Nandita Das on Manto at SIBF2018

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“Who among all of you had never heard the name Manto before today?”, asked Indian actress and film maker Nandita Das to a room full of audience. Several hands went up and a discerning smile curled up at the corners of her mouth as she nodded her head. Perhaps when Nandita decided to make a film on the life of famous Urdu author Manto almost six years ago she would not have known that she would inadvertently become an ambassador of his work and beliefs to modern day readers and cine goers.

Saadat Hasan Manto was born in 1912 in Ludhiana, Punjab and later moved to Lahore, after the partition. Remarkably even though he died at the very young age of 42 he left behind a legacy of around 300 literary works including short stories, plays and essays. Manto was known to be mercurial, outspoken, an alcoholic and was tried for obscenity six times. His writings centered around partition, political corruption, drug addiction, prostitutes, sexual slavery of women among other socio-political issues of his times.

According to Nandita Manto was admired for his unabashed truthfulness that brought a rare sensitivity in his writings, a deep concern for people living on the margins as well as an unprecedented empathetic gaze for women’s issues. “Through his writing he talked about caste, religion, gender and human behaviour.  I feel he is deeply relevant today because we are grappling with all these issues. We see artists silenced by authorities, by the moral police, or by the censor board and at times they themselves chose to not express their true feelings. That’s why I wanted to tell the story of Manto, who celebrated free-spiritedness, especially now,” she said.

An acclaimed actress, Nandita has to her credit several honours and awards. Manto is her second directorial venture. Starring the talented Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the movie traces the struggles in the life of the writer between the years 1946 to 1948, the time around which India gained independence. Due to the partition Manto who lived in Bombay, India was forced to move to Lahore, Pakistan. Nandita spent close to six years making the film, and started collecting research material a few years before that. To know the real Manto she spent time with his three daughters who live in Pakistan.

During the talk Nandita spoke about spreading the idea of Mantoiyyat or Mantoness. “It is the desire to be more honest. Mantoiyyat is that feeling that gives confidence to be strong about your convictions, which in turn gives the person courage to stand up for their beliefs. Manto wrote the truth about what was happening in the society even though every time he did he got into trouble with the law.”

Close to the end of the talk Nandita was joined on the stage by her eight year old son who also played a small part in the movie. In a Facebook post she wrote later that ‘her son was probably the only eight year old who had heard so much about Manto, and that it is never too early to hear about the importance of honesty, convictions and courage’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Island of the Colour Blind

picislandPingelap, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean is lush with natural colours — azure blue waters, green palms and white sandy beaches. But the biggest irony is that almost 10 per cent of Pingelap’s inhabitants are colourblind. They suffer from achromatopsia, a condition that makes people sensitive to light, results in poor vision and inability to distinguish colours. Legend has it that a typhoon swept over Pingelap in the 18th century  and wiped away most of its residents. The only survivor was the king, who suffered from achromatopsia. He passed the gene to the island’s future generations, earning the atoll the name ‘Island of the Colourblind’.

When Belgian photographer Sanne De Wilde, first heard of Pingelap, she was deeply fascinated by the island’s unique residents. She spent a month in Pingelap and neighbouring Pohnpei in 2015 to understand the Pingelapese sense of colour. Curious to let people know how colourblinds perceive colour she experimented with infrared and shot in monochrome on her digital camera. The result was an eerie burst of light. Sanne compiled her research and presented them in a photobook titled Island of the Colorblind.

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Sanne’s book is part of the ongoing Photo Book exhibition at Gulf Photo Plus, Dubai, that runs till August 31, 2018. Contemporary photographers from North Africa, Middle East and South Asia are exhibiting in the show. At a talk organised by GPP Sanne shared her experiences of photographing the Pingelapese.

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“The sun need not be yellow, it can be purple. I wanted people to see different perceptions of the world we live in. I conducted my research by shooting in black and white to see how the achromatics see the tropical environment in shades of black and white. In my pics I focus on their eyes and head. I also invited Belgian and Dutch achromats to paint on my black and white images, to showcase different perspectives.” Who would have thought there is an entire island where people see the world in shades of grey! An interesting talk and a revelation for me.

 

Memoir to Movie: Cheryl Strayed and Saroo Brierley

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I am a fan of books being made into movies, yet I always make sure to read the book first and then see its cinematic adaptation. That’s because I am a true bookworm who loves to smell and savour the story, relish the lives of characters and the lush setting of a book one page at a time.

A movie adaptation most often has brought alive the characters I had imagined in my head yet at times they have totally ruined the fun by giving a certain face and look to the heroes of a book that was in complete contrast to what I had thought them to be.

