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Home » Non-fiction, Travel


Submitted by admin on November 25, 2010 – 7:45 pmNo Comment

By John Syfret

2nd October

The Dubai Mall

The Dubai Mall

There are two types of bird here which are common – a blackbird sized creature with piebald markings, and a sort of miniature collared-dove. The do not flock like pigeons in the European cities, or even appear in the quantity we see sparrows or crows. When they sing, the effect is jarring. I’m not sure which it is, hidden in the palm or the pink-flowering bushes that interrupt the sand-softened asphalt, but its sound, bell-round, inquisitive, neither high nor low, seems to stop all other noise. The otherwise perpetual rushing and hooting of traffic, the drills, clanks and whirrs of construction, the passing aeroplanes and the play of fountains: all silenced by the this happy call.

It happened today when I went to the Burj-Al-Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. It is a short walk from the metro stop to its entrance in the vast Dubai Mall, and the land at its base is landscaped with rather more care than elsewhere in the city. In the brilliant late-afternoon light it was quite something. A shining silver Babel, all optimism, wealth and strength. Sharp yet solid, piercing the perfect oriental sky, and at its foot, immaculate green gardens and a great shallow lake. I walked towards it, beguiled, sun glinting from the silvered windows of the Burj, and for once convinced of the great endeavour of construction, of the value in urbanisation, in progress. Then the birdsong. My focus was diverted instantly, unhesitatingly; I looked, but I couldn’t find the little creature. While it sang, there was nothing else.

I have been in Dubai a week now. What intrigues me most are the implications of an Islamic state whose sole function is the generation of wealth. Islam and Arabia have a long tradition of commerce, of course. But the tradition to which Dubai owes its status and its shining new fabric is a Western model of finance, with all the decadence and liberalism that this implies. Not that this is a surprise, or even so tremendously unusual; no, it is the enthusiasm, the “success” with which Dubai has acted in this respect which is remarkable. As far as I can tell, the way of reconciling the religious and the capitalistic is to absorb the hypocrisies of both.

Thus in the Dubai Mall, a cavernous, polished temple to consumerism, a place where Sheikhs in their white robes and their wives covered head-to-toe in black, buy outrageously priced perfumes and designer underwear while the call to prayer is piped into the glittering interior.

The combination of extremes, of wealth and religion, give the place a kind of insulation. Walking past a rolling news bulletin on a TV screen in a shop-front, I see that a terrorist attack in a European public space is considered imminent. These are doubtless Islamist extremists motivated by their interpretation of the Koran (Islam: ‘the way of peace’); it is Dubai’s official religion, nonetheless here one feels totally safe. For the self-interest of the market and its abundance of comforts, has thankfully enlightened this small part of the Gulf, and dampened the touch-paper of its possible frustrations. It seems unlikely too, that a Muslim extremist from elsewhere would target a place so full of the faithful.

So it is insulated. And if you stand in the heat and walk around, you will find yourself more or less alone, while thousands stream past on six-lane highways, shut-off in air-conditioned taxis taking them to their air-conditioned apartments. On the unfinished skyscrapers, armies of migrants swelter and labour, cheaply. The city is a vision of the future, and the future is incomplete, half-finished – there are unexpected gaps, pillars and fences, and into each of these creeps the sand. The desert is not visible, but it is under your feet when the pavement gives out.

17th October

Longueur. That is definitely the word.

Time in an office which is neither busy nor totally silent has its own special quality. It is thick, sterile and faintly heady; it is time as bleach. Its passing is marked by banalities – cups of tea, receipts of email, the hum of the photocopier, the click of keyboards, the trill of telephones (though not the thrill), the sedate gavotte of bodies between desks and chairs rolled on carpet tiles, the immeasurable repetitions of thought.

To be sure, one could be working, processing data vital to bottom lines, communicating, managing. Above all transferring from entity to entity the important task of generating tasks.

Parkinson made an important step: Work expands to fit the time available. But the theory, elegant though it is, correct even, is incomplete. For not only does the work expand to fit the time, but time expands in inverse proportion to the amount of work available. The less work, the more time. They are the empty, sagging hours of the afternoon, Apollo’s horses are weary and lumbering, but the sun itself defies the mood of the office, fixing into the plate glass and into the time.

Thus my afternoons: longueur, and longueur and longueur.

Then at 6pm one is released, and Time, the fickle Father (I cannot be the favoured son), rushes forward like a man half his age, and before you’ve had time to write an amusing entry in your diary, it’s tomorrow afternoon.

Last week a wretched occurrence: I got out of work at 6 on the dot. The taxis were for once plentiful – normally you have to wait 20 minutes for a taxi after work – but on this occasion I was lucky enough to get one straight away. I was in high spirits entering the apartment building. I drifted into the lift humming a happy tune. I exited and approached my front door with a jaunty step and loosened tie, my top button undone in a rakish and informal manner; work was over and soon I would be settled comfortably in front of the automatic television machine watching Dr Gregory House make a Difficult Diagnosis in an Endearingly Cranky Manner. I reached my hand to the door-handle and turned it, knowing full well that although I had left my keys on the table that morning, I had also left the door unlocked.

The door was not unlocked.

In an instant I perceived my error. The cleaners had been in and conscientiously locked it upon leaving. No problem – the security guard would have a spare. How I chuckled at my silly mistake, at my dozy incaution and devil-may-care attitude to security. Valued reader, it is beyond the limits of my descriptive capability to render the frustrations of the next three hours.

