Sunday, 21 July 2013

My favourite things in the UAE: a bittersweet blog

About four months ago I started photographing some of my favourite things in the Dubai, and neighbouring areas, where I’ve lived for the past eight years. I took snapshots of locally available food items, unique restaurants and cultural and social spaces that have become dear to me over the years and, in the end, have made this place feel like home. I planned to compile the photos into a blog, along with a short description of each of my choices, to give others a glimpse into some of the valuable little discoveries that have enlivened my daily experience living in the UAE.

I didn’t realise when I started the creative process that by the time I actually got around to putting this blog together, I would be less than 10 days away from leaving Dubai indefinitely. This project ended up being more for me than anyone else – a way of capturing some of the fleeting colours and flavours of my daily life that are easy to take for granted, but that I will miss dearly when I move away early next month.

The key reason it took me so long to write the blog, or any other for that matter, is that I’ve been channelling my energy and free time since late March into building my first-ever scrapbook. A dear colleague of mine left me with a book full of empty cardboard-coloured sheets before she moved to London in the spring, and suggested I make a scrapbook of my time in Dubai. An arts-and-crafts novice, I looked at the 60-odd blank pages with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and great enthusiasm. My mind started to whirl at random with the treasure chest of memories I could include in this book.


There were literally thousands of photos I’d taken over the years languishing in dormant files on my laptop and external hard drive, lost in an abyss of electronic memory, never to be printed or revisited. I immediately started sifting through the dozens of photo files to piece together a somewhat chronological tapestry of the past eight years. It was a daunting task. I must have visited the Digi Photo studio in Dubai Mall about 10 times and printed more than 250 photographs. Along with printed e-mails, letters, greeting cards and notes, business cards, tickets, logos, maps and other trinkets I’ve collected over the years, these pictures have since filled my Dubai scrapbook to the brim with a whirlwind of documented moments.

When I started my scrapbook in late March, I had no idea that within a month, I would also be planning a move to London to pursue a sudden opportunity within my company. The scrapbook I had started suddenly became much more meaningful and urgent. I endeavoured to complete it before I left, as a way of expressing gratitude and appreciation to the people, places and precious moments that have fundamentally moved me over the years. It’s now more than 90 percent complete, with just a couple of blank pages remaining to fill with those final moments that will round off this momentous chapter of my life.

Creating this book has been a labour of love that I’ve worked on quite obsessively in recent months, very often spending hours sitting with scissors, coloured paper, and double-sided tape as I diligently pieced together themed pages in a somewhat chronological order. As I flip through its pages now, my Dubai scrapbook provides an overview of the (four) jobs I’ve had since I moved to this city, the many colleagues I worked with, the business and leisure trips that I took, the precious friends I’ve made and the series of unforgettable experiences that will remain with me for years to come.


During the process of searching for material, I stumbled upon a letter I had written to God on my flight from Canada to Dubai in July 2005. I hadn’t seen that letter in almost eight years and I realised, quite miraculously, as I read the words that every wish and hope I had jotted down on that one-way trip, had since come true. That note is now tucked away in the front sleeve in my scrapbook, and serves as an unassuming introduction to the rich anthology of experiences that followed. I also dedicated a few pages to my late father, God bless his soul, who passed away three years ago, including a letter I wrote him after he passed away. His e-mails to me during my early years in Dubai, when he lived across the world in Vancouver, Canada, are dispersed throughout the book.

Now that my scrapbook project is near completion, and before I leave what has become a dear home for a new adventure in London, I thought I would finally take the time to share some of my favourite things in the UAE. I will hopefully have more time very soon to start writing about my evolving spiritual journey after a hiatus of many months. Sometimes along that journey it’s better to absorb and reflect than to emit.

15 of my favourite things in the UAE:

1) Marmum yogurt
I absolutely adore yogurt and one of my favourite things about Dubai is that it locally produces the best yogurt I have ever had. Hands down. I tried virtually every type of yogurt when I first moved to Dubai and Marmum was the clear winner very early on, boasting the perfect creamy consistency that I adore. It is especially good when combined with some honey and Muesli. I introduced Marmum yogurt to one of my closest friends a few years ago. Shortly afterward she admitted to buying giant tubs of the stuff and eating it like ice cream. I will definitely be missing that almost-daily dose of my favourite yogurt.


