The Insider’s Guide to Dubai: 5 People You Need to Meet
From the back streets of Old Dubai to the desert dunes, travel journalist Laura Begley Bloom introduces us to the local experts who made her visit.
Dubai is a place of extremes. The largest city in the United Arab Emirates is home to the world’s tallest building, the biggest shopping mall on the planet and even the longest painting ever created. Set at the crossroads of the Middle East, it is also a melting pot of global cultures. So it’s no surprise that the people who live and work in Dubai are as compelling as the metropolis itself.
During an around-the-world journey on the Four Seasons Private Jet, I spent three days exploring this exotic, nuanced city. With its winding souks and modern high-rise buildings, glamorous beach resorts and dramatic desert landscapes, its sleek city centre and vibrant residential neighbourhoods, Dubai is a fascinating place filled with equally fascinating people.
From a Brazilian belly dancer to a falconer from South Africa, here are some of the most intriguing individuals I encountered – the people who helped turn an already extraordinary visit into something truly unforgettable.
The Belly Dancer
THE BELLY DANCER
The Four Seasons Private Jet lands at a private air terminal just as the sun is setting over the desert. When we arrive at the Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach, the sky is dark, the skyline is glittering in the distance and the Resort is lit up like an Arabian Nights fantasy.
We walk through the gilded entrance, and, as if on cue, the unmistakable sounds of Arabic music waft through the air and a pair of belly dancers appear, elegantly twisting their bodies to the rhythm.
It’s the perfect welcome to Dubai.
One of the belly dancers is Brazil-born Graciela Pischner, who always dreamed of performing in the Middle East and made her way to Dubai after stops in Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain and Tunis. “I like how people in Dubai appreciate and respect my work,” she says. “Also, it’s a safe place, and the perfect location for someone who wants to travel around the world.”
Belly dancing is a respected Arabic art form, with some differences according to location. In Dubai, the dancers perform in high heels and take big steps. “It brings you happiness when you watch it,” Pischner says. Indeed, as I watch these women swaying and spinning in the soaring marble lobby, I couldn’t be happier to be in Dubai.
THE FOOD EXPERT
Sitting on the floor of the Emirati restaurant Al Tawasol, Arva Ahmed is showing me and a few other passengers how to eat like the locals – with our hands. Ahmed is a respected food blogger and the founder of Frying Pan Adventures, which leads culinary walking tours through the back streets of Old Dubai. Ahmed was born in India and came here as a child. She moved to the United States for college, followed by a high-powered job as a management consultant in Manhattan. But her heart was always in Dubai. Seven years ago, she returned to pursue her true passion: food.
“Dubai is a great preserver of food culture from around the region, the Middle East and beyond to North Africa and the Indian subcontinent,” says Ahmed, who takes us around the Deira neighbourhood, sharing bites of Lebanese pizza, freshly made Egyptian falafel and a sweet Arabic dessert called knafeh that’s made with noodles and stringy cheese.
With Ahmed’s quick wit and encyclopaedic knowledge of regional cuisine, it’s no wonder Andrew Zimmern featured her on his show Bizarre Foods. But the dishes we sample on this street-food tour are far from bizarre. Wandering through the colourful residential neighbourhood and connecting with restaurant vendors, we get an authentic taste of the Middle East.
THE DUNE BASHING GUIDE
“Hold on tight!” Abdulla Hafiz yells over the Arabic rock song blasting from the stereo. I grip the seat, the door, the handle and just about anything else around me as the 4×4 dive-bombs down a giant sand dune. We’re zooming through the desert in a caravan, wheels spinning, sand spraying in the air.
I’ve been on some of the most heart-racing roller coasters in the world, and Coney Island’s Cyclone doesn’t have anything on this.
Hafiz is Bangladeshi, but he was born and brought up in Dubai. Clad in a traditional long white kandura and a baseball cap, he’s been taking people dune-bashing for the past 10 years. His favourite part of the job: “Meeting people from different nationalities and sharing the thrill of the desert.”
After a high-octane race through the dunes, we come to a stop at a Bedouin-style camp with a billowing tent surrounded by camels. Hafiz joins me for a series of goofy selfies. I can’t stop grinning.
The art of falconry goes back more than 2,000 years. Although most people in modern-day Dubai don’t rely on falcons to hunt prey and find water in the desert, the falcon remains an important symbol in Arabic culture. It’s the national bird of the United Arab Emirates.
South Africa–born Liander Botes is the operations manager at Wild Flight Dubai, which introduces travellers to falconry and educates them about birds of prey. “This is not a pet – this is a dangerous animal,” Botes tells a group of us who have gathered to observe that dangerous animal. “It is a hunting tool and can cause the same damage as a rifle.”
As we keep a healthy distance, Botes removes a hood that covers its eyes and demonstrates the bird’s speed and power. The falcon can travel long distances, but it always returns to its owner, thanks to a natural form of GPS. And when it’s going for the kill, it can reach speeds up to 200 miles per hour.
“The interesting thing about my job is that every day is different,” says Botes, who developed a love of animals while growing up on a farm in South Africa. “Every day something new happens.” Today, the falcon cooperates and displays his skills in exchange for the treats that Botes doles out. Being in the presence of a powerful creature like this is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
THE CAMEL TRAINER
I’ve always dreamed of riding a camel through the desert like something out of Lawrence of Arabia, and now this is my moment. Mohammed Ali motions to me, and his camel gingerly folds its legs and leans down to allow me to mount – only it’s nowhere near as easy as it looks. I find myself struggling to fling my legs over this enormous creature’s back (and wishing I hadn’t handed someone my iPhone to record the awkward event).
Ali doesn’t speak a word of English. But with some gentle encouragement he shows me a few strategic moves, and the next thing you know, I’m high in the air, gliding over the sand dunes.
It’s just another day in the life of this expert camel trainer, who probably spends more time training helpless visitors than he does training the actual camels. Born in Pakistan and now living with the Bedouins in the desert, Ali has been working alongside these animals since childhood: He was born into the family business. Through a translator, he explains that the most surprising thing about camels is their calm attitude and their “strength in the desert,” but he warns that riders should be careful not to “create noises that will disturb or annoy them.”
We walk along silently, and although I now know that getting on board the camel can be far from cinematic, my Lawrence of Arabia fantasies have been realized.