On the global shift East,
“Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai for bye- bye” – Arvand Adiga
“Where are the Arabs,” was the first question I asked myself as I looked at the white, tan, brown, and black skinned peoples on the Dubai metro. For all I could tell, I was in a diverse part of India. I could count on one hand the number of women wearing hijabs – even now after four hours of exploring, I haven’t seen a single woman wear the headscarves. Headscarfs that the Internet’s tourism videos made me assume were everywhere.
The sky train ride took an hour and whizzed by a sprawling car-culture city. The city didn’t have people walking around, but just row after row of buildings and businesses. Dubai seems like a hot high-end strip mall connected by trains and trams. My hostel is on the 66th floor of a luxury apartment complex and I intend to take advantage of all the building has to offer. Oddly, but in some ways unsurprisingly, everyone is Russian – /Bella Russian/. Even before coming into the building I saw a Russian woman talking on the phone and even now I can faintly hear whoever is in the kitchen speaking Russian. See for * for my first impression of the Russian Language.
I walked around the streets and did feel a tickle of excitement. The only people walking, or visible from the street level were the security guards and bell boys that populate the nights throughout the developing world.
The flight over so easy, I slept for six hours straight and powered through the movie about the Boston Bombing. I just departed from Boston so I thought it was fitting. I hadn’t been to Boston during that event and wasn’t too affected by the event. The movie had to be exaggerating some of the action scenes.
My first impression of Dubai is that it is Shanghai and Mumbai together. A towering skyline within an Indianesque world. Since 90% of Dubai’s population is non-Emirati Dubai feels like a majority non-Muslim place, despite Sharia law being the legal code- I feel like everyone is just playing along. Let us see what time brings me tomorrow.
I woke up at about 3 AM and was awake in my bed until about 6 AM. I had jet lag and a heavy heart. I finally awoke at 10 AM and looked out my window to see the Persian Gulf and Dubai’s enormous man-made Palm Island. I couldn’t have imagined how large and established the reclaimed land island is. It’s lined with twenty-story hotels and littered with construction cranes. Dubai has the most construction cranes I have ever seen. There must be hundreds and hundreds of building skeletons waiting to be fleshed out.
To avoid the heat and Ramadan, I stayed indoors for the entire afternoon, except for a brief visit to a grocery store and ATM. I mused at the adverts in the bank that offers a credit card that, ” adheres to Sharia law”. There is a form of banking, Islamic Banking, in the Middle East that refuses to charge interest. Islamic banking, in turn, uses other means to reward and punish borrowers. This bank was the first time I saw an Emirati person, and I knew they were Emirati because of their white linen clothing. I was surprised to see western women walking down the street in sundresses, sunglasses, and on the phone. I also saw a young blonde American woman my age wearing an abaya (long black covering) and talking on the phone about being late to a dinner party.
I brought a sandwich home to the 66th floor from the grocery store and ate it in the hostel with a talkative New Zealander who was a life-long bee keeper and I learned that a Queen bee is physiologically different from a regular female and that she can choose the gender of her offspring and trigger the mutation that births another Queen bee. Would you look at that New Zealand!
Then I took a nap until 4 PM and I went on a tour into the desert. Just as the tour SUV pulled into a gift shop, I slapped my forehead realizing what a mindless tourist trap I had fallen for. I enjoyed the adrenaline rush from our Toyota Landcruiser carving over the dunes. It was scary at times to whip up, down, and along the top of these dunes. Of course, all the drivers and people working at the desert camp were South Asians.
The driver picked us up from the hostel one hour late and dropped us off at the desert camp an hour early. I took refuge in the shade and enjoyed watching the sunset over the desert. I even heard sad Arabian violin drifting over the dunes from the more expensive tour next door. Then they fed us dinner, but they were relentless in trying to get more money from us. We watched a type of Arabic whirling dance performed by a single man spinning a large cloth over his head like a pizza.
I spoke with an Afghan-American who was sitting at the table with us. He was trained to be a cop in Minnesota. This was not my first assumption, my useless assumption fuel my curiosity and all my mistakes.
The hour-long ride back into the city was just me, the New Zealander, a Pakistani driver, and a quiet European girl. I guess the man and the girl knew each other because they made little talk and he didn’t seem to be dropping her off anywhere. She didn’t say much but only smiled. The ride was atypical because we weren’t in a tour truck, but just in some guy’s car. I did a double take to realize that I was just in some dude’s car driving across the desert highway. He asked me a bunch of well meaning questions about immigrating to the US while he sped, texted, and played macho man. I’m guessing playing macho is an Arabian past time. I got out of the car at my hostel still curious how a young European girl ended up friends with a plump older man-boy in Dubai. Some things aren’t worth dwelling over.
