More than skyscrapers: Discovering the real value of Dubai’s real art, culture treasures

Dubai is so much more than its known opulence as it is also rich with Emirati heritage which is influenced in the city’s art and culture. — Picture courtesy of Dubai Tourism
Dubai is so much more than its known opulence as it is also rich with Emirati heritage which is influenced in the city’s art and culture. — Picture courtesy of Dubai Tourism

PETALING JAYA, Nov 11 — Luxurious shopping destinations, sunny beaches, ultramodern architecture and exuberant nightlife — Dubai is known as a playground for the rich to splurge and have fun.

While Dubai is regarded as one of the most luxurious cities in the world, it is also rich with culture thanks to the strong emphasis of the Emirati people on sticking to their roots, despite the continuous and rapid development of the city.

For all of its skyscrapers, Dubai has its fair share of old-world buildings from yesteryear, teeming with the memories of its past.

Infrastructure aside, the city is also fast becoming an art hub in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and aims to become one of the region’s most influential arts and culture destinations.

A recent media trip to Dubai, onboard Emirates Airlines, hosted by Dubai Tourism, was a journey of discovery of the city that is home to artistic and cultural gems like Alserkal Avenue, the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood and the Dubai Opera to name a few.

Alserkal Avenue

Alserkal Avenue was initially built as an industrial zone in the Al Quoz district of Dubai but was later transformed into an arts and culture haven with its 90 warehouses remodelled into galleries, workshops, gyms, salons, cafes and even a cinema.

Known as the contemporary art and cultural hub of the city, Alserkal Avenue was founded in 2008 by Abdelmonem Eisa Alserkal, a real estate developer who is also devoted patron of the arts.

One of Ran Hwang’s unique masterpieces, which is just one of the many stunning artworks on display at Alserkal Avenue. — Picture by Mark Ryan Raj
One of Ran Hwang’s unique masterpieces, which is just one of the many stunning artworks on display at Alserkal Avenue. — Picture by Mark Ryan Raj

Thanks to him, Alserkal Avenue is now home to many creative minds in the city as is emerging as one of the hottest creative hubs in the Middle East.

You can feast your eyes on the imaginative pin and button artworks by South Korean artist Ran Hwang at the Leila Heller Gallery, indulge in Kashmiri chilli and cardamom chocolates in a tasting session at Mirzam Chocolate Makers or even engage in a debate on movies and documentaries at Cinema Akil.

A trip to the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood

The Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, located in Old Dubai, brings you back to a time when there were no sky-piercing buildings. — Picture by Mark Ryan Raj
The Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, located in Old Dubai, brings you back to a time when there were no sky-piercing buildings. — Picture by Mark Ryan Raj

Located in the Old Dubai district, Al Fahidi is home to nearly 80 historical old houses blessed with the ancient architecture of days past.

Over 200 years ago there were more than 250 of these old houses, but because of the meteoric rise of the city, many gave way for development.

Realising that the legacy of the Old Dubai was being wiped away, the Dubai government decided to preserve the remaining buildings and turn the neighbourhood into a site of remembrance for the history and heritage of the land.

All of the historic houses, known as wind tower courtyards, made from limestone mixed with coral and shells, makes use of its unique architecture for ventilation.

The towers were used to help cool the inside of the buildings as two of the four walls on the structure were used as windows, with wet towels hanging from them, to cool the hot air that flowed through.

If you love coffee, then you have to visit the Coffee Museum filled with unique coffee-making antiques as well as literature about the different types of coffee from around the world. — Picture by Mark Ryan Raj
If you love coffee, then you have to visit the Coffee Museum filled with unique coffee-making antiques as well as literature about the different types of coffee from around the world. — Picture by Mark Ryan Raj

Apart from revelling in amazement of the architecture of the unique buildings, there’s much more to do in the neighbourhood, like visiting the Coffee Museum and the Dubai Museum.

