Reminiscence and belonging keeps Al Nasr Leisureland running for another decade

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Al Nasr Leisureland’s entrance sign board, the sight of which brings back fond memories for many.

A relic of Dubai and a place of joyful memories for many expatriate kids in the 80’s may live on to provide a similar sentiment for the next generation

By Zahra Rashid 

Dubai

They looked around and all they could see was desert.  

It was a scorching hot afternoon in the middle of July 1984 when two teenage boys began their 40-minute journey through the barren city of Dubai. 

Sand had formed dunes of its own in the soles of their shoes and beads of sweat were racing down their necks as they walked. Yet, against all odds, they spotted the wooden penguin logo. It was a peculiar sight surrounded by yellow, but comforting, nonetheless. They had reached a home away from home, Al Nasr Leisureland. 

This is the story of former members Hasnain and Shakeel Rashid, the Tanzanian brothers who moved from Zanzibar to Dubai at the age of six with their parents. They grew up as expatriates, visiting Al Nasr almost every week since it opened.

The Time Capsule

“The journey getting there itself was already fun,” said Shakeel. 

Along the walk, the boys would plan out the day ahead of them, deciding where they would go first and calculating the amount of time they could spend before their 8 p.m. curfew.

“The signboard and the penguins of Al Nasr were so prominent that we could see it from miles away. I still remember the excitement like it was yesterday,” Hasnain explained.

Al Nasr Leisureland is in what was known as “the heart of Dubai” in Oud Metha. It was built in 1979 on a 48-acre plot of land right next to Al Nasr Football Club. 

“There were very few places to go in Dubai at the time, so we probably found out about it from our dad’s friends,” said the brothers. 

Hasnain said that they had never seen sports facilities like the ones they saw there. Leisureland is home to a large swimming pool with a wave generating system, water slides, tennis courts, squash courts, a bowling alley, mini theme park rides and the Middle East’s first Olympic-sized indoor ice rink. 

“This is why getting a membership wasn’t a simple process at the time, we got it with a reference signature from a family friend,” Hasnain explained. 

When Al Nasr Leisureland first opened, residents who wanted to join had to either apply for membership and complete a financial background check or be nominated by an existing member. Sarah Haider, a 20-year-old skater and current member of the club, said the membership policy remains strict to this day. 

“It was expensive, but that plastic card with my name on it was a status symbol and I held it like a badge of honor,” Hasnain highlighted. 

Khadija Rashid, the brothers’ Goan cousin-in-law who also grew up in Dubai, agreed and said, “some of my happiest moments were at Al Nasr so it was all worth it.”

For many who grew up in the city, the club is a time capsule of their childhood, and its penguin logo is a symbol of joy. It reminds Hasnain and Shakeel of a time when life was simpler and they would look forward to every little thing. 

“We had no concept of wasting time, no devices and no other place to be” said Shakeel. Because of this, they both have an attachment to the club that will never be broken. 

Score display at the bowling alley on film. Photo: Zahra Rashid

UAE home to many expats

According to Global Media Insight, the United Arab Emirates has the world’s highest percentage of expatriates.  

Marissa Abrantes, secretary to the general manager at Al Nasr Leisureland, a post she has held for 23 years, said there were also many Emarati visitors. 

“It feels like a home now and my co-workers are family,” she emphasized. 

Shakeel said he will never forget the sense of belonging and togetherness at Al Nasr. 

Even after the pandemic, Al Nasr remains to be an expatriate’s destination. 

Haider said that “at peak hours, the rink and the other facilities are just as crowded as before the pandemic, if not more.” 

She added that she believes the lockdowns and restrictions have made the people of Dubai realize what they “want to do more of and what means most to them.” 

It seems that this reminiscence and community sentiment is what kept Al Nasr Leisureland popular.

“It’s a really wonderful place to create bonds and build a community,” said Haider.