An ode to Dubai's past: These are the greatest storytellers of the city

They remained a mute witness to the historical making of a metropolitan city with all that's avant-garde


Suresh Pattali

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Published: Thu 25 Jan 2024, 8:53 PM

The City of Gold is a moniker for Dubai that any Tom, Dick and Harry in the world would know. Do-buy in Dubai is another tagline the Emirates airline and other merchants flaunted on their shopping bags once upon a time. Gold has since lost its sheen as a magnet for visitors to Dubai, the emirate having set itself on the path of diversification from oil and trade to a knowledge-based economy. It's now a regional and international hub for anything that fattens its GDP — from talent pool, education, space, to services, aviation and health tourism.

YouTubers to content writers, investors to management gurus, and doctors to engineers, Dubai is where dreams are made. Yesterday's office assistant is today's CEO and chairman. Yesterday's supermarket tallyman is today's shopping mall king. Yesterday's small-shop tailor is today's fashion mogul. And there are hundreds of others who ensconced themselves in a cocoon of mediocrity and nonchalance, not bothering to swim with the current. They remained a mute witness to the historical making of a metropolitan city with all that's avant-garde.

When the floodgate of newfangled ideas opened, these businesses built sand walls around their boroughs and managed to survive. They found nirvana in conservatism. Bur Dubai, Karama and Al Qusais are a few such places where you can bump into such hole-in-a-wall family businesses that fed and educated a couple of generations here and back home. They seem to be content as long as they can live without much hardship.

They are the greatest storytellers of the city. And when they meet an old resident like yours truly, it's an avalanche of memories. Like how it happened last week when Vava called early morning from Ajman requesting me to bring a colour copy of her CV and a clear file to a clinic where she had a job interview that morning. The immediate picture that came into my mind was Al Jamal Stationery tucked in a corner of the Karama Shopping Complex where my daughter as a toddler used to marvel at brilliantly coloured things like erasers, chart papers, markers and sketch pens. That little girl, now in her 30s, is wanting to take a copy of her CV as a doctor from the same little shop.

"We lived here very long ago, and your shop was part of her playground," I said overwhelmingly. I suppose that's the way one reacts when life comes full circle.

"I'm Mohammed Ali," said the man behind the cash counter. "My father ran the business back in the day. I wouldn't remember because I was also a kid at that time."

Ali's father Abdul Kader, a native of Kannur in India, and his two brothers started the stationery shop in 1980, the year Ali was born. The Kader siblings were well employed while they ran the businesses, including a cafeteria and a readymade shop. A family partition 10 years ago brought the stationery business to Ali, now 43, and his brother Yaseen while their parents have retired an returned to India.

With just a few minutes to spare, Ali and I travelled back to the good old days and counted on our fingers businesses in Karama that had survived the test of time: Woodlands Restaurant, established in 1981; New Sindh Punjab Restaurant (1985), Thomsun Supermarket (1982), Al Sayed Hussain Al Sayed Abdulla Trading that sold us the latest travel bags (1977), Shoukath Restaurant to mention a few — all operating from the same old location.

My eyes panned across the stationery shop where I had spent much creative time with my kids. The alleys have not changed much but greeting cards, the mainstay of Al Jamal's business, and schoolbooks have disappeared.

"Greeting card buyers have disappeared with the arrival of social media and online services. There are no suppliers too. In the case of books, schools are directly selling them to students. Besides, cards and books need separate trade licences," Ali said, adding: "We are now strictly stationery people."

Moving into the alley where clear files are displayed, I wondered if reconnecting with the past was a healthy pastime. I am not sure. It excites, it overwhelms, it takes you on a journey back, but mostly it saddens you. You meet a newgen of owners and workers who are unaware of the old grandeur of their businesses and how they make up the memories of their past clients. You find yourself as nobody in an environment that moulded you.

As I walked back to my car, I understood why my son often rushes back from Munich and gets lost in the backstreets of Karama, now minus his favourite shawarma and chaat joints. He laments the disappearance of old quboos wrap and how pickled chillies have lost their spicy sting. Malls, towers and cars are prosaic urban vignettes, but Old Dubai rejuvenates you, he says.

During Covid, I watched a pigeon-hole cafeteria taking shape in an inconspicuous corner across the Pioneer Building in Karama. I went there past midnight and joined a couple of Arab boys to have Karak tea. Today it brims with customers 24/7, proving that Dubai is a place for those who dare to dream.

As for me, let me dream my children would one day chase my shadow in the maze of pathways in Karama. They would find time to stop by the Woodlands to have a bite of the tangy ghee roast. Or by Al Jamal stationery and buy an orange eraser to wipe away these stale memories and start afresh.

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