Literary City Guide | DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Tour Guide: ANN BENJAMIN
The author of Room 702 and Life After Joe, Ann Benjamin is an American author living in Dubai, UAE. She enjoys travel, is obsessed with Pinterest, loves Newsies, supports UGA football and can’t believe she’s in her ninth year as an expat. You may recognize her from her other writing persona, Courtney Brandt, author of six young adult marching novels. She has recently launched a food and hospitality blog, A to Za’atar.
Relationship to Dubai: The original stint in Dubai was from 2007-2011. We then moved back to the Emirates in 2014, and made the move from Abu Dhabi back to Dubai in February 2016.
Writer you’d like to invite to dinner: I would want to meet Tamora Pierce. She had an enormous impact on me as a young woman and continues to write wonderfully diverse characters.
Chef you’d like to prepare the meal: Can I go back to Noma? Honestly, any kitchen where the chef makes food passionately is one I want to try. I like many cuisines, so I’m not too picky!
Writing soundtrack: OFFRadio and a crazy eclectic playlist to supplement.
Pen or Pencil: I am ruled by a red pen for editing pages by hand, and Pilot pen (0.5, blue ink) for the rest of my life.
Coffee or Tea? Tea. Black. Lots of sugar, lots of milk. (Lemon and ginger + honey in the event of a hangover).
Paperback or Hardback? Neither – I read off of my Kindle. When moving countries every few years or so, accumulating tons of books makes things difficult.
Kinokunyia. An import from Japan – this is a wonderful place for book lovers of all kinds. The store stocks books, manga and magazines from around the world and has extensive editions in multiple languages. The sprawling space is located on the top floor of Dubai Mall and is complete with a café which overlooks the fountains and architectural wonder of the Burj Khalifa.
House of Prose. A smallish second hand bookstore in Jumeirah. When we initially moved in 2007 and before I had my Kindle set up, I was desperate to read! This store provides a great place to rotate books (you can sell as well as buy).
Book Munch Café and Bookshop. Located near one of Dubai’s largest parks (and recently opened in another location), BookMunch is an excellent hybrid bookseller and café. With weekly reading sessions for children and babies, this is a great choice for families and young readers.
So, there aren’t true public libraries in the Emirates. I know – devastation. As someone who visited my local library on a weekly basis, it was quite a shock when we moved. While I have never been, there is a place called The Old Library, attached (as any number of clichés would tell you) to a mall. To be fair, the Library is part of the Dubai Community Theatre and Art Centre (DUCTAC) complex, where many shows and events take place.
About an hour away in Abu Dhabi, I was fortunate enough to work at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), which offers not only a beautiful space but also a highly functioning research library. As an open campus, members of the community would have access. NYUAD is also home to its own on campus Arts Center, which occasionally offers public readings (in addition to a fantastic line up of artists and theater).
The Mohammed Bin Rashid Library is slated to open in 2017 and will house more than a million books across 66,000 square meters.
READINGS & CONFERENCES
Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (EAFOL). Under the patronage of His Highness, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and Emir of Dubai. The Festival was launched in 2009 and is held in early March every year. This Festival has been growing exponentially since its start. Not only a chance to interact with many globally recognized authors, the Festival includes classes, workshops and lots of fun ‘fringe’ activities for younger readers. The support from the local community is really something to be proud of. The Festival also does a great job of providing translation to either English or Arabic in almost all of their sessions and is supported by the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority.
Sharjah International Book Fair. This exhibition has been taking place for 34 years. Located in the nearby emirate and held in November, the fair strives to ‘cultivate the love for literature among people by enriching their experience of the written word.'
Your local book club! Having been a part of multiple groups, I know there are lots of great readers in Dubai. Even better? You will automatically be exposed to authors you would never usually come across in your home country. There are official groups to join via MeetUp and the like, although I’ve always been able to round up a few readers through various friend and work groups.
The Pavilion Downtown Dubai This venue is a café, restaurant and open plan workspace near the Burj Khalifa. It has a great reputation for being a place to connect and chill. With its signature vertical garden installation and funky light fixtures, this is where you will find creative types hard at work.
More Café (multiple locations). With a little something of everything (for everyone), More is always a treat. Their coffee is roasted in Dubai, which is also kind of awesome.
Tom & Serg. New on the scene and taking off, this open concept is well documented with the Instagram crowd and well known for good service and a positive attitude. Keep an eye out for specialty nights, which happen quite regularly.
A PROPER MEAL
Zuma. For high end sushi and an eclectic ambiance, Zuma never disappoints. If you do nothing else, try the black cod, trust me. For a posh atmosphere, there is always something going on at the DIFC location (but if you have a chance, the Abu Dhabi venue is worth a visit).
Rang Mahal by Atul Kochar. If you looking for an amazing anniversary dinner or something to impress friends from out of town, look no further than the 9 Jewels menu at Rang Mahal. Start to finish, it was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had. Also, located in one of the tallest hotels in the world, the JW Marriott Marquis Dubai, it’s worth a trip.
Reem Al Bawadi. If you want authentic Arabic food at nearly any time of day, go to the original location on Jumeirah Beach Road. Order a bunch of mezze, a platter of mixed grill and a double apple shisha. You’re welcome.
Baker and Spice. With a rotating and extensive selection of fantastic salads (with especially great options for vegetarians), along with freshly baked bread and a list of main courses that would satisfy anyone, it’s my go to for a quick, but delicious takeaway.
Barasti Bar. The original beach bar. For sporting matches to the singles scene, this spot is very popular among both local ex-pats and tourists. Between the Beach, Rooftop Garden and Middle Deck, you’ll find the right spot for a sundowner.
Sure, we have Magnolia Café and umpteen cupcake places in country, but you didn’t travel 14 hours in a plane to eat what you can get at home, right?
Lime Tree Café. You simply MUST try the carrot cake. It is heaven sent. Also, everything (not just the collection of deserts) is wonderfully fresh and fantastic.
Café Bateel. For a more local experience, this is a must do. Bateel was originally known for their dates and have boutiques dedicated entirely to all sorts of presentations of the fruit, should you be in the market for a suitable regional gift. However, in the past few years have extended their offerings to include a number of delightful cafes, where one can dine on any number of treats.
Irish Village. As an expat, sometimes you need a proper fry up. And in that fry up, you need pork. And in the Middle East, this is not always easy to procure, hence The Village Fry…
ANN's 5 Favorites
1. Favorite bookstore. Kinokunyia: I’m hoping my books end up here one day!
2. Favorite place to write: Does an airport lounge count? No, seriously. Give me a good wifi signal, a glass of something bubbly, my headphones and I’m good to go.
3. Favorite museum. While I’m beyond excited for the Louvre Abu Dhabi to open in late 2016, for now, the Al Bastakiya area in Dubai is my favorite. The location is a collection of galleries, historic buildings and restaurants with unique architecture and best of all – a free price tag!
4. Favorite coffee shop. Fanr, my former ‘local’ on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. A unique place to meet up with a rotating set of art exhibits. It’s the perfect spot on a Friday morning.
5. Favorite thing about Dubai. It was recently released that the population of Dubai is made up of 83% expats! As with everywhere I’ve worked in the region, I love that everyone comes from somewhere else. There is no majority. With people from all walks of life, there is always something to celebrate or a new culture to learn about. In our eight years, we’ve made friends from all over the world.