the creek

On Friday I had a taste of authentic Gulf culture when my wife and I visited the Creek in Dubai for the first time. Or at least that’s how I was going to start this. But what does authentic mean? What’s authentic about an old Arabic souk when most of the goods come from China anyway? And what exactly is not authentic about malls and SUVs and freeways and glass towers and villas? Those things have replaced souks and camel trains and wind towers and pearl diving because they work better in the modern world for most people. They are as real as anything (or as unreal as anything). When archaeologists excavate malls a thousand years from now, they will not find them cheesy like we do.

What other misguided adjectives fit the feeling inspired by the Creek? Historic? True? Real? Whatever it is, I was gripped by an irrational, possibly arrogant, and delightfully contented feeling of being connected with something as we walked on the pavement along the Creek (which is really more like a canal) at sundown, adhans on both shores ringing cacophanously in the thick air, beat-up wooden dhows with their sky-blue cabin tops docked on the other side next to endless stacks of cargo, hundreds of abras, the pragmatical diesel-powered gondolas swarming to and fro ferrying passengers across the Creek, the forms of the souks and the mosques and the 80s apartment blocks surrounded by tawdry shops rising on both sides, so plain in contrast to the surreal gleaming image of postmodern Dubai. And people of all descriptions walking around languidly or sitting on concrete slabs at the edge of the water in the relative relief of evening.

Well, all kinds of people except for two glaring exceptions: no Emiratis. None at all. And not many Westerners: certainly none of the fat, pink, villa-dwelling bankers you see elsewhere. The reason these people stay away is this oldest part of Dubai is lately run down and considered tacky. No air conditioning, no Starbucks. No Baskin Robbins for their fat kids. The same reason it seems so authentic to misguided types like me. Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis, Filipinos, Malaysians, Persians, Omanis, Yemenis, and Chinese make up the crowds here, each doing their own thing. It doesn’t feel like the Arab world. But it doesn’t feel like anywhere in particular. It’s a free zone, a trading zone. Which is what Dubai has always been: an interim place for people from everywhere to meet and trade, someplace temporary. It can’t have the same allure, the same culture, the same densely folded history of Bombay or Istanbul. A hundred years ago you would have seen the same kinds of people in souks that looked just the same trading some of the same things. I wonder if it was considered just as tacky then: the old-world version of a mall?

Through the Textile Souk, with its jeans, T-shirts, sports jerseys, sunglasses, sneakers, sandals, jewelry, toys, souvenirs, shisha pipes, snack vendors. Big crowd around a guy squeezing and hawking fresh orange juice. In case you’re wondering there are textiles too, and Persian carpets.

Back out onto the Creek we paid a dirham each to board an abra. No docking lines, no railings, nothing to grab onto, everyone steps or jumps aboard in whatever fashion works as the boat rolls around in the water. As we got under way we jostled and bumped into the dock and other abras in the vicinity several times. These things have no fenders; they’re made of stout wood that’s scratched and worn to death from all the chafing and crashing. The diesel smell, the noise of the engine, the garish lights along the shore were pleasant in the simulacrum of breeze as we moved through the torpid night air.

Across the way to look into the Spice Souk with its cinnamon, cassia, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, mustard, turmeric, dried ginger, big bags of fake saffron, little plastic containers of real saffron, lavender, huge baskets of dried Persian lemons and limes, incense, perfume, pink salt, indigo, rock sugar, thyme water. Every shop selling the same thing. It’s a splendid place.

Outside, walking along the dock where the dhows tie up. Not the floating restaurants shaped like dhows. The dhows that actually sail the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, hauling cargo to and from Iran and Yemen and beyond. Sailors that haul carpets and cashews and herbs a long way under an unforgiving sun with only those funny sky-blue wooden canopies to comfort them, and maybe a cheap AC unit. Guys that might actually meet the Somali pirates we only get to joke about. They park the cargo right on the dock, right by the side of the road — literally tons of cargo of all kinds, you can walk right up and touch it. I was awed by the pink shrink-wrapped boxes of cashews stacked twelve feet high. Never seen so many cashews in my life.

Back onto another abra, another dirham to get across again, to sit at an open-air restaurant hanging right over the Creek. It was built 1935 and it showed. The night air was 90 degrees but we had a fan right on us and plenty of local water. I had a fresh pomegranate juice that was cool and gritty and perfect. My wife and our mate had glasses of bright-green lemon-mint juice. The Lebanese fare — hummus and falafel and fatoush — was humble and satisfying. The Creek is satisfying place.

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