Dubai’s vibrant, retro neighborhood of Satwa is a creative hotbed that’s calling to the city’s visionaries.
Amid Dubai’s glittering skyline, there’s an array of historic districts that are pulsating with life. Stepping into Satwa is like going back into the 90s – not much has changed since then. Barber shops coined as “Gents Saloons,” hordes of stores with their brightly lit signs, no-frills eateries, and roadside merchants – the neighborhood is the best of Dubai’s street life. Several historical landmarks are also located here, including the Union House (now part of Etihad Museum) – where on December 2, 1971, a federation of Arab states signed the documents to form the UAE – and the Imam Hussein Mosque, which dates back to 1979.
“To a lot of people in Dubai, Satwa is a very important place when it comes to childhood memories,” says Emirati entrepreneur Latifa Al Shamsi. “It’s nice to have spots in Dubai where you go, and they’re exactly the same.” For those who spent their formative years in Dubai, many have interesting tales to tell. “One of my cherished childhood memories was a weekly ritual my mom and I shared. Every Friday, we would pick up bread for our family brunch from a tiny little Afghan bakery there,” says Maryam Fattahi Salaam, owner and CEO of Physique 57, Dubai. The UAE-born Iranian’s family has been in the city for 50 years and counting, and she notes family dinners at the Mini Chinese restaurant – on the then Diyafah Road, now 2nd December Street – as the highlight of her week.
Satwa’s original dwellers were primarily people from the Balochi tribe and later, Emirati families who were given homes by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. As the city started growing in the 90s, it became a popular residential area for South Asian expats. Now home to 40 000 people who live harmoniously in its many low-rise buildings, the district is a melting pot of cultures, and was once under threat of demolition. Recently, drawn to Satwa’s eclectic vibe and community feel, many of the city’s creatives have made the district their home. “As an artist, I find a lot of inspiration from the street life of Satwa – the contrast between old and new is beautiful – it’s so full of life and visually stimulating,” says Italian photographer Francesco Luigi Scotti. Meanwhile, for architect Tarik Zaharna, despite having spent many years in newer parts of the city, he feels Satwa is a place that grounds him. “Living here created a sense of unity in an otherwise very busy city – the pace just slows down a little bit. It’s also unapologetically retro,” he says. “I live in a single-story refurbished 1970s home and a lot of my neighbors are young entrepreneurs doing really interesting things with their careers and lives.”
In 2016, Satwa became the subject of street art under the initiative “Dubai Street Museum.” Sixteen building facades were painted with murals highlighting Emirati history. On one surface is a fascinating display of Emirati children hoop rolling, while another boasts a majestic falcon. Government projects aside, independent creatives have also turned to the area for professional inspiration. Case in point: Satwa 3000, an art collective led by Swiss multidisciplinary artist Maxime Cramatte was created to celebrate Satwa’s distinct sights and sounds through pop-ups, art exhibitions, and parties. Earlier this year, Cramatte hosted a successful solo exhibit at Dubai Design District with pop art style pieces emblematic of his love for Satwa. It’s evident that the area is an integral part of the city’s history.
Today’s Satwa regulars know and love the neighborhood for a plethora of reasons. From getting pictures framed to sofas reupholstered and cheap iPhone screen replacements to visiting locksmiths, shoe repairs, haberdasheries, plant nurseries, and hardware shops – the district is like a treasure trove. The soul of Satwa is without a doubt the shops that spill onto the pavement selling all sorts of oddities, including pots, pans, and clothes. If you’re in a store, the shopkeeper will send someone to a neighboring tea shop to bring in some Karak chai while you wait. Shopping here may not be as glamorous as in Dubai’s large malls, but the district’s chaotic and unpretentious charm more than makes up for it.
Not to be missed are Satwa’s decades-old fabric shops where you can find everything from silk taffeta to French chiffon and luxurious brocades – the price per meter is (almost) always negotiable. “One of my favorite places is the lane with all the textile shops – whenever I want to create a piece or make dresses, I head to that side of town. It’s so exciting to go there and bargain,” comments Al Shamsi. And tucked away in some corner, you’ll find tiny old-school outlets where a traditional tailor will stitch up any design you ask him to – be it a simple dress or an ornate bridal gown. “Growing up, I would go with my mom to one of these shops to make our traditional thobes for special occasions,” says Emirati entrepreneur Budreya Faisal. Even today, anyone looking for a budget-made-to-measure option will be directed that way.
Satwa’s food scene too, is buzzing. In its alleyways, expect to stumble across hole-in-the-wall (quite literally) roti joints. Watch as the Afghani men roll out the dough and stretch it to perfection before popping it into a cylindrical tandoori oven. Elsewhere, restaurants with plastic tables and chairs and laminated menus dominate. Ravi restaurant, an institution, has been serving Pakistani cuisine since 1978. On any given night, expect to wait for some time before getting a table. Earlier this year, Adidas collaborated with Ravi for a line of limited-edition sneakers that sold out within minutes and were being resold for up to AED44 000. Meanwhile, Solemann Haddad chose a new development in Satwa to open his trendy restaurant, Moonrise. “I own an Omakase restaurant on the rooftop of a luxury residential tower here. As a Dubai kid, I don’t think anything can tell our story better than that,” he says. In a city that is expanding at an exponential pace, now, more than ever, it has become important to preserve the pulse of old Dubai.
Originally published in the December 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia