I did a quick google search this week to see how Dubai can be summed up in a few words: :luxurious", "indulgent", "inspiring" and "surreal" came up. The results were mostly unsurprising except "inspiring", which momentarily tripped me up. Staying on it a while longer, however, I realised we are conditioned to associate inspiration with intellect, something soul-stirring and aesthetically powerful. Dubai, contrarily, is spoken of as "unreal", "cosmetic", too fake to be inspiring. But in ways both less and well known, Dubai holds potential to arouse.
Beyond the obvious impressions of its glitz and glamour — sunny beaches, sparkling sand dunes, blue skies and even bluer water, big brand labels and sky-scraper skyline — Dubai is like a big food and music festival that never stops. It’s diversity, a melting pot in numerous ways, stimulates and surprises you. Then moving to the opposite side of the salt and water creek that splits Dubai — and is lesser known — the city is home to a trading hub, packed with humming souks and quaint, nippy dhows that carry cargo and passengers across the waterway. Old Dubai may not boast the avant-gardism of the inland city, but the movement of jetties and people, amidst the rising incense of spices and musk with their woody, balsamic notes, offers a striking vibe.
Both the vintage and flashier quarters of Dubai — in ways completely different from one another — evoke the marvels of a 24/7, always-on city — sometimes fictional and envy-invoking, other times polarising across its different demographics. So, of course, it will inspire, perhaps not in the Marquez-ian or Van Gogh-esque manner, but through less predictable though equally compelling offerings.
These past few weeks, however, as Covid-19 has taken the city by storm, every nook and cranny of Dubai has become unrecognisable — as if transformed into an unanticipated laboratory or field experiment, which is unfolding differently, depending on which sample set you belong to:
Dubai, quite seriously, never sleeps. Instead, it’s constantly pulsating; bars and clubs, belly dancing in the desert, night markets and souks lining its alleyways, jazz festivals, the distant lights of riverside cafes, reflecting against the evening sky, abra boats dropping off passengers and cargo late into the evening in Deira. Covid-19 has brought Dubai’s nightlife to an eerie standstill; the addictive verve has been replaced by sterile, emptied out dance floors and darkened rooms with upturned tables and chairs. Isolation has aborted entertainment. This time too, the feeling is surreal, but in a completely different way.
Nannies, house help, taxi drivers, construction workers — they erect the backbone of this city. On a bright Friday afternoon, you'll stumble upon a bunch of Filipino girlfriends attending mass at Church or enjoying a park picnic; they won’t seem unhappy. You'll recognise the yellow helmets of men assembling Dubai’s attractive architecture from afar. Cream-colored taxis can be spotted, cramming Sheikh Zayed — the city's main artery — during peak hour in pre Covid-19 times; you'll discover more about Dubai through taxi driver tales than you ever knew before. They're worried, anxious now, as is the rest of the world, but their concerns are more existential; diminishing customers and pay-checks, physical distancing whilst co-sharing living space, alarm about young children, partners and parents they have left back home. How will it all end, they’re wondering?
Dubai ranks high on the "privilege" grid, which serves as an attraction and retention tool for bringing in elite expats to the region. They'll go to Friday brunch, pick and drop their kids from digitally equipped, state-of-the art schools, drive sophisticated, up-market automobiles, shop at Waitrose and Spinneys, fine-dine a few times a month, neatly compartmentalise their private and professional lives by relying on house help and caregivers. Many of them work hard at their jobs so they can keep up their lifestyles and save during their time in this tax-free respite. But Covid-19 has turned part of that privilege on its head. Working mothers serve as a prime example of sufferers, as their careful cataloguing of work and home breaks down. They are bearing the primary burden of childcare, whilst struggling to virtually maintain jobs and household chores. Working from home is a privilege and they are better off than many but still, it doesn’t seem simple or comfortable. Schools, once vibrant and futuristic, appear emptied and abandoned. The uncertainty of when these extraordinary times might end, doesn’t reduce challenges, even for the "privileged", as they see-saw between competing commitments.
East meets West, in a unique, quixotic manner in Dubai but religion remains a central feature of life here, to the point where Friday prayers, Ramazan and Eid are national festivals, respected by both Muslims and non-Muslims. Recently, however, in an attempt to control contagion, people are no longer allowed to gather in mosques and for religious events in general. The yellow and blue glow emanating from sandstone and marble rooftops of mosques, no longer ablaze, offer a dismal reminder of the strangeness of these times. Ramazan is right around the corner; what might that look like in Dubai this year? And Eid, will that be celebrated indoors and in isolation, or virtually perhaps?
Dubai boasts a world-class road network, plied by seductive private vehicles, modern highways and hectic overhead metros. Radio stations keep listeners updated on roadblocks, as people thread their way through bustling rush hour traffic. Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere. On New Year’s Eve, thoroughfares are chock-full with eager tourists and residents, vying for front-row views of the Burj Khalifa fireworks. But recently, Dubai’s anatomy — roads and motorways, sidewalks and monkey-bars from buildings under construction — has been eclipsed due to the curfew. People are staying indoors, afraid of fines and contamination. The stylishness of Dubai’s groundwork remains intact but its streets are spookily barren.
Similar to so many other cities, the winds of Covid-19 blowing across the world have changed the face of Dubai as well. They have hammered in the limitations of human control. Whilst so much that is being done to minimise risk and control damage in this country is commendable, still, in a place like Dubai, the paralysis of life feels even stranger; as if in jeering juxtaposition to the live-wire, non-stop beating heart of the city when it functions as normal. For now, the sound of silence — in this desert that has become a corporeal paradise — is unnervingly surreal and who can say till when it might last?
