Culture, Design, Fat Nancy's Dubai
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The Gates of Satwa

Walking the busy streets of Satwa is a unique experience. But turn a corner down a different direction to usual, and you’ll find yourself in the back streets. Cycling these back streets is a different experience altogether.

[Originally published on I’m Not A Fiend]

From the urban neon lights of Satwa Road and Al Diyafah, just seconds later you feel transported to a sandy village. One storey buildings as far as the eye can see, dusty palm trees, and scrawny cats that eye you up and down from the top of a dumpster. Cockerels crow and goats bleat from behind fences. Who lives in these ramshackle abodes is an eternal mystery to me. In many, it seems to all be men, up to twenty. What are their lives like? It’s another world, and it’s right under our noses.

This is Satwa still though, and commerce remains a dominant fixture. Only now it’s nothing but bakeries, tiny grocery stores, and the odd building supplies shop, whose supplies seem to have remained toppled up in the dusty shelves for decades. If you need just a couple of nails to hang up some pictures, perhaps a bearded old man will let you have them for free. It’s no skin off his back, in his jungle of bits and bobs.

Every Friday afternoon, under a certain tree at a certain crossroads, a group of cheering men huddles around an ironing board. Some kind of illegal activity is afoot! Nothing more than a simple card game, but a rowdy one at that. Don’t look too closely or they’ll get antsy.

Cycling is the way to explore these streets. The roads are narrow, but they’re flat and straight. The only traffic will be the occasional ‘Satwa truck guy’, and a lot of other bicycles. You can speed past house after house, peering into any gates left open. You’ll catch glimpses inside, flashes of stoney courtyards and damp stairwells. Clothes seem to hang from every possible surface. Trees double as laundry stands and bike racks.

Bikes might be commonplace in Satwa, but girls on bikes aren’t. I get a lot of funny looks as I speed past the jostling crowds that gather outside the chai and shawarma joints at the weekend. Bemused, confused, appalled, or admiring? I’m not exactly sure! But I’m gone a second later.


The gates themselves are a thing of beauty. Metal wrought into arabesque patterns, timeworn paint peeling and chipping away. Birds, fish, stars, and hearts, made in a bygone era. The falcons of the UAE. The bricks crumble around them, but these gates remain steadfast. They don’t make buildings like this anymore. Behind the gates is usually a central courtyard. Beyond that, who knows?

One afternoon we stopped outside a house with a sculpture of two majestic fish above the front door. We were mesmerised. The house had geometric grate-work, a blue and white patterned gate, and turquoise fencing. It was simultaneously beautiful and outrageous. When an Asian man on a bicycle pulled up in front and started getting his keys out, we had to speak to him. Finally an opportunity for insight into these gates.


The friendly man revealed he was Vietnamese, and had only been in Dubai for two weeks. He was working in ship repairs. And as far as he knew about the fish? They were put there by the Arabic owners of the house. He hadn’t really paid them much attention, it seemed.

The mystery of these houses remains. Because amongst all the crumbling buildings, there’ll be the occasional villa painted in vibrant turquoise or terracotta. There will be carefully tended to plants outside, proud UAE flags on the walls. Love and attention has gone into this presentation.

And therein lies the beauty of Satwa. The loyalty and pride felt by its people, combined with the eternal sense of the unknown. You really never know what you’re going to find around the next corner. Sandy lots are transformed into rugged football pitches or cricket lawns. Carparks are turned into town squares, housing huddles of men with cups of hot chai. But above all, these little fortresses and gates of Satwa continue to fascinate and bemuse me.

Originally written by Beth for I’m Not A Fiend

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