Arriving midweek into Dubai for the third time in the last year, the city felt more familiar than ever. Yet every gig we do seems to provide a new perspective, and this one, lasting nearly two weeks, gave another chance to explore a new (or rather ‘old’) side of the Emirates.
After a long journey, the first full day was a welcome day off, with performances commencing a day later. And so, after an excitable group rehearsal in a hotel room, we wandered down the street from our hotel in Bur Dubai to Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood, situated by The Creek, where we had a slap-up meal of middle eastern delights, ordering too much food and then spending hours attempting to finish large plates of hummus, falafel, grilled meats and fattoush, all the while desperately clustered around one air-conditioning machine. The ‘neighbourhood’ was almost deserted, but turned out to be the best place we could have wished to visit. First, we happened upon the Coffee Museum, where we learnt about coffee-making processes from Ethiopia to Italy, and sat on rugs drinking small cups of strong Arabic coffee accompanied by rose-flavoured Turkish delight. We left practically shaking with delight, and not just because of the caffeine. Turning the corner outside, we then stumbled upon a spice shop, which hosted shelves upon shelves of valuable herbs and spices: here we took in the smells of cardamon and cinnamon, the dazzling colours of bright blue and yellow stones, and sampled perfumes of saffron and frankincense.
Next door, an enclosed area comprised of two workshops: one, a calligrapher and engraver, hammering away at a giant sheet of copper to create beautiful Islamic patterns for an ornate doorway; the other, a weaver, working fast on his weaving apparatus to create colourful rugs, prayer mats, bags, scarves and cushion covers. I entered this one first, and was offered a cup of tea or coffee by the friendly weaver, but politely declined, carefully considering the amount of caffeine already in my system. He showed us his weaving while his friend sat and chatted away, and then encouraged us to each have a go on the weaving apparatus, made only of chunks of wood holding together thousands of fine threads. The activity required both hands and feet, controlling pedals to move the threads up and down before carefully weaving the coloured pieces of thread in between. Five hours it would take our weaver friend to finish this rug, who weaved so fast you could barely see his hands moving, and probably closer to five weeks for one of us to do the same job. We looked around in awe at all the reds, greens, golds and blues covering the small room in which this man worked; there wasn’t a patch of wall, floor or ceiling to be seen. He continued weaving as we looked around, and bid us a cheerful farewell as we left, without buying anything.
We then wandered in to the engraver’s place immediately next door. We watched as the engraver hammered away in a bright room covered in stunning calligraphy, including everything from Arabic names engraved in jewellery to the face of Sheikh Mohammed, the Emir of Dubai, made up of Arabic letters engraved into shiny silver. This particular project would take him at least three months overall, though a large part of it was already completed. I was therefore somewhat surprised when he offered me the hammer and suggest I try some engraving. I enthusiastically agreed, and then did a measly amount of work, fearing I might ruin his masterpiece. I decided the man must have the patience of a saint, as this work was by no means an easy use of time, and even more so for letting me contribute with my unskilled hand. These were very special people – passionate, welcoming and patient – and I had a feeling we might see them again.
After the first day, most of our exploring took place from the window of the bus which took us between hotel and venue. Dubai is truly an international city, in the broadest sense. On one road we travelled down each day to reach our venue, I spotted an Iranian club, a ‘Parsian Hotel’, an English speaking school, an Indian high school, a Pakistani language centre, a Jordanian social club, and a French cultural centre, all interspersed with Indian, Arabic, Thai and Filipino restaurants and a handful of visually stunning mosques. On one journey we took particular note of the ‘Saudi German Hospital – Dubai’, and sat inside our minibus with perplexed expressions, silently pondering what, or who, might be inside.
Bur Dubai, where our hotel apartments were situated, might best be described as Little India, hosting a large portion of the city’s huge Indian population and containing endless curry houses and Indian-owned convenience stores. In this part of town there seem to be fewer 4x4s and a million times more bicycles – shop workers will even hop on a pushbike from the greengrocers and deliver groceries in this way right to your apartment door. Local inhabitants make good use of the many empty plots of land yet to be built on, sitting in the dust just to hang out or even playing the odd cricket match.
Approaching our hotel one night, we passed a small group of men sitting in a circle in another sandy empty plot, this time accompanied by one massive goat. The goat sat out of their way, docile as ever, and nobody paid much attention to it. We wondered if the heat had finally got to us, like lost nomads wandering in the desert, dehydrated and hallucinating. It was such a big goat. What was its name? And what was it for?
