Getting My Bearings in Dubai

I realize I’m late to the party: Dubai is long past its media moment. The flurry of breathless write-ups—in Sunday travel sections and glossy lifestyle magazines—has come and gone. We’re on to the next destination already. (Laos. Yemen. Low-altitude space orbit.)

Still, I remain determined to see Dubai for myself. It’s too curious to ignore. What sort of mania drives this small, lonely desert outpost to begin construction on the tallest skyscraper in the world? To carve an indoor ski slope from the side of a shopping mall? To pour dirt into the ocean, forming man-made island chains into a Mercator projection of Earth?

There is profound wackiness afoot here. But I wonder: Is something more interesting happening, too? Because I can’t help but find reason for hope in this crass spectacle. The cultures that produced Dubai and Las Vegas surely must have something in common. If the Arab world’s starry-eyed dreams are just like ours—full of schlock, gluttony, and elaborate theme hotels—perhaps we can get along after all.

I’m not saying that out-of-control capitalism will defuse the clash of civilizations. But I’m eager to find out what it looks like when Islam gets mixed up with reckless expansion and tacky greed. These are the sorts of ambitions the West has no difficulty understanding.

The clichés begin springing to life the moment I arrive in Dubai’s gleaming airport. Whirring along on the people-mover, I pass an endless stretch of ads for high-rise condos and high-tech office parks. Each promises greater swank than the last. None has been fully built yet. The ads are conceptual drawings: crosshatching sketches in the outlines of 70-story towers, newly dug harbors, bustling helipads …

At the end of this gantlet, I’m deposited in a cavernous immigration chamber. I fall in line behind a crowd of South Asian men, here to get jobs as construction workers. (Someone has to build all these shiny developments.) The men in front of me are Bangladeshi, I gather from the passports they clutch nervously in their hands. They all wear matching bright-yellow T-shirts and cheap baseball hats bearing the words “Mid-East Staffing.” These impromptu uniforms were no doubt handed out by some wrangler from the employment agency—here to usher the newest subcontinental fodder through the bureaucracy.

International-arrivals halls offer interesting first impressions of a place. (I remember the last time I flew back to Washington, D.C., from a trip abroad. As I stood in the snaking line at Dulles, waiting to be admitted into America, I noticed the overhead televisions were all tuned to Fox News. The customs clerks behind the desks wore police-type uniforms, with badges and epaulets. A sniffer dog wandered among us, at the end of a leash.) Here in Dubai, the immigration clerks are all women in abayas—those long, loose black cloaks. They cover their hair with headscarves, of course, and some wear a face veil, too. While the tough guys in D.C. look you hard in the eye as they grill you on the purpose of your trip, these women make only fleeting eye contact (if any) as they quietly stamp our passports.

My hotel (after an air-conditioned cab ride through choking traffic) turns out to be a tad more Western-friendly than I’d have preferred. Across the street are a McDonald’s and a KFC. The lobby bar is packed with drunken Brits watching soccer by satellite. (Though alcohol is technically a no-no in the United Arab Emirates, restaurants and bars attached to hotels are allowed to serve it.)

The only hint I’m somewhere unfamiliar is the gold-colored arrow affixed to the desk in my hotel room. It points to Mecca—unless perhaps a Hindu maid has unknowingly shuffled the room’s furniture, in which case the arrow might well point toward some alternative holy shrine. (Jerusalem. Stonehenge. Jim Morrison’s grave.)

Around dawn, I’m awakened from my fitful, jet-laggy sleep by the sound of prayer. It blasts from a loudspeaker mounted atop a nearby mosque. I love this sound—the calm, low voice intoning “ Allahu akbar,” or “God is great.”

But while I strive for respectful tolerance in all things religious, I take issue with the final line of the morning prayer. It makes a controversial claim: “A-aalaatu khayrun mina-naum“: “Prayer is better than sleep.” I’ve no doubt Muslims truly believe this as they chant it each morning (still bleary eyed, not yet having enjoyed their first sumptuous gulp of Moroccan tea). But me, I could never pledge fealty to such a notion. I honor the infinite by yielding myself to the spirit realm of dreams. (Also, I’m really lazy.)

When I finally rouse myself, I stumble out into the 95-degree heat of a winter afternoon. I’m in the older Bur Dubai neighborhood, far from the glitz of the modern towers just down the coast. Here, the winding streets are lined with squat, humble buildings—cramped storefronts at ground level, apartment balconies with drying clothes flapping in the wind above.

The architecture and feel are not unlike what you’d find in some poor Third World cities. But there are no beggars here. No homeless families. If you’re a local, you’re taken care of by your fantastically rich government. If you’re an immigrant … those construction sites are hiring.

Since it’s my first day, I decide to visit the Dubai Museum for an overview of the city’s history. As it turns out, there’s not much history to speak of (though I’ll have more on this tomorrow). It’s certainly astonishing to look at pictures taken before oil was discovered in 1966. They show a tiny settlement on the banks of a twisting creek. Some of the houses are little more than tents. The creek is shallow and dotted with sandbars.

When I go back outside, I walk the lovely promenade of this same creek and marvel at the changes. Water taxis float a steady stream of workers from shore to shore. The creek has been dredged to improve shipping, and dhows loaded with commercial goods crowd the teeming docks. Beyond, glass office buildings and five-star hotels rise from the sand.

As the sun sets, I walk back to my hotel, the sound of evening prayers echoing out from the mosques. In my room, I flip on BBC World. They’re showing footage of a massive blimp, circling the skies above London. On the side of the blimp is an advertisement. It’s the logo of the Palm—a new island development here in Dubai. Luxury homes are available now … though, of course, construction has not yet been completed.