In 2006, Dubai-based photographer Jalal Abuthina took pictures of a mosque in an old neighbourhood of Satwa in an attempt to document those parts of the city that have become overshadowed by high rises.
About 13 years later, Emirati urban history expert and independent researcher Rashed Almulla walked into a New York bookstore, where he stumbled upon a photobook titled Memories of Satwa. Its back cover had a picture of a mosque that looked uncannily similar to the one that his grandfather had built in Dubai’s Sha’biyat Al Shorta neighbourhood in the 1990s.
The Mosque of Reflection (Abudulsalam AlRafi Mosque) — which is now the only remnant of a bustling community that used to inhabit the 600 modest houses in that neighbourhood — is the focal point of Spaces that Remain, an exhibition of photographs by Abuthina, curated by Almulla, which made its debut last year. It has been revived, with new images this year, to summon memories of the “not so long ago” urban history of Dubai.
The new exhibition of 12 images, which is on display until June 2 at the multipurpose art space Bayt AlMamzar, transports viewers to a time between 2007 and 2016. It chronicles the life and slow demolition of the area, to give way to City Walk and the Coca Cola Arena, consciously juxtaposed with real estate development and Burj Khalifa in the background.
“It was serendipitous the way this exhibition came about from a chance find of Jalal’s book in a tiny Middle Eastern section of a used books store miles away from the UAE,” says Almulla. The researcher is also the founder of MABNAI, a Dubai-based non-governmental collective that documents and discusses the growth of cities in the Gulf and the wider Middle East.
“Most Middle Eastern sections have generic books depicting oriental art, Islamic art or belly dancing, and then there was this $5 gem. I was extremely confused and took a picture of the cover. I showed it to my mother when I returned to Dubai just before the pandemic hit in 2020 and she confirmed that it was the mosque that my grandfather had built for that community. Also, the person walking out of the mosque in the picture was him too.”
That was the beginning of Almulla’s search for Abuthina who, by then, had famously produced several photo books as part of his Inside Dubai collection, which are visual documentations of the older districts of city — some fast disappearing — like Sha’biyat Al Shorta, and others overlooked when painting a picture of the emirate.
“Jalal was just archiving Dubai as he saw it but without his pictures, we would have lost Dubai’s very recent urban history and, with it, the memories that citizens like me and even residents who grew up here in the 80s and 90s have of it.”
For that population and Almulla, who grew up in Jumeirah and Satwa with his family, these pictures are nostalgic. They capture Dubai's self-contained neighbourhoods with everyone waking up to the sound of roosters; dusty paths and graffiti adorned alleyways where the children of the households came out to play with sticks and stones every evening; the exchange of pots and pans between neighbours every weekend; the laundromat and grocery staff knowing every resident on the street by their name; and being able to share the exact location of your neighbour’s unnumbered house before Google maps existed.
That’s what got Abuthina, who spent his childhood in Al Garhoud area of the city in the 90s, to start visiting Sha’biyat Al Shorta — one of the many neighbourhoods that he has continued to photograph since returning to the city in 2004, after a few years studying abroad.
“I used to play basketball close to that area and some of my friends lived in Sha’biyat, so I used to pass by to take pictures. At the time, Burj Khalifa was being built and a lot of construction was happening in DIFC and Downtown Dubai, so I thought it was a very interesting contrast between Dubai’s rising future and its humble, quaint past,” says the self-taught Abuthina, who is also a commercial photographer in Dubai.
A moment in time
The exhibition opens with a more recent addition of the Google Earth view of the neighbourhood before demolition. It continues with shots from 2007 where children dash across to the grocery and then moves on to images of residents going about their daily routines, such as going to the mosque or walking to their neighbours'. It continues with those taken in 2012 and 2014 of houses with graffiti numbers sprayed by the municipality for the demolition and cranes towering above the low-rise houses in the distance.
“I did not have plans for these pictures but then a couple of years later, a lot of homes began being marked with graffiti for demolition. These houses were only being given numbers for the demolition and that’s when it became a more conscious decision to keep shooting for documentation,” says Abuthina.
He went every month to take photos during this period, shooting from his car but still able to capture the mood as it shifted. “Over time there was a gradual shrinking of the place and it just kept getting smaller and smaller. You could see that the area was eventually going to disappear.”
The inhabitants of Sha’biyat Al Shorta, mainly employees of Dubai Police and the Central Command Army — where Burj Khalifa currently stands — were given one-floor houses by the government, which kept constructing in that neighbourhood until the 1990s. At the time, Almulla’s grandfather stepped in to build a bigger mosque for the growing community at the request of the Dubai Police. After the demolition, Almulla says they were rehomed in different parts of Dubai and the other emirates based on their employment and residency status.
Almulla sees this exhibition, which is accompanied by an extensive programme of talks on the future of Gulf housing until May 27, as one of the many initiatives by the cultural and artistic community to preserve Old Dubai.
“There are many independent grassroots movements that have been tapping into these parts of Dubai to keep them alive and show a side of the city that is integral to its narrative,” says Almulla.
Bayt AlMamzar, where the exhibition is being held, is an Emirati home from 1983 that has been repurposed into a multi-use arts and cultural space. Other initiatives include Goodbye Old Jumeirah, an anonymous Instagram page dedicated to documenting and archiving the demolition and abandonment of traditional homes in Jumeirah. The Sikka Art and Design Festival is yet another effort under the Dubai Art Season umbrella that puts the Al Fahidi Historical Neighbourhood in the spotlight with a range of immersive activities to attract residents and tourists every year.
Abuthina says he was inspired to start documenting these areas of Dubai by the desire to give the public an artist’s representation of the city, and that he hopes that they will continues to serve as talking points on local culture and urbanisation.
“When I was a tour guide taking people to Old Dubai, they’d always ask me for photo book recommendations of these areas and I could never suggest anything that did justice to them,” he says. “Most of the books have the earlier years of Dubai and the contemporary ones are mainly about the current architecture and hotels. With Inside Dubai and these exhibitions, I’m trying to move away from the highlight reel of Dubai and capture the vibe and life of these neighbourhoods.
“I understand that gentrification is part of urban development and evolution, but I’d like to continue seeing an effort at transforming some of these buildings that have a history into museums, as an ode to the neighbourhoods.”
The Spaces that Remain is on at Bayt AlMamzar, Dubai, until June 2. More information is available at www.mabnai.com