As an MBA student, one is taught to always question, always explore and never evade a good challenge. I was recently faced with one such challenge; to find and study a place called 'Arabi Kursi'.
Being new to Dubai and having no knowledge of the subject, I started by doing some initial investigating. But as it turned out, none of the local residents I approached had a clue about this place, and surprisingly, even mighty Google couldn't come up with any results! Suspecting being sent on a wild goose chase, I approached my professor who gave me one vague clue: I would find my destination in our around the Gold Souk in Deira – Dubai's older and far less illustrious part of town.
So, armed with nothing but a notebook, a hint, and a fistful of curiosity, I headed out to the city in search of the elusive 'Arabi Kursi'. Right from my friendly cabby who responded to 'Arabi Kursi' with a scratching of the head, to the bevy of shoppers at the Gold Souk who gave me varied styles of quizzical looks, no one could give me directions to this place. Forty five minutes of walking in circles later, I finally met one carpet vendor who recognized the name, and gave me clear instructions to the place.
On approaching the site- I began to understand why they call it 'Arabi Kursi'. It is quite literally simply a rectangular arrangement of Irani-style benches in the middle of a busy shopping street, and I started to ask myself why I was sent all the way here to study a collection of seemingly ordinary-looking chairs. I hung around and started interviewing local shopkeepers until I became acquainted with a local Arab who invited me to sit and chat over a cup of sweet Irani tea.
Ismail was once an heir to a wealthy pearl merchant. He had an august air about him that commanded respect, and one couldn't help but feel humbled in his presence. The conversation that followed opened my eyes about pre-oil Dubai and transported me to an era when that very marketplace was once a flourishing hub of global trade and business.
With a glint of nostalgia in his eyes Ismail reminisced about the days of his youth, and the prosperity of his community. He spoke about how the 'Arabi Kursi' of today was once a center of trade for pearl merchants who would bring their goods all the way from Japan, and sell them to traders from India, Iran, Africa and Europe. Buyers, traders and dealers alike would assemble at this site and haggle for competitive prices for some of the finest pearls in the world.
He then went on to telling me about the discovery of oil in 1966, which completely revolutionized business in Dubai, leading to the demise of all other less-fortunate businesses including those of pearls, precious stones and spices. The discovery of oil also brought with it immense wealth for Arabs who then came to 'Arabi Kursi', not to trade pearls, but to talk about business and build their networks over a cup of Irani chai. Many important administrative decisions that developed young Dubai and many important business deals that shaped the city's economy were made in those very chairs.
'Arabi Kursi' was a hub of business, trade and governance for years, until the advent of the 80's which brought with it architectural modernization and high-rise buildings. With time, the powerful and distinguished frequenters of 'Arabi Kursi' moved their affairs to the offices and conference rooms of chic corporate offices, making the 'Arabi Kursi' of today nothing more than a tourist destination.
For me, this little adventure was almost like a journey through time that taught me so much about Dubai's history and its deeply-rooted Arabic culture. It is appalling how a place of such historical importance has been forgotten and overshadowed by the modern structures and technology of new Dubai. It was so strange to me, how even local residents were unaware of its existence, and a place of such historic importance had no directions or signboards leading up to it! Besides a nominal fund from the municipality of Dubai to maintain the chairs, nothing is being done to give 'Arabi Kursi' the importance that it deserves.
Arabi Kursi's identity is closely associated with the fine fabric of Arabic high-society of the yesteryears, and continues to live in the hearts and minds of those who have experienced the wealth and success it brought to the citizens of old Dubai. It is my hope and wish that the Government of Dubai will soon play a part in reviving the identity of this heritage site, and bring the story of 'Arabi Kursi' to all those who want to learn.