I had only recently settled into life in Dubai as an expatriate when a friend from Sydney announced she would be calling through to pay me a visit. Wanting to travel via the Gulf en route to spring in Europe, she was ready to experience the “old” part of Dubai. “Not the glitzy high-rises, Alice. I would much prefer to see the old souq. You know, the one near the creek,” she emailed me.
Righto, time to acquaint myself on local history and geography. What better way than with a self-guided tour of this “old” part of Dubai, known as Al Bastakiya.
A warren of narrow lanes in the centre of the Bastakiya heritage district, this is one of the most tricky to find – and most appealing – parts of Dubai. The Bastakiya Souq is refreshingly at odds with the glass-and-stainless-steel skyscrapers of this 21st century aerotropolis: brushed concrete, wooden beams, cobbled streets, wind towers and a hodgepodge of restricted passageways…
The area itself is tiny – afew hundred squares – with business flowing, and trade transacting daily. Flower shops, corner stores, a temple, fabric and small goods establishments line the alleyways. In fact, trading is the lifeblood of Bastakiya, with its name derived from the Iranian town of Bastak, from where Dubai’s first trading immigrants hailed in the early 19th century.
My new city’s history confronts me today on this journey: the last wind tower quarter left on the Arab side of the Gulf is right here, in Bastakiya. Sophisticated houses with rough walls shielding the privacy of the wealthy families within became a trademark of the Bastakiya area. And proudly do these mansions remain unbuckled by the relentless heat of the desert.
Wind towers top these walls, trapping the wind and funnelling it down into the house as an effective form of air conditioning. Inner courtyards, shady and cool are mine to peep at as I poke my nose around corners and over walls.
Wandering around Bastakiya, the Dubai creek on my left, laneways to my right, I was immediately transported to Dubai, into an antiquated era where Dhows ferry residents and their goods from one side of the creek to the other.
Old buildings have now been converted into shady cafés, art galleries and quirky little shops – today’s journey into Bastakiya a perfect antidote to my glaring ignorance of Dubai’s living history.