Neighbourhood watch: How old Dubai moved with the times but kept its heart

Old-time Dubai residents recall commercial enterprises that built one of city’s oldest districts

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , JULY 25 – 2018 :- View of the garment and textile shops in Meena Bazaar in Dubai.  ( Pawan Singh / The National )  For News. Story by Ramola
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The streets are worn, the buildings a little tired, but some residents of Al Fahidi remember a time before the area as we know it existed.

This crowded neighbourhood of Dubai is a favourite with tourists and residents, the heart of a hard-working community whose people ply their trade selling souvenirs, home-cooked food and tailor some of the best clothing to be found in the city.

The streets are filled with the sound of shopkeepers shouting out the day’s best deals. But life in this bustling old neighbourhood on the banks of Dubai Creek was once a very different affair.

One of its oldest residents, Maghanmal Pancholia, 94, remembers the years before the city was crisscrossed by road networks and filled with skyscrapers.

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , JULY 25 – 2018 :- View of the shops , traditional boat and Dubai Museum in Meena Bazaar area in Dubai. ( Pawan Singh / The National )  For News. Story by Ramola
View of the area around Dubai Museum, which has changed a lot since Maghanmal Pancholia first move there in the 1940s. Pawan Singh / The National 

In the noisy neighbourhood, with its narrow streets crammed with grocery, jewellery and clothes shops as well as residential apartments, Mr Pancholia's office overlooks the old fort. But when he looks out of the sand-streaked windows, he thinks back to the Dubai of the 1940s, when he first arrived.

Back then, there were no buildings apart from the fort and the mosque. He lived along the creek near the abra stations and the men drank sweet water dug from wells a few minutes away in the area around Meena Bazaar.


Maganmal Pancholia, the 94-year-old chairman of Arabian Trading Agency.

Entrepreneur Maghanmal Pancholia, one of the oldest Indian residents of the UAE, keeps a rich treasury of national history in his stories of life, enterprise and the sheer grit of Arabian Gulf people in the years before Union.

For the 94-year-old chairman of Arabian Trading Agency, who still takes his seat in his Bur Dubai office every morning when others of his generation may favour relaxed retirement, his early struggles contrast greatly with modern life.

Mr Pancholia recalls the thriving pearl business of the early and mid-20th century, how the shockwaves of the Great Depression rippled their way across the Atlantic from the US, into Europe and on to the Middle East, and how the trade in Japanese imitation pearls dealt a crippling blow to skilled and brave Emirati fishermen.

Adversity, he says, forced residents to work together and create other opportunities. This was the environment he encountered on arrival in Sharjah in 1942.

That was a time without electricity or roads, when donkeys carried water on dusty paths.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Maganmal Pancholia, 94, looks out the window of his office. Reem Mohammed / The National 

“It was a desert. We never walked to the fort, which is now a museum, because there was rubble and so much sand all around. There was some construction in Shindagha [a neighbouring area towards the coast] and there were residences and shops on both sides of the creek, but after that there was hardly anything,” said Mr Pancholia, chairman of the Arabian Trading Agency.

He arrived in the emirate in 1942, but his family of pearl traders had done business in Dubai since 1860.

“We lived in residences on the creek that were above shops. For drinking water, workers would dig a well – once you pulled water up, you had to wait for the sand to settle before you could drink the water.”

At the time, in the days before the country had been established, there were only a dozen or so cars, Mr Pancholia says.

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , JULY 25 – 2018 :- View of the jewellery shops in Meena Bazaar in Dubai.  ( Pawan Singh / The National )  For News. Story by Ramola
the hustle and bustle of Meena Bazar's busy jewellery shops. Pawan Singh / The National 

“There were no roads – it was all rubble and sand. Cars got stuck in the sand, except for the Rulers’ Land Rovers.

“Those were the hard days without electricity. Nobody dared to live here for a long time because who would want to when you drink water from a well? My family was here for the pearl industry.

“Everything changed after electricity was brought in 1961. While before, we didn’t bring our wives because of the living conditions, people began staying for longer.

“Now everyone wants to come to Dubai to live and work,” he says.

Nearby, one of Dubai's oldest souqs, Meena Bazaar, took its name from a large textile shop that is now gone.


Prakash Lalwani, left and his brother Rajesh, founders of Santoba Tailors, at a teashop that's been in Bur Dubai for 30 years. Known for it's "Disco chai", they've been loyal customers to the place.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Prakash, left, and his brother Rajesh Lalwani. Reem Mohammed / The National

The Lalwani brothers have lived and worked in the neighbourhood for the last 30 years. They also recall a simpler life when relatives and friends met weekly at each other’s homes. Sent to Dubai as teenagers to work with relatives, the brothers found jobs in electronics and textiles shops in the late 1990s.

Prakash Lalwani, 49, still walks down to the small Doha Cafeteria like he did 30 years ago for a cup of “disco chai”, which is a mixture of tea and spices.

Accompanied by younger brother Rajesh, 44, they order an old-time favourite – a “Rock and Roll sandwich”, or a bun stuffed with slices of tomato and chopped onions.

“We still go to many of the restaurants we frequented years ago,” says Mr Lalwani, who set up Santoba Tailors, a made-to-measure retail store for men and women, with his brother.

DUBAI , UNITED ARAB EMIRATES , JULY 25 – 2018 :- Inside view of the Golden Oskar garment and textile shop in Meena Bazaar in Dubai.  ( Pawan Singh / The National )  For News. Story by Ramola
Golden Oskar, a garment and textile shop in Meena Bazar. Pawan Singh / The National

Rajesh recalls: “There were 300 or 400 shops and traders doing business with Russia, Iran and parts of Europe in cotton, brocade and silks. People didn’t need cars because we lived close to our jobs. But by 2000, the place started expanding and we began exploring beyond where we lived.”

The weekly entertainment was a movie at the Plaza Cinema, which has since shut down.

From rent in the early 1990s of Dh1,200 per year for a room in Al Fahidi, by 1998 a two-bedroom flat cost about Dh50,000 annually. Since then, that figure has doubled.

After 2000, the family rented residential apartments in Bur Dubai, still close enough to reach the store in time to greet old-time customers who drop in.

“We have never wanted to leave this place because we enjoy it – our friends and relatives live here. You can get everything you need in one place, from tailors to jewellery to food,” says Rajesh.

“The charm is still there.”


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