real dubai

on finding a japanese bakery in dubai

Gif from the Hello Kitty and Friends cartoon

Gif from the Hello Kitty and Friends cartoon

Last night I had Korean BBQ at Hyu Korean Restaurant. Hyu is a family-owned Korean place in Jumeriah Lake Towers (JLT). JLT is the quintessential Dubai neighbourhood: towering skyscrapers, city lights, taxis, traffic, restaurants, bars, office buildings. Hyu is authentically Korean - clear from its frequently visiting Korean clientele - and is nestled between JLT’s modern buildings and awkward infrastructure (if you’ve been there you’ll know what I mean). The modernity and awkwardness of JLT doesn’t bother me much - I have taught myself to be indifferent to the pointless skyscrapers and accepting of the fact that the future of the city is uncertain and possibly dystopian. For me, I just wanted to enjoy and devour the Korean barbecued beef, which by the way, was insanely mouth-watering-delicious.

A Korean barbecue, a plate of Dakgangjeong, and a green tea later, we decided to go looking for Japanese cheesecake. “There’s a Japanese cheesecake at Yakitate in Al Rigga” said my companion who was researching Japanese cheesecake options on his phone for the last ten minutes. “Al Rigga it is” I said, ready to trek on the 40 minute drive across Dubai, to one of its oldest neighbourhoods. Al Rigga is the quintessential neighbourhood of old Dubai; low-rise buildings, flickering shop signs, bicycles, traffic and shared living spaces. Anyone who grew up in Dubai knows Al Rigga as the neighbourhood that held Dubai’s promise of modernity and is now part of a forgotten past. It is a glimmer of hope that a bit of the city’s history - my history - is preserved. To me, finding the Japanese bakery in Al Rigga was a relief. When we got there, I ordered a Japanese cheesecake, a tart, Mochi and a Nutella-filled croissant for the both of us. To my dismay, I didn’t really like the taste of any*.

The confusion and disappointment I felt at the end of this East-Asian adventure in the heart of Dubai made me think of our experience of Dubai in general. The continuous striving for modernity, the promise of the future, the idea of a “utopian” life in the Middle East. This all of course was triggered by my recent reading on Gulf Futurism and the image of Dubai as a “city of the future existing in the present”. For those of you that might be interested in reading more about these themes, check out this article by Yasser ElSheshawy, Professor of Urban Studies at UAE University.

Of course the idea of a utopian Dubai - or a utopian anything for that matter - is a sham. I don’t even think utopia is a necessary ambition. And also, its okay for everything to just be as it is. Al Rigga doesn’t have to be a sign of hope that Dubai’s past is still alive, and JLT doesn’t have to be a sign that the future is all gloom and doom. I guess what I am trying to say is, its okay to not enjoy Yakitate in Al Rigga. And its also okay to enjoy Korean in JLT. Maybe Hyu is a sign that the future will be alright after all.

*By the way, Yakitate is a really old Japanese Bakery that now has two branches in Al Rigga and also has great reviews on google. It’s affordable in relation to the more recent Japanese concepts popping up around the city. I highly recommend you try it.

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graffiti in Dubai

I recently sat down with long-time Dubai resident and photographer Jalal Abuthina to talk about his photobook series “Inside Dubai”. Inside Dubai is a project that aims to document a unique account of Dubai - something that few photojournalists have attempted to do in the past. Jalal decided to start project after noting the lack of resources that gave an authentic account of the city - and also the need to break away from stereotypical and one-dimensional images of Dubai. I spoke with Jalal about his project, representation and the city we both grew up in, for Sekka Magazine. You can find the interview here.

Images courtesy of Jalal Abutina

At the end of the interview, however, Jalal pulled out a white book/catalogue and gave it to me. It was a gift - a incredibly thoughtful one that has been in my thoughts since he gave it to me. It’s one of his earliest books, before the creation of “Inside Dubai”, that documented graffiti around the city. It particularly looks at a neighbourhood Al Badra also known as district 333. Al Badra is sandwiched between the more popular areas of Jumeriah 1 and Satwa, and is often times assumed to be part of either one. The book is a beautiful account that archives the history and phenomena of “street art” in Dubai (and the UAE at large).

As you can tell from many of the images, the writing is very simple, short, to the point. It is the complete opposite of everything we “know” about graffiti - it is the opposite of what you see in European or American cities - and the book presents it as a complete genre of its own. This project immediately took me down memory lane; images of graffiti from the neighbourhoods I grew up in came flooding back to me and I instantly blushed. I remembered how embarrassed I used to be of this overly simplistic graffiti. Seeing it on the walls of my school and near my apartment building used to make me cringe. I always assumed that our "overly-simplistic” graffiti was the result of our “backwardness”. Our communities were unable to coherently build a “proper” street art scene because we are in a way “primitive” and don’t understand the sophisticated rules of street art.

The book didn’t only bring me back to my childhood but it brought me back to myself - why was I so critical and so embarrassed? The answer to that, I of course, know very well. I now know that we have been taught from the very beginning not to understand our history. Not to understand the complexity and layers and multitudes of our communities. We have been taught not to think twice about WHY the graffiti is so simplistic (because vandalism is a serious crime in the region and therefore the writing has to be quick and short before anyone gets caught) and to just assume that everything we are part of is INVALID. That its not witty or clever or meaningful in its own right. That nothing we make organically of our environment can have meaning or validity.

Seeing this project restored my feeling of pride that I worked so hard over the years to gain. Its taken me so long to break down the stigma inside me and to truly see who we are with understanding and empathy. This is why its so important to archive our communities - we need to be creating works that help us understand ourselves.