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Postcards from Dubai
Where were the Iranians hiding?

By Cyrus Kadivar
June 14, 2002
The Iranian

My roof was leaking when my wife called from Dubai. She had left London three weeks ago on assignment with MBC Television and judging by the postcards and letters she had posted during this period having a jolly time in the sun. Photos here

"I went on a safari trip and had the best time ever," she told me over the phone, her voice filled with excitement. "Our driver was half-Iranian from Shiraz. I dressed in Arabic costume and rode a camel. We raced in the desert and at the Al Shamsi village I sat under the moon and remembered you all the time."

Two days later I was on my way to her. It was a Tuesday evening, 7th May 2002, to be exact, when I boarded Emirates Airlines and flew towards sunny Dubai.

It was a comfortable journey. Seven hours passed quickly. I entertained myself watching movies and reading the English edition of the Khaleej Times which happened to carry a lengthy article about a Persian restaurant called Shabestan.

I looked forward to seeing my wife and decided that as part of my trip I would also try to discover the Iranian influence in Dubai. I had read that the Iranian community was large, about 500,000 or less. Some had arrived in the early 1900s and many after the 1979 revolution. Gogoosh had given a concert there last year drawing huge crowds. There were Iranian artists and property tycoons rumoured to own thirty percent of the sheikdom's top hotels and office blocks.

Dubai has the 4th fastest growing airport in the world and I was impressed by its size and cleanliness, the expensive marbled hallways sparkled in the morning light. Looking out of the windows I noticed the Homa bird on the tail of an Iran Air jumbo jet sticking above a row of aircrafts parked neatly on the tarmac.

A Sudanese taxi driver drove me into town. On the Sheikh Zayed Road I marvelled at the ultra-modern buildings with their polished steel and glass facades.

We came to a halt in front of the Rotana Towers Hotel. I parted with 30 Dirhams (£6). The air conditioned lobby came as a welcome relief from the staggering heat outside. Two porters fought over my luggage as I took the mirrored lift to the 13th floor.

I knocked on Room 1312 and heard Shuhub's voice. She opened the door and we fell into each others arms. My wife was in high spirits and I found her relaxed and happy in her white t-shirt and blue jeans. After a quick breakfast on the 2nd Floor she left for the office leaving me to catch up on much needed sleep.

It was almost 6pm when I headed for the hotel lobby for a drink. I was soon chatting with my wife about places to visit. Having left work early she was keen to show me around.

By dusk we jumped into another taxi and headed for the Jumeira Mosque, a lovely creamy white structure with a huge dome and a sharp minaret that rose pointedly at the darkening sky.

We crossed the road and turned left and entered the sultry grounds of the Jumeira Marine Beach Resort in downtown Dubai. This 195-room complex had a small private beach, two floodlit pools, a spa and a selection of popular restaurants.

On a bench overlooking the calm waters my wife and I gazed at the starlit night above and listened to the waves splashing lazily across the shore. After a quick tour of the Jumeira Shopping Mall and a French pastry shop named La Marquise we settled down for a meal at Japanega. Opposite the Jumeira Mosque this restaurant seemed a favourite with many tourists and local Sheikhs.

The following morning I reviewed the Time Out section of The Gulf Today and noticed a two page article on Maryam Mohseni , an artist of Iranian descent, living in Dubai. Raised in Ahvaz she had a Masters degree in Fine Arts from Tehran University. Her paintings were described as falling between folkways and empire.

Influenced by her country's pre-Islamic past some of her paintings showed a relief from Persepolis balanced by a turquoise pot, dishes, jars, vases, bowls and plates. According to the article Maryam was teaching art at the Iranian Club in Dubai.

An Iranian Club? It tickled me to learn that in the depth of Arabia Iranians were still hanging on to their "Persian" heritage and drawing inspiration from Iran. There was even an Iranian Hospital in Jumeira.

Since my wife had to return to the office I decided that I would spend my day learning more about Dubai and maybe find a few Iranians. After a full breakfast I walked down Sheikh Zayed Road. It was very hot and the sun was merciless.

At the Crown Plaza I found a Persian Carpet shop but was disappointed to find that it was run by an Indian. The next stop was at the Nutcracker an Iranian sweetshop. Once again Iranian pride revealed itself: a copy of a relief of an Achaemenid king and his satraps above the entrance door.

Unfortunately the sweet shop was closed for repairs but on the same first floor was the Abrash Gallery. Daniel, a small Iranian boy was sitting on a pile of carpets reading a book on ancient Persia. He came up to me and showed me the pictures.

