Dubai: It’s 5.30am on an unusually pleasant June morning, and the Dubai Creek is bustling with life. As I take a walk along the Deira side with Mohammed Sultan Thani, who needs no introduction, it’s an absolute delight.
There are so many folks he stops by to say hello: Hala, a sprightly Syrian septuagenarian feeding a clowder of 11 stray kittens; Madhavan, an Indian yoga instructor and his motley group of students; some young Africans who are just as enthused about their exercise regimen; Ahmed Ali Mousa, a Pakistani abra operator whose boat we take to cross to the Bur Dubai side; Mohammed Ali, a fellow Iranian abra operator since 35 years; Mohiudeen, an Indian at a cafetaria who offers us maskajam and chai; and a myriad others.
“Well, that’s the beauty of Dubai,” says Thani. “A city whose people are at its core.”
A former film journalist, Thani is a keen observer with a rare perspective. He is a repository of people’s stories, glimpses of which he shares on Instagram. But a senior official with the Dubai Land Department, he is distinct from the modern-day “social media influencer”.
“No, I am not a commercial influencer and will never be one. I just like to portray people for who they are.”
Common folks, uncommon focus
Thani’s uncommon focus on common folks is sharp. The nearly 20,000 posts on his Insta page provide fascinating insights into their daily lives: Whether it is the colourful creek-side community; the vendors and visitors at the Deira Fish Market; the merchants of the yesteryear textile, gold and spice souqs; or the farmers in Al Aweer who revel in their crop.
“Somebody once asked me how I benefit from featuring them?” says Thani. “My answer is simple: I learn a lot by meeting different kinds of people and understanding what they do; when I travel around, I gain by becoming a researcher and observer. I feel I have a responsibility to share our treasures.”
Thani, who invariably remains behind the scenes, says: “I try not to feature myself in my posts. With popularity, there comes a time when the messenger may start feeling that he or she is bigger than the message, and even assume a misplaced sense of power and importance. It’s important to guard against this.”
Coming from a man who has 122,000 genuine followers, 50 per cent of them from the Emirati community in Dubai alone, that is sage advice. During Ramadan, the daily impressions on his page crossed two million, but Thani takes the numbers in his stride.
His stories, which deeply connect with the community, have a huge impact. When he once asked Mubarak, an affable 79-year-old regular at the Deira Fish Market, why his eye was red, he told him he had a problem which he could not afford to get corrected. After seeing the post on Insta, an ophthalmologist from a Dubai eye clinic got in touch with him and did the needful, free of cost.
Similarly, an ice-cream seller at Al Seef once came running after Thani to thank him for “taking his video” as business had picked up by leaps and bounds the day after. Little did he know that many of his newfound customers were Thani’s Insta followers who had chanced upon his story.
Thani says many of the people he features are a repeat. “Often, I go to the same people to see how they are progressing. Over a period of time, there is a relationship that develops not only between them and me, but with the community as well. People actually ask for them and want to know how they are doing.”
Essa, a fisherman Thani featured in 2017, is a fine example. At the time, he was struggling with a rickety boat. Thani’s Insta followers immediately pitched in to get him a new one. “Just a few months back, I saw the boat lying in his house. I asked him what happened. He said it needed a new engine. And believe it or not, he got a new boat itself from his Insta admirers.”
Thani, who grew up in the Deira Gold Souq area, is extremely familiar with the old districts of Dubai. Now, a resident of Al Towar, he still goes back to the lanes and bylanes of the souqs to chat up with merchants and hawkers. And needless to say, they are among his favourite Insta subjects too.
One of them, an 80-plus Emirati who owns a garment shop in Al Ras, has been working in the area since 1956. “Many newspapers had approached him for an interview because he is an old hand. But he would invariably refuse them. Somehow, he felt comfortable with me. He opened up to me and I have featured him several times. It’s not enough to gain trust, it’s equally important to retain it.”
Lessons from the past
Thani says there’s a lot to learn from the old-timers. “I want to introduce these gems to the new generation. You talk to them and realise they were trading in brands from Paris, Rome and other European cities way back in the 50s and 60s. We must not forget that Dubai has always been a port city - the foundation of what we have today was laid very early on.”
Besides trading, Thani says even the cosmopolitan nature of Dubai’s society, which is a huge talking point, came about eons ago. “You only have to look back at how the different communities mingled in the early years and you will find the answer.”
Once a famed film journalist with Al Bayaan, the Arabic newspaper, Thani himself was ahead of his times, reviewing and reporting on international movies when no else in the local landscape did. “People would tell me my job was easy as I only had to watch movies, but what they would not realise is the time, focus and effort it required to come up with a sharp critique.”
Industry bigwigs concede he was highly popular and producers dreaded his reviews. “They welcomed an immediately written review if it was good. But if the review was not good, I would get requests from some of them to wait for a week at least before publishing it,” he recalls.
Thani, who no longer writes about movies, says he doesn’t miss them and has moved on. But ask him how a film journalist landed a role that oversees land transactions, and he reasons: “Life happens”. And happens it does, leaving indelible footprints in the sands of time.