Books and their screen adaptations will always be part of a timeless debate. But what happens when a book you wrote on your own life is adapted for the big screen. Would you be able to look at it objectively, agree with the way the actors portrayed you and the director showcased your life? Authors Cheryl Strayed of ‘Wild’ fame and Saroo Brierley on whose life the movie ‘Lion’ was made shared their views in an interesting talk titled From Memoir to Movie at the recently concluded Emirates Literature Festival 2018.

Both their stories are incredible and awe-inspiring. There is Cheryl, who at the age of 26, heartbroken by her mother’s death from cancer, embarked on a 1,100 mile hike along the arduous Pacific Crest Trail in the US. She was a complete novice with no prior experience of hiking, she carried no phone, very less money and only a backpack.

The Pacific Crest trail is 4279 km long and its mostly dotted with forest and mountainous terrain. The hike had been a journey of self-discovery that resulted in her hugely successful book ‘Wild’ published in 2012. American actress Reese Witherspoon acted and produced the cinematic adaptation of ‘Wild’ in 2014 and went on to win Academy Award nominations for her role as Cheryl.

Saroo Brierley too had a compelling story to tell in his memoir titled A Long Way Home published in 2013. Born in the Indian city of Khandwa, Saroo only aged five got separated from his family at a train station. Lost and helpless wandering on the streets of Calcutta he was eventually adopted by an Australian couple. After 25 years living in Australia through Google Earth Saroo was able to trace his family in India. His emotional journey and reunion with his birth mother was portrayed in the movie ‘Lion’ by actor Dev Patel who played the role of Saroo. The movie was a commercial success and a favourite at the Academy Awards as well.

Cheryl says the stakes are high when your memoir is being made into a movie. “I
trusted Reese, and she seemed really honest and it turned out to be a very collaborative process.” In fact in an earlier interview Cheryl has said that when Wild was being published in 2012 she had sent an advance copy to Reese and in the hope of receiving a positive call from Reese she had even lit a candle in her bedroom. Indeed three days later she did receive that call. “During the making of Wild I was on the sets almost every day and even did a cameo as a pickup truck driver in one of the scenes.”

Although there was no role for Saroo, a surprise awaited him at the end of the movie– a link to the documentary Homeward Bound on his real struggle to find his mom and snapshots of Saroo’s adopted and biological families.

Both Cheryl and Saroo were able to see the movies very objectively, although Saroo did admit, “If I had directed the movie it would have been very different”. And therein lies the truth that each person’s perspective is unique. Cheryl sums it the best when she says, “I told myself that I was only the writer of the book and this movie is an interpretation of my creation.” They were both extremely appreciative of the actors who essayed their roles, Saroo was especially impressed by Sunny Pawar, the young Indian actor who played his childhood role.

Their memoirs being made into movies meant immense public attention, Red Carpet welcome at film festivals, hobnobbing with Hollywood A-listers and of course numerous clicks and selfies. How did they handle all this attention? “For me it was like visiting a foreign land called Hollywood,” Cheryl says brightly. Wild was nominated in various categories at all the prestigious awards in Hollywood including the Oscars, Golden Globe, People’s Choice Awards among others. Lion too was nominated at the Academy awards, the British Academy awards, the Australian Academy of Cinema Awards. Saroo attended all the award functions, often accompanied by his mom Sue and dad John. “My mom and Nicole Kidman had so many conversations that they became like soul sisters.”

On writing memoirs Saroo and Cheryl had some valuable advice for the audience. The topmost aspect of writing a memoir is the decision to share not only your own life with others but also private details about your family members. Before writing A Long Way Home Saroo discussed this aspect with his parents, who gave him the go-ahead. “There was so much positivity in the story for humanity that we all felt compelled to write this book to give hope to others,” says Saroo.

Cheryl admits being extremely honest in her book and her siblings were supportive of her writing. “I had a great mum but not a great dad. I wrote to seek the truth. I had to write about his violence and abuse, of course he was enraged.”

Cheryl wrote Wild 17 years after that inspiring trek and it took Saroo 25 years to trace his birth mother. Delving into one’s memory and retrieving incidents and events that shaped the journey can look like a daunting task. Cheryl’s advice to memoir writers is to just begin the writing process. “Write what you don’t remember, exercise your memory muscle and it will all come out.” Saroo used to listen to music to delve into the deepest corners of his memory recalling his early days. He too says, “Just put pen to paper.”

