Why Dubai Will Never Be Arty

There is no alternative to big and expensive here in the UAE, which includes Dubai and its even richer neighbor, Abu Dhabi. This means there is no place for artists, beatniks or bohemians.

There are plenty of half-finished buildings, and seemingly abandoned construction projects, but there is no funky side of town. No place is arty. If they want art, they establish a department of art with a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, under the direction of the Ministry of Culture, and staff it with Emiratis who work four hours a day, four days a week, and earn six figures for their trouble.

In Abu Dhabi they are building a replica of France’s Louvre art museum, and buying as much impressionist and classical art as they can get their hands on. But if you lived in Abu Dhabi, you would be hard-pressed to find a working artist. Recently, the Nation, a newspaper based in that city, showcased a new development in town. It’s a small business run by two sisters who want to encourage creativity. You can go there, or send your child there after school to watercolor or make pottery. What a zany notion!

Compared to most economies, there are precious few small businesses run by individuals or families. There are

no used bookstores, no alternative places in a low rent district. In Dubai there is a mainly Indian and Pakistani low rent district, Bur Dubai, but it is low rent in every sense of the word. There are businesses in that neighborhood that call themselves coffee shops, but they are not filled with graduate students writing in their journals or pecking away at their laptops. They are filled with poor people drinking instant coffee, who can’t afford to be “arty” because they’re too busy trying to stay alive.

So for a city to have an arty or counter-culture part of town, you have to have people who are rich enough to be voluntarily poor. You have to allow for a warren of drop-outs, retired college professors, young poets, folk-singers – all the things you can’t have if you will be deported in thirty days if you lack a job or a residency permit.


Afternoon in International City

smaller bleak house


The sun is sinking low in the sky here in International City, a Dubai housing project so vast that just one of its many complexes holds tens of thousands of people.  I am presently staying in China, but I have stayed in Persia. There’s not much difference. Cheaply constructed buildings that will have to be torn down in forty years, meant in the beginning to attract a solid middle class, but now only a few years after construction, housing the working poor. Women are a distinct minority. Little restaurants and grocery stores that do tiny business, mostly at night.

Today is Friday, the universal day off here. Most people sleep late.. I’m going to set my camera up and take pictures in about half an hour, trying to catch the Fellini-esque quality of the place. Think of the opening scenes of Nights of Cabiria, the apartments buildings interspersed with dusty vacant lots. I keep expecting to see hunchbacks and dwarfs just out of my field of vision, and hear a soundtrack by Nino Rota.

Instead I hear the call to prayer, over the mosque Public Address system. The parking lot at Dragon Mart is filling rapidly with cars. On weekend nights, everyone here does some serious shopping. The rich go to Mall of the Emirates, the poor go to Dragon Mart.

Watching American Movies in Dubai

I’ve seen two movies in at the nearby cinema this week. The first, Zero Dark Thirty, was about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. It involved the torture of many Arabs, and finally the execution of Arab men and women. I was watching this in a movie theater in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. Men and women in Arab dress sat in the theater with me. I must say I wondered how they felt seeing people who dressed and spoke like them tortured and shot by Americans.  The second movie we saw was Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s latest super-violent cartoon about slavery. The audience seemed to enjoy it, laughing at several points, even though they were probably reading the subtitles in either French or Arabic. The movie is set in 1858, in America, but oddly enough slavery was only outlawed here in 1962. In Hatta, near the border of Oman, less than an hour’s drive from Dubai, there is a tree under which African slaves were sold just fifty years ago.


Finally Went Inside and Up Burj Khalifa – world’s tallest building

Some friends live there and they invited us to visit. Better than going with the tourist crowd, after paying $15 to $30, because you get to go to different places than just the top. After about fifty floors up, it doesn’t get any more impressive, just higher. But the swimming pool and hot tub on the 43rd floor was really nice.  And our friends made us high tea.

The security at the building was impressive. So many people hired to filter out the rogue photographer. I suppose they’re also there to stop terrorists. When you have the “world’s ___est” anything, you attract them, I suppose.

Listening to Marvin Gaye in Dubai in 2013

I’m listening to one of my favorite albums ever, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On?” on Youtube, thanks to my great Internet connection here in our apartment in Silicon Oasis, Dubai. It’s chillly out tonight. I remember being really absorbed by this album back in 1972. I had a jazz show on the University of Missouri’s public radio station in Columbia, Missouri, and I found this album in the stacks. Jazz flautist Herbie Mann had written a note in the liner notes of his album of about the same time, praising What’s Goin’ On. So I played it on the air, then bought it, moved to Iowa City, and wrote a lot of my first plays listening to it. That was forty-one years ago. I’m still alive, but Marvin isn’t. I went to his wake, at Forest Lawn cemetery in Los Angeles, standing in line with about a hundred thousand people to file by his casket in a little chapel.

Strange to think it’s the same planet, the same me, now perched at the top of an apartment building surrounded by thousands of square miles of cold sand. I’m only a hundred miles from Iran! And still, I’m able to listen to my musical memories piped on command from the Youtube server in America, because somebody else loved Marvin Gaye, too and uploaded my favorite album.

