David Whitley discovers a Dubai beyond all the offshore island and big tower stereotypes...

It’s difficult to get any less bling than walking out of your hotel, turning the corner and stumbling across fifteen men slaughtering a cow. The stricken beast lies on the floor, its throat cut, as the customers chugging away on their hookah pipes in the local café look on nonchalantly. Deira, it’s fair to say, is the part of Dubai that doesn’t make the tourist brochures. The wealthy Emirate has carefully crafted a reputation for ostentatious opulence. But, contrary to popular belief, there is more to it than seven star hotels, mega-skyscrapers and giant shopping malls. Dubai is often portrayed as lacking history, soul and character, but beyond the towering skyline of Sheikh Zayed Road and the Jumeirah beach resorts, such attributes are there to be found.

Deira is very much Old Dubai. On the eastern side of Dubai Creek, it is firmly detached from where the big money is on display. The streets are full of mobile phone shops, Indian-run grocery stores, cheap Lebanese eateries and grubby internet cafés full of underpaid ‘guest workers’ phoning home. The souks – even the Gold Souk and its world-leading array of jewellery shops – have a proper ramshackle feel here. The roads are chaotic, with people ambling along the middle in groups or making death-defying chicken runs across the major carriageways. Crowds gather willy-nilly to watch police cars and there’s hardly an Emirati or Westerner in sight.

This is where Dubai’s many immigrants and imported labourers live and spend their money whilst not slaving away on construction sites. To stroll around gives a fascinating insight into the other side of Dubai – just mind the cow blood. If Deira is bustling, then Dubai Creek is positively chaotic. The city grew up as a trading hub – surprisingly little of Dubai’s modern-day prosperity is due to oil revenue - and it was this waterway where the merchant ships came in. This is not the case today – huge port facilities have been built to take the big ships – but you wouldn’t know it at first glance.

The Dhow Wharfage, on the Deira side of the Creek near the Souks, is where the defiantly old-school shipping happens. Lined up the water’s edge is box after box of goodies, be they spices or production-line vacuum cleaners. All are waiting to be loaded onto the dhows, then taken elsewhere in the Gulf. Quite how they’ll get there is another matter – these big wooden boats look one extra dose of rot away from an ignominious end on the seabed.

Weaving around the dhows, crunching into the jetties and shunting each other unceremoniously are the abras. There are seemingly hundreds of these miniature ferries darting across the Creek at any one time, and how there’s not a serious accident every ten minutes is difficult to fathom. Each one departs when it has enough passengers, taking a dodgem approach until it gets to open water. The driver collects the one dirham (approx AU$0.30) fare then smashes into the wharf on the other side a few minutes later. Passengers have to leap off while the abra is vaguely close to the decking, hoping it’s not going to bounce away again before they get the chance. You don’t get that sort of thrill ride in a taxi, that’s for sure.

On the other side of the Creek is Bur Dubai, the other traditional area of the city. It’s a little more spruced up and touristy than Deira, but it still has an air of authenticity. The market stalls pushing perfumes or Hindu beads are refreshingly non-blingy, while little laneways trapped between the temple and the mosque can turn into a massive human scrum as the worshippers pour out.

It’s also the area in which to get a sense of Dubai’s history – it didn’t quite spring from nowhere in the 1970s, although growth under the Makhtoum dynasty in the last 40 years has been astonishing. Next to the Grand Mosque is the Al-Fahaidi Fort, which is thought to be the oldest building in Dubai and dates to around 1800. Constructed out of gypsum and coral rock, it has that traditional sand-blown desert battlement look, with the lookout towers lurching up in competition with the city’s minarets.

Inside the fort is the Dubai Museum, an impressive 3D romp through the emirate’s past. Amongst all the Bedouin weaponry and videos of traditional dancing, visitors learn that archaeological digs have shown that the area has hosted fairly advanced civilisation for 5,000 years. Indeed, an Italian explorer dropped by in 1580 to find a prosperous pearling community. Dubai does have a history – it’s just that many of the people visiting simply aren’t looking for it.





By David Whitley