In the glitzy city of Dubai, known for its mega-projects, futuristic skyscrapers and ostentatious malls, Dana Alhammadi sat in a cosy cafe learning how to make natural beauty products.

The “environmentally conscious” workshop at the KAVE cafe is part of an emerging cultural scene in a city which after years of breakneck development is exploring its alternative side.

If Dubai has a hipster centre, it is Alserkal Avenue, an industrial area full of warehouses large and small that in 2008 became a hub for art galleries, start-up businesses, and quirky retail outlets.

“It’s really nice to know how to get something natural and to stop using a lot of chemicals,” Alhammadi, dressed in a traditional full-length abaya, told AFP.

She was mixing bicarbonate of soda with coconut oil to make a back-to-basics deodorant, jazz legend Nina Simone audible in the background.

“I’m happy that they started such activities and workshops here in the United Arab Emirates,” Alhammadi said.

Home to more than nine million expatriates from well over 100 countries, making up 90 percent of the population, the UAE prides itself on being a melting pot.

Like other Gulf countries, it uses culture, media and sports events to win global recognition and push its soft power.

It has spent billions of dollars on high-profile museums and mega events, such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Dubai Expo 2020 trade fair.

The oil-rich country also hosts a range of cultural events, ranging from jazz and film festivals to fashion week.

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“A culture economy”

With the discovery of oil in the mid-20th century, the UAE transformed from a tiny economy dependent on the pearl and fishing industries to a regional powerhouse and hub for trade and tourism.

Many tourists are drawn by the headline attractions: malls packed with high-end brands, luxury resorts, man-made islands and an indoor ski slope.

But Dubai’s ultra-rapid rise resulted in what some see as a lack of cultural authenticity that in other capitals develops organically over time.

Alserkal, which hosts about 500 events a year, generally free of charge, is intended to create that cultural texture.

The project’s director Vilma Jurkute said the community supports 70 projects by young men and women from different nationalities, attracting half a million visitors each year.

“It’s essentially a community of thought leaders in literature, films, theatre, and community development that formed a key pillar of a culture economy for the city of Dubai (and) for the region,” the Lithuanian expatriate said.

(Related: How Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah are teaming up to put the United Arab Emirates on the global arts map)

Located in a light industrial district and embracing warehouse buildings that range from the sleek to the shabby, Alserkal represents an alternative to what Dubai is best known for, Jurkute added.

“We really are part of the city and we have been for the past decade,” she said.

One of Alserkal’s most prominent attractions is its Cinema Akil, the first and only art cinema in the Gulf, offering audiences a different film experience, according to the theatre’s deputy director Luz Villamil.

Every night independent films are played in the cinema, whose red armchairs and sofas, posters of old Arab classics and a cosy cafe help it to stand out from Dubai’s usual blockbuster multiplexes.

Recent screenings have included “Papicha” by Algeria’s Mounia Meddour and “Capernaum” by Lebanese director Nadine Labaki.

Next month, Akil will show “You Will Die At Twenty” by Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala.

Sometimes, the screenings are followed by debates in the small theatre.

Before it opened there was almost no choice for audiences interested in something other than Hollywood or Bollywood blockbusters, Villamil told AFP.

“The most important thing for us is to show films that highlight voices that perhaps we feel… don’t get represented very much, including Arab cinema and women-focused films.”

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“Human interaction”

This more inclusive and lesser-known side of Dubai is what drew French-Tunisian Arabic calligraphy artist “eL Seed” to set up shop in Alserkal Avenue.

“I decided to have my space here to allow visitors the same experience as they would have on the streets… to just push the door and come in,” he said.

His calligraphy is an art form Arabs can enjoy amid the overwhelming dominance of English as the UAE’s most commonly spoken and written language.

“Calligraphy linked to graffiti is a language that speaks to many people and allows them to reconcile with their Arab identity,” said eL Seed, who lives between Paris, Tunis and Dubai.

“What interests me is human interaction,” he said.


Photo by Giuseppe Cacace / AFP