Breathing Life into Bastakiya and the History of Dubai

Tucked away in the southern shore of Dubai Creek lies Bastakiya, one of the most fascinating districts in the Arabian Gulf. Not only is this area one of the most aesthetically pleasing in the region, it is also one of the most symbolic.

Not long after the Al Maktoum family laid the foundation of modern Dubai in 1833, a significant process of evolution began in the region. Commerce flourished as a result of the tax-free trading and as well as a new culture of tolerance. This new culture was manifested in the migrants from Persia and across the region who were allowed to reside and build homes in Bastakiya, within a few score metres of the Al Fahidi Fort, which then served as the home of the Rulers of Dubai.

Legend has it that the area was slated for massive redevelopment and that it was Prince Charles of Britain, known for his appreciation of Islamic architecture, who during an official visit advised that the then-dilapidated old structures were too important to be demolished. Not too long after, Dubai Municipality launched a massive conservation programme under the supervision of the capable and qualified Emirati architect Rashad Bukhash. In 2001, he was appointed as the head of the Historical Buildings Section in the municipality and oversaw the restoration of more than 50 buildings as well as designed several museums within a short space of time. In fact, it was a very personal endeavour for the architect whose own ancestral home fell victim to the rapid redevelopment that the UAE was witnessing.

Nowhere else in the Gulf is there such a diversity of architecture inspired by Arab Hijazi masharbiyas, Levantine decorations, North African courtyards and interior Arabian Peninsula windows as well as Islamic calligraphy, Persian Barjeels, and East African and Indian motifs - all within a short walking distance of each other.

Because of this diversity, this unique area, which encompasses the Dubai Museum at Al Fahidi Fort, Bastakiya and Shindagha, should be redesignated as the Dubai Museum District. There one can take a journey through several centuries and be inspired by the numerous cultures that have shaped this great city.

On a recent visit to the kingdom of Bahrain, I was given a special tour of the historic area of Muharraq island and the Souq district. The narrow alleyways and mud and coral houses reminded me very much of home and of how the cultures and peoples of the Gulf are connected.

What sets Muharraq's historic quarter apart is something altogether different - the actual permanent residents. It isn't only tourists and short-term visitors who can be seen on the streets, but the urban life found in any traditional Arabian town. While I was there, a group of children were playing, while others had just returned from the children's library; old women in abayas walked to and fro, visiting their neighbours. A cultural centre houses a theatre for 330 people. An emporium of traditional textiles and an art cafe add to the splendour. A water garden has been built into the landscape where a small house once stood.

The roads aren't perfectly kept and the flowers aren't perfectly trimmed, but they are authentic. What made another substantial difference was the smell of Gulf Arab food emanating from the kitchens of the houses that were attached to the small converted museums.

Then it hit me: because families inhabit this area side by side with the cultural centres, it has become a living, breathing testimony to the country. This is what is missing in Bastakiya to make the magic complete.

One idea that could be studied is allocating housing to low-income Emiratis from the surrounding area, where so many consulates are being built. There could be certain criteria, such as giving preference to families that have children who will register in after school educational centres that could be established in the district.

There are many houses that have been magnificently restored to their former glory that are now standing empty, so I also propose that one or two dozen of these houses be converted into museums to display the private art collections of Dubai and UAE-based patrons of the arts. In that spirit, one building could be selected to house a permanent display of Arabic and Islamic calligraphy, another could be designated for photography, a third for modern design concepts, etc.

And because Bastakiya is so culturally diverse, we could invite non-Emirati art patrons to display long-term loan collections of Persian, African, Asian and western art in converted houses as long as the integrity of the structures was maintained. It need not be too many pieces - keep in mind, these houses are no more than 200 square metres, but it would be a case of quality superseding quantity.

By itself, one such converted house might not be enough of an attraction for people to brave the Bur Dubai traffic. But with a dozen or more permanent art displays, a few local families living nearby and the opening of the adjacent Metro stations in Burjuman and Musalla, Bastakiya could be transformed into an art destination unrivalled in the region. And it could continue to serve, as it always has, as a testimony to the ambition, diversity and culture of Dubai.

*This article first appeared in The National on Sunday 7 March 2010