Monday, 30 April 2018

A City's Soul In Deira, Dubai

Deira Dubai Creek Dhow Cruise Travel Blog

"If you can't find it in Deira, you will never find it."

So impregnable was the belief of the merchants of Deira, at the booming hub of trade in the Gulf that dissecting its legitimacy would have been deemed purely absurd, if not sacrilegious.

Even today, in 2018, it is nearly impossible to not find your goal in the hustling souqs of Deira. It was only natural then to finally succumb to the tenets of trading yore. I had to immerse myself in the frenzy to involuntarily seek answers to questions I've had for Dubai since time immemorial.

Involuntarily since these answers could not simply be found with just one vendor in the souq - no goal-driven odyssey into Deira would ever yield what I sought. That was the blinkered blunder of my past; an unfortunate fallibility of my youth, and I was bound to correct it. In hindsight, as I finally type this out to you, it must've been the reckless abandon of a result to this quest that ironically did the trick.

They say if you can't find it in Deira, you will never find it.

It took some time, and I can't point exactly when, but I found it.

Having grown up in and with Dubai in my adolescence, I often struggled with a sense of detachment with 'my city', if I could take the privilege of calling it my own. But I didn't know why. It was an adolescent's want for something he couldn't understand, additionally disconcerting because couldn't put a finger to it. Dubai in the late 2000s was the place to be: the pearl of the United Arab Emirates, led by a prescient dynasty that had a vision to truly make it a globally significant city.

You were living the expat's dream.

With it came the perks of being in a technologically progressive and increasingly diversified environment that would be ideal for easily impressionable adolescents. However, the 'would's and the 'could's remained elusive and ephemeral. In stark contrast thrived this aforementioned sense of detachment which, while vague and perplexingly untraceable, was still undeniably and irrefutably real.

I found it hard to appreciate things that I watched grow, step by step, in gradual transitions (I'm pretty sure erudite psychologists would have some research material that would be able to justify the reasoning in these sentiments). As my school bus whizzed past the under-construction Burj Khalifa (then known as Burj Dubai), I watched it ascend towards the skies, storey on storey, week by week, so much so that the emphatic impression that world's tallest building should leave in a child's mind was lost by the time it was unveiled to the rest of the world.

I was there when the Dubai Mall, Jumeirah Beach Residence and even Downtown Dubai were just ambitious projects on erstwhile barren land. As an unfortunate aficionado of stories, context and history, it seemed that I was growing in a city that was growing with me and there was not much history to explore. There was not much history to read.

I was a part of the history being written.

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Deira Spice Souk Dubai UAE Travel Blog Tourism

The origin of Deira can be traced to 1841 when a smallpox epidemic coerced inhabitants out of Bur Dubai (represent!) and across the Creek. The geographical advantages of Dubai coupled with the lowering of trade tax brackets by the Emir resulted in the development of a community of merchants, primarily from Persia (now Iran). Religious and fiscal disputes in Bastak resulted in a mass exodus of traders migrating to the Arabian Gulf, and they took with them not just their skills but also multiple facets of the Persian culture, language and architecture.

Today, the badgirs or 'windcatchers' of Persia loom over the streets in Deira, heirlooms of a significant transposition of cultures. The migrants would later model their own little neighbourhood aptly named after their hometown in the heart of Bur Dubai: Al Bastakiya.

The origin of the name 'Deira', however, is under contention. While some believe it stems from 'دار' (dar) which means 'house', others dispute it refers to the contour of the land around the Creek, having taken its roots from 'استدارة' (aistidara) or 'roundness'.

Even amongst the proponents of the 'roundness' radix are some that believe the roundness refers instead to the circular nature of the trading business, of which Deira was a frenzied hub in the Gulf. It seems that bona fide facts on this matter shall now never be found, having been set irrevocably adrift in the streets of the souqs.


But Deira itself is not yet adrift. Despite having plunged significantly in importance in the last two decades, it is still here. As I aimlessly amble into the Spice Souk, Asif Khan from Afghanistan lures me and tries to ensconce me in a world where life without any of his products would be unbearable. Yet I'm not the only one - he is seen greeting tourists in Mandarin, Japanese, Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, Pashto and Dari.

It's not often you meet men who speak so many languages, but none too well (apart from their local dialect).

Deira Spice Souk Dubai UAE Travel Blog Tourism

His linguistic skills were sufficient to do the job I must admit, as I feign interest in his kaleidoscopic sacks of multi-hued spices. It takes him a while to open up beyond his practised sales monologue, but I manage to crack into the subterfuge with one of my fondest and only icebreakers: cricket (the other being Bollywood)

(embarrassing, I know)

It took a mutual admiration for Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Rehman's hypnotic bowling for him to break into his first genuine smile in our discourse, the beauty of which was undeterred by a decade of plastic smiles. He is eager, almost insistent, to show me his learnings in writing the Arabic alphabets. I let him scribble the words 'Sulphur - Skin Allergy' into my notebook, which seems to give him blatant joy and a suppressed sense of achievement.


