Journalists, we are perennially being assured in the face of ever-compounding evidence to the contrary, strive as a matter of principle to avoid cliché. And despite their editors’ very obvious indifference to the actual attainment of this standard, for every couple of hundred Kafkaesque trials and Draconian measures and (the shibboleth par excellence) Orwellian government policies, it’s still possible to come across a maverick penman writing in a voice more or less of his own. It was largely in celebration of such an eccentric soul that I and many of my fellow long-term residents of Dubai welcomed the artillery of vitriol against our city that began with Johann Hari’s 2009 report in the Independent, ‘The dark side of Dubai’. It was high time, we thought, that an enterprising scribbler came along and upset the saccharine consensus of Dubai as a sun-doused El Dorado, a bubble blissfully immune to the banalities that besieged the rest of what we expatriates had long referred to as the ‘real world’. At last, inconvenient questions were being asked about the treatment of blue-collar workers; the parodic ostentation of the real estate developments; the rank hypocrisy of an Islamic state that jails marijuana smokers but permanently averts its gaze from a staggering prostitution pandemic. At last, the refreshing breezes of irony and humour were blowing over a philistine society congealed by kitsch.
Almost overnight, the enumeration of Dubai’s iniquities became something of a vogue, and columnists had great sport outbidding one another in venom and contempt for us avaricious mercenaries blasting around town in our chromed Lamborghinis, soaking the dance floors and our reptilian girlfriends in pre-war Pérignon, and cackling aboard our shimmering yachts at the abject servility of our housemaids. I think it was around the time that Vanity Fair published ‘Dubai on Empty’ that I began to get bored (though I barked with laughter at the author’s illiterate assertion that, of Dubai’s young professionals, “None are very clever”). And with the advent of last week’s slovenly piece in Slate (‘The New New World’) - whose scribe Anne Applebaum gravely informs the reader that “this apparently harmonious, multiethnic society has a dark side”, as though the phrase (and the point) were being set down for the first time - it’s no longer at all clear to whose account the hilarity is to be charged. I’m sad to say it looks as though the Dubai-bashing diatribe – born so recently, and of so noble a womb - has already become a tired and trite cliché in itself.
As with all clichés, the image of Dubai put about in the Western press contains some truth and some originality, but what’s true is no longer original and vice versa. I don’t wish to acquit Dubai of any of the accurate charges made against it – on which more later - but to the charge that the city is nothing but a soulless ‘corporation’, devoid of any indigenous history or culture, I feel I must insist on some allowance for chiaroscuro.
Consider the following items of which you conceivably did not recently read in the pages of a Western newspaper. You are not likely to have heard of the local museum, cosily enclosed inside the Al Fahaidi Fort, a stone-walled military complex perched on the banks of the creek (known to the Ancient Greeks as the River Zara) that still contains the original cannons used over two hundred years ago to defend the townspeople of the old Bastakia district from hostile naval arrivals. As well as an impressive inventory of artefacts of general anthropological interest, from swords and shields to jewellery to pottery to musical instruments (including a set of goatskin bagpipes; a useful reminder of the Arabian origins of Scotland’s ‘national’ music) that trace life in Dubai back to the early Umayyad and Abbasid Islamic eras, also showcased are some truly remarkable archaeological finds that conservatively date civilisation in the emirate to at least 4,000 BC. (By contrast, the oldest of the three pyramids of the Giza Necropolis, which is also the oldest of the ancient seven wonders, was completed in c. 2,500 BC.) Intriguingly – at least to those of us who happen to be intrigued by such things – by far the most bountiful discovery of ancient settlement was made in Jumeirah, now the namesake of the multinational hotel brand and the wealthiest and most desirable of Dubai’s residential suburbs. Thus when A.A. Gill writes that “[t]wenty years ago, none of this was here”, at whose expense is the irony? Incidentally, I suspect the reason journalists are unaware of these modest but genuine treasures is that on the rare occasions that they condescend to travel to the city, they choose to stay in the very same five-star (or seven-star) hotels upon which they subsequently pass such righteous judgment.
Nor are you likely to have heard about the Emirates Literary Festival, the bringer of international names such as Martin Amis (who I pause to note is the author of a wonderful book called The War Against Cliché), Margaret Atwood and Michael Palin as well as regional notables such as Adonis to sold-out audiences in recent years. Exchanging a few polite words with my fellow attendees this year, it was heartening to see how tremendously heterogeneous a batch they were: a Marxist academic and a physician here; a children’s story writer and a psychologist there. After being jeered at a Q&A with the Lebanese poet Joumana Haddad (my question came down, as I had expected, too favourably on the side of America vis-à-vis the war in Afghanistan), a middle aged Arab woman approached me at the book signing to tell me she thought my question a pertinent one and she was sorry for the reception it got. Such encounters form the fabric of a cultural tapestry, and they plainly negate Ms Applebaum’s witless segregation of all Dubai expatriates into either ‘bankers’ or ‘workers’.
Nor is it probable that you caught the news – though The Guardian did actually report it - of this year’s Art Dubai fair, which brought in more than 20,000 artists, curators, collectors and other visitors, including representatives of the British Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. As well as what might be described as the more quotidian elements of an art fair, the organisers made space for an entire section explicitly dedicated to the Arab Spring, showcasing for instance an enormous canvas depicting the revolutionary scenes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square by the Egyptian painter Khaled Hafez. The irony that this was unravelled in the same week that the UAE government sent forces to assist the Bahraini King Hamad Al Khalifa in his homicidal response to unarmed protestors was by no means wasted on the artists, who in the vastly more reactionary neighbouring emirate of Sharjah handed out the names of civilians murdered in Bahrain to attendees at their own biennial art fair, earning themselves some nervous questioning (but no arrests) from the local police. This, too, is material for the process of cultural embroidery.
Equally flourishing communities exist for musicians, as well as dramatists, dancers, filmmakers, photographers and architects. Yes, architects – whilst it’s true that the bulk of new real estate is a quaking, cacophonous Leviathan of vulgarity, there’s also the precious handful of exceptions – the Burj Khalifa; the Burj al Arab; perhaps the Emirates Towers too – that would hold their place on any skyline, and don’t seem to tire the eye no matter how many times they are beheld.
I reiterate: none of this is a whitewash of Dubai, or an apology for its many and various transgressions, in ethics or in aesthetics. While we’re on the subject of journalism, freedom of speech is a commodity still shamefully undersupplied in the country. Returning from a recent trip to Palestine, I tried to get a write-up of the experience published in the preeminent local paper, The National, only to be told by the travel editor that they did not accept copy from “Israel”. My response that in no internationally recognised sense were the Occupied Territories in Israel apparently made no difference. Note, then, one of the ways in which censorship defeats its objective: in refusing to even acknowledge the Palestinian territorial dispute, the most revered publication in the United Arab Emirates effectively departs from the consensus of international law and takes the side of the most fanatical and messianic elements of the Israeli religious-nationalist right wing!
Much room, in other words, remains for improvement, and the necessary task of criticism must continue, from without as well as within. However, that task is compromised, rather than complemented by the intellectual indolence of fifth-rate hacks who, so far from being critics (f. Gk. kritikos; capable of judgment), prefer to receive their judgments by decree, and who affect to dissent from public opinion only by restating the private opinions of those talented enough to have any.