Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Livin' in a material world

By Tanya Goudsouzian

Picture Egypt. Now imagine the streets evacuated and scrubbed sterile. Replace friendly taxi drivers with stuffy Indian chauffeurs. Reduce the noise level by a few hundred decibels and notch up the heat by a few degrees. Suppose street vendors are overrun by large block-shaped shopping centres. Welcome to Dubai.

Upon arrival at Dubai International Airport, one may well have been superimposed onto a scene from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Such order, such efficiency and such cleanliness. The spotless floors are mopped repeatedly by janitors with near obsessive fervour. I could see my disheveled Cairene appearance reflected on the marble-like finishing. Over and over, round and round, back and forth, the chap manoeuvring the mop was unsatisfied still. On with his quest for perfection.

Passengers, like products on an assembly line, embarked a moving metallic carpet that led to Passport Control. Stamped "approved," I moved toward the exit, where a Pakistani gentleman dressed in full regalia, jacket and tie, led me to a gleaming white luxury sedan -- just an average taxi in Dubai.

To say the weather is hotter than hot, even past midnight, cannot describe the sweltering temperature from which I found refuge by stepping into the air-conditioned vehicle. One breaks into a sweat in two minutes flat -- the reason why life in Dubai is carried out indoors. The word "pedestrian" is an alien concept. Not a soul can be caught taking a leisurely stroll on the streets. Chances are that anyone who should venture such a feat would melt, like the Wicked Witch of the West in that horrible vaporous scene in The Wizard of Oz. But I digress.

The spectacular Borj Al-Arab hotel featured right was intended to resemble a sailboat, but has been variously described as everything from alien spacecraft, masonic icon to gilded cockroach
Cruising the highway toward my hotel, I observed tall pastel-coloured buildings, landscaping as neat as a lady's manicured hands and popular Western restaurant franchises with flashing signs. There was not one dilapidated building to cross my path and not one unsightly vehicle. I later read in a local newspaper that it was a government prerogative to get rid of "old" taxis.

"What old taxis?" I asked.

"Like that one over there," said my friend, pointing to a white sedan, fair condition, early-1990s model of an American brand. There are standards to be upheld, apparently. Dubai has certainly maintained its aesthetic standards, partly because it is not an outdoorsy city. Not a single used tissue or gum wrapper can be found tucked in the crevices of the sidewalks. No one walks.

Life takes place in offices, movie theatres, nightclubs, hotels and shopping centres. In the winter, some outdoor activities do take place. A group of friends will hop in a jeep and head for the desert, or go snorkeling at one of the many beaches lining the coast. The population is largely foreign, with some expatriates born in Dubai having never known any other home. Emirates nationals constitute a minority in their own land and can generally be distinguished by their traditional garb -- flowing white robe for men, flowing black cloak with matching headscarf for women. But such a tiny minority are they that expatriate dwellers hardly have encounters with them.

So what part of Dubai is Middle Eastern, apart from its geographic location? Enter shopping. Much like its more primitive counterpart, the souq, the mall is a common hangout for people of all walks of life. Multi-millionaire businessmen, teenyboppers, chi-chi housewives, veiled matrons and foreign skilled workers all find sanctuary in Dubai's shopping malls. While merchants do not stand by the door and invite customers in for a glass of mint tea like in Cairo's Khan Al-Khalili, it is worth noting that no matter how posh the boutique, a discount can be had.

One of the greatest malls in Dubai is Deira City Centre. One could spend an entire day working through its gargantuan premises -- and still come back the very next day. Again the moving metallic carpet takes prospective customers up from their air-conditioned cars in the dim parking area straight to the air-conditioned mall. Deira City Centre is a mall-rat heaven. There are shops that appeal to every taste at every turn: garments, shoes, purses, jewellery, electronics and even groceries. Cafés are strategically placed at every curve, where tired legs are given a rest and where bachelors admire the well-dressed girls.

After months of deprivation from my favourite designers, Dubai had reunited us. I ran from boutique to boutique, raiding the racks as if they were the last items left on earth. DKNY, Zara International, Max Mara and Kookaï were among the many old pals I was anxious to catch up with.

The following day, upon the recommendation of a friend, I headed for Burjuman Centre. A little smaller, less bustling, but "more elegant", he indicated, featuring Polo, Aignier, Louis Vuitton and Calvin Klein. I made my rounds, had a little salad at one of the cafés and at 10.00pm, when all the malls close, I went back to my hotel. It was there that the thought first came to my mind: with so many material things readily accessible, what is left to talk about -- apart from those material things? I had a little flashback to Cairo, where the complaining sessions that follow any shopping sojourn nearly always segue into more philosophical concerns on the merits of a market economy, and the tough times consumers face while this market is in its burgeoning stages. This episode was sorely missed as I sifted through my purchases of the day.

Two days of back to back shopping and I was on to my third stop. It was another scorching afternoon as I hopped in a taxi and asked for Wafi Centre. I leaned back on the cushy seating and figured the trip would take less than 20 minutes. Traffic on the (proverbial) yellow brick roads of Dubai would mean a glitch in the larger system. What are the chances? All of a sudden the taxi's smooth glide on the impeccably paved road came to a halt; and it stayed that way for the next hour and a half. A truck had overturned in the middle of the road. Patrollers were on the scene attempting to deal with the situation. Reporters soon followed, snapping shots of the unfortunate (and fluke) event. Imagine that, an accident! Dubai drivers, unaccustomed to waiting in traffic, were looking for ways out. Four wheel drives went off road on the sand to cut ahead; regular cars that followed suit ended up stuck in a cloud of sand. An odd scene indeed to see one man step out of his vehicle in his snow white robe to shovel sand -- probably something he had never done in his life.

Wafi Centre is the smallest of the three major shopping centres, but seems to be dedicated to the women in the world who were not so shocked by the revelation that Imelda Marcos, wife of the late Philippine dictator, had a few million pairs of shoes in her wardrobe. Oh, how can we ladies resist shoes when they are as pretty as the ones displayed at Wafi Centre? High heels, Sabrina heels or wedge heels; leather, suede or pony; banana yellow, cherry red or baby pink ... And then there are the clogs: classic clogs, platform clogs or high-heel clogs. Each shop is unique, carrying different name brands and different models -- something even Western malls do not offer anymore.

On my way back with a friend, we took the scenic route, passing by the outlandish Borj Al-Arab hotel. It is outlandish because no other word can possibly describe this structure intended to resemble a sailboat, but variantly described as an alien spacecraft, Masonic icon or gilded cockroach. Massive, bizarre and built on top of a man-made island, it defies every architectural norm for the sake of art (or perhaps tourism). "Even if the hotel is fully booked every single day for the next 300 years, they will not break even with the costs," quipped my friend. Funny, I thought. The Borj Al-Arab and I have something in common after this extravagant excursion in Dubai.

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