As you go closer to the sea in the UAE, an abra is likely to take you through a time portal into the world of traders, pearl divers, and sipping gahwa at the entrances of barasti homes.
Once you escape this time warp, you’ll find yourself back in the world of the tallest building on the globe, sunlight glinting off skyscrapers, and cars bustling through the modern architecture of the country. Yet, there is always that hint of the past in the present, be it in the form of calligraphy on a museum, or the stepped ascending spirals within a building.
As time flies by, these structures are left standing withholding all the memories and history. Two UAE- based photographers take us through time, shedding light upon the remains of the past, and the people who still live there and call it their home.
When the video of the restaurant Ravi’s collaboration with Adidas went viral, UAE residents felt a wave of nostalgia along with a pang of pride. The man who later went on to shoot the founder of Ravi, Chowdhury Abdul Hameed, for a piece in Esquire Magazine, as well as the launch event of the shoe was Dubai-based photographer, Aqib Anwar who goes by the Instagram user @gibsterg.
The 33-year-old creative started professional photography back in 2016, after his brush with numerous photo walks the year prior to that. With no formal training, Aqib turned his talent into a career as he quit his full-time job to take up photography as a full-fledged career. “I’m on my seventh year of freelancing and it’s been the most fulfilling and rewarding experience I could’ve asked for.”
The spine for Aqib’s photography is the people. Be it portraiture, documentary, or events, his niche focuses on these faces and stories. Born and raised in Dubai, nostalgia is what really drives him to capture the old parts of the country. “I love that the older parts of the UAE are more condensed, which leads to walking on streets filled with people — which I love. I love walking, hearing snippets of conversation, and imagining what people’s lives would be like.”
Driving through the souqs by the creek, Aqib likes to dispel the idea that the UAE is only about extravagant experiences. “Real people live here. We are human, with different lived experiences and emotions. Some of us have been here all our lives and some, more transitory in their relationship with the country,” says Aqib.
According to him, living in a country that is constantly evolving, he finds himself in awe while driving around the city witnessing the futuristic, simulation-like developments rooted in tradition. “The contrast allows me to believe that we can be ‘modern’ and strive to innovate while at the same time, honouring our roots and staying true to ourselves.”
Feeling blessed to be living in the comfort and safety of the UAE, Aqib sees this as an opportunity to capture the diversity of life and culture that is found in the country. “There is a balance of modernity and tradition; it’s an incredible country to call home.”
People come first when it comes to capturing moments for the creative. “Wherever in the world you are, people make the place. The older parts of the UAE tend to generally have either families who’ve been there for a long time or people from lower to middle income groups living there due to rental affordability. I love experiencing the energy of people who have recently moved to the country and are eager to make a better living for themselves and their families.”
Aqib recalls a story of climbing onto one of the wooden ships that go daily from the creek in Dubai to nearby countries, delivering electronics and other goods. “I met an old man, who said he practically lives on the ship. It was interesting to hear him talk fondly of the excitement of his life.”
Growing up around Bur Dubai and Karama side, Aqib fondly remembers his childhood memories, which have shaped his interest of capturing life and movement in these regions of the country. “I remember when Global Village used to be a month-long pop-up during DSF, when Riqqa and Muraqabbat streets were the spots to be on weekends, shopping at the sports stores in Karama for football jerseys — they’re fond memories I will cherish forever.”
The professional explores other old parts of the country too, like Ajman, Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi. “Areas that have been around for decades always tend to have soul to them and I enjoy experiencing and photographing life there.”
Photography is not just a source of entertainment or business, but a way to archive all that is history and future. “History is fascinating, the founding fathers of the nation once lived in these areas — and most of it has been maintained impeccably well.”
Aqib reflects the importance of mirroring the evolution of these areas, be it the alleyways, or the modernised structures. “I think capturing these areas is necessary, especially since the country is ever evolving, we would never know if the areas would undergo massive developments — so photographs of the places might end up becoming documentation of an area that no longer remains.”
