Away from Dubai’s tourist trail with Peeta Planet
As Emiratis, Mohamed and Peyman Parham Al Awadhi thought they knew everything there was to know about their homeland.
Over the past two years, the brothers behind the hugely successful television series Peeta Planet have crisscrossed the globe and visited 24 countries on a mission to educate a wider audience about Arab culture and traditions.
So when the pair turned their attention closer to home for their latest show, they thought there was little that they were not familiar with, from the winding backstreets of Deira, where they grew up, to the beaches, skyscrapers and cosmopolitan culture formed from about 200 nationalities merging in one spot.
But they were in for a surprise. Thanks to some of the world’s most popular social media gurus, the brothers have had a chance to look at Dubai through fresh eyes.
In the past four weeks, they have been diving with sharks, flown in a seaplane over the Palm Jumeirah and the Dubai creek, and discovered a host of restaurants that they had never heard of.
The action-packed month was filmed for #MyDubaiTrip, a new TV series in which 12 of the world’s most popular social media personalities were flown in to experience the city’s highlights in itineraries drawn up by 12 local Instagram users – with the idea of digging deeper to show them attractions off the beaten track.
“There were quite a few things which I had not done,” says the 37-year-old Peyman.
“I have been wanting to dive forever and never had an opportunity to do that. I had 10 sharks in the tank at the Dubai Aquarium passing three inches from my face. It was phenomenal.”
The 12-part series will be screened online next month as part of #MyDubai, a year-long initiative launched in January by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, the Crown Prince of Dubai.
#MyDubai aimed to encourage residents to share pictures and videos through Twitter, Instagram and Facebook in a bid to rewrite the Dubai guidebook from the perspective of those who know the city best.
Sheikh Hamdan said at the time: “In the fabric of Dubai, there are more than 2.1 million stories – the individual lives and experiences of all those who call Dubai home.”
The Al Awadhi brothers, who have already broadcast two series of Peeta Planet to an audience of 50 million across the Middle East, came up with the notion of adapting their presenting style to contribute to the project and joined forces with Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing.
The travel series had one remit: to steer away from the tired tourist trail and use social media to get savvy travellers from overseas to experience Dubai through the eyes of its inhabitants.
The Al Awadhis initially drew up a list of 200 influential social media users in Dubai before narrowing it down to 30 and putting it to a public vote in September for the final 12.
Similarly, 100 of the world’s most popular Instagrammers were shortlisted and voted on to come up with a select group of 12, each of whom was matched to a Dubai winner to complete their itinerary.
The results were representative of the cross-pollination that defines Dubai, with participants including the Mexican photographer Saul Aguilar, the Korean musician Seo Ju, the Turkish art teacher Devrim Ates, Aziz Al Duwaisan from Kuwait and Brazilian photographer Paulo del Valle.
The 12 Dubai-based experts included the popular Australian health-food blogger Karen McLean, the actor Nouraldin Al Youssef, the Saudi Arabian designer Muneera Al Tamimi and the Emirati artist Khaled Al Rams.
The activities ranged from sunrise safaris and bike rides through the old city to visiting a Hindu temple, trampolining, being fitted for a kandura and trying rgag, a dough-based snack, in Al Labeeb Grocery in Jumeirah. Many of these activities – shortlisted by residents who have lived in Dubai for years – are not typically found in travel books.
Food was key, with each expert asked to pick somewhere special for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The suggestions ranged from a burger van to tiny hole-in-the-wall cafes and shacks serving meals on the seafront.
Mohamed, 40, says: “What we are hoping to do is show a side to Dubai that not a lot of people know about. It has a lot of secret places and hidden treasures and is a very special place, but the majority of people see it as aspirational. They see the glitz, glamour and shopping but, really, that is just on the surface.”
“Normally, we are travelling the world and exploring through our social media following, who take us off the beaten track,” adds Peyman.
“Here, the idea was to get people to create itineraries so we crowdsourced for amazing things to do in Dubai. It is varied and a lot of the adventures and cultural things are unique.
“A lot of people hear about the construction boom and the glitzy seven-star hotels but they do not hear enough about the different terrains of Dubai, so you will see the new architecture, the beaches, the desert sand and even the mountains of Hatta in a different way,” he adds.
