Saturday, 12 November 2011

Impossible City?

Dubai Mosque
Changing times
Dubai Dancer
A whirling dancer at the Desert Safari
The Muezzin’s call floated across the glass panels, white tiles and soaring ceilings of the building. It was loud enough to not be missed but soft enough to not startle me in the air-conditioned quietness. My eyes were instantly drawn back to the signage displayed everywhere. Next to  every sign for restrooms and drinking water were the stylized figures of a lady in an abaya and a man in a guthra (head-scarf) kneeling in prayer. ’The Prayer Rooms for men and women are separate’, I registered mentally, and cast a furtive glance around to see if I should stand up in reverence. No one seemed to react to the slow, melodic and unmistakable chanting. So I continued reading my P.G. Wodehouse and waiting for my friend due to arrive in a couple of hours.

It was noon and I was in the waiting gallery of Terminal 3 of DXB (Dubai International Airport), one of the largest buildings in the world by sheer floor space. All of that space is exclusively dedicated to Emirates, the country’s national carrier. (There are two more terminals for others). Flights from Christchurch, Karachi, Muscat and Europe were scrolling across the display counter, and below me I could see the baggage arrival section that I had taken some 15 minutes to walk across. Baggage belts stood in two rows, some churning out bags, others silent, making the place look like a factory floor. Beyond the glass walls, a city shimmered in the desert heat in hues of beige and khaki. Over the next three days my friend and I would visit a place that almost everyone I knew seemed to have already visited, and talked about as if it were a distant suburb of some Indian city. ‘Better late than never’, I said, going across a mental checklist. ‘Dubai: Check’.

Dubai Seaside Beach
The Burj-Al-Arab
Desert Safari
Sunset in the Sands
It is easier for a foreigner to get by in Dubai knowing Hindi rather than English. Expatriates make up more than 3 quarters of the population, and more than half of them are from the Subcontinent. Besides, cultural imports like Bollywood make their mark on the locals. Arabs love Hindi films. Comparing the dialogues with the Arabic subtitles can be one way of learning Hindi. But despite the South Asian invasion, Arabic cultural influences are everywhere. Local men unhesitatingly wear the kandura (the long white robe),the guthra and the associated accessories. The delicate slender fingers of the Arabic script can be seen on every sign-board, shop front, and shopping bag. Mosques dot the city landscape which has a profile no more than 2 or 3 storeys high except in the down town. Dry spiny palm fronds jut out from behind high compound walls. And above all, the desert makes its presence felt everywhere, in the yellowish dust on the road sides, the baked dry plots of land that lie vacant, and even in the lush green lawns that are always seen with a fine spray of water from the sprinklers shimmering under a relentless sun.

Ready for Dune Bashing
I wonder where the term ‘Dune-bashing’ was coined. It could be better described as Passenger-bashing, in an SUV in top working condition, blaring Arabic music that blends in with screaming passengers, and driven over sand-dunes with the reckless abandon of a drunken camel. It’s a great ride to start your trip of Dubai with and is a part of the famous Dubai Desert Safari. We took the trip on our very first day, and I was glad to get up close and personal with the desert right away-it was my first look at any desert. It kind of lived up to my expectations-it was sandy alright, and dry, with stunted bushes dotting the landscape. But we hadn’t gone too far from the city, the mineral water bottles strewn in the sand were proof of it, and there always seemed to be a busy highway with a little hamlet right across the next dune.

Dubai Desert Safari
Arabian Nights
Desert Safari
Golden Butterfly
The evening ended in a desert camp, with a stage in the centre, and low seating on rugs all around to eat,drink and watch the performers. I had ended my trip to Turkey last year with the slight regret of not having seen a belly dance performance – which I was able make up for in ample measure here. The music can only be described as a heady melody with a sensuous throbbing rhythm. The belly dancer curved, writhed and gyrated like a snake, as if the music had been cast into flesh. We went back to the hotel wondering how the same society that asks its women to wear long black abayas reconciles itself with this ancient art-form that must have had tribal origins. In the distance were the lights of downtown Dubai, as we sped down the freeway into the night.

Downtown Dubai
The Dubai Mall and 'The Address' on the right
“They have very little oil, they’ve turned to tourism, shopping and real estate to make money. The real estate bubble was pricked a few years ago though...”, said my friend’s husband on the second day as they drove us around The Palm. This friend of mine has been living in Dubai  with her husband for the past few years and I met up with the couple for dinner after an evening at the Dubai Mall.