Daniel led me through a maze of original sculptors and paintings that graced the walls. There were many earthy themes celebrating the sun, birds, horses, locks, calligraphy and beautiful maidens in fantastic costumes. There were works of copper and bronze.

The master creator of these works, Ali Naeeni, a former television director, lived in Tehran. An Indian who looked after the gallery in his absence handed me a lovely brochure that described the Abrash Gallery as the "Home of Persian Art".

It was almost 2 p.m. when I left the gallery unable to afford the expensive work of art. On Jumeira Beach Road I visited the air conditioned shops and discovered the Magrudy bookshop. It was here that I overheard two Iranian ladies conversing. The shelves were stocked with a wide selection of books many of them in English.

Just behind the bookshop was the famous Gerard Patisserie. I sat in the shaded courtyard and ordered Turkish coffee. A huge Pakistani with enormous whiskers looked down at me with contempt. "No Turkish coffee, Sir! Only Espresso!"

So I ordered a double Espresso and a glass of Coca Cola. While smoking a tiny cigar I scanned the papers for clues about Iranians and found a small add with a list of Persian restaurants. There were four of them: Alborz, Pars Iranian Kitchen, Shahrzad, Shabestan. Once again a certain pride ran through my veins.

Dubai's hotels range from the ordinary to the extraordinary and the Royal Mirage is of the latter category. I had decided to rendezvous with my wife for a drink in the evening. It was convenient choice as MBC had its offices opposite the road as did CNN and Reuters. As the taxi entered the ground I delighted at the burning fires in stone bowls. In front of the hotel entrance was a pond where from the midst rose several life size golden statues of Arab sheikhs on camels.

Built some 3 years ago the Royal Mirage is a fantasy hotel with a 250-room resort. It has a fabulous Moorish fountains, outstanding bars, a Persian Courtyard where you can lounge on red cushions smoking the water pipe, and several excellent restaurants such as Tagine, Celebrities, Olives. The standards are high at the Mirage and there is even a nightclub, the Kasbar.

My wife and I were to return several times to the Royal Mirage always greeted by Vijay, our Indian waiter. He was a funny man with a generous smile and always ready to attend to your every need. Through him I discovered Melon Ice Coffee and the fact that few locals in Dubai work. Foreigners own two things, he said, themselves and their cars. There was also much talk about the Palm Resort being built off the coast. In a few years this new development will boast new hotels, leisure facilities and villas starting at the modest $1million mark.

On Friday my wife spent the entire day with me and in the afternoon we treated ourselves at the Ritz Carlton built in a Spanish style with Moorish influences.

Romantic and quiet, the Ritz was a delightful place to rest. Inside my eyes were greeted by a splashing fountain, arabesque arches, coffee trays and wooden chests filled with dates, and the usual portraits of the ruling Maktoum family.

The main lounge was a comfortable place with an English feel. Seated on cosy furniture beneath giant chandeliers and gazing at the large windows overlooking the balconies and seafront, we ordered Persian Tea from a long listed menu.

Persian Tea in Dubai! An Asian waiter who had worked in an Iranian restaurant brought us two pots of tea: Earl Grey and Orange Pekoe. Then came our plates filled with glistening black grapes, strawberries and carefully sliced pieces of cucumber. A tray of dates and sweets from Shiraz completed the picture.

After tea we visited the hotel's souvenir shop and took pictures on the balcony where two white doves settled in an amorous pose. When night chased the day we headed to the Wafi Shopping Mall recognisable by its glass pyramid-shaped top.

The Wafi Shopping Mall is a must for all visitors. Giant statues of Ramses and Nefertari guard the entrance. Inside there is a vast collection of luxury goods from Chanel to Laura Ashely. Pillars similar to those in Luxor and Karnak support a vast ceiling. There is a great restaurant on the top floor and the Food Hall is filled with great Arab delicacies and superb Iranian pistachios and caviar.

By now we were getting hungry. At 9pm we arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel, possibly the best city-centre hotel with views of Dubai Creek and housing the legendary Shabestan Persian restaurant. Sahar, an Egyptian waitress from Alexandria, greeted my wife in Arabic and led us to our table beside the window. In the background a Gogoosh tape played merrily as the traditional music group that plays at the restaurant six days a week had their day off.

Our table was elegantly set: a red paisley sofreh thrown over a white table cloth, china plates, crystal glasses, a vase with two red roses, a Persian jug of water, plates of toasted Iranian bread, bowls of mint yoghurt and an old glass-candle.

The atmosphere was perfect and the food was divine. The menu was a good read with a few curious quotes to tantalise the palate: "As Omar Khayyam poetically said, food plays a major role in life of the Persian people and Iranian hospitality is famed throughout the world'the journey to ancient Persia begins?"

