By Iona Stanley, Special to Reach by Gulf News
The picturesque appeal of Deira is visible in so many of its contrasting environments: narrow alleyways set in the foreground of towering buildings, atmospheric souqs that coexist alongside shiny shopping malls, families who have run businesses for several generations contending with slick international chains, and ramshackle structures that hold their own against contemporary architecture.
Here in Dubai’s traditional commercial district, and one of its oldest neighbourhoods, there are the views of a thriving wharfage where men still ply the waters on abras and tradtional dhows laden with livestock and hardware, and of souks where sipping sweet tea and haggling for trinkets and textiles is the norm. But also in situ are some of the largest jewellery stores, most respected business houses, and oldest landmarks of the country.
The importance that the UAE’s rulers placed on education, for instance, is seen in the Ahmadiya School, built in Deira in 1912 by Sheikh Ahmad bin Dalmouk, after whom it is named. As the oldest semi-official school in Dubai, it was renovated in 1995 and opened to public in 2000 as a museum to display its role in educating some of the country's most prominent figures, including several shaikhs.
Deira is home to many firsts, which in its signature style, vary between the bold, the brazen and the bizarre.
The Maktoum Bridge, which officially opened in 1963, was the first permanent structure to straddle Dubai Creek, providing a vital link between Bur Dubai and Deira and enabling quick movement of goods. Also inaugurated in 1963, the Deira clock tower is still used as a landmark to navigate one of the busiest areas in Dubai.
The three most prominent marketplaces in Deira are the Gold Souq, Spice Souq, and the Deira Fish Market. A wander through some of its many nooks and crannies can reveal secrets and stories, mysteries and memories of a Dubai that is not seen or heard much – and which harks back to a time when life was gentler and less frenzied.
The Maktoum Bridge that opened in 1963 was the first permanent structure to straddle Dubai Creek
In that era, when some residents of Jumeirah had to drive down to Deira every morning to buy a copy of their favourite newspaper, others spent their evenings in Deira watching movies.
In the 1960s, the first cinema Al Watan, located at Al Nasr Square, aired films at 9pm every night, by projecting them on to a white painted wall, and for many years thereafter, Deira Cinema in Al Rigga, built in 1969, was another popular venue.
Today, Dubai is a formidable financial and business hub for the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, but its origins lie in this trading entrepôt on the north bank of the city. Home to intrepid businessmen and industrious traders, it is this small neighbourhood that powered the early growth of the emirate, and ignited some of the country’s biggest global connections.
From here, the Al Ghurairs built a conglomerate that spans business sectors from cement and bottled water to banking and retail. Mashreq, the oldest bank in the country, started operations in 1967, at modest premises in Deira, and the district still houses its headquarters. The Middle East’s first shopping mall, Al Ghurair Centre opened in 1985 – with a complete experience of shops, cinemas, and food court, and then went on host the country’s first McDonalds in 1994.
More recently, the UAE’s first green mosque, Khalifa Al Tajer Mosque, opened its doors to worshippers in Bur Saeed Street.
“When I arrived here in 1996, there was really nothing much outside of Deira,” says Nabeel Waheed, head of Corporate and Investment Banking at Mashreq. “Dubai’s development is outstanding but all of it has grown around Deira. Deira remains its nucleus and it is only now that people are truly recognising its strengths of diversity and density.”
It is to Deira’s credit that its origins as the commercial centre of Dubai can still be seen in so many facets of everyday life in the neighbourhood, and although seemingly removed from the rest of the slick and sanitised city, still serves as its heart.
“At Mashreq, we like to think that our growth is symbiotic with that of Deira’s. While we continue to expand and innovate every day, it is important that we respect our culture and preserve our values – in every way,” Waheed adds.
Residents of Deira claim that while the sense of neighbourhood is more palpable here, traffic woes seem to be less. “I have lived in Dubai for 10 years and in Deira for the last five, and there are three reasons I may never move elsewhere,” says news content associate Jonas Ramos. “There is less traffic, I am surrounded by friends and family members, and as a community, we love being in the proximity of numerous restaurants and supermarkets that cater specifically to Filipinos.”
Deira does much to delight a broad spectrum of residents living in other parts of the emirate too. “In our 23 years of living in Sharjah and Dubai, no place has enthralled me as much as Deira,” declares art teacher Anupama Venugopal, and the variety of reasons she attributes is just as emphatic. “Take your pick of my favourite activity in Deira: I find myself headed there to buy art, find bargains, take photographs, browse through jewellery, stock up on spices, and entertain overseas guests. The Indian expat narrates tales of finding things in souks long before they were stacked on supermarket shelves elsewhere!
It is to Deira’s credit that its origins can still be seen in so many facets of everyday life, and although seemingly removed from the rest of the slick and sanitised city, still serves as its heart.
“For those of us who have lived here so long, Deira is still the real Dubai – and the really great part of Dubai,” says Venugopal.