A great way to start a visit to Dubai is at the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU) located in the historic Al Fahidi District in Bur Dubai. An easy walk from the Al Fahidi Metro Station and down Al Mankhool Road – the variety of shops and businesses giving a glimpse into everyday life in this old part of town. The wind towers, stone coloured buildings and minarets of the mosque announce your arrival.
The SMCCU is the brain child of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. His vision is to educate visitors in the traditions and customs of the UAE – with ‘no-holds-barred’ question sessions (in keeping with its “Open doors. Open minds.” motto), traditional meals and heritage tours.
We are invited into the central courtyard (or majilis as its known in the region), freshen up and then take a seat on the cushions surrounding a large Persian carpet set ready for our brunch. But first we are welcomed with a cup of aromatic Arabic coffee typical of Emirati hospitality.
Soon we are lead out a wooden side door for a fascinating tour through the narrow streets of the old Bastakiya neighbourhood which dates back to around 1890. The historic buildings have been restored and offer visitors a glimpse into a past where coral clad mansions with their carved wooden doors, wind towers (barajeels) and open courtyards were home to wealthy pearl and textile traders – many are now home to quirky coffee shops, art galleries and museums. Removing our shoes and making sure our shoulders were covered we are invited into the mosque and have the opportunity of learning more about the Islamic faith.
The open discussion included the anticipated questions about religion and traditional attire to more sensitive questions around women’s rights and men having more than one wife – all answered with humour and openness.
With typical Emirati hospitality, our brunch started with Arabic coffee spiced with cardamom and saffron, followed by a selection of authentic Emirati dishes including Balaleet (sweetened vermicelli), Machboos (chicken and rice, like a biryani), Laham Nashif (chicken in a vegetable sauce), Khamir (delicious flat bread) and my favourite Ligamat (yummy little ‘donuts’) smothered in ‘dibbs’ (date syrup). All this washed down with a refreshing cup of tea.
These narrow twisting streets certainly deserved a second more leisurely visit – be sure to pop into the Coffee Museum to learn about the history of ‘the bean’, see the ancient ‘tools of the trade’ and enjoy a traditional Arabic, Turkish or Ethiopian coffee; or enjoy a relaxing lunch at the XVA Boutique Hotel after browsing their thought provoking contemporary art.
Other places of interest include the inspirational Mawaheb Art Studio for adults with special needs, the Majlis Gallery, the Philately House, Heritage House, Coins Museum as well as the Dubai Museum – housed in the Al Fahidi Fort, Dubai’s oldest building.