In the past two days, Steve and I have explored the world’s biggest shopping mall, gone almost all the way to the top of the tallest building on the planet, shopped in a gold souk,
visited two mosques, bought a liter of camel milk in a grocery store (and washed down our M&Ms with it),
ridden in the gender-segregated sections of the spiffy Dubai subway,
and walked 22.6 miles (47,628 steps, according to my iPhone.) Yet I feel I little disappointed. It’s not that we haven’t had a good time. It’s all been great fun. But I still have very little clue about how things work in the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Before this trip, to the extent I ever thought about Dubai (i.e rarely to never), I envisioned it as a sort of mashup between Shanghai (the outlandish architecture) and Las Vegas. It’s more evocative of Vegas, if missing the casinos and alcohol and scantily clad women; the searing heat, wild attractions, and sense of having sprung up just yesterday out of the lonely desert all feel familiar. I’ve seen men in white robes and headscarves crowned with coiled goat-hair rope in Vegas, and women in full black burkas too. You see more of both here — but not so many more. Most folks dress in standard Western garb.
In an attempt to gain deeper understanding into the history and culture of Dubai, we signed up for a couple of activities sponsored by the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. I particularly had high hopes for the “communal lunch” where we would have the opportunity to “ask questions and exchange ideas with nationals while enjoying delicious Emirati food.” The complex in which the centre is located was built by the Persians around 100 years ago, and it’s been beautifully preserved and turned into an arts and culture district. A couple dozen of us foreigners sat on richly decorated cushions in an air-conditioned courtyard, and the food was tasty and filling, if not haute gourmet. While we ate it, our Emirati host expounded on local customs. But it was all very basic and bland, kind of Islam for Dummies (or a bit like learning about Abe Lincoln from Walt Disney).
Far more tantalizing is the neighborhood where we’re staying (Deira, the old heart of the city). Our guesthouse once was the residence of a powerful sheikh. Parts of the large complex that contains is are still being restored. We love the open-beam, 15-foot ceilings; the stained glass windows; the beautiful stone courtyards. The maze of streets that surround us are jammed with what look like tiny retail shops selling every kind of good imaginable. But they’re actually wholesalers! So the casual shopper can’t buy anything from any of them. Nearby souks do sell gold and spices and household items. We strolled through them a bit this morning, then even though the stunning heat was already building, at 9 in the morning, we walked along the canal where a flotilla of dhows are docked. They’re laden with rice from India, saffron from nearby Iran, cheap clothing from China.
We have no idea how all this commerce interlaces. We don’t have a clue what the different emirates in the UAE think of one another. We’ve read that something like 80% of the people who live in Dubai come from elsewhere: India and the Phillipines and Burma and similar places. Hordes of these guest workers crammed into the metro with us yesterday, but we know nothing else about their lives here.
It’s a little frustrating. And in an hour or so, we’ll take a taxi on the short (30-minute?) ride to the next emirate down the road, Sharjah (dubbed by Unesco the Capital of Islamic Culture). We’ll also return to Dubai in about 10 days for a final afternoon before we head to Uganda. All we can do is continue to keep our eyes and ears open.