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Hidden Dubai, The Independent On Sunday

Worshipers bring bottles of Jeema and Masafi to have the mineral water sanctified by blessing. The bottles stand on the altar like a tiny congregation.’

The blue-suited Indian stood on the prow of the raised pavement, hair swept back. He seemed aloof from the queue, his Merrill Lynch diary suggesting he wasn’t of the bus-taking classes. Al Ghabiba Station roared around him: buses for the alleys of Al Ras and the warehouses of Al Quoz; seven-seater, shared taxis to Karama’s shops and Rashidiya’s flats; long distance minibuses for Kuwait, Muscat and Doha.

The red and white Number 8 arrived. A bearded young man with the tucked up head-dress and belted dish dash of a desert Arab stood back to let my two small daughters clamber aboard before him. They sat unnecessarily, but excitedly, in the seats ‘Reserved for Ladies’ at the front with Filipino girls, a saried Indian, an Arab woman in a black abaya. Most of the male passengers were ‘bachelors’ from the Indian Subcontinent: dozing labourers, crisp-shirted office workers, salwar kameez-wearing men with hennaed hair.

Bachelors come here, often living in sub-let rooms, because they can earn more than at home. Money is sent back to their families; family letters reach them via a Players Gold Leaf PO Box. Dubai’s growth, from 50,000 people to one million in 50 years, has outstripped home postal deliveries or even a recognized address system. (Flats in The Gulf News classifieds are described as ‘Karama, behind Lulu supermarket’, ‘Al Riqqa, Automatic Cafeteria building’.) The PO Boxes appear in shops, barbers or even fixed to alley walls, the hollow, Players Gold Leaf roundel with its bearded Jack Tar, stuffed with letters for sifting by hopeful bachelors.

If it’s a lonely life at least the food is good, and cheap. The Vandana Restaurant sits on the thronging, neoned main square of Satwa, Dubai’s unofficial hub for Subcontinentals. Past Bride of Nomadism Furniture and opposite the dainty, turquoise-tipped minarets of Satwa’s main mosque, the restaurant is a narrow, modest place. Food arrives at the formica tables on stainless steel plates: long rice pancakes around tasty chopped vegetables; tissue-fine chapattis; delicate curries served in five small dishes topped up as soon as you empty them. Bachelors buy a month of meals in advance. The price? 70p per meal.

There is more to Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi life than bachelors. Indian merchant families have lived here, in what was called Trucial Oman, for over 100 years. In fact only about a quarter of Dubai’s population are local Arabs. They live in districts like the boulevarded Hamriya, on the northern side of the creek that curves like a calligraphic flourish through Dubai. And along the Beach Road Arab villages interrupt the Western expatriate homes of Jumeira and Um Suqaim. The villagers often own bachelor-crewed fishing boats. In the harbours, hefty wooden fishing dhows sit beside pointy fibreglass launches that zip along the shore, a man standing unruffled on the tip looking for net markers.

Walk through the village lanes of modern compound houses at dawn and the air is sweet with the smell of fresh pastries delivered by the beeping vans of the Modern Bakery. At night, men chat on scruffy sofas outside tiny, strip-lit tailors’ shops, breaking off to return your passing “As-salamu aleikum” with “Wa aleikum as-salam” (“Peace be upon you”, “On you be peace”). The Arab lads in the sandy playgrounds may play football in AC Milan and Real Madrid shirts or tear around on quad bikes, but the villages are traditional places.

Grocery shops sell the small-bowled local pipes alongside Marlboro and 555. In Ramadan, tents appear on empty lots, an electric cable snaking out. Rugs or plastic matting cover the floor, cushions lean against the walls under bare bulbs. After sunset friends visit to break the day-long fast while lads let off fireworks as cautiously as they ride quad bikes.

Every 200 yards or so, the minarets of neighbourhood mosques act like axles for days that revolve around the five Calls to Prayer: Fajr, Dhuhur, Asr, Maghrib and Isha. The muezzins never start together and as you walk, different voices singing different phrases from different minarets float superbly about you.

But Arab and Muslim are not synonymous. In a side chapel of St Mary’s Catholic Church, Lebanese and Syrians, Egyptians and Jordanians, Palestinians and Iraqis celebrate three Arabic masses a week. Glamorous young couples kneel next to skirt suited matriarchs. A few bachelors and Filipino maids stand apart, silently following the international rhythms of mass.

The service is Catholic but includes Maronite, Byzantine and Syrian songs from the mezze of Arab Christian liturgies. There are surprises. Glazed buns are handed out at a memorial service to help those who eat them remember the deceased in their prayers. Worshipers bring bottles of Jeema and Masafi mineral water to have the water sanctified by blessing. The bottles stand on the altar like a tiny congregation.

After mass a young Lebanese woman in a chic cardigan walks to the front and stands by the electric organ. She begins to singĀ  Ya Ouma Allah (O Mother of God). It is breathtaking. Her beseeching, almost unearthly voice lifts and falls, straight from the soul, echoing the music of Jewish cantors and the Call to Prayer.

1 Feb 2004

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