Friday, May 01, 2009

Dubai 1962

Dubai in 1962 was a very different place. A sleepy port town with less than 50,000 residents, the airport was only three years old and the runway was made of compacted sand. With the discovery of large quantities of oil in the region,

Dubai’s days as a sleepy pearling town were over.

With the discovery of oil came increased media attention from around the world. Among the journalists sent to the Middle East were two correspondents from the Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun.

In the winter of 1962, the photographer Yoshio Kawashima and writer H Kato landed in Dubai. According to Kawashima, the duo had “no knowledge of what to expect”. “All I knew was that it was a place in the Middle East called the Trucial States, but aside from that it was totally unknown.”

Arriving for a week at the end of November, the duo was sent to Dubai as part of a larger trip around the Gulf. “The interest in the Middle East and its newly-discovered oil mounted in Japan and so the Sankei Shimbun decided to feature the Gulf countries in a special New Year edition in 1963. Just after arriving the duo met a Dubai resident, Abdullah Kumar, who spoke fluent Japanese, having lived in Kobe before the outbreak of World War II. Then working for the British Bank of the Middle East near the Abra Startion in Bur Dubai, Kumar translated for the two journalists and showed them around Dubai.

He was one of a number of foreigners they encountered. “We did see other foreigners around, they mostly seemed to be from India. A big surprise was to see a Japanese textile salesman in the souq, a so-called trunk merchant, who bought goods to sell overseas.”

According to Kawashima, the other surprising aspect of the city was its energy. “The city was very vibrant, despite being undeveloped and poor. Wherever we went there were lots of scenes of human life that provided great photographic opportunities.”

Dubai 1963: Dubai Skyline 1963

One of the trip’s lasting memories was the chance to meet Dubai’s ruler of the time, Sheikh Rashid bin Saaed Al Maktoum. “On our visit to the Ruler’s Court, we saw a man talk and listen intently to ordinary people. That was Sheikh Rashid. His stern yet benevolent expression was striking. Later, during the interview he said: “My duty is to help those in need”, unforgettable words to this day. To me that is the most fundamental principal of governing a country, and the people in Dubai are fortunate to have had such a leader.”

The city at the time did not stretch much past Dubai Creek, which was the centre of the city’s economy. Bur Dubai was as far as the city limits reached, and indeed one of the few photographs Kawashima took that looks recognisable today the shot of an abra crossing the creek towards Bastakyia with the Grand Mosque visible just as it is today.

Other shots could have been taken at any time in the past two hundred years. A picture of barasti houses made of palm fronds is only given away by the appearance of Chevrolet and Dodge trucks parked in the sandy gaps between the dwellings.

One of the most striking shots is of a man carrying a falcon around the Old Souq in Bur Dubai. Another man hurries past carrying a fish - both equally important animals at the time: one providing sport and one providing income and food. Many of the other subjects seem oblivious to the photographer, something that Kawashima says was commonplace. “In the other countries we travelled to, people seemed happy to have their pictures taken. In Dubai no one seemed that excited about having their pictures taken. Perhaps the camera was not that common then as most of the time I was just ignored while taking pictures”. This resulted in some natural shots, showcasing a place in time, a place virtually unrecognisable from the city of today.

The journalists were able to experience the changes first-hand last year, when they were invited back to the city by Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the brother of Sheikh Rashid. “We were very fortunate to be invited last November, 46 years after we first visited. The invitation came through one of my photos of his brother Sheikh Rashid that was presented to him by long-time Dubai residents, Mr and Mrs Akai.”

Predictably enough the city’s changes in that 46 years overwhelmed both men. “Dubai has changed entirely, almost becoming a different planet. However the vibrancy of the city and warmth of people we had felt was still there nearly half a century later, and the whole experience in witnessing the city’s evolution was just overwhelming.”

In a world of flickr and photoshop, the Dubai of 2009 will be well chronicled for the future. But in the early sixties cameras were rare and so images of Dubai are fascinating due to their rarity. The 200 or so images in the exhibition provide a reminder of the strides Dubai has made in the past half-century, as well as showcasing a way of life that is now all but lost.

For Kawashima, even more surprising than the city’s transformation was the fact that his photographs were being selected for an exhibition. “I was beyond words when I heard about the exhibition. I never thought pictures taken so long ago would be compiled for a photography show. I could not ask for more as a photographer and I am most fortunate.”

The exhibition Dubai 1962 will take place at the Manu Chhabria Arts Centre at DUCTAC, on level 2 of Mall of the Emirates from May 5 to May 26

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