2) Modern Bakery
While we’re on the subject of food, I come to another of my favourite grocery-store picks. Living in the Middle East means that you will eat a good deal of pita bread and, after a process of trial and error, I always choose Modern Bakery variety brown and white pita loaves. The flavour is SO much better than all of the others, which tend to be too sweet an aftertaste for my palette. (The exception being the Carrefour bakery’s fresh, white pita bread, which is also amazingly good) A large brown Modern Bakery pita, heated on the stove top and eaten with the Al Marai variety of white cheese (in the blue package) and some black Syrian olives (from Union Coop) is a real treat.

3) Zabeel Park
Let’s take a (short) break from food and visit Zabeel Park. Long before the Dubai metro, this park in Bur Dubai offered one of the only bridges that enabled pedestrians to cross a busy Dubai highway. I often visited Zabeel for walks when I lived in Bur Dubai between 2005 and 2009, and enjoyed walking across the pedestrian bridge that connects to two sides of the park separated by the Sheikh Rashid highway. Since I hadn’t been to Zabeel in a few years, I went last week to capture a photo of the bridge, which proved to be an arduous task, particularly at 2 p.m. in mid-July. I admit it wasn’t as romantic as I remembered it. My sister and I were literally drenched in sweat and panting from (and cursing) the suffocating heat by the time we crossed it, and only managed to gather up enough energy for the return trip due to a miraculously cool breeze, some “accidental” walks into sprinklers, and a pretty tree with gorgeous white flowers.


4) Mosque-shopping
I did a lot of “window-shopping” for a mosque before I found one that I absolutely love to visit weekly for Friday prayer. It's called the Galadari mosque, located along beach road in Jumeirah, not far from the Jumeirah Beach Park. The women’s prayer areas in too many Islamic places of worship in the UAE seem to have been a complete architectural afterthought – too small and claustrophobic for us to find any spiritual comfort. Many of the imams can also be excessively loud and aggressive, making it stressful to sit through Friday sermons. So, I was quite relieved to stumble upon this lovely mosque in Jumeirah about two years ago. The women’s prayer area is large, and has a lovely mashrabiya overlooking the gorgeous lower prayer space. The imam’s voice is melodic, always leaving me feeling comfortable and happy. I will immensely miss my weekly visits.


5) Bangkok Town
Okay, time to get back to food. One of my closest friends introduced me to Thai food at the Blue Elephant in the Bustan Rotana in 2007, and ever since it has been my favourite cuisine. I’ve tried many Thai restaurants over the years and my favourite, by far, is Bangkok Town. The food and ambience are fantastic, and the chicken green curry, mango salad and Tom Yum soups are absolutely heavenly. No meal is complete without a relaxing cup of green tea and a bowl of Tab Tim Grob, an icy dessert combining sweet coconut milk, water chestnuts and jellies. This level of quality cuisine isn’t available in Dubai--you have to head down to the Sharjah Corniche to satisfy your taste buds.


6) Sino Chai
Dubai also has some great cuisine, although for the best you need to seek out the nooks and crannies of Karama, Deira and Satwa (plus Dubai Mall has the city's best burgers at Ribs and Rumps). My favourite restaurant in Dubai is situated in the Healthcare City of all places – a lovely Taiwanese teahouse that offers a delectable menu of carefully prepared dishes, including outstanding spring onion pancakes, tofu cubes, sweet and sour fish, pineapple prawns, a variety of beef, chicken and tofu dishes, all served with germinated brown rice. For dessert, the black sesame ice cream is light and delicious. There’s even an entire separate menu for cold and hot teas. My personal favourite is the glass pot of hot black tea served with milk and tapioca bulbs. For those of you who can’t fathom driving to the Healthcare City for dinner, Sino Chai will be relocating near Dubai Mall before the end of the year.

7) Roof-top pool
After consuming all those calories, it’s time for some exercise, and one of my favourite pastimes in recent years has been swimming in my rooftop pool. I love to swim, but I don’t like many people to be around when I do. Luckily for me, barely anyone visits the 40th-floor pool in my building after sunset, so I can do my laps in peace, and the exquisite view of the Burj Khalifa isn’t so bad either.

8) Majaz
Speaking of exercise, something else that I love to do is walk. Dubai is unfortunately not the most pedestrian-friendly city, aside from the malls, and who wants to walk in a mall? I admit to absolutely hating the Dubai Marina, which I rarely visit unless it’s to meet a friend (and it must be a very dear friend). What I do love is the Sharjah Corniche, which offers a good balance of coffee shops and restaurants at Majaz, situated alongside spacious sidewalks that stretch across the length of the lake. I’m a big fan of Sharjah, as you’ve probably deduced. Dubai residents tend to chide the neighbouring emirate, but as a result miss out on some amazing museums, and delicious food options, including Iraqi masghouf-style fish, fabulous Pakistani, and scrumptious Ethiopian.