If people disappeared, would his photography still hold its charm? “Even though I prefer photographing people, I still think inanimate elements in the older parts of the country are charming. Reminders of an era that birthed the country. I think I could still photograph these elements in a way that depicts life that once was — taking photos of objects that invoke a feeling of people who used to live there.”
Nowfal Nawas gives all credit to photo walks. A growing activity within the UAE, photo walks consist of groups of photography enthusiasts walking around in certain areas and capturing moments and surroundings from different perspectives. The 33-year-old, who hails from India, made UAE his home around 10 years ago when he moved to the country after completing his college studies.
He goes by the username @nowfalnawas on Instagram and had the honour of having four posts of his liked by Dubai’s crown prince. Nawas is currently working as a content creator and has recently collaborated with Dubai media in boosting tourism.
The creator has a passion for capturing modern architecture as well as art, along with olden spots in the country. But the vibrant souks and streets of old Dubai hold a dear place in his heart. “I like lifestyle and capturing new things, but I always end up going back to the old areas, which is refreshing and make you feel pure joy. Even people who don’t like photography love walking through these areas as it gives you a different perspective.”
A shy and passive member of the photo walks, Nowfal started exploring Instagram as a platform for his photography in 2018. His clicks, taken through the alleys of Fahidi and Bur Dubai, can now be seen on his feed. The photographer often finds himself in the spice markets and commercial areas, moving through the back alleys of temples capturing people and moments.
While snapping an image, Nowfal hopes to capture the human element in the old buildings and structures left standing. “I want people to feel calmness when they look at a picture that I have taken. Going back to these areas brings a feeling of humbleness in you, and I would like to invoke that feeling within people.”
Nowfal’s advice to people would be to park your car and get out of it and walk through these narrow streets to see the real life that is buzzing here. “When I look at a person or a building, I see a story there. I see the richness in culture and history. And if people take more time to go to these parts of the city, they too will widen their perspective.”
He recalls a story of an elderly Emirati man in the Bur Dubai area where most old homes were converted into museums. Yet, there was one home still left where this man resided. And as people would walk in and out of museums, they would accidentally chance upon the entrance of his home too. But the man always welcomed them in and would offer them tea and snacks, echoing the local custom of never turning away someone from their door.
A home now to many expats, Nowfal sees a reflection of the struggles of the people who currently live in these areas. “When I go to the creek side in the evening, all these people who have worked very hard during the day, will be relaxing in the evening, meeting up and having fun. Sometimes I feel jealous looking at them,” says Nowfal.
Despite their hardships, they have learned how to find joy in the simple things and have built a community, which Nowfal feels is contrary to what we often do at times, where we tend to isolate in times of hardships. “They are very welcoming; they might invite you to play boardgames and tell you stories.”
As someone who has captured the old, the new, and the artistic inspirations in between, Nowfal has observed how even the glamour of modern UAE has deep roots within its past. Despite not being brought up in the UAE, he has found home here and believes the best way to connect to your roots is visiting the old parts of the country. “I think many times people lose respect for their culture and roots, and going back to these places is very important to appreciate where you came from.”
Would the geographical locations hold the same beauty without the people? “No. It is like a body without a soul. People bring out its true beauty,” says Nowfal. The photographer additionally loves how, due to the trading history and ports located at these places, one can see a hint of different cultures and countries, apart from the Emirati way of life.
With the evolving creative scene in the UAE, Nowfal appreciates the space for artistic individuals and endeavours the country has created. “If you like not only photography, but anything creative, even something like poetry, there are places where you can do that, and free workshops that you can attend. Any talent has a place in Dubai, which offers massive support.”
Nowfal’s main takeaway for aspiring photographers would be for them to take part in as many photo walks as they can. When a creative individual has reached a point of burnout, aimless walks through foreign environments can lead to great ideas and offer new perspectives.
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