James Lane goes in search of ostentatious Dubai's subtle side.

Dubai is nicknamed "Do Buy" and for good reason.

The desert city is home to the world's largest shopping mall, a retail space housing 1200 shops, featuring the world's largest fountain, the largest suspended aquarium and the largest shoe store.

Add to this low import duties and it's little surprise Dubai Mall became the world's most visited shopping and leisure destination in 2011.

But beyond the lure of global brand names and unrivalled shopping, and for far fewer dirhams, an alternative Dubai exists, but it requires some digging and investigation.


Here are three experiences highlighting Dubai's subtle side which are worth searching out.

Khan Murjan souk, Wafi

In the Moroccan quarter of the Khan Murjan souk is the chance to understand why Arabian calligraphy is regarded as one of Islam's most revered arts.

From his little shop, Amir Hossein Golshani engraves and carves into materials such as glass, stone, leather, metals, even shells, to produce jewellery and artworks which showcase his exquisite skills as a calligrapher.

Amir moved to Dubai from Iran six years ago and drew upon his passion for Islamic art to open Golden Pen.

Two works best demonstrate Amir's unique skills. The first is a microscopic engraving on a silver stamp for Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The engraving, which says Allah (God), is so small it can't be seen by the naked eye and took him six months to craft.

"When I make something like this, I can only go by my sense of touch because it's such a tiny object," he explains.

While British engraver Graham Short holds the record for the world's smallest engraving, Amir's piece is breathtaking in its precision and detail.

Equally captivating is a giant shell with 50 pages of the Koran inscribed across it. It's an object of mind-bending beauty which also took months of slow, painstaking work.

"It's often hard to bring my breathing down to a level where I can keep my hand steady to do a work like this," he says.

"Any piece I do is unique. It can't be forced. My art is a gift."

Amir's skill and craftsmanship are a revelation and makes a visit a real must-see.

Bur Dubai

Open doors, open minds is this centre's philosophy and perhaps there is no better place to grasp Dubai's dualism of accepting Westerners and their values while maintaining Muslim principles.

The centre aims to create a bridge between cultures over an Emirati brunch (chicken bryan, vegetable saloona and saffron rice) followed by a Q&A with a local.

It's a forum where all questions can be put on the table: men with multiple wives, arranged marriages, restrictions on alcohol and even discussing the treatment of foreign workers after firms went broke during the Global Financial Crisis.

The most asked question - "Why do women have to wear black and men get to wear white robes?" - is given a refreshingly practical answer.

"Black absorbs the light of the sun, not heat. White reflects light of the sun and this is where we mix the two," our female Emirati host explains.

"Outside, when it's 45 degrees, there's no temperature difference between the man's dress and the woman's dress. It's hot."

The hour passes as a candid and articulate exchange all set inside a wind tower house in historic Bur Dubai.

Arts district, Al Quoz

Dubai's vibrant, funky, evolving art district, Alserkal Avenue, is located in a nondescript area of warehouses which rub shoulders with mechanics' businesses and other industrial trades.

"It's great that art ventures can be working next to trades. Art shouldn't be apart from this - it creates a raw, real working environment," Alserkal Avenue spokeswoman Nadine Fattouh reasons.

The close-knit district is named after owner Abdulmonem Alserkal, who encouraged galleries to take on the rents of warehouses. The eclectic group of contemporary galleries and creative spaces display photography, design, painting and multimedia exhibitions from local and international artists, in a kind of art republic.

Alserkal Avenue's success has generated strong demand from artists and studios with construction underway to double the district's size by next year.

Getting there: Emirates operates a number of flights between Auckland and Dubai each week.

Staying there: The five-star Oberoi Dubai is located in Business Bay with views to the world's tallest building - the Burj Khalifa.

Playing there:

• Golden Pen is located at Upper Level 6176, Khan Murjan souk, Wafi.

• The Sheikh Mohammed Centre For Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) cultural lunch costs 80 dirhams, with bookings required.

• Alserkal Avenue arts district is located in Al Quoz. To get there by train get off at either First Gulf Bank (Gold & Diamond Park) or Noor Islamic Bank metro stations and then take a taxi. Alserkal Avenue is located between the two stations.

The writer travelled as a guest of Emirates and the Dubai Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing.