My mum’s last trip to the UAE was both surprising and predictable.
After a 12-hour flight from Melbourne, Australia, she waited in the lobby of my apartment building after sending me a cheeky message to pick up a mysterious care package downstairs.
Needless to say she “got me”, and to be reunited in November after nearly two years was emotional.
During her weeklong visit, I made the effort to switch up our usual itinerary. I explained that lots of new districts and venues had popped up since her last trip and were worth checking out, such as the Yas Bay Waterfront in Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s coastal leisure strip La Mer.
That back and forth was all a routine, of course, because we knew where to begin and end each UAE sojourn: Al Ghurair Centre.
Yes, I am talking about that well-seasoned Deira shopping destination located in the heart of old Dubai.
For a family that’s not dewy-eyed – "Yallah, I will see you later, salamu alaykum", is our standard airport send-off – my trips with mum to the mall are probably as sentimental as they get. Not only does it remind us of our former stint living in the UAE throughout the 1980s, but Al Ghurair Centre resonates with me because it was the venue of my first family day out, literally.
Opened in February 1981, the mall is seven months older than I am and one of the first of its kind across the Arabian Gulf.
With me being the firstborn, my mum recalls being rather nervous about planning that debut family outing from our Abu Dhabi home, and the mall was chosen for its spaciousness.
“This was the Dubai Mall of our time,” she would often say during our strolls. “It was so huge that it had elevators. The parking space was also enormous. A lot of families from Abu Dhabi would plan a weekend getaway just to come here.”
A story to tell
I remembered those trips well.
Going out of Abu Dhabi was an absolute treat in those days and a trip to Al Ghurair Centre provided the added bonus of street cred in the schoolyard.
Any person returning from the mall was essentially the star of the week, with classmates eager to learn more about our modern-day Narnia.
I am sure my eight-year-old tales of seeing a fleet of Rolls-Royce cars lined up side by side in the car park and arcades as far as the eyes could see at the retailer Sinbad were slightly exaggerated, but one thing I recall experiencing like it was yesterday were the grilled meats and piping hot breads of Chicken Tikka.
Long-term UAE residents will know the restaurant chain – founded in Cairo in 1972 – was essentially the Nobu of its time, and its flagship was in Al Ghurair Centre.
With the final month of the venue’s 40th anniversary celebrations dovetailing with the Dubai Shopping Festival, I ventured back alone this week looking for that sense of nostalgia.
The mall has undergone a significant expansion, so I couldn’t recall an exact place where my younger self ran with my mother behind me, but I met someone who knew a few possible spots.
“You remember Chicken Tikka? It was delicious and it was on the ground floor,” says Mohammed Hossain, manager of textile shop Signi Trading on the first floor. “I've been here since 1985 or 1986. This was the number one place in all of the UAE for shopping. I was serving people from everywhere.”
Hossain recalls how Al Ghurair Centre established the thriving mall culture that’s now part of the fabric of the UAE leisure scene.
“Before this place there were some centres in Dubai but people didn’t spend too long there because it was too small and not very nice. Al Ghurair was the top of its class at the time and the whole point was to make people spend hours here, so then they can spend more," he says.
Back to the future
Muhammed Massouti, the Syrian owner of nearby Almondo Trading, which specialises in Turkish and Syrian garments, says the mall is well past its heyday.
“I have been here in the exact same shop since 1987,” he says. “I am nearing the end of my time here and looking for a new location as the customers have gone.
“They have so many more options now and I need to do something to maintain the business. Al Ghurair Centre is a good place but I feel like I will have to move on.”
Perhaps Massouti is right and nostalgia can take you only so far.
If I count the hours I wandered this mall aimlessly over the past decade, looking back, I would be concerned at the time lost gaining new experiences. But I can’t help it.
During its glory years, Al Ghurair Centre was the place where the Saeeds announced themselves as a family and where I roamed freely as child. While it’s now as weathered as my greying beard, I will continue to return – by myself or with Mum – because the value of those reflections are priceless.