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June 3, 2011 / calebdresser

The Three-Faced City

I’d originally intended to title my post on Dubai “A Very Impressive Nothing,” but on further reflection that wouldn’t really be fair. Take off the makeup, and this place stares back with honest, unglamorous eyes.

The first face is the one the world sees, perfectly formed and radiant, glittering in the desert sunshine. A fast, efficient metro complete with luxurious Gold Class cars at the end of each train (take that, Boston Green Line!) links soaring, artistic spires of air-conditioned steel and glass. A dozen high-end malls sporting Louis Vuitton and Rolex stores hum with serene efficiency. Skiiers zip down snowy slopes, helicopters and curvaceous sports cars hurtle past a modern skyline, men and women covered in elegant Emirati garb sport flashy jewels and chains of solid gold. All this exists, and I have seen it.

What was surprising, when I arrived without fanfare in the middle of a stunningly hot night, was that this reality is barely visible from the street. I was expecting to see a dramatic, glittering city on the shores of the Gulf; what I actually found was a hot, dry assemblage of uninteresting concrete buildings in various shades of tan. No doubt a business traveler would have been whisked off to a fine hotel from which he could ruminate on the splendor of the first face, but I was on a budget and thus came to rest in a dingy hotel on a side street in Diera.

The following morning, I rose to the call of the muezzin in my drab room and peered out my window. Heat reflected off the black pavement and shimmered in the air. Men in long, loose clothing with heavy beards walked slowly down the street past lines of shops, or rested in the shade of the trees outside a mosque built of white concrete. South Asian migrant workers carried construction materials into a nearby building. Chinese women in tight jeans passed, talking on cell phones. There was no sign of dramatic wealth, just one more middle-class street of apartments, shops, restaurants, and hotels like others I had seen in Manila, Delhi, San Jose, and South Boston. Sure, the people on the street were different, the signs were in Arabic as well as English, and it was godawful hot – but these were, at face value, very normal people living very normal lives.

This, of course, was the second face. While I have spent plenty of my time in Dubai exploring luxury malls, skiing down sinfully chilly slopes, gawking at the tallest building in the world, and even catching a 3-D showing of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film, the heart of this place, such as it is, seems to be in the second face. This is where the real life happens. Normal people eat, go to work, sell textiles and car tires, get in arguments, rent apartments, and check their email. There is something refreshing about this truth, in a city billed for its decadence.

The third face is hard to see, staring out of a patch of shade in silent exhaustion or passing, its invisible head held high, on its way to a store filled with thousand-dollar handbags. The third face is really many faces, as different from one another as they are from the first two, united only in their inaccessibility. It is a face that is much easier to read about than to meet, at least for the casual Western tourist, and so I have only a few images to relate: a line of tired Subcontinental men in blue jumpsuits filing into a construction site, a single glance I got from a set of eyes shrouded in black as we passed in a shopping mall, a mirror-windowed SUV with tinted windshield and chrome hubs that sped past me as I waited to cross the street.

In the end, Dubai is a place of great depth masked by great shallowness. The three faces – the gaudy image it shows off to the world, the prosaic reality it lives, and the labor camps and cloistered women it hides – combine to create a place as complex as any modern city, and as difficult to understand. Nonetheless, I am leaving with a favorable impression. The streets I walked were safe, the vast majority of the women I saw walked about freely in Western clothing, and the city as a whole… well, it worked. Whether crossing the central canal on a wooden abra with a grunting diesel engine to go shopping in the Old Souk or wiping mutton-fat from my beard after eating more than a pound of sheep meat in an Afghan restaurant, I found that the Dubai hidden beneath the glittery surface far outmatched my expectations.

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