After dinner we listened to Mehran Samadpour, the Shabestan Manager, as he lectured us on Persian Civilization and the superiority of Iranians over the Arabs.

"It's our fault that they think Omar Khayyam and Avicenna are Arabs," he said with a sniff of the nose. "Had they not written in Arabic there would have been no confusion!"

Sahar came over and began teasing Mehran. "Is he attacking the Arabs again?" she asked jokingly. "I'll hit him if he continues." We all burst into laughter.

Before leaving we toured the restaurant admiring the clay oven and the three private dining rooms all decorated with rich Persian carpets, golden samovars, qalyans, brass lamps and miniatures. We posed for pictures and left in high spirit.

On Saturday morning I reviewed the papers. Over breakfast I discussed Kish Island with a few of my wife's Iraqi friends. They were surprised to hear that this tiny isle barely 90sq.kms wide in the Persian Gulf and just 200kms from Dubai could now boast 47 hotels of which three are five star hotels. I showed them a picture of the Darioush Grand Hotel in The Gulf Today which is set to open in June 2002.

I explained with some irony that this hotel had been built keeping in mind the Persian architecture and Achaemenid culture. Once a resort of the last Shah it had emerged after the revolution as a major source of attracting 1,100,000 tourists last year, 15% of them from the UAE and the remaining from Iran and around the world.

"It will also have attractions such as a dolphinarium where trained dophins, sea lions, beavers and whales will perform for tourists and visitors," I read gleefully.

A light lunch at the Royal Mirage consisted of a tasty salad made of avacado, mango and dates. Like a good Iranian I had a long siesta in my yellow armchair as a fresh breeze created from the many fountains cooled my senses.

At the Metropolitan Beach Hotel my wife and I had a swim in the very warm waters of the Persian Gulf taking some colour under the savage sun before dinner at Teatro, an excellent Asian-Italian restaurant on the 3rd Floor of the Rotana Towers.

The following morning my wife complained of a bad headache, a mild sunstroke. She left for work and I spent the morning reading an old biography on the former Queen Soraya Esfandiyari by the German author, Walter W. Krause. I wanted to make some mental notes for a future article. At noon, after reviewing my emails at the hotel's business centre, I headed for the Dubai Zoo.

Located near the chic Jumeira neighbourhood the Dubai Zoo was a pathetic place to see a few sleepy lions, tigers, leopards and monkeys. The Syrian bear paced angrily up and down its cage while pink Iranian flamingos from Northeastern Iran cooled their feet in muddy waters. I felt sorry for the racoons.

Between the trees and pink flowers the three spotted giraffes were worth a look as were the Amazonian parrots, ostriches and Indian peacocks. What a shame, I wondered, that with all the money available in Dubai nobody had thought of creating a super zoo for those wretched creatures suffering quietly in the heat.

At 3p.m. I was cooling off in the lounge of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel located opposite the Burj al Arab, the tallest all-suite hotel in the world, built on its own island.

Voted the number one hotel in the world by readers of Conde Naste's Traveller magazine three years ago, the 26-storey Jumeirah Beach is designed to look like a wave to complement Burj Al Arab's sail and boasts 600 sea-facing rooms.

The only thing Iranian here was a caviar shop and a silver samovar in the main lounge.

Sipping my watermelon juice and feasting on a club sandwich in the Palm Court lounge I gazed at an oil tanker streaming in the distance across the blue waves.

An Arab sheikh arrived in spotless white robes and turban. I watched him curiously as he settled down. Looking as he had all the time in the world he made a few call on his mobile before taking off his shoes. He ordered a cigar and an Espresso.

Smoke filled the air. The sheikh sipped his hot drink then removed his turban and soft cap to cool his head. After finishing his Havana cigar he read his newspaper before conducting business with two Indians assisting him in a marketing project. I fell into another deep sleep and when I awoke the Sheikh was gone.

Standing on the balcony of the Royal Mirage Hotel I watched the sunset over the shimmering waters of the Persian Gulf. The fresh twilight breeze was beginning to move across the beautiful landscaped garden shaking the palm trees in the distance. Vijay brought me a drink with a bowl of Iranian pistachios.

I sipped my Tequilla with deep satisfaction. Ah, what a glorious end to a lazy day, I told myself. Leaning on the green-white striped armchair on the balcony I listened to As Time Goes By, played on a piano inside. Few hotels can match the Royal Mirage and its stunning recreation of a traditional Arabian Palace.