“You will also see the different communities who live in Dubai, and who bring a big part of their culture. We are very fortunate that we live in a country that is so diverse.
“We talk a lot about people from the Indian subcontinent and the traditions and food they have here so you start to understand what Dubai is all about.”
The Al Awadhis are well placed to talk about the cross sections of society in their city. They are fluent in English, Arabic, Hindi, French and Farsi, while their grandfather, Mohamed Ibrahim, was a commodities trader who lived in Mumbai in the 1960s, while their father, Younes Parham Al Awadhi, was a travelling salesman, trading in everything from clothing to toys.
Filming in Deira, where the brothers grew up near Al Nakheel Street, unexpectedly triggered a flood of memories.
“We went to the spice market. My father used to have a shop called Jeans Store just behind the souq in the 1970s and 1980s,” says Peyman. “When we were little, we would walk 30 minutes to the shop, stay there all day as my father would involve us in the business and then go back home.
“There was a little juice shop on the corner of the Spice Souk and it was still there – so we had a juice for old times’ sake.
“For me, that area is huge. A large number of the shops are owned by relatives or people who my father grew up with, did business with and was friends with.
“We were able to talk about how that is the centre of where everything in Dubai happened. Everyone who is a major businessman today started in that area. You look at the boats bringing goods across and think, this is how Dubai began.”
It is the personal stories peppered throughout and the underlying heartfelt soul-seeking that makes the Al Awadhis’ series, whether at home or abroad, so different from other travel or lifestyle shows.
Beneath the entertainment lies an earnest attempt to make connections and join the dots.
“That is the beauty of the insight from the #MyDubaiTrip curators and from us,” says Mohamed.
“It was about finding a way for visitors to connect with Dubai and show similarities between our cultures.”
Those parallels helped the Emirati Anas Bukhash, 33, an entrepreneur behind Ahdaaf Sports Club, bond with his partnered Instagrammer, the South African photographer Gareth Pon, 27.
Pon went kitesurfing, hot-air ballooning over the desert at dawn and ate everything from sliders on Kite Beach to traditional Iranian kebabs in the Special Ostadi Restaurant in Bur Dubai.
“The itinerary felt very nostalgic and personal. Anas talked me through why he chose what he did,” says Pon.
“In South Africa, we have sosaties, which are kebabs on a stick, so it was cool to see the same thing in Dubai with different flavours.
“I expected the city to be quite diverse but it was still surprising.”
Bukhash says he wanted a mix of tradition and culture in his itinerary and ended with a karak chai around a bonfire in the desert, where Emiratis circled in their 4x4s.
Like the Al Awadhis, he has embraced the new and modern while holding tradition in high regard.
The brothers, who were joined in the #MyDubaiTrip series by their younger siblings – Marwan, 33, known as DJ Bliss, and filmmaker Ehsan, 30 – will be screening each 30-minute episode in a diary format on Peeta Planet’s YouTube channel in November.
They will film the third series of their global travel show next year, with plans to introduce different strands to the programme encompassing categories such as food and adventure.
Meanwhile, some of the most powerful people in the world are taking note of their bid to reach a global audience.
Earlier this month, they were invited to New York to host an hour-long session for the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), an organisation set up to deal with some of the most challenging needs of the developing world.
Sandwiched between the former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, and the current president, Barack Obama, the Al Awadhis also met the likes of the former US secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton, the actor Matt Damon and the Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams.
“It was surreal,” says Peyman. “Afterwards Obama said: ‘You’re doing an amazing job. Keep it up.’”
Astonishingly, the invitation came through an American expat, who was a former resident of Dubai but who now works in the CGI office, and who was a fan of the brothers’ Wild Peeta restaurant.
And while the Al Awadhis plan to stick to entertainment for now, the experience has given them a taste of the potential global impact they could have.
Peyman says: “We always have this underlying message. While we want to make sure the show is entertaining because that is why people watch, it is also about trying to show what Arabs are all about.
“A lot of western media present Arabs in a negative way and we are trying to change that. We want to show that we are very open-minded and global.”