Dubai uncovered: how one photographer has captured the other side of the city
In October, Issam Kazim, chief executive of Dubai Corporation for Tourism and Commerce Marketing – the body responsible for the branding, promotion and marketing of Dubai to the world – made a presentation to an international gathering of senior executives, marketers and communication specialists who had assembled at the Skift Global Forum in Brooklyn.
The purpose of the forum, described as the TED of travel, was to discuss the future of the travel industry, and Kazim’s talk, The Future of City Branding, was about the role that images can play in helping cities to move beyond the standard narratives that define them, by transforming people’s perceptions of a place and by broadening a destination’s appeal.
“The question is how do we shift from talking about Dubai in terms of superlatives – about the biggest buildings – and really make people realise that there is a lot more to offer than just these buildings?” the chief executive asked as he showed the audience photos of a New Year’s Eve fireworks display engulfing the Burj Khalifa.
“Dubai knows it can’t rely solely upon people spending silly money,” explains Jason Clampet, Skift’s co-founder and head of content, by way of an explanation. “It needs to diversify the experiences available to visitors.”
Kazim arrived at the forum with what he already believes is the answer. In January 2014, Dubai’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, launched #MyDubai, a social media campaign that encourages the emirate’s local residents, expats and tourists to use the #MyDubai hashtag whenever they take a picture of the city and post it online.
The campaign, which was billed as “the world’s first autobiography of a city”, immediately went viral. After its first week, #MyDubai achieved 75,000 Instagram users and 128 million Twitter impressions, and after 20 months the campaign had attracted 9.78 million Instagram users and 1.98 billion Twitter impressions.
“If we take a step back and focus on what people see and how people see Dubai, other elements of Dubai come to the forefront,” says Kazim. “And by doing that we also need to recognise the fact that people and habits have changed.”
Beyond its economy, its reach and its scope, he explains that the beauty of #MyDubai lies in the fact that it is able to harness the “world’s biggest marketing department” to inform potential visitors about Dubai’s “genuine experiences” while using “the perspectives and the lenses of the people who live in, as well as visit, the city”, because they are “the ambassadors and the advocates for the city. These are the guys who live and breathe the city”.
Kazim’s definition of the perfect Dubai ambassador suits the artist and self-taught photographer Jalal Abuthina almost perfectly, but not quite.
Half-Irish and half-Libyan, Abuthina has lived in Dubai since 1993, and when he hasn’t been making a living as a real estate agent, a private tour guide and a commercial photographer, he has spent more than a decade taking photographs of Dubai’s older neighbourhoods such as Satwa, Deira, Karama and Bur Dubai.
The idea for his books came from conversations Abuthina had during his time working as a private guide, when he would often show visiting academics the grittier side of the city.
“We often ended up having discussions about Dubai and representation, and about the fact that there wasn’t really anything that represented what was going on, especially in the older districts of the city, the street life, the street scenes and the nuances that make Dubai Dubai,” says Abuthina.
Jalal Abuthina’s unseen side of Dubai - in pictures
“If you do an image search for Dubai in Google, 80 or 90 per cent of those images will be duplicates of each other, so in terms of visual representations of the city, there’s actually very little variety.”
Capturing streetlife along Somali Road in Deira, traditional Indian kushti wrestling matches outside the nearby Hyatt Regency hotel, the Hindu temple in Bur Dubai, and even the work of street cobblers in the back alleys of Karama, Abuthina’s images paint a picture of Dubai that will be familiar to residents of the Emirates but which still do not appear in Dubai’s tourist marketing literature.
“I’m trying to communicate everyday reality and normality as opposed to the fabulous, which seems to be the only kind of representation which exists right now,” says Abuthina.
“Most of the books about Dubai are either a celebration of the historical account of what’s happened here or they’re a celebration of the superlatives and the tourist destinations, and the ‘Wow! Wow! Wow!’” he says, unaware of how close his sentiments are to the head of Dubai’s tourism marketing machine.
“The tourist who comes to Dubai and who does the standard tourist package goes to the mall, goes to the Burj Khalifa and they go to the beach, and that’s pretty much it,” says the photographer.
