As demolition began in the old Satwa neighbourhood in Dubai, the public seemed to engage in a debate unprecedented for a city where the deconstruction-reconstruction cycle is an accepted norm. Numerous blogs registered conflicting opinions on the need for commercial evolution as well as a sense of cultural loss, as Satwa made way for Jumeirah Garden City.
While debate is always healthy, the grief over the loss of Satwa is a symptom of the emotions that an urban public feels at not being engaged in transitional initiatives, or finding a place in history for their fading neighbourhoods. While Dubai is still a young metropolis, its pace of reconstruction raises concerns about the notion of urban memory. With no forms of archiving being commissioned in association with reconstruction, we might be losing important markers against which the city can measure its future progress.
A massive cultural heritage, domestic and commercial, is going unrecorded for future generations. Coupled with the fact that Dubai's population turns over every few years, the city might be headed towards an era of urban amnesia, with landmark neighbourhoods like Satwa not remembered by anyone.
After all, a neighbourhood is more than just an amalgam of houses and businesses and streets. Satwa, despite its shabby buildings and third-world mode of economy, has been dear to many Dubai residents, with its vibrant pedestrian culture, cheap restaurants, and many services that one cannot buy at the mall: like a hair cut and a shave, a car-window tint, and a shoe repair. Satwa is where many locals were born and raised, shaded by the frangipanis that marked the neighbourhood.
More than 200,000 residents have made it home and contributed to its unique bazaar culture. It is a contrasting metaphor to the city's towers and testifies to Dubai's diversity. No wonder its impending absence has been distressful to so many.
Having lived in many cities after growing up in Dubai, I have seen how other countries coped with the traumas of urban development by building bridges between past and future, without halting reconstruction. In Beirut in the mid-1990s, I experienced first-hand the resistance of the Lebanese to the reconstruction of Beirut's downtown, citing its decades of history that needed to be preserved. A decade later, the new downtown seems to have won everybody's hearts for the way in which it honours the past by preserving its main sites while introducing a new era of high commerce. Beirut's downtown is back to being the converging point for the young and the old, for leisure and business.
A few years later, at film school in Montreal, I joined Canadians in mourning the closure of Warshaw, a popular supermarket. While grieving a supermarket might seem like excessive sentimentality, over its 66 years Warshaw had employed and served thousands of university students and dwellers of Montreal's central avenue, making the place historic for Canada's multi-cultural fabric. In honour of its memory, the three biggest TV networks broadcast a documentary film on Warshaw and the culture that stemmed from it.
My neighbour, Denise Holloway, and I have spent the past four months on Satwa's sidewalks, trying to record its untold secrets and to highlight its gems that might go unnoticed in the reconstruction. We knocked on doors, spoke to shop owners, took photos. We found a Hindu temple where heart-warming festivities can be attended by workers far from home, and an old house where a local man has bred and trained 300 racing pigeons for an annual race that no local newspaper has ever reported.
We learned about the intricacies of baking Pakistani bread and the meanings of the songs Indian tailors hummed while hemming wedding dresses. I presented 20 of the images we took along with spoken word and live music at The Third Line gallery last June as a celebratory commemoration of our beloved neighbourhood. But our Satwa Stories, couldn't do the neighbourhood full justice. Satwa deserves an enduring tribute that will outlive its demise, which is why I plan to curate a multi-disciplinary Satwa exhibition this year that will immortalise the neighbourhood's essence through the work of locally-based artists who have also been enchanted by its many worlds.
Active archiving is a must for the preservation of unique neighbourhood lifestyles, which can be re-nurtured in new developments. It would be a national loss if our sky is no longer peppered by that pigeon race. But is it possible to re-train a bird to return to a new home in Al Barsha after sunset? The pigeon man says yes. It is also possible for people, I believe, as long as they are promised that their old neighbourhoods will persist, in song, in prose, and in memory.
Mahmoud Kaabour is an award-winning filmmaker and lecturer. He is also the managing director of the Dubai-based Veritas Films.