My Visit To Dubai’s Jumeirah Mosque

Located in the concrete filled coastal residential area of Jumeriah, the mosque’s elegant ornamentation and greenery makes it stick out.

Dubai is filled with mosques.  Nevertheless, all but one of Dubai’s many mosques are closed to non-Muslims.  The beautiful Jumeirah Mosque isn’t just open to non-Muslims, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding gives free tours of it.   After a nice visit to the Centre the previous day (highly recommended), I had to do it.

Muslims wash before praying so in Dubai you see wash stations outside mosques.  You also see bidets in bathrooms (and even hoses next to toilets) to make washing feet easier.  It makes sense to clean before entering a mosque as Muslims touch their heads and hands to the ground while praying.

Shoe’s aren’t allowed inside mosques.  I left my shoes at the door.  Although the cat in the background kept trying to sneak into the air-conditioning, cats aren’t allowed inside mosques either.

Even though it was 48 degrees Celsius (118.8 fahrenheit), I covered up as required.  I had the lady tie up my headscarf for me and swear it instantly made me feel another five degrees hotter.  You don’t realize how cooling a breeze on your neck is until its covered.  I have to admit, I wasn’t disappointed when it loosened.  As I didn’t know how to do it properly myself, this is how it ended up.

The mosque was pretty.  After seeing so many churches in the same style on our European travels, the different style and layout was refreshing to the eye.

I visited Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding the previous day, learned a bit and enjoyed the dialogue.  The “tour” was a little different.  It was more like a session aimed at educating people about the basics of the religion and dispelling common myths (all in 45 minutes).  Although the ladies who conducted the session did a good job and injected a good amount of humor into it, I didn’t enjoy it as much as lunch at the Sheik Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding.

The clock showing the times to pray that day. Muslims pray five times a day: before sunrise (where the prayer reminds people that prayer is better than sleep), noon, in the afternoon when your shadow is approximately equal to your height, just after sunset, and in the evening.

I did learn a bit (which I’m assuming is the official line) about the Emirate’s approach to Islam.  Officially, it supports a moderate interpretation of Islam.  I imagine it would be difficult to remain a global center for business if it appeared did otherwise.  Examples they mentioned in support include:

  • not rejecting the validity of other faiths when they are “of the book”
  • not forcing women to wear coverings outside of church, both women cited the practicality of wearing such garments in Dubai but said they don’t wear them in other places  (one lady said the robe would soak up all of London’s rain)
  • most Emiratis don’t have more than one wife (divorce is permitted)
  • the government distributes guidelines for religious sermons, and
  • texts of sermons are submitted for approval

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How Bazzar! Dubai’s Souks

 

A surprising amount of Dubai‘s traditional commercial activity is still conducted in traditional markets known as souks.  Dubai’s souks are chaotic labyrinths filled with energy, movement, sights and smells.  I can’t tell a lie.  In almost 50-degree heat (122 Fahrenheit), there is a little less energy and movement and a little more to smell.   As a result, the best times to see these old-style markets are during the morning and evening’s cooler hours.

Dubai has many of these atmospheric, vibrant, old-fashioned souks, each with their own specialization.  I checked quite a few of them out but didn’t buy anything.  If you do, plan on haggling.  It looked like part of the fun.

The Grand Souk Deira, a bustling textile souk, is Dubai’s oldest and busiest bazaar. Dating from the 1830’s, it contains hundreds of businesses that sell everything from cheap, good quality pashminas to exquisite fabrics to junk.  I giggled when the salesmen remembered me walking down the street earlier and many of them will try to strike up a conversation to sell to you.

On the other side of the river, the 300 stores of the Gold Souk, are filled with a dazzling array of cheap gold.  The souks are regulated by the government which ensures the quality and that items are of the purported the quality.  Silver, platinum, diamonds and other precious stones are also for sale.  By the way, if you are in the market for gold, you can also get a good deal at Dubai’s Gold & Diamond Park.

The nearby restored Spice souk sells exotic herbs, colorful spices and aromatic frankincense.  The barrels and jute sacks contribute to the atmosphere.  Not just a tourist attraction, it also sell groceries, and household goods to locals and workers on nearby dhows.

Dubai also has perfume fish and probably countless other souks that I don’t even know about.

For me as an American, it was really interesting to see so many similar business located in such proximity. Americans tend to think about things differently and prize convenience.  Therefore, in the US, you don’t usually see many districts with a singular-type business or industry that sells goods to consumers.  Businesses in the US tend to try to take advantage of proximity to the consumer.  That’s not to say that you don’t see a Home Depot near a Lowe’s.  I just mean that you don’t see 10 independent small business of the same type all in a row, let alone 50 or 100.

Enjoy the atmosphere and the unique merchandise.  Just don’t expect the souks to be untouched by globalization.  I was amazed by the large array of goods made in China that I could by at a dollar store or Asian market in Charlotte, North Carolina.

 

Dubai’s Malls: Where Money Can Buy Happiness, Or At Least A Walk In Air-Conditioning

Dubai is famous for its malls.  There are over 60 of them and they are immense.

