An Idiot in Future Land

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July 18th 2008
Published: July 20th 2008
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On my first night in Dubai, i kicked back with a bottle of Asahi beer on the terrace of the Bahri Bar, and regarded the Burj Al-Arab as it shifted colours from green to pink, and sent beams of light dancing across the sky from it's rooftop. I like this dhow-inspired, world famous building but i don't think i respect it very much. A glass bottomed swimming pool, restaurant in an aquarium, dancing fountains, extortionate suites and thirty quid cocktails? Let's face it, it's pretty silly. Not that silliness should be discouraged but as Abdullah the laughing taxi driver told me later, 'who is paying this much money just to sleep, habipti?'
I spent a day trying to take in what are considered to be the city sights. As is often the case, the more interesting things about Dubai fall outside of that pigeon hole. The historic Bastakia area had been restored to the extent that it felt inauthentic, yet the place proved misrepresentatively photogenic. As the only visitor mad enough to come to the UAE in July, i had its narrow streets pretty much to myself. This heat is like no other i've known. i worry that the logos on my tees and the soles of my shoes will melt. At a daily heat hitting the mid forties and around 70% humidity, you'd have to be an idiot to come here for recreational purposes at this time. Meet the idiot!
I felt that the best thing about the Dubai museum was the stuffed goat. The life-sized wax figures just threw me off - i kept thinking they were real and asking them to excuse me. The museums video presentation of Dubai through the decades was noteable for its 'future projects' section. 'Dubai Land!' (looks like Jurassic Park), 'Health City!', 'Palm Luxury Housing Complex!' and 'Burj Dubai!' (a totally sinister looking, Stalin's-Moscow-esque monster of a building, nearing completion and currently looming over the city in quite a precarious way.) Here's a city that doesn't live in the past, or even the now, but in the future. When you do see buildings and customs that are old, amongst all this crazy development, it makes you almost sad, since it highlights further the gulf between the past, the present and - of course! - THE FUTURE. I wonder if i were less cynical, would i see Dubai as an optimistic, flamboyant, creative wonderland? There's part of me that thinks, 'why concentrate so much energy on building for a rich, commercial future, when issues like climate change and the dangers of nuclear war (never obliterated until we all ditch the bombs) under our noses?' I think that my attitude is also connected to having spent time in so poor a place as Bangladesh just recently.
Crossing Dubai Creek in an abra (water taxi), we passed rows of old dhows (giant cargo boats, running to Iran and back.) I liked the ones with patchy paint and odd boxes of junk on board. The spice and gold souks were underwhelming. I passed an evening in Jumeirah, writing and trying to work out what this city's all about. A friendly ex-pat called Arjun suggested that Dubai is all about transcience; 'When you meet someone here, you ask them where they've been and where they're going. There's no question of permanence in Dubai.' He said, 'Do people enjoy Dubai? Sure. Do they like it? That's another question.' It is the people i have met in this city that intrigue me. They come from all over the world - only about 20% of people living in Dubai are Emaratis - and they have been so engaging, so welcoming, so informative to me. I think the fact that i am alone means that people are interested in what I'm up to and they like to help if possible. Having just left Seth, my friends and family behind for almost 3 months, I'm not in a very sociable mood, so it's testimony to the open nature of the people of Dubai that i have met so many of them.
An Australian. Two Pakistanis. A Sri Lankan poet who gave me a secret mantra to chant to unlock my creative potential. One or two Emaratis. Several Arabic ex-pats. Abdullah, who called me 'Princess Habipti' and made me laugh. Sardaraz, who loved the fact that i could talk to him in Urdu, even if i did a poor job of it. And Hamad, the kindest of all, a falconer and breeder of Saluki (lean Arabian hunting dogs.) I met him at the Falcon Centre. He let me hold a beautiful, 6 year old white falcon, and showed me some others, including a semi wild peregrine falcon. Lots of the birds were wearing their leather hoods. Hamad answered all my questions, gifted me various falcon related items and even insisted on driving me back to my hotel, convinced i wouldn't catch a cab easily from the freeway outside. It came naturally to him to show this kind of hospitality. It made me see Dubai in a new light; it seemed to me that, beyond the rapid development, the old ways, old customs had not disappeared - they're just hidden within the individuals living in a city with an outwardly quite outrageous exterior.
Before leaving the UAE, i headed Southeast through the desert to the city of Al Ain. I wanted to get an idea of what the UAE was like geographically. I now know what the desert looks like at sunset, glowing peach under a purple sky, and how it feels to look out over the desert of Oman from Jebel Hafeet, a truly gorgeous, jagged mountain, 30km from the city. I can also tell you that if you go walking in the Al Ain oasis without wearing suncream in mid July, you will get burnt. (Again, meet the idiot.)
Before signing off and heading to South Korea (on a 3am flight, no less) there's one last thing to mention. The currency here (dirhams) is the most beautiful i've ever seen! The notes have oryx, falcons and forts on them, and the coins depict Arabic coffee pots.

Additional photos below
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26th May 2010
A View From Jebel Hafeet, Al Ain

Beautiful place on Earth
Beautiful place on Earth ever seen

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