 

 

Stealing Sadness by Majd Kurdieh

Syrian artist Majd Kurdieh was forced to flee his homeland and now lives in Lebanon. This displacement and the current volatile political situation of his country has deeply impacted him. His art, a creative expression of his thoughts, features tiny cartoon-like characters he calls Fasaeen. Stealing Sadness, his latest exhibition at The Workshop, on Al Wasl Road, depicts these tiny characters on a quest to steal sadness from the world and in turn spread a lot of happiness. Kurdieh created this group of characters inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Kalilah Wa Dimna, the Arabic translation of Panchatantra and from the old poets of pre-Islamic preriod.

The Fasaeen include Fasoon and Fasooneh, a boy and a girl, smaller than cherry blossom, always smiling. The Elephant, who gives everything and never listens to anyone, and therefore became very large, the butterfly — the symbol of the gang, the fish – who is bored of living in water, the snail – on whose back everyone takes a ride so that the happy moments pass slowly and the donkey, the dove, the rat, the horse and the wolf.

Majd also exhibited at Art Bahrain 2018 and Sikka Art Fair 2018. His current exhibition at Fann A Porter at The Workshop, that runs till April 12 features a new series called Fasaeen and the Very Scary Butterfly Gang.

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The Very Scary Butterfly Gang on paper

This series include the canvas of the giant whale with sad eyes, a large tear seems ready to drop from his giant eyes.

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The Snails carrying characters on their back. Majd titles this as “I am actually not different from them all, except just alas fatigued by this journey”.

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This one he titles, “Can the moon ever be concealed, can the moon ever be convert, can the moon ever be unobserved”.

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Four of his characters ride on the butterfly accompanied with a verse that says “Life is a butterfly, each one of us is standing on her wings… we meet up and depart and meet again… ”

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Majd’s art is endearing and his characters have universal appeal. There is indeed a lot of sadness in the world and the colourful Fasaeen characters touched a deep happy chord inside me.

Majd says, “Fasaeen… realistic slaps coated with dreamy kisses… theatrical characters that appear on the austere whiteness of the painting where they tell their story and run away as if they belong to the Tramps… the talking animals are an extension to the conversation between the poets and their horses and wolves…I tried to be visually aesthetic as much as I could… when I found myself an immigrant who cannot carry many colours and lines… the heavy suitcases burden the wings of the swallow… yellow and blue… are my everlasting nostalgia for a land on the banks of the Euphrates… merely scattered thoughts that resemble what I did. In the time of war I did not try to present death and destruction as an aesthetic case; I have rather tried to reconstruct the beauty of the souls that ugliness destroyed.”

Looking forward to more of Majd’s playful artistic characters. The Workshop was yet another find, this aesthetic hub has an innovative gift shop, an art gallery and a lovely cafe.

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A glimpse of the Hit Girl, Asha Parekh

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Her kohl lined doe eyes and sugary voice were an integral part of my growing up years. In the 80s and 90s there was often an Asha Parekh starrer on the telly. She was the dancing girl in Caravan matching steps with Jeetendra, the sad widow with soulful eyes in Kati Patang and the enchanting Japanese girl dressed in a floral kimono singing Sayonara Sayonara in Love in Tokyo. A string of continuous successes at the box office had earned her the title Jubilee Girl. The year 2017 saw the release of her biography aptly titled Hit Girl written by noted film critic Khaled Mohammad.

At the author’s meet of Sharjah International Book Fair 2017 I got a chance to listen to that familiar voice recalling anecdotes from movies about movie stars I had grown up admiring. So, it seems superstar Rajesh Khanna was an introvert and took some time to open up with his co stars on film sets. And that he had a sweet tooth and the first question he would ask on the sets was, ‘what’s the dessert for lunch today?’ That Raj Kapoor was a spontaneous actor who would be laughing on the sets one minute and could enact an emotional scene where he could break out in tears the next minute.
Asha Parekh was introduced in Bollywood in 1959 at the age of 16 in Dil Deke Dekho opposite the legendary Shammi Kapoor. “During the shooting of Dil Deke Dekho Shammiji’s wife Geeta Bali took an instant liking to me. She would lift me on her shoulders and tell Shammiji, whom I used to call Chacha ‘let’s adopt her’,” she reminisced fondly.
Seated at the centre of the stage, dressed in an aqua green saree with that infamous twinkle in her eyes she was a picture of grace and elegance at 75. The talk moderated by Manju Ramanan, editor, Filmfare ME and Ajay Mago, publisher of Om books touched upon some significant chapters of her life that also feature in the book — including her relationship with director Nasir Hussain, her tryst with depression and her role as Censor Board head.
“I was not destined to get married.” Over the years she had become very close to director Nasir Hussain, with whom she delivered many superhits. But as Hussain was a married man, Asha did not want to be a homebreaker. The only child of her parents, their deaths brought immense loneliness into her life, which eventually manifested into depression. She took medication and is now over with that phase, Asha revealed. Today she spends time with her girl gang of yesteryear stars — Waheeda Rehman, Helen and Shammi.  “We go out for lunches and dinners, and try to meet often. Live for today, don’t think about the past and be happy is my motto now.”

