It was a cosy day in Dubai a few weeks ago when I sauntered into the Bastakiya area to meet my guide, Ahmad Al Jaffla, protocol manager and senior presenter.
He is part of the Shaikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) family, whose aim it is to teach people — tourists and residents alike — about Dubai and its heritage as well as disabuse them of any pre-existing notions they may have about this place. This is done through a leisurely stroll along the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood where the old ways are pointed out (think natural air conditioning, why men go nose-to-nose to say hello; in the olden days their hands were occupied, one held a gun, the other a camel’s reins; and that ever-popular question, ‘What do you guys have on below that dishdasha?’). You end the two-hour walk with an interlude that stars a rather docile eagle and a nomad, who, in keeping with his roots, is only a visitor during the winter months.
While Dubai has a crowd of guides who will walk you through the neighbourhood — which was also recently the home of the Sikka Art Fair — the SMCCU version also navigates you through a mosque and its dos and don’ts (cover your head; stay in the moment).
Dubai is unique in that it also offers you an Emirati’s point-of view. Heba Bin Redha, of Kashta with Heba, started her brand two years ago. “The idea of becoming a tour guide was born out of personal passion in sharing my country’s culture and traditions with the world. Whenever my friends visited from abroad, I would always take them on tours around historical Dubai to understand our history.”
She hopes “to spread the story of my country’s success from where it was to [what] it has become through my tours.”
In Sharjah, Sultan Sooud Al Qasimi, who is also the founder of Barjeel Art Foundation, conducted a walking tour last year. “The idea of the walk was to showcase to visitors and residents the modern architectural heritage of Sharjah,” he said, adding, “I have done this not only in Sharjah but also in Dubai...this time [in Sharjah] we coordinated with authorities to make sure a large number of people are able to walk across, and also audio devices, so the information can be transmitted, and we were able to bring more than 80 people for a walk across Sharjah.”
And while these are just some of the routes you can take to get a glimpse into the UAE, here’s a look at our pick of top ten guides who will give you an unusual look at the Emirates.
1. Wander with Nada
Nada starts with giving you a rundown of the places you’ve got to see when in town: Dubai Mall, Burj Khalifa, Burj Al Arab, Madinat Jumeirah, The Palm Islands and Atlantis Hotel, before agreeing to take you to other, less cliched areas. The tour guide, who has been a Dubai resident for more than 20 years, has an itinerary planned that will see you visit Dubai’s old quarter for food and a culture lesson. But we recommend
taking her falconry tour, where she will introduce you to the special friends to the Emirati bedouins and take you on a trawl through the city’s streets. Dh365, per person.
2. Dubai on Foot
Dubai by Foot claims an offbeat path that shows off a different facet of the city, every time. “You can dive into the rich cultural heritage of Old Town, explore marvels dominating the skyline or gaze at the futuristic advances being built by the city,” they say in a statement. And if you are more interested in a specific section of the emirate, they’ll curate a food or art tour for you, too. Part of an international chain, Dubai on Foot offers walking tours that cost between Dh60-90 per person.
3. Kashta with Heba
Heba says she’s the only Emirati guide in town, and she’ll show you the city through an authentic lens. “They [people trying this tour] get the chance to directly interact with an Emirati and ask all the questions they have. I also share with them stories from our grandparents and people who used to live around these areas as we stroll between the narrow alleys of Al Fahidi Old Neighbourhood and ride the Abra.
These stories take them back to the past and give them the freedom to see the UAE through the eyes of an Emirati. Simply [put], who can speak better about a country than its locals themselves?” Tours cost approximately Dh300.
4. Shaikh Mohammad Centre for Cultural Understanding
“I hope people will take away that we are exactly the same as them. We just dress differently [and have different cultural mores] from them, but we are exactly the same,” says Al Jaffla. And if people want to live in the country they need to understand its way of life. He says SMCCU
provides a safe space where people can ask the really embarrassing questions, and be safe in the knowledge that they’ll get the answers,
minus judgement. Dh80 per person.
5. Arabian Adventures
The tour begins in Bastakia Quarter in Bur Dubai, says Volcan ,of Arabian Adventures, and after a stroll stops in at the coffee museum. After drinking their fill of the brew, visitors head Creekside — to the ruler’s court, [then] near where the Hindu temple is. “We just point that out ... because being in a Muslim country, [they like the idea of being tolerant about religion]. And then we go for an abra ride. Cross the creek on an abra and go to the spice souq. And we spend there again 15-20 minutes.” Then it’s on to the Gold Souq and Ahmadhiyya school for a history lesson. The tour, which takes about four-hours, costs Dh165 per person
6. Frying Pan Adventures
Eat your way through the history of the Emirates or discover how the great traders of the nation influenced the cuisines of their business partners when you pick Frying Pan Adventures. This is a foodie’s trail at its finest. Two paths to explore are: Dubai Metro Food Trail, where you can take in the lesser known neighbourhoods of the city by hopping on and off the rail’s Green Line; or chew on a Middle Eastern food trip featuring Emirati and Persian specialities. Prices vary, but these two offerings cost Dh415 per head. Other emirates are also on their menu.
7. Sharjah Centre for Culture Communication
Similar to the SMCCU, the centre for cultural communication aims to give visitors an understanding of Islam and some clarity on the region’s culture. For this reason, they launched Al Noor Mosque visits on Monday at 10am. The one-hour visit ends with dates and Arabic coffee. Free. After the visit, take in nearby hot spots such as Sharjah Al Hisn Museum and Sharjah Heritage Museum.
Another one for old Dubai, feast your way through the old quarter and get a peek into culinary greatness. You can walk through the city, or bike your way through it. “We combine great cultural eats with a historic walk of old Dubai,” claims tastecapade.com. Tours start at $90 (Dh330) per person.
9. Rove Dubai
#RoveAroundDeira takes art, culture, mystery of legacy and combines them for a visual bonanza. Local Instagram cultural explorer, Shaima Al Tamimi and her father, Saleh Al Tamimi, hosted a photography tour of the district. The first in a series of Rove Around The City guides was held on March 11. Dates and prices of upcoming tours are yet to announced, but keep an eye out on the website, we are told.
10. Anantara, Qasr Al Sarab
Put on some comfy shoes. This is going to be a while. You get a history lesson along with that dose of sand in your boots though when you venture forth on this excursion. Take children along and make a day of it — they’ll be entertained while getting an education, and without even knowing it. Dh192 per head.