Once upon a time, Dubai was really nothing like it is today. That time was only 15 years ago. There was one tall building, surrounded by all sorts of midgety ones that looked like they were designed in a cardboard box factory. There was nothing you could do except work, return home, have dinner, and then sleep. Every now and then we visited restaurants with the appearance of a dhaba, saying with every slurp of a gola, “This is just like Chowpatty,” and, now that I think about it, not really meaning it.
Things have changed since then. Somebody had enough of this fake Chowpatty business and opened a restaurant called Bombay Chowpatty. A case of the exile’s longing. There was also a Meena Bazaar, a Kamat restaurant – “the same one as in Bombay!” – and some familiar haunts of Pakistan also found their names here. Now there’s a Buddha Bar, renamed “The Bar” after Buddhists protested, in a wholly worldly manner of course.
I love how this city has transformed, but there are few places that I can truly call my own. These are places that still hold on, kicking and screaming, to the past that I remember. There’s the corniche, the promenade that runs along the coast from the massive vegetable market to the stinky fish market and then past the spice market and finally the gold market. A marathon was once held there, and it was a distinctly sticky night. Three minutes after the start it looked like a race for unfit people.
The new Dubai has its cities within the city, but the old Dubai, with its Iranian and Palestinian spice stores, has odors and cheese coloured red, yellow, green, white. A scraggly helper may stop by and ask you to buy “sonfloover zeeds froom Eshipt” and “froom Shina” and “cinmun froom Ceyloon.” In Al Juzoor's natural products people will find on these shelves the answer to nearly all their problems. They have conquered baldness, damaged and oily skin, indigestion, diabetes, and also make bubble gum.
But cheese wasn’t my thing. I just went there because I loved the smells. There were other markets too, and while they lacked the smells, had the atmosphere of Colaba causeway. The textile markets at Meena Bazaar are still occupied by large, cuddly Sindhi seths with mouths stuffed with paan – or something like it, since paan is banned. Close by are the stores of Karama, which would be called fashion street had someone thought of renaming the place.
But quite often, however far I was from it – and in those days you could travel the length of the city in 15 minutes – I would wander over to Automatic Restaurant. Why it is named so, I do not know, and I do not care. They make the finest kebabs in the universe, and serve it with the creamiest hummos imaginable. That’s all that matters eventually.
So it comes down to eating and shopping, two things that Dubai is known for anyway. What’s new? Nothing. No bling, no DKNY, no Big Mac. And that’s precisely why I can’t recommend these places highly enough.