A shopaholic would find herself a Mecca in Dubai, what with its shiny, gitzy shopping malls, home to labels commonly seen in fashion magazines. Like Manila, one has his or her choice of mall-flavor: mammoth and diverse – Dubai Mall; medium-sized but impressively stocked with designer stores – Mall of Emirates; small and laidback which just the right amount of snoot to maintain its exclusivity – Dubai Marina; the must-go-to-mall, on account of it being annexed to IKEA – Festival City; the conceptual – Ibn Batuta Mall, with its arteries laid out and named after the places Ibn Batuta, an intrepid traveler, explored (China, Andalusia, Tunisia, Egypt); the charming, such as the Madina Jumeira, a high-end arcade built like an old souk (market), with sandy pathways and shops in old-style niches; and the hard to reach but indispensable Dubai Outlet Mall, where I scored four pairs of Nine West Shoes for an equivalent of P3000 last year (this year, I wasn’t so lucky—not because they increased prices, but because they just didn’t have my size)…and much more.

Then there are low-end shopping centers, where most of our ‘kabayans’ can be found: Karama commercial center, where one can get “legitimate pirated” apparel, according to a high-ranking Dubai travel officer; and the busy commercial area of Satwa.

Then you have the city centers—smaller-sized malls located in different districts around the UAE.

If you’ve got money to burn, Dubai is your kind of town.

But one can only do so much malling; and one can get tired of new, glittering places that still have to give birth to their own unique spirits and histories.

Before Dubai became known for its superstructures (such as the Burj Khalifa, nee Burj Dubai, renamed after Abu Dhabi’s sheikh bailed out the debt ridden-city of Dubai, standing at 828 meters and housing 160 floors), it was a quiet city with reddish-brown structures that were either homes or areas of commerce. A peek at Dubai, before the beloved Sheikh Zayed (after which the main highway is named) can be seen in Bastikiya, a compound in Bur Dubai. There, you can see how the original houses were built (with wind towers for better ventilation), and art galleries and shops devoted to modern and classical Arabic art and culture.

The Dubai Museum is also nearby; likewise the Gold Souk (yes, another shopping place), where the prices of gold are posted for all to see, much like a restaurant displays its specials of the day, and you can haggle for intricately-made jewelry for as much as 30 to 40 percent discount off the original price.

Fifteen minutes away is the port for abra (water taxis), seldom used by tourists, who prefer to arrange for a “proper” tour and dinner on the Dubai creek on a larger dhow.

On the other side of town, in one of the most coveted addresses in Dubai, is a place that also lends an insight to how things were before the mall era.

The reclaimed part of Jumeira, the one known as The Palm, may have its list of famous residents—Angelina Jolie, Sylvester Stallone, the Beckhams (and indeed, our own Lara Fabregas, now married to a Scottish banker)—but it’s an elegant mid-century structure in the original part of the Jumeira neighborhood that captivates me.

It is the Majilis Ghorjat Um Al Sheif, built in 1955, when Jumeira—and indeed, the rest of Dubai—thrived mostly on dates, fish, and a pearl industry. Sheikh Rashid bin Saed Al-Makhtoum constructed it as a summer resort for family and friends, and it’s said that “delicate discussions about the future of Dubai” were discussed there. (Majilis is “meeting place” in Arabic; traditionally, only men can enter the majilis. Nowadays, there are ready-made majilis for sale throughout the UAE – some as grand as, say, Rockwell Tent; some, as simple as a trailer home.)

The main structure is a two-storey one, made of coral and gypsum. The first floor is open—one can imagine younger men or lower-ranking members of the majilis loitering there, smoking, drinking tea. The second floor is simply but beautifully decorated—teakwood framing the windows, carpeting from end-to-end, hand-woven cases on giant pillows. Because it is summer when D and I visit, everything is still outside. The heat lends a surreal quality that makes it seem like one has stepped back in time. I, as a woman, am almost guilty for stepping inside a place where only men are allowed.

Around the compound is an ingeniously-engineered channels (“falaj”) fed by a well that waters the palm trees and forms a quiet little pool. I swoon with the rustic, graceful beauty of it all.

But one has to come back to reality, and back we go to the world of giant malls, the Dubai Summer Surprises sales (DSS for short, it’s the Dubai government’s way of luring tourists into town when everyone just wants to stay away the scorching desert). At Festival City, I buy a ridiculous amount of lingerie for only P600—the price of one item here in Manila.

Cutting through an adjacent hotel, we walk a couple of kilometers to Belgian Beer Café. The drinking crowd is already filling up the place. A Brit is playing the guitar and singing to the room (later we learn that he’s just moonlighting; he’s actually a magazine editor). Women and men of various races—American, Japanese, German, Indian—chatter and laugh around the surrounding tables. While it all seems oh-so cosmopolitan and pretty, the rush that excites me when I visit other equally cosmopolitan places such as New York, or even Osaka, isn’t there. Again, maybe it’s the lack of soul. Or maybe I’m just shopped out for the moment.

I turn to my beer—a delightfully sweet but smooth Kasteelbier Bruun—and after four or so pints, my sullen mood dissipates.

My beer goggles are firmly in place, and I frickin’ love Dubai.

Photos by Jose Enrique Soriano



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