Hi-rises on shifting sands

Posted on March 31, 2009 by Priya Tuli

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There isn’t a single new place that I’ve visited that I haven’t liked. Well okay, that’s oversimplifying it a bit; most places, I love. Some I love more than others. And some, well there are aspects I dislike. Those are the places I don’t particularly want to visit at all, or that I’ve been to and wouldn’t care if I never went back. We’ve all been to places like that, literally or figuratively, if you know what I mean.

And then there’s Dubai.

Not a destination of choice, I have transited through Dubai and stopped over for a couple of days on 2 occasions, to catch up with friends and family en-route to more inspired locales.

Everything in Dubai is an adjectival superlative: the biggest, the tallest, the longest, the widest. The most expensive, the most exclusive, the most modern. Dubai (do-buy?) claims to have the largest malls, and it probably does, it’s just that I’m mall- phobic and a mall is a mall wherever you go. And I’d rather not, so I didn’t.

I was happier wandering around in the fruit-and-veggie section of the local Deira souk, discovering saffron-flavoured pistachios from Iran and around 20 varieties of dates from across the region, each distinctly different in size, flavour and texture. I fondled figs, hefted oranges, poked pineapples and chanced upon a rocket-flavoured herb that I immediately wanted to buy armloads of. I meandered amongst great big sacks of walnuts and almonds and pine nuts and countless variants of  beans and aristocratic long-grained rice, and I sniffed a tiny box of precious, heady saffron. Finally, I was introduced to something I had never encountered before…the phallus of a male date palm, replete with seed spilling out. That’s what you get when you ask, “Oh, and what’s this?!?” Pictures as soon as I learn to upload them!

After a couple of hours at the souk, heading back into the glass-and-chrome world of high-rises that are so unsuited to the climate here, the essence of Dubai really hit me: Dubai is UNREAL.

Everything in Dubai is about What Money Can Do. They’re greening the desert and planting it with brilliantly-hued petunias. Reclaiming land in the sea and building the Palm, the World and who knows what else. Building the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Dubai. At 160 stories high (800m+), it will overtake the Taipei 101 tower, currently the world’s tallest at 509.2 metres. I would not like to be stuck in the elevator on the top floor of the Burj Dubai during a power outage. On ANY floor. But there’s little chance of that happening, because as their blurb says, it’s only for the select few, and I am one of the select many.

Dubai is afloat with Filipinos, a big change from the last time I was here. Today, from the airport into the city, you see them everywhere; it feels like walking around in Makati City, downtown Manila. Bumping into Indians and Pakistanis in Dubai on previous trips was surprising, but not that surprising; they have been coming to Dubai for work since the longest time, and many have permanently settled here. Hearing Tagalog spoken at the airport, however, while men in traditional dishdashas and head-dresses wafted by, felt unreal.

With the economy currently in a shambles, as it’s based largely on the construction business which everyone tells me is at a standstill right now, the downturn is being acutely experienced by hordes of construction workers, many from India and Bangladesh, who used to flock here in droves. They are now being sent back home in droves.

If this is the downturn, I would not want to stop by in Dubai when business is booming. Because there is a vibrational hum that pervades the city, day and night. Construction may have slowed down, but has by no means stopped. The thrum of heavy machinery, cranes and cement mixers is everywhere. Even as you sleep, the background drone informs your dreams, punctuated with the clanks and screeches such machines are prone to make.

It took me two days to figure what it was that felt so unsettling about the place. I finally realized it was the absence of even a moment of total silence, even up on the 35th floor at 3 am. The insidious hum of construction never dies down; it penetrates your cells and your plasma and corpuscles and I’m sure it would eventually drive you crazy, over a period of time. Which is why I think the next big thing in Dubai ought to be funny farms, to accommodate the legions who are likely to go nuts while the construction boom revives.


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