We Are Here - Issue 2 - Dubai

The second issue of We Are Here came out this June, focusing on Dubai like it did in its first issue, which I wrote about a few months ago. Each issue focuses on a city or a part of a city. Conor Purcell, the editor of We are Here explains why he featured Dubai for the second time. 

"It was never our intention to cover Dubai again, but after the first issue, we were contacted by people around the city that were doing interesting things, and had stories to tell. So, if issue one attempted to give the reader a sense of a place, this issue attempts to chronicle some of the people who live here."

We Are Here 2 ran into some issues with the National Media Council (who approve all books/magazines that get printed in the United Arab Emirates). The Council asked for some changes and cuts, so the team behind We Are Here decided to raise money by crowdfunding to print and publish the magazine independently outside the United Arab Emirates. Their goal was met and the magazine came out this June. 


I recently bought this issue (now sold out). Apart from a few interesting pieces like "The Man Who Builds Towers in the Desert" and "The Farm" which had insights into Dubai you don't normally read about, the rest of the issue touched upon the usual themes you find in other publications, like its transient state, its architecture, the contrast between the haves and the have nots.

"The Runner - Tracking Dubai on Foot" by Jimmy Dawson is the only piece that stood out and resonated with me. Here it is, posted with kind permission from Conor Purcell and Jimmy Dawson. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 

The Runner - Tracking Dubai on Foot by Jimmy Dawson

Sometimes I am in Dubai, but not in Dubai. Not the metropolis that the travel guides would sell me on, anyway. Sometimes a couple of strange turns can take me from that Emerald City straight into the pages of a National Geographic.

I stood amid the foot traffic in a narrow, inconspicuous alley. Dark skinned people with gold dots on their foreheads, all barefoot, squeezed around and past me as I loitered in all my western whiteness and fluorescent running gear.

The camelback with the sipping tube hanging out in front of me suddenly felt like part of a space suit.

The walking path in this nook of Al Bastakiya was as wide as a grocery store aisle. On either side of it were crammed, makeshift shops where vibrant garlands hung over tables that were filled with keepsakes of one sort or another. Each little shop looked similar to the one before. The only thing that broke up the explosion of colours and shapes was a metal stairwell, which led people away from what I would come to know as Dubai’s only Hindu temple.

It’s hard walking into places like this and not feeling intrusive. Even though I live here and feel like Dubai is as much a part of me as any American city I’ve lived in, even though I come upon these scenes honestly and not to gawk, there are some places I feel more of a tourist than a resident; as if I had just stepped off of one of those tacky tour buses in front of a well-trodden landmark.

These are the moments I run for, though. Not because I’m 40 years old and trying to stave off the ailments of age; but because I’m 40 years old and haven’t seen as much of the world as I would have liked.

Running is my way of being a tourist without looking like a tourist. Cars can’t take you past places like this. Not to where you can see it, anyway. Not to where the senses can run wild.

You could even walk around the Bur Dubai souq a couple of times before deciding to make your way down this alley. If you happen to notice the entrance at all.

The first time I decided to incorporate Dubai’s streets and alleys as a means of exploration I, of course, ran to the Burj Khalifa. That’s where Dubai starts with most people. How could it not, as unavoidable as it is? It was a 14-mile trek and just about the entire way from my villa in Mirdif I could see it. The beacon. The proverbial North Star. The landmark of landmarks. And the whole time that I was being guided by the symbolism of Dubai’s future, I was running through its past.

With each new run, I do my best to not plan the route but rather embark with wanderlust; to try and see a part of Dubai as if I had just stepped off the plane. I zigzag this way and that like a cat under a disco ball chasing what- ever objects seem to catch my eye: the architecture of a mosque; graffiti on a wall; the sandlot cricket games where hives of eastern expats make use of the barren morning parking lots.

One morning I was drawn to a foot- bridge and came down the other side to see a weary face looking up at me, unfazed. The man was dressed in an unassuming salwar kurta sipping coffee as he stood outside his squat quarters that, much like him, looked far removed from the luxury apartment homes on Palm Jumeirah.

Dubai has this reputation as the home of the jet set crowd, but I’ve seen men who look like they couldn’t rub two dirhams together and could care less. Sometimes they smile, sometimes they don’t. Either way, you’re not likely to see their face under the glossiness of the travel brochures. But they’re with me on every run. I also go to the places in this Emirate where there are scant signs of life. Or buildings. Or anything else, for that matter. On the outskirts of town, there’s Academic City Road. A good part of this tract, the part I run any way when I don’t have time to meander, is surrounded by desert.

Out there the call to prayers are faint. What’s more audible are the occasional work camp buses barreling past and the endless cue of planes making their final descent into DXB. But mostly it’s marked by silence.

The tourist authority might show this desert with a smiling Arab in his kandora leading a serene camel across a dune as the sand sparkles in the sun, But they won’t show you the Bangladeshi whose picking up trash in that desert at 5.30 in the morning. That is specifically a runner’s perspective.

And that alone will give you as much insight into Dubai as anything else. Through my morning runs I have heard the city’s quietest moments being shattered by the day’s first call to prayer. I have run past the desert winter camps at sunrise as some locals dune bash while others struggle to gain traction in the soft sand. And I have been in the veins of the old city, through the orifices that lead to these mazes of alleys. Places I imagine not many westerners, expats and tourists alike, experience.

These are the places that allow you to imagine how life here must have looked half a century ago: tired, strained buildings overlooking a creek’s simple shipping methods.

I read recently that Deira is getting a Dh3 billion facelift. The picture in the paper showed a conceptual building that could fit in with any of the other futuristic projects the city is dreaming up. I thought about how different this place will look in a couple of years. About how, at some point, when you’re in Dubai you’re gonna know it. Every step of the way.


Issue 3 of We Are Here will cover Kathmandu and will be out in November.