Once a year during Ramadan, we gather around the private ASTADI glass top tables in Bur Dubai. There are six or maybe nine of us coming from New Dubai, Sharjah, Satwa and Abu Dhabi. As we look to our phones for Maghrib prayer to mark the end of the fast, we will turn our attention to the pictures on the walls and inventory of the worn coins under the glass on each table. Someone will ask if the sultani kebab (57 dirhams) is still available and has been ordered, before someone else is late and blames the lack of traffic at one time of the day in the only month of the year when the roads are almost always empty .
Before we turn our eyes on each other, prayers are recited, dates and water are passed out audibly. Owner Majid Ali Ansari comes and hugs all of us, stops to chat and asks for someone he remembered years ago. For one very short evening, we go for the first time to Dubai again, and we discover this city all over again. Years passed, and I forgot about the urgent WhatsApp messages and social media updates. Former strangers, family now, all at home We will eat everything on the menu, debate various memories of an ancient event, contemplate Iranian tea and make hasty plans for more encounters that we will soon back off.
But nobody cancels breakfast at Special Ostadi. This is the magic of Bur Dubai, the heritage area where you are on a dhow cruise away from Iran, India or Oman, where you can still buy a SIM card on the street, where you will also find gorgeous hand-embroidered slippers and intricate rock jewelry, and where you can grab the formative work. For emerging artists before they become collectible. You can find everything that makes Dubai the way it is here, all tainted with the magic of Ramadan. Only, fresh spices require a ride of an abra across the creek – for Dh2 one way, it’s one of the cheapest ways to get a lesson on urban Dubai history.
Bur Dubai is the family album of historical memories in the emirate. Start from the oldest building, the Al Fahidi Fort. The construction of the coral and mortar shells dates back to 1787 and was previously the home of the ruling family of Dubai, and served differently as a frontier center for defense, a prison for outlaws, and a garrison for the forces before it opened as a museum in 1971, the year of the UAE federation. The entrance fee of 3 dirhams offers a peek into thousands of years past; The oldest artifacts date back to 3000 BC. It’s closed for renovations now, so go to the Coffee House Museum instead, a stone’s throw away in the historic Al Fahidi neighborhood, or the old Al Bastakiya. Home to gypsum, stone and wood buildings dating back more than a century, this was the place where the city’s sea merchants once lived, many of whom have roots in the pistachios of present-day Iran.
Also in this group of former homes with their distinctive wind towers are the start of Dubai’s contemporary art scene. Entrance is free to most places, although appointments may be necessary due to the pandemic. XVA Gallery displays emerging Middle Eastern art since 2003 (the Ramadan gallery featuring Brazilian-born Elizabeth Durazio), while also housing an art café and hotel. In the century-old House No. 13, the Al Serkal Cultural Foundation hosts architectural lectures, postage stamps and poetry recitals.
The historic district is located in the middle of an extended market area known differently as the Grand Bazaar or Mina Market, where the Indian community in the emirate used to go shopping for wedding and gold jewelery. Here are the city’s oldest fabric stores and the best affordable vegetarian restaurants. Get the maximum of your credit card on a 24 karat charm or traditional polki-Indian cut diamond jewelery at Meena Jewelers. Stop by for a quick snack from Vavda (6.5 MAD) or Gujarati buffet (21 Dirham) at Bhavna. Close to the edge of the creek are a host of traditional shops in the old souk.
Stop by to take a photo – or to pray – at a mosque here. The Bur Dubai Grand Mosque dates back to 1900 and houses the tallest free-standing minaret in the city at a height of 70 meters, executed in the Anatolian style. Nearby, the blue facade of the Iranian Mosque on Ali Ibn Abi Talib Street deserves an equal amount of Instagram. Two kilometers west, you are in the heart of Al Shindagha Heritage Village. Its most prominent landmark is the home of Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum, the residence of the longest-serving ruler in Dubai and where many of the royal family were born. Nine pavilions at different levels document different aspects of the modern history of the emirate, from financial and marine life to social events. Foodies will automatically be drawn to Kan Zaman’s waterfront.
Walk east to Seef, the waterfront amusement park that is a contemporary foil to the Heritage District. Until Eid al-Fitr, the venue hosts a series of Ramadan art nights with works by famous local artists. Then, browse the Seef Street markets, or stop at one of the many restaurants in the area (the Egyptian Khufu and the Indian Restaurant Mitra are the most prominent) for an early suhoor meal before framing the memory for future generations with an image of modern fashion. Flower swing. Perhaps you can start a new tradition of your own.