Dubai: It’s 5.30am on an exceptionally pleasant June morning, and Dubai Creek is teeming with life. As I walk around Deira with Mohammed Sultan Thani, who is no longer presented, it is a pure delight.
There are so many people that he stops to say hello: Hala, a cheerful Syrian septuagenarian who feeds a crowd of 11 stray kittens; Madhavan, an Indian yoga teacher and his motley group of students; some young Africans who are equally excited about their exercise program; Ahmed Ali Mousa, a Pakistani abra operator whose boat we take to cross on the Bur Dubai side; Mohammed Ali, another Iranian abra operator for 35 years; Mohiudeen, an Indian in a cafeteria who offers us maskajam and chai; and a myriad of others.
“Well, that’s the beauty of Dubai,” Thani says. “A city where people are at the heart. “
A former film journalist, Thani is a keen observer with a rare point of view. He is a repository of people’s stories, of which he shares previews on Instagram. But a senior official in the Dubai Land Department, he sets himself apart from today’s “social media influencer”.
“No, I’m not a business influencer and I never will be. I just like to portray people for who they are.
Ordinary people, unusual concentration
Thani’s unusual focus on ordinary people is clear. The nearly 20,000 posts on her Insta page provide fascinating insight into their daily lives: whether it’s the colorful community by the Creek; vendors and visitors to the Deira fish market; the merchants of the textile, gold and spice souks of yesteryear; or the farmers of Al Aweer who revel in their harvest.
“Has anyone ever asked me how I take advantage of presenting them?” Thani said. “My answer is simple: I learn a lot by meeting different types of people and understanding what they do; when I travel, I gain by becoming a researcher and an observer. I feel I have a responsibility to share our treasures.
Thani, who invariably stays behind the scenes, says, “I try not to show up in my posts. With popularity, there comes a time when the messenger can start to feel bigger than the message, and even take on an inappropriate sense of power and importance. It is important to guard against this.
Coming from a man who has 122,000 loyal followers, including 50 percent of the Emirati community in Dubai alone, this is wise advice. During Ramadan, the daily impressions on his page topped two million, but Thani is taking the numbers in his stride.
His stories, which are deeply connected to the community, have a huge impact. When he once asked Mubarak, a 79-year-old affable regular at Deira’s fish market, why his eye was red, he told him he had a problem he couldn’t afford to fix. After seeing the post on Insta, an ophthalmologist at a Dubai eye clinic contacted him and took action, free of charge.
Likewise, an ice cream vendor in Al Seef ran after Thani to thank him for “taking his video” as business had resumed in leaps and bounds the next day. Little did he know that many of his new clients were Thani’s Insta followers who had stumbled across his story.
Thani says a lot of the people he features are rehearsals. “A lot of times I go to the same people to see how they are progressing. Over time, there is a relationship that develops not only between them and me, but also with the community. People ask for them and want to know how they are doing.
Essa, a Thani fisherman presented in 2017, is a good example. At the time, he was struggling with a rickety boat. Thani’s Insta subscribers immediately mobilized to get him a new one. “Just a few months ago, I saw the boat lying in his house. I asked him what had happened. He said he needed a new engine. And believe it or not, he himself got a new boat from his Insta admirers.
Thani, who grew up in the Deira Gold Souk district, is very familiar with the old quarters of Dubai. Now living in Al Towar, he always returns to the alleys and alleys of the souks to discuss with the merchants and hawkers. And it goes without saying that they are also some of his favorite Insta topics.
One of them, an Emirati over 80 who owns a clothing store in Al Ras, has worked in the area since 1956. “Many newspapers approached him for an interview because he is an elder. But he invariably refused them. Somehow he felt comfortable with me. He opened up to me and I introduced him several times. It is not enough to gain trust, it is just as important to maintain it.
Lessons from the past
Thani says there is a lot to be learned from the elders. “I want to present these gems to the new generation. You talk to them and realize that they were marketing brands from Paris, Rome and other European cities in the 1950s and 1960s. We must not forget that Dubai has always been a port city – the foundations of what we today were asked very early.
Besides commerce, Thani says that even the cosmopolitan nature of Dubai society, which is a huge talking point, emerged eons ago. “You just have to look back at how the different communities came together in the early years and you will find the answer.”
Once a famous film reporter for Al Bayaan, the Arab newspaper, Thani himself was ahead of his time, reviewing and reporting on international films when no one else in the local landscape was. “People would tell me my job was easy because I only had to watch movies, but what they wouldn’t realize is the time, focus and effort required to formulate a sharp review.”
“Life is coming”
Industry bigwigs concede that he was very popular and that producers dreaded his criticism. “They welcomed a written review immediately if it was good. But if the review was not good, I would receive requests from some of them to wait at least a week before publishing it, ”he recalls.
Thani, who no longer writes about the films, says he doesn’t miss them and has moved on. But ask him how a movie journalist landed a role overseeing land deals, and he reasons, “Life is coming.” And it happens, leaving indelible traces in the sand of time.