x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A home from home

Features Forty years ago, Sheikh Rashid gave Dubai's international communities land to build social clubs. Georgia Lewis takes a trip to the mile long stretch where expatriates find a slice of home.

All of the international social clubs on Oud Metha excel in reminding the city's expatriates of home - including the Iranian Club shown above.
All of the international social clubs on Oud Metha excel in reminding the city's expatriates of home - including the Iranian Club shown above.

Dubai's Oud Metha Road is a dusty labyrinth thanks to the building of the metro line, but the one constant along this stretch is the enclave of social clubs for different nationalities. The suburb of Oud Metha is sandwiched between bustling Karama and the faux-Egyptian architecture of Wafi City. Its best known landmark is Lamcy Plaza, a bright pink shopping centre. But just a stone's throw away, there is an enclave of international social clubs.

Within less than two kilometres there are clubs representing India, Norway, Pakistan, Jordan, Iran and Sudan. Some, like the India Club, are extremely busy venues while others, like the Sudanese Social Club, appear deserted, in need of some urgent renovations and are difficult to contact. Newish apartment blocks and the ultra-modern Dubai Healthcare City sit in stark contrast to the older club. It's a relatively quiet part of town when the schools aren't teeming with rowdy pupils, but behind the façades of the clubs are subcultures of different nationalities, people who have come to Dubai from all over the world but still want to maintain a connection with their home countries.

The clubs are congregated along this road thanks to gifts of land between 1967 and 1974 from Sheikh Rashid, Ruler of Dubai from 1958 until 1990. It was a busy time of development for Oud Metha, as Sheikh Rashid also donated land for schools along the same road in 1967. Tucked behind the Indian High School, the India Club is perhaps the most developed and active of the Oud Metha clubs. It has an imposing façade with gold and glass doors and a row of illuminated palm trees out front. Inside, there is a basketball court, four tennis courts, two squash courts, a bowling alley, gym, four bars, four restaurants, function rooms, a business centre, a library, childcare centre and four badminton courts, where the club hosts a badminton tournament with Dh50,000 prize money on offer. The club has been operational since 1964, and was originally located near the Ruler's Court in Bur Dubai. In 1974 it was the beneficiary of one of Sheikh Rashid's Oud Metha Road land gifts.

With annual membership costing Dh2,200, and heavily subsidised facilities - the butter chicken at Diwan-E-Khas restaurant is just Dh8 - the club is popular with Dubai's professional Indian community. Bharat Chachara, the general manager, says that only 2,100 families are allowed to join at a time but this has still created a membership of more than 7,000. "The club is not for profit, all the money we make goes back into the club," Chachara explains. "It's all about value for money for our members and we haven't got the resources to have it overrun."

To be a member you have to be of Indian origin but non-members can visit the club as guests of members. The members, according to Chachara, are mostly professionals, with around 90 per cent being at managerial level or above. There are plenty of members who, like Chachara, are second or third generation Dubai-based Indian expats. "Even for those who were born here, it is important to feel a connection to home," says Chachara. He says these expats have been dubbed "the sandwich generation" because they are at home in Dubai but still want to maintain a connection with their Indian roots and can sometimes feel caught between two different cultures.

"India has a festival every day," says Chachara and he is only half-joking. To maintain links with India, the club embraces a wide range of festivals encompassing different regions and religions. Last year, 142 events were held. The next major event on the India Club calendar is Sunday's Janmashtami, a celebration of the Hindu deity Krishna that is characterised by the formation of a human pyramid under a suspended clay pot of yoghurt. The people in the pyramid have to smash the pot and a milky mess ensues. While traditional pyramids can be as high as 12 metres, Chachara says the club has planned a "21st century-friendly pyramid" that will be around four metres high with crash mats on the ground.

Navratri is the club's biggest event, with more than 25,000 people expected to turn up over four days. Traditionally a nine-day Hindu festival of music and dance in honour of the goddess Durga, the India Club's basketball court is taken over by revellers, largely younger Indian expats in their twenties. "We have DJs from India, it's like a rock party," Chachara says. For Indian Independence Day on Aug 15, the club hosted the premiere screening of the Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchans's latest film God Tussi Great Ho (God You Are Great), an Indian take on the hit film Bruce Almighty. Satirical plays are also popular, such as Taj Mahal Ka Tender, a play about a fictional auctioning of the Taj Mahal.

Smaller in size but just as passionate is the curiously named Norwegian Seamen's Center. The club, another 1974 land gift beneficiary, was Dubai's first all-wood building. The confused municipality officials, having never seen such a structure, classified it as a tent. The classification still stands. With a pitched roof and large windows, the building looks more like a cosy wooden house than a tent. There's a soothing sauna-like aroma inside, plenty of comfortable furniture, a pool table and cinnamon buns on offer.

