A Journey into the Young and Old Dubai(s)

*We asked our friend Chelsea the other day if she would be interested in writing a guest post for us.  She is an amazing photographer and we are so happy that she chose to share her experiences and photos of her recent trip to Dubai.  Head on over to Chelsea’s blog after this to read on about her life as an expat in Rome*


I’m not sure how to gauge distance from the air, but I feel certain I first saw Dubai from some several hundred miles away. The hosts had begun circulating, waking me up from my comfy slumber stretched out across an entire row of seats. While they ensured that seat backs and folding trays were in their full upright position, I fastened my seatbelt and pressed my drowsy face against the window. An asymmetrical string of lights seemed suspended above the city. I tilted my head back and forth, wondering if it was a trick of the light.


I’d first heard of Dubai when I was still living in the US. People would whisper about the construction of the Burj Khalifa as if it were the end of the world. “Is this the start of a new cold war?!” “Didn’t someone once compare it to the Tower of Babel?” Something in the American consciousness fears the day in which we can no longer lay claim to the biggest and best.

Suz and I being awkwardly adorable at the Museum of Dubai.
Suz and I being awkwardly adorable at the Museum of Dubai.


I landed in Dubai with all the joy that comes from an airport embrace with a good friend you haven’t seen in a long time. In this case, my friend Suz, who I met working in our university‘s media lab, a fellow photographer and spectacular video-maker. Though seeing her was the highlight of my trip, she’d also promised me the best kind of fun you can only have with someone else who appreciates the glory of a good shot – she’d already been planning locations that she knew I’d like to photograph.


Downtown Dubai

Downtown Dubai looks like a mirage, mirrored teal buildings grasping at the sky. There were moments that I felt I’d stumbled across the world’s first settlement on Mars, a utopian vision still under construction. In Dubai there are none of the signs of decay, discontent, that mar the visage of older cities, no homelessness, graffiti, or even garbage – nothing to smudge the city’s shiny image.


Downtown Dubai as seen by my phone from a moving car on the highway.
Downtown Dubai as seen by my phone from a moving car on the highway.


In almost every building, the air conditioning hits you like a wall when you enter. It felt like the walk-in freezer where we kept towers of burger patties at the McDonalds where I worked at age 16. Inside the shopping malls, Suz and I floated over lethargic sharks in a glass-bottomed boat at the Dubai Aquarium, and peeked into the mind-blowing weird that is Ski Dubai. Even though I knew it was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (and sandy) outside, it still felt like I was inside a ski lodge peering out at a winter wonderland. We also explored the area surrounding the towering Burj Khalifa beside the world’s largest choreographed fountains.


The tallest building in the world as seen from the Souk al Bahar.
The tallest building in the world as seen from the Souk al Bahar.


Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

We arrived at the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi as the last rays of sunshine bathed its 80 enormous domes, which squat in the sky like symmetrical clouds. The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is large enough to hold 40,000 people for worship, has four minarets, and a 180,000 square foot courtyard. The structure takes inspiration from the wide range of Islamic art and architecture worldwide. As we wandered, we were sweating excessively in the thick polyester abayas loaned us by the mosque. The sound of birds fillED the air, though there wasn’t a single feathered creature to be seen. Flowers seemed to creep everywhere inside, etched onto the surface with carvings and paintings.




Old Dubai

In search of the lesser-known Dubai, what Suz termed “old stuff”, the taxi dropped us off in front of a row of rickety-looking boats on the edge of the river. While Suz negotiated with the boatmen I wiped steam off of my sunglasses. After deciding that the costly and precarious boat trip wasn’t for us, we explored the old covered Souq, where man after man tried to entice us with placations that their identical camel statues, sheikh bobble-heads, and woman-wearing-abaya lighters were somehow better than those in other shops. Suz led in the negotiations, demanding “cheap stuff” from the men, one of whom misunderstood her demand to be “chips” and arranged for us to be brought french fries from some unknown nearby shop.




After the Souq was the Dubai Museum, located in the Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in Dubai, built in 1787. The small museum provides a glimpse into life when Dubai was a village, before the discovery of oil in the sixties, when most money came from the difficult and dangerous work of pearl diving. In the museum you can see pearling boats, traditional homes (complete with a sort of early A/C – a tower made with burlap sacks to funnel wind inside), musical instruments and weaponry. The highlight, though, was the video which showed the evolution (and scale of construction) of Dubai up until the modern day.


Jazirat al-Hamra Ghost Town

We spent my last day in Dubai exploring the Jazirat al-Hamra Ghost Town near Ras al-Khamah, once a bustling epicenter of seaside trade. Under the blazing heat of the sun, we scrambled over collapsed adobe walls filled with coral and seashells. The white rock crumbled on our black clothes, leaving white streaks.




All abandoned places seem to have two stories – one, the believable, practical, and two, the far more interesting. Some say the locals left in search of better economic opportunities, others after a disagreement with the rulers in Ras al-Khaimah. However, the more interesting claim is that the city is haunted by Jinni. The “genies” of the western world originate from stories of these supernatural creatures in Islamic mythology, though they don’t have much in common. Though Jazirat al-Hamra is best known as a ghost town, it’s also one of the best examples of an untouched, un-reconstructed traditional city in the area, its squat brown walls a far cry from Downtown Dubai’s azure skyscrapers and the snow white domes of the Grand Mosque.


The old and the new

Dubai is a fascinating city, a blend of young and old cultures. Emiratis wearing traditional clothing wander western-style shopping malls, where women wearing abayas carry the hot pink bags of Victoria’s Secret. The city’s many inhabitants, coming from cities across the world, speak mainly English in shops and out with friends. One of my favorite parts of my trip was the Punch Poetry Night at Book Munch, where people delivered poems about their love lives and wars ravaging their home countries.




Like any, this city has its dark side. Restrictions on free press and speech, and the human rights violations of immigrant workers are well documented.  Dubai has a tendency towards building shiny new buildings, or covering up cracks with restoration, which gives it an air of the artificial, the “inauthentic”. But Dubai is not only the blend of old and young cultures, a mixture of history and modernity, it’s the start of something new. What that will be remains to be seen in the years to come.



Chelsea Graham works in communications and advocacy by day, and runs her blog, the Unofficial Guide to Rome by night. She has a degree in sociology from the London School of Economics and likes metal music, lifting heavy weights, cult TV, and photography.

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