Bring back the 90s
Nostalgia is strong in the UAE, as residents and retailers alike prove: nothing beats the decade before the turn of the last century
Picture this: A group of teenagers hanging about the school canteen munching on their meal: a pizza from Caesars, a packet of Chips Oman and a little carton of Areej juice, while discussing the latest Backstreet Boys single. This is a snapshot from the childhood of an entire generation of millennials who grew up in the UAE. I was one of them.
90's nostalgia is a real thing for us. We had a collection of telephone cards that our parents would use to call home. It was a matter of pride to have the most varied collection. Some of us would store them in photo albums while others taped them to notebooks left over from the previous year. We would fight with friends and siblings for the latest edition of Young Times so we could read Saman Zaar first. Thursday nights were like a celebration because the only UAE-based channel, Channel 33, would air a Hindi movie. And our picnics were always to Safa Park, while the outer limit of Dubai stopped at Trade Center.
It is this deep-rooted emotional connect to the 90s that prompted Dubai kid Tina Varghese to have a 90's-themed baby shower. "My husband and I are both people who grew up in the 90s," she says. "It was the most defining decade of our childhood. All our friends are also from the same time, so they could relate a lot to the theme too. We just wanted to have some fun and bring back the children in us before we became parents."
Tina's friends went "all out" with the planning for the same, she tells us. "I think I just gave them a reason to indulge. We had food catered by Caesars, because that's what we grew up eating. Then we had softie machines, popcorn machines... everything we craved for as kids. We also had candies and chocolates that were popular back then. As return gifts, we gave away mix tapes of our favourite songs. A lot of people came back to say that the party and return gifts had stirred up a lot of nostalgia in them."
Retailers on board
It's not just individual sentiment. Local and multinational companies are cashing in by bringing back the favourites of the 90s too. Recently, Dubai-based restaurant Moreish paid homage to the iconic 90's show Friends by launching a themed vegan 'Friends-giving' menu for Thanksgiving. Earlier last year, The Irish Village in Garhoud launched an open-air live entertainment show with a roster of music from the 80s and 90s.
The latest to join the nostalgia bandwagon is McDonalds who recently re-launched some of their all-time favourite Happy Meal toys from the 90s to celebrate 40 years of the much-loved meal deal.
"The Happy Meal is such an iconic item on the McDonald's menu and it has made delicious memories for families around the world, so we couldn't let the anniversary pass without some kind of celebration," says Walid Fakih, general manager at McDonald's UAE. "We decided to bring back some of the all-time favourite toys - especially from the 90s - such as Hamburglar, Furby and Hot Wheels, and reignite some of that nostalgia and joy for our customers both young and old." Walid noted the response to the move was tremendous with many adults coming in to buy the Happy Meals just to get their hands on their favourite childhood toys.
Is it any surprise then that when the kids of the 90s grew up into working professionals, the nostalgia invariably reflected in their work? One such person is Emirati designer Fatma Al Mulla, whose collection 'Throwback Wayback' tapped into the UAE nostalgia quite spectacularly. Her Chips Oman and Vimto abayas and jalabiyas were the talk of the town in 2017. "All I wanted was to do illustrations but when people wanted to acquire the illustrations, it snowballed into a fashion line," she recalls. "I just wanted to do something that was more culturally oriented and that people of my age would understand," says Fatma. "But you don't have to be from the UAE to understand what I was illustrating. I wanted to reach a wider audience."
The days before auto-tune
A very prominent part of the 90s was its music. With brand new boy bands and strong female voices bursting onto the music scene, it left an impressionable mark on the mind of music lover Sandhya Subramaniam, who works as the operations manager for vHealth Dubai.
"My favourite music memory of the 90s was coming home to watch MTV Select and MTV Most Wanted," Sandhya remembers fondly. "I used to wait for the weekend for the Top 40 on Dubai 92 FM. Back in those days, cassettes were really expensive. So, I - like most other teens and preteens my age - had a cassette in my radio on which I used to record all my favourite songs that played on the radio."
Sandhya says she still remembers playing back those mix tapes on her Walkman. "Whether I was rollerblading in the back gullies of Bur Dubai or travelling by train during summer holidays in India, I always had my Walkman with me," she says. "There were lots of favourites back then. Of the boy bands, Backstreet Boys was my absolute favourite. I also used to like NSync, Boys II Men and Savage Garden. The female pop stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera were very popular. I also loved country music by Shania Twain and Dixie Chick."
Sandhya was really excited when Boyz II Men came to town to perform last year. "I think the 90's boyband craze is coming back because, last year, Backstreet boys were here and I got to see them. This year, I went to see Boys II Men. My fingers are crossed that it will be NSync next year!" she says.
Sandhya admits that she finds the music of that decade much better than the tunes being produced today. "90's music was so special because of the relatibility factor," she says. "Being part of the millennial generation, we could relate to their music. We crossed several milestones listening to that music. There was also a lot of variety. It was the age of pop music, there were boy bands who brought out unique tunes as well as powerful female vocals. There was uniqueness to everyone's songs and far less auto-tuning. Today, almost everyone ends up sounding the same. I think accessibility also made it very special. It was the pre-Internet age and the music wasn't that easily accessible, available or affordable. So, we waited for the songs to play on the radio and, when they did, we would drop everything to just listen to them. Those songs were like a celebration of our lives."
Whether it is the food, games or music, the 90's is undoubtedly an overriding source of emotion for those who grew up during that decade. And you know what they say, old is always gold.
HOW TO THROW A 90's-THEMED PARTY
Food: Nothing speaks UAE nostalgia quite like Chips Oman. However, there are several other snack items that have been around for as long. Mini pizzas from Caesars, Areej juice boxes, Sohar chips, Hobby chocolates and the Choki Choki Chocolate Paste Sticks are all great to serve at a 90's-themed party.
Games: Arcade games were iconic during the 90s. If you cannot recreate that, it might be an idea to go for the classic Monopoly or Ludo. For the more creative among you, throw in the craze of the decade Tamagotchis. You could also set up computer games like Solitaire and Tetris for added originality.
Music: Prepare a mix tape of the famous 90's songs from artists like Backstreet Boys, NSync, Boys II Men, Savage Garden, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Shania Twain, Dixie Chick, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Aqua, and more.
Decor: Spray paint some VHS cassettes, audio tapes and CDs and hang them up as wall decor. You could also use them as flower vases or pot holders. Pick out some of those priceless posters of musicians and actors that adorned every teenager's room and make a collage for added oomph.