I’m standing on the beach in Dubai. The sea is to my back, and a cool breeze is blowing inland. It feels amazingly nice, and reminds me of the cool foggy nights of my home in Sausalito.
Above me the sky is filled with twinkling lights. Not stars, but the aircraft warning lights on the tops of the dozens of office towers that fill the Dubai skyline. Many of them are architecturally fantastic. Many of them remain unfinished. My friend here tells me that when the recession hit, many projects ground to a near-standstill.
Behind me, offshore, there is a map of the world rendered in habitable islands.1 Notably excluding Israel. California is broken into ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ halves, apparently by a cartographer who has lived there. The status of this project is unclear. Someone told me it doesn’t exist. Other people tell me it’s been abandoned, or that it’s on hold due to the recession. One person told me that all of the islands had sold immediately, another tells me that none had sold and that the builders had gone bankrupt. For some perverse reason, I like not knowing the true answer.
This is only one of the several major terraforming projects that Dubai has engaged in. There are also two huge palm-tree shaped jetties, each a massive community built into the ocean. (One is served by its own private monorail system.) A third is planned.
On arriving, I passed through the cavernous baggage claim hall, which seemed to stretch on to infinity. Given its size, it felt strangely empty, but it sparkled.
My initial impressions of Dubai were fairly negative. After India, Dubai seemed sterile. Drivers stayed within their lanes, rarely using their horns, and the ground was strangely uncluttered by debris. The city also felt abandoned. Where were the masses of people? Other than a few other cars and a handful of pedestrians, the streets were empty. Where were the ox-carts? Where were the cows?
I came here to see Khan, an old internet friend who is working in the hotel industry. He was able to get us a great room at the Westin Dubai, so my stay is very comfortable.
On the first night, Khan takes me to dinner at a local promenade. The shopping street extends for a mile, with luxury stores alternating with cafés and restaurants. Local men arrived in a convertible Range Rover, stereotypical arabs in their traditional dishdashah, shumag, and keffiyeh. The hollywood programming goes deep, and I find myself wondering if these men are oil tycoons or terrorists, but it’s more likely that they’re lawyers or accountants. A 2011 Rolls Royce Ghost drives up, and someone jumps out who looks like Jack Black of Arabia in baggy orange shorts and a t-shirt. Women also promenade, some with strollers. The separation of the sexes in this society is obvious… I don’t see groups of men and women mixed.
Over the next few days, Khan and I tour the sights of Dubai. Khan loves the malls, so we visit the Dubai Mall. It’s the largest mall in the world, and contains a huge aquarium in which you can scuba dive. While in the Dubai mall we watch a group of people playing a full-court game of hockey on the ice rink. Strangely, no one is wearing skates, and then slip and slide in their business shoes as they chase the puck. We also visit the Mall of the Emirates, which contains an indoor ski slope.
All of this seems soulless and sterile after India, and I beg Khan to take me to a more authentic experience. “Oh, I know! There is a shopping mall which is designed to look like a traditional souk”, he says. “Let’s go there.” I finally pull out my Lonely Planet UAE and ask Khan if we can go to the Bur Dubai, the old city. “You wouldn’t like that” he says. “It’s just old alleys and shops, there isn’t anything to see there.” But I persist and we go.
Bur Dubai is more interesting than anything I’ve seen, but it still seems oriented towards selling ‘pashmina shawls‘ to tourists. (Holy crap, every goat in Pakistan must be naked!) There are also post cards, statues of camels, and other mementos.
Bur Dubai is located on the bank of Dubai Creek, and traditional ferries still take passengers from one side to the other for Dh1. The ride is pleasant, and the air on the creek is cooler than that in the alleys. There are dozens of these small ferries buzzing back and forth across the creek, each carrying a couple of dozen passengers.
We take a ferry across Dubai Creek, where we find the souks of Deira. There is a spice souk, rich and fragrant, with as well as the equally fragrant fish souk. There is the gold souk, with enough jewelry to awe a rapper, and other souks for fabrics, notions, and vegetables.
In the alleys I finally find some scenes worth photographing, and snap away. Occasionally a local will come up to me and ask me what I’m doing. I’ll show him the screen on my camera, and he will look at me questioningly, wondering whether he should call the mental health services.
While in Dubai, Khan and I visit both the Burj Al Arab and the Burj Khalifa. The former is a magnificent building, a towering structure that looks like a ship under sail. There we drink cocktails in the Skyview Bar, cantilevered 650′ above the ocean. Off in the distance we can see fireworks. We visit the Burj Khalifa a few days later. It’s the tallest building in the world by far, a thin needle soaring 200 floors above the desert floor. From its observation platform on the 124th floor, we get some great photos of the Dubai skyline (including a straight-down shot of the Dubai Mall.)
On my last night in Dubai, Khan and I go out for dinner with his two friends Mustapha and Ali. They’re a gay couple who live and work in Dubai, and they’re unbelievably charming. Mustapha and I have a passionate discussion about Islam and terrorism. Our discussion is intense but civil, and we both agree that the world would be a better place if there were more interactions like this.
While we talk we smoke sheesha, a hookah pipe filled with hot charcoals and flavored tobacco. Flavors available include mint, cherry and strawberry. We choose ‘double apple’. It’s unique, and not as harsh as I expected it to be. (Though the next day I have a hacking cough, and I’m pretty sure it’s related.) Occasionally a man comes by with a ladle filled with hot coals to refresh the pipe.
At the next table a single woman sits and enjoys her sheesha, and the smoke drifting our way smells wonderfully of roses. Mustapha tells me it’s one of the few vices women are allowed to enjoy without societal disapproval.
I eat a very delicious Farfalle Aglio Olio con le Acciughe. Sheesha smoke drifts from nearby tables, sweetly scenting the cool night air, and I feel good to be here, with these men, in this city built between the desert and the sea.
P.S. An article from the Gulf News: A 30-year-old blacksmith was sentenced to three years in jail after the Dubai Court of First Instance convicted him of Sorcery and Dealing with Genies. If you visit Dubai, avoid these behaviors.
- 1Notably excluding Israel. California is broken into ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ halves, apparently by a cartographer who has lived there.