from the vault: the dhow workers of dubai

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If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been doing lots of decluttering. The hard yakka has mostly been physical (books, clothes, New Kids On The Block cassettes saved from my youth, etc), but I’ve also been spending some time accessing old hard drives and computer files to see what else I can cleanse from my overcrowded life. Almost everything I discover has been met with the delete key, but occasionally I stumble onto a few gems, such as these photos I took of the dhow workers of Dubai.

To be honest, I have a hate/sometimes-fleetingly-like relationship with my former home. When people ask me if I enjoyed living in Dubai, my default is usually to say that the three years I spent there was professionally rewarding. The weather was nice most of the year – except for the stinking hot summer – and there was some great places to eat out. It was also conveniently located for exploring the rest of the Middle East, India and Nepal. Shopping was a blast too (though most of what I bought there is now what I’m trying rid myself of).

And that’s where the good times end. I struggled with the exploitation of unskilled foreign workers. It was a common sight to see the men who built the skyscrapers Dubai is now synonymous with working in 40+ heat and the stories of their hovel-esque living conditions didn’t escape our ears, despite government censorship. I also missed good theatre, art and music. Having spent a couple of years living in London before moving to the United Arab Emirates, a travelling production of Mamma Mia, a Madness reunion tour and Cirque du Soleil LITE wasn’t going to cut it. I hear it’s better now, but I still doubt that much of the scene is homegrown. It’s too young – and this is coming from an Australian.

There is, however, some real – and by real I mean gritty and visceral and old – parts to the city. Deira, located on Dubai Creek and the Gulf, is one of the few areas that does feel genuine for the very reason that it isn’t new or contrived. Dubai started life as a trading port and here is where it all began and continues to this day. I’m not talking about the massive container ships that drop anchor at the mammoth ports dotted further along the coast, but the dhows – the smallish vessels with deep arcs and distinctive colours that shuttle all manor of small goods across the Gulf and  the Horn of Africa.

In 2006, I was commissioned by an airline magazine to interview and photograph the workers. I wasn’t sure they’d be amenable, but I packed my camera and put on my best smile and hopped on an abra (water taxi) from Al Bastakiya to Deira. Instead of heading to the spice souks as normal, I took a stroll along the docks. What I discovered, was a bunch of smiley men, mostly Persian, who happily posed for photographs and shared tales of Somali pirates, shipwrecks and the family legacies that propelled them onto the water. It’s hard, tiring and grimy work, but they seemed to enjoy it and revelled in the attention, using broken English and all manor of hilarious gesticulations to relay their stories. It was lunchtime when I left them squatting besides a huge communal platter of rice and stewed lamb, which they scooped up with their hands and shovelled into their mouths with relish. Declining an invitation to join them, I made my way back home, happy to have finally discovered something with substance.

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Images © Kate McAuley

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3 thoughts on “from the vault: the dhow workers of dubai

  1. projectjaneuine

    Hi Kate! Just wanted to say I enjoyed this post, and I’m so glad to have come across your blog via Kit Lee’s. I’ll be browsing through and send you an email as I have many questions I’d like to ask you :)
    Smiles from Sydney!

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