Old Dubai clings to life as new city rises

28/05/2008 - 13:27

By Amran Abocar

DUBAI (Reuters) - Khadija Ahmad and her family are the onlyresidents left in Dubai's old Bastakiya quarter, her houselittle changed since she arrived as a new bride more than 70years ago.

Nestled among mushrooming skyscrapers and multi-lanehighways, the rabbit warren of streets dating from the 1890s isone of the few reminders left of Dubai's past as a sleepyvillage where people earned money by diving for pearls.

In the 1990s, the government bought out most homeowners inBastakiya to protect the run-down district from developers.Today, the area beside Dubai creek is home to galleries, cafesand restaurants, and to Ahmad and her family who declined thestate's offer to buy them out.

"Fifteen years ago, they moved everyone out. Thank God, wewere able to stay," said Ahmad, standing just inside her frontdoor, out of sight of male passers-by.

In less than 60 years, the United Arab Emirates' hub hasbecome a byword for ostentatious wealth, speckled with onejaw-dropping development after another, like a set of islandsshaped like palm trees and the sail-shaped Burj al-Arab hotel.

But Emirates officials have begun to wake up to the valueof Dubai's historic sites, partly reflecting a popular demandfor tangible links to a fast disappearing past, and partlybecause of the realisation that history can boost tourism.

"We have to have our culture and traditions to show toothers," said Waleed Nabil, 22, an Emirati who works at theSheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Bastakiya.

"We have to be able to show schoolchildren how theirgrandparents lived or we will lose our culture."

Rashad Bukhash, director of the architectural heritagedepartment at Dubai municipality, understands that need.

"We do have pressure to have the land developed ... But wehave vowed to keep (Bastakiya) as it is and the governmentsupports this," he said.

His department is trying to register old Dubai -- whichincludes Bastakiya, the grand market and al-Shindagha, acomplex centred on the home of Sheikh Saeed al-Maktoum,grandfather of Dubai's current ruler -- as a UNESCO worldheritage site.

"It is to protect them from demolition and also for futuregenerations," Bukhash said. "But (the status) is hard to get."

A group from UNESCO, the U.N.'s cultural organisation,visited Dubai in May to help the city compile an application.This is just the first step in a process that Bukhash sayscould take a year or two, at least.

WINDOWS ON THE PAST

Bastakiya, which measures about 300 metres by 200 metres(980 ft by 650 ft), is named after Bastak, an Iranian town thatwas home to the earliest traders with Dubai.

"In 1950, this area was the whole town of Dubai," Bukhashsaid. "Now it is less than one percent of the total area ofurban Dubai, so we will protect this one percent."

Bastakiya's houses -- once made of coral, gypsum and sandbut now restored in materials such as sand-coloured cement --are topped with wind towers, built to capture the cool breezesand force them into the houses while allowing warm air to rise.

Intricate wood and stone decorations on top of the housesdenoted a family's wealth.

When Ahmad arrived in Bastakiya, she sailed over from herfather's house on the other side of the creek.

"When I got married, I came through that door," she said,pointing down the sloped hallway to a wooden door which openedon to sand, once the water's edge but now facing a parking lot.

Other historic sites near Bastakiya include the Baital-Wakeel -- the first office building in Dubai -- and theal-Fahidi Fort, built in the late 1780s and considered theoldest building in the city.

These have been dwarfed by a construction boom, fuelled bysoaring oil prices. Virtually all the construction is done byIndian and Pakistani workers, many of whom live in "labourcamps" in the desert and are taken by bus to building sites.

Government-owned developer Nakheel is spending billions onprojects around the city, such as the palm islands, as well asfive new shopping malls it says will cost at least $3 billion.

In comparison, the annual budget for the architecturalheritage department is about $5.45 million, says Bukhash.

LOST LINKS

Developers are not solely to blame for the disappearance ofheritage sites.

Many of the building materials used in the past, such assand, coral and palm fronds, have disintegrated. As the cityestablished itself, there was little emphasis on history.

That has left Dubai, one of seven members of the UAE,grappling with the question of how to preserve what's left.

"Sadly for the Emirates, that question wasn't asked soonenough so by the time we're asking it now, we have fewspecimens left to preserve," Jane Bristol-Rhys, an anthropologyprofessor at the Emirates' Zayed University said, speaking fromAbu Dhabi.

A debate on national identity -- spurred by the fact thatUAE nationals make up only about 10 percent of the population-- has revived interest in Dubai's architecture and history.

"People are looking now for reminders of the past that willremind them of how their ancestors lived," said Bristol-Rhys.

"It may be a reaction to all the new development ... a lotof the buildings look very similar to one another," she said."Sometimes, it's hard to tell whether you're in Abu Dhabi orDubai or Singapore, for that matter."

The heritage department is trying to change that.Government rules now compel buildings in the centre to uselocal styles and traditional colours, and to minimise modernmaterials such as glass.

There is a government project to restore about 260buildings in old Dubai by 2015.

The hope is that the city that built a ski slope in thedesert may one day draw visitors for its cultural wonders.

"They come right now not for the historic," said Bukhash."In the future, they might."


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