Friday, September 3, 2010

A hidden gem in Dubai

The late Sheikh Rashid's Majlis
Built in 1955 in what was then a sparsely populated neighborhood of Dubai dotted with date palm groves and fishermen shacks, “Majlis Ghorfat Umm Al Sheif” is a hidden gem of times gone by that is now sitting in modern Dubai's posh residential area dubbed Jumeirah III.

I have been passing in front of it at least once a day for the past four years. There’s a big road sign indicating the Majlis on the corner of Jumeirah Beach Road right next to Reem al Bawadi restaurant and Ibn Sina pharmacy. I often saw busloads of tourists entering or exiting “Majlis Ghorfat Umm Al Sheif.” This week, I finally decided to stop and find out what the venue was all about.

Set in a 3,300 square meter fenced and gated lot, “Majlis Ghorfat Umm Al Sheif” is one of the prime historical sites in Dubai because it was the summer residence of the late Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Al Maktoum (1912-1990). When the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan called for the formation of the federation, Sheikh Rashid, who became ruler of Dubai in 1958, was the first to join on December 2, 1971. He was thus effectively co-founder of the United Arab Emirates.

The Majlis (which means a place to seat special gatherings), is named after the Umm Al Sheif pearl fishing bank, home to the most valuable natural pearls. This summer residence, which caught the sea breeze in the days preceding desert coolers and AC units, eventually became Sheikh Rashid's retreat and that of his family and friends at a very important juncture in Dubai’s history. He regularly held meetings there to discuss political and social issues.

The main Majlis in the two-storied structure is 14.9m long and 7.7m wide. The ground floor is an open veranda called leewan or rewaaq (Arabic for portico or porch) with a few short columns. A small store is located at the northern side near the staircase to the upper floor, and still has relics of the past, including pots, jute sacks of provisions, cooking utensils and coffee containers (to serve Sheikh Rashid’s guests). Then, there's another spacious terrace and the Majlis itself, furnished in the age-old fashion with its walls dotted here and there with a rifle, a munitions belt, an old transistor radio, a clock...

The Majlis was built according to the time-honored style, including air inlets in the walls, using gypsum and coral rocks as well as Kandal timber imported from East Africa and date palm fronds. The window frames and doors are in solid teak wood. The windows do carry the breeze from the seashore nearby. When I was there, walking around and taking pictures at noon on Wednesday, (September 1), it was about 44 degrees centigrade outdoors. But as soon as I entered the main Majlis, it immediately felt cooler with a current of relatively fresh air.

The second Majlis sits outside the main structure and is open and airy and built from date palm fronds. It has now been transformed into a seating corner where visitors can have cold refreshments.

Take a walk around the Majlis with me...

The Majlis was built around a Falaj (crevice) irrigation system that is still operational today. This traditional Omani irrigation system, also used in neighboring countries, consists of tapping underground water that is then led by man-made subterranean channels to villages where it is used for irrigation and domestic purposes. The water flow of Aflaj (crevices) is relatively constant and varies according to the amount of annual rainfall and drought periods. In this case, the water comes from a natural well and is carried all around the grounds to a pond and then out again. The Aflaj are used to water the grounds, which are dotted with palms, a pomegranate tree, lemon trees, frangipani (fitneh) and the likes.
Although it was very hot when I was wandering around, the melodious sound of the water flowing in the canals proved both soothing and cooling.
It doesn't take long to go around Sheikh Rashid's Majlis and the entrance fee is only 1 dirham (or $0.27). It is well worth it, I thought.