I went back with fond memories of having met the hit girl who like her reel life avatars was beautiful and honest.

UAE’s birth story at Etihad Museum

December 2 is commemorated as UAE national day because of the historic unification that happened on this day in 1971. Six rulers of six emirates met to form the United Arab Emirates. The seventh emirate Ras al Khaimah joined the federation only on February 11, 1972. But what most of us don’t know is that the seeds of this momentous unification was laid on February 18, 1968, in Al Sedaira followed by a meeting between the two great rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. In the meeting Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum agreed to create a federal system to unite the two emirates.

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This smiling picture of the two great leaders during the 1968 Ruler’s agreement adorns the walls of the Etihad Museum in Dubai. Accompanying the pic at the museum is a detailed written exhibit about the main points of the agreement.

UAE is today a country of chic malls and tall skyscrapers but if you want to trace the events that led to the birth of this ultra modern nation then the Etihad museum is the perfect place to be. Unveiled by Sheikh Mohammed on UAE’s 45th national day the museum explores the emirate’s history between 1968 and 1974 through interactive digital displays, videos and personal memorabilia.

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Designed in the shape of the unification manuscript the roof of the building looks like a sheaf of paper. Seven golden columns in the entrance symbolise the seven pens that signed the agreement. Inside there are several halls, a theatre, a library, educational areas and cafes.

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The first hall dedicated to the founding fathers has seven life size digital pictures of the rulers. Each picture has an accompanying exhibit of their belongings and an interactive screen informing visitors about their biography and family tree.

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This exhibit, for instance, showcases the golden dagger and passport of the late Sheikh Mohammad bin Hamad al Sharqi, the founding ruler of Fujairah. Several other memorabilia of the six other  rulers are also well preserved here. Young visitors to the museum get a family pack with activities to keep them engrossed in exploring the museum. The union house where the actual agreement was signed is also part of the museum and so is the 123 metre tall flagpole at the site.

Opening time of the museum: 10 am to 8 pm

Location: Jumeirah Beach Road

Ticket: Adults pay Dhs 25, Students between the age of 5 and 24 pay Dhs 10

 

 

Inside the Al Noor island

One hot August afternoon we crossed a bridge over clear blue waters to reach a tiny green island in Sharjah. Our first sight was instantly heartwarming — a group of crows were quenching their thirst from a small pool of water. And right behind those birds was an impressive arch shaped building with floral patterns that housed a cafe and a butterfly dome. Excited we walked past the serene cafe, with gleaming white benches, to spot some colourful butterflies. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a disappointing quest as there were hardly any butterflies in sight.

Outside the butterfly house a winding path covered with trees and bushes on either sides led us to a cactus garden, a sandpit and playground for kids. Further ahead, right in the middle of the dense foliage, was an open courtyard room with benches and cushions called the literature pavilion. To the sound of chirping birds, with your favourite book in hand, this indeed was a nature lover’s and reader’s heaven.

There are benches strewn across the island for visitors to sit, relax, read and soak in the greenery and serenity. Kids loved getting lost in the green maze and jumping on the long trampoline inside the garden. At night neon dancing lights gave the whole place a magical hue, fanning visitor’s imagination. We loved every bit of our time marooned on this island.

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Entrance to the cafe and butterfly garden

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Greenery all around

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The cactus garden

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Literature pavilion

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Torus Sculpture by David Harber

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A beach strip inside the island

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Lighted up at night

Flavours of Armenian cuisine

Rich in history, steeped in culture, Armenia, is a gourmand’s dream destination too. While touring one of the oldest civilizations of the world we got to tickle our taste buds with a variety of fresh vegetables, exotic herbs, barbecued meats and diary products. On our first night in Yerevan we dined at Tavern Yerevan on Amiryan street. The highlight of the evening was Piti and Tava Kyufta accompanied by Armenia’s famous Lavash bread.

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Lavash and Piti

Piti, served in an earthern pot, is a soup made with meat, vegetables, potatoes and chickpeas. The broth is tempered with several spices and is cooked for hours. A layer of flaky bread seals the top of this delicious and nutritious dish. Kyufta, on the other hand, are meatballs, but ours was a variant of the traditional meatballs as it was a block of lamb meat served in a pan on a bed of lavash topped with grilled tomatoes.

