The Empty Souk & Solitude: Culture in Dubai

By Abi King | Middle East

May 04

Alone in Dubai

Culture in Dubai

Whatever else Dubai is known for, it isn’t for its quiet spots and it isn’t for its minimalism. On my first night in town I found a sequinned girl hanging from the chandelier in the hotel lobby. She was there to serve champagne.

Tomorrow, I’m heading onto the purpose-built palm-shaped island to see the real Atlantis and earlier today I took a peek at the largest snowdome in the world that also happens to live in the desert.

Yet I found something else today that made me stop and stare. It crept up on me, a feeling slightly north of unease and around the corner from unfamiliarity.

A feeling of being alone.

I was walking through the souks that run behind Dubai’s narrow creek. This remnant from the past sees crescent-shaped boats – or wooden dhows – lumber across the water with the ceremony of a music-lover letting his fingertips load a prized record onto a gramophone.

Dhows in Batakia District, Dubai

Dhows in Batakia District, Dubai

The souks themselves stock fabrics in more colours and fibres than I have words to describe them. Sapphire and scarlet, silk and gauze, print-patterns and batiks, even fish-scale sequinned fabrics of the sort my champagne girl could use. A trip through here casts you as the central dancer in a choreographed scarf-twirling parade. Merchant after merchant unfurls his colours into the air, the soft flowing fabric forming an archway as each one tries to block you, tries to make that sale.

Then, nothing.

One more turn and I was completely alone. No-one trying to catch my eye. No-one even minding their own business. Just no-one.

It felt empty, incomplete somehow. Not just because the previous half hour had literally surrounded me with human contact – but also, I think, because the last few weeks have been so busy. I’ve spoken at two different conferences in the last ten days and the intensity of human interaction that those experiences bring is, well, intense.

It’s a long way from sitting on my own at a desk, typing and tapping away, promising to write just another hundred words before finally getting dressed (not that I do that, of course. It’s a story I heard from “a friend” of mine.)

I love both ways of working, but sometimes my brain reels with the speed of the switch.

Still, I’m sure it’ll be business as usual in no time – both for me and for Dubai. I have a week at the desk followed by the Grenadines, Morocco and Spain to look forward to. And Dubai? Well, it has its sequinned chandelier girls. And a couple of other interesting things…

Which do you prefer? Travelling alone or with a group? Or does a bit of both do you good?


About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more.

  • A Montrealer Abroad says:

    Although it must feels strange at first, it must also feels nice to have some peace and quiet after such an overwhelming last month! I hope you have a nice time in UAE :)

  • Jeff Dobbbins says:

    Loved this. While I’ve never been to Dubai, you’ve captured that feeling of bewilderment and solitude I’ve experienced traveling to a new place. Thanks for the vicarious adventure.

    • Abi says:

      You’re very welcome! I think it’s one of the pleasures of travel in a way, that moment of disorientation…

  • melvin says:

    I love traveling solo. A group works as well, depends who is in it.. Are you part of it? ;-)
    Well done with that Burj Khalifa pic! You don’t see many photos where you get that building in one pic! :)

    • Abi says:

      Yes, it DEFINITELY depends on who’s in the group! I prefer a mix of both, I think.

      Thanks about the Burj Khalifa pic – it’s good to know my extended contortion was worth it! I’m also cheekily pleased by the diamond-star glint on the building. It reminds me of a cartooon!

  • Jeremy Branham says:

    I’ve never been to Dubai but anyone who pays attention knows they are trying to top themselves every week to see who can build the biggest, most luxurious building.

    With that said, does the rest of the Middle East roll their eyes at Dubai? For some of the more fundamentalist and conservative countries, is there any animosity towards Dubai for the flash and glam? I know not all of the country is like this but the chandelier champagne waitress makes me think about their perception in the rest of the Middle East.

    • Abi says:

      It’s a good question – and one that I’m not sure whether I’m the best person to answer. Within Dubai itself, there is a curious and complex relationship with alcohol, for example. Few restaurants serve any and those that do have very strict rules about consuming it indoors. Yet, you have sequinned acrobatic champagne girls inside…

      Oman has similar rules with alcohol but certainly tends to be less showy with its buildings. You can still find girls in cat suits inside the international hotels, although the ones I saw looked rather bored!

      Dubai’s a very cosmopolitan place and I saw women dressed in as many different ways as there are styles around the world – which I didn’t find in Oman, Saudi or Jordan.

      It’s a fascinating place – and point in history as each of these countries decides how to approach the 21st century.

  • Vicky says:

    Wow, great photos. You’ve really caught a different side to Dubai than just the glitz and glam – love it :)

    • Abi says:

      Thank you. Yes, this wasn’t a part of Dubai that I’d been expecting. Stereotypes eh?! ;)

  • Pepo says:

    A very cool photo journal of your exnierepce thanks for sharing. This town is awash with money, much of it coming from neighbouring Gulf states who are sitting on windfall revenue from high oil prices. We usually see photos of the giant buildings and the sailboat island hotel , so it was refreshing to see photos of how some of the average people’ live. Dubai has been coined the Vegas of the Middle East with everything done over the top and to excess including the worlds first and largest indoor Ski Resort inside that Worlds Largest Mall’ you mentioned. In light of the poverty and suffering throughout our world, it is disheartening [nauseating, really] to see money spent as an effigy to pride and power. Dubai not only attracts the selfish high-rollers, but also harbors and promotes the underworld. Shades of Babylon .- Congrats on making the Freshly Pressed page today Best wishes for your work and service in Africa!

    • Abi says:

      Thank you. I didn’t even realise I’d made the Freshly Pressed page, so thank you for that lovely surprise!

  • Anna from The Blonde Banana says:

    I had a similar experience in Marrakech. I was staying solo in a hostel in the medina but had gone to meet some friends for dinner in the new city. Our dinner ran unintentionally late and when I returned the souks and medina was COMPLETELY deserted. It was actually a little scary but thankfully nothing happened :). I haven’t been to Dubai but the chandelier champagne girl certainly sounds intriguing!

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