Immersive travel and the search for a hidden Dubai

An unconventional guidebook is allowing tourists to explore little-known corners of Dubai from the perspective of local artists and poets

This spring, a guidebook was published that uncovers a different side to the city. In Uncommon Dubai there’s no tick-list of over-hyped tourist sites, or endless pages of the kind of information that can be easily found online. Instead, its editor, Hind Shoufani, a Palestinian poet and director who splits her time between Dubai and Beirut, has hand-picked photographers, artists, writers, film-makers, typographers, architects and journalists to write a series of narrative essays that describe their own personal encounters with Dubai neighbourhoods.

Photos capture unfamiliar sights, or familiar ones from fresh angles. Some of the most beautiful are also the most unvarnished: an empty stretch of road, a Persian carpet hanging from a washing line. The stories describe a multi-layered, multicultural metropolis, with age-old customs existing side-by-side with a profusion of back-alley eateries, vintage boutiques and warehouses that have been converted into hip art galleries.

Deira Fish Market
Fishermen unload their catches of the day, to be sold at Deira Fish Market

While most guidebooks have a uniform style, each essay in Uncommon Dubai has a specific viewpoint and a personal voice. Amina Abdel-Halim writes about waking up before dawn to the sound of the call to prayer and walking in the relative cool of the morning to a 24-hour Lebanese bakery called Al Reef for an orange-juice box and a man’oushet za’atar – a type of flatbread folded around a warm mixture of dried thyme and olive oil. She eats it on the sea shore, watching the fishermen and sailing boats in the distance, before taking a cab into work. It is more than a food recommendation: it’s advice about how to make the most of your city, wherever you are.

Maltese journalist Emma Mattei launched the Uncommon series of guidebooks with British artist Jon Banthorpe in 2011. The idea, according to the website, was to “communicate the essence of a place; that which is felt and understood upon visiting, but seldom described”. The first book was devoted to the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo; another focuses on Stockholm, and volumes on London and Cairo are in the works.

Mattei believes that tourists no longer need broad overviews of cities, or lists of opening hours – the internet has that covered. “What people don’t seem to have much of these days is time,” she says, “and in this digital age we know the attention span is short, so we encourage the Uncommon reader to slow down, get local, walk around and connect without a gadget in their hand (maybe in their pocket for just a while).”

Many of the stories are about connecting with Dubai’s diverse inhabitants, rather than simply admiring the view. In Uncommon Dubai’s pages, one essayist visits the old souk in search of saffron and is invited to travel to Iran to witness the harvest of the precious crop first-hand – it takes a football field of flowers to produce one kilo of saffron.

The performer and writer Jamal Iqbal gives an insider’s tour of the Indian and Pakistani district around Lamcy Plaza, describing the phenomenon of “First Day First Show” screenings of Bollywood films on Thursday nights, complete with bawling babies, snacks of samosas and an interval, during which people rush outside to smoke or stock up on food. You can practically smell the spices.

Another writer, Hind Mezaina, ponders the rarity of traditional Emirati eating places in a country enchanted by food, and points travellers to a few choice cafés.

The approach these writers take is part of a larger trend that is being referred to by journalists and travel agents as “holistic,” “immersive” or “experiential” travel. The idea is to connect with a destination on more than a superficial level, by meeting locals or getting to grips with the underlying culture. With long-haul flights becoming increasingly common, tourists are starting to crave more authentic experiences. Part of this is about slowing down and appreciating the everyday, unspectacular life of a place, rather than sticking to the crowded, showy sightseeing spots. In the chapter The Invisible Entrepôt John Zada describes life in the historic dhow wharf district that stretches along the creek to the north of the Maktoum bridge – where the seemingly chaotic port gradually reveals it’s age-old customs.

Al Bustan Zoological Centre
The Al Bustan Zoological Centre is a 40-hectare private oasis that is a wildlife reserve for 110 species

Emma Mattei points out that websites such as Airbnb, which allows visitors to stay in the houses of ordinary people, and eatwith.com, which lets you pay to dine in homes rather than restaurants, have helped nurture this movement. “There’s definitely something in the air,” she says, “taking advantage of virtual and highly efficient connectivity to allow us to connect in ‘real life’.” Similarly, the Uncommon books can function as a tool “to bring you closer to a place, and allow you access to a more local way of living, with its quirks and gripes, favourite spots and best-loved hangouts”.

Mattei is also keen to remove some of the stress that comes with travel. “Uncommon loves indulgence and adventure,” she says, “so we imagine our reader lounging in their room mid- morning, reading one of the stories and finding the inspiration to get out there and discover something in the city beyond what is offered to the ‘tourist’. It’s about encouraging an attitude!”.