Eva Ahlander, a volunteer at the centre and a theology student, says that despite the name, the centre is "a little haven in Dubai for all Scandinavians". She has been in Dubai for a year and finds it a great antidote to bouts of homesickness. It started life as a mission to sailors from Norway who were passing through Dubai but now it operates largely as a casual drop-in centre for people from Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Every Tuesday, there is a Dh50 business lunch during which Scandinavian professionals get together for traditional Nordic delights such as brown cheese, smoked salmon, sausage casseroles and potatoes. On our visit, around 20 people were enjoying the get-together. Among a table of women was the colourful Mica Ruzmanovic, an expat of Swedish and Serbian origins. She has been in Dubai for four years and runs the Micanova Dental Clinic, a cosmetic dentistry clinic on Jumeirah Beach Road. She held court at the table, telling Swedish jokes about owners of beige Volvos. Afterwards, she said she was so glad she'd visited. "I haven't laughed so much in a long time," she says.

Mica's beige Volvo joke referred to Sweden's "jante law" - a Swedish philosophy that means everyone must be equal and nobody should flash their wealth. But she says that in Dubai, people are encouraged to be proud of their achievements. Everyone at the table agreed. Kjersti, a psychotherapist who has been in Dubai for nine months, says she knows people who have held a ritual burial of the law in Sweden and says: "In Dubai, it's OK to aim high and this is slowly becoming more so at home too."

As well as organised social functions, such as desert drives and trips to Fujairah, the Norwegian Seamen's Center also holds wedding and christening ceremonies under the auspices of Dubai's Anglican Church. Tina Lonneborg, a minister ordained by the Church of Sweden, and her husband, David, live at the centre. Tina is on hand for religious services and is a friendly source of conversation and support for Scandinavian expats.

Instead of charging membership fees, the centre is supported by the Norwegian government, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Norway, donations and revenue generated by the advertising signs surrounding the basketball court. The court is also used for the Nordic sport of innebandy. Otherwise known as floorball, it is a rather egalitarian game that is in keeping with the spirit of the centre. Norwegian and Swedish are the main languages spoken at the centre and Eva says this makes the visitors feel very much at home. "The people who visit like to feel as if they have somewhere to go in Dubai where they belong and can be themselves," she says. This is a common thread for all the Oud Metha clubs - they are places that offer expats a sense of belonging and identity.

Around the corner from the Norwegian Seamen's Center is the Pakistan Association, where there is also a spirit of equality as well as a sense of national identity. The general secretary Syed Hussain, a 38-year veteran of Dubai, says that when he is at his club he feels like he is in "mini Pakistan". The large white building, a gift from Sheikh Rashid in 1967, looks like it was once a grand edifice but now it needs some work. There is a veranda all the way around the building and large archways dominate the front. The garden has a small mosque and cricket nets where workers fine-tune their batting and bowling well into the night under bright lights.

Muhammad Khaleeq, 51, has been in Dubai for almost three years. He is the club's chairman of strategy and development and says there are plans to redevelop the entire site. A Dubai-based Pakistani architect Imran Afzal has drawn up spectacular plans for a redesigned club free of charge and now they are in the process of raising the Dh25 million needed to turn the renderings into reality. So far, there's Dh5 million in the kitty. The plans include a food court, auditorium, banquet hall, guesthouse, sporting facilities and a training centre. It's all part of an image change for the club, which has so far included a revamped website and Pehchaan, an e-newsletter.

The club has around 400 members - up from 163 people a year ago - who pay Dh200 per year or Dh1,000 for 10 years. Hussain proudly says that the members are from all parts of Dubai's Pakistani community. "Everybody is welcome here - we have everyone from taxi drivers to doctors as members and my dream is for the club to become the first point of contact for all Pakistanis in Dubai." The inclusive nature of the club is reflected in the newsletter and website, which feature interviews with everyone from managers to Anwar Lala, the club's gardener, caretaker and cook and a resident of Dubai for 14 years. He says life in Dubai is "tough" but he is grateful to have a job that he enjoys and can earn a reasonable living and help support his four sons who are studying in Pakistan.

Charitable works are important and last year the club's welfare initiative raised Dh2.1 million to help poor Pakistanis. Every Monday night the club is very busy because that is when the welfare committee meets people who are requesting assistance. "We have all kinds of cases - people without health insurance, people who need surgery or medication, people whose children need surgery. We get dozens, sometimes hundreds of people, queueing on Monday nights," says Khaleeq.