9) Ice cream
The best ice cream I have ever had is at a mom-and-pop shop in Sharjah called Bouza. There are two branches in the city and they’re always bustling with regular customers stopping by for a cup of freshly blended ice cream in a variety of fruit and nut flavours. This little shop is a child’s dream come true. There are about 12 flavours to choose from, all made fresh daily, and if you want to try all 12 in one five-dirham cup or cone, you can! My personal favourites are the melon, lemon, guava, pistachio and almond. The special rosewater flavour they had there earlier this month was also quite heavenly. Who am I kidding, ALL the flavours are amazing.

10) Mamzar
My favourite park in Dubai is Mamzar Park, located at the edge of Deira, across from Sharjah. This park offers a gorgeous combination of beaches and greenery, and something I LOVE, but didn’t get a photo of, are the swings. I can literally swing for hours.



11) Love birds
Time to stop at home again because I really enjoy spending time in my apartment. Being from beautiful Vancouver, Canada, I’m used to being surrounded by gorgeous vegetation, birds, bees and squirrels and other wildlife. Don’t have much of that in the 40-storey, highway-facing concrete slab that is my home. But there’s always a way to bring a little of God’s gorgeous nature your way – especially with the help of some bird seed. I now have many daily visitors outside my kitchen window and I’m praying they’ll find someone new to keep them nourished when I move.


12) Housing developments named after you
Only in Dubai could I have an entire housing development named after me – quite literally. It’s on the Palm Jumeirah, an artificial island shaped like the frond of a palm tree and visible from space. One of the residential neighbourhoods situated on the outer edge of the palm, just past the tunnel near the Atlantis hotel, is called Al Merziban, named after a variety of sweet date that’s apparently native to the UAE. Beat that!



13) The desert
The deserts around the UAE and Oman are just glorious, not least for the diverse shades of sand that can be found. Instead of speaking about the deserts, I’ll spend a moment recounting an art installation that I saw earlier this year at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation called Rihla, or Journey. Elvira Wersche, a German artist, went across the world and collected dozens of samples of sand. She laid these multi-coloured sands down on the floor separately in fantastic Islamic geometric shapes. At the end of the installation, all the sands are mixed together into one greyish combination and given away – a reminder, for me, of the oneness of all of the world’s richly diverse communities.


14) Museums
While we’re on the subject of cultural activities, museum hopping is also possible in the UAE, believe it or not. But you have to be willing to take a bit of a drive. One of my favourite spots is Arabia’s Wildlife Centre, petting zoo and the Natural History and Botanical Museum located on Al Dhaid Road, past the Sharjah Airport in the direction of Fujairah. Really worth a visit, even if you don’t have children. Sharjah has about 16 museums to choose from.


15) Date Trees
While strolling through Jumeirah with my mom about six months ago, she stopped suddenly in front of a date tree and admired it for a few moments. Looking at the tree reminded her of her childhood in Egypt and how it differed vastly from her adult years in North America. After living in various Canadian cities for more than a decade, she recalled moving to California in the early 1990s and how the sight of palm trees brought her immense joy because they reminded her of the Middle East. Speaking to the date tree in front of us, she said in Arabic: "I didn't know you were my love until I lived far away from you.”

I am almost certain I will feel the same way very soon.

4 comments:

  1. I grew up in Al Ain and your post struck a chord with me, especially your mother's beautiful comment about date palms.

    If you'll allow me to add to your list, I'd probably include the refreshing Red Orange Juice (available in supermarket aisles everywhere in the UAE but which I've never had anywhere in North America); Al-Mallah and their epic fruit cocktail; walking home from the mosque after Fajr in the cool morning air; the buffet at Barbeque Tonight - amazing Pakistani food; Indian street food at Bombay Chowpatty; mothers sitting in the pediatrician's office, reading the Quran, as they wait their turn.

    Good luck on this new chapter of your life!

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  2. Thank you so much for these lovely reflections! You're right about that red orange juice, Barbeque Delights, the early-morning prayers! I had to limit myself to 15, thought 50 favourite things may be pushing it haha. All the best, God bless you!! :)

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  3. Dubai dune Buggy one of the great place where you can enjoy.

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  4. one of the best place where you can enjoy with your friends and family desert safari Dubai..

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