The Unforgiving Nature of Sand

Being surrounded by vast stretches of sand creates a vista that is unforgiving when it comes to litter. Many a view of a pristine dune is ruined by a flattened plastic water bottle of a colored plastic bag.  With little or no vegetation to hide in or under, the detritus of modern life is on proud display, especially along roads. Why they haven’t banned plastic bags and bottles is a puzzle, because even with tens of thousands of laborers in purple jump suits patrolling the roadways, this stuff is everywhere. Sand and wind could theoretically hide it, but it’s a slow process, and the lightest stuff avoids being buried and just blows along the surface. At the edges of fences you can find hundreds of plastic water bottles, and little plastic bags, baking in the sun.

When your number’s up…

Even though I’m in Dubai now, I read the local Chiang Mai newsletter. It’s geared toward ex-patriates, which usually means retirees. Here is an article that I found today

“A 63 year old American Expat is reported to have been found dead in his home

The man, identified to the press only as “Ronnie” was discovered by his ex wife as she visited the home he occupies alone this week.  Police, who were called to the scene, found the body on the stairs and initial medical reports indicate that he had been dead for up to 10 days prior to discovery.

The house showed no signs of break in and investigators think that he either fell down the stairs, after tripping, or had a heart attack.

The man was last seen by local pals on the 28th of December when he was in a local bar.  His ex-wife, with whom he retained regular contact, tried to visit him just after new year and subsequently  on Tuesday,  when, according to reports, a foul aroma warned her that things weren’t quite right, and she called Police, who gained access to the property and made the discovery.”

Now this is about as mundane a story as can be found in the papers, and yet to me it speaks volumes about what I have in store for me if I continue to live a basically self-centered life as a retiree. If nobody misses you or knows you’re dead for ten days, you’re not exactly fighting the good fight. In my time in Chiang Mai, I found there was a certain seduction in indolence. I spent about ten dollars a day getting massaged, and that was the sum of my contact with the local populace. All right, I did try teaching English at the local YMCA, but it was exhausting and monetarily unrewarding. And I did see my Thai piano teacher once a week or an hour. But that was it.

No matter where you are, you have to be doing something, right? Right? I’m trying to convince myself here. I just spent half-an hour practicing the piano, and I found that to be quite taxing. Is this the beginning of early-onset Alzheimers, or am I just another lazy old fart with one foot in the grave? Come to think of it, maybe that’s a false dichotomy. Maybe it’s not either/or. Maybe it’s both.

All Hail the Future!

Today I ran into two German guys who run an art gallery in an neighborhood mostly full of car repair shops here in Dubai. We got to talking about what a strange place this is, being new and all, and seemingly dedicated to Futurism and Progress. There’s a blind faith in development at all costs. These guys are interested in the esthetic of industrial fixtures and machines, and so am I, so we got all excited talking about the movie Metropolis and Frankenstein.

There is development at such a grand scale here, and the bone-dry landscape is so unforgiving of the scars of such construction, that this place almost serves as a visual metaphor for any kind of extreme belief in the future. Sadly ironic that the Russian Futurist movement on the 1920’s sprang from a historically backward nation that thanks to its political system was consigned to remain one of the least advanced places on the planet.

I doubt if there’s anywhere on the planet with such daring development. And the local Emirati do not do the dirty work. Here, they have thousands of service workers, mostly Indians and Pakistanis, all of whom are treated comparatively harshly. They wear purple jumpsuits and are bused from their concrete bunkers to and from the job site.  Their days are long, and during the summer, incredibly hot. They have no women to comfort them, and remind me of the workers in the movie Metropolis, furiously working underground, building the City of Tomorrow under the directions of unfeeling robots.

The Island of Lost Women in the Straits of Hormuz

Dubai is relatively strict about immigration. In order to obtain a residence visa, you have to fall into certain categories. Hundreds of thousands of people are here as construction laborers, housemaids, and then there are the prostitutes. They don’t give them visas. So the hundreds of Russian, Filipina and African women who make a living as prostitutes in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, enter the UAE on tourist visas, which can be extended once or twice, but then they have to leave the country for at least a month. So they go to a group of three islands, The Tunbs and Abu Musalocated in the Straits of Hormuz, islands whose ownership is in dispute. The United Arab Emirates claims them, but they’re right next to Iran, and Iran is currently occupying them. So when a boatload of prostitutes comes to the Islands, they get their passports stamped as having entered Iran. And then they hang out there on that island for a month.

Of course, I only know this because a guy told me. He’s the kind of guy who knows the real scoop, the stuff they don’t print in papers. Now you know it, too.

So, as the story goes, these islands are the sole domain of various fallen women, with no men around to bother or amuse them except for a handful of Iranian customs officials and a few boat pilots. Sounds like a story from a 1960’s men’s magazine. “I Was Stranded on the Island of Women.”

There is a less comic aspect to the islands, and that is their strategic value in any attempt by Iran to close the Straits of Homuz  to shipping. If this were to happen, the United States would have to use force to keep the lanes open. It’s a narrow stretch of ocean,  and both day and night it’s wall-to-wall oil tankers.  Maybe the prostitutes keep busy by waving at the oil tankers  floating by, and counting the days until they can go back to work.

But Hollywood film scouts take note: this story has everything. Sex, current events, exotic locations, and guns.