What nobody tells you about Dubai

By Jenny Hewett

Yes, it's showy. But there's more to Dubai than first meets the eye. Photo / iStock
Yes, it's showy. But there's more to Dubai than first meets the eye. Photo / iStock

On the surface it's a city lacking soul, a monotonous mashup of money and incongruities.

The sugar daddy of the Middle East, luring the impressionable with glamour and the promise of potential. Obsessed with its own image, Dubai's duplicitous facade has always been one of excessive wealth and temptation.

A Muslim city built on the backs of poorly paid subcontinental workers and overrun with British expats, who bounce between beach clubs and brunches buzzed on Dom Perignon. Right? Wrong.

There's more to Dubai than luxury hotels and liquid lunches. Dig deeper and you'll find a side to the emirate no one talks about.

Eat the streets

While expats make up around 90 per cent of the UAE's population, the majority are low-income workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Philippines, Iran, Egypt and Nepal.

Consequently, the dining landscape is as diverse as it is deliberate. Despite the wealth of celebrity-owned restaurants in Dubai Marina, the most authentic - not to mention affordable - bites can be found in gritty Old Dubai, where a host of cultures collide.

Local start-up Frying Pan Adventures offers boutique food tours through some of the city's backstreets, snacking on everything from stuffed Palestinian falafels to saffron-flavoured Persian ice cream along the way.

Why not do a food tour? Photo / Jenny Hewett
Why not do a food tour? Photo / Jenny Hewett

Mop up Malabari crab stew with rice pancakes on the Indian Express tour through South Asian-centric area, Karama. Or take the Green Line metro trail through lesser-known hoods to sample crisp Emirati bread served with eggs, cheese and fish sauce and preserved lemon Iranian kebabs.

Sausage manakish. Photo / Jenny Hewett
Sausage manakish. Photo / Jenny Hewett

And when it comes to night-time nibbles, Al Reef Bakery on Al Wasl Road is the grand-daddy of them all. Situated in Jumeirah 2, this 24-hour bakery is as much of an icon as the Burj Al Arab. It's culinary trademark: piping hot pizza-like Lebanese manakish, oozing with melted cheese, zaatar, sausage or labneh.

Fancy a kebab? Photo / Jenny Hewett
Fancy a kebab? Photo / Jenny Hewett

On the same road heading towards Dubai Marina, chomp down on takeaway shawarmas from Eat and Drink's humble roadside digs. Resembling a mini doner kebab, they're filled with grilled chicken, garlic paste, pickled vegetables and fries and are the unofficial national dish of the UAE.

Take a step back in time

The ambitious new kid on the block, Dubai doesn't necessarily compete with the most historical cities in the world. World-record breaking skyscrapers, mega malls and seven-star hotels all point to a city trapped in an awkward adolescence.

And at first glance, it is. While the UAE may have only been in existence for 45 years, history still lurks in the heritage-rich area of Al Fahidi Historic District overlooking Dubai Creek, the former pearl-diving centre of the region.

The old buildings of Bastakia. Photo / 123RF
The old buildings of Bastakia. Photo / 123RF

Meander through the narrow sikkas (passageways), sample Arabic coffee in the leafy courtyard at Arabian Tea House and explore Dubai Museum, housed in an 18th century fort. Nearby, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding offers Arabic classes and hosts Emirati breakfasts and lunches with locals every week.

Shop the souks

While the Dubai Mall and Mall of the Emirates (home to indoor ski slope, Ski Dubai), have it all and more, the city's traditional souks in Old Dubai are where the magic happens.

The city's oldest markets straddle Dubai Creek, with the textile souk on one side and the spice and gold souk on another.

Spices everywhere. Photo / iStock
Spices everywhere. Photo / iStock

Ride an abra (traditional wooden boat) across the creek to bargain on frankincense, cinnamon and saffron. As hard-to-find as it is an assault on the senses, Antiques Museum in Al Quoz (located in Street 8, across from Alserkal Avenue), is a maze of quirky knick-knacks and secret rooms.

You could hop on an abra. Photo / iStock
You could hop on an abra. Photo / iStock

The dish-dash and abaya salt and pepper shakers depicting a couple in national dress are a take-home essential. For elaborate Turkish chandeliers, colourful Afghani carpets, pouffes and Omani jewellery, don't miss the colloquially named Blue Souk in Sharjah, only 30 minutes in a taxi from Old Dubai.

Can't find culture? Look harder

Those who say Dubai lacks culture are not looking in the right places. As well as being the city to view contemporary Middle Eastern art, the emirate comes alive in March, when buzzy food festival Taste of Dubai, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and Art Dubai all compete for space on the calendar.

There are plenty of events and galleries to attend. Photo / Jenny Hewett
There are plenty of events and galleries to attend. Photo / Jenny Hewett

A launch pad for regional artists, including those in war-torn Syria and Iraq, Alserkal Avenue in edgy, industrial Al Quoz is the most active of Dubai's three main art hubs, with regular community art nights, pop-up parties, food trucks, movie screenings and live music.

After an expansion in 2015 which doubled its size, the area now claims 46,451 square metres of galleries (check out Tammam Azzam's heart-rending pieces on the Syrian conflict at Ayyam Gallery), concept stores, black box theatre and artist residencies in atmospheric warehouse spaces.

Meanwhile, a different kind of art goes down over fine Peruvian fare at The Act Dubai, Dubai's only supperclub and the timid sister of risque Manhattan theatre of varieties, The Box. Shovel in ceviche one minute and pick your jaw up off the floor the next, as aerial hoop dancers, magicians and contortionists take the stage.

- news.com.au

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