Dubai has become legendary as a prime constructed hyper-reality of the much sought after “Elsewhere Community”. It is the place (far, far away) where the ephemeral tourist of modernity wishes to abscond. Tourism is one of the city’s main commodities and, as such, the tourist as an outsider in Dubai is an obsolete notion; they have been organized into a collective industry.
The differentiations of the modern world have the same structure as the tourist attractions: elements dislodged from the original natural, historical and cultured context, fit together with other such displaced and modernist things and people. The differentiations are the attractions where an ancient weathered dhow is berthed next to a modern yacht; an old world souk is housed across the street from a multi-storied commercial mall. This juxtaposition simultaneously separates these things from those originally figured cultural elements and brings the people liberated from traditional attachments into the modern world where as tourists they may attempt to discover or reconstruct a cultural history or identity. Dubai famously offers a wide spectrum of tourist scenarios that range from expansive white sand beaches, elaborately franchised desert oases to man-made snow-covered ski slopes.
Tradition remains embedded in modern Dubai but in a position of servitude. It is there to recall nostalgic longings or provide a sense of profundity for a current theme. The old districts of Dubai that border the Creek reveal this approach to tradition and its effect on the rest of the city’s environs and its movement toward a modern consensus. The names of the districts that border the creek reveal the culture’s relationship to locality, land and natural process. At issue is the degree of intimacy with place. The abras dutifully ferry travelers across the Creek’s breadth retaining their ancient rhythm of back and forth. The etymology of the name “Dubai” derives from Persian origins meaning “the two sides of where the water meets the land”. This naming of the settlement reflects the community’s past intimacy with the landscape pattern and its localized ecology.
Naming is a fundamental strategy for making places. The named site becomes a storied place. Each name carries its own inception, the story of how it got its name.
There are untold possibilities when landscape narratives are seen as entwined through lived experience. It’s not so much that the places remind us of stories, but rather, they exist because of the stories associated with them. The stories encoded in the collage of place names require an act of recovery to make them intelligible to the tourist.
Incorporating place narratives into the built fabric of the historic districts along the Dubai Creek could be designed as a pattern of way-finding for tourists seeking to penetrate the exuberant diversity of its streets and alleyways. Little known, the labyrinthine network of pedestrian alleyways set off of the vehicular streets offers the peripatetic traveler a view of daily life hidden from the thoroughfare.
The courtyards that exist where the alleys converge are the sites of a condition of the public domain that doesn’t know its name. Atmospheric of a past time, the public alleys create a system of open space that inhabits and connects a pedestrian web of commercial and social interactions. Contrary to wilderness places, such as the Empty Quarter that are unknown as places, the sites of old Dubai are saturated with meaning. They resist being turned into the typical tabla rasa of the modernized site cleansed of all local associations. A multitude of stories compete for attention and do so with conflicting interpretations and story lines.
A palimpsest in ancient times denoted writing material (as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased. It can also be used as a metaphor of the traces of diverse layers apparent beneath the surface of the built environment. The districts that straddle the Dubai Creek reveal through their place names a palimpsest linked to the narrative of culture – the local narrative topos. The names of many of the modern tourist sites in Dubai: Dubailand, Internet City, International City, Atlantis Hotel, often evoke their own versions of narrative topos but with reference to other mythologies and imaginative literature outside the historic context of the UAE. The place names along the Dubai Creek provide a framework map as palimpsest, a temporal collage marking various episodes of origin, settlement and change. The persistence and accumulation of names create important juxtapositions of different times and their stories.
Walking the streets and alleys of old Dubai, one finds place names embedded like fossils in a map. Names derive from other unseen places and form an intertext, a locus of intersecting histories and place. The Bastakiya district in Bur Dubai is a derivative of the province of Bastak on the southern shore of Iran and denotes the immigration and settlement of those Iranian merchants who traveled from across the gulf waters. Reading the rich palimpsest of the built environment bordering the creek involves unearthing the temporal depth of names as well as mapping their spatial narratives. The Al Ras district in Deira means the head of land that defines the promontory that juts out into the creek. Following the line of the creek’s edge from the head is Al Buteen, which means the underbelly and is situated in relation to the description of the profile of land as a body form. Naming the land according to human anatomy reflects an intimacy and assumed reverence for the localized ecology. Honorific names were not foreign to the native emirati. Baniyas Square in the Al Buteen district of Deira was named for the members of the Baniyas tribe who would gather in the square’s open space to begin their return caravan back to Abu Dhabi. The same square was supposed to be named as a memorial for the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser but the absence of signage in the square indicates erasure. This square and several other sites in the area will soon be affected by the proposed Dubai Metro system scheduled to run underground through the district. While this new system is expected to relieve
ground traffic, it will also create a new means of conveyance for tourists to the area. Names figure in the narrative plots surrounding questions of identity; giving presence to unknown, taking possession of space, interpreting and remembering the past, and reclaiming connections to place, history and nature. With its unrelenting economic growth, Deira’s future development could well follow a narrative that includes the abandonment of the city’s historic port for the world of high finance. The area could devolve into a state of no identity except a “poly-identity” suitable for whatever is projected into it… a faceless place blurred into one.
Erasure of the collective memory and place identity can be apprised by a sustainable approach to the local identity of the creek. Foregrounding the cultural narratives would inform those tourists desirous of experiencing what makes Dubai different from the other destination resorts they would have the opportunity to visit. Sustaining this cultural resource would also tell the tale of lived experience to a current populus and provide them with an immediate connection between their environment and their self interest. One of the basic strategies of any sustainable approach must be to avoid the risk of irreversible losses of our sustainable resources. Learning to read the complex spatial narrative of a map goes beyond the curious names. While physical forms of early settlement may have vanished, the names that persist still speak of the symbolic life of community.
The districts that border both sides of the Dubai Creek are framed by re-presentations of the past functions of public and private life. The old creek makes visible for the ephemeral tourist a tangible view of its society and its works. This framed habitat is in stark contrast to the destination resorts that house the flux of tourists. The past nature of the creek is made part of the present, not in the form of some reflected spirit of the place, but as revealed in the objects on view as tourist attractions. The work activities that continue the commercial operations along the creek are front-staged as a work-display tableau for the tourist’s leisurely perusal. Authenticity of experience is the tourist’s coin of the realm and is measured against the familiar franchised fantasies manufactured for their consumption. The ongoing activity of dhows docking from the sub-continent to unload their cargo destined for the nearby souks is not a costumed drama staged for visitors benefit but a timeless activity that continues to serve the creekside settlement. The ongoing narrative along the creek reaches back to ancient times and the accumulation of its stories staggers the imagination to understand the depth of its history. One constant that keeps the past from overwhelming the present is the constant flow of water that washes away the past and keeps both its shores in an eternal present.
A native of Elmira, New York, Kennedy taught at the School of Environmental Design at the University of Georgia and was a designer with the firm of Cesar Pelli and Associates in New Haven, Connecticut before joining the faculty at the School of Architecture and Design at the American University of Sharjah in 2006.
He received his MFA in Film from the San Francisco Art Institute and MLA from Cornell University