Dubai Tallest
Viewing Gallery atop Burj Khalifa
The Palm is one of Dubai’s many extravagant real estate projects that lie waiting for the times to turn again. Built on reclaimed land stretching into the sea in the shape of a palm frond, the place looked particularly desolate at night, with no pedestrians on the streets and lights switched on in less than half the luxury apartments. This was in sharp contrast to the Dubai Mall. The place overflowed with people, designer brand stores, eateries and entertainment, all inside a sleek, sparkling, warmly lit and climate-controlled building of immense proportions. We had taken a full 20 minutes to just drive out of the seven storeyed parking lot.

“How do you like living here?” I asked my friends over a Lebanese dinner. They lived a three hour flight away from home, enjoyed the comforts of first world living, had plenty of company of fellow-men from the home country and enjoyed a 1 AED to 13 INR currency conversion rate. They even had a two day weekend, on Friday and Saturday. “And the earnings are completely tax-free”, they said. Not a particularly bad deal, eh?

Dubai Downtown
Impossible City
The Burj Khalifa is a magnificent building in downtown Dubai, and is the world’s tallest. Stretching almost a kilometre into the sky, it looks across a landscape that looks highly improbable to say the least. Dubai has risen out of nowhere, in a land with almost no natural resources. (The meagre reserves of oil don’t really count for much of its revenues). What it does have is a narrow inlet of the Arabian Gulf, which forms the Dubai Creek, and has allowed the small pearl-diving community to develop into a port and a trading hub. The Al Maktoum family has ruled this place for years and have played a crucial role in deciding the city’s fate. The earlier ruler dredged the Dubai Creek for the first time, allowing larger vessels to dock, and giving a huge boost to its status as a trading hub. The current ruler has adopted the strategy to develop the region as a centre for business and tourism. It was he who spearheaded grandiose projects like The Palm. ‘Well, they’re at least doing something even if it looks like a gamble’, I said to my friend, as we looked at the Palm and other equally grandiose reclamation projects that lay unfinished just off the coast.

Dubai Bazaar
By-lanes of Grand Souk
Dubai Bazaars
Gold Souk
After the towers and malls, we wanted to have a look at the old quaint side of the city on our final day. We spent it wandering down the crowded sections of the old city around the creek, called the Deira. (The other, more developed side of the creek where we were put up, is called Bur Dubai). They have bazaars here, the lanes are called souks, and they have different ones selling different kinds of merchandise. The Gold Souk is not to be missed, of course. But the dark shaded lanes of all souks hold many interesting sights, sounds and smells worth taking in.

It was my first time in a desert climate, and the sun was everywhere during the day. A walk down a city block in the sun was enough to leave me dazed. But step into the shade, and I could appreciate the crisp dry air, clear skies, and balmy temperatures heralding the approaching winter.  We were told the place turns into a baking oven during summer, and no one dares to step out. Even schools close at the height of summer. The late October sun was enough to convince me of that. It had already got the better of us and we decided to cut short our walking tour of the old city.

Dusky Beauty
The Dusky Beauty
The Green Eyed Half-Face
We spent some time instead at a small Cafe by the creek having a traditional middle-eastern lunch of cold salads. Save for the one Lebanese dinner with my local friend, the rest of our food in the hotel and on the Desert Safari had been Indian, without even asking for it. I wouldn’t blame them though-the bus-loads of Indian tourists did make it feel like a suburb of Surat or Ahmedabad. So the effort to find some authentic Arabic cuisine was worth it. Besides, we were joined at lunch by the local cats that ran along the water’s edge from table to table, getting fed lunch scraps. At our table they had to earn their food by posing for my camera first.

Later that afternoon I was back in Terminal 3 of DXB for my flight back. I realised that I had missed out the one great purpose that most people land up in Dubai for:Shopping. But I wasn’t sure if that had detracted from or added to my experience.  I think the era of coveting stuff bought in Dubai is over anyways, for malls all over the world are notoriously identical these days.  If anything did not define Dubai for me, it was the malls. Nevertheless, I decided that tradition shall be adhered to. A box of dates stuffed with candied orange peel, with a ridiculous price tag, was my purchase from DXB Terminal 3. Less than an hour later I was in an Emirates A330, on my way back. As expected from one of the world's few profitable and renowned airlines, the service was crisp, efficient and courteous. And as expected it was provided by personnel, most of whom were not Arab.


  1. Very nicely written blog Mihir!! Enjoyed reading it..Sanjay introduced me to your blog site..Look forward to reading your other posts..:)

    1. Thanks Namrata! Glad you liked it! Hope to get many more opportunities to post...