Dubai has the reputation of being a plastic town, often compared to Vegas and Macau. There is no soul, people say. The vibrant, messy vibe that makes a city real, is absent. While I have often succumbed to this narrative, I’m beginning to realize that the truth is more nuanced.
Cultural is an expansive, nebulous term. Men dressed in stark white dishdashes, waving thin wooden sticks to percussive rhythm is culture. Equally, women rolling their heads with hair falling down their shoulders in a celebratory dance, is a cultural norm. But culture is much wider than that.
What gives Dubai soul is not the neatly restored (or built from scratch?) Heritage Village. Its not the desert safaris with faux camps and fat bellied dancers. Its the buzzing streets of Satwa, where Ravi dishes out greasy Pakistani fare like it has for decades. It is Meena Bazar, where cloth merchant hawk synthetic bales as Egyptian cotton. It is old Jumeria, where Bu Qutair, a Keralite eatery, serves fried fish from a Portacabin by the beach.
As you drive South towards new Dubai, soul gives way to glamor and comforting sterility. In this part of Dubai, nobody ever dies, or falls seriously ill. Getting sworn at by a personal trainer is a favorite past time, followed by kick-boxing and Bikram yoga. Poultry is preferred organic. Tomatoes must be from Holland although local cucumbers are tolerated.
This amalgamation of preferences is culture too, in all its Jumeirah-Jane glory.