A journey into Dubai’s past could well begin through the door of a quaint tea house in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, once known as Al Bastakiya. As you step into the Arabian Tea House (although old-timers like me would still like to call it the Basta Art Café), you stumble upon a secret garden with turquoise benches, white rattan chairs, lace curtains and beautiful flowers. Here traffic fades to a quiet hum, and the languid air swoons around you, dreamlike, as if it were always afternoon. You sit here savouring your cup of gahwa (meaning coffee in Arabic, but also used to refer to tea in the context of a tea house) under a grand old tree that bears little apples, hear the birds sing and marvel at the architecture of the stone house with wind towers that once belonged to a tawash, or pearl merchant.
This old-world charm is one of the few authentic examples Dubai has of a life gone by, when her people would meet and take refuge in tea houses, not just to escape the heat of the day but to bond with each other, relax and talk business. It opened in 1997, and remains an oasis of peace and calm where tourists and locals come time and again, to journey back to the city’s past and explore its cultural heritage. Dubai Tourism cites the tea house as a cultural reference point and recently both the Michelin-starred culinary expert and author Geoffrey Zakarian and TV star Martha Stewart visited the tea house, praising it in their blogs and social media platforms.
The story of the man behind the Arabian Tea House is no less intriguing than the place itself. Ali Al Rais set it up after 20 years of travels around the world, calling it his little hideaway. ‘The idea behind setting up the tea house was to relive the past. It was the perfect way to showcase my city to people from all over the world,’ he tells me over a cup of his Dubai tea blend as we sit in the secret garden one afternoon.
Ali grew up in Dubai, growing up in a large family of five brothers and five sisters; like many of the older generation, his grandfather was a pearl diver. He started his career as a management trainee with ADNOC in Abu Dhabi. Those were the days of the oil boom, but the young Ali was not attracted to oil but to aviation. He joined Gulf Air and, on a scholarship offered by the airline, went to the US to become a pilot but had a change of heart and switched to aviation management. ‘Although flying was fun, there was nothing much to do once the airplane was cruising. So I took to aviation management and came back and started working with the airline.’
His aviation career took him far away from Dubai’s shores: A few months in Mumbai in India, a year in Pakistan, another in Egypt, two years in Sri Lanka and three in Hong Kong. After the First Gulf War, he was stationed in Kuwait for three years and then in Philippines for another four. ‘My life was an adventure. I was like an explorer coming across new and exciting things every day. There was no point of reference, nothing to research or fall back on as I went from place to place. But this gave me a chance to be more open about people I met and places and accept their culture and food habits. It was a great learning.’
In 1997, however, he grew tired of his travels, and decided to return home, to work for a new regional airline, armed with his global experiences. ‘I was very homesick. For almost 20-odd years, I did all this traveling on my own. So when I came back there were a lot of things I wanted to do. I wanted to have a home for myself and was keen to showcase the culture of my homeland. During my travels I had seen people in different countries promoting their food and culture, preserving their old districts, so when I heard that the government was restoring the Al Fahidi district, it was an opportunity I could not miss,’ he says.
Ali rented the house, built in the early 1920s by a pearl trader, from the Dubai government after its restoration. ‘The district was once home to the wealthy nobles, mostly pearl traders, who sponsored the divers. The house reminded me of my childhood home. It had the central courtyard, the wind towers, an open shed, and even a well, which gives an indication of the wealth of the owner. In those days, water supply was limited, so having a dedicated well shows how the affluence of the person who lived in the house.’
He named the place the Basta Art Café, decorating the café with paintings by local artists. ‘It wasn’t nice to call it anything else. The area was known as Al Bastakiya. I shortened it to Basta, which surprisingly translated as a place to sit or a place to stop, in the Spanish language. I wanted to call it Dubai Tea House, so that Dubai cuisine could be exported to the world, but later settled for Arabian Tea House.’
The tea house bears Ali’s passion for the brew. ‘I developed a love for tea during my years in Sri Lanka. But it was in Hong Kong I observed that the tea houses served food and dim sum. And the afternoon tea is just as popular in England. In the small villages of northern England, particularly Yorkshire, where I lived for a while, the old ladies ran some lovely tea houses and the custom of the afternoon tea with cakes and sandwiches was delightful. I started the tea house with that idea. I wanted this to be a place where people would come and sit and talk and munch.’
So while the focus is the brews, from traditional picks such as karak chai, Dubai Tea and Arabian Night Tea, to blooming varieties and fruit and herbal teas, there is also food. ‘Our focus has also been on the breakfast and that’s very popular as well,’ explains Ali. It’s the way he shares local food habits with expats and tourists. ‘I make sure to reflect what we eat locally. There are eggs and tomatoes, and there is balaleet (sweet vermicelli) almost every day, dango (chick peas) and bajella (black beans). We also have a Middle Eastern breakfast tray that has the hummus and the falafel, and this bridges the gap between Emirati and greater Middle Eastern cuisine.’
During his visit to Dubai, Zakarian made sure he had a bite from the ever popular ‘Mr. Ali’s breakfast tray’, which includes local khameer and chebab breads baked in the tanoor (oven) that has pride of place in the tea house.
Ali started small, with only eight people in his team. ‘I had a full-time job in the aviation industry so I was travelling again and needed help. The place developed slowly and I took time to implement my ideas. I took a personal interest in everything from the tea to the recipes to the décor and even the flowers and plants.’
Ali’s eye for detail is evident everywhere. When it was a challenge to find the classic turquoise benches of bygone days, Ali discovered an old dilapidated one in Bahrain. He brought it back, gave it to a carpenter in Dubai and had it replicated. He has used white stones on the floor of the courtyard evoke the sea shells once used by the locals. ‘People used sea shells on the courtyard floor and sprinkled water on them. In the heat of the midday the water would evaporate, cooling the entire house. I had wanted to use sea shells but couldn’t find them, so settled for the white stones,’ says Ali.
‘Do you see the embroidery on the cushions?’ he asks. ‘I drew it for the tailors. You will find similar embroidery on the muttrah (floor cushions) in the royal majlis. All the finer details are taken care of by me. Even the menu was created by me, and it comes mostly from my mum’s kitchen. Nothing is fancy here, but it’s all close to my heart.’
Ali’s greatest joy is to see people walk in from different parts of the world and enjoying themselves in the tea house. Like Frances Hodgson’s famous book The Secret Garden where the journey into the secret garden serves as a point of transformation, Ali’s tea house is a journey from the Dubai of today to the Dubai of yesterday. ‘This tea house sits in a very busy area of Dubai. But when you come in through the door you are surprised to find this space with the big tree, the blue benches, the rattan chairs. It transforms the place completely. Sitting here for a while, you can feel the difference between the Dubai outside and the Dubai inside’
Ali lives with his wife, Rania Saeed, who shares his passion for food and travel, and their three children, aged 14, 12 and one and half. ‘Ali has always been the storyteller of the family,’ Rania tells me. ‘Ali is a very patient man. When he started out with the tea house, there were several people who told him that his idea would not work. People refused to cook the balaleet. But he was very patient and I think that’s the secret to his success,’ says Rania, who plays a role in his other businesses, Arabian Travel House and Al Rais Enterprises.
‘My biggest achievement is the creation of a successful local brand. The tea house is like our home. I see happy people here and it makes a difference to me.’
As Dubai has grown, the tea house has moved beyond Al Fahidi, opening a branch in the Al Ghazal Mall and now in The Mall in Jumeirah. ‘It is time now to take the experience to other parts of the world, maybe to India, Egypt and the UK. Any business takes time. You have to be patient and you have to be convinced about it. Being traditional is not something to shy away from, we should be proud of who we are.’