As a child, I was always fascinated by traditional Arabic courtyard houses and their lofty wind towers. I was never much of an artist but I drew them all the time, on everything with crayons and water paint. i loved getting down to the tiny details of Islamic carvings, beams and windows. I did that with passion and love, i actually drew a whole lot of them back then.
I grew up to have less useful hobbies later, however Arabic wind towers (Barjeels) are still very special to me.
I am not old enough to have lived in one of these, I never experienced life in the UAE without air conditioning in fact. Shortly before, my mother and her mother in this type of houses, and often told me stories about that kind of life. My grandmother appreciated how they were built so close to each other in order to maintain family ties and the sense of a unified community. My mother said; be it summer or winter, that’s where i’ll sleep under the Barjeel.
I managed to interest my husband in the Bastakiyah Walking Tour last weekend. I wanted to share part of my heritage with him, and give him a better insight of where do I really come from.
We arrived at 10:00am, joined a small group of tourists and residents who followed a local guide throughout the narrow alleys (Sikeek) of old Dubai. Walid (the guide) explained to us the details of the simple life. my heart was swelling with pride and joy at every word he said.
AL Bastakiyah is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Dubai, it got its name from the Arab residents who migrated back here from Bastak in Iran back in the 1890s. Today this place is one of few preserved by the government to maintain its original look and feel, this tour is one way of keeping it alive, at least in the hearts and minds of its visitors.
Inside the Barjeel
Walid told us how men and women used to socialize in separate rooms, women used the center of the house (the courtyard) to entertain, while men would gather at the outside living room (Majlis). This practice hasn’t changed much till date, my family still has separate guestrooms for men and women in the house. A practice dictated by Islamic values more than by culture I believe. Although youngsters are not that strict with it these days.
Before petrol and electricity, the wind tower was the central air conditioning system of the house. It was built mainly above the living rooms and bedrooms, the souring desert heat would make it very difficult to sleep at night or hangout during the day inside the house without some sort of a cooling system. The tower is lined with thin cotton fabric from the inside to filter the dust and prevent it from heaping indoors.
Here is something I didn’t know about traditional Arabic houses, no two front doors were built in front of each other. This was to ensure that the neighbor has full privacy, and allow the women more freedom to roam the front yard while the gate remained open. Otherwise women would have to wear a head cover even at home.
Another interesting fact about the doors of these houses is that a small door is built inside the big door for guests to enter from. The small door is shorter than the average height of an adult, so when a male guests passed through it he’ll have to lower his head before materializing inside. this gives that ladies n the house a moment to adjust and cover up if needed.
Simple building material like burnt mud, mountain rocks and timber were used to construct these houses, only wealthy families could afford it though, and of course the wealthier had a bigger house.
On the coast, Barasti houses were built with palm fronds, which is widely available in this part of the world. Barasti houses are smaller and obviously more affordable. They were usually inhabited by smaller, poorer families, and younger couples who didn’t want to live with their parents until they could afford their own courtyard house.
After the tour Walid invited us to have Arabic coffee and dates inside one of the houses. We enjoyed our traditional treats, while he talked about the etiquette of serving Arabic coffee. “Remember not to put your coffee cup down before you’ve had it. It is considered a sign of hostility. You could pretty much ignite a long lasting tribal war if you did that” he said.
This tour is organized by Sheikh Mohammad Center for Cultural Understanding (SMCCU), part of their effort to bridge the gap between the past and the future.
It isn’t always bad to forget your present and live in the past for few minutes…