22 April 2008

United Indian Emirates

Holy Jesus Fuck is this place rich! Disgustingly rich! Blasphemously rich! I don't even know where to begin... perhaps where I began, on the quiet marble (!) floors of Sharjah International Airport, where I asked how I could make a phone call... no problem, just get a phone card. How much is the cheapest one? Only $10.


I knew I was in for it. A mobile phone salesman pitied me and passed a hunk of plastic with a screen over the counter to me. I gazed warily at the strange device, until he demonstrated how to operate it, and it was thus that I had my first old-man-not-with-the-times moment, a product, perhaps, of having spent the last few months in Indialand and, before that, usually being broke.

So in the last few days, I've seen the new tallest building in the world, the Burj Dubai, and no building better deserves the name skyscraper or maybe skyscratcher than this elegant tower that juts up like a stalagmite from the Dubaian desert floor; an indoor ski slope attached to the most obscenely expensive and frighteningly ostentatious shopping mall, the Mall of the Emirates, I've ever seen (my friends here inform me that the Ibn Battuta Mall, named and themed after the famed Arab explorer, is even "better"); the Burj Al-Arab seven-star hotel you've all heard about (ho-hum after the strangely similarly-named Burj Dubai); and that island shaped like a palm tree--oops, there are THREE of them, so which one do I mean?? Oh, I went to the "old town" area and the Dubai Museum, too, but I have been far more impressed (overawed? intimidated? disgusted?) by the stratospheric affluence dripping from the palaces of consumerism.

Since the youth hostel in Dubai still costs $50/night, I was lucky to find another couchsurfing opportunity here and am therefore paying $0/night to stay in a gorgeous new apartment buildings out in the desert near the malls. The downside is that it's fairly remote from everything else, so I have to take buses everywhere--not usually a problem for me, but there's only one inconvenient route that serves this "neighborhood". Even today, I had to walk an hour and a half back across the desert from the Mall of the Emirates because I got tired of waiting for the bus. This place is like a combination of Singapore and Las Vegas: a commercial port city in the desert with randomly scattered blocks of development separated by tracts of sand and empty lots, the whole decorated with architectural features ranging from the gaudy to the grotesque.

I really can't begin to describe what this place is like. I think the next generation of critical theorists would have a field day here, as the last generation did in Los Angeles, if critical theory were allowed here (I didn't see any Adorno in the bookstores). Because this city is a mirage in the desert, a deceitful appearance of paradise just over the next dune, thirsty, grasping, treasure-seeking people are drawn here from all over the world, particularly India (I left India only to arrive in one of its satellite states--hence the title of this post--most people here speak Hindi). It may be capitalism hurtled toward its logical conclusion: government as administration, civics as shopping. You are welcome to come here and gorge yourself so long as you obey the masters--those guys in white robes and black head cords that drift around the place like ghosts, owning everything, lording it over everything. I suggested to some people that Dubai is like Alamut, the mountain stronghold of Hassan-i-Sabbah and the assassins. Hassan would drug his would-be servants, and they would awake to find themselves in male heaven: plates overflowing with food, unlimited quantities of hashish, lusty young women, and whatever else young men crave (brylcreem?). They would then fall asleep again only to awake once more in Hassan's presence, where they would quickly swear total allegiance to him in return for eternal life in his paradise. I think something much the same is going on here.

What Dubai offers is unparalleled comfort and luxury, all in return for your professional contribution to the oil-enriched Islamo-fascists (tee-hee) that govern the place. And for your docility. Because there are no politics here, none of the participation in communal and civic life that has traditionally rooted and empowered people... somewhere, in a place, a realm of belonging with a history and a meaning. Is there even a here, here? Dubai doesn't seem like a real place with real people at all. And most people I've asked don't like it. They say it's fake, boring, etc. But the money is addictive. Actually, I don't think it's fake at all. If anything, I think it's the realest place I've ever been. Social relations are not hidden. Perhaps in our own societies, there are things we don't see or would prefer not to: the ghosts that roam among us. Here, the ghosts are quite visible, whether the aforementioned guys in perfectly white robes or the endless supply of immigrant labor that has built this place and is still building it, that offers you hand towels in the bathrooms, that sells you everything you buy, and that washes your tax-free luxury SUV while you shop in the mall (!). Dubai is a social experiment, I think, one in which you can enjoy a simulated Western lifestyle (even better, actually) without Western freedom--just like that game, The Sims, in which life is stripped down to a course of needs, compulsions, and petty career advancement. What, then, is life for? What we don't appreciate is how much it has become this way in the West itself, where we claim money isn't everything, that shopping is not a panacea, that democracy is the only path to happiness. If none of this is true, we may all be doomed to follow Dubai's example, if Dubai is the city of the future (like that other fast-growing city of dreams in the desert, mostly broken, Las Vegas). This, I think, is too depressing to think about.

The standard of living can't possibly be higher anywhere else--the grass is greener than Ireland, and what the hell is grass even doing here? But there's a major prostitution problem. I don't mean the one that periodically clogs the Burj Al-Arab's plumbing with used condoms, I mean the kind of life everyone here seems to be living. Whoever comes, comes only for money--they are bought by the Arabs to do their bidding, the Arabs the ones with the real money around here. They are bought by the Arabs to build their society and economy for them so they don't have to do anything themselves, after which they are invited to leave again, so the Emiratis can pretend that their culture, despite foreign influences, remains intact and on their own terms. Since most people living here aren't native, there may yet be a revolution one day, but I doubt it while people are living this well. That's the creepiest thing of all. Everyone here is like a commodity, and I worry that in a place like this, you can only ever treat other people that way, as you yourself are treated (shit always gets passed down, doesn't it?). I've seen this sort of thing before--usually in ex-colonial states where white men escape the strictures and conventions of their own societies to play feudal lord (and doesn't the local patriarchy just imitate this?). Here, though, it's the Westerners who are the serfs (not to mention the hordes of non-Gulf Arabs, Indians, and Southeast Asians who are the serfs of the serfs). And nobody complains because there's enough money to go around to appease everyone.

I think it creates awful people out of good people. I wonder if such people even think anymore at all, or feel anymore, or just avoid such difficulties by taking Hassan's hashish, happily, dreamily secure in their mindless devotion to their oblivious overlords.

For all of this, I can't say I dislike Dubai--I leave that to the long-term residents. For me, it's a fascinating place, a fertile place for the sort of musings I've written in this post. It's also rich, clean, safe, and sometimes beautiful. Even part of me wants to live here. But I hope I never do.

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