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Bastakia Quarter ~ Rich in Dubai History

December 22nd, 2012 8 comments

To those who say Dubai is “not real,” I say: Get out of the hotels and malls. Venture down to one of the oldest neighborhoods in Dubai—Al Bastakia Quarter. Here, you’ll step into Dubai’s past and get a glimpse of what Dubai looked like in the days before oil. 

Bastakia, located along the Dubai Creek, is known for its traditional homes, wind towers, and labyrinth of narrow alleyways. Today the restored quarter is filled with art galleries, cafés, museums, and boutique hotels.

Rich in History

Traditionally a stronghold of rich merchant residents, Bastakia dates back to the 1890s when it was settled by pearl and textile traders from the Bastak region of Iran. Today many of the traditional homes are open to the public. When you enter one and step into its interior courtyard, you can imagine the beauty and comfort that these well-to-do merchants created for themselves.

Wind Towers

The distinctive architectural feature of Bastakia is the wind tower (barjeel in Arabic). Apparently, every house in Bastakia has at least one. In the early days, the number of wind towers indicated the wealth of the owner.

A symbol of UAE culture and heritage, the wind tower is not just ornamentation, but an early form of air conditioning. The open towers allow cool breezes to circulate around the inside while letting hot air to rise and escape.

Architectural Details

In addition to the courtyards and wind towers, Bastakia also features lovely traditional details, such as carved wooden doors, decorative grilles, hanging oil lamps, and wooden lattice.

The ceilings and roofs of these traditional homes are constructed with hardwood from Zanzibar.

Heritage Nearly Lost

After the discovery of oil in 1966, the merchants gradually moved out of Bastakia to other neighborhoods, and Bastakia began to house migrant workers. In the 1970s, half of Bastakia was destroyed to make way for a new office for the Ruler. The rest of the area fell into disrepair (except for the Majlis Art Gallery).

Prince Charles Visits

By 1989, the Dubai Municipality was scheduled to demolish Bastakia. That same year Prince Charles was planning a visit to the UAE. During his visit to Dubai, the prince, known for his love of architecture and historic buildings, asked to see Bastakia.

Legend has it that Prince Charles urged his hosts to preserve Bastakia. Soon after, the decision to demolish Bastakia was reversed.  Later, in 2005, the Dubai Municipality initiated a project aimed at restoring the quarter.

Art Galleries

Today Bastakia is filled with art galleries and cafés. Earlier I did a post about the Dar Ibn Al Haytham for Visual Arts located in Bastakia. Another gallery is the XVA Gallery, which features contemporary art with a shady courtyard café.

Meanwhile, the Majlis Art Gallery is the most well-known and oldest commercial art gallery in Dubai. The gallery opened in the 1970s and was one of the first Bastakia homes open to the public. The Majlis Gallery, which showcases both UAE-based and international artists, is named for the cushioned meeting room found in traditional Arab homes (the majlis).

For many years, the beloved Basta Art Café was located next to the Majlis Gallery. However, that café is no more. Now in its place is the Arabian Tea House Café.

Also Noteworthy

In one of Bastakia’s most elegant buildings, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding offers cultural breakfasts and lunches, as well as heritage tours and walking tours of the area.

If you’d like to see a real fort, the Dubai Museum is housed in Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest existing building in the city. This museum tells the history of Dubai, and it takes only an hour to see everything, (as the history of Dubai is short).

Did you know?

Prince Charles is known for helping to save Bastakia; however, someone else was involved. Before the prince’s visit, British architect Rayner Otter had taken up residence in one of the houses in Bastakia and undertook renovations within. When Rayner Otter heard about the plans to demolish the neighborhood, he wrote a letter to Prince Charles. And the rest is Dubai history.

Question: What are your impressions of Bastakia?

