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Home » Non-fiction, Travel


Submitted by admin on November 11, 2010 – 11:57 amNo Comment

by John Syfret

Regular NFTU contributor John Syfret recently moved to Dubai as part of his work. He’s going to be writing a diary of his experiences out there. Here is a bumper first installment.

25th Septemberr 2010

dubai3000 miles from home, water drips through the ceiling in the kitchen of an otherwise comfortable flat on the 13th floor of a small tower-block in Dubai. On the television screen as a bizarre and vivid backdrop, the Labour leadership election has reached its conclusion. Both Milibands gurn. Having flown so far, it is strange for the parochial detail of the contest to be brought to me, not least because were I still in England, this would be something of real fascination for me. But here these political marionettes cannot transcend the smallness of the screen, not in the size and heat of Dubai.

In daylight it is an ugly place: there is little green, and everywhere there is the clatter of construction. Much is unfinished, and the Indian workers gather in little knots and crowds. Walking around, you realise that it is not designed for pedestrians – pavements are blocked by roadworks, or broken, paths are unmade, or leading nowhere. All over, there is a hole 50 feet deep, with just a few strips of warning tape to prevent the unwary from falling in. Dangerous to a drunkard, but of course, they are something of a rarity on the streets.

26th September

At night, the city claims a beauty not welcome during the day, the cracks and the bareness are covered by shadow, and the heat, normally a suffocating wall, dissipates just enough to wander outside. One night I did just that, and reaching the end of the Jumeira Beach Walk, where designer outlets spray light onto the driveway of the Ritz, I found a little path leading to the shore. I followed the many tracks of cars and bathers, hours since departed, to the water’s edge. There, the city was behind and beside me, but muted, and the dark here not so polluted. Its sounds too were muffled, the huge stretch of beach deserted. I was alone. Waves lapped apologetically, and I squatted to put my hand the water, which surprised me with its warmness. Turning round, I finally saw the city as it seeks to appear: behind the fringe of palms on the beach-front, the great giants of buildings danced and twisted upwards, their lights pressing defiantly into the darkness. The scale is awesome, roads sweeping and banking between the monoliths, and the sheer brazen wealth. The audacity of the place is more astonishing when one realises that Dubai has no resource, no natural asset: simply it is a repository of capital in the desert, and all this is embodied in the night vision of those towering buildings.

29th September

My mad friend Paul has been on holiday in Afghanistan, and since he has a connecting flight in Dubai I have agreed to show him the sights. This evening, we decide to go out with a work-colleague of mine called Harriet. She tells us to meet at the “Horizon” bar in the Al Habtoor grand hotel.

On the third floor there is a large balcony, on which is a large marquee that serves as a fairly lively bar. Naturally the crowd is largely western, plastic people with bleached hair and perma-tans, nonetheless the atmosphere is convivial and everyone seems to be having a good time. At some point I see a girl so drunk she cannot walk – she is escorted, bodily, from the premises by two of the most enormous security guards I have seen in a while, one of whom looks remarkably like Jaws from the James Bond films.

At some point though, it is my and my friend Paul’s chance to be kicked out. We go to get a drink, and coming back from the bar stand and chat to Harriet – Paul leans on the back of a chair which is near the edge of the marquee. “I wouldn’t lean on that, that’s the owner’s chair and he’s very particular about it.” But it is too late. I should say at this point that there is nothing special about this chair. It seems a perfectly ordinary armchair, similar to all the other chairs in the area, not gold encrusted, fragile or beautiful. In any case, as Paul moves an irate, medium sized and slightly weasel-faced local shouts at him in Arabic, then in unintelligible English, although the gist is pretty clear. “I think you’re very rude”, retorts Paul, although the brilliance of the rhetoric goes unnoticed, indeed, answering back to the man is not a popular course of action. For the crime of leaning against the wrong chair, he is ejected, forcefully, by the mountainous bouncers – in solidarity I curse the owner and am required to leave as well – again forcefully. I don’t know if you have ever been chivvied from a five-star hotel by a man the size of Cardiff, but it is a salutary experience.

On the long walk back to my apartment, our natural senses of justice and righteous wrath begin to assert themselves, but alas it is too late to go back in and defeat the aggressors in hand to hand combat, so we redress the inequity of the situation by sulking. On the plus-side, it does feel like a very authentic experience, and that surely is the important thing…

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