We hear about Dubai every week or so. Well if you’re an architect that is. How high does it really reaches ? How far it tries to steal from the sea, and fill it with desert sand. Selling illusions (or mirages?) of prosperity and megalomaniac démesure !
First. It’s a freakin’ desert ! Who the hell would think it’s a good idea to live in a desert ? Some nomadic freaks, they ought to. But then, no matter how much you freeze your shopping centers and your limo, you can’t live there. I mean, you shouldn’t. For that, Dubai is such a young city. Probably something as old as the first climate change machine. Or as old as Las Vegas, maybe ?
The history of the ‘Emirates’ is quite funny too. Let’s over simplify a bit and generalize about culture, ‘cause that’s what we do best: Well seven man with some desertic libido were the first to take control of empty lands that nobody really wanted (apart from the British, of course), called themselves ‘Emirs’ (or sheikhs) and married their cousins. Give the land to their kids, who would somehow marry their cousins too. Pure royal family, enjoying themsleves in the desert, with tons of slaves. The Emirates still look like this to me, a place where some local people enjoy themselves. Well they changed the word slavery for opportunity. Now, Dubai enjoys itself a lot.
The truth is those pure blood families were quite poor until somebody told them they had petrol. And yeah, they have quite a lot. And quite wisely too, they thought about uniting some pure blood families to protect themselves from the outside world. United Emirates. Arabs. 7 families in total.
Oh but now they are so rich. Alarmingly rich. And they still marry their cousins too. So they are all princes in a way. Or emiratis. True UAE people. But in 7 millions of people in the country, these pure blood represent only 15%. Woah !! The rest makes for a lot of slaves then for these rich people in Bentleys ! A lot of Indian people. A LOT ! Nearly 3 millions. A LOT ! They don’t drive limos, believe me!
Anyway. Through all this. The UAE achieve some quite good experiments. Really. And now I’m not talking about the highest (quite possibly the ugliest) tower in the world, but really about something fundamental where a lot of countries around (some of which i visited lately) fail to even try. That is: How to throw your strong Islamic beliefs into a long time globalised modernity.
The clash is not always beautiful, but it exists. Dubai’s boulevards, going from one skyscraper cluster to the other, gets you to pass along a mosque every 500 meters or so, that looks quite like a Wal-Mart version of a religious building. At one point, everything looks like your driving in the “Arabia” section of Disney Land (or the Village des Sports). Beige plastered wall, too clean, with ugly neon signs, with ugly fonts. They replaced the prayer singer at the top of the minarets with Sony loudspeakers. Fine. I hear it everywhere. And I like it.
"Open doors, open minds". They have their program to let us touch the untouchable muslims. They let dirty christians like me into their mosque, and made me realize that there is an Islamic "theory" out there that sounds quite sweet to the ears of xenophobic racists filled with prejudices, yeah, like me. I mean, i’m not, of course, it’s only irony, right?
The theory is sweeter… But in the end, after one month of hearing the 5 daily prayers from the minarets of Central Asia, even after hitting myself through the rawest demonstrations of islamic beliefs (Afghanistan), I like the facts better. In some ways a lot more then some catholic half-hearted beliefs.
But the UAE mess with my sens of irony as much as Afghanistan messed with my travelers imbalance. And this is great. This place is ugly and mindless as a functionsl city, but not unintersting. The older part of town, where the new skyscrapers are hardly visible through the heat waves on the desert, is quite astonishing. And it’s a good way to finish a month long trip through places of nomadic lands. Dubai looks like no oasis to me, even if it tries a lot, but the brief history it might have quite focus on it as a transit point in the greatness of The Gulf. All these old wooden boats parked in the creek, waiting to ship tons of refrigerators to Iran, Daewoo and Mitsubishi, in the breeze of nearby wind towers and spice markets. The ‘souqs’ are some places of exchange that really gives Dubai its soul as a liveable city. Spices, but also gold, textiles, pottery, electronics, fruits, wines, and trillions of tons of souvenirs, under covered alleys and screaming merchants. It kept me awake as a traveler for some few days, secretely dreaming of getting lost in that desert too. Sand dunes. Or in the salty waves of The Golf. Or in ugly skyscrapers ? Gigantic cathedral-like shopping centers? Yes yes. I like this place.
But this is all over. I woke up in Canada instead. And that makes me very happy too :-)