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Dubai: going beyond its mall culture

No, this isn't a mirage in the desert. An amazing literature festival with writers from all over the world showed that there's more to Dubai than malls.

brunch Updated: May 11, 2014 12:17 IST
Saudamini Jain

The desert is magical enough by itself. The dark sky dotted with bright stars, smooth grains of sand warm under bare feet, the cool night breeze tickling our senses. We were in a campsite lit entirely by lanterns, the moon, a gleaming pearl. The oud was playing - its mellifluous notes evoking a sense of something out of the Arabian Nights. Food was in abundance and drinks were overflowing. But we were intoxicated by the poetry.

If there was ever one...
... Whose love lay more infinite
Than grains of sand

That's when I fell in love with a new poem - Invisible Kisses - and found a new favourite, Ethiopian-British poet Lemn Sissay.

We were at Desert Stanzas - Poetry & Music Under the Stars, part of the sixth Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai in March this year. Apart from Sissay, there were Emirati poets Khalid Al-Budoor and Khulood al-Mu'alla, German slam poet Frank Klötgen, Mandarin poet Lan Yi and the UK's Andrew Motion. Not all of them were translated, but even when the words were foreign, we were captivated by the cadence of the poets' voices - the fall, the pause, the peak. Recognising the shape of a poem is instinct.

How to spend a weekend in Dubai

The Festival

Dubai is a surprisingly suitable venue for a literary festival. 85% of its population is expatriate - so the pool of authors is a wonderfully varied mix from around the world.

There were some fantastic Middle Eastern writers (see box), there were bestselling writers - Joanne Harris (who wrote Chocolat - you've probably watched the film adaptation), Eoin Colfer (who man behind the 13-year-old criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl), our very own Amish (The Shiva Trilogy) and Brunch's favourite Pakistani writer Moni Mohsin (The Diary of a Social Butterfly). British journalist Christina Lamb (who co-wrote I Am Malala) was there - you may have read her interview here last month.

There was a literary lunch with celebrity chefs Greg and Lucy Malouf. And there was a Murder Mystery Dinner (actors from a local theatre group enacted a play, somebody dies and the audience plays detective) - something you must add to your bucket list!

Read: Dubai inaugurates world's tallest 'twisted' tower

The Emirate

Indians love Dubai. I'd never visited because I never considered it a place for travellers. It's like a gigantic mall for shoppers and party animals. And it is.

The pride of Dubai is Ski Dubai, the indoor ski resort in the Mall of the Emirates (which I happily ignored, even though my first cabbie insisted it was the full Dubai experience - "we brought ice in the middle of a desert!" he boasted). There are countless clubs and bars (I highly recommend the Irish Village). I did party. And I did shop. It was everything a girl could ask for. But the real charm was in the fragments of culture scattered throughout my trip.

To start at the very beginning, you must visit Al Bastakiya, the oldest neighbourhood in Dubai. At the end of the 19th century, Persian merchants emigrated here and lived here until the 1980s when its residents moved to other parts of the city. Houses are built with coral and gypsum around a courtyard. It is distinguished by windtowers - a kind of natural air-conditioning. It now houses restaurants and art galleries.

A great way to understand Emirati culture and partake the local cuisine is the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. We went for breakfast (surprisingly vegetarian because the Emiratis before the oil money couldn't afford to eat meat so often). The meal began with gahuwa (two sips of strong Arabic coffee with cardamom and saffron in tiny cups - only half-full so you hold it comfortably) and dates. A spread was laid on the floor and we sat around it - there was dungaw (boiled channa), balaleet (sweet vermicelli mixed with scrambled eggs and raisins), chabab (delicious Emirati pancakes) with date syrup, khamir (a kind of bread sprinkled with sesame) served with cream cheese and ligamat (delightfully sweet doughy balls covered in date syrup and sesame seeds). While we ate, a local host talked us through Emirati history and culture.

The History

Dubai lies on a khor, a natural creek with settlements on both sides. It was mostly a pearl-fishing village till the mid 19th century. People reared camel and sheep, and that was their only wealth. By the 1950s, the north winds had caused silting, and dredging schemes began to widen the channel. In 1966, oil was discovered. And by the end of the '60s, when the creek project was completed, shipping lines began using Dubai as the main port in the Gulf. Oil export began in 1969. The population was about 59,000.

In the 1980s, it was made a free-trade oasis, foreign companies came in. And in the 2000s, technology and finance companies poured in. Dubai's population is now more than two million people.

With the tremendous inflow of wealth, art and culture is sprouting up in places. We recommend you visit Al Serkel Avenue, Dubai's industrial area, where warehouses have been converted into art galleries and creative spaces. "Everybody thinks we have a lot of money, so if we're not strict, we'll be the trash can of the world," a curator told us.

Driving through Dubai, you'll be baffled by the inconsistency in architecture. Impressive standalone buildings senselessly thrown together. (An Egyptian-themed mall next to a Pantheon-like structure?) It is almost unsettling, this emirate - it's too new, too sudden, too glitzy.

Dubai seems unreal.

But then the sun sets, and the world's tallest building, Burj Khalifa, pierces the night sky, glittering all the way to the top. A million photographs cannot prepare you for its glimmering magnificence - or for its dancing fountains.

And then you know what Dubai is - a mirage.

The writer's trip to attend the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature was sponsored by Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing

Follow @SaudaminiJain on Twitter

From HT Brunch, May 11
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