Dubai: This may not be Ana Ivanovic’s first time in Dubai, but on Saturday morning, the tennis player told tabloid! it’s been one of her most eye-opening visits yet.
As a Dubai Duty Free Ambassador, Ivanovic’s role is to get the word out about some of Dubai’s most popular tourist attractions through promotional video shoots. This year, the DDF Full of Surprises Travel Show brought her to Al Fahidi Historic Neighbourhood in Old Dubai, a quiet getaway previously known as Al Bastakiya.
With its narrow lanes, hole-in-the-wall shops and outdoor galleries, Al Fahidi is one of the oldest Emirati neighbourhoods standing — a slice of traditional Arabic culture. A far cry from the polished and modernistic malls that Ivanovic had become accustomed to, Al Fahidi is characterised by roughly-finished stone floors, unpaved walls with water stains climbing up the bottoms and soaring wind towers that evoke a simpler time.
“Over the years, having come [to Dubai], the changes I’ve seen have been amazing. So many new buildings — and it’s so futuristic. I did my preseason one year here, so I really enjoyed staying at the [One&Only Royal] Mirage with the Venetian feel to it, and the malls are just huge,” Ivanovic said. “I feel a little more comfortable around the city, the places I want to see and visit, but there’s too many things to do and not enough time — they should [bring us for] two weeks!”
She barely paused to catch her breath between sentences, gesturing nonstop at her surroundings as she spoke. She seemed full of energy and hungry for adventure, which must be helpful attributes for any long-standing athlete.
“Then again, these galleries bring out the soul of Dubai,” she added. “This was really interesting for me to see today, because I haven’t seen this side of Dubai yet. I’ve seen the souq — I’ve seen the gold souq — but it’s just different [here] with the traditional feel of stuff.”
Ivanovic was dressed perfectly for her outdoor adventure. With her dark hair pulled up into a ponytail, she perused the alleyways in a flowing cheetah print skirt, an elegant black blouse and a pair of comfortable but trendy beige sandals. In another world, she could have been doing a high-fashion photo shoot.
Three photographers and a film crew followed her as she did several b-roll takes just walking from point A to point B, smiling at the lens or looking off to the side. Those particular frames didn’t give much insight into Ivanovic’s personality, but it shone through more naturally when she stopped to take in what the small shops had to offer.
“Gorgeous, it’s so nice,” she marvelled beneath her breath.
The first store, Royal Saffron, had rows and rows of spices on display outside — ginger root, star anise, chestnuts, cinnamon sticks, dried chili and dates were just some of the many choices up for grabs. The spices were divided up into woven wooden baskets, scratched-up barrels and crates. They were sold alongside old-fashioned knickknacks such as miniature camel statues, mugs moulded into regional caricatures and a variety of hookah pipes.
As Ivanovic ducked closer to inspect each of the spices, she struck up a conversation with a shopkeeper who was oblivious to her superstar status. He asked her where she was from so he could relate some of the spices back to her home country, Serbia.
She seemed to be stowing away this knowledge to be used in practical settings at a later time. When the shopkeeper explained to her the calming impacts of herbs such as sage, for example, Ivanovic laughed and said: “If you have a boyfriend that talks too much, just burn this.”
She made several stops at other craft stores. At one, she tried on a few oversized, colourful rings, which in the past were inscribed with family names and used to stamp documents in place of a signature.
“Am I allowed to?” she asked at one point, approaching a spread of soap and daggers. Upon receiving permission, she picked up a few different-sized weapons, pulling the knives out of their sheaths and swinging them around with playful sound effects, a hint of her more youthful side.
After her exploratory jaunt, Ivanovic was taken to Majlis Gallery, a home-cum-art-exhibition with no ceiling to speak for, just a few sheets draped overhead to keep the sun from hitting guests too strongly. She was introduced to artist Trevor Waugh, a UK-based fine artist who’s been exhibiting his work in Dubai for over 20 years, and whose current exhibition showing both sides of the city — desert and nightlife — is on until mid-March.
It didn’t take long for the two of them to veer off their scripted interactions as they wandered from painting to painting, getting into involved discussions about the secrets behind each piece, and the importance of letting inspiration run its course. Ivanovic was vocal in her admiration of Waugh’s soothing use of colour and dream-like techniques in his dusty, overcast oil paintings of sand dunes, dark skies and camels in the desert.
“It’s calming, but so powerful,” she said. “It’s really interesting to see the story behind every artist or the work they do, because I think every piece brings something more — the story and the feel to it, it’s nice to understand that.”
Did she have any hidden talents herself?
“I love to write. When I read books, I like to write quotes or something like that, but unfortunately, I’m not artistic at all. This is something I wish I was, because these things amaze me and I really appreciate the talent that people have. I wish I could do something like that.”
She also confessed, with a coy laugh, that she had been considering getting a few of the pieces from the gallery to hang in her new apartment in Belgrade. She hasn’t had time to decorate it and it’s still fairly bare, she said, making her keen to pick up a few Waugh originals — even though logistics might be too complex to allow for it.
“I still don’t have any artwork yet, I don’t have so much time, but I want to take time and make sure I select the right pieces. It’d obviously be a little bit hard to carry, but they’re beautiful pieces and they’re so, so calming.”
Her last encounter of the afternoon was with Khaled Al Sa’ai, one of her biggest fans, and one of the fastest calligraphers in the world. His first exhibition, he told me, had been in 1987. Preparing for her arrival, he mixed yellow, black and red paints to write her name in whimsical letters on white paper, and the intricate piece took him less than a minute to finish.
“I love Ana,” he said, admitting that if you looked through his practice portfolio of calligraphic paintings from over the years, you would see her name come up more than once along with some of his other favourite stars. “I’ve been following her career. I know everything about her.”
For her part, Ivanovic was awed as Al Sa’ai painted a new piece for her, watching him closely and saying she loved his methods even if she couldn’t paint herself.
“Calligraphy is another thing that really amazes, because to me, it’s something impossible. To me, the picture [or paintings] I can sort of relate to, but this is just amazing. There was one piece on the wall in Khaled’s exhibition that was just breathtaking. When you look at it, you can just stare at it for hours.”
Of course, Ivanovic doesn’t have that kind of time. She would be getting into the thick of things as part of the championship in Dubai.
“There are so many strong players and everyone from top is coming. It’s a good challenge, because if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.”