Experiencing the real Dubai: a new guide that goes beyond the glitz and glamour

Launching this week, Uncommon Guide: Dubai is a treasure trove of personalised information, images, memories and tips put together by Dubai residents looking to welcome travellers to their beloved city.

A photo from Uncommon: Dubai. Courtesy Mohamad Badr

Always on the lookout for lesser-known areas in the city, the Dubai-based Dora Bouhara is also keen to hear long-time residents talk about their travels.

When she moved to the Emirates two years ago, the Algerian-born Bouhara felt there was an opportunity to develop a more personal narrative guide about life in Dubai, much like the one her friends Emma Mattei and Jon Banthorpe published for Malta and Gozo under the title Uncommon Guide Books in 2011. Bouhara, who is also the managing editor of this international, London-based project, started working on a Dubai edition in September last year; it will be part of a series of new guidebooks to be released this year.

A different perspective

The 225-page hardcover coffee-table book, which features anecdotes and images by 30 writers, filmmakers, artists and photographers from Dubai, will be launched during Art Dubai this week.

“Emma, the executive editor, and the art director Jon started this in Malta because they were tired of all the dry guidebooks written about their island,” says Bouhara, introducing the core team of Uncommon. “There is more to a place than the publicised locales, and so they decided to bring intellectuals, writers and artists to contribute to a book that depicts the other side of town.”

The book was well received and they decided to expand the grassroots project to other parts of the world.

“When I moved here,” says Bouhara, “we kept in touch and thought let’s make a series to promote Arab cities. Dubai made a good first choice.”

Mattei says the project is about challenging the cliché and doing away with oversimplified images of a place.

“It stems from passion and a desire to move away from the rigidity and predicability of mainstream media and publishing,” says the Maltese journalist.

Dubai’s other side

The Dubai-based Palestinian poet and filmmaker Hind Shoufani was commissioned to find contributors and edit the material into four sections: Relate, Review, Recreate and Reroute.

“I haven’t seen a collaboration like this in the UAE,” says Shoufani.

“It is an untraditional guidebook to the a city and basically tells stories of particular spots, tales about carpets, the old Hard Rock Cafe, graffiti, dhows, food and walks through the souq. It is a quirky combination of things.”

Shoufani says it is also devoid of the glitz and glamour that Dubai is associated with. “No hotels or overhyped bars. These are intimate literary writings of people of the city.”

The Relate section contains stories from residents about their memories of the city, along with images of historical monuments.

Review features a series of photographs and text by creative individuals in the city.

Contributors to the Recreate section share their downtime moments with readers, while Reroute offers notes about culturally vibrant localities, artistic outlets and old hangouts in the city.

The book ends with a “Stolen Notes from Little Black Books” section that recommends places to visit when in town.

A slice of unseen life

The Indian expatriate Jamal H Iqbal’s narrative in the guide is a poetic piece about the sensorial experiences – such as food and culture – and reflections of being part of the Indian community here.

“I love exploring – from the outside looking in.” says Iqbal, who is a poet, performing artist and creative director. “As a walker of cities by night, this was a coming together of all the pockets I’ve encountered during my five years in this wonderful, fascinating city.”

He says such unconventional guides are necessary to uncover the heart of the city.

“A smörgåsbord of the world, the city is growing … it is very easy to get blinded by the shine and forget the wonder within. What we’ve all tried to do with Uncommon: Dubai is exactly this: present perspectives that are off-the-beaten tourist guide, that are real.”

For Bouhara, that unexplored place is the Hindi Lane, where the Hindu Temple is situated in Dubai.

“That was a beautiful story to read. I did not know that the land was offered by the Sheikh, allowing them to practise their religion. Such pluralism isn’t very common in the Arab world.”

• Uncommon: Dubai is being launched today at the A4 Space, Al Quoz 1, at 8pm. To purchase the book, visit www.uncommonguidebooks.com.