As a child, I was fascinated by traditional Arabic courtyard houses and their wind towers; I was never much of a painter but I drew them all the time, on everything with crayons and water paint. I grew up to have less useful hobbies later; however wind towers (Barjeel) 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, but my mother and her mother told me numerous stories about what it was like living in houses built so close to each other in order to maintain family ties and the sense of a unified community at their time.
I managed to interest my husband in the Bastakiyah Walking Tour last weekend; we arrived there at 10:00AM and joined a small group of tourists and residents who followed a local guide throughout the narrow alleys (Sikeek) of old Dubai, while Walid (the guide) explained to us the details of the simple life.
AL Bastakiyah is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Dubai; it got its name from its Arab residents who migrated back to Arabia from Bastak in Iran 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 Emirati family still has separate guestrooms in the house, a practice dictated by Muslim values more than by culture; hence it is maintained within reason by the younger generations.
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 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 in order to respect the neighbor’s privacy, and allow the women of the house more freedom to move around while the front door remained open, this way they don’t have to wear a head cover 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 hell have to lower his head and bend, which gives the women few seconds to either flee or cover up.
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, this type is smaller and obviously more affordable. They were usually inhabited by smaller, poorer families, and younger couples who didn’t want to live with their families until they could afford their own courtyard house. My mother grew up in a Barasti house in Sharjah, in the sixties.
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…