Dubai: Nostalgic abra ride is a journey between city's past and future

The marine line lets you soak in the emirate's history, then cross over to enjoy the cool comfort of its newest souk

By Nasreen Abdulla; Visuals: Shihab

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Published: Mon 23 May 2022, 6:52 PM

Last updated: Tue 31 May 2022, 5:47 PM

It is 5.40pm and the queue of people waiting to ride the abra at the boat docks of Souk Al Marfa is long and winding. Some are impatient to get on board. It's a free trip for five months, and residents are making the most of the opportunity. The evening is warm but a gentle breeze comes as a respite for the crowd.

For me, this crossing is about far more than a free ride — it's a journey into Dubai's past and future. This marine line connects Souk Al Marfa — the latest souq in Dubai — with the oldest souks in Bur Dubai and Deira.

But before we embark on the journey, a little more about Souk Al Marfa.

Inside Dubai's newest souq

The air-conditioned Souk Al Marfa, with 900 shops, opened only last year and has quickly become a popular haunt for Dubai residents. Shopkeepers beckon me to check out their wares that include carpets, lighting, spices, fashion accessories, perfumes and electronics.

The souk also has authentic Thai and Persian markets where people can buy household items in bulk.

I am told that at least 200 more shops would become operational inside the Souk soon, in addition to a private museum. With such a wide variety, the centre is poised to become a dream shopping destination for both residents and tourists.

Visit over, I am on the abra as the boat makes its way along the Deira Creek. My fellow travellers and I take in the sights as the historical neighbourhood of Shindagha and the buildings that dot the streets of Deira pass us by.

The traditional houses with their unique wind-towers (barjeels) are a testament to the UAE’s traditional architecture. The wooden dhows against the backdrop of the latest development in Deira give us a sense of nostalgia — a connection between the past and the dazzling future of this city that rose from humble beginnings.

In the early 20th century, Bur Dubai and Deira were trading hubs, and Shindagha was the place where the rulers of Dubai lived. Their houses there have now been restored and refurbished. Old Shindagha is on the tentative list to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site given its cultural and traditional importance.

Photos: KT Archives
Photos: KT Archives

I am soaking in Dubai's history at sunset when our abra passes beneath the modern Infinity Bridge. Inaugurated in January 2022, the bridge that connects Deira and Bur Dubai can take over 24,000 cars in both directions every hour. It has an arch in the shape of the infinity symbol, and signals Dubai’s unlimited ambitions as a city of repute and progress.

As the boat nears the Deira Souq station, a long queue of people is waiting to take the ride back to Souk Al Marfa.

The sun has vanished and the weather is pleasant as I alight from the boat. I set out to explore the city’s oldest trading hub on foot.

The vibrant colours and the bustling crowds at Deira Souk make it one of the liveliest places to shop in the city. The Deira Souk sells everything from spices to souvenirs and is a popular spot for tourists and local residents.

The aroma is inviting, the colours and sounds make the bustling place special. I feel an emotional connection between old and new Dubai — from the cool comfort of Souk Al Marfa to the traditional warmth of Deira Souk.

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