Exploring Dubai – a few favourites

Life in Dubai can perhaps be measured in two-year increments – which is the usual duration of a visa. Now that I’ve been here two years, this is a good time to look back at some of the interesting things I’ve done.

  1. Dubai International Writers’ Centredubai intl writers centre 2

The Writers’ Centre is an initiative by the organizers of the Emirates Literary Fest. Unlike the festival, which is on every March, the Writers’ Centre is a permanent institution that holds talks and workshops by authors, especially those with a Middle Eastern connection.

dubai creek writers centreThe centre is in the historic Al Ghubaiba neighbourhood and the creek is just a step away.

There are old buildings, cafes and even camels lounging about in the area, and the whole atmosphere is quaint and cosy. dubai intl writers centre

All three of the talks I attended were in the picturesque courtyard of the centre, which seats about 50 people.

I attended two discussions by Tim Mackintosh Smith, whose Ibn Battuta Trilogy I’ve read and loved. He was every bit as charming, modest and humorous as his books suggest.

dubai intl writers centre tim mackintosh smith

I went back late one evening in June to attend a chat by Rawaa Talass, a young Syrian art major who curates the excellent aRTproject page on Facebook. Her chat was about the early Syrian community in New York – who once lived in the area near World Trade Centre.

dubai intl writers centre 1Rawaa explained at the beginning of her talk that the word Syrian in this case was meant to cover people from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine – one of whom was Khalil Gibran. She had a treasure trove of old photographs with her and it was deeply fascinating.

dubai writers centre tim mackintosh smithHighlight:

It’s hard to pick one moment, but getting Tim to sign my copy of The Hall of a Thousand Columns was great! He was thrilled to know we were from Kerala, and spoke at length and with fondness of the Zamorin of Calicut.


2. The Icons of Art Exhibition at Opera Gallery

I’ll always remember this day, for it was when I saw my very first Renoir – or indeed impressionist art – live. The Opera Gallery is near the Ritz in the Dubai International Financial Centre. It’s housed in a posh little glass and steel enclave which is home to numerous galleries and high-end restaurants like Marco Pierre White’s Wheelers, to name just one. I however, feasted on the Renoir, Deux Filles dans un Pre, a few large and luminous Chagalls, some Picasso and Matisse sketches, a couple of colourful Miros and bronze casts of Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. I was drawn to the work of Raoul Dufy, whom I was hearing of for the first time.

Unfortunately, I only took a photo of the Renoir, which I don’t have any longer. But here’s the catalogue.


Standing in front of the Renoir, tiny though it was.


streetnights the walk3. Street Nights at The Walk, Dubai 

I try to go on my jaunts around Dubai using public transport. Taxis are plentiful here, but it can be a challenge to hunt down places in a taxi. I picked The Walk because I could go by Metro and Tram, and it looked like fun. streetnights the walk6

The weekend I went with my daughter, there was a street festival on, with food trucks, stalls selling colourful knick-knacks, music performances, live graffiti painting and other fun doings.

The Walk is a long promenade just off Jumeirah Beach, flanked by designer stores and restaurants.

The promenade is cobbled and all the cafes have outdoor seating. It’s a great place to people watch, and when we went in May, the heat was not yet stifling.

streetnights the walk2We walked about – what else – and after a small argument about what to eat – I wanted savoury, she wanted dessert – we sat down in the shade at Napolitana restaurant and demolished a bruschetta platter and some gelato.

It was too early for a full meal, but the assorted bruschetta with mushroom, goat’s cheese, breasola, and cherry tomato toppings were just right.

napolitana restaurant the walk


As part of Street Nights, the Book Munch stall had put up a big blackboard where passers-by could each contribute a line to build a story. My daughter did her share, and the board was a little more than half full when we left.

I believe the entire story was read out later at the Book Munch Café.


art dubai 2015 5

4. Art Dubai 2015

Dubai is a very visual city, highly committed to the arts. The city is home to serious investors and collectors; the presence of Christie’s proves it. art dubai 2015 6

Art Dubai is a fair where galleries from different nations exhibit their artists’ wares – most of it new and contemporary. It’s held in the lovely Madinat Jumeirah, which is well worth a visit for its own sake. art dubai 2015 3

The two hours we spent drifting across the various stalls and pavilions was nowhere close to enough. Also, I made the silly mistake of not writing down the names of my favourite art or at least photographing the name cards, which means I was left with a jumble of imagery with no context. art dubai 2015

I was most attracted to the art which connected to the region.

