The Dubai that graces guidebook covers is easy to find. From its skyscraping towers to its bustling malls, the city can feel like a westernized, futuristic introduction to the Middle East. European imports pop up as plentifully as construction cranes, and 80% of the population is comprised of expatriates from more than 150 nations. But as the city focuses on sustaining growth, it has made preserving its historical sites a priority. Vestiges of pre-1970s Dubai, then an unassuming port of call famous for its pearls, can still be found, hidden amid the modern towers and flashing lights. This juxtaposition of the ancient and hyper-new creates a window into how modern Dubai has taken shape and provides an opportunity to learn about Arabic cultures in one of the region’s most open environments.
Bastakiya, an old-city neighbourhood on the west side of the creek that divides the city into Diera on the east and Bur Dubai on the west, paints a picturesque if somewhat sterile snapshot of Dubai's past. Originally home to Iranian merchants in the late 19th Century, much of the neighbourhood was razed in the 1980s to make space for a new office complex for the emirate's ruler at the time. Bastakiya gained status as a heritage site in 1988, preventing a second wave of demolition, and since then the city has focused on restoring the neighbourhood, both physically and culturally. Few people live in Bastakiya today, but nearby souks (markets) spark foot traffic that enlivens the labyrinth of alley ways.
The Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding is one of the last places in the city that serves traditional Emirati meals. Luqaimat pastries with date syrup, sweet khobs khameer flatbread with fennel seed and saffron, and strong, cardamom- and cinnamon-scented Arabic coffee preface morning discussions of Emirati culture, every Monday and Wednesday at 10 am.
For visitors, many of whom come to Dubai for work, it would be easy to stick to familiar stores, familiar foods or familiar languages. The Mohammed centre, which also offers Arabic classes, promotes the heritage that makes Dubai unique. The morning question-and-answer sessions have a "freedom to ask" policy, administrator Amy Smith said. "The topics of discussion are set by our guests and can range from arranged marriages to UAE national dress to religion and everything in between."
Bastakiya's art and architecture provide another window into Dubai's past. Wind towers, an iconic architectural feature of the neighbourhood's oldest homes, populate the roofline. To learn first-hand how these towers cool indoor spaces, duck into the Majlis Gallery, a 70-year-old home-turned-exhibition space whose wind tower, barasti ceiling made of panels of palm fronds, teak doors, shuttered windows and serene central courtyard have been carefully restored.
Majlis means "meeting place" or "common ground" in Arabic, and artists often linger in the gallery's intimate exhibit rooms to discuss their work, like watercolours and glass sculpture evocative of life in the desert.
"I didn't set out with this in mind," said Alison Collins, the gallery's co-partner and an expat who worked to save it from demolition in the 1980s. "It just grew from an innate love of the way of life the area offers, the excitement of being part of such a dynamic city at the same time as giving life to the past."
The nearby textile souks retain the flavor of the spice and gold stalls in Diera across the creek, but are less crowded, especially in the morning. Vendors here sell handmade rugs, clothing and glittering embroidered slippers.
For lunch overlooking the water, head to the Bur Dubai abra (water taxi stop) where the Arabic restaurant Bayt Al Wakeel has served mint tea and falafel since 1935. The outdoor cafe hugs the creekside with a look of slight disrepair that lends it authenticity. Visitors can have lunch while watching boats criss-cross the creek as they have done for hundreds of years.
Contemporary Dubai is all of these things: wind towers and opulent hotels, cars James Bond would envy and courtyards for unhurried conversation. As the city embraces its importance as a trade centre, it is taking steps to preserve its Arabic traditions. Wherever travellers look, they are sure to see evidence of both.