Going through the humdrum of daily life in Dubai, we often forget that the city is not all skyscrapers, metal-and-glass, and glitz. Sometimes, we aren’t even aware, nor do we find the time or interest to venture out a little and experience the other Dubai. Two faces of the same coin, like yin and yang, that are as different and far apart as could be. Yet, it is here where Dubai was born; where commerce, immigration, community and culture meld together into one heritage entity, throbbing with life and fervour. Along the Creek – the main artery – Old Dubai is undoubtedly the beating heart of the sprawling metropolis that’s home to millions from around the world. And Ramadan, when daily activity ebbs and flows depending on the time of day, is perhaps the best time to not only witness the beauty of the place, but also the depth of communal ties as well as the majesty of traditional design and architecture.
So, in the expert company of Gulf Photo Plus (GPP) photographers and Arva Ahmed of Frying Pan Adventures, who organizes regular walks of the city, I joined a motley group of heritage and photography enthusiasts one evening to embark on an #UnseenTrail iftar culture walk in Naif. One of Dubai’s oldest neighbourhoods, we are told that the area bustles with life from morning to night, but when we arrived around 6pm – a short walk from the Al Ras Metro station on the green line - a beautiful stillness prevailed. Walking through the narrow alleys, dust and grovel scrunching under our feet, Arva then began to narrate the history of the area – how it came up, what it’s known for, and how Ramadan is observed here.
While there is certain joy in people watching, I found the calm exploration of a decades-old neighbourhood immensely enlightening and enjoyable. As we passed souks, various kinds of stores and community mosques, where hundreds of people had queued to receive iftar to end their fast, I felt like I was in a time capsule. At certain points and junctures, I thought I was in Chandni Chowk in Delhi, but the warm fragrance of fresh spices carried around by the Creek breeze would remind me that I am actually in Dubai. I will probably associate Dubai with the smell of spices for a long time to come.
All the while, the GPPers doled out tips and pointers on how to get the best shots in a place like this. It is a photographer’s dream, for sure, with half-moon-like domes and turrets of mosques peeping between the buildings, or a corner where light plays truant and casts dusky shadows upon walls. Every turn is pregnant with creative opportunity, and we were even encouraged to speak to people and ask permission if an irresistible image prospect presented itself. A bit daunting at first, I eventually eased into the rhythm of walking, listening and capturing snapshots of people, taking their places on rows and rows of rugs on sidewalks and alleys dotted with fruits, dates and laban, as Maghreb drew near.
Soon, we arrived at a massive congregation of people spread across a network of pathways around shops and residences. Taking in the sight from a terrace, the symmetry was incredible – I felt like I was viewing the making of a piece of art, where men from different walks of life sat waiting in heart-rending quietude for the call to prayer. The silence was nearly deafening just moments before the muezzin’s voice echoed across the evening sky – it’s a sound I can still hear in my heart – upon which each man ended his fast in shared harmony. There was no rush, no chaos, no talking; just humility and a sense of calm that draped the surrounds.
We too experienced iftar as hosted by the Ali Rashid Lootah Mosque and the Indian Muslim Association. Their kanji – a sort of liquid biryani from Tamil Nadu made with rice, mutton and lentils – was piping hot and divine. In fact, they feed hundreds of people every day at iftar, so preparations begin early in the morning, and truck loads of food arrive daily at the mosque. A date, some samosas, pakoras and karak chai later, we made our way further into the neighbourhood.
Having grown up in Dubai, Arva is well-versed with the history and culture of the city, and her passion for its past is evident every step of the way. For the uninitiated, to learn about the different architectural styles of mosques depending on the sect that attends, or how they dress, pray and even perceive life and religion in this manner is a privilege and an experience in itself. Witnessing chaos picking up again as people returned to their chores at nightfall was humbling, inspiring and real – like a attar bottle that had been uncorked to reveal the essence of Dubai.
The evening ended on a spectacular culinary note, as promised, at Kabul Darbar by the Al Ghurair Mosque and Naif Souq – an eatery which has two Dubai branches and yet no one in our group had ever tried it. I found its obscurity absurd, especially considering the classic sit-down meal we had. It was Afghani food at its best - soup, incredible chopan kababs (mutton chops) and shami kababs, the traditional mantu (meat dumplings served with warm yogurt), mash ki daal (lentils made with split black gram), Afghani pulao with meat and perhaps the most delicious chicken tikka I have ever had.
Walking out of there, I felt as light as air and extremely fulfilled, not just in my tummy, but also in my soul. Because caught in a swirl of heat, the aroma of sweets and other delicacies pouring out of tiny shops and eateries, walkers and cyclists, hawkers peddling their wares, toys on streets, and a blur of neon and tube lights, I had finally been touched by the spirit of the city.
The Ramadan Culture Walk is priced at Dh595 per person and includes food, tea and iftar (dinner). Visit www.fryingpanadventures.com to book.