Linda Herrick

Linda Herrick is the Arts and Books Editor at the NZ Herald.

Dubai: The jewels that shine in desert heat

Dubai is more than skyscrapers, mega-malls and man-made islands, writes Linda Herrick.

The Dubai Marina by night. Photo / Thinkstock
The Dubai Marina by night. Photo / Thinkstock

Dubai, which boasts the busiest airport in the Middle East, is perfectly placed as a short stopover for travellers slogging on from New Zealand to Europe and Britain. But it's also becoming more attractive as a longer-break destination, where you can look beyond its surreal skyscrapers, man-made islands and mega-malls.

Aside from its relentless focus on money-making and "bigger, better, higher" construction programme, Dubai is a relatively young city where the ancient Muslim culture is firmly sustained alongside a huge population (84 per cent of the total) of international expats, be they labourers, service workers, financiers, hoteliers.

Regardless of your beliefs, Dubai is anchored by the five calls to worship each day echoing across the city from its many mosques. Exotic and thrilling, the calls - the adhan - are a commanding reminder of where you are in this part of the world.

Although you can really wallop the credit card in the malls and hotels, it is also a place where shopping does not have to shape your stay. If you dig around, you can find the human heart of a city that initially seems so overwhelmed by the sheen of its surface.

Art galleries

Yes, there's a mountain of money sloshing around Dubai so it's inevitable that a contemporary art precinct has sprung up in its International Financial Centre's Gate Village. It's well worth a look (for free) at sophisticated and beautiful art from across the Middle East at a gallery such as Artspace, one of the first to open in Dubai about 10 years ago. When I visited it was showing striking works by Iranian artist Samira Alikhanzadeh, portraits of her family members with their eyes blotted out.

The Ayyam Gallery specialises in dynamic art from Syria, alongside the not-for-profit Cuadro Gallery, which runs education and residency programmes.

The Empty Quarter photography gallery houses haunting images of desert landscapes ("the empty quarter") and its people, and the Farjam Foundation, a private art collection, had a multi-media show called Memories of Destruction. A different kind of perspective is going on in the art from this region, a lot of it powerfully political, but Christie's is there too, at the time set to auction the "Collection of Elizabeth Taylor".

A huge new art precinct is also under development in Alserkal Ave in an industrial outskirt of the city, a 50,000sq m block of warehouse spaces that will eventually house 25 galleries when its privately funded $50 million expansion is complete. The galleries so far include Carbon 12, the Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Green Art, Grey Noise and Mojo, with talk sessions, reference libraries, a coffee shop and film screenings.

Eating

Right in the middle of the IFC's Gate Village is Marco Pierre White's Wheelers of St James, "estd. 1856". Established in London, that is, as a traditional seafood restaurant, transposed a couple of years ago to Dubai.

Reviews have been mixed but I'd go just for the experience of trying his "marine-themed" menu, where you can get fish and chips for D110 ($35). See Guardian food critic Jay Rayner's amusing book, The Man Who Ate the World, which includes a chapter on celeb-chefs who set up camp in Dubai and embark on a spiral of ridiculous competitive extravagance.

More down to earth, and good value, is Cafe Bateel. Bateel is a franchise with 10 cafes in Dubai, including a waterside site at The Marina, and two in Abu Dhabi. Its menus are based on rustic Italian cooking fused with the "best in Arabian heritage", including divine pastries, and the tastiest lentil soup I have ever had.

They do incredible juices: sparkling date drink or pomegranate juice with elderberry. Bateel also imports the most succulent dates - the symbols of Middle Eastern hospitality - from Saudi Arabia.

Timeout Dubai is a handy source of information about dining places, which the city has in mega-abundance at every level of expense. We had a delectable (and cheap) vegetarian mezze feast in the 19th floor restaurant of our Park Regis Kris Kin Hotel in the heart of the historic area.

Food tours

Arva Ahmed runs fun, informative food tours around the Deira district, one of Dubai's older, less developed areas because its close proximity to the airport means high-rises are banned, thereby preserving its character.

The four-hour tours start in the cool of the early evening (in the hotter months you travel by van) and take you through charming wide streets lined with trees, modest cafes, small hardware retailers and cake shops with window displays like jewels.

In contrast with the hard-core glamour of much of Dubai, it's a neighbourhood that possesses what Arva calls "soul".

Overhead, Emirates planes glide through the sky, very low.

Arva's "Arabian Food Pilgrimage" takes you into the kitchens to watch how dishes are made, followed by samplings. In the course of the night our small group tried falafel in a place run by a Palestinian; Palestinian cheese pie; cookies stuffed with pistachio, walnuts and dates in the Arabic tradition; deep-fried dumplings; Syrian icecream; Egyptian pizza.

We learned how to eat rice with our right hands, and ate on and on before collapsing in a heap at an Iranian restaurant where the entertainment was a young man in a shiny blue suit intoning moody songs accompanied by a drum.

It was a wonderful experience; Arva's sister Farida also runs a tour of Little India on the other side of town in Bur Dubai.

Brownbook

"An urban guide to the Middle East", the bi-monthly Brownbook is defying the trend of many Western magazines struggling against falling circulation. The magazine is an attractive combination of profiles, features on art, music, architecture, food, the "great outdoors" and travel, all from an Arab perspective.

Brownbook's core ethos is community engagement, championing the Dubai trend for "reading cafes", where you can have a coffee while browsing quality magazines; the Brownbook cafe we visited included a huge selection of old National Geographics. No gossip mags here.

Brownbook's latest project supports the establishment of The Archive in an old building in Safa Park, hosting a contemporary Middle Eastern library (a children's picture book, Lebanon A-Z, had "war" in the W section) and events promoting culture and sport, plus a cafe. The 64ha park itself is a pleasant place to relax in.

Walking

A mad idea, generally, because Dubai is simply too hot to be outside except in the cooler months of December-March, and too sprawling to make walking feasible. Taxis are the easy, and cheap, way to move around the city (although Dubai is making an effort to expand its public transport system).

However, walking tours of the old quarter can be booked via Gulf Ventures (ask if the delightful Gabriel is available) and in the evenings, The Marina area is a relaxing place to stroll around, with its attractive boulevard of cafes lining the waterside where expensive yachts bob.

Kids jump around in the fountains, family groups dine outdoors, couples promenade. As far as we could see, no alcohol was for sale at any of the cafes and the vibe was totally laid-back.

In fact, the only time we ever saw any drunks in Dubai was a bunch of young Brits staggering out of a hotel, off their faces and bellowing obscenities in the street. How rude, how impolite, how illegal.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Dubai.

Further information: See dubaitourism.ae.

Linda Herrick travelled to Dubai courtesy of Emirates Airline and Dubai Tourism, with accommodation and city travel provided by Park Regis Kris Kin Hotel and Gulf Ventures.

- NZ Herald

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