Earlier this year I traveled with my brother to the Arab Gulf Emirate of Dubai. This Beta World City is sufficiently well-known not to warrant an introduction. In Iran, young people save up their low purchasing-power rials all year in order to spend a libertine holiday in “Dobey”. In Turkey, people are not likely to know Bahrain, but when I mention ”Dübey” people’s faces light up with recognition. This sprawling metropolitan city attracts millions of Africans, Asians, and Europeans to enjoy the delights of relatively cheap shopping, drinking, sun-bathing and some other, R-rated, pleasures. Among the diverse mélange of nationalities I met there were Zambians (buying cellphones in bulk), Bulgarians (selling furs), and Icelanders (escaping from the ice and their financial crisis?).
The roadtrip started with a 13-hour drive from Bahrain. We crossed the causeway to Saudi Arabia, headed on to the road to Al-Ahsa (our favorite region in Saudi, because of our relatives there), skirted by the border to Qatar, and then finally found the way to Emirates. Traveling during the mild season (what passes for fall here) means less heat-exhaustion. Fuel in Saudi is cheap but our own fuel was many little glasses of sugarless black tea. Toward the middle of the journey we decided that I should take over the steering wheel, after many exhortations from my brother to not get us into an accident or drive us back to Saudi by mistake (he’s the driver in the family). Although young guys with plenty of luggage usually attract the attention of border authorities, we fortunately didn’t get more than a cursory inspection from the Saudi border guards, and we breezed into Emirates in less than 10 minutes.
Although the Arabian Gulf countries share a similar culture and history, they are clearly distinct from each other in many aspects. Driving over the causeway into Saudi, you leave the Lego-like smallness of Bahrain and are immediately met with huge, open vista of yellow desert. Then you see the homes and buildings, colossal block-like structures surrounded with formidable walls. Everything in Saudi is big: the shops have the widest fronts you’ve ever seen, government buildings are like fortresses, and large gasoline-guzzling SUVs abound. But Saudi Arabia, thank God, is a land of plenty. As a Turkish friend of mine described it, herşey war: they have everything! Despite the desolation of the desert roads, the rest area supermarkets are chuck-full of everything that the consumer desires. There are local brands, American brands, European brands; the full range of foodstuffs, sweets, and dairies; and all manners of odds and ends, like tools, stationery, and cellphone accessories. On my many previous bus trips from the Levant to Bahrain, I noticed that the passengers instantly changed from piaster-counting misers into prolific consumers once they crossed the border from permanently cash-strapped Jordan down into milk-and-honey Saudi Arabia. I mean this literally, because Saudi is known for its excellent dairy products, while it’s exceedingly difficult to a get a decent glass of milk in Jordan.
Entering to the United Arab Emirates offers yet another landscape. First off, the roads are neater and better-maintained. There are well-kempt signs every several kilometers exhorting motorists to control their speed or advising them of hazards ahead. Once you’ve driven for almost an hour on the road leading to the capital Abu Dhabi, you are met with the finest and most luxurious rest area I’ve ever seen. For the way-weary traveler, this blue-themed supermarket-restaurant-gas station arises like an oasis on the right-hand side of the horizon. The gas station attendants are dressed in smart shirts and pants with pert little caps on their heads, smiling all the time and welcoming the clients. Going in, you are met with a cornucopia of all the finest brands you could desire: all manners of food, candy, drinks, toiletteries, toys, CDs, and more. There is an up-market coffee machine akin to those found in Starbucks, dispensing lattes and mochas in elegant, pleasant-to-touch cups. And there is a fast-food restaurant, offering the usual fare of hamburgers and fries and pizza, never empty, always buzzing with eaters, many of them probably not that hungry but attracted by the comforting sight of a clean hamburger joint on the desert road. I saw one Englishwoman who had driven with her husband from the American oasis of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia. As if to confirm the prolificity of this outpost of UAE consumerism, she took an astounded look at the refrigerator and exclaimed, “They have real ice-cream!”
The first sight of Dubai after coming in from the highway is always a panorama of brilliance, of lights, of high sky-scrapers, of prosperity. How can one talk about Dubai without using superlatives? The greatest, the biggest, the tallest, the most. They have the tallest building (closed shortly after opening apparently for technical reasons), the chicest hotel, the largest malls, and recently, it would appear, the largest debts, although predictably Abu Dhabi did its sisterly duty and saved the day. But perhaps the greatest thing that Dubai has is the vision of its rulers, the current and the previous one. Muhammad bin Rashid Al-Maktum, say what you may about him, is a progressive, clear-headed ruler. He insisted on opening the metro system, despite delays, incompletions and an over-taxed budget. And in true Emirati self-congratulatory style, he donned a neat blue thobe to fit the blue metro theme, showing his modesty and uprightness by not wearing the usual Bedouin robe, a blue thobe with no robe, so-to-speak. At the head of his coterie of dignitaries and courtiers, ministers and administrators, locals and guests, he inaugurated the grand project, being the first to activate the trains and the first to ride in them, in what was, after all, a symbolic act: Dubai will go on, careening at breath-taking speed into the future, achieving a whole series of Arab World ‘firsts’. It will go on, regardless of the crisis, regardless of concerns over human rights, regardless of the calls of “house of cards’, and ‘desert mirage’!
