Old Dubai clings to its fading heritage as new city rises

Old Dubai clings to its fading heritage as new city rises


(DUBAI) Khadija Ahmad and her family are the only residents left in Dubai’s old Bastakiya quarter, her house little changed since she arrived as a new bride more than 70 years ago.


Nestled among mushrooming skyscrapers and multi-lane highways, the rabbit warren of streets dating from the 1890s is one of the few reminders left of Dubai’s past as a sleepy village where people earned money by diving for pearls.


In the 1990s, the government bought out most homeowners in Bastakiya to protect the run-down district from developers.


Today, the area beside Dubai creek is home to galleries, cafes and restaurants, and to Ms Ahmad and her family who declined the state’s offer to buy them out. ‘Fifteen years ago, they moved everyone out. Thank God, we were able to stay,’ she said.


In less than 60 years, the United Arab Emirates’ hub has become a byword for ostentatious wealth, speckled with one jaw-dropping development after another. But Emirates officials have begun to wake up to the value of Dubai’s historic sites, partly reflecting a popular demand for tangible links to a fast disappearing past, and also because of the realisation that history can boost tourism. ‘We have to have our culture and traditions to show to others,’ explained Waleed Nabil, 22, an Emirati who works at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Bastakiya. ‘We have to be able to show schoolchildren how their grandparents lived or we will lose our culture.’


Rashad Bukhash, director of the architectural heritage department at Dubai municipality, understands that need.His department is trying to register old Dubai – which includes Bastakiya, the grand market and al-Shindagha, a complex centred on the home of Sheikh Saeed al-Maktoum, grandfather of Dubai’s current ruler – as a Unesco world heritage site.


Bastakiya, which measures about 300 metres by 200 metres, is named after Bastak, an Iranian town that was home to the earliest traders with Dubai.


‘In 1950, this area was the whole town of Dubai,’ Bukhash said. ‘Now it is less than one per cent of the total area of urban Dubai, so we will protect this one per cent.’ Bastakiya’s houses – once made of coral, gypsum and sand but now restored in materials such as sand-coloured cement – are topped with wind towers, built to capture the cool breezes and force them into the houses while allowing warm air to rise.


Intricate wood and stone decorations on top of the houses denoted a family’s wealth.


Other historic sites near Bastakiya include the Bait al-Wakeel – the first office building in Dubai – and the al-Fahidi Fort, built in the late-1780s and considered the oldest building in the city. These have been dwarfed by a construction boom, fuelled by soaring oil prices. As the city established itself, there was little emphasis on history. That has left Dubai grappling with the question of how to preserve what’s left.


‘Sadly for the Emirates, that question wasn’t asked soon enough so by the time we’re asking it now, we have few specimens left to preserve,’ Jane Bristol-Rhys, an anthropology professor at the Emirates’ Zayed University said, speaking from Abu Dhabi. ‘Sometimes, it’s hard to tell whether you’re in Abu Dhabi or Dubai or Singapore, for that matter.’ – Reuters


Source: Business Times

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