Hopefully, next year I’ll do a better job of understanding and recording the art on display.


Chatting with the staff at the gallery that sells Jitish Kallat’s work. As Kallat is the curator of the Kochi Biennale, we felt an immediate connection. We loved the work for its own sake too. art dubai 2015 7

PS: The fashion scene at Art Dubai was outstanding.


5. Dubai Museum

This was one of the earliest trips of discovery we made, and certainly the most touristy.

dubai museum2Also part of the Al Fahidi Historical neighbourhood, Dubai Museum is an old fort that doubles as a museum. The fort is small and exquisite, made of gypsum and quite unlike any other I’ve been to.

Inside, there are exhibits of old weaponry, tableaux of life in the Dubai of yore, and various historical displays detailing Dubai’s past as a pearling centre. dubai museum3

At the souvenir shop, I bought wall decorations with the Hamsa, coasters resembling mini Persian carpets, and other gee-gaws to gift to relatives back home.

Then, in the spirit of the day, we repaired to the Bastakiya Café in the Arabian Courtyard Hotel opposite, and tucked into lentil soup, Mezze (of which I chiefly remember the excellent Babaghanoush and the less-than-stellar Tabouleh), a platter of Arabic mixed grilled meats, and Arab bread.

dubai museumHighlight:

The working model of the wind tower at the Al Fahidi Fort was ingenious – I’d assumed until then that these towers were just decorative.


6. The Dubai Fleamarket

I’ve already written about it extensively here, but I hope to go for one of the night markets or ripe markets whenever they’re on next.

Summer’s drawing to a close (although temperatures still hover above 40). Winter is a fun time in Dubai, with loads of concerts, exhibitions, outdoor events and food happenings. I have a long list of places to explore – what about you?

The Old Library, Dubai

If you’re a book lover in Dubai, what are your options? If you’re looking for a way to read without repeated demands on your pocket, or the assistance of an electronic device, then you must get yourself a membership in Dubai’s oldest and best library, called – but of course – The Old Library. Located in the Mall of the Emirates, the library is tucked away in an annex off the second level, next to the performing arts centre, DUCTAC.

oldlibrarydubai1They say the pursuit of knowledge is hard. With my terrible sense of orientation, finding The Old Library wasn’t all that easy either. It did take me twenty-odd minutes of walking and many wrong turns, the first time I visited. Luckily, there are helpful security guards in every corner of the Mall, and they’ll direct you to the correct escalator, next to the Fashion Dome.ductacdubai

Walking past the Gallianos, the Bottega Venetas and the Marc Jacobs, you’ll arrive at the corridor that leads past the washrooms and out into the sunlit annex, which has a delightful old world charm that’s in sharp contrast to the glittering modernity inside. Other than DUCTAC and The Old Library, there’s an art shop and picturesque outdoor seating.

Becoming a member at The Old Library is painless. All it takes is 250 AED for the entire year, and you can borrow up to eight books at a time, and keep them for four weeks.

IMG_20150818_132648332_HDRThis is far more generous and liberal than many other libraries I have been to. You don’t have to pay rentals for individual books and while they do have fines, they’re the not ruinous sort. Once you show them your ID (Emirates ID in my case) and fill out their – mercifully short and sweet – form, they’ll issue you your library card. oldlibrarydubai3

Though the library itself is not huge, the collection is pretty wide ranging. They have sections for fiction, nonfiction, biography, romance, classics, young adults and children. Books are arranged alphabetically using authors’ last names and are quite easy to locate. There’s a MENA section which I plan to explore – it features writing from and about the region. Special books, as their new books are called, are displayed on a rack near the entrance and you’re allowed to take only one of these out at a time.