Dubai’s construction sure is impressive, and as a city that has sand blowing through it like dry ice across a stage, it’s impressive and arrogant. No way would I want to live here, but it’s interesting to see what extreme conditions people will put up with to live the “good life”. We drove passed a multi-floored McDonald’s that was attached to a luxury car dealer.
Even luxury is in the eye of the beholder
I woke up and didn’t leave the hostel until 4PM when I ventured down to the pool to get a glimpse into bourgeoisie expat life in Dubai.
The pool was small and mixed gender, there were white women there in revealing bikinis, older whites recharging in the sun, and an African father teaching his two kids how to swim. The pool attendants were African and South Asians. As an American I am super aware of race. You can take the man out of America, but you can’t take the America out of the man. The blaring heat was pretty brutal on my feet as I scampered across the pavement towards the pool, like baby penguin fleeing global warming.
A few birds flew over to drink the pool water. I wondered if the chlorine would discolor their feathers too. I thought about how fake everything is here, even the birds who drink poisonous water survive here only because there are poisonous pools for them to drink. I realize how dependent their survival is, on something un-survivable. As if poison was your only food, so you had no choice.
Dubai is the most dependent place on Earth, they act as if their grandeur is a signal of success, but each new construction pushes them deeper and deeper into dependency. Like a goth teen that acts like their extravagance is triumphant self-expression, when it’s actually a cry for help.
Two days, that is how much spare water Dubai has reserved. The water here is desalinated, or ocean water that has had most of the salt removed. This makes all the water taste flat and lifeless. It also doesn’t quench the desert thirst well, like Dasani bottled water. Should the desalination plants all fail Dubai would be dead in a week, maybe nine days if they drank their pools.
I think my paranoia about water is heightened by the fact that it is Ramadan and no one can drink water or eat in public. Ramadan seems odd in Dubai because few people around me are Muslim and the rule appears more like mass water rationing than an act of faith.
Swimming reminded me of a middle school visit to the Egyptian embassy, there is a keychain from this visit still on my Mom’s car keys. There the representative told us that the next world war will be fought over water. This seemed strange to pre-teen me, but having seen the desert and felt the tiny tickle from little sand in the air, I readily understand what they were saying.
Nothing here is from here, not the people, the steel to make the buildings, the food is ALL imported. But if Dubai is so dependent why is it so wealthy?
They have the commodity that we are dependent on, oil. But with oil running lower and renewables advancing the days of extreme wealth are numbered. When the flow of cash ends how much time will Dubai have to change, how many people will stay, how quickly will everyone pull out and let the desert suffocate the grass at the Trump luxury golf course and drink the pools dry.
That little rant aside, I went into Dubai for some exploring. I continued to see blonde girls dressed as if this was California and even riding a bike. All in all, I saw under-five women wearing a face veil, this means Dubai is on par with the Philadelphia Metro. I attempted to take a bus to the beach but decided to hail a cab instead of sweating endlessly on the side of the road.
When I got to the beach the sun was setting. With Ramadan breaking for the evening, the taxi drivers and people everywhere all suddenly stopped whatever they were doing and started pounding bottles of water while the call to prayer was still playing from the mosques signaling the end of Ramadan. I couldn’t imagine the self-discipline it takes to work in Dubai and not drink any water.
I got another cab to the mall with the totally cool indoor skiing hill. Then I drifted through the consumerist monoculture of the mall. I took myself to Old Dubai, a textile district with older low hanging five-story buildings and no skyscrapers. The district was a working class Indian area with people living more like Mumbai. Eating street food, pushing things on bicycles, and asking annoying questions to tourists. I walked around the area and realized that I was in a real Indian area. There were many mosques, tea shops, and tons of Indian linen shops. It was a bunch more like Thailand here than the Singapore I had been living in around my hostel. I was glad that I had been to India before and wasn’t unnerved by how quickly I had wondered into a dense hectic neighborhood.
It wasn’t really Arab at all, it was like India. I think Dubai might be India’s 3rd most wealthy city. I had kebab at an Iranian place recommended in one of those travel shows and read a bit of old newspaper about the time before electricity and Iranians that had come to Dubai by ship in the 1940s. Maybe instead of being fixated on the Europeans, I should note that for a Sunni country they are at least tolerant of their Shi’a community.
As a tourist, I liked old Dubai the most. It had street food, men walking around with tea, children walking and talking with their parents, and all the fixtures of a small Indian/Pakistani city. It was nothing like the wide streets and empty luxury towers I had been staying among.
Then I rode the metro back to my hostel. The metro in Dubai is long as a mother father. It takes an hour from end to end. It was fun to observe all the different languages and peoples here. I looked at the people headed home from work, school, or the gym and decided that Dubai is a great place for someone to see if they were looking for a soft landing into the Middle East or India. It is also a marvel of engineering and ambition.
Early June 2017