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Tava Kyufta

No Armenian meal is complete without Lavash bread. This thin, paper-like bread is made from unleavened dough in clay ovens called tonirs. The bread has great significance for Armenians. Bakers bless their lavash dough and make the sign of a cross before baking thus ensuring that whoever eats the bread gets all goodness. Considered a symbol of fertility lavash is placed on the shoulders of the brides and the groom for good luck.

Our Armenian food adventure continued the next day at the picturesque Tsirani Garden restaurant located inside an apricot farm. After a wonderful and insightful tour of Garni and Geghard temple complexes near Yerevan we headed to the lush farm restaurant.

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Log huts amidst apricot trees at Tsirani

Green apricots called Tsiran, waiting to ripen, glistened in the sunlight from the branches of the trees spread abundantly across the garden. We were escorted to one of the many log huts where guests dine. After several minutes of discussions and translations by our enthusiastic tour guide we finally ordered Armenian Lori cheese, a platter of salad, Armenian yoghurt, roasted potatoes, chicken kebab and fish khorovats (Armenian for barbecue).

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Our table at Tsirani

Each dish had a distinct flavour, Armenian food is mostly grilled and barbecued, so there is very less oil used. The only unhealthy part is the high salt content in their dishes. The Lori cheese for instance was too salty for our taste, but the tender roasted potatoes with mild spices and fish khorovat scored higher. As Armenia is one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world, a glass of wine almost always finds space on the dining table. There is a wide selection of indigenous home grown wines to choose from, and we ordered Armenian red wine. It turned out to be a near perfect lunch, with delicious kebabs, sweet wine and a gentle breeze from the apricot trees.

For me a good meal is incomplete without some sweet treats. And Armenia had plenty to offer to satisfy my sugar cravings. Just outside the Geghard monastery complex were stalls selling Gata, a type of sweet bread.

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Gata bread

They are made with flour, butter and sugar, some are filled with nuts. They are decorated before baking, usually there is a sign of cross and they can be stored for several days. We enjoyed our Gata with tea on all the days we were in Armenia. Very similar to the Georgian churchkhela are Armenia sudjukhs, made with grape juice and nuts. Our morning breakfast table was always adorned with sudjukhs. Apricot is synonymous with Armenia as the country has a rich cultivation and so the fruit finds space in cakes, pies and preserves.

But the real highlight of the sweet trail was the crostata served at the breakfast table in our hotel Opera Suites Yerevan.

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A slice of crostata with cream cakes

Buttery and crumbly it was served every day with a different topping. I think I can go back to Armenia for many other reasons, top on the list would be that yummy crostata.

 

 

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Jabreen Castle, Oman

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This impressive castle with wooden ceilings, Arabic calligraphy and decorated windows is located in the Dakhiliyah province of Oman, about 175 kms from Muscat. It was built in 1670 by Imam Bil’arab bin Sultan, the son of Sultan bin Saif, who helped in driving the Portuguese from Oman. Visitors get a taste of period architecture while exploring its numerous rooms  spread across three stories. At the entrance are two large canons that lead on to an open courtyard. Racing up the castle’s numerous stairs can be exhaustive and rewarding as you get views of several rooms including meeting rooms, libraries, classrooms and dining areas. There is even a date store where large stocks of dates were preserved, their juice was crushed and collected in earthen jars. In peaceful times the juice was used in the castle kitchen but during a siege it was boiled and poured on attackers through holes in the doorway.

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Reading room inside the castle

A closer look at the castle reveals arches with Arabic calligraphy, beautiful carvings on doors and brightly painted wooden ceilings. Yet another interesting room is called the Sun and moon room. It has 14 windows that make this room remain cool throughout the year. It has an eye shaped ceiling and was used to conduct meetings.

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Painted ceilings

For those who manage to maneuver through the castle’s rooms and unending staircases will get a memorable view of the picturesque date palm oasis surrounding the area. Catch your breath and spend a silent moments here before you brace up to navigate your way back ♥

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Al Qudra lakes

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This calm oasis is part of a desert reserve called Saih al Salam. A recently established site, maintained by Dubai government’s civic body, the Al Qudra lakes are perfect for picnic and birdwatching. We spotted several ducks and a few other exotic birds. According to the UAE birding website several birds have been introduced in the lakes by the Dubai municipality including Black-necked Swan, Mute Swan, Barnackle Goose, White-cheeked Pintail among others. The area also includes a long cycling track and trek shop selling cycling equipment along small cafeterias.

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