AL BASTAKIYA, Dubai

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My porta-cabin was situated right in the middle of the old ‘Bastakiya’ area of Bur Dubai, when the BBME (now HSBC Bank) and Wafi Center were being designed. I was working for M/S John R. Harris and Partners as a junior architect then and it was the early days of my architectural experience in Dubai-UAE.

The Bastakiya area of Dubai was still not restored as it is today. The buildings were unique in their architecture and detailing but desperately needed restoration. Every time I took a break from work, I would walk through the alleyways towards the Baskin Robins ice cream shop, wondering how life might have been to the occupants of this village way back when these were constructed (perhaps 60 years ago?). I would forfeit my lunch only to buy 2 scoops of ice-cream each day and chat with Mr. Ramesh, the famous ‘royal photographer’ who ran an art gallery in one of the courtyards in Bastakiya, on my way back. This used to be my daily ritual. Sometimes, he would not be there and i would look at the photographs again, each time noticing details I had missed before.

I don’t quite remember the dates but he told me many stories of his time in Dubai and showed me hundreds of old B/W photographs of the old Dubai Creek and the royal family. His stories ratified the stories which my father-in-law later told me. He too had arrived in the days when the Indian rupee was the currency here (I believe he arrived here in 1956!). Dubai was different then. Water was distributed in camel-skin bags, on donkey-back. Of course, it had to be boiled before consumption and some sandy residue would still persist. There were no air conditioners then and my mother-in-law would soak her sarees and hang them across the windows to help cool the interiors. Those who lived in the ‘wind tower’ houses were better off as these cooled the interiors by venting our the hot air from inside the houses. If you are lucky, you may even be able to experience this phenomenon in one of the Bastakiya dwellings.

During her pregnancies, since there were no hospitals (only midwives) my mom-in-law would have to get into small boats accommodating 15-20 people at a time, to be ferried to large steamships waiting out in deeper waters. Then there was the long steep climb up the ship’s ladder to reach the deck (Must have been tough!). My wife was born in Bombay and was brought back to Dubai after 3 months. The voyage to Bombay would take 5 days each way and the fear was that the rolling of the seas could even induce an early delivery! But my wife survived the ordeal thankfully!

There were fewer Goan families then, and they knew each other very well. They even met frequently over weekends to make merry. Apparently, they would still get their hands on drinks for their occasions! Some of the youngsters who grew up together with my wife, still remain good friends and although some of the families have migrated to graze in fresher pastures, they still meet abroad after many years to regale themselves on past glorious memories.

There are many who live in Dubai and have not yet walked the streets of Bastakiya! I encourage you to make it a point to visit the area late in the evenings when it cools down. The Shaikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) is also located there and conducts guided heritage tours with traditional lunch offering that is simply amazing! Also, if you visit the ‘karak chai’ stall there, you may be able to chat with a few elderly locals (They may not speak English but some know Hindi quite well!).

 

 

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