Dubai just gave permanent residency to arts

By Purva Grover

When you’re new to a place, you find your bearings by surrounding yourself with individuals who have the same interests and passions as yours. And that’s what took me to a particular spot in the sleepy, industrial neighbourhood of Al Quoz a couple of years ago. Someone said all the crazy, creative ones like you hang around there. I was sold. 

With no metro connectivity, I’d confess it did take me some time to find my way to the now fairly popular art hub listed on Google Maps  — Alserkal Avenue. Since the bright-white signage was yet to go up, the cab driver and I took turns to direct one another.

It was almost this time of the year, a summer evening giving way to a nice winter one. I ran into a fellow author. “I am regular with my visits here, it keeps me sane,” she said. Sounding almost like a medication for the arty soul. We discussed ideas, exchanged numbers and soon I began to find my sanity in the zone as well. Today, I take pride in announcing that I, along with other artists, feel at home in Alserkal.

So, no wonder, as the news of the announcement by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, that the emirate will launch a new long-term cultural visa for artists and other creative people spread, my WhatsApp started to buzz with excitement. “He’s also approved plans for setting up a creative free zone in Al Quoz as well as a new literary season that’ll include a book fair and related events,” read one message.

Walk into the area on any given evening now and the creativity will rub on you. We’ve witnessed the transformation of the once isolated zone to a place to be seen at, to perform at. Over the last few years, we’ve staged shows at The Junction, plonked ourselves for hours at the A4 space rehearsing lines, admired artworks at the free-to-enter galleries, or simply read out poetry sitting on the pavements until late hours.

Warehouses are now art galleries (JamJar) and performing spaces (Sima). You can even get your vehicles repaired and customised while admiring the beauties at the Nostalgic Classic Cars Gallery and Society Motors. We’d like to call the latter museum, though. You can watch a movie under the stars or step into Cinema Akil for your dose of international documentaries and classics. You could even buy yourself a comfortable pair of shoes (Tamashee).

Of course, a lot has changed. The arts are growing and patrons are backing up the efforts, big and small. Ticketed shows are now getting sold out and international artists are not shying away from the space. A tea vendor, on his bicycle, still sells steaming, hot chai to artists in the evening, but now we also have high-end cafes serving up vegan and organic options (Wild & the Moon, Inked, etc.). Then there are casual eateries (Project Chaiwala), where many ideas are brewed over a cup of chai. I myself have spent hours there hosting storytelling sessions, book readings, et al. Tourists have begun to flock in. The venue has become one of the must-visit places on the DXB list. We have our bus stop there as well!

Barricades have been installed at the entrances as the place gets crowded on event nights, but no one is complaining. Artists are happy to play the tour guide for newbies around.   

So here’s raising a toast on behalf of all the authors, actors, playwrights, stage directors, poets, dancers, comics… And as for all the WhatsApp messages, here’s my reply, “We have a permanent address, it seems!” See you in the evening at The Yard. And if like us, you are a patron of arts, you’d know where The Yard is!

Purva is the unofficial brand ambassador of Alserkal Avenue!

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