Recently nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Creek in Dubai is also the subject of a new award-winning documentary. We take a look at this little slice of old-world history which despite the changing face of the city remains relatively untouched
A shock of blue water cuts through what was once barren desert, its bobbing wooden dhows laced together to unload their wares. ‘Dubai Creek’ is a saltwater creek which for decades has been an arterial lifeline for Dubai: providing trade routes, docking space and access to industry for the many inhabitants of the city.
The 14km stretch of water is actually an inlet of the Arabian Gulf, cutting into the mainland at Deira on the East bank of the Creek and stretching all the way inland to the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary. The marshy stretch of land where the Creek ends is home to more than 20,000 water birds of 67 species and over 500 different types of flora and fauna. Pink flamingos can be seen wading, settling and feeding amongst the watery reed beds and occasionally taking flight.
In April 2012 this area was nominated a UNESCO World Heritage site and it’s easy to see why. Despite the myriad of changes that have taken place in the city in recent years, the Creek and its bustling banks remain relatively the same. The Creek has long been a hive of activity. In the early 20th century, its shallow waters provided divers and early entrepreneurs with access to pearls. Upon the discovery of oil in the UAE during the 1960s, the Creek became an even more important link to the outside world.
And when the Creek bed was dredged in the same decade, it allowed larger ships to enter the mouth of the waterway and this in turn increased commerce for Dubai. Two decades later, little has changed.
The same humble Abras (Arabic wooden boats) that ploughed this width of salty water in the early 1980s still carry commuters, tourists and traders alike across from Deira to Bur Dubai and back again. At just DHS1, the price is unarguably good value for anyone taking the two-minute journey. A maximum of 20 passengers can perch around the sides of the small boats, with their captain firmly ensconced in the centre of the vessel.
However, these small chugging Abras have these days been joined by larger vessels – the dhows of Dubai Creek. And it was these impressive wooden boats, which carry cargo from around the world and dock on the Deira side of the inlet that caught the attention of American University of Sharjah (AUS) Professor Tim Kennedy. The professor has both a BA and MFA in film, as well as a MFA in Landscape Architecture. He has been teaching Landscape Architecture, Film and Photography at AUS for the past seven years.
However having taken a series of panoramic photographs of the Creek for a cultural landscape study, he wanted to further document the busy docks and decided to make a film on the subject.
“I returned to my experience as a filmmaker to express the spirit of the place,” he tells Al Shindagah, pointing out that the film, entitled ‘The Floating Life of Dubai Creek’ showcases the daily toil of dhow boat-hands, who – after months at sea – load, unload and organise their cargo on the Creek side of Dubai.
“It took a long time before I asked for permission to step onto one of these boats and off the tourist path. I’m from New York and if you try to do that in NYC, they would tell you to go away,” Kennedy says. “I was very surprised that I was allowed to go on board. What’s more I was provided with shisha and tea [aboard a dhow]. This was Gulf hospitality that I’d never heard about in the media before,” he says.
The professor started the documentary in 2009 and filmed it over the course of 18 months, working every weekend, from early morning til sundown. The film has been made, noticeably, without a voiceover or commentary. This, Kennedy says, was entirely deliberate.
“I wanted to create a portrait [of the Creek]… to allow the viewer to have their own experience. If you go and listen to a symphony by Brahms, you don’t want the person next to you telling you what to listen to – this is what I wanted to do,” he says.
In fact the only sounds audible throughout the whole documentary are the lapping of waves; the rhythm the sailors create unloading their cargo; and occasionally a father and son introducing each other to the camera. The seamen of Dubai Creek typically come from India, Pakistan or Iran, and sail the Gulf waters collecting and delivering their wares. At sea, often for months on end, it’s evident that the men form a bond, their weather-beaten faces telling a hundred stories.
The dhows are docked on the side are tied together and are sometimes four vessels deep, creating gangways to the land. Their varied cargo lines the Creekside of Deira – dried lemons and spices bound for the adjacent spice souk creating heady scents. The boats also carry precious metals, gems and hand-crafted jewellery, which are later traded at the Dubai Gold Souk further inland.
Despite the heat, cargo from the laden dhows often remains on the dock for weeks on end and there is no security guards watching over it. However there’s an unspoken etiquette amongst the traders and the goods are always respectfully left in their place.
This and other minutiae of daily life on the Creek have been captured in the documentary. “This 20-minute documentary captures the essential identity of Dubai Creek today, and preserves its story in Dubai’s dramatic timeline,” explains Kennedy. “Dubai Creek is currently being considered as a World Heritage site by UNESCO and it has been a primary feature of the city’s development: Dubai simply would not be here without the Creek.”
While the project was mostly shot by the Professor alone, colleague Zlatan Filipovic assisted with the post-production. This is not the first time Kennedy has documented the UAE, having exhibited panoramic photographs of the city at a number of galleries in Dubai over the years.
But ‘The Floating Life of Dubai Creek’ is a project which is particularly close to his heart. Already it has been screened in the US, Europe, Asia and the Middle East and received the ‘Best Film Award’ at the 2012 Ares Film Festival in Siracusa, Italy. It shows the world another side of Dubai – a side that is clearly integral to the city and one that is much loved.