Uncommon Dubai: This City Has A Soul

Does Dubai have a soul? This has got to be the most frequently asked question about my adopted city. It’s true—Dubai does take a lot of selfies. But I’m still not sure how the city picked up the international reputation of being the gorgeous, shallow girl who everyone criticizes but secretly wants to be. Uncommon Dubai is an unusual guidebook, written for travelers who want to experience the city like residents, and for residents who want to be travelers in their own town.

Cover photography by Lamya Gargash

Cover photography by Lamya Gargash

The hardback was recently published by Uncommon Guide Books and edited by Dubai-based Hind Shoufani, a wildly talented poet and filmmaker with rouge-colored curls and a penchant for belly dancing skirts. You will not find glossy maps featuring tourist hangouts or shopping mall reviews here. You will find poetry, nostalgia, and street photography. Mostly, it is about and by the very people that settled, built, and transiently pass through Dubai.

Photograph by Balazs Gardi

Photograph by Balazs Gardi

It is the kind of book you will want to keep on your coffee table to inspire lazy Saturday afternoon wanderings to Leisureland, Pyongyang Okryu-Gwan North Korean Restaurant, or a hidden Hindu temple—off road adventures to Dubai institutions. Austyn Allison marks time by levels that are built on the Burj Khalifa and then by the deconstruction of the Hard Rock Café. Fiona Patterson finds the city’s culture through the thought provoking one-liners sprayed on construction site walls by graffiti artist Arcadia Blank. Frank Dullaghan discovers Dubai International Financial Centre to have a secret poetic meter that far surpasses the rhythm of cash being counted. The next time someone accuses me of loving a soulless city I plan to wordlessly hand him or her a copy of Uncommon Dubai.

Majlis, Lamya Gargash

Majlis, Lamya Gargash

I was asked to write the chapter (Uncommon calls it a Reroute) on Al Quoz and Hind’s instructions were to make it “poetic and slightly mischievous but with meat to it.” I would argue that it is absolutely impossible to visit Al Quoz, the city’s main arts district, without getting hopelessly lost at least once. Getting lost in Al Quoz is actually when wonderfully unexpected things tend to happen and for this reason I’ve learned to enjoy it. The essay is all about my misgivings with the pretentiousness of the local art world in tandem with my attraction to its complexity.

Photography from Uncommon Dubai

Photography from Uncommon Dubai

Here is an excerpt from my contribution, Lost in Al Quoz:

…“If you begin to hug your elbows and cross your legs, anxiously wondering if the driver is kidnapping you and taking you to an abandoned area of town where you will be tied up and frozen in a meat locker to be found, rescued, and defrosted by no one ever, then you are in the right place. The first time I took my husband here we were still newlyweds and he turned to me as though I were a masked stranger to ask, “Are you taking me here to have me whacked by the mob?” Actually I was taking him to an art night at Alserkal Avenue where we binged on a photograph by a Syrian artist the way other people binge on couture. The photograph was not mass-produced in a sweatshop in China and I did not have to be tall, svelte, and skinny to own it.

Alserkal Avenue is poorly marked. When you find it at last you feel as though you have unearthed a secret. The building is the color of the Atlantic Ocean on a melancholy winter’s morning. It once housed a marble factory owned by the Alserkal family, an Emirati family known for its patronage of the arts. A few galleries opened spaces here five years ago and the place grew organically until more than 20 warehouses were renovated and turned into galleries. Step into a white cube and suddenly you’re in Iran, Pakistan, or France. I can hear the purr of cranes beyond, the bird song of Dubai—Alserkal is doubling in size by next year. I step through the gates and admire the street art on the wall. Graffiti is still officially illegal in Dubai, but in the last year it has started to appear on private buildings.

Lost in Al Quoz, Uncommon Dubai

Lost in Al Quoz, Uncommon Dubai

I turn right and pass through a steel door into Salsali Private Museum. The wall in front of me blinks with a neon sign that reads alternately, “THIS IS A MUSEUM! THIS IS NOT A MUSEUM!” The floor is polished concrete. The air is blindingly cool. It is so quiet inside that for a split second I feel as though I shouldn’t be here. I used to feel that way every moment when I first came to Dubai two years ago. Like I didn’t belong. Like everyone could tell that my clothes were cheap, my cuticles were ragged, and I wasn’t Arab. I was surrounded by women in silk cocktail dresses everywhere I went, all of them in stilettos with potent smiles and colossal diamond rings, asking me what I do and who I know, then smiling right through me. Until I came here. Slipped through this door into a place that could not be labeled. “THIS IS A MUSEUM! THIS IS NOT A MUSEUM!”…

Photography from Uncommon Dubai

Photography from Uncommon Dubai

You can download the rest of the piece here: Danna_Al_Quoz_low

Good Idea: Uncommon Dubai is one title in a brilliant series published by Uncommon Guide Books. You can order a copy online or if you are based in Dubai you can purchase the book at Kinokuniya in Dubai Mall.

Images: Courtesy of Uncommon Guide Books