Did you visit the other side of Dubai?

Here we go again. This is the second time I’ve lost myself in the alleys of Dubai. As I try to figure out a way through these narrow lanes, surrounded by the archetypal wind-towers perched on restored middle-eastern dwellings, I realise that I’ve achieved the unthinkable. Getting lost in Dubai! It’s true. Dubai relishes in its unabashed youth. With its perfectly carved out roads, immaculately laid out signboards in Arabic and English, its sky-scraping buildings that’d rather kiss the sky than touch a traveller’s heart, it’s a little tough to get lost here. Wherever in Dubai you be, you’ll always have the tallest building in the world to show you a way, If nothing else. But what if you indeed came here to get lost, in its medieval past or in its meandering, dusty wadis, or its manipulative bazaars? Wait. Does Dubai even have them? Let’s explore.

Roaming the alleys of Bastakiya

Roaming the alleys of Bastakiya

Al-Bastakiya

This is where the past of Dubai comes to life, in the restored village in Al-Fahdi district. More commonly known as Al-Bastakiya, almost a century ago, it was the abode of the Iraqis, Indians and other communities that arrived then in Dubai. Now, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding(SMCCU), located in the same premises, organises guided heritage tours & cultural meals within the restored quarter, both of which lend wonderful opportunities for visitors to gain insights into Emirati culture, religion and even cuisine! The tours take you around Bastakiya, with guided commentary on the old architecture and its pertinence with respect to the culture of the Emirate and usually end with a visit to the Diwan mosque followed by coffee (with Arabic dates!) in a Bastakiya house. Needless to say, all of these, including the time at the mosque and the coffee time, are great chances to have a candid conversation on the Emirati lifestyle and the SMCCU guide and host will most probably ensure that you don’t return unanswered.

The Bastakiya quarter

The Bastakiya quarter

And if (like me), you too get lost in Bastakiya, you may just find yourself in a charming art gallery or its quaint café! The XVA art gallery and the Arabian Tea House cafe are two such places and can help with some great breakfast.(Read : Of Sweetness That Travels : Dubai) And, as if this wasn’t enough, there’s accommodation at some of the guest houses within Bastakiya. Ever thought what it’d be like to stay in a (at least) 100 year old restored village in the heart of a bustling metropolis like Dubai?

Hatta

‘Outdoors’ is a good question in Dubai where even the ski-resorts tend to be indoors and probably the best answer we have heard to this is the ‘evening desert safari’. Ditch the desert and instead try out the morning Hatta safari. No, there isn’t any belly dancing music here, only the beeps of your international roaming cellphone to tell you that you’ve crossed the UAE-Oman border multiple times.  Take some time off the phone, to have a look at the Hajjar mountains among which Hatta, the exclave lies. Hatta boasts of an array of Wadis (valleys) and to add colour, pools of blue-green water among them. One can hike, one can bike, and if nothing else, at least take a morning dip or two in the waters of these pools before stopping at the Hatta heritage village on the way back. This is another restored village with a museum of sorts to exhibit the old village life style. The return route is a scenic ride through muddy mountains, best enjoyed through a self-drive.

As a separate itinerary, one can also head to the Musandam peninsula, where camping, fishing and snorkelling are the norm of the day. Do check for entry rules for your passport though, for both Hatta and Musandam will involve border crossings between UAE & Oman.

The pools in Hatta

The pools in Hatta

Souks

Yes, there’s one inside the Dubai mall also and that’s not the one we are talking about here. The Souks (local markets) have been an important part of the middle-eastern lifestyle and continue to remain even today, albeit only a little more charmingly. Cross over the creek to the other side of Dubai, quite literally, where the old markets, of gold and spices promise to bedazzle at least two of your senses, optical and olfactory. And if your taste buds feel left out, wander in the lanes till you stumble across a camel milk ice-cream shop tucked away in a quiet corner. Eat to your heart’s content and then head out, haggle for the Persian and Kashmiri zafran, smell in the Arabic coffee, gaze & gap at the magnificence of the jewellery in the gold souk and lose yourself in the aroma of spices flowing in from every direction in the spice souk.

Souks on the other side of the Creek

Souks on the other side of the Creek

And after all these sensory overloads, end the day with a stroll along the creek, where the water front buildings light up with bridal elegance in the night and watch the dhows pass by with an ease that’s in stark contrast with the speeding SUVs behind you. Spend some time wondering which of these is the real Dubai. That, of the tallest tower tearing through the winds into the sky or that, of the wind-towers of Bastakiya?  Either ways, you’re already lost in (the thoughts of) Dubai!

A beautifully lit Dubai Creek

A beautifully lit Dubai Creek

Have you been to Dubai? What did you like or dislike?

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Of Sweetness That Travels : Dubai

Halva??’ remarked my friend, wondering if it referred to the same thing as the one he was used to eating in India. I answered in affirmative. This would be any food lover’s eureka moment. I had mine when I travelled to Turkey. And ever since, I have been enamoured of the idea of how sweets have travelled across kingdoms and civilizations over centuries. Like this instance. This wasn’t India. This was, however, a moment when three Indians were sitting at a Persian restaurant in Dubai and wondering how ‘halva‘ made it to this menu.

As I sit down to finally share the ‘sweet’ moments of my Middle east trip, I take a second to wonder what makes sweets so special? What is it that makes the Cadbury advertisement in India say ‘Kuch Meetha Ho Jaye‘ (‘Lets have something sweet’) before an auspicious occasion? Why is it that festivals, across peoples, regions, religions, whether they be Christmas, Eid, Diwali or even the Chinese Mooncake festival, are marked by the preparation and consumption of sweets? Why is it that a humanity which subsists itself on salt (salary, the word is understood to have come from ‘salt money’), finds the expression of its utmost happiness in sugar? How is it that sweets such as Halua/Halwa/Helwa, Zlabia/Zlebia/Jalebi and Baklava/Paklava have made their way across nations, each nation adding its own identity to the sweet, a modicum of saffron added here, a bit of pistachios sprinkled there, sometimes just a nuance added to the preparation while sometimes altering the sweet altogether? Among all this, what does prevail, is the inherent sweetness, cutting across barriers of societies, in some ways akin to the goodness of people, which has kept civilizations in co-existence over millennia. No wonder, sweets end up representing the good.

As I continued to explore the rich associations of these foods tendered sweet by human interactions over ages, my travels took me to the middle east. Here I just share a glimpse of some of those wonderful sweets that made me admire the food culture of Dubai & the middle east in general. If you like sweets, there’s little doubt that you’ll like what you see next. If you don’t, I hope the pictures that follow help you reconsider :)

Ligamat

This I believe, is similar to (or exactly same as) what the Greeks call Loukumades. This was being prepared at a desert excursion we went to. The very first bite of these delectably honeyed fried dough balls is enough to ensure you do not stop at the first one. Very frankly, I cannot remember the count of how many I ate.

Ligamat

Ligamat

Basbousa

A cake made with what we call reva or semolina. Made soft & gooey with the addition of syrups, it’s a must taste on a middle east trip. And if the usual one is too sweet for you, try the ones with date fillings or the ones with coconut sprinklings.

Basbousa with Dates

Basbousa with Dates

Baklava!

For me, this is the king of all sweets middle eastern. It’s crunchy, it’s full of nuts and yet it’s soft. One of those sweets, which’ll simply melt in your mouth as soon as you eat them. Do NOT eat the local ones you may find in your cities. Come to a middle eastern town to enjoy the fresh ones prepared every day. They come in varieties Syrian, Lebanese, Turkish, Greek, Iranian and with fillings of all the nuts you can imagine, pistachio, almonds, walnuts. Diamond shaped, square cut, rectangular, rolled over, round, you’ll have your hands full if you like baklava.

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Some more..

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And some more…

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A sweet start to the day

I know one can’t really call them sweets, in the strict sense of the word. But they are worth craving for. The pancakes with Maple Syrup at the Arabian Tea House Cafe in the Bastakiya quarter (which otherwise also, if a wonderful place to visit) are a vegetarian’s delight. Yes, they are eggless and don’t seem to go wrong anywhere.

Pancakes at the Arabian Tea House Cafe

Pancakes at the Arabian Tea House Cafe

And finally, a bit of these as well..

The Cheesecake Factory in the Dubai mall is a dessert lover’s paradise. They willingly let you have a look at their menu, which goes on and on with descriptions of the most sinful desserts. Wonder if anybody has ever been able to resist having these desserts..

The Red Velvet cake at Cheesecake Factory

The Red Velvet cake at Cheesecake Factory

The Oreo Cookie Cheesecake topped with Oreo cookie mousse and chocolate icing. Descriptions and views such as these fill your senses at the Cheesecake Factory :)

The Oreo Cheesecake at Cheesecake Factory

The Oreo Cheesecake at Cheesecake Factory

Suggested Eating : All the above and the Kunafa, Mammoul, Ummali that I could not have :)

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Have you too been to the Middle East? Did you too like any of these or other foods? Is there a history associated with any of them?