From the spectacular central courtyard to the grand interiors, the intimate restaurants to the opulent ballroom, the beautifully landscaped gardens with palm trees and pool to the extensive private beach, no detail had been overlooked.

As my mind began to wander I heard a crash. I looked up. It was a little Arab boy. He smiled at me as his veiled governess tried to pick up the broken pieces of a clay ashtray.

His father, a tall Arab, walked over to me, and in a polite but haughty voice said, "I apologise for my naughty son. Your peace has been disturbed. I am sorry."

He bowed respectfully. So this was the famous Arab courtesy that Wilfred Thesiger, the great British explorer, had written about in his famous book, Arabian Sands.

I walked across the balcony for a final look at the setting sun and took a few pictures.

Below, in the lush garden, hotel staff were busy preparing for the arrival of Sheikh Maktoum, the ruler and father of modern Dubai. A white tent had been set over a marble terrace complete with sofas and a red Persian carpet flanked by four Moorish lanterns and olive trees. Only thing missing were horses.

A soft voice beckoned me. I turned. It was my lovely wife. She came up to me and embraced me. I held her tight and looked into her warm eyes. I was grateful to her. It was her idea that I come here. Dubai was a great place to unwind.

We were given a tour of the bedrooms all spectacular and exquisitely decorated. Every balcony overlooked the garden and the sea with tiny lamps illuminating the erect palm trees. The beds were covered in rich brocaded Indian silk and the bathrooms designed in North African tile work and Italian marble.

"I'll bring you here for your 40th birthday," my wife promised. We had dinner at Olives and were impressed by everything. "Can this place be Paradise?" I asked.

On the way out we crossed the Persian courtyard where several Arab men sat smoking their water pipes. I could smell apple tobacco. Their partners, all beautiful women, giggled or smiled each time their rich partners whispered in their ears.

Monday began late for me. I could hardly eat breakfast and my wife left me to sleep until half-past-noon. I missed her and she called me from the office to check on me. "Where are you going today?" she asked. "Dubai museum," I replied.

The Dubai Museum on Al Faheidi Road was housed within an old fort. The boat in the centre of the square was a pearling sambuk, a reminder that Dubai's prosperity had not always relied on oil. Within the Fort were a few straw huts and wooden boats. Seagulls flew above me circling the stone towers.

Inside the underground museum I absorbed a history that dates back 4,000 years. An impressive collection of wax figures recreated life in the old souks and fishing ports. In one glass gallery I admired the famous silver hilted khanjars, or daggers, and jewellery and local costumes worn by the men and women.

There was a short film in a dark room tracing the amazing development of Dubai over the last seven decades. In contrast with many Middle Eastern cities, the history and culture of Dubai was not a "rise and fall" story, but one of "rise and rise".

Dubai, I told myself, is without a doubt one of the great cities of the modern world -- fashionable, cosmopolitan and tolerant. How sad that Iran under the mullahs could not boast a similar reputation. Building a giant hotel in Kish was certainly not the answer.

With all our Persian sense of superiority over the Arabs what had we achieved in the last 23 years? These thoughts troubled me more than an article I had read earlier in the day that 1million litres of alcoholic drinks had been confiscated in Tehran.

Leaving the museum I strolled towards the wind-tower houses of Bastakia thus entering a district with a worthy history. For a moment it resembled the Persian port of Bushehr although none of the inhabitants struck me as being Iranian.

My guidebook claimed that Batakia dates back to the early 1900s, when fabric and pearl traders from Bastak in southern Iran settled in the area. In building their homes of coral and limestone, they incorporated a feature common in their homeland.

The dense concentration of some fifty badgir or wind-tower houses in Bastakia gave me a glimpse of what the streets of old Dubai would have looked in the days before oil. At the Basta Art Caf I began to appreciate the comfort these wealthy traders created for themselves, in difficult climactic conditions.

Stepping through the decorative doorways I found an oasis of comfort and simple bliss. An enormous tree rose from the middle of the inner courtyard providing a natural umbrella between the sky and the ground. I came to like this place. Here was a typical 60 year old dwelling with Persian rooms and pillared balconies. Blue lanterns hung on either side of the carved doors and it had a wind-tower.

The Municipality had bought it from an old lady and converted into a tea-house for tourists. The roof and ceilings was made of hardwood from Zanzibar.

It was still light when I sat outside at one of several garden tables and ordered a mint-lime-sugar drink popular for the last 200 years and some sticky Arabic sweets.

I was the only visitor. A tall Swedish blonde dressed in black greeted me with a shy smile as she turned up the Jazz station. She came up to me and handed me the green drink and complimented a sketch I had done of the caf?

