Riyadh: Sunday 10th June, 2012
The snoring must have been audible in the cock-pit and it clearly repelled the Stewardess who gingerly reached across the sleeping man to hand me my drink. I did my best to shut out the noise and this man’s substantial slumbering bulk and concentrate on reading my book.
This scene forms just one familiar image of one of the more unpleasant portrayals of Dubai, and there are plenty willing to paint it: a magnet for rich, corruptible, middle age men in search of the sort of debauchery you can’t get in the Middle East’s more conservative cities.
There are also those who, if not exactly defending it, point out that if Dubai did not already exist, the Middle East would have to invent it as a valve to relieve the pent-up frustrations of a conservative society. That may be, but it is less than pretty to look at, and ultimately contributes to a plethora of images which degrade the reputation of Dubai in the public’s imagining. For example, the author Robert Lacey, interviewed on British radio about his book Inside the Kingdom, contrasted the subject of his book, Saudi Arabia and Arab culture with the city. “I hate,” he said, “Dubai, with its Russian Prostitutes.”
Little wonder, then, that Dubai is often viewed with genuine negativity in the West. Possibly the only other cities so readily associated with vice in the modern world are those portrayed in dystopian comic strips or computer games. When the financial crisis hit, I remember being appalled that the British media could be so damming of this place and its ambition. Had we forgotten how far that we too, had been compelled by greed, to dance with the devil? Surely we could not have forgotten how far we too had fallen as a result of this catastrophic, hubristic, dalliance with the material. We will, after all, be paying the bill for a long time to come.
In truth, the attitude displayed towards Dubai was that of “Old Money’s” aristocracy to the “Nouveau-Riche.” Dubai, is in fact subject to lower crime than western cities. Instead, Dubai is a high-end pleasure seekers destination, with luxury hotels, as well as shopping malls, restaurants, and a whole plethora of diversions. Yet, Dubai has rapidly forced its way into our consciousness in a ridiculously short space of time. When I was born, in 1977, it was little more than a backwater, even in the context of the Arab World. Now it is the most readily recognized place in the region and is a city of architectural superlatives, an improbable mix of concrete, steel, glass, sun and desert.
And like all new moneyed guests who have suddenly arrived at the party, it is Dubai’s sheer gaucheness which, I suspect, so enrages western newspaper editors.
And for all its attractions, Dubai can be a very lonely place. In Abu Dhabi, a couple of trips to a bar after work let me meet, in the space of a fortnight, a small menagerie of interesting and diverse people including an American Newspaper editor, a retired Hollywood film director and sound engineer (whose insider experience and lack of having made it to the A list, made him an impossibly entertaining raconteur). And who would not want to hear stories from the newsroom or the Washington Post or stories about first hand encounters with Richard Burton or Sean Connery?
In Dubai, by contrast, you are likely to meet construction professionals in laughing, raucous cliques, unless that is, you are part of the A list yourself. David Beckham or Tom Cruise will have different impressions of Dubai from mine. And with good reason. Another feature of Dubai is it’s unabashed celebration of money, status and success. It is not burdened by perceptions of equality, either among the sexes, voters or classes. If you have money-a-plenty, Dubai has every possible way of helping you enjoy it and perhaps, surprisingly, can bring home the abject shallowness of material ambition as a result.
In a very tangible sense, Dubai deems designed for the expression in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the “Papier-mâché Mephistopheles” So many of its Skyscrapers are beautiful hollow shells, facades applied by royal decree in order to conceal the unused concrete superstructures which lie like Toombs within. Here is what happens when greed and ambition are unrestrained. A soulless world of temptation and vice, where the super rich can entertain leggy women for hire aboard diesel yachts the flying flags of convenience to which they themselves are loyal.
Everywhere in Dubai, temptation is conspicuous. Its shopping malls are staggering testaments to consumption, vast, sterile worlds in which every possible food stuff can be consumed, every single fashion adorned, every single gadget purchased and film watched. In these, you will have time to relax, socialize, even educate. You can ski in one super mall, Ice skate in another, and in yet another, you can gain an imagined sense of the places visited by the Arab explorer, Ibn Battuta, passing through imagined recreations of Indian, Arab, Persian and Chinese cities while purchasing designer shirts, jeans or handbags.
Ever since I first set eyes on this remarkable and improbable metropolis, I have struggled to reconcile myself to it. There are times, during the last three years, when I would have spoken in terms of distaste for the city, and there are other times, when I have felt suddenly to have come to an accommodation with the city, understood, perhaps, something of its soul.
But to suppose that such an understanding can be obtained is nonsense; an impossibility; not because it does not have a soul; all cities do. But for me to understand the soul of Dubai requires me to understand it as a person who has lived in the city and not merely visited it. I have lived in Abu Dhabi for 9 months, but it is a fundamentally different city with a fundamentally different soul, equally hard to pin down, but for different reasons.
