Every year The National runs an installment of its ongoing History Project to coincide with National Day. This year, I wrote a piece about Dubai's Al Nasr Leisureland – one of the country's most iconic family hangouts. Anyone up to 10 years older or younger than me will definitely remember it if they grew up in Dubai. While it was built in 1979, even in the 90s it was still a legitimately buzzing place to take the kids.
Writing the story inevitably required me to go back and check out Leisureland, which honestly was a really intriguing prospect. Would they still have that odd cafeteria next to the ice rink? I'd never been in there but maybe I could finally take a look. What about that unusual playground with all the big fruits and rides?
As my piece highlights, my trip to Leisureland revealed it is not what it once was. Well, perhaps more accurately, it remains completely unchanged save a few new surrounding restaurants. The biggest change to Lesuireland is its diminished status, obscured amidst countless larger theme parks, shopping malls, video game arcades and other family establishments.
One of the most notable changes I witnessed was with the amusement park's train ride. I remembered it used to do a circle around the big fruits and take you into a cave, where at the very end a large mock spider would infamously drop right above the carriage and scare everyone half to death. Even Kamal Nandi, the marketing manager I spoke to, remembered it. I think he was as curious as I was to check it out. That was one of the most surreal moments of my childhood – one of those vague, undiscussed memories I was never sure if I'd experienced or dreamed up.
I asked if we could go on the ride and I probably looked a fool. I don't think it was designed with an adult's body proportions in mind given that I was close to chewing my knees. Even so, both of us got on with one of the maintenance men and slowly trawled through that tunnel. Alas, the spider had gone, replaced by an odd screaming ancient Egyptian charioteer robot. I'll admit, it was a bit awkward after that.
The trip was, pardon the pun, fruitful for more than just the consequent story though. It got me thinking about some of the other memorable places I used to visit that aren't there anymore, places everyone I grew up with will remember. One was that strip of shisha cafes parallel to Mazaya Centre - culminating on one end in the grim, suspicious Salateen cafeteria, and the bold Thunderbowl on the other.
When I was a kid, there really wasn't all that much going on. My family mainly hung out at Burjuman Centre, Al Ghurair Centre and Wafi. When Deira City Centre opened it seemed a mall had opened up that wouldn't be bested for a long time. Living near Safa Park, we never really drove towards Jebel Ali. There wasn't anything there aside from the Hard Rock Cafe.
But now, it's the opposite. I find myself socialising more in that direction; Madinat Jumeirah, The Marina, Mall of the Emirates – the so-called New Dubai. I don't make enough time to visit what seems like a less convenient drive to Deira and Bur Dubai. But, I do have to at least "give props" to what must therefore be dubbed Old Dubai, a place oozing with soul and old hangouts, some obscure, and some still as relevant as ever. Al Ghurair Centre, the city's oldest mall, is still going strong with its recent redevelopment and Bastakiya's cool fusion of history and art can't be replicated. ()
I often wonder how strange it must be for the current generation of kids growing up with iPhones, Playstation 4 and luxurious theme parks. I think it'd do them good to at least visit some of Dubai's older attractions, whether it stimulates their imagination or puts the city's meteoric growth into perspective. My childhood certainly wouldn't have been the same without them.
Now - am I imaging it, or was there a huge pirate ship everyone used to jump off at Chicago Beach Village?