We chatted a bit about Dubai and life as a foreigner. "Only after living here for a year can one decide to stay or leave," she said. "After September 11 my family in Stockholm urged me to come home. There were fears that terrorists would attack Americans so I stayed clear from places where they normally hang out. But nothing happened. Dubai is a great place. I love it and find it very safe."

In the trees the swallows were making such a racket that I could barely hear her voice.

Before sunset the call for prayer boomed from the Grand Mosque tucked behind the narrow winding lanes that criss-cross the quarter. "Allah-o Akbar... Allah-o Akbar".

At night the lanterns and torches lent a charming ambience casting shadows on the purple-brown walls. I thanked my hostess and headed for a quick view of the Majlis Art Gallery next door. It was almost 8p.m. and closing time so I hailed a taxi and went back to the hotel where Shuhub listened patiently to my stories.

The day before leaving Dubai was spent looking for Iranians. I headed down the Al Khaleej Road towards the Fish Souk in a taxi and caught a glimpse of the latest catches: giant shrimp, baby sharks, red snappers and kingfish weighed and tossed into barrows or flat-bed trucks. The fishermen were proud of their work.

We drove along the creek that separates Deira from Bur Dubai and admired the wooden boats and the impressive modern skyline passing the National Bank of Dubai.

I saw no Iranians at the Deira City Centre shopping mall. I toured the mall making a brief stop at the "Arabian Treasure" maze. Here I discovered a few Persian carpets and two enormous urns shaped as an Achaemenid lion goblet.

The shops were bursting with luxury goods and places like Laura Ashely, the Body Shop, Woolworths and Starbuck Coffee did a raging trade. I lunched at the Dubai Golf and Yacht Club that resembled a miniature Sydney Opera House.

Back at the Rotana Towers I went for a swim on the roof before leaving for the Ritz Carlton where a top French jeweller, was showing off his collection of 200 pieces using precious stones from Columbia, Burma, Kashmir, Africa and other parts of the world.

Shuhub was not impressed by the exhibition. It was the last day and half the collection lay on the floor beside a battered suitcase. The most expensive item was a diamond necklace priced at $4.3million. She found the whole thing obscene.

Security was tight and I recognised one of the guards from the Dubai Museum standing in the corner smiling. "Let's go," my wife said, pulling me out of the room.

It was our last night together and I was sorry to leave Dubai. My wife and I walked along the beach. We found a floodlit pool in the manicured grounds of the Ritz and reclined on the empty sun beds. Holding hands we commented on the sultry Arabian nights and pointed at the stars and the moon like children.

I left Dubai on Wednesday, 15th May 2002. My wife was to join me eight days later. We kissed and hugged in the breakfast room. When she left I felt a lump in my throat.

Dubai had been fun and hot. As the taxi drove towards the airport my Arab cabbie shook his head shouting, "majnoon" (Crazy)! He was referring to the big jeep that had overturned in the middle of the freeway, a regular occurrence in the Gulf. None of this alleviated my sadness until I reached the airport.

My spirit lifted at the sight of the stunning array of goods at the Duty Free section. Yes, they even had Iranian CDs and videotapes. I laughed. Where were the Iranians hiding? I had spent seven days and seven nights looking for my elusive countrymen. But the total did not exceed the number of fingers on my right hand.

On the plane I heard the pilot's voice. "We expect a smooth ride to London with a few possible bumps over Iran!" My God, I had forgotten this part of the journey.

No words can describe the feelings I had as the aircraft crossed the Persian Gulf and entered Iranian airspace. At 5p.m. I flew over the Zagros Mountains and for a brief, emotional moment savoured the hazy contours of my beloved Shiraz. How green it all seemed since that day I flew away twenty-three years ago.

Tears filled my eyes. For a mad moment I wished that the plane could land in my city of countless memories. But like a free bird I flew over the land of poets and nightingales refusing to believe that it had become a golden cage. In the intensity of the moment Dubai seemed like a mirage that had vanished suddenly - like my past.

I have understood that the world is a vast emptiness

built upon emptiness

- From Thousand and One Nights

Photos here
Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer
Cyrus Kadivar

By Cyrus Kadivar

Kadivar's features index


Norooz in Dubai
First holiday in our lives where we didn't actually feel ready to go back
By Siamack Salari

Dubai: Closest thing to home
It is almost as if we never left home, almost
By Sanaz Salehi

It rained at last. It rained at last.
No umbrellas, no covers
By Helia Azimi

What we wanted to see
Not the same as what the Iranian Consulate in Dubai wanted to see
By Helia Azimi


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