However, what is often forgotten is that, like all cities, Dubai is a backdrop for human dramas and as such is a complex shape-shifter of a place, which will, in time, come to stand for different things as it evolves. As such, it will eventually gentrify itself as cities do and its current reputation as a place where western couples, are huckled for kissing in the street, Filipina nannies are raped and imprisoned by vengeful Arab families and Russian prostitutes consort with overweight Saudis will become part of its History. With luck, this might come to represent something of a vibrant, colourful epoch, just as the image of 1920’s Paris, is bathed in a rose tint of the carefree era, obscuring the undoubted vice and misery which would have prevailed over the lives of a sizable proportion of its inhabitants. We should not forget, when wandering the streets of Paris, in search of the Hemingway or Chanel experience, that, while they were sleeping off their entertainments, unknown numbers of young women and men, unrecalled by history, were washing, crawling into dingy beds and grabbing a few hours respite before the great game of servicing the whims of the mighty would begin again. So it is in modern Dubai; in all places, modern and ancient.
And because sex, cruelty and corruption are not unique to Dubai, but are universals, found everywhere, in subtly different forms, it is worth reminding ourselves, every so often, that cities are more than play grounds for the rich, powerful and corrupt. They are places where the rich and poor live out their lives. They are more than their built selves. Cities are human creations and evolve just as humans do, in reaction to their experiences, so that tomorrows inhabitants will feel the presence of the ghosts of those who built and walked the streets before them, marvel at their bravery or vision or be repelled by their vaingloriousness or sin.
Historians will cultivate impartiality to objectify Dubai’s expansion, and in the process, something of the lives lead here will be lost. But before they do, here are two moments from such lives.
By the standards of most of the rest of the Arab World, Dubai is astonishingly free and liberal. The stories of westerners, imprisoned for public displays of affection are often inaccurately conveyed and are in any case, rare. The reality, is that Dubai, tolerates much which the rest of the Middle East does not and that much of the rest of the world comes to Dubai and abuses this tolerance.
In neighboring Abu Dhabi, the culture is more conservative and it is rare to see a woman with a dress above the knee or bare shoulders. This is simply not true of Dubai, where it is common place to see western men in shorts and western (or Lebanese) women in quite revealing clothing.
But freedom is a strange fruit, much discussed and little understood, and sometimes a tiny bite can be sweeter than an entire orchard.
A different flight, two years ago between Manama and Dubai. I was sitting before take off, trying to ignore the rumbling fear of flying which grips me at the moment of departure, when two young Arab women (girls really) stood over my seat looking at their tickets. I began to gather my belongings in anticipation of moving seats. (Normally, following a brief chat with the flight attendant, a western man seated next to a Saudi woman, will be asked politely to switch seats and a more appropriate seating companion will be found). To my surprise one of them motioned me to sit, Her sister was to be seated with her mother a few seats back.
She was a Saudi and had been on the same flight as me from Riyadh to Manama. (I didn’t ask her age but judged her to have been perhaps 16-18). She was, she told me, travelling to Dubai with her mother and sister, for a week. Her father, whom she clearly idolized, would be travelling later.
In talking, I became aware of her obvious excitement at the prospect of a week in Dubai, the opportunity to shop and sight-see and spend time by the swimming pool in the house her father had rented for them. This is an all-together different side to Dubai’s apparent freedoms, and one which, paradoxically, is both symptomatic of the region and more welcome to western perceptions.
For here, a young woman could relax and lead a more public life, free from the societal constraints of Riyadh, which prevent women from basic freedoms such as travelling without male escort or entering through the front of a public building. This was not a teenager who was going to run off for a week of sun, sex and sangria as many western girls of her age would have looked to do. She was still very much in the care of her parents. She was granted the liberty to talk to a western man on the flight, but I have no doubt that her mother was listening closely to every word from two or three seats back.
In this limited example, Dubai’s freedoms were far from permissive, or misogynistic. On the contrary, they form part of a learning experience for a young woman who’s future will be influenced strongly and possibly dictated, by the wills of others.
More-over, it is equally naïve and very possibly offensive to imagine that this young woman or others like her, would necessarily embrace a more western life were it offered to her. The freedom she yearned for appeared to be firmly within context. She was still a respectful daughter, raised with certain expectations of how to behave and what her life would entail. I remember, for example, that she was extremely interested to know what Europe was like and how it compared to the US. Her preconceptions were most interesting because the revealed a certain truth while at the same time conveying the limits of her perception and her inexperience of the world.
Europe, she supposed, to be unfriendly and snooty compared to America, and was unlikely to help a woman in distress. She did not think she would like to spend much time in Europe for this reason but would love to see London, Paris and Rome. Not surprisingly, here great ambition was to travel to the United States, where, I hope, she will find herself in the folksy Midwest, rather than lower Manhattan so as to preserve at least some of her ideas.
Perhaps, I supposed, she would be able, as so many Saudi’s do, to Study in America. No, she smiled. She didn’t think her father would allow that. He was quite traditional.
