This is a piece I wrote after one of my initial visits to Dubai. I traveled there with my sister, Nicole, who also took most of the pictures in this piece.
Imagine a vintage silver Airstream trailer. Now stretch it a quarter of a mile, twist it, and place it on top of a pink, six-and-a-half-million square foot shopping mall. Now try to envisage, inside this beaming aluminum module, which is the size of three football fields, a 73,818 square foot indoor mountain covered with 6,000 tons of snow. What's more, all of this sub-zero action is happening in a city located in the world's most arid region—where just a century ago nomads roamed freely—Dubai.
Fresh off a 14-hour flight from New York, it becomes immediately apparent this is a place for expensive fantasies—the kind a five-year-old might conjure, high on sugar, sitting on Santa's knee. Want an indoor ski slope, little boy? Sure! How about the world's tallest building? Well, why not? Want an archipelago that represents the earth? OK! Or if the world isn't your favorite man-made island shape, how about one that looks like a palm tree? Wait, how about three? "It all comes down to this," said one local as he tries to explain the city's fundamental philosophy, "in Dubai, you either think big or go home."
The following morning, I wake up and realize I am smack dab in the midst of a construction revolution where dust and cranes are constantly on the move. From my hotel window the skyline seems awash with a hodgepodge of outrageous architectural projects that would be implausible in most other cities of this size. Later, I pass by the construction site for the Burj Dubai (Arabic for the Dubai Building)-set to become the world's tallest skyscraper when it's completed in 2008. Signs here read: HISTORY RISING. And each and every day, residents are seeing history made with new buildings, companies, and even the artificial creation of land in the form of islands. Four kilometers off shore, built at the cost of $3 billion, is The World, 300 man-made islands resembling a world map-including continents and countries. And the nearby Palm Islands, the largest ever man-made island project, will consist of three palm tree shaped islands and increase the city's shoreline by 166% when completed. All of these island projects are now visible from space.
Dubai is one of seven Emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates. Located on the Arabian Gulf, it shares borders with Saudi Arabia, Oman and, just across the water, Iran. Unlike its more conservative neighbors, this city/state has strategically incorporated many Western ideologies. Although the UAE is an Islamic country, Dubai permits the consumption of alcohol and there are no restrictions on how women should dress. Combine this with year-round sunshine and tax-free living, and you pretty much spell out the reasons behind the city's success.
While Dubai is filled with the glitz of self-proclaimed seven star hotels and silky white-sand beaches, it is the coalescence of more than 200 nationalities residing here that makes it simply astonishing. In the world's largest shopping emporium, Mall of the Emirates (also home to Ski Dubai), Tanzanians serve Gulf women, cloaked in black, $5 cappuccinos, while their dish-dash wearing husbands buy expensive Italian sandals from a Filipino shoe salesman. And, of course, there are the rosy-cheeked English expatriates enjoying rides at the mall's indoor amusement park operated by Algerians, who speak a mixture of French and Arabic while puffing on their filter-less cigarettes.
I ask a native who was born and raised in the city to show me the real Dubai. Our first stop is Bur Dubai, one of the older parts of the city, where a heavy mixture of humidity, curry odors, and pollution fills the air. And instead of Mercedes whizzing about, in Bur it is bikes and motorcycles.
We walk into what looks like a '70s office-building-turned-motel called the Rush Inn. A set of gray stairs leads us down a fluorescent-lit hallway. Two sets of doors lead to what I'm told are two very different kinds of experiences. I choose the door on the right, and quickly realize we've entered a Bollywood club -a row of female dancers sits in their multi-hued saris at the back of the stage, waiting for a song to start.
As soon as a bubbly Bollywood track begins, a slightly round dancer with jet-black hair starts to dance. Fingers whip across her eyes as she glides across the miniature wooden stage. Although it's not a strip club, this place reeks of sex. Every once in a while the dancers will stop in the middle of a song and collect paper tickets from the owner of the club. Male patrons purchase these tickets to show their fondness for the dancer and her act. Twenty, 30, sometimes 40 tickets are given to the woman throughout the dance, which means big tips at the end of the night.
Halfway through the performance, thumps of a different sort began echoing in the corridor. It's coming through the door on the left, and what turns out to be a Congolese disco called Club Africana. Just as in the neighboring Indian club, a handful of women are on stage, grinding in unison to the live beats of an 11-piece African band. Among the black glass walls and fluorescent lighting, the limber dancers, in short denim cut-offs and thin cotton tank tops, gyrate and spin. An unofficial hangout for many African businessmen, Club Africana is packed every single night of the week. From around 1:30 a.m. till 3 a.m., there simply is no room on the well. worn wooden dance floor between the mass of silk shirts and twirling floral skirts.
"Dubai isn't ghettoized like other cities," says my Dubian guide. "Here places are segmented purely due to economics rather than social reasons. In the Rush Inn you have a South Indian, North Indian, Russian, Pakistani, and African venues, and they all work."
And nowhere is this clearer than in this city's rapidly expanding diamond market. Jews—American, Israeli, and European—have controlled the industry for hundreds of years. Although Israelis are not officially allowed to enter the country, plenty of those with dual citizenship are making their way over from Tel Aviv to engage in the trade. While there has been no real peace between Arabs and Israelis since the '60s, it seems that Dubai has become a place where business can take place free of politics. "Dubai," says my guide, "is apolitical. This place focuses on the important thing in life: money."
A walk down the sweaty gold souk (Arabic for market) is a perfect example. Located in historical Deira, a very run-down but vibrant part of the city where shwarmas rotate in tobacco-filled air next to a large fish souk, and avenues are rammed with heavy traffic, you can find it all—yellow and white, 18 to 24 karat. The hidden alleyways are filled with a slew of hustlers trying to lure tourists into their miniature air-conditioned shops to make a small dent in their supplies of ostentatious Arabian-and-Indian inspired jewelry.
Looking for a bit of respite from the sweaty souk, we take a 50-cent Abra, a traditional wooden boat, to Bastakiya, located on the opposite side of the Dubai creek. This 100 year-old former Iranian settlement has now been turned into Dubai's version of an artist's quarter. Traditional Emirati buildings with soaring wind towers (how the locals kept themselves cool before AC) have been recently renovated and labeled this city's heritage quarter. This is the first time I have heard the word heritage come up since my arrival. I ask my guide, "As a Dubaian, do these buildings mean anything to you?"
"Not really," he admits. "This may be dressed up to look like heritage, but for me it's just a different kind of shopping mall." A big smile comes across his face as he tries to explain, "That doesn't mean I don't love it. I also love the mall. That's the true heritage of a Dubaian.