Asif rues the months of heat, where he would have to sweat more and still earn less due to the seasonality of low business. In fact from his experience of twelve years of hollering in the souq, he feels the crowds have surprisingly started to thin. I find this slightly incredulous, as in my estimations the markets are quite crowded for a blazing, stifling Sunday morning, which happens to be the first day of the week in the UAE.

But Asif doesn't agree.

It's not that Dubai is no more a tourism haven, it's just that people now have more places to go.

As the metropolis moves further down south along the sheltered opulence of the Sheikh Zayed road, Deira settles itself into oblivion. Despite the alleged depleting volume of buyers, life still goes on and the curtains on the circus of trade are never drawn. As the spotlight shifts to the future, a certain darkness has started to descend in Deira, but yet it stays stubbornly mired in interminability, covertly watchful of its relics of the past.

Museum Of Poet Al Oqaili Deira Dubai UAE Travel Blog

One of these relics, nestled in midst of the crooked streets in close proximity to Heritage House, is the museum of the late poet Mubarak bin Al Oqaili. In the walls that housed a 'majlis' frequented by people of thought, science, literature and nobility can also be found excerpts from his poetry, amongst which are these lines from the poem 'Ask The Night':

I complain my grief to God, as I have no supporter for my sadness except my tears and unhappiness
Ask the night whether I have slept and whether my body got rest after your abandonment

I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It seems that Deira does hide some stories from the past.

Do you see it?

One of the reasons I was transfixed by my explorations in London and Manchester was the inherent and inescapable depth. There was context in the alleys - murmurs of ballads of the past that if you looked hard enough and strained your ears hard enough you would see it and hear it.

You would start to feel it.

The fresh garlands at the memorials to fallen warriors, the vitriolic graffiti by the creatures of the night, the impromptu acts of busking, the embellishments of the present and the scars of the past.

These things to me, I must confess, gave a city its soul.

Deira Clock Tower Dubai UAE Travel Blog

In the chaotic electronics bazaar of Naif, you will find a homage to the sales practices of yesteryear. In an age of technology, limited and preferably avoidable human communication and virtual advertisements, in Deira you would still sell and seek things the old-fashioned way.

But not all areas are entirely outmoded. Of all things, the Gold Souk stands as the one bizarre juxtaposition of antiquated and modern selling styles. The wooden arches that screen the aisle don't complement the elegantly furnished and minimalistic interiors of several showrooms where all that glitters is indeed gold. It seems the archaic arches in this market shield it not just from the relentless sun, but also the seasonal plagues of low business.

I guess gold never goes out of fashion.

In contrast further east, bereft of attention, resides the Dubai Clocktower. Rebuilt and restored on a couple of occasions, it once served as an emblem of Dubai, a marker of its entry point on road. In commensurate deficit of attention a few miles away lies the Memorial Fountain, an obelisk-like guardian of Union metro station.

Sitting at Union Park, you can spot all iconic buildings along the Deira side of the Creek that were once glorious monuments. The convex National Bank of Dubai, the globe adorned Etisalat tower, the triangular Dubai Chamber of Commerce and the cylindrical Rolex towers. A contorted assortment of geometrical shapes that were once the original Dubai skyline.

Now relics of a forgotten era.

A gust of wind, and a swirl of leaves.

Deira Creek Skyline Dubai UAE Travel Blog

Even though it has remained stoic amidst the flurry of development, Deira too will one day have to change. It would need to keep up with the pace of a global city. I turn back to squint at the Memorial Fountain, serene in its oblivious stupor. Daily, thousands of commuters throng past it with a cursory glance at best, lost in the vicissitudes and transience of daily life and their fate.

Even though I doubt it will, for the sake of this city's lineage, Deira must endure.

The droplets at the fountain now glisten with reflected sunlight. The sun has start to set in, and on, Deira. I don't think the beauty, relevance and historical significance of Deira could've been highlighted earlier. My revelations are not the by-products of a decade of blissful ignorance. Deira needed the glass spires of Downtown, sprawling beaches of JBR, gastronomic delicacies of City Walk and the monstrous scale of the Dubai Mall to carve its own individuality. To distinctly establish a preserved vestige of history.

Without them it would have no legacy.

I was out there trying to find the essence of my city, somewhere in the midst of the crowd where for long traders have found what they were looking for. At last, I had found it - a culmination of an adolescent's want for something he couldn't understand and an adult's search for something he couldn't have.

I had finally found my city's soul, right there, in heart of Deira.

Memorial Fountain Union Square Deira Dubai UAE Travel Blog

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8 comments:

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  2. Thank you for this Shalaj! The further from Dubai I get, the more drawn to it I am.

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    Replies
    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I too felt that I needed to get away from it for a period to truly start appreciating it.

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  3. Beautiful article. Concise yet erudite in it's approach. As someone who grew up in Dubai before the boom (80s & 90s), the present city is pretty alien to me. On a recent visit to the city, I was sad to see so much of the old stuff had been demolished. Dubai has raced ahead in today's jet-age but somewhere in the rat race the city of Dubai has lost it's soul, it's identity, it's character.

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