Monday, 12 March 2012

Of Dubai

Hello all. I've been back from Dubai for quite some time, but have been both unwell and lazy, hence the late update.

Like all cities, Dubai is full of contradictions, and my response to it was ambiguous too. At the most obvious level, Dubai is a fantasy of excess. Every structure in the city is overpoweringly immense. A friend remarked that certain areas of the city make you feel as if you are on a movie set, to which I added "Not just any movie set, but a Rajnikant movie set, to be precise". Almost every metro stop is a mall. The different stores in the mall are a veritable 'who's who' of luxury living. There is even a surreal 'ski-slope within a mall'. I kid you not, as the picture below will show. I saw it on my first jet-lagged morning, and it took some time to believe that I was not hallucinating.

Book stores in the malls are mostly chains like 'Borders' and are disappointingly limited to Western bestsellers and the Western canon. It took me around two hours to locate what I'm sure was the only local book in the store, somewhat obviously titled The Sand Fish: A Novel from Dubai. It was about a young 'spirited' Emirati woman doomed to be the third wife of an old Arab man, and the very first chapter was so dismally Orientalist that I gave up on it. I wish I had been able to find some interesting local writers. I'm sure there are quite a few, though they must be distributed elsewhere and possibly write more in Arabic than in English.

The conference organizers were warm and welcoming, and I had a great roommate. The issues that came up persistently across the two days were familiar: what does home mean, and how does one define being at home? what is identity? if you're a second or third generation migrant, does speaking Gujarati at home and eating Gujarati food make you a Gujarati, even though you've never been to Gujarat? One participant raised what I thought was a crucial question: these are questions that all migrants deal with, so what is specifically Gujarati about it? Diasporic communities will come up with similar answers: 'I am more Punjabi because I dance the gidda at community functions', or 'I am more Bengali because I can read and write the language' and so on. I would argue that there is no essential difference between being Gujarati and being Punjabi, Marathi, or Bengali and so on. Most of the characteristics that are seen as essential are usually socio-cultural and part of the socialization process. For example, in terms of Gujarati characteristics, it would be said that a Gujarati is fond of a sweet flavour to their everyday food, and is more business minded, whereas a Bengali is more cultural, while a Punjabi is fond of rich food and drinking and so on. But if you were to place a Gujarati infant in a Bengali or Punjabi household, and she were to grow up there, she may grow up disliking sweet everyday food and be more 'cultural' or 'arty' than business minded. All communities tell stories about themselves, but such stories are usually more constitutive of reality than indicative of it.

After the conference ended I had a couple of days in Dubai, and me and my brother-in-law had a gala time together on the first day. He treated me to some awesome street food, of which the 'methi ka paratha' at 'Paratha King' was the clear winner. A minor sandstorm meant, however, that we could not stay out for long, and had to spend the major part of the day inside a mall. I was actually quite excited about being in a sandstorm! On my last day in Dubai, I made an effort to stay away from the malls and explore the city. I tracked down a second hand book store, and there was something reassuring about the old market within which it was located. The books were mostly bestsellers again, but this store had a lot more variety than the bookstores in the mall. I found two books by Edward Said, two Toni Morrisons, an Amit Chaudhuri and Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear, the first in a series of novels about a female detective in post World War I London.

At the same time, there is more to Dubai than the consumerist bubble and the exploitative labour trade. There is also something reassuringly familiar. The cabs play Indian music, the tv shows Indian films and there are familiar faces on the hoardings, but it is more than that. I would say it is the difference between being in a non-Western city as opposed to a Western one. Dubai's ways of being and becoming were familiar to me, and so reassuring. I felt at home there, while being alive to its problems.

I think being forced to stay inside malls because of the sandstorm, as well having to spend almost a day at Singapore airport on the return journey gave me a claustrophobic feeling about malls. Both Dubai malls and Singapore airport, which is just a huge mall with an airport attached, are spacious, and make deliberate effort to incorporate certain elements of 'nature', be it through plants, fountains, streams and what not. These two factors should fight claustrophobia, instead they seemed to induce it. A tension that I had not consciously realised was building up in me came to the fore when I got out of Singapore airport and was able to look at the actual city. I was still stuck inside a bus, but I experienced a sense of joy and relief when I was able to look at trees and plants in the open air rather than enclosed, and then realised how oppressed I had felt about being in an enclosed space, no matter how wide it was.

The picture above was a sign in a shop next to our hotel.I meant to ask the aata shop in question what the difference between 'Punjabi' and 'Gujarati' aata was, but ran out of time. In a way, it was good as knowing it is less fun than guessing the various things it could be. In my imagination, 'diabetic' aata is aata suffering from diabetes rather than the more prosaic 'beneficial for diabetics'. This is my favorite Dubai photo, and I hope you enjoy it too.