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Swamp

Confessions of an Academic Pseudo-Giraffe
11.10.05  
Dubai
We just spent a long weekend in the United Arab Emirates. Needed some place to go, and flights to Dubai were convenient. So I thought, with the profound expertise acquired during the three-day stay, I’d offer a comprehensive in-depth analysis of the place here. It’s probably the hottest place I’ve been to, though not deadly humid like Mombasa. Day temperatures were certainly close to forty.

Dubai is a fungus of a city. New skyscrapers mushroom every day. On good days, two. I’m fairly sure when we left there were a few more on the main road than when we arrived. Nobody knows what will happen to them when they grow old, but it hardly matters now that they are all bright and shiny. The biggest one, Burj Dubai, is going to be something like 800 metres tall when it’s ready. They say it’s going to be extended even further if anyone in the world is crazy enough to try and build a taller one. About ten kilometres down the road, there was absolutely nothing a year ago. Now the skeletons of about ten skyscrapers are standing there. Construction cranes are the distinctive feature of the skyline. Hundreds of them. Everywhere.

Dubai lives in the future rather than today. The huge construction projects that are either being built or just planned already exist on the maps. It says “Dubailand” on the map, referring to an enormous entertainment complex, but if you went there, you’d find nothing but desert. The first gigantic palm-shaped artificial island is being constructed; the map already shows three of them in place. Billboards everywhere are decorated with pictures of finished satellite cities and other projects, whether or not the work has even started. The modern Dubai knows no past. It practically has no past, or at least the past exists separately from it, in a completely different universe, or mode of existence. A caption at the museum says the first bank was founded in 1946. Then, in the seventies, they found the oil.

Before that? Five thousand years of Beduin nomadism and a few hundred years of pearl diving. Few think of that, since it’s not compatible with the present.

Driving on the main road, the ultra-commercial landscape of malls, hotels, and highways resembles what you see in certain parts of the biggest American cities. Only it’s all flashier, newer, shinier on the surface. It’s almost impossible to pass those structures and not think about something written by Jean Baudrillard or Fredric Jameson. The facades mirror everything, but still they seem transparent. It looks as if there might not be anything behind them, as if they were only sheets of bright material representing buildings. There are no pretenses of trying to imitate anything pre-21st-century.

A project called the World is growing off the coast. It’s a series of artificial islands arranged in the shape of the world map. Each piece of sand represents a real geographical area. Millionaires will have villas there, just like on the palm islands. Rod Stewart just bought the British Isles, paying 25 million dollars. This is one of the details guides provided. Little was said about any of the major sights without mentioning how much X would/will/has cost. Money as a tourist attraction.

Well, we did visit the desert too. Drove the dunes and rode a camel, ate iftar buffets (delicious and plentiful meals after sunset – it is Ramadan), smoked a shisha, saw no belly dancing whatsoever (yes, it is Ramadan). The place may have little visible history, but it does have a tradition and a culture.

Old Ones
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