Discovering Old Dubai

When I wrote my novel The Toucan Lodge, based on my father’s unfinished memoirs as an MI6 spy, my agent suggested that I include a chapter on Dubai in the 1940s. I followed the suggestion and wrote a chapter entitled Kidnapping in the Desert, which was pure fiction but tied in perfectly with the novel’s plot. I had been to Dubai several times but had not visited the old Dubai, so I had to write the chapter by researching the history of the Trucial States, as the Emirates were known until 1968 when the British government decided to withdraw from its protectorate agreement of the Trucial States. This was followed by creating the Federation, now the United Arab Emirates.

Abras © Carlos Mundy

Only a few visitors to Dubai, a city famous for its luxury and skyline, know it has a rich historical culture. This Emirati lifestyle and heritage originated in old Dubai. In Dubai, old is gold. Historic Dubai has been an intersection of all the civilisations that Dubai has known. And I have just had the opportunity to visit and familiarise myself for the first time with the part of the city where it all began. Old Dubai is made up of many different places. It stretches over a vast land area from Garhound in the north to Deira in the south.

The abra jetty at Al-Seef © Carlos Mundy

I stayed at the Golden Sands Hotel Creek, a very nice 5-star boutique hotel in the heritage heart of the city. Next door is the Sheraton and the Rotana hotels. All these hotels offer an ideal base to contemplate a unique perspective of Dubai’s history. As soon as I nestled in my suite with beautiful views of the Creek, I headed to the Abra station. From there, I boarded the small passenger boat known as the Abra to embark on my journey back in time through the historic quarter. The cost of this experience was 2 UAED. The Creek, which was once the entrance to a prosperous pearl diving port in the Gulf, continues to be a renowned location where anglers and traders navigate the serene waters in their traditional dhows.

Lane in Al-Shindagha © Carlos Mundy

My first stop was the Bastakiya neighbourhood, a testament to Dubai’s rich history. Named after Bastak, the birthplace of many early textile and pearl merchants, this neighbourhood is a living museum. As you wander through its narrow, winding lanes, you’ll notice the influence of Bastak in its unique architecture. The wind towers that adorn the buildings, along with the intricately carved wooden doors and lattices, are a nod to its past.

Al-Shindhaga © Carlos Mundy

Today, the neighbourhood has many art galleries, cafes, and boutique hotels. The Al Fahidi Fort, believed to be the oldest existing building in Dubai, is also located there. Built around 1787, Al Fahidi Fort protected the city from raids by surrounding tribes. At times, the fort was also used as the ruler’s palace. On its shores is a testament to ancient Arabia: the Al Fahidi Historic Quarter. The restoration team painstakingly restored the plaster and coral buildings to their former glory, including their iconic wind towers that once cooled the inhabitants’ homes in the hot summer months. The neighbourhood has many historic gems, including the city’s oldest building, the Al Fahidi Fort, built in 1781.

Al-Seef © Carlos Mundy

For local Emirati cuisine and an authentic cup of Arabic coffee, a visit to the Arab Tea House is a must. Recommended dishes include regag bread, a tempting slice drizzled with honey and filled with egg and cheese, and khabisah, a mixture of sautéed flour and molasses.

Al Seef, opposite the Golden Sands Creek Hotel on the opposite bank, is a charming example of the blending of past and present. The neighbourhood stretches 1.8km along the shore and is lined with winding alleyways of stone and plaster structures, dining options, and shops and also a few nice accommodation options.

Al Fahidi Fort © Carlos Mundy

I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Spice Souk, filled with vibrant colours and aromas of the world’s most precious spices, and the Gold Souk, where I immersed myself in the extravagant display of gold items across the street.

 Another must-see part of historic Dubai is Al-Sindangha, the city’s oldest neighbourhood, where I enjoyed the tranquillity of a bygone era. This is the original residence of His Majesty Sheikh Saeed AL Maktoum. It was built in 1896 and is now a museum. Nearby is the Al Shindagha Museum, which tells the story of the city’s seafaring roots in evocative detail, and the Harud Al-Hadid Archaeological Museum. The area is full of hidden cultural surprises.

You can only understand contemporary Dubai by acknowledging and experiencing its past. Therefore, as an experienced traveller and writer, I recommend staying in this part of the city for at least 2/3 nights, as only a visit to Dubai would be complete with doing so.

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