x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Zabeel 1: an oasis of tradition

This Emirati neighbourhood in Dubai clings to the old ways as the city around it undergoes rapid change.

Dressed in traditional kandoura, the line of Emirati men on camelback peers out from a faded photograph hanging in the hallway of Maryam Bel Jaflah's Zabeel villa. The neatly bearded young man at the centre of the group looks vaguely familiar. "That's Sheikh Mohammed," says Maryam, with a delighted smile. "My grandfather, Rashid Bel Jaflah, worked with Sheikh Rashid when Dubai first started to be built and they were great friends. His son, Sheikh Mohammed, still sometimes drives around our neighbourhood, checking to see if anyone needs any help or assistance. When we built our khaima (traditional majlis) in our front garden, he passed by and said he liked it. We see him now and then when he visits Zabeel."

That's a pretty hands-on involvement from one of the leaders of one of the most dramatically changing countries in the world. But for the inhabitants of this quiet Emirati neighbourhood, the intervention of their benevolent landlord ensures that a traditional way of life is allowed to continue. "We love him too much," says Maryam of Sheikh Mohammed. "He has a big heart for his people." The area, which sits at the heart of Dubai, seems almost impervious to the relentless march of progress around it. Large, elegant villas in peach and russet stone frame the dusty, tree-lined streets. On the odd corner here and there, you'll see older homes that have escaped the wrecking balls of modernisation. Clusters of palm trees sprout from dusty patches of ground, and a few chicken pens lean against sagging walls.

But, while the way of life here harks back to a more intimate sense of community, all around Zabeel 1 the signs of progress are impossible to ignore. To the north, the skyscrapers of Sheikh Zayed Road glint in the sunlight. To the east and west, Oud Metha Road propels traffic to and from Wafi, Oud Metha and Karama. Despite being hemmed in by a metropolis thronging with more than 200 different nationalities, the enclave of Zabeel 1 retains the feeling of an old-fashioned neighbourhood. It seems idyllic. Doors are left open, everyone knows everyone else and, in the afternoon, children are playing ball games and riding bicycles unattended while family elders sip tea on front porches.

If only we could all live here. But, as Maryam explains, Zabeel is the property of the Sheikh, and grace-and-favour homes are bestowed only on his needy or deserving Emirati subjects. She points out of an upstairs window to an adjacent villa. "That house was given to an old lady who had nowhere else to live. There are a lot of older people who live here who have been given homes." She points back to the photograph, which was taken when Zabeel 1 was little more than a sandpit. In the background the tall spire of a mosque peeps out from behind the line of men and camels. Maryam parts a heavy, embroidered curtain in her living room and points out the mosque, which is still standing (albeit about to be rebuilt) just outside her home. Another old photograph, with the same mosque at its centre, shows a cluster of old, one-storey houses that stood here before they were demolished to make way for newer villas.

Maryam's family has lived in Zabeel for generations and the traditional way of life continues in these brand-new homes. "We all used to live in older houses here in Zabeel 1, but were moved to Jumeirah for a year while new, bigger houses were built and the old ones knocked down," explains Maryam. "Then we all moved back, although families that once lived next door to each other might have to walk a few doors further to visit each other. We used to be able to walk between our family homes in privacy and not need to cover up. But things change everywhere."

When the families who lived in the old houses moved temporarily to Jumeirah about three years ago, they were able to choose their new Zabeel houses from several designs presented to them. A few doors down the road from Maryam, Wafa Hareb is babysitting her niece while her sister is at work. She's lived in the neighbourhood her entire life. Wafa studies business at Zayed University and has just returned from the henna salon, her hands stained dark with intricate ink whorls and patterns, in readiness for her cousin's engagement party. Her extended family lives in the large, richly decorated home. Bold wallpapers edged with gold decorate their two sitting rooms, which are arranged in traditional Arab style - sofas against the walls facing each other. The family has, like Maryam's, lived here for generations.

"Zabeel is a very special place to live," she says. "Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Rashid before him made this space for us. We do not live surrounded with too much new culture. Life here is a very old fashioned way of life. At 4pm you see boys playing outside, we go to each other's houses, and we take walks." She says the lack of shops and major amenities is not a problem to the inhabitants, who cherish the peace and lack of consumerist intrusion.

"Three years ago, Zabeel was all sandy but when the new villas were built that changed. If you go to other houses, you will see there are a lot of old people here. They are looked after by the Sheikh. Their homes have many old things inside and they carry on with their old ways of life. And we can't let that go, because this way of life is very close to our hearts."