At the Coffee Museum, for just 10 AED, caffeine aficionados will be in for a treat as the aroma of coffee lures you into one of the old houses in the neighbourhood.

Filled with antique coffee making equipment and coffee powder and beans from all over the world, you can not only enjoy and experience the different regional styles of coffee but also learn a thing or two about your favourite roasts.

The Dubai Museum, on the other hand, which is built inside the olden Al Fahidi Fort, is the perfect chance for cultural buffs to learn about the origins of Dubai and how it transformed from the Bedouin and pearl diving culture of the past, into the metropolis that it is today — and all of that just for 3 AED (RM3.40).

Cultural Lunch or Dinner at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding

Located in the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, also known as Al Bastakiya, cultural enthusiasts can also take part in a cultural breakfast, lunch or dinner at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU).

With its tagline of “Open Doors, Open Minds,” the centre is the perfect place to delve deeper into the Bedouin-rooted culture of the city as you sit down for a traditional Emirati meal with your host in a wind tower courtyard.

Indulge in dishes like Chicken Nashif, Lamb Biryani, Balaleet pasta, Khameer flatbread and even sweet syrup-soaked doughnuts called Machboos as your host explains the traditions and customs of Dubai.

At the SMCCU, not only can you learn a thing or two about the Emirati way of life, but you can also enjoy a bountiful, traditional Emirati meal too. — Picture courtesy of Dubai Tourism
At the SMCCU, not only can you learn a thing or two about the Emirati way of life, but you can also enjoy a bountiful, traditional Emirati meal too. — Picture courtesy of Dubai Tourism

One of the things you’ll learn is that Arabic coffee, which is made with cardamom, is a traditional drink that is often used to welcome guests, and how it is considered rude to decline a cup, even if you don’t like coffee.

You’ll even learn why most Arabics and Emiratis use Oud, which is a type of fragrant wood that is burnt like incense, to remove the smell of food after they eat and to fend off insects at the same time.

Dubai Opera

Slightly different from the other activities listed, a trip to the Dubai Opera is also necessary for any cultural enthusiast as the building resonates the essence of culture and art in the city with a uniquely modern twist.

Shaped like a Dhow, the Dubai Opera incorporates the origins and heritage of ancient Dubai’s nautical way of life. — Picture courtesy of Dubai Tourism
Shaped like a Dhow, the Dubai Opera incorporates the origins and heritage of ancient Dubai’s nautical way of life. — Picture courtesy of Dubai Tourism

Opened in 2016, the Dubai Opera was designed by Danish architect Janus Rostock in the shape of a giant boat, referred to as a “Dhow”, which is deeply rooted in the culture of the Emirati people, many of whom historically were pearl divers or used the Dhow’s for trade.

The entire opera building is designed with nautical elements in mind, from the building itself to its interior and exterior decorations, staying true to the spirit of Dubai being a trade port in the past.

Fine details like floor panels resembling waves, a small river running along the perimeter of the building, “jumping fish” lamps and seaweed inspired chandelier, bring the nautical theme to life.

It truly is a sight to behold, even before one beholds at the visual splendour of the opera hall itself which is an architectural masterpiece in itself.

Made as a multifunctional hall, it’s still a wonder how these plentiful rows of seats can be moved around and shifted to transform the space into a banquet hall at the Dubai Opera. — Picture courtesy of Dubai Tourism
Made as a multifunctional hall, it’s still a wonder how these plentiful rows of seats can be moved around and shifted to transform the space into a banquet hall at the Dubai Opera. — Picture courtesy of Dubai Tourism

The multifunctional hall can accommodate up to 2,000 guests with seats made of the same leather as in a Ferrari, and can be manoeuvred and adjusted for a variety of events including concerts and banquets.

The handful of locations are just a small, but indicative sample of the many cultural and artistic treasures to be discovered in Dubai to truly experience and learn about the distinctive and unique culture of the city.

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