Old Arabia exists

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By Graham Simmons  www.thestar.com.my

Dubai is rapidly modernising — even Arabic is hardly spoken — but you can still unearth Old Arabia in some parts of the city and outlying areas.

Until it was struck by the so-called “Global Financial Crisis” of 2008-09, the United Arab Emirates’ main city Dubai seemed set on outdistancing even itself in a race to be or to have the world’s biggest, newest and best of everything. Even now, with projects fast re-appearing from under mothballs, the Dubai government prefaces its Strategic Plan 2015 with the slogan: “Dubai — where the future begins”.

Would you believe a giant new theme park, Dubailand, covering over 270sq km — twice the size of all of the currently existing Disneyland/DisneyWorld resorts put together? Would you believe a new airport, Al Maktoum International Airport at Jebel Ali — with six runways and an annual capacity of 160 million passengers — is by far the biggest in the world? And would you give credit to The World, a set of 300 man-made islands in the shape of a world map, covering an area more than 9km in length and 6km wide?

All these are just a few of the mega-projects currently on Dubai’s drawing-board.

But to the visitor or newly-arrived resident from overseas, UAE presents a paradox. Expatriates are now the backbone of the Dubai economy, so much so that it’s rare to hear Arabic spoken in this formerly Arab heartland. This is due to the huge influx of “guest workers” from India, the Philippines, Pakistan and other Asian countries.

A more relevant question might be: is there still a “real Dubai”? It takes a little willingness and effort just to get out of the ubiquitous shopping malls and seek out the real, authentic Arab lifestyle. Those in quest of the “Old Arabia” can still find this way of life intact — but it’s necessary to search hard, through the backblocks of Dubai and the outlying emirates, and in small corners of the UAE’s main cities, to find the authentic desert lifestyle still preserved

Fortunately, The Old Arabia can still be found even in the centre of Dubai. One of Dubai’s best attractions is the excellent underground section of the Dubai Museum, housed in the 200-year-old Al Fahidi Fort. This is THE place to get a feel for the traditional Arab way of life, now almost disappeared. Take a look at the old souk, an authentic re-creation of a traditional Arabian market with its spices shop, blacksmith’s shop (bronze artefacts dating back over 40,000 years have been found on-site), pottery and jewellery shops. You get to not only see and hear, but also smell and touch.

Down by the shores of Dubai Creek, I caught up with Ahmed Bajaz and friends, who were passing the time of day outside a traditional Areesh house built of date-palm logs, and thatched with reeds and palm-fronds. Over a cup of tea, he explained the essence of the Arab way of life. “We still have time to just sit and enjoy,” he said. “All those newcomers are only interested in making money!”

Dubai Creek — or Khor Dubai or Dubai Creek — is a natural inlet that for thousands of years has defined the Arab lifestyle. Artefacts from as long ago as 3000 BC have been unearthed here, with similarly aged treasures from nearby Al Sufouh — pots, bronzeware and amber necklaces — currently on display in a new wing of the Museum.

An Italian explorer in 1580 described Dubai as a prosperous country, its people engaged in fishing and pearl diving. The economy started to prosper in the early 1900s, with Sheikh Maktoum Hasher Maktoum giving tax exemption to foreign traders from India, Iraq and East Africa. But the REAL boom began in the 1970s, and now it seems that even the sky is no limit.

A whole precinct of Dubai, the Bastakia, has now also been restored to its former glory. Mud-walled houses with palm-frond thatched roofs line the narrow lanes making up the old quarter of the city. Most of the houses have wind-towers, an ancient form of air conditioning that is many times more efficient than its energy-guzzling modern counterpart. Hidden amongst the winding streets and narrow lanes of the precinct are several excellent galleries, including the Bastakia Arts Café and the Majlis Gallery.

About 100km south of Dubai city, the Sarouq Al Hadeed archaeological site is just now starting to reveal secrets from the Old Arabia. Sarouq Al Hadeed flourished during the first millennium BC as an industrial centre, manufacturing bronze and iron products as well as gold and silver jewellery. Other finds here date as far back as the Neolithic Period (7000-4000 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              7000-4000      end_of_the_skype_highlighting BC).

But to really get a feel for the fast-disappearing “Old Arabia”, it’s good to take a trip a little way out of Dubai, to some of the UAE’s other emirates. The nearest of the other six Emirates, in places offering a striking contrast to the modernity of Dubai, is Sharjah.

It’s a Monday afternoon, and seemingly the entire population of India and Pakistan is gathered in Sharjah’s Rollo Park. Sitting in circles on the grass, they smoke, play cards and exchange stories. Such a laid-back lifestyle would be unthinkable in next-door Dubai, where the work ethic is so strong that relax-time is almost an unknown commodity.

You can get from Dubai to Sharjah in about half-an-hour by bus, from Dubai’s Deira Bus Station. The fare is a mere US$1 (RM3). To get back, you have to catch a taxi, which should cost no more than US$10. The short inter-city trip passes along spanking-new freeways, each a work of art. In the UAE, a road underpass isn’t just an underpass, it’s a symphony of ogee arches or blue-and-indigo tilework.

Sharjah’s old market quarter, or souk, is in the throes of a nearly-completed restoration, which has been handled with an amazing sense for the aesthetic. Check out Arts Square, with its House of Poetry, looking like a Bedouin tent just blown in from the desert. Catch a performance in the House of Music, or wander through the new Sharjah Heritage Museum (Bayt al Naboodah), or just relax in the adjacent courtyard café.

The new Al Majawah Souk, with its brilliant golden dome, is a magnificent sight. From the arched entrance to the barrel vaulted cloisters that house a string of elegant shops, this place oozes style.

Late afternoon back in Arts Square, in the old quarter, twilight plays its own gilding tricks. The chants of the muezzin from half-a-dozen surrounding mosques reverberate like the sounds of a celestial polyphonic choir, as men in traditional dishdasha (robes) make their way to their local places of prayer.

Down at Sharjah Creek, the crews from dhows belonging to nations stretching from Zanzibar to South Asia relax after evening prayers. Here’s a boat bearing bales of jute from Bangladesh, while further along the dhow wharf a cargo of rubber tyres is being unloaded.

Meanwhile, the main action is underway at the extraordinary Sharjah Fish Market. As boats dock at the wharves after a day’s fishing, hundreds of buyers and vendors jostle for space on the narrow wooden decking. In the last glow of sunset over Sharjah Creek (which by the time it reaches the fish market has widened into a veritable harbour), a rowing four is silhouetted against the water like a paper cutout on a back-lit silkscreen.

Come nightfall, the scene changes again. The moonlight reflected from the white masonry buildings of the city radiates a glow almost as brilliant as the light of day, recalling the olden days when the Bedouins of the desert revelled in the nights of the full moon, the one time of the month they were safe from enemy attack.

No doubt about it — the “Old Arabia” is alive and well. It may have retreated a little, in the face of the unrelenting march towards the global village, but it is still there to be discovered. All that’s needed is the time to a do a little exploring.

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