It’s a good idea to check the online catalogue before you drop in – you’ll be able to figure out if the book you need is available or has been lent out. The staff, like they tell you proudly on their website home page, is made up of volunteers. They are always on hand to hunt down a book you want, or exchange views on your favourite authors. The library is fairly busy; I did notice however that there were more children than adults borrowing books. oldlibrarydubai4

So what are the negatives? Practically none. They may not carry every latest release, but it becomes available soon enough. I see from their Facebook page that they buy new titles often. They have few – sometimes single – copies of each book, which means you may have to wait a bit for your turn. But they’ll reserve it for you and you can have first dibs on it when it’s back. Indeed it only reminds me of a time when everything was not available for instant consumption, when a book couldn’t be got at the touch of a finger, or when you couldn’t become an ‘expert’ on any subject merely by googling.

Have you been to The Old Library? What are other good places to buy or borrow books in Dubai?

A scarf’s tale. (How it has unfolded thus far.)

I was born with a great thundering, clanging and whirring. As I wove into a perfect, sensuous square of midnight black, scarlet and green, I imagine some nameless, faceless silk worker mopped her brow and turned me over to the next task in the assembly line.scarf4

Not that I know much about assembly lines. In fact I barely remember my time in the store after I was packed and shipped, as I hung out with my kind – it is all a haze till I found myself in the discount bin.

No doubt, it was the 50% markdown that did it, because, as Bluey was to tell me later, OM loves pretty things, especially if they’re in her budget. I’m sure she looked at the ‘Pure Silk’ tag and immediately had visions of herself as Miranda Priestly with her signature Hermes Scarf.

But I get ahead of myself.

My first few months were lonely. I didn’t lack company, but it was never quite the right kind, till I found a kindred spirit in Bluey. I was consigned to a dark cupboard, not far from the underwired bras and the Plebs – a bunch of cotton stoles in bright colours – classless hybrids that were neither scarves nor shawls. There were longer stoles in faux silk in the most dubiously ordinary colour combinations.

scarf2Or there was the loud, garish cotton thingamajig that OM reached for surprisingly often – long and voluminous, Bluey told me it was used to hide OM’s sometimes often flabby belly.

Look I do realize I can never be as distinctive as the Gucci linking Gs, as recognizable as the Burberry checks, or as wildly luxurious as Miranda’s favourite Hermes. In fact there are times when I realize I am almost as common as the Plebs, with my generic, inoffensive design.

However, what I lack in edginess, I make up in texture and colour. If I say so myself, I do class up the joint. scarf5

Here I am with Bluey, who is a silk like me, but in pinks and blues instead. Her fair complements my dark, and together we’re like Monica and Rachel.

Considering how many times OM has taken me out and stroked me, she wears me disappointingly little.  I think she worries over how exactly to carry me, what to match me with – or she’s usually in a tearing hurry.

scarf3Occasionally, however, OM will feel a little jauntier than usual, or spend too much time surfing beauty and fashion blogs, and that’s when she usually remembers me. She’ll team me with her favourite beige Mango top, or her dark green button-down with the gold details, and when she’s not feeling too creative, with one of her black tops.

Then she’ll dab on her favourite Mac Retro lipstick and Mac Sunbasque blush, slip into her black heels and feel fabulous for a while.

Note: The scarf was picked up from Splash Fashions two years ago on sale, for 25 AED.  


The 10 commandments of the Ladies’ Compartment

dubaimetroThe following are the unspoken rules of the women-only carriage of the Dubai Metro. I say unspoken, but of course they are often spoken and sometimes even yelled aloud for emphasis.

  1. Thou shalt not peek into thy neighbour’s smartphone however compelling the candy crush or hot her latest crush. If your neighbour is reading a book (a rare sight) thou shalt not read over her shoulder.
  2. Thou shalt maintain impeccable hygiene; nothing sours the atmosphere – literally – like bad breath, BO or strong hair oil.
  3. Thou shalt realize that the place into which thou art inching is already occupied by a solid, live human being who cannot disappear into thin air just because thou standeth on her toes.
  4. Thou shalt exit the compartment gracefully, waiting till the train is pulling up at the station to move towards the door. Thou shalt politely ask the person before thee to move, at which point said person may reply with a frosty “I’m getting out too.”
  5. Thou shalt learn the fine art of shuffling into the compartment, willing the person before you forward with the sheer force of your mind, without any obvious use of hands or handbag as instruments of nudging.
  6. Thou shalt try to learn the art of keeping thy balance; there are only so many times thou canst say sorry or flash a winning smile.
  7. Thou shalt stare at any male who enters the compartment and look suggestively at the sign that says “Women and children only”. Occasionally, in the absence of any other woman bold enough to speak up, thou shalt be required to inform said male of said breach. Handy hint: Always mention the 200 AED fine.
  8. Thou shalt wear thy pointy heels with caution, recognizing that they are weapons of mass-transit destruction and self-harm in such close quarters. Thou shalt travel by Gold Class if unable to do so.
  9. Thou shalt make sure thy music is for thine ears only. Plug in thy headphones correctly or prepare to be the unpaid broadcaster for the whole compartment’s entertainment (not).
  10. Thou shalt not carry on loud, long and rambling conversations on the phone with family, friends or co-workers – mostly because there’s nowhere for your voice to go but into the ear drum of the person next to you. Thou shalt recognize that persisting in this endeavour will give all persons in the compartment the right to listen to your boss’ cute doings or your son’s heinous crimes. (Or was it the other way around?)

