Before Emiratis settled in cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi after the discovery of oil, they were nomadic Bedouin, moving between the coastal fishing villages where they settled in winter and the inland oases of Al Ain and Liwa and mountain villages where they retreated during the fierce heat of summer, living in tents.
In the old days, only the more wealthy ruling tribal leaders, along with foreign merchants from southern Persia, had solid fort-like homes and courtyard residences, made of coral and gypsum, which you can still see along Dubai Creek in Shindagha and Bastakiya.
They furnished both their portable goat hair tents and the more stable courtyard residences with bold, colorful carpets, cushions and wall hangings. These were made from traditional textiles made by Bedouin women, decorated with stripes and geometric patterns, in shades of red punctuated with lines of white, green or black. You'll also find camel bags and accessories, such as decorated bridals, that look great on a wall.
You can find these in carpet and souvenir shops and in some stores in the souqs, but I always liked to buy mine from the Heritage and Diving Villages at Shindagha where you can occasionally find the women making them in the evenings, especially during the cooler winter months.
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Buy a Bedouin Brass or Copper Coffeepot
Arrive at one of the better hotels or resorts in Dubai, and you'll more than likely be greeted by a robed man in a white dishdasha and checked headdress (gutra and agal) offering you a plate of dates and cardamom coffee from a brass coffeepot. It's always been my favorite kind of hotel "welcome drink."
The Bedouin of the UAE and wider Arabian Peninsula have a reputation for their grace and generosity and traditions of Arab hospitality. If you get a chance to visit an Emirati home, you'll find these traditions are still practiced to this day, and moments after you arrive you'll be offered coffee or tea and snacks. At weddings and special events, it's still traditional cardamom coffee and dates.
The coffeepots make wonderful souvenirs. I had a few gracing the shelves in my Dubai apartment for many years. You can find more rustic plain pots like the ones above at the Dubai Heritage and Diving Village, but you will also see fancier ones in souvenir shops. Made of polished copper and silver, as well as brass, they are more intricately decorated. These are still traditional, but they were used for special occasions by the ruling tribes, whereas the ones above were used daily, generally thrown directly onto the hot coals of a campfire. The smaller, more dainty teapots that you'll see, however, tend to come from Morocco.
During winter evenings and on national holidays, such as National Day (2 December) traditional games and activities are held at Dubai's Heritage & Diving Villages at Shindagha.
If you're lucky you should see the locals getting excited about rifle throwing contests (with replica rifles), traditional songs and dances performed by tribes from all over the Emirates and Arabian Peninsula region, and re-enactments of rituals, such as weddings, which were very different in the old days to how they are now.
Visit during this period and you'll see locals crowded around a stall jam-packed with traditional items such as those replica rifles, plus the canes that are used in old tribal dances, such as the Liwa.
You'll also find lanterns, brassed studded chests, woven mats, baskets, a few textiles, incense burners and frankincense, henna, and rose water, and local candies.
Dubai Heritage and Diving Villages often get dismissed as touristy by visitors who stop by during the sweltering heat of the day when the attractions are empty apart from tour groups.
The best time to visit is in the comparatively cooler evenings, especially during the winter months, on national holidays such as National Day, and during the heritage and shopping festivals. At these times the adjoining sites are packed with locals, Emirati tourists from around the country, Gulf Arabs (khaleejis) from across the Arabian peninsula, and Indian and Persian expats who have lived in the country for several generations.
What most tourists don't realise is that these tourist villages at Shindagha at the mouth of Dubai Creek lie on the site of the earliest settlement and have a long history and significance and special place in the hearts of Emiratis.
You can easily spend a couple of hours here wandering around looking at the historical and cultural displays, watching traditional performances when they're on, trying Emirati snack foods, shopping for handicrafts, and, if you have kids, feeding the farm animals or taking a short camel ride.
After, settle into one of a couple of nearby outdoor Arabic restaurants overlooking Dubai Creek to puff on an aromatic sheesha pipe and sample some Arabic mezze, while savoring the water views.