At first glance, Dubai embodies conspicuous consumption and glossy artificiality — everything I stand against. And so, I was curious: in the 48 hours I had to explore the city, could I scratch away its bling veneer to uncover the real and the surprising: experiences antithetical to the clichés of shopping centres and theme parks — neither of which I was interested in visiting?
Having dumped our bags at our hotel, we head to Dubai Opera House to watch Mary Poppins, which was on tour from the West End. The show is beautifully executed, but what really is entrancing is its setting. The Atkins-designed opera house is a remarkable building — more than holding its own against the nearby Burj al Khalifa, the world’s largest tower.
The opera house’s transparent exterior is far more inviting than the grand, intimidating facades of its much older counterparts in Europe and elsewhere. Inside its concert hall, sinuous wooden elements and velvety red seats confer warmth and intimacy. The effect is unshowy yet plush — like the treasured jewellery box inherited from a grandmother. After the performance, avoiding the glitz proves impossible. In search of a taxi, we weave between selfie stick-wielding tourists as a choreographed fountain display rips across the Burj Khalifa Lake, something of a misnomer as it resembles a well-chlorinated paddling pool. We brave the hordes in the Dubai Mall — but only to seek sanctuary among the hushed, smartly edited stacks inside the vast Kinokuniya bookstore: a bookworm’s paradise.
The next morning, we drive across the city to the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Established by Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, in 1998, the centre aims to promote crosscultural interactions, offering tourists a window into Emirati life and heritage through various tours, meals and events.
The portly and charismatic Waleed Nabil, our guide for the 90-minute tour, is already in full flow as we join a cluster of date-chomping foreigners sitting cross-legged in the centre’s courtyard. “I can read your minds — you are wondering what I’m wearing underneath,” he beams as he starts explaining traditional dress — the kandora (robe) and ghutrah (headdress) that conspire to keep Emiratis cool and concealed from the searing sun. I’m rather envious of Nabil’s attire as we exit the building, smacking into a wall of hot air. Sweat is pouring off me almost instantly as he leads us along the narrow alleys of the Al Fahidi historic district, one of the oldest parts of Dubai, with coral buildings from the 1800s.
He points out architectural features such as the barjeel — a wind tower that acts as natural air conditioning, funnelling air into the house — and the large front doors that have smaller ones inside them. This forces the visitor to stoop as he enters, allowing a woman in the house time to cover herself up before he sees her.
Donning robes to cover our arms and legs, we enter the cool serenity of the Grand Mosque, sitting on lush blood-red carpet under the chandelier hanging from its enormous dome. An electronic signboard lists the five times a day Muslims should pray; like aspirant preachers, a few of us take turns to stand behind the microphone at the front podium.
We slowly wend our way back to the car through the maze of alleys, stopping at Make Art Café, a rather lovely agglomeration of local art, design and fashion showcased in little rooms, with a shady chill-out space on its roof. We also pop into XVA Art Hotel, where contemporary pieces line the walls of its three air-conditioned courtyards, and its design shop offers stunning handcrafted jewellery such as Noal Zaher from Afghanistan’s semiprecious-stone earrings.
It’s tempting to linger in this delightful part of the city, soaking up its human scale and higgledy-piggledy intimacy, so sorely lacking elsewhere in Dubai, but time is running out. We head to Alserkal Avenue, a hub of galleries and design studios in the bleakly nondescript industrial suburb of Al Quoz about a 20-minute drive away.
Our first stop is A4 Space — a coworking zone, community library and exhibition space with a small café attached. On the ground floor, vertical gardens are on sale, while on the mezzanine, cute creatives and students tap away on MacBooks at communal tables or pore over books in hidey-holes with comfy beanbag seats.
Suitably revived by an iced coffee, we strike out along the precinct’s streets. It’s a Friday and so, in keeping with the Middle East’s weekend, quite a few establishments are closed.
Happily, Mirzam’s bean-to-bar chocolate factory is open. Through the window we can see the dark gold pouring and folding and swirling and setting. In the tasting room, we eschew the range of classic single-origin 65% bars, instead sampling the special-edition Winter in Morocco range, including the silky White Chocolate with roasted almond and orange blossom, sublimely wrapped in arabesque packaging.
At the cavernous Third Line gallery, which represents a stellar line-up of Middle Eastern artists, we lose ourselves in legendary photographer Fouad Elkoury’s solo show Suite Egyptienne — with black-and-white images that document his travels in Egypt, ranging from stolen, intimate moments indoors to sweeping, austere landscapes.
We move on to Leila Heller Gallery, the satellite space of the New York original; at 14,000 feet, it’s apparently the largest gallery in the UAE. On show when we visit is Lebanese artist Marwan Sahmarani’s Drifting Island — a series of enormous canvases exploding with visceral, sumptuous colours, offering an abstract meditation on the ubiquity of violence in the news-saturated turmoil of the contemporary world.
Finally bested by the heat, we return to the hotel, joining the lobster-pink throngs for a splash-about in the pool. The Arabian Gulf shimmers in front of us, as smooth as milk.
That evening, as I pull the curtains across my room’s windows, I reflect that the view is quintessential Dubai: down below is a construction site, then rising above the water, a tiara of towers glittering through the haze. This is a city built on dreams not yet fully realised.
I realise to my utter surprise that I’m not quite finished with Dubai — I’m not all that keen to say goodbye. I’ve had a taste of what lies beyond its relentless ambition and dizzying bling and I’d like another bite. Perhaps someday I’ll have one.