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An addition to SJ 09. TIME - CULTURE - Old Neighbourhood, New Times

Bijgewerkt op: 31 jan.

The Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, also known as the Bastakiya, is a heritage site in old Dubai full of wind towers, narrow alleys and forts. The winding alleys lead to an old world forgotten by time. It was constructed in the 1890s, before the establishment of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The area is home to art galleries, museums and guest houses, many of which provide shade from the scorching sun in cool, green central courtyards. 

The Bastakiya is also the annual venue for The Sikka Art and Design Festival  — an event which celebrates local artists and creatives through music, art, cinema, and design. The area is the creative and cultural heart of the city. 

In the 1980s, half the neighbourhood was demolished. The surviving half remained preserved at the behest of King Charles (‘Prince Charles’ at the time), who suggested that it be conserved as a heritage site. Alarmed by the fact that centuries-old settlements were being destroyed to build new office buildings with no stories to tell, he sent a letter to the ruler of Dubai asking that the demolition be halted. The conservation of the site enriches Dubai’s past and grounds it within an understanding of its own roots.

The old, narrow alleyways of the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood border the creek, but what makes it particularly interesting is its proximity to Al Seef. The Al Seef area is a commercial hub established in 2017 which resembles the old-style Fahidi neighbourhood. It was constructed by a famous, Dubai-based property company, and artificially aged materials were used in the construction of its inaccurate interpretations of wind towers and wide lanes. 

Al Seef resembles The Bastakiya, but with many vital differences: the former’s pathways are wider and neater  — there are far more shops, retail outlets and restaurant chains present. Al Seef is also relatively more well-lit at night, and night performances take place on the area’s central stage. Artists sing and dance by the moving waters of the creek, and light shows and fireworks are common in the festive seasons. 

Wind tower - Al Bastakiya Escalator to Parking - Al Seef Alleyway - Al Bastakiya

What emerges is a portrait of two districts standing alongside each other, overlooking the Creek — one is old, small, and actively preserved and restored whereas the other is newer, larger, and littered with souvenir shops and outlets. The Bastakiya is a home for art galleries, cultural initiatives, and creative communities whereas Al Seef leans towards welcoming tourists, shoppers and families hoping to enjoy an evening at a restaurant by the Dubai Creek. Add to this the fact that the Bastakiya was slated for demolition, while Al Seef is a product of nostalgia and commerce, and the city’s contradictory character comes to light.

In the space between these two areas, time circles in on itself like an ouroboros — a district from the 1890s stands beside a modern replica of itself. The line between past and present eludes the eye in this old area of a city known for its modern skyscrapers. Both spaces are ravaged by time in their own respective ways, and both spaces attract different crowds of people. Al Seef has garnered criticism from designers for appearing “aged theatrically” to indicate a decrepitude absent in even the Bastakiya. The irony of time and human design is not lost here— between the old neighbourhood and the human effort to wield the grace of time embodied in its replica, the old pendulum swings. 

Words Sid Nair

Photos Madhusudhan Nair


Read more about time, craft, art, design, and much more in our issue 09. TIME.

Also available in its digital version.

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