Yet, in spite of her restrictions, for her, life was in a real and wonderful way, only just beginning and as such, appeared full of possibilities. The Saudi Arabia of her upbringing faces many challenges over the likely span of her life and may well, by its end, be unrecognizable from the country of her youth. For now, (assuming her father does not relent and allow her to study in America) her best prospects of fulfilling her ambition to travel, rests in her being found a good husband who will take her to such places. As per Saudi Arabian custom, she herself is unlikely to have much say in the choice of her husband. Yet, I have no reason to doubt that her mother, careful in the freedom she was exposing her daughter to and apparently allowing her to talk with men away from the traditional father’s reach, will find a suitable match, when the time comes.
Now, I could see this girl as a symbol of a patriarchal society. I could see her as a cause. I could fill myself with indignation at her apparent plight, her childishness or the stifling insularity of her life to that point. I could invoke western values and language to build a convincing argument for her liberation, or at least for her to be provided with basic rights such as the right to divorce, to have custody of her children, to travel abroad, vote, work or drive. Similarly I could view her from the eyes of a conservative, as representing an older, simpler, nicer past, almost Victorian.
That I choose to do neither, is easily criticized, and I will not be offended if you do so. But something in me suspects that her week in Dubai was likely to have been a formative one for her, which she will look back on fondly in years to come. For at a moment of awakening, she was travelling to a place where she would see women of her age dressed differently, acting differently and where she would, no doubt, see local boys hanging around the malls in the latest designer clothes (as I myself saw this weekend). It is easy to imagine her giggling with her sister, the world of sex, still a mysterious game.
There are good arguments to be made regarding the rights of women and the freedoms to which they are entitled, but my suspicion is that the excitement she was about to feel and the sudden charge of liberation and possibility was every bit as real and vital as that felt by a western teenager. Perhaps more so.
She will still have sensed the quickening pulse and adrenalin of a life at its cusp, and from that moment, will have, in the words of Ruaridh Nicoll, “felt the blankets tear, the tranquility shatter, the calm splinter, in one long and terrible rush.” Life, for her, whatever, its future restrictions, would have begun, and there is, I suspect, no greater thrill.
Fast Forward to Wednesday night, and I, barely two hours from landing, had checked into my hotel, spoken with my love on the telephone, showered and was now on my way to a longed for appointment with a crisp glass of white.
The bar I had chosen for this much-anticipated pleasure was about half a mile from my hotel affording me a pleasant (if extremely hot and humid) walk between the avenue of Skyscrapers on either side of a stretch of Sheikh Zayed Road, in Dubai’s midtown. Walking in front of me were a Filipino couple, short as Filipinos often are, suitable to each other, of similar height and each slightly plump.
They were clearly a couple. I’m not sure how I know this. They were not holding hands or arm in arm. They did not overtly betray any signs of intimacy or break any social convention. Even in Dubai, public displays of affection between men and women are generally frowned upon and discouraged. Yet something about them told you clearly, without thinking about it, that they were a couple. Something in their natural, unhurried pace, the closeness with which they inhabited each others personal space, betrayed familiarity that went beyond convivial or professional. Anyone would have walked past them and unconsciously known they were a couple, without giving the matter a second thought.
I was in the process of wondering if these invisible signals are given off by all couples and, if so, when in a relationship do these invisible signals start to be emitted, when, to my surprise, an impropriety was broken, subtle and hidden from view, but real. No one but me could have noticed, so subtle was the gesture.
Slowly, she pulled her arm around the back of his waist so that her hand rested momentarily on his belt at the base of his spine.
Whenever I see those little, half hidden tenderness’s that couples have, it is like a burden is lifted. The rushed kiss as one or the other backs away to board a train, or the old woman I saw once; who reached up and brushed a piece of dust off the back of her husbands shoulder-blade. Then there is the unconscious reaching to hold hands or the holding of a car door or the laughing at a joke: a million things.
My heart lifted. This was a beautifully executed triumph of physical love over societies restrictions. And it was beautifully, masterfully achieved. It was a physical intimacy so subtle that it would never have been spotted, had I not been consciously watching them from behind. It was not sexual or even sensuous. It was simply loving, familiar; a lassie feeling for the comfort of her partner’s closeness. It was Romeo and Juliet for adults, none of the puppy love and big declarations of the Star-Crossed lovers. Just a simple gesture of affection in the real world, subtly hidden from those who would enforce more rigid rules of conduct.
Or was it?
In a flash, I was disabused by a firm yank upwards of his belt. This was not a gesture, saying, “I need your closeness”. It was a gesture saying, “Pull your jeans up, you scruffy so-and-so!!”
I gratified the barman at my chosen watering-hole with a jovial laughing order of a glass of white wine. He smiled back, keen to share in my mirth, but confused as to why I should find ordering a glass of wine so funny. He could not have known nor, I venture, would he have understood if I had explained that I was laughing from tenderness, from joy and at the sheer beauty of the human experience.