While I didn’t see much in the stores themselves that surprised me and couldn’t find in New York City, the experience was amazing.  People in Dubai don’t go to the malls just to shop, they go escape the sweltering weather, socialize, eat and entertain themselves.

To lure credit cards, malls provide surreal attractions.

The Souk Madinat at the Hotel Jumeriah has artificial waterway that reminds me of The Venetian in Las Vegas.  Since it’s in Dubai, of course it’s bigger.

Go ahead. Shop like a winner.

The Dubai Mall has about 1200 stores.  There are towns a few miles from where he grew up with fewer people.  It has an Olympic-size ice-skating rink!  Hockey anyone?   If that isn’t enough to draw you in, it also has a four-story waterfall, a huge aquarium, indoor theme parks, and a fashion catwalk.   The aquarium is enormous and breath-taking with lots of fish that include stingrays and sharks.  It holds the Guinness World Record for the largest acrylic piece used in an aquarium.

The Wafi Mall has a glass pyramid, kind of like the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas.

I visited the Mall of the Emirates because I had to see its indoor ski slope with real snow.  When I first heard about this, I couldn’t believe that someone would think to build an indoor ski resort.  For me, part of the fun of skiing is being outside.

Ski Dubai features five indoor ski runs, of varying altitude, incline and difficulty.  I didn’t give it a go because I figured the skiing wouldn’t be better than in Switzerland, but regret not doing it.  They rent you everything you need, parkas, boots, skis and snowboards… I’m not sure if they rent helmets, but wouldn’t doubt it.

It was fun watching kids running around, playing in the snow.  The Magic Planet, a two-story arcade, was lousy with kids fresh out of school and high on sugar.  I had to play.

Another reason I went to the Mall of the Emirates was that I’d heard you can get outstanding coffee drinks at the Armani Coffee Bar.  It did not disappoint.  My coffee drink was amazing and unlike anything I’d ever had.  It was like a super-refined latte milkshake.  The interior lights continually change colors and the Armani interior was elegant.  No surprise there.

As I was leaving, I saw something that fascinated me, a donation machine.  It allows you to give toward food, the disabled, orphans, treatment, house appliances (?), zakat, alms, constant alms and penance.  Does it mean that you can, literally, pay for your sins?

Camels And Falcons And Henna, Oh My!

Okay, okay, I know it is cheesy and a bit hokey, but I couldn’t help but enjoy myself at the “Arabian campsite” on my desert excursion.  I wish I’d been able to stay the night out in the desert, but settled for a sunset dinner.

Even with those sweet eyelashes and innocent eyes, I was glad that he had his muzzle on so he didn’t spit on me.

There were camels to ride outside the site and I immediately did it.  I couldn’t pass up my first (and perhaps only) opportunity to ride a camel.  Someone had warned me to hold on tight as the camel got up so it was surprisingly easy.

Falconry is popular in the region and we were treated to a falconry demonstration.  It was impressive.  After learning about raptors at the Carolina Raptor Center, I find them interesting, impressive animals.

The falconer takes off the mask, releases the bird, and swings the meat around on a string for the hawk grab.  Falcons come back for food.

Some people took advantage of the henna painters.  Others enjoyed smoking sheesha pipes.  A traditional pastime in Dubai, sheesha (also known as narghile in Turkey and hookah in India and Pakistan) is a long-stemmed smoking pipe packed with flavored tobacco.  I didn’t partake in that either, but I heard that Strawberry is the most popular favor.

I love middle-eastern food more than just about any other cuisine and was super excited for the spread.  In fact, I was so busy scarfing it down that I didn’t get a picture.  Sorry.

Luckily I was done eating by the time the belly-dancing started.  I love belly-dancing and the belly dancer was much better than I expected.  She performed in the heat for over a half an hour and had people mesmirised.  It is easy to see why.

Kicking Up Some Sand Dune Bashing In The Desert

I couldn’t visit Dubai without making a quick trip to see the desert.  On the way out, we passed a camel racing track.  Camel racing is huge in Dubai.  The season runs from late October to early April so we weren’t able to catch any races.

Dubai received bad publicity for the abduction/enslavement of boys for use as jockeys in camel races (the lawsuit was dismissed). To avoid using child jockeys, at least in part because of the inherent danger of the jockeying, Dubai now uses robot jockeys.  They look pretty sweet.

A visit to the desert isn’t as peaceful as you’d think. The desolate Sahara this is not.  We dove out the busy highway connecting Dubai to Abu Dhabi.  It is also a dangerous road; driver’s have to watch out for high-end sports car’s flying down the road.  I heard that you have to constantly be on the lookout for them coming up behind you and they expecting you to get over.  You also have to be on the lookout for camels.  As all camels in the United Arab Emirates are privately owned, hitting one, even if by accident, exposes the driver to massive fines, restitution and jail time!

In the distance you can see a bedouin village. They now pitch their tents and sit on rugs inside air-conditioned buildings.

