Good job that there’s more to it than the stereotype, then. After all,
where else can you walk out of your hotel to find a group of men
sacrificing a cow in the street?
The stricken beast lies on the floor, its throat slit, as the customers chugging away on their hookah pipes in the local café look on nonchalantly.
Deira, it’s fair to say, is the part of Dubai that doesn’t make the tourist brochures. It’s very much ‘Old Dubai’, the bit that existed before oil money was pumped in to make the city
mass market Arabia.
Located on the eastern side of Dubai Creek, Deira is firmly detached from where the big money is on
display. The streets are full of mobile phone shops, Indian-run grocery
stores, cheap Lebanese eateries and grubby internet cafés with
underpaid ‘guest workers’ phoning home.
The souks — even the Gold Souk and its world-leading array of jewellery
shops — have a proper ramshackle feel here. The roads are chaotic, with
people ambling in the middle or making death-defying chicken runs
across the major carriageways. Crowds gather willy-nilly to watch
police cars and there’s hardly an Emirati or Westerner in sight.
This is where Dubai’s many immigrants and imported labourers live and
spend their money when not slaving away on construction sites. A stroll
around Deira gives a fascinating insight into the other side of Dubai —
just mind the cow blood.
If Deira is bustling, then Dubai Creek is positively chaotic. Dubai
grew as a trading hub, and it was this waterway where the merchant
ships came in. This is not the case today — huge port facilities have been built to take the big ships — but you wouldn’t say so at first glance.
The Dhow Wharfage, on the Deira side of the Creek near the souks, is
where the defiant old-school shipping happens. Lined up on the water’s
edge is box after box of goodies, be they spices or production-line
vacuum cleaners. All are waiting to be loaded onto the dhows, then
taken elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf. How they’ll get there is another
matter — these big wooden boats look a dose of rot away from an end on
Weaving around the dhows, crunching into jetties and unceremoniously
shunting each other around are the abras. There seem to be hundreds of
these miniature ferries darting across the Creek at any one time, and
that there’s not a serious accident every 10 minutes is difficult to
fathom. Each abra departs when it has enough passengers, taking a dodgem approach until it gets to open water. The driver collects the one dirham fare then smashes into the wharf on the other side a few minutes later. Passengers have to leap off when the abra is
vaguely close to the jetty, while hoping it’s not going to bounce away
again before they get the chance. You don’t get that sort of thrilling ride in a taxi, that’s for sure.
On the far side of the Creek is Bur Dubai, the other traditional area of the city. It’s a little more
spruced up and touristy than Deira, but it still retains an air of
authenticity. The market stalls pushing perfumes or Hindu beads are
refreshingly non-blingy, while the alleyways trapped between the temple
and the Grand Mosque can turn into a massive human scrum as worshippers
It’s also the area in which to get a sense of Dubai’s history — it is one of the places that didn’t quite
spring from nowhere in the 1970s, although growth under the Makhtoum
dynasty in the past 40 years is astonishing.
Next to the Grand Mosque is the Al-Fahaidi Fort, which is thought to be the oldest building in
Dubai and dates to around 1800. Constructed out of gypsum and coral
rock, it has that traditional sand-blown desert battlement look, with
the lookout towers lurching up in competition with the city’s minarets.
Inside the fort is the Dubai Museum, an impressive 3D romp through the Emirates’ past. Among all the Bedouin weaponry and
videos of traditional dancing, visitors learn the area has hosted
fairly advanced civilisation for 5000 years, thanks to discoveries made
by archaeological digs.
Dubai does have a history and a soul — it’s just that many of the people visiting simply aren’t looking for it.
Escape the bling
Best value can be found in the Lebanese restaurants and shawarma shops. Mixed grills come with enormous salads and enough bread to feed a small nation.
The main beaches are on the Jumeirah strip, but arguably the best are in the far east, by the border with Sharjah. The Al-Mamzar Park has gorgeous secluded sandy stretches.
Going to Dubai without checking out the thoroughly mad shit is a like going to Pisa and not getting a cheesy photo in front of the tower. They have giant islands reclaimed from the sea, the world’s biggest theme park and an underwater hotel on the way, but what’s there already is utterly bonkers.
The self-styled seven-star Burj al Arab hotel is the most famous landmark. But if you have to ask how much a room costs, you can’t afford it. Still, it makes for great photos.
Alongside the Burj is the best of Dubai’s many no-expense-spared shopping malls. The Madinat Jumeirah has boats sauntering along man-made waterways. The complex contains hotels, theatres and restaurants, while the shopping experience is firmly geared towards the boutique end of the market.
To best see the development frenzy, take a drive down Sheikh Zayed Road. Topping the lot is the awesome Burj Dubai, which is already the tallest building in the world, even though it’s not finished yet. When it is, it’ll be over half a mile high.
Also along the road is the Mall of the Emirates, which is absurdly huge — it needs to be in order to accommodate the world’s biggest indoor ski resort, Ski Dubai.
The other emirates
Dubai is one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It’s the most visited, but the others have their charms too.
The UAE capital’s expansion almost rivals Dubai’s. The ruling sheikh is on a mission to turn the city green, and it’s now covered in trees and parks, somewhat at odds with the nearby desert. The Corniche is the place to go for a scenic amble, while the Cultural Foundation is home to the arty-farty stuff. Expect exhibitions, theatre and film festivals.
Sharjah is generally regarded as the UAE’s cultural hub, and it’s the easiest to get to from Dubai. It’s often dubbed the art capital of the Islamic world, and the likes of the Sharjah Art Museum and the Al-Hisn Fort are worth visiting even if you’re the sort that yawns their way through room after room of religious art in European galleries. Don’t expect too much fun, however. Sharjah has a strict dress code — nothing above the knee — and an alcohol ban.
The city is about as exciting asa Simply Red album, but it’s the gateway to the UAE’s gorgeous east coast. This is something of a secret, but with top-notch beaches giving way to mountains, it’s an incredibly scenic stretch. The diving here is also highly rated.
This rugged wilderness is actually part of Oman, but the boat trips (usually accompanied by dolphins) around the peninsula can be organised from Dubai. Try Khasab Tours (www.khasab-tours.com).