In Villa 88's Fall 2021 edition, the editor, cultural strategist and arts consultant shares her love of the glistening city

The way that Myrna Ayad talks wistfully about Dubai is how one would speak of a dear old friend. “My childhood in Dubai was golden, both literally and metaphorically,” she says. “I grew up on the banks of Khor Dubai (the Creek) and when I think about it now, I think of when the sun is setting and how it would tinge everything orange. It was also a golden childhood because of the intimacy of Dubai in that it felt like a village; everybody knew everybody.”

After living in Dubai for 40 years, the Lebanese-born editor, cultural strategist and arts consultant has seen the city transform in more ways than one. In her latest book Dubai Wonder for the boutique publisher Assouline, Myrna details these changes alongside images that capture the many facets of the Emirate. “The difference between then and now is radical,” Myrna says.

Appreciating the view from Palm Jumeirah, looking onto the Burj Al Arab and Jumeirah Beach Hotel; Photography by © Alverart | © Shuga Photography

“I know that when one talks about Dubai, there is no escaping the mention of Atlantis, Burj Khalifa, the New Year’s fireworks or The Dubai Mall. There’s the biggest this and the highest that. It is the glitzy, the glamorous, the shiny.” But in her essay for the book, she wanted to show how Dubai is much more than that. “It’s such a deep, meaningful, and charming city,” she continues. “It’s got such a history to it, more than people know.” Myrna still misses the old days; an altogether simpler time.

“With all due respect to Dubai and its incredible high rises and luxury resorts – each one more beautiful and tantalizing than the next – nothing beats the view from where we lived at the Hyatt Regency Galleria on the banks of the Khor when I was growing up. Dubai wasn’t as built up as it is now and you could see as far as Jebel Ali and to the airport, and of course the water. I could see everything. The sun’s golden rays shining down on the water and sand.”

I grew up on the banks of Khor Dubai (the Creek) and when I think about it now, I think of when the sun is setting and how it would tinge everything orange.

Myrna almost glows herself as she talks about Old Dubai, although she admits that she rarely visits the area anymore. “I did make a point once to take my daughter and to show her where I grew up. I want to take her on an abra cruise and to tell her that the Khor is what made this city,” she says.

For Myrna, writing the book has been like writing a thank you to the city that has been home to her since she was a child, raised her, and now supports her own young family. “My maternal grandfather came here in 1965 to open up some of the country’s first hotels in Dubai, Sharjah and Abu Dhabi,” she recalls. “I grew up and stayed here: I graduated from school and university, I worked here, I got married here, we had our kids here. So Dubai is important to me.”

Model Chanel Ayan photographed in the Hatta desert by Adam Browning-Hill for CHIC magazine; Photography by © Adam Browning-Hill, styling by Lisa Strannesten, hair and makeup by Toni Malt 

A naturally nostalgic person, Myrna describes how, in her 30s, she began to take stock of life. “One cannot be immune to what is happening in the region. Having the privilege of working within the domain of arts and culture allows one to see first-hand what some great countries and kingdoms in the Middle East were, and how others have fallen into economic and political collapse,” she says.

“For me now, as a wife and a mother, I thank God for this place, our safety and our future here. We have amazing memories here, wonderful friends, a thriving community, excellent schooling and health care, and a cultural ecosystem, that are all just getting better and better.”

Dubai is such a deep, meaningful, and charming city. It’s got such a history to it, more than people know.

Another aspect of the city that Myrna holds dear is its multiculturalism. “Those who came to Dubai in the early 80s were mostly Arabs, Persians and South Asians often fleeing their countries for political or economic reasons,” she says. But growing up with all these people from different places had a profound effect on her.

“When I was director of Art Dubai, I would be asked about the art that’s presented here and I would say: if you go to Tehran, you are going to see Iranian art; if you go to Beirut, you are going to see Lebanese art; if you go to Cairo, you are going to see Egyptian art. But when you come to Dubai, you see art from around the world. And the same can be said about everything else.” She is also grateful that her young daughter and newborn son are being brought up in the same inclusive environment. “There is no escaping how multicultural Dubai was, and still is.”

Myrna Ayad at her home in Dubai; Photography by Ausra Osipaviciute

The Dubai Wonder book is owed largely to Myrna’s first book with Assouline, Sheikh Zayed: An Eternal Legacy. “I grew up hearing and seeing so much about Sheikh Zayed, or Baba Zayed as he is often called; he was very present in our lives, and had a saintly, kind face that made one feel safe,” she says.

A person who enjoys tracing back to the roots of things, Myrna says she often thinks about Sheikh Zayed and how present he remains in the UAE even though he’s passed. “I’ve always wanted to know who he was as a person, not just as a leader. So the foundation of the book was finding out about the man himself from his children, grandchildren, and those who worked closely with him,” she says. “It was also another way of paying thanks.”

I grew up hearing and seeing so much about Sheikh Zayed, or Baba Zayed as he is often called; he was very present in our lives, and had a saintly, kind face that made one feel safe

When asked about the best images in the Dubai Wonder book, Myrna’s response is unsurprising. “My favourite ones are definitely of Old Dubai,” she says with glee. “Of course, I like the Khor in all of its glory but I also like those that are a bit like holiday snaps, like an image of a fishmonger sitting in front of his catch of the day.”

She doesn’t see the photographs as a regional cliché but rather as a real slice of Dubai life. “Every Friday we would go to the fish market to buy fresh fish,” she remembers. “Even the images of the malls might look glitzy to some, but for me they are my high street: the mall is my go-to or where I escape the heat.” Of course, the book contains a lot of the images that people would expect from Dubai: all the glitz and glam. “Again, that’s what I see every day,” Myrna smiles. “And it is all part of this wonderful city that I call home.”

Breathtaking images of the Dubai cityscape are commonplace on social media. Photography by Bachir Moukarzel