Thursday, January 18, 2001
We started the day with a tour of Jumeirah Mosque, one of the most beautiful mosques in Dubai. Tours are organized under the auspices of a government cultural exchange program. Our tour guide was a national volunteer who had a day job in real estate. His sense of humor spilled through the explanation of his primer on Muslim beliefs, prayer and the mosque. He demonstrated washing and the other rituals that accompany prayer. We were encouraged to photograph anything we wanted and ask whatever questions we wanted. Although his answers seemed straightforward they glossed over some issues, notably the role of women in Muslim/UAE society. Interestingly, the only woman involved in the presentation was from the west, not the UAE.
We had lunch at the Golden Fork restaurant. This one was Philippine, located in the Satwa area of the city. Although excellent in quality and presentation (Bill had a baked fish), the food was less familiar to our palates. This would be a theme throughout our stay. Of course, there are western-style restaurants like Fudruckers and MacDonald’s, but that misses the point of travel, doesn’t it?
Next stop was camel racing at the Nad al Sheba track south of the city. Camel racing is considered one of the most important of traditional sports in the UAE, right up there with falconry. The Nad al Sheba track actually has two small grandstands, one for the long track and one for the short track. They were using the short track when we were there. On the way in there was much evidence of camels moving back and forth between their pens in the dunes and the track. At the grandstand there were no signs, but we were directed to the appropriate section with plain benches for tourists at one end of the stands. In the elegant center section of the stands sat nationals who appeared to be stakeholders in the racing. They had comfortable upholstered chairs and food service. One near us appeared to be sporting an AK47 which Nat said is a fairly typical macho token in Dubai. At the far end of the stands were the ordinary local residents. There were no women except in the tourist stands.
The conduct of each race is a near riot. Camels and their jockeys are lead to a starting line that is gated by a steel cable. There are no starting lanes. Instead, they sprint for position near the inside as they approach the start, pressing against the cable. A few handlers near the inside of the track can remain with their charges but others must get out of the way. Most of the jockeys appear to be young boys, probably Pakistani. There don’t seem to be any child labor laws, but officially the government says that jockeys all weigh at least one hundred pounds. We wondered; many seemed very small and young.
Anyway, the race is started by raising the cable and the mounts surge forward while the handlers run like hell to keep from being trampled. A host of vehicles take off at the same time as the camels. On the outside of the track are a fleet of about ten camera trucks and announcers. Inside the track is another fleet, this one of 4x4s containing a cheering section for each camel in the race. The 4x4s drive wildly, blowing their horns, apparently, to urge their camels on. (We wondered if camels ears are attuned to their owner’s horn.) Even the short track races are long, each one taking about eight and a half minutes. You’d lose sight of them on the back stretch, except for the cloud of dust, so you could only follow them by using the TV monitors. Eventually the cloud would resolve into individual vehicles and camels and they would cross the finish line. By then the next heat of camels was ready to enter the starting area and the whole thing would happen again.
That evening we went down to the Dubai Creek waterfront to tour one the oldest houses in Dubai and to visit the Heritage Center next door. The restored house of Sheik Saeed bin Maktourn al Maktourn dates to 1896 and is set up as a museum. The outside walls of the rooms combine to form a completely closed perimeter with a courtyard inside. The house makes extensive use of wind towers that form a scoops to direct breezes down into the house regardless of the wind direction. While air conditioning is universal in new structures, even they incorporate the towers for additional ventilation or as an architectural theme. The museum rooms contain a large number of photos and small artifacts illustrating life in the good old days. One aerial photo of the town in 1950 shows about 300 mostly small, buildings lining both sides of the Dubai Creek. Things have changed.
The Heritage Center next door featured displays of traditional crafts, housing and arts. Perhaps most interesting were the women making traditional flat Arabic breads over open fires. Of course we had to sample a few. One type was coated with cheese, vinegar & egg. Another was thicker, like a thin pancake, and was coated with honey. They were delicious.