What I did out there, dune bashing, wasn’t exactly peaceful.  It was exhilarating and tons of fun.

We followed a caravan of Toyota Land Cruisers out to the Arabian Desert.  Our guide told us these were the best vehicles for desert driving, although they continue to test new ones every year.  You might catch a glimpse of the test vehicle in some of the photos.  Once we were sufficiently far out and had deflated our tires for the desert driving, our guide pressed play in the CD player and gunned it.  I loved being thrown around the sand with the music blaring.

The sand differs in each Emirate. The redder sand blew in from another Emirate.

It was great fun and I was even able to sneak a glimpse at the sun setting over the stunning sand dunes…when sand wasn’t splashing on the windows.

After a couple of stops to take in the beautiful scenery, aka photo ops, we piled back into the Land Cruiser and headed toward our “Arabian campsite” for a sunset dinner.

Time Traveling To Old Dubai In Al Bastakiya

Dubai is unabashedly new.  Traditionally, buildings were made from palm leaves.  As a result, not many of the old buildings survive.  Dubai’s Bastakiya Quarter (in the Bur Dubai area) is one of the few places to see traditional architecture.  It is the oldest surviving part of the city and a sharp juxtaposition to the skyscrapers in the distance.

Walking through Bastakiya, you can almost imagine life here when it was a small fishing village and ancient trading port for dhows travelling Gulf to India and East Africa.

The Bastakiya neighborhood dates from the early 1900’s.  Wealthy pearl and textile merchants from Iran’s Bastak region settled here.  Even then Dubai’s trade policies attracted immigrants.   These Persian merchants used more durable coral and gypsum to build their houses that were heavily influenced by traditional Arabian architecture.

I loved exploring the chaotic labyrinth of traditional Arabian heritage houses. This maze of narrow alleyways isn’t on a grid pattern.  Instead, the streets orient toward the water to take advantage of its cooling breezes.  The high walls shade the tight lanes and interior courtyards for much of the day.

Virtually every aspect of the buildings was designed to counter the intense heat.  With heat like that, you can’t blame them.  Houses had a central courtyard and were topped with wind-towers. The towers, which are open at the top on all four sides, act as wind-catchers.  Amazingly effective, they funnel breezes into a central shaft, cooling the room below.  Residents would throw water on the floor underneath the tower.  The evaporating water-cooled the interior.  Trust me when  I tell you they needed every means they could find to help cool things.

Traditional Barasti huts made from palm fronds were cool and easy to build.  Unfortunately, they didn’t withstand the elements very well (and were probably hard to retrofit with air-conditioners).

Fascinating Dubai

Before going to Dubai, I’d heard things like:

  • Dubai is like no other city on earth.
  • It is, or at least prior to 2008, it was the world’s fastest-growing city.
  • Dubai is Las Vegas on steroids.
  • Nobody ever went to Dubai in search of understatement.
  • It is glitzy, glamorous, spectacular and over-the-top, with more flash than class.

While the amount of consumerism there is astounding.  It is much more than that.  It is a city of contrasts with remarkable diversity.  It is futuristic and I found it fascinating.

Some of the things that fascinated me about Dubai are:

  • It is a city full of contrasts, from rich to poor, the religion and the hedonism, the large and small-scale of business, the man-made islands and the ancient trading on dhow boats both on its waters, the Orlando style buildings contrast with the imaginative skyscrapers…

  • Dubai has an incredibly rich cultural make-up.  I don’t know if I’ve been a city where I heard more languages spoken on the streets.  From its visitors to residents to influences, it has incredible ethic diversity.
  • Dubai’s shopping is a metaphor for its incredible cultural and economic diversity.  It has both designer boutiques and old-style souks.
  • A sea of skyscrapers and five-star hotels, are visible from the edge of the old town with it labyrinth-like streets and wind towers.

  • The traditional Emiratis  make up about 12% of the population and guard citizenship closely. They are typically extremely wealthy, but the town was built on the backs of a huge working-class population predominantly from the Indian subcontinent and from less prosperous areas of the Gulf.

Before the discovery of oil in the 1950’s, there was very little development in Dubai it was a fishing and trading outpost.  They didn’t even have an organized educational system.   By the 1960’s, it became a small, traditional, gulf trading center.  Thanks to petroleum money, it modernized.  It’s leader’s vision and ambition caused Dubai to remake itself and modernize differently than other states in the region.

In some ways, Dubai didn’t have a choice.  They were running out of oil.  Realizing this, Sheikh Mohammed, set about planning for the future without oil  He diversified the Dubai economy to create new employment and income streams as soon as possible .

Essentially, Dubai worked to establish itself as the regional economic hub, then a transportation hub, finance hub, tourist hub, property hub, and architectural hub.  To do this they have tackled infrastructure, water, transportation, education, culture and even religion in an incredibly strategic manner.  They spent massive amounts of money, but have accomplished the majority of their goals.  Whether you agree or not with their approach and its consequences for the workers and/or the environment, etc., what they have accomplished is impressive.