Toyota Land Cruisers pulsate like gladiators ready for the hazards of bone-rattling dune bashing as a preamble to the desert safari. There are outstretched wavy sand dunes ahead. On the way, I have already noticed a water tanker cleansing away wind-driven sand layers from the road so that the track does not eventually disappear and blend with the desert.
As I leap over to the front seat of a Land Cruiser and fasten my seat belt, I have little idea how ,in the next half-hour, I would lapse into droll insignificance, much like the state of a handkerchief in an accelerated washing machine. The driver struggles through the infinite formations of dune surfaces. On the way, I notice some casualties — some Cruisers broken down, some tourist riders getting down from the vehicle to, as the driver reveals, puke.
I stop on the way to watch the gorgeous sunset before reaching the campsite where numerous Cruisers have gathered — an indication that hordes of tourists have been brought in for touristy shindigs that offer camel rides, henna painting, Arabic folk and belly dancing, and what have you. I settle down in an alcove and take drags from a shisha, as the snorting hubble-bubble is called here. A belly dancer begins to sway in the distance.
The radiant Jumeirah Mosque is built in the medieval Fatimid tradition combined with some nuances of modern-day creativity. The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding there offers Islamic Dubai’s lenient form of the “open doors, open minds” approach to promote Islamic religion and culture, specially among non-Muslim visitors. It also cracks other conventions like allowing photography inside and the preaching of Islam by women, that too by, as I gauged from the accents, British women.
Both the belly dancer and the women preachers fit well into Dubai’s scheme of things. Likewise, one can travel back and forth in time between visiting a traditional souq in the fringes and ascending the gobsmacking 828m-high Burj Khalifa in downtown, designed by Adrian Smith as a collection of tubes reaching various heights around the central core to help “confuse” the wind by preventing it from forming vortices of air.
I choose to drift in two different kinds of malls — each catering to opposite tastes. The Ibn Battuta Mall, the largest themed mall in the Middle East, is gorgeously designed with an environment-based theme, within the grand space of 3.1 million sq.ft.
Those with a taste for the intimate may prefer to meander inside the Souk Madinat Jumeirah, a Xanadu of carved wooden archways and twined passages with rows of shops that peddle a motley of exquisite traditional Arabian and Middle Eastern wares.
One of the downsides of any short-span foreign travel is that you do not get to know the local people well enough. In the throngs at public spaces, I fail to distinguish their visual identities as individuals. Here, the Emirati man and the Emirati woman — with his signature-style ankle-length white shirt kandura, and with her black long over-garment abaya — seem to proclaim loyalty to a constructed identity, while hiding their real individuality under the homogenous outfit. The individual standing close in the throng can yet disappear from your view, although retaining the power to observe you from the costume’s visor. But with a spark of a smile from that window, the wall turns into a bridge.