Old Dubai clings to life as new city rises

A traditional wind tower is seen on top of a building, in the old quarter of Dubai’s Bastakiya

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Published: Thu 29 May 2008, 11:47 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 3:40 PM

KHADIJA AHMAD and her family are the only residents left in Dubai’s old Bastakiya quarter, her house little changed since she arrived as a new bride more than 70 years ago.

Nestled among mushrooming skyscrapers and multi-lane highways, the rabbit warren of streets dating from the 1890s is one of the few reminders left of Dubai’s past as a sleepy village where people earned money by diving for pearls.

In the 1990s, the government bought out most homeowners in Bastakiya to protect the run-down district from developers.

Today, the area beside Dubai creek is home to galleries, cafes and restaurants, and to Ahmad and her family who declined the state’s offer to buy them out. “Fifteen years ago, they moved everyone out. Thank God, we were able to stay,” said Ahmad, standing just inside her front door, out of sight of male passers-by.

In less than 60 years, the UAE’s hub has become a byword for ostentatious wealth, speckled with one jaw-dropping development after another, like a set of islands shaped like palm trees and the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel.

But Emirates officials have begun to wake up to the value of Dubai’s historic sites, partly reflecting a popular demand for tangible links to a fast disappearing past, and partly because of the realisation that history can boost tourism.

“We have to have our culture and traditions to show to others,” said Waleed Nabil, 22, an Emirati who works at the Shaikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Bastakiya. “We have to be able to show schoolchildren how their grandparents lived or we will lose our culture.”

Rashad Bukhash, director of the architectural heritage department at Dubai municipality, understands that need. “We do have pressure to have the land developed ... But we have vowed to keep (Bastakiya) as it is and the government supports this,” he said.

His department is trying to register old Dubai, which includes Bastakiya, the grand market and Al Shindagha, a complex centred on the home of Shaikh Saeed Al Maktoum, as a UNESCO world heritage site. “It is to protect them from demolition and also for future generations,” Bukhash said.

Bastakiya, which measures about 300 metres by 200 metres, is named after Bastak, an Iranian town that was home to the earliest traders with Dubai. “In 1950, this area was the whole town of Dubai,” Bukhash said. “Now it is less than one per cent of the total area of urban Dubai, so we will protect this one per cent.”

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