I think it will be difficult for me to do justice to the pleasure that I experienced at visiting Dubai over the past few days, strange and terrifying as its wonders sometimes seemed. A brief recap:
I met up with Saman Chaudhry, Shaesta’s daughter, and her two daughters Zohra and Zuleikha at the capitalist spectacle otherwise known as Dubai Mall. I can’t even complain about it though. I enjoyed too much watching the first-ever VOGUE fashion show that was taking place INSIDE THE MALL that day (October 10), the ubiquitous digital touch pads that gave you multi-colored directions to any store in the mall from wherever you were, the retro mall-taxis you could hail to drive you around the mall (since of course you came to shop, not exert yourself), the splendid aquarium with huge sharks and leopard-print sting rays (not even kidding), and of course the outfits. In the Middle East, people wear their Sunday Best (so-to-speak) to go to the mall. It’s an outing. It’s a statement. As I mentioned before, it is above all a spectacle. A social performance. A collective effort to surf the cascading breakers at the beach-front(ier) of global opulence. Ashraf tells me Kerala’s tourist slogan is “God’s Own Country.” If it were up to me, Dubai’s would be “Earth’s Own Wonderland.”
So Saman, Zohra, Zuleikha and I enjoyed red velvet, pumpkin, double chocolate and lemon meringue cake at Magnolia Bakery (there is a branch of everything in Dubai Mall) and generally amused ourselves. We then went back to their house for a bit to Skype with Shaesta on an iPad and read some choice excerpts from Rumi. Then I left and headed to Dubai Marina to meet up with Fia – Yvette’s friend from Burundi whom I had never actually met – and ended up in a beach bar called Barasti. In the car, my cab driver and I had jammed to Tupac’s “Ready To Die” album and compared our home cities – Karachi and New York respectively – so when Fia called me to say she wouldn’t be at Barasti for another two hours, I wasn’t worried; I was in a great mood from the rap, and breathlessly pleased with the liberty that Dubai was affording me, in contrast to the sterner, let’s say, atmosphere of Muscat.
So I walk into Barasti with every intention of meandering up to the counter and ordering a Stella Artois and minding my own business for a couple hours. No, the Middle East is not an ideal place for a woman “to cupcake” by herself in a bar (stealing this verb from my friend Nik, it’s more or less the polite equivalent of the common colloquialism “to shoot the shit”) for awhile without getting harassed, but hey, I was feeling bold. And I was just wearing jeans and a t-shirt for goodness sake, so compared to some of the women dangling around there, I felt I looked male-discouragingly basic. However, before I could even GET to the bar, in front of me materialized a face I have not had the pleasure of seeing for over two years: my dear friend Jamal, Palestinian body-builder and beach volleyball star extraordinaire from Burundi!!!
I literally jumped into his arms, overwhelmed with an alternative of joy, surprise and comfort in the face of my impending hour of feigned un-loneliness. Jamal bought me the Stella – I actually started crying at the sight of him and for the first half hour thought I was genuinely hallucinating – and we cupcaked for hours in the bar, just chatting and catching up on two years of SO MANY THINGS. It was awesome.
The next day, Fia, Nicole and I (Fia, Nicole and Eddyne are the Burundian sisters with whom I stayed, friends of Yvette that started a “groupe éléctrogène” [i.e. electrical generators for African countries that don’t have reliable central electricity, primarily Angola and DRC] company in Dubai and live in Sharjah, the next Emirate over from Wonderland) went to an Irish Pub called “Dubliner’s” and had an extended brunch, plenty of white wine, ate molten chocolate cakes and steak & Guinness pies, and danced to reggae/hiphop songs played by a live band (such as “Roll It Gal” by Alison Hinds and “She Doesn’t Mind” by Sean Paul). We chatted – exclusively in French, w’allah! – about just about everything: from Yvette’s UNREAL upcoming charity fashion show (Dec. 7) to benefit deaf mute orphans in Burundi (the children themselves are going to be the runway models and Yvette has designed a whole line exclusively for them and taught them how to defiler!!!), to the Rwandan Genocide (Fia believes the death figures were doctored for political purposes), to the knee-jerk American support for the state of Israel, the U.S. Government shutdown, and how Fia learned the days of the week in English by listening to Craig David’s classic “7 Days” (I think I love that song a little too much).
We then met up with Eddyne and went to the Dubai Mall to watch the famous “Eau qui danse” (Dancing Water) which I think is modeled off of a similar exposition in Las Vegas. It was incredible, the shoots of water illuminating and swirling hundreds of feet in the air, syncopated perfectly to accompany the Arabic music played over the loudspeakers. The show lasted only ten minutes, but thousands and thousands of people had gathered to watch, and apparently did every day, every half hour from 4pm-11pm.
How did they manage to draw such a crowd for something so straightforward? I wondered. But then it hit me: why such a show was vastly more impressive than hip-hop dancers, than fireworks, than light-shows and other public demonstrations. This was Arabia. The desert of the desert. And this was a spectacle of the perfect and effortless mastery of water, curling and exploding as it was with absurd precision and velocity. The definition of wealth, opulence, splendor. The immodest height of those cords of water was no different than the towering eminence of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building of the world, poised just feet behind the fountain. Not unlike the ego-elegance of the Mazeratis parked at the Muscat grocery store. This isn’t Kansas, I reminded myself. This is Wonderland.