Amateur photographers go off the beaten track to capture UAE gems
At 4.30am on a Saturday, Dubai is the closest it will ever come to a sleeping city.
While some might be stirring in their homes for morning prayers, and neon lights still flicker over the Zaroob shawarma joint, Sheikh Zayed Road is deserted, save for the occasional taxi. The city is cloaked in darkness and silence.
But we’re soon shaken out of our trance by first the smell and then the din of Deira Fish Market, which is already well into the day’s trade, at its busiest, despite a milky dawn beginning to break.
As our group of 10 pile sleepily out of a minivan just after 5am, we have to step gingerly to avoid the fish heads and guts that are being tossed with reckless abandon, workers with wheelbarrows laden with fresh catches ploughing furrows with steely determination through the rabble and men wobbling precariously on bicycles carting giant flagons of tea.
This, our instructor Kate Hailey reminds us, is exactly why we came.
We’re on a food and photography tour called Unseen Trail: Market to Majlis, which aims to capture the grittier side of Dubai, away from sanitised malls and the pristine perfection of tall, dazzling buildings.
It’s one of a number of tours set up in a collaboration between Gulf Photo Plus photography centre and Frying Pan Adventures, which was started by Arva Ahmed to uncover little-known eateries in hidden pockets of the city to tell a different story about Dubai’s roots. Food lends itself to photography, says Hailey, because it’s so visual.
While other Unseen Trails cover varied subjects such as the backstreets and rooftops of Naif by night, iftar traditions, desert wildlife and Diwali lights, our tour is firmly focused on tracing the source and origin of our food while it’s still flip-flopping in a wheelbarrow through to tucking into a feast in traditional Emirati surrounds – and capturing it all on camera.
Hailey, who was born in the United States, encourages us to use anything we like, from professional camera equipment to smartphones, and divulges tips on how to adjust to the light and get close to the subject of a portrait to “connect with their eyes and get to see their character”.
“There are more stories happening here because there are more people,” she says. “There are guys on bikes; there is a density of people.
“We have people from all these different places in the world and fish stacked on top of each other. This is more about day-to-day life.
“In new Dubai, it is all about the shiny aspect of things. This place has more history and roots.
“I have been here many times but every time, I try to spot what is different. More of us need to do that in our day-to-day lives, whether we are photographers or not.”
We edge through the thronging market, unable to avoid brushing up against mountainous piles of pomfret, lemon sole, langoustines, milkfish and lobsters.
But our eclectic group, made up of residents and tourists from around the world, seem oblivious to the racket of wholesale fish auctions being held all around us at top volume and the floor slippery with entrails, as they snap away furiously.
With work under way on a new air-conditioned, mall-like fish market costing Dh269 million, these are sights which may soon be a rarity – and could spell the end of this particular tour.
South African finance manager Charles Williams and his wife Mari, both 40 and keen amateur photographers, moved to Dubai from Vietnam six weeks ago, and they’re determined to go beyond the modern enclaves.
“When you live in a city, you get comfortable and do not go outside what you know,” he says. “We try to do things like this to experience life through a different angle, such as through the workers.”
Meanwhile, Singaporean Harvonne Yap, 41, an oil-and-gas-industry negotiator based in Dubai, is shooting on her iPhone.
“I thought this would be a good way to see the city,” she says. “I probably would not have ventured into the market by myself, but this is a nice way to do it.”
Originally from the Netherlands, Marco Duyves, 51, a commercial director for Meydan hotels, would love to offer similar tours to hotel guests. “They know places you would normally pass by and never know what they are or the stories behind them,” he says.
Next stop is the fruit-and-vegetable market, where the morning light filtering through the eaves catches glistening drops of water on plump aubergines and illuminates bunches of radishes, carrots, tomatoes and juicy watermelons, to spectacular effect.
As we walk through a subway to the creek, South African Yunus Chamda, 56, who’s on a five-day conference in Dubai, remembers being told to look back when everyone else is looking in front of them. He does so, and is rewarded with a striking image of a lone figure in the tunnel, silhouetted by a sudden burst of ethereal sunlight.
We devour spicy egg parathas and karak chai by the creek as Stephanie Mahmoud, the Egyptian-Italian host from Frying Pan Adventures, points out men sorting through stale bread scraps, bought for Dh10 a sack, which they use as bait in fishnets. As they take a cigarette break, perching on a rock and exchanging banter, it makes for a captivating snapshot of the workers who keep Dubai’s wheels turning.
Our next stops are all about food. In Al Amoor, a traditional Egyptian bakery in Abu Hail, feteer is spun, twirled and thrown into the air, almost too quickly for our shutter speeds, before being baked in a wood-fired oven and slathered in sweet cream, nuts, honey and icing sugar for the delightfully named “honeymoon pie”.
But it’s just a taster for the Emirati banquet laid on for us in Al Khettar, where we sprawl on cushions in a majlis to feast on balaleet (sweet noodles topped with a spicy omelette), paper-thin rgaag crêpes, khameer bread with cream cheese and date dhibs and luqaimat doughnuts. Cameras are forgotten as everyone tucks in.
Over freshly squeezed lime juice and gahwa, Mahmoud tells us the Dubai Municipality inspector in the fish market had offered to host our group for breakfast in his home.
“That happens all the time in Deira,” she says wistfully. “It would have been a case of a simple phone call home, and breakfast would have been laid on for all of us. That’s an experience you don’t get in new Dubai.”