Remembering Al Nasr Leisureland and Al Nasr Cinema

I’m always asked what was it like growing up in Dubai in the 1970s/80s. Where did I hang out with my friends, what did we do?

Many (sadly) still assume there was nothing here in Dubai before the 2000s. It’s as if Dubai the way we know it popped out of nowhere.

My childhood and teenage years during the 1970s/80s was like growing up in any average small town. I used to hang out at friends’ homes, watching TV, movies or splashing about in the pool. We also went to the beach.

During my teen years, we hung out in Al Ghurair Centre one of the handful of malls/shopping centres in Dubai at the time. We also hung out on Al Diyafah Street (today know as 2nd of December Street) where I’d buy music, rent movies from Disco 2000; grab a burger at Hardee’s or a pizza at Pizza Hut. If we felt extravagant or had something to celebrate we’d go to Mini Chinese. 

A lot of these places are still around, but some have relocated or gone through a name change.

One place that hasn’t changed much and a spot of nostalgia to anyone that lived or grew up in Dubai in the 1980s is Al Nasr Leisureland. It’s a place like no other in Dubai. You step in there and it’s like time stood still. Not much has changed since it opened in 1979.

It’s a family friendly complex with sports facilities, including a very large swimming pool that had slides and waves. But during my childhood, I used to spend time in the Luna Park, playing on the banana swings and pineapple slides and the bumper cars. I also hung out at the arcade; table ice hockey was a particular favourite game. The candy shop, which I remember was very pink and yellow, was also frequented many times. 

Al Nasr Leisureland’s logo included a penguin, which I guess was there to promote the fact that it also had an ice rink. Although I was never good at skating, balancing myself was never my strongest point; I always loved the annual ice rink shows. They were quite extravagant affairs.

In the 1990s, my experience of the place changed, where I’d go to the bowling alley with friends and infrequent visits to the Lodge (a night club – where almost everyone in Dubai would end up on weekends). Yes, Al Nasr complex really had something for everyone.

But the biggest gem in that complex was Al Nasr Cinema. The first film I saw was in that cinema, Gandhi in 1982, the year it was released. My school took us to the cinema, it was an educational trip. I will never forget the feeling I had when we walked into the middle aisle and I looked up at the giant screen. Think that’s when my love for the cinema started.

But for most of the 1980s, the cinema showed Bollywood films and it was only in the 1990s that we started getting Hollywood blockbusters hitting our shores. (Otherwise, my movie viewing depended on renting pirated video cassettes from Disco 2000 on Al Diyafah Street).

Al Nasr Cinema only had one screen. Action films were big. I got to see most of the Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, and Stallone movies. At the time, my taste in films was less selective compared to today. I (actually, everyone interested in films) went to watch everything - because of the joy of being in a cinema. 

You’d bump into people you know there. This is when Dubai still felt small, when you felt like you knew almost everyone in the city.

Even watching the movies felt like a community activity. The action films in particular saw us cheer loudly when the bad guys got killed off, or boo at lame scenes. This was before I took cinema etiquette seriously. But hey, we were all guilty at the time. Was it the novelty of being in the cinema?

But I’ve also had my fair share of shh-ing people when I was watching a serious film. The film snob in me wouldn’t accept any talking or joking during serious films.

When I was serious about watching a film, nothing would get in the way. I recall standing in line with a friend amongst kids on the opening night of The Lion King on a Friday evening. I think we were the only two adults trying to fight our way amongst kids. Imagine, I wanted to make sure I got in to get good seats before the kids. I cringe at the thought of how awful or obnoxious we must have appeared. But don’t worry, no kids were harmed. I will never forget the excitement of the first few minutes of the opening scene. I felt as stunned as everyone else in the hall, and for a few minutes I felt like the 10 years olds surrounding me.

Film timings weren’t reliable, as sometimes we’d have to wait for the reel to be transported from one cinema to another. How quaint.

Aladdin, The Bodyguard, Dances with Wolves, The English Patient, A Few Good Men, Forrest Gump, Jerry Maguire, Philadelphia, Seven, Shawshank Redemption, A Thin Red Line, Titanic, Toy Story, Twelve Monkeys, The Usual Suspects are some of the of films I remember watching there.

Around mid to late 1990s, new, bigger shiner multiplex cinemas started opening up in the new malls that started cropping up across the city. Al Nasr Cinema was no longer cool. It was aging and not keeping up with the times or the technology.

Eventually Al Nasr Cinema stopped showing Hollywood blockbusters and went back to screening Bollywood movies, catering to a crowd that were still willing to go to Al Nasr Cinema. I wish I could say I remember what was the last film I saw there, but sadly I don’t. I never stepped foot for a long time, but I was glad it was still around. Eventually, the building was abandoned, because even the Bollywood films and their audiences preferred the multiplexes.

I’d still see my favourite cinema whenever I was in Oud Metha and drove by it. But even though I was going to the other cinemas, it was not the same. I missed my first row balcony seats (although I've now transitioned to preferring sitting in front). 

On 21st December 2008, I read this headline in Gulf News and my heart sank, “Massive fire erupts at Al Nasr Cinema in Dubai”. I regretted not visiting my favourite cinema after it was abandoned, not photographing it – to be able to share this part of history of Dubai that missed it.  

Today, walking around Al Nasr Leisureland and the plot where the cinema was, which is still empty – everything looks much smaller than I remember, but guess everything felt bigger when we were kids. I couldn’t find the banana swings in Luna Park, but the large fruit shaped rides were still there. I know if I take my young nephews to play there, they will mock me and laugh at my face and describe it as too childish. Today’s kids are much more sophisticated compared to my days of being a kid.

There are more restaurants in Al Nasr Leisureland than I remember, the arcade hardly looks used, but the place had people using the sports facilities, including the bowling alley. A favourite with the drinkers in Dubai as it is one of the few places that isn’t in a hotel that’s licensed to serve alcohol. The Lodge has been changed to Chi at the Lodge. It’s no longer the meeting point for everyone on a weekend night like the old days. Next to it is a Goan club, Viva Goa that has more character than Chi.

The penguin is still there. What an odd, yet delightful choice for a mascot/logo for a place in Dubai. The main sign outside looks worn out. Could it possibly be the same one form 1979? I wouldn’t be surprised if it is, and I’m glad it looks worn out. It’s aged; it shows it has history, just like the place itself.

It’s very easy to fall into the nostalgic trap when living in Dubai, the here and now never seems to be good enough. I along with many people I know miss the old days, the "simpler days".  

For this story, I looked up Al Nasr Leisureland online. It was the very first time I visit It never occurred to me a website even existed. And there it was, the one line that captured the spirit of the place, “Discover the many pleasures of leisure”.

This piece was originally written for Uncommon Guide: Dubai. All photos © Hind Mezaina.