The building is a classic example of a traditional Gulf mansion, with imposing but largely windowless exterior walls (except at the front) and rooms arranged around a large sandy courtyard with a couple of trees in the middle – a miniature desert at the heart of an urban mansion. Each of the rooms is enlivened with exhibits evoking aspects of traditional Emirati life. Mannequins loll around on cushions drinking coffee in the main majlis, where male guests were traditionally received, business was conducted and news exchanged, while in the ladies’ majlis a child has her hands painted with henna while others spin thread, work on their embroidery or grind spices. Finely carved teak doors with stylized palm and floral motifs lead into the main room (al makhzan), where further mannequins in rich traditional dress and jewellery pose amid incongruous Western imports, including an old gramophone, a wireless and a Seth Thomas clock – the unintentionally comic signs admonishing visitors to “Please keep away from the exhibits” may be taken with the appropriate pinch of salt.
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Traditional Emirati houses
Traditional Emirati houses
The heritage houses in Dubai (and other places around the Emirates) follow a standard pattern – although it’s worth remembering that these elaborate stone mansions were far from typical of the living arrangements enjoyed by the population at large, most of whom lived in simple and impermanent palm-thatch huts. Virtually all traditional houses are built around a central courtyard (housh) and veranda (liwan). These provided families with their main living area, and a place where they could cook, play and graze a few animals in complete privacy; some also had a well and a couple of trees. Exterior walls are usually plain and largely windowless in order to protect privacy. Rooms are arranged around the courtyard, the most important being the majlis (meeting room), in which the family would receive guests and exchange news (larger houses would have separate majlis for men and women). More elaborate houses would also boast one or more wind towers.
Traditional houses make ingenious use of locally available natural materials. Most coastal houses were constructed using big chunks of coral stone, or fesht (look closely and you can make out the delicate outlines of submarine sponges, coral and suchlike on many of the stones). The stones were cemented together using layers of pounded gypsum, while walls were strengthened by the insertion of mangrove poles bound with rope. Mangrove wood was also used as a roofing material along with (in more elaborate houses) planks of Indian teak. Away from the coast, coral was replaced by bricks made from a mixture of mud and straw, or adobe (a word deriving from the Arabic al tob, meaning “mud”).
Local architecture is remarkably well adapted to provide shelter from the Gulf’s scorching summer: walls were built thick and windows small to keep out the heat, while both coral and adode have excellent natural insulating properties. Houses were also built close to one another, partly for security, and also to provide shade in the narrow alleyways between. And although most houses look austere, the overall effect of plainness is relieved by richly carved wooden doors and veranda screens, and by floral and geometrical designs around windows, doorways and arches, fashioned from gypsum and coloured with charcoal powder.