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Will the real Dubai stand up?

 | July 27, 2012

One centre strips off Dubai’s modern facade to reveal its real identity.

Is Dubai really void of culture? That’s the question most visitors grapple with when it comes to this city. With its faster-than-a-speeding-bullet growth and a knack for reworking its natural topography, finding the ‘real’ Dubai is as elusive as that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

It’s easy to term everything you see in Dubai as superficial. In recent years however, there has been a conscientious effort from both the government and various individuals to change the unfavourable perception Dubai is famous for – from its grand scale excess to a consumer-focused, capitalist society. One in particular, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU), aims to add a new, more personal dimension to Dubai, allowing its people and visitors to experience the true essence of the city.

One of the centre programme’s highlights is the Al Bastakiya walking tour. This area located on the west side of the Creek in the Bur Dubai district is one of Dubai’s oldest quarters. Wealthy Persian merchants used to occupy the area in the late 19th century before the district was left to ruin. Restoration works in 1984 revived many of the heritage buildings, in particular, Dubai’s unique wind-towered houses that today remain private homes while others have been turned into museums, art galleries and restaurants.

The wind tower, known as ‘barjeel’, was once a common sight in Dubai. A legacy brought over by pearl and textile merchants from Iran’s Bastak region, the number of ‘barjeel’ that a house has used to indicate the owner’s wealth. Rising 15 metres above ground in coral-coloured stone and rose-beige clay, the towers were designed to catch cool breezes and direct them to the lower rooms, providing ventilation and reprieve from the Gulf’s hot weather.

Heritage landscape aside, the SMCCU also promotes the understanding of Emirati culture, awareness of Islam, and the country’s traditions and customs. In the twice-a-week Cultural Breakfast or Cultural Lunch do hosted at the centre, guests are treated to the increasingly rare traditional Emirati fare and encouraged to ask questions in this no-holds-barred exploration. The same openness is extended when guests opt for the one hour tour of the majestic Jumeirah Mosque, the only mosque in Dubai opened to non-Muslims. The tour provides invaluable insight and an educational look into Islam, simultaneously bridging the cultural and religious gaps between the people of the world.


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