The welfare committee investigates each case to determine the best use of the funds. An education initiative is another important part of the welfare committee's work and Khaleeq says that last year 150 Pakistani pupils' school fees were paid at a cost of around Dh250,000. Islamic education is another ongoing project that the club is keen to promote. "In the West, there are some extreme views of Islam and we want to get away from that," says Khaleeq. As well as conducting discussions and study groups on the Quran, the club's website has a section devoted to articles explaining the Muslim faith.

On Aug 8, a troupe of actors visited from Pakistan and performed a comedy play. Khaleeq and Hussain are hoping for more events like this in the future. "We had 1,500 people attend. It was hot, it was humid but everyone was there until the final curtain dropped," says Hussain. "People need to laugh." Across the road from the Pakistan Association is the Jordanian Club. The mock Petra façade offers a "mini Jordan" feel. Out the back, there's an unfeasibly lush green lawn, fountain, basketball court and trampoline. The club received its land grant from Sheikh Rashid in 1968. The last renovations were officially opened by King Abdullah of Jordan in 2000 and there's another three months of work to go on the basketball court which is also used for tennis and handball.

The main attraction of the club is a public shisha cafe with indoor and outdoor seating. It attracted a wide range of people on a Tuesday afternoon. A group of young women, two veiled, two in jeans and T-shirts, chatted animatedly at one table, while by the window a twenty-something man chain-smoked and worked on his laptop. At another, two middle-aged men in shirts and ties were deep in discussion between taking phone calls. The tables are decorated with glass lamps and beaded lights hang from the walls. Mobile phone ringtones tinkled in time to the Arabic pop music that played softly on the TV screens that weren't screening the Olympics or Al Jazeera. Juice, coffee, soft drinks and Arabic food are served as well as the ubiquitous shisha.

"Just Jordanians can be members but everybody is welcome," says the club manager Wael Nsour, who has been in Dubai for 10 years. There are around 400 members with membership costing Dh500 per year for families and Dh300 for individuals. Every May 25, Jordanian National Day, the club holds a market that sells traditional Jordanian products and there is a very busy Ramadan planned for this year with Iftar and Sohour meals served every night in a tent.

Children of members are invited to participate in sporting activities. The club also holds classes for children to learn traditional Jordanian dance and for female members to learn how to use computers. "We are also very keen to promote Jordan," says Nsour. "We show Jordanian plays and movies and we have plenty of brochures on Jordan and we encourage people to visit - it's a beautiful place." Unlike the other Oud Metha clubs, gaining access to the Iranian Club proved difficult. The club's general manager is elected by a board of directors based in Iran. There are two large, nondescript white buildings as you enter and behind, there's 50,000 square metres of land largely used for sporting facilities.

The all-you-can-eat brunch on Fridays (Dh55) held in the bright restaurant has an especially convivial reputation and attracts a wide range of nationalities every week. The decor is a bold apricot colour, somewhat Eighties in style, and the buffet is constantly stocked by a diligent group of women in brown headscarves. Anyone can pull up in the club car park and, once any women present have donned headscarves, can simply enter the large building to the right and walk straight into the restaurant for a meal.

"Why can't you just look up the website?" asked Arash Yaghtin, the club's public relations manager when an interview was attempted. The website shows that family, ladies, youth and children's memberships are offered but no membership fees are revealed. A wide range of courses, including English, Arabic, Farsi, art, management and fashion design are offered to members. As well as the restaurant, further investigation of the website revealed the club also has a four-star guesthouse, swimming pool, multipurpose sports hall, football pitch, male and female gyms, cinema, library and martial arts hall.

We were only shown the restaurant and library, a room crammed with books on Islam, Iranian history, art, Iranian newspapers and magazines. The library was decorated with illustrations of Iranian national heroes such as Reza Shah and there were ladders up the walls to reach books that were at least three metres up. It was a shame that we could not see more of the club - the restaurant was very busy for a Wednesday lunchtime with a mix of families and businessmen tucking into the buffet and it is clear from the wide range of facilities and renovations that are taking place that the club is indeed very active and making plans for the future.

Every club along Oud Metha Road has its own distinct personality and each one offers insights into the different communities in Dubai. A fascinating enclave has sprung up over the last 40 years and most of them are busy planning for the future with a strong focus on increasing the participation of women and young people. As the suburb of Oud Metha evolves with the addition of the forthcoming metro, this will not just change the face of the suburb but will also make the clubs more accessible to more people. With often ambitious plans for redevelopment, there is a common commitment among all the clubs to connecting expats with each other and with their home cultures. Bharat Chachara at the India Club and Eva Ahlander at the Norwegian Seamen's Center both described their organisations as "a haven" for the people who visit. Even with the chaotic construction taking place outside, it looks as if the clubs of Oud Metha will continue to provide a vital link with home for countless expats.