What is the thread that runs through Dubai like a red pulsating vein, starting from its borders with the primordial desert, stretching in a thin but constant line from Abu Dhabi and on to Sharja and Al-Ain, winding its way through the companies, monolithic sky-scrapers, malls, roads, cars, steadily but surely plugging itself into countless human lives; what is that nerve of growth, of excitability, of trade, of a constantly self-congratulating yes-attitude, that self-threads into the expanding web of human interactions, of organizational dialectics, binding every single man and woman and child in this dream-city with each other and with an increasingly connected yet disassociated world? What is Dubai if not a manifestation, a symptom of globalization, or this heavily burden of connection, of relationship, or men coming together and being repulsed by each other, the ultimate shared boat? Hordes of humans coming into one city; with their baggage and taped-up card-board boxes of spices, exotic fruits and sweets, of cloying perfumes, brazen dreams and childish self-conceptions. A young uneducated man from a village of Punjab seeking his modest fortune as a lowly cleaner in a grand hotel, serving guests whose fortunes he would have to work a hundred life-times to accumulate; a lost Filipina working in a locally-owned fast-food restaurant, trying to do good by her hair and putting on her giddily colored cap every morning with the painful tinge in the heart that comes of a forlorn dream of love; a turbaned Afghani taxi-driver, whose ambition is to become an Arab, feeling clever and sly every time he overcharges an unwary traveler, deriving a feeling of stability and crazy pride by belonging to a tribe which the world and history couldn’t care less about, abiding by a code of honor that defines honor as ‘my good, my power’.
How can any single human mind encompass all these facets of experience and existence? But what the mind is too human to do the city does for it. Its web is always enlarging, the entanglements defy the imagination, the growth, the pulsating life, the mind-boggling comprehensiveness… Dubai, this insane city, encompasses all this, reconciliates all these opposites, making and breaking men, and continually self-creating itself in the process.
Nothing speaks louder in Dubai than the god of Consumerism, and nothing is more visible than its dedicated temples, the Malls. Therein people of all races and religions gives themselves over with gusto to orgies of eating, playing, buying, flirting. The Filipinos indiscriminately attack all chicken joints, local and international; the South Asians consecrate their time to the largest and most prolific supermarkets; the Americans comfort themselves with the usual brands, and later drink themselves silly at the bars and whore-houses. The non-Gulf Arabs regard every hamburger, every flat-screen TV, every Toyota Sequoia as a step further up from their peasant background; and the Emiratis saunter like kings in their own playground, producing nothing but consuming everything.
And now the new metro has become the nervous system connecting each gargantuan mall to the next. The stations are directly connected to some malls so that the consumer, hermitically ensconced in this air-conditioned habitat, need not expose his backside to the ruthless Gulf sun. One can take the metro and, riding in a straight line, visit mall after mall, each more mazelike and more onerous than the last; I hear the stores directly situated after the metro-tube leading to the mall pay enormous rents. No wonder this city has become a hub of shopping tourism, having as it does the largest electronics stores, bookshops, and jewelers, and offering facilities for all means of payment, sucking up your credit cards and exchanging any currency of the world into dollars and dirhams. I saw an affluent Russian with slightly Mongoloid eyes with his stunningly beautiful wife and his almost blindingly blond child, having purchased their fill of electronics and clothes, and now quietly and contentedly dining in an international steak joint.
But perhaps the most heart-rending sight I saw was that of an Iranian man, whom I knew to be Iranian from his appearance and clothing. My brother and I were sitting in the food court, having ordered large slabs of glistening pizza and sizeable portions of French fries and hamburgers. I saw this thin man approach, meager in body and with thinning hair, wearing the most modest and bland Iranian-made shirt and trousers. He sat his bone thin hips on the a chair close to ours, and proceeded to attack a piece of French bread he had bought from the in-mall supermarket, sipping the cheapest cup of tea he could find in the food court. He ate spasmodically, never once glancing at the rich food on the tables around him, but fidgeting and adjusting his clothing all the time. I saw him, but I saw many other things; loneliness, and unrequited solitude; a short arm, isolation from prosperity; a thousand failed dreams, an insanity, a craziness beyond the quotidian. I saw parts of myself that I ‘d rather keep in the darkness. And in a flash, I remembered that Englishwoman’s expression in the desert rest-area, which would’ve offered little solace to the isolated man if he had heard it, and which epitomizes, aphoristically and concisely, the spirit of this city: ”They have real ice-cream in Dubai”.