From day one we knew this would be no easy gig: thirty-six shows over nine days at the Festival City Mall. The Dubai mall is the land of plenty – sparkly polished floors, top food chains, children’s play areas, 7D cinemas, mammoth supermarkets, IKEA, designer handbags, designer watches, designer everything, and air conditioning that makes you never want to go outdoors in the midday sun ever again. People come here for their daily entertainment, their meals, their socialising, and just about everything that isn’t work (unless, of course, they work there) every day of the week until late into the evening. They shop here, eat here, pray here, and, if they have them, they show off their expensive cars here – we exit through valet parking at the end of each day and see the delights of the motoring world, including pristine Range Rovers, Lamborghinis, Ferraris and many more. The Eid holiday is the busiest time of all, as nearly everyone is off work and in need of some entertainment, and that’s exactly where we come in.
Every day we paraded through various parts of the mall, often feeling like pied pipers as a crowd of excitable onlookers ran after us, chasing the sound of our drums, which seemed to reverberate throughout the entire building. The kids were typically one of two breeds: terrified criers diving in the opposite direction the second a drummer looked in their general direction, or joyful, confident enthusiasts desperate for a piece of the action. We made many children cry, but, somehow, we convinced ourselves it was for the greater good. Whatever attitude the shoppers had – whether it was shooing us away from a sleeping baby (not for long) or dancing tirelessly all the way from M&S to Toys R Us – it was impossible to escape our thundering beats, four times a day.
On our one and only night off after the gigs started, we headed to the aptly named ‘The Beach’ in Dubai Marina. Here we ate at an Arabic restaurant containing the largest number of plasma TVs ever to be seen, all set to different channels; saw the fastest, most expensive car in the world, the Bugatti Veyron, stuck in a traffic jam (I don’t profess to know a lot about cars, but my attention was drawn to the large queue of people taking selfies by this particular one while the driver was sitting in it); and watched the most impressive Eid celebration fireworks display as it echoed and ricocheted off the rows of skyscrapers lining the seafront. Incidentally this was just one night of eight on which you could observe this firework display – welcome to Dubai: land of splendour and excess.
Another night we accompanied one of our colleagues to an old haunt where the band she previously worked with were playing: it was none other than Jazz Night at Pizza Express. There, we ate pizza, drank a pint each (just one) of shockingly expensive lager, shared conversations with Brits, Americans and Australians, and enjoyed dancing to swing music – we could have been anywhere in the world.
Overwhelmed by the international chain restaurants and eateries dominating the malls and commercial areas, we travelled by car one night to 2nd December Street in Al Satwa district, where we stopped by Al Mallah, a basic and very popular middle eastern restaurant serving some of the best chicken shwarma and mint lemonade I’ve come across, for a very reasonable price. We sat on plastic chairs at tables on the street outside, enjoying the rare opportunity of having a meal in the natural outdoor air, no matter how sweaty. Another cheap middle eastern banquet, another satisfied band of drummers.
On the last day, we awoke early, had a morning swim in the hotel pool (coolest, though still a tepid warm bath, at this time of day), and returned once more to Al Fahidi historical neighbourhood to buy some spices and to see a familiar face from the first day: Ahmed, the weaver. He immediately welcomed us in and without a moment to spare we found ourselves sitting among the woven rugs drinking Turkish coffee which he brewed there and then in a corner, accompanied by the sound of an old Arabic film playing from YouTube on a nearby laptop. We didn’t have a lot of time to spare before starting the final day’s work, but we gave all the time we did have to Ahmed, and took advantage of our last opportunity to buy some of his handmade creations: cushion covers, scarves and olive soap. Meanwhile, the weaver told us of his exhibitions in Syria, Turkey, and all across Europe. He then played a short tune on a kind of Arabic fiddle with one string (a likely relative of the rebab but otherwise unfamiliar to me), subsequently passing it to me and placing a fez on my head as I struggled to bow a clean note from this instrument I’d never before had the pleasure of playing. We finally left, remembering there was still work to be done, hyper from caffeine and beaming with satisfaction at the morning’s events. When we got to the mall that day, we decided the morning could be improved further with a visit to the 7D cinema, which filled a five-minute break with a virtual rickshaw ride on the Great Wall of China, jolting seat and water spray included. By the time we set up for the final day’s shows, we were practically flying through the roof with giddy excitement. Show number thirty-three was the most energetic and enjoyable afternoon gig of the trip, and they only got better as the day went on. Dubai single-handedly drained us of energy and injected us with new life all at once.
We return to the UK a tad shorter, deafer, and in great need of a massage; but also with an appreciation for the passionate people and high level of hospitality in another part of the world, and a feeling that we now know our show better than ever before. Now, the busy season begins.