“But if a tourist wants to learn more about the city and a deeper insight into the daily realities of the city, they have no access to that, if they aren’t in touch with anybody who is local or has local connections.
“There’s nothing about contemporary life in Dubai which is a portrait of the fabric of Dubai’s society or the everyday reality of the city.” To remedy the situation, the 35-year-old has self-published three books using his own publishing imprint, Inside Dubai.
The Best of Dubai Shop Names is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek collection of the kind of misunderstood, mistranslated and often incomprehensible shop signs that delight expats and are such a feature of small businesses throughout the Emirates.
Misspellings feature heavily – chicken is always “freshe”, meals are “testy” and dresses are “majic” – as do modifications of famous brand names: customers can get their hair cut at the “facelook” saloon, buy gifts at “Toys & Us” or play snooker at the “Starlucks Club Cafe”. If the joke and Abuthina’s highly-processed images wear a little thin, the volume sustains itself by offering an insight into the kind of small-scale businesses and low-income communities that scrape a living, unseen by tourists behind the luxury hotels, soaring office towers and architectural set pieces of the ‘New Dubai’.
By focusing relentlessly on the shop frontages and shop signs, Abuthina’s book reveals them for what they surely are, a form of unregulated and unruly folk art that, for all of its apparent crudeness, provides the streetscapes they adorn with the kind of urban vitality that is so noticeably absent from Dubai’s newer shopping areas. A much more substantial book, Dubai: Behind the Scenes takes the reader on a visual journey through the neighbourhoods of Deira, across Dubai Creek and into Bur Dubai, while Memories of Satwa is a portrait of the ramshackle, low-rise neighbourhood that nestles between the upmarket suburb of Jumeirah and the towers of the Sheikh Zayed Road, much of which has already disappeared since Abuthina took his photographs.
“In the last four years, about 50 per cent of the Al Sha’abiya neighbourhood in Satwa has been demolished, and there are images from the part that has gone in the book,” he says. “But even on Dubai Creek they are talking about removing the dhows. The whole city is changing.”
Both Memories of Satwa and Dubai: Behind the Scenes have forewords by the UAE-based architect and urban theorist Yasser Elsheshtawy, an academic who has spent almost two decades investigating the mechanics and realities of the urban life behind Dubai’s carefully cultivated facade.
“Delving into the city’s backstage, a different picture emerges of a place that is vibrant and alive, forming an integral part of the everyday – a real city; a place that is deeply rooted in history, accumulating layers of memory,” Elsheshtawy writes in his foreword to Dubai: Behind the Scenes. “For some, this is a side to Dubai that should remain hidden. Yet this is precisely what is giving character to the city, and makes it so much more distinctive and memorable... there is a sense of urban grit, a lived-in place, of natural character, thus defying the clichéd view of artificial Dubai.”
Abuthina had to edit his way through more than 4,000 images, some of which were shot on 35mm film as long ago as 2002, to arrive at the final selections for the books.
Aimed firmly at the tourist market – they come pre-translated into English, Arabic and Russian – Abuthina hopes that they will appeal to visitors who “understand the difference between the tourist destinations and the more cultural aspects of the city”.
Whether the books are a commercial success or not, the true value of Abuthina’s images comes from their status as an archive of a city undergoing rapid and seemingly irrevocable transformation, and as such they are reminiscent of the photographs of Paris taken by the 19th century French photographer Charles Marville.
Employed throughout the 1860s by the city of Paris to document both the picturesque, medieval streets of old Paris and the broad boulevards and grand public structures that Baron Haussmann was building in their place for the emperor Napoleon III, Marville captured before-and-after shots of the city as it was razed and rebuilt.
Like Marville, Abuthina has documented the city he calls home, a fast-disappearing older city with a very different urban experience and one that has honed his photographic vision and taught him how to see.
Nick Leech is a features writer at The National.
• Dubai: Behind the Scenes (Inside Dubai 2015, Dh170) will receive its official launch at Kinokuniya bookshop, Dubai Mall, next Friday at 5pm. Visit www.insidedubai.ae
Updated: January 13, 2016 04:00 AM