Historic district sees a century of change

Over one hundred years have past since Dubai’s first expatriates made their homes in a small settlement on the banks of the Creek. Since then, the area known as Bastakiya has undergone a transition from a quaint merchant village to a run-down slum into finally a chic hangout for the city’s intelligentsia.

By Martin Croucher

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Published: Sun 18 Jul 2010, 12:19 AM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 2:49 PM

Although today, the characteristic wind towers of the district have been boarded up in favour of air-conditioning, the area has lost little of its historic charm.

“I’m sure it’s highly sterilised, but it’s nice to see the traditional architecture anyway,” said Pam Leonard, a British tourist who had braved the afternoon heat to visit the district.

The origins of the village can be traced back to 1896, when merchants from the Iranian towns of Lingeh and Bastak arrived in Dubai.

Originally, they settled in the Hamriya district, and lived above their shops in a busy souq.

However, in recognition of the enterprising role played by those early settlers, the city’s rulers assigned them an area of land by the Creek on which they could build their homes.

The area was named after the majority population who settled there, mostly merchants from the town of Bastak in Iran.

Life in Bastakiya reached its heyday in the 1960s, when its narrow winding streets became a thriving social hub where expatriates and locals would freely mix.

A city masterplan in 1968 by London-based architect John Harris called for a prohibition on demolition of the area, as well as neighbouring Shindagha. However, in the 70s and 80s, Bastakiya went into decline.

Many of the buildings were aging rapidly, and many of the original residents had moved out, in favour of low-income bachelors.

By then the area was regarded as a “decaying slum” by Dubai residents, writes Yasser Elsheshtawy in his book ‘Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle’.

A professor of architecture at UAE University, Elsheshtawy led a study group to the area and found at least one house in an advanced state of decline. “The house was divided into partitions, which were occupied by a plethora of labourers engaging in different activities such as cooking and washing,” he writes.

“Most of the second floor ceiling had been removed for some reason. Entering the house was like being in another, surreal, world.”

An extension of the ruler’s office in 1984 led to a demolition of a large part of the district. However, Prince Charles, the UK crown prince, persuaded Dubai officials in 1989 to preserve the city’s historic areas.

A wide-ranging restoration project was launched soon afterwards, which was supervised by Rashad Mohammed Bukhesh, the head of the Architectural Heritage Department.

The project was a homecoming for architect Bukhesh, whose family once owned a house in Bastakiya. He now works from a municipality office in one of the buildings of the district.

Thanks to the restoration project, these days the streets are neatly paved and the buildings are lit with tasteful lighting in the evening.

Many of the homes that have been preserved are now art galleries, restaurants or chic cafes. Restaurants, in particular, cater to a clientele almost exclusively made up of tourists.

The Local House Restaurant, based near the entrance of the district, features a traditional majlis as well as a dining area festooned with Arabic paraphernalia. Statues of golden camels, swords and trunks decorate the walls. In one room, I counted eleven Arabic coffee pots.

A sign reading ‘Try our Yummy Camel Burger’ was enough to lure Justin Sullivan, a US photojournalist, into the restaurant.

Sullivan jointly runs a blog called ‘thehamblogger.com’ comprising reviews of burger restaurants from around the world. He said he was excited by the prospect of trying a camel burger. “We’ve done a few reviews, but this is by far the weirdest burger we’ve tried so far.”


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