Visit to an Art Gallery in Al Bastakia

December 12th, 2011 4 comments

When a friend invited me to join her on a visit to an art gallery in the Al Bastakia Quarter of Dubai, I readily accepted. She told me we would see an exhibit of photographs of Dubai by an Emirati photographer. It sounded worthwhile. (I could already imagine the photos.) The extra perk was a stroll through Al Bastakia, a district I always enjoy but rarely visit.

Al Bastakia is what I consider the real “Old Town” (not that area around Dubai Mall). The neighborhood is located near the Creek waterfront on the Bur Dubai side, not far from the Dubai Museum. Built at the turn of the century, this quarter has been declared a conservation area, and restoration work has been ongoing.

The area features a number of old, traditional wind tower houses, which were once the homes of wealthy Persian merchants. The wind towers were a traditional form of air-conditioning, whereby cool air was funneled down into the house.

To get to the gallery, we passed old-style shops like this one selling trinkets and even small antique items.

We walked through these narrow, peaceful lanes, and I could sort of imagine the life of the merchants at the turn of the century.

After nearly four minutes of walking, (the area is small) we reached the gallery: Dar Ibn Al Haytham for Visual Arts.

The gallery is a traditional home with a courtyard in the middle and small rooms off each side.

As I said, I already had an image in my mind of the types of photographs we would see—the usual Dubai skyline panoramas, the contrast of old versus new, plus the typical black and white photos of Sheikh Zayed Road in the 1980s, etc., etc. I had seen it all before.

Well, I was wrong, wrong, wrong.

We saw a total of five installations, all by the award-winning photographer Jassim Al Awadhi, who was there to give the six of us a guided tour. To me, Jassim is more of a mixed-media artist who manipulates and embellishes his photographs in unexpected ways.

To start, we viewed what I call the “Message in a Bottle” room. This was a whimsical display of photographs inside glass bottles. We were all fascinated by these and we got up really close to study the photos.

This bottle contains a montage of photos.

The bottle below contains a lovely photo of the Dubai Creek.

 And this bottle displays a photo of Sheikh Zayed Road from what appears to be the 1980′s… I knew it!

Next was the room with crumpled photos. Again, we were fascinated. 

What does it mean? Someone asked. Jassim shrugged and shook his head.

To me, the crumpled photos reminded me of a throwaway society, as though one crumples something, tosses it away, but then has a change of heart, and the object is salvaged.

The next room contained framed photos embellished with Arabic calligraphy. Here Jassim explains the significance of fish in Emirati society as he points out the calligraphy written on the fish.

 Here’s a closer view of the fish. Unfortunately, this photo is not very sharp, but you should still get an idea of the calligraphy on the fish.

This is my favorite photograph—an exquisite image of an old, modest Arabic door, covered with small, tidy Arabic calligraphy (added to the photo by the artist). 

Next were the colored photographs. These were sepia-toned photos of the fruit and vegetable market and the fish souk that the artist had softly colored in.

 

Here is a close-up of the fish. The color is subtle, but it’s there. It seems Jassim enjoys photographing fish. I was drawn to these images as well. 

Finally, the last room—the most unexpected and challenging of all the installations. In this small room were about a dozen of these black-cloaked images, each about 6 feet tall.

Upon closer inspection, each piece contains an x-ray image covered in some variation of Arabic letters, numbers and calligraphy. These images got us all talking, thinking and speculating. 

Some of us in our group made guesses as to the meaning behind these unusual pieces. Jassim just smiled and shrugged. But he did suggest that the installation had something to do with his police work, his specialty being CSI, crime scene investigation. But he wouldn’t say more.

Jassim Al Awadhi has been taking photos for over 30 years now. Most recently he has been Assistant Professor in the Photography Department of the American University of Sharjah and the Chairman and a Founding Member of the UAE Photography Club. His work has exhibited extensively in the UAE as well as Syria, Egypt, Jordan, India and Europe. He also works for Dubai Police.

The Dar Ibn Al Hayam for Visual Arts is located in Al Bastakia, house number 17. This exhibit is showing until December 20, 2011. For more information, call 04 353 5321.

Question: What are your impressions of Al Bastakia and the area around?