The incomprehension of the Bengali guard; the spare key box, where hundreds of unlabelled unlockers jumbled together in merry companionship. The lonely absence of key number 1304 from this gathering, and my desperate attempts to locate it, by trying every single key in my lock. The staggering lack of a master key. The repeated attempts to telephone the building manager who just didn’t care, and in any case spoke no English. The barely suppressed rage, which I was unable to direct at anyone responsible.

And the knowledge, the scientific certainty that I had not locked the door and this was not my fault. The door, you see, can only be locked from the outside, with a key. My key (and this was subsequently borne witness to by the locksmith), was inside, on the table. In short, I knew that there had to be a spare key possessed by the cleaner. Could I contact the cleaner via the building manager?


In the end, I capitulated. A night in the stairwell, an indefinite amount of time before the spare key was located, or 350 Dirhams for the emergency locksmith?

The locksmith, when he arrived, stuck some bits of wire in the lock and jiggled it for ten minutes. It worked; in the end I was glad the lock was not especially secure, and there was the key, glinting maliciously on the kitchen table. I took it to the security guard to show that I cannot have locked the door that morning, since the key was inside. He smiled uncomprehendingly and nodded a little.

The whole thing took about 3 and half hours; 3 and a half of those precious, usually rapid hours of leisure, and they passed s…l…o…w…l…y. Father Time, arthritic, inched once again, hunched on his zimmer-frame. Every second in which I was unable to achieve anything, useful or not, was a paper-cut to the brain. Longueur.

24th October

I have moved buildings. My new place is a studio apartment in a swanky new block overlooking the Marina. Dubai is, in some ways, a great work of art, a vision of ultra-modernity; but it is under construction, parts of the canvas are bare, the under-drawing still visible. And so it is through the single, large French window that opens onto my balcony that I can see, depending on the angle, either an uninterrupted and blissful vision down and across the water to great towers and studies in steel and glass, or the messy jumble of construction of some gargantuan blocks, where the exposed stonework is painted black. The effect is of schizophrenic oscillation between serene and satanic visions, as you move from one side of the room to the other.

In all though, the new apartment is rather nice, and the incomplete tower blocks easily removed from view by the judicious drawing of a curtain. The process of moving was inevitably something of a palaver, especially since I was kicked out of my old accommodation the day before I could move into the new, meaning that my treasured and untreasured possessions spent a night in the corner of my office, including a bag of vegetables, lemons, garlic, and ginger – much to the confusion of my colleagues.

Thinking myself daringly extravagant, I booked myself a night in a nice hotel to cover the gap in accommodation. The cost as advertised was 500 Dirhams – about £90 in real money. Well, I thought, it’s only for one night, and I won’t be staying in a hotel in this city again, so I might as well go somewhere nice – besides, compared with what one would have paid for the same level of luxury in London it was a positive bargain.

Thus my thinking when I arrive on Thursday evening at the hotel check-in after work. I had neglected to realize, however, that there were a further 200 Dirhams of tax to be paid on the bill. When informed of this at the reception desk I felt decidedly Scotch, and almost fled at the prospect of forking out an extra thirty-five quid. There is, after all, a sofa in the office. The presence of people behind me in a queue and a very English desire not to make a scene prevented me. So I stumped up.

Another rule for Dubai: they will not tell you all the costs. Caveat Expat.

28th October

Night Golf; Reflections on Wastefulness and Watches

Last night, nine holes at the Emirates golf course after work. Such is the heat, still, that it only makes sense to play golf at night, under floodlights, and even then it is pretty warm. The course I play is one of the cheaper courses – but still by most standards immaculate. It goes without saying that one does nothing so vulgar as to walk around the course when there are buggies available: like everything here, so much the better if it can be achieved on four wheels.

I did not cover myself in glory, but I didn’t play too badly either – one thing I’ve never before had the pleasure of doing is taking a couple of cans of beer with me round the golf course in a special ice box in the buggy. It didn’t make me play any better, but added a dreamlike quality to the evening: slightly intoxicated, night banished, a curiously undulating patch of green in the desert. Something about the high artificiality of the Dubai golf courses appeals to me – the very unnatural neatness of the curves, the lakes and carefully trimmed lawns. It reminds me of nothing so much as Tellytubby land, a trippy kind of safety and softness.

Recently I have started paying attention to people’s watches. In this country, you get used to seeing people with large, bejeweled timepieces on their wrists. Never in my life have I coveted an expensive watch – when I was younger, I was quite keen on good watches, for some reason there was an obsession with watches that could function hundreds of metres below the sea, but the price was not the point. In Dubai, though, the expensive and ostentatious watch is de rigueur for Emirate locals and untaxed expats alike. Personally I don’t like them: they are big, flashy things, often quite ugly with their surplus of design. And they don’t even work that well, apparently: the engineering which goes into innards of fancy watches is nothing compared with the simple battery and quartz arrangement of my own, which cost me £5 in Cambridge market. I’m told they’re given to frequent bouts of temper losing or gaining time according to whim. But it is one of the curious effects of being surrounded by wealth and ostentation, that its green glow contaminates even the perspective of the most parsimonious. I found myself sitting at lunch the other day, cheap sandwich and bottle of water at hand, transfixed, magpie-like by the glitter of diamonds on a man’s wrist. Just for second the thought – no, the gut feeling of avarice took hold. I wanted that watch, I wanted to be as rich as the man wearing that watch. And then, he moved away, and I returned to my flaccid and dessicated sandwich – I wasn’t hungry any more.

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