The heart-rending azaan (call to prayer) from several mosques forming a perfect harmony of quarter-tones, the glides and tremolos seemed to stir the soul and shatter the overpowering kaleidoscope of glass and concrete leitmotif of one of the rapidly-advancing cities. A brand new Hummer dropped me at a grand, old mosque, passing by a marina lined with million-dollar yachts; swank BMWs and Ferraris zoomed down the road illuminated by high-end glitter on both sides—the transition was overwhelming.
The exhilarating fragrance of the oud perfume spread with the warm and dry desert breeze, as a group of bearded billionaires, in sparkling white robes, entered. Performing wudu (ablutions) with fresh, chilled water offered relief from the scorching sun as did the cool and tranquil environs of the mosque. Settling on the intricately-designed carpet with an old friend and native, the earth-shaking eloquence of the Arabic Friday sermon made spirits rise beyond the galaxies after which the congregation rose in prayer. “Ista'oo, aqeemu sufoofakum a'atadiloo” (straighten your rows, stand with your shoulders close to each other, leave no gaps) prophetically signalled the imam; a sense of brotherhood enveloped the mosque, humbling the heart in devotion.
As Dubai makes a supersonic dash into the next century, stunning the globe with its futuristic malls, plush luxury hotels, world-class fine dining outlets and dazzle of gold, there lies, beyond its Midas touch, a world of endearing traditions, hospitality and faith. Dubai is best described as an intriguing Rubik's Cube of contrasts, a tango of traditions and modernism.
At the Bedouin's behest
“Anallazee nazar al a'maa ila adabi, wa asma'at kalimaati man bihi samamu!” (I am the one who causes the blind to see, and the deaf to hear through my poetry) growled Abdallah, an affable septuagenarian Bedouin, reciting his favourite couplet by the legendary Arab poet of all times, Abu Tayyib al Mutanabbi, remembered for his audacity and bashful style. As I made myself at home in his old mud cottage at Dubai's Bedouin Heritage Village, the typical interiors radiated a sense of warmth with beautifully designed yet simple cushions, ornate lanterns hanging from the low ceiling and a shisha (hookah) belonging to his grandfather meticulously preserved and on display.
Sharing tangy qahqah (coffee) and mouth-melting homemade goodies, Abdallah tried his best to speak in classical Arabic, so his guest could follow despite his rustic Emirati flavour getting the better of his speech! “Indians and Emiratis have been trading partners since centuries. Dubai was nothing but a tiny port at that time, can you believe that?” he smiles nostalgically, adding that he could hardly recognise the town in which he grew up with ‘modern monstrosities' all over. True to the celebrated Arab hospitality, Abdallah prepared a vegetarian Arabic meal for me, and after saying grace—‘Bismillahi wa alaa barakatillah' (In the name of God, and with his blessing)—a symphony of tastes and tunes unfolded with the grand old Bedouin singing soulful folk numbers accompanied by an exquisitely designed single-stringed rababah. The earthy, unpretentious melodies and the robust strains of the rababah were truly the call of the desert-farer's soul, a longing for peace and inner solace in the midst of a difficult, often hostile, environment, where miles and miles of sand and the burning sun above leaves you with nothing but a prayer that serenades the eternal giver of salvation.
Rendezvous with history
A visit to the Dubai Museum unravels the city's past and its various stages of evolution, from being a tiny port village to one of the advanced cities, that could make any of its western counterpart look like a chapter in a history book.
Built in 1787 in the historic Al Fahidi Fort, the city's oldest building houses life-like modelled recreations depicting early Arab life, Bedouin craftsmen, pearl divers and traders, jewellery and handicrafts, the old port and the history of trade with India and Africa, a creek-side souq (market) and realistic videos of craftsmen at work with sound and visual effects.
Arish, a traditional summer house (weaved from palm fronds with a wind tower), a central courtyard with traditional boats and the gift shop complete the museum's historic sojourn.
Sun and sand
A desert safari, strictly for those with intestines made of steel, is a head-spinning treat as a Landrover ‘dune-bashes' its way through the orangish, muddy expanse to arrive at the base camp for some delicious Arabic cuisine; a sensuous belly dancer and a mind-boggling Egyptian Whirling Dervish leave the audiences spell-bound with their colourful robes and ecstatic circling, accompanied by hypnotic music.
Dubai is famous for its old Arabic dhows that continue to gently sail in the waters, ferrying tourists to and fro. The sight of one of them cruising by, with a newly-constructed glass skyscraper in the background, truly describes modern Dubai. The cruise unfolds a panorama of the city along the shores of the creek, sailing past, both, plush office buildings as well as traditional barjeels (wind towers).
Pluralism par excellence
An interesting aspect of Dubai is its multiculturalism, with people from diverse cultural and linguistic background and religious persuasions thriving in the commercial capital of the UAE.
Operating under the banner ‘Open Doors, Open Minds', The Sheikh Muhammad Center for Cultural Understanding strives to promote peace and better understanding among people of varied faiths and cultures within the UAE, welcoming guests from the world over at the sprawling Jumeirah Mosque. Two British ladies explained the fundamentals of Islam and the underlying pluralism in the teachings of the Quran. Greeting us with “As-salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakaatuh” (May peace be upon you, and the mercy of God and His bounties), they narrated several interesting hadith (saying) and instances from the life of Prophet Muhammad—on how love, tolerance and respect for human life play a pivotal role in Islam.
Islam is inherently pluralistic, of which Dubai is a fine example, with temples, churches and gurudwaras among other houses of worship, where people of different faiths and nationalities flourish in the spirit of unity.