Two new guide books take it upon themselves to reveal the hidden charms of Dubai, a city routinely dismissed by travel writers as artificial, crass and devoid of character. It seems both books (Uncommon Dubai, edited by Hind Shoufani, and Soul of Dubai, sponsored by the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority) have their work cut out for them. After all, the churn of ready-made write-ups about Dubai is thoroughly entrenched. Not long ago, it inspired a widely circulated riposte from Conor Purcell, founder of the excellent We Are Here Magazine, on How to Write About Dubai, which contained the following instructions: "Always use the word iconic in the opening paragraph. Other words to mention are ‘gold,’ ‘silver,’ ‘shifting sands,’ ‘timeless,’ ‘credit crunch,’ ‘richer neighbour Abu Dhabi’ and ‘gleaming airport’. In fact it is imperative to start any feature about Dubai by mentioning the airport. Some writers never leave the airport yet still manage to produce well-rounded articles."
But a new breed of locally produced guide books is emerging, partly in response to incessant one-dimensional portrayals, partly as a result of a revival in the city's cultural and intellectual life. Their message to the world: forget everything you've heard about Dubai and look at the city through the eyes of its inhabitants.
On a recent trip to Kinokuniya, this cover caught my eye and a brief look inside confirmed that I had stumbled upon something special. A beautifully turned out little hardback brimming with the intimate, random and reflective kind of musings usually reserved for diaries, blogs and late-night conversations. Editor Hind Shoufani has succeeded in rallying an eclectic bunch of contributors – locals and expats – whose words, photos and designs illuminate some of the less commonly known or appreciated facets of Dubai's kaleidoscopic urban identity. Problematic aspects of the same are not highlighted, but critical self-reflection is not the point of any city guide, is it?
Apart from the list of highly knowledgeable and talented contributors, the book is full of thoughtful details and atmospheric imagery. The layout is pared down and uncluttered - words and pictures have space to breathe. Here are the rather lovely openers for the book's four parts: Relate, Review, Recreate, Reroute.
Contributors include: Lamya Gargash (whose photo is on the cover), Balazs Gardi, Robert Ferry, Austyn Allison, Jamal Iqbal, Huda Smitshuijzen Abifares, Rewa Zeinati, Jalal Abuthina, John Zada, Frank Dullaghan, Fiona Patterson, Richard Allenby-Pratt, Amina Abdel-Halim, Basile Mookherjee, Denise Holloway, Diya Ajit, Jon Banrhorpe, Eliot Beer, Hind Mezaina, Aziza Iqbal, Paul Castle, Agri Ismail, Layla Maghribi, Dianna Lorch, Hajer Almosleh, Ali Taheri, Lafi, John Zajicek, Rewa Zeinati.
Hardback, 128 pages, Dh 190 at Kinokuniya or Uncommon Guidebooks.
Soul of Dubai was released by the Dubai Culture & Arts Authority earlier this week. The aim here is to show "a more personal side of Dubai" and the whole book is driven by a slightly hipsterish quest to guide visitor's gaze beyond the obvious. Although it also taps into Dubai's idiosyncrasies, this is much more akin to a classic guidebook than Uncommon Dubai, as it includes maps, listings and information about more traditional tourist haunts. So alongside bits about heritage areas, desert safaris and the like, Soul of Dubai also features shabby-chic eateries such as Bu Qtair and Masgouf Al Iraqi, as well as insider shopping tips in lesser known areas such as Satwa and Bur Dubai. All very useful and pretty to look at, thanks to a clear navigation, vivid design and well-chosen photography (#MyDubai).
The book also features a number of Q&As with locally based cultural figures, artists and writers, including Abdulmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, developer of Alserkal Avenue, Dr Rafia Obaid Ghubash, Founder of the Dubai Women's Museum, and Isobel Abulhoul OBE, director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, co-founder of the Magrudy’s bookshop chain and founder of the Jerboa publishing house.
There is much to like here and although Soul of Dubai is a state-sponsored project, it is clearly a labour of love by a team of people who really know and care about Dubai. And the images are irresistible, often with an eye for beauty in unexpected places - here is a little taster:
Full list of interviewees: Abdulmonem Bin Eisa Alserkal, Jill Hoyle, Mouza Al Abbar, Zayan Ghandour, Mohamed Parham Al Awadhi, Dr Rafia Obaid Ghubash, Isobel Abulhoul OBE, Hind Mezaina, Muna Harib, Nojoud Bastaki, Danielle Simpson
Booklet or PDF download, 51 pages, free download available here.
It is always refreshing to see new perspectives on a much-hyped, much-maligned city such as Dubai. Both these books are products of a new generation of creatives and intellectuals in the UAE, as well as of a new sensibility for Dubai's potential to emerge, after all, as a 'real' city - which of course means different things to different people. But that is another blog post.