Are you a ladies’ compartment regular? Share your experiences in comments!

To fleamarket, to fleamarket, to fleamarket we will go

To many people, Dubai is defined by its massive malls, its super-tall buildings and its perpetual glitz and glamour.

There’s always a shop on sale, and the AC is on full blast, so it’s no wonder we all turn into mall rats before long. But there’s more to Dubai than that.

At the Dubai Flea Market this Friday (August 7), the bargains were cool even if the temperatures weren’t.

We got to Zabeel Park just before 6 PM, when the sale opens, and found that the crowd had already begun to mill around the tables.

Let me quickly describe the scene before me.

fleamarketTables were arranged on either side of the tree-lined pathways of the park. Rows and rows of hangers full of clothes were lined up everywhere. It was like waving a red flag at a bull – only in this case, the flags were chevron printed, trimmed with lace or in the colour of the year, Marsala.

There were also home appliances, books, shoes, bags, jewellery and stuffed toys. I spotted a stall selling Biriyani, and an ice cream cart. But clothes more than anything else.

fleamarket3So here are a few things I learnt from my maiden trip to the Dubai Flea Market.

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the ware. Most of the pre-loved clothes, shoes and bags were remarkably free of obvious damage and had either been used minimally or not at all. No one had used the occasion as an excuse to get rid of their grandma’s knickers. Dubai being trend conscious, most of the things displayed were very much in fashion.

fleamarket1By all means, bargain. However the prices, which range from 5 AED to 25 AED for most pre-loved items, are low already, so don’t overdo it. Where else will you find a silk Banana Republic dress for 20 AED?

Carry change. Because – well, see above.

Don’t let the low prices turn you into a maniac. Stick to your style aesthetic, never mind how tempting the bargains. Ask yourself if you would buy the same thing if it were available full-price in a mall. If the answer is yes, pick it up.

And to contradict myself, experiment. Even if something you buy ends up not being quite right, you haven’t thrown away too much money. So that fur collared shrug or that lace backed dress you may otherwise stay away from? Pick it up!

Sizes can be tricky when you can’t try on the clothes. The labels are no help either, since these clothes are from all over the world and different sizing standards apply. Besides, one woman’s Medium is another woman’s XS. It may help to carry a measuring tape along instead of relying on your eyes alone. I didn’t carry one, but my guesstimates paid off because I stuck to silhouettes that I knew would work for me.

fleamarket5Move fast. Linger too long at one table, digging deep into every carton, and you could miss interesting stuff at other tables. There’s so much stuff that you’re never going to be able to view or evaluate anyway.

fleamarket6Be polite. The sellers are friendly and on Friday, they were smiling and helpful even in the 40 + heat. Considering how crowded it got, things were pretty orderly. Don’t jostle, don’t drop things on the floor, snatch them out of people’s hands, and so on.

Strike up conversations. The sellers are interesting people. I’m not generally chatty, but the bohemian vibe of the market and the sheer riot of colours calls for it. Some of the sellers have Instagram accounts or websites, and this can give you more leads.

Carry a stole with you. When you’re done rummaging, spread it on the grass and cool off in the shade. Now’s the time to catch your breath, compare purchases with your crew and crow over every Dirham and deal you scored.

As the cliché goes, when you get home, your shopping bags will be full of memories too.