Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A notion of Dubai

Now, when I think about my own memories, and how different they are from the reportage of visitors from that country, it occurs to me that I’ve held on to a strange notion of my desert home. Back then, the city could not be described as fast, or modern, although purposeful people hurried in cars and the latest things were available. I wonder now: Was it even a city then? The world there was a small place, and I believed that even if everyone didn’t know everyone else, they soon would. Wasn’t that how we played cricket with a different group of boys from the same colony when friends did not turn up? By the end of the game we made plans for the next day.

I was twelve when we found bigger and better accommodation. The kitchen was nearly as large as our previous living room. I knew then that this clearly meant progress. But it also meant that a generation’s worth of friends had been left behind. We were twenty minutes away, but with that move, Dubai had grown in size. We all felt it, and reached out even more to the large family that had left India together. There would be drinking and Sindhi dancing, which is very different from the accepted idea of dance, with men huddled on one side and women on the other, and their kids up to no good elsewhere in the apartment. This was where the latest government ruling was discussed, analyzed and applied in theory. It always affected somebody.

But there was something else – every now and then, a cousin would down a few drinks and claim to have seen the blueprint for Dubai’s growth. It involved breathtaking road layouts and supreme architecture. It was a great conversation stopper. For a moment the family would pause to consider how plausible this was. Only fifteen years ago there had been nothing here but sand and a creek. Even then, implausible. The idiot had drunk too much. The family was a mob with drinks and snacks with each other’s company at home. I wonder how they saw themselves in this world. Indians were, after all, second-grade citizens, and one little ruling by the royal family would have meant we’d be back in Indore. So the future, for many people, was of course filled with unknowns, but it held no promise, only the dread of tomorrow. They otherwise earned and lived well, better than they would have elsewhere, but many of them lived from day to day.

The cousin would not tell us how he knew. You only need to see a picture of modern Dubai to know he was right. There will be trains in the sky, it will be a city of skyscrapers and huge attractions and ten million visitors each year. You could see pictures of the same place, year by year from 1972, and understand that this advance was inevitable. But in 1990, which falls halfway between 1972 and 2007, we had simply no idea. Dubai was Dubai, it stood for nothing else. People made money there, but that was all. It would be a decade before it was compared with Monaco, and giant islands were built off shore, and American universities opened branches here. In 1996 I left to start my own life, and saw what was to follow only briefly.

You feel a little let down by relentless progress. Breathless activity allows no time to reflect. It barely lets you feel an achievement fully. It goes against what Dubai now stands for – onwards, upwards. Where I used to live is now called old Dubai. Seventeen years old and it’s known as old Dubai. The heart of the city has shifted twenty kilometers outward, and so planned was the approach that for a while the city had a downtown filled with cranes and construction workers and not a finished building in sight. Before Dubai, a place like Dubai existed only in Sim City 2000.

The feeling that Dubai had moved on lasted a few years. Then, quite recently, a visiting cousin mentioned the spate of robberies and murders. Another spoke of seeing beggars for the first time. The city had poverty, it had crime, labor unrest, the traffic situation was incredibly bad – these were real problems and the newspapers were reporting them. This, ten or even five years ago, was unthinkable. They didn’t exist. Zero-crime place, we told everybody. But what to tell them now? That it is a city with real problems? In a funny way, this is rather satisfying. The city has overtaken everybody, its planners included, and is now something else. Now the fun begins. Now concerts will be chaotic, now social norms will change, now its pristine image will lose some shine, now classes of people will be more distinct and there will be markets for each of them. It will produce art and literature and all kinds of creativity. This is immensely exciting. It'll be a real city.

I’m heading there on Thursday for two weeks to do nothing in particular, and for the first time in a long while, I’m excited about being home. I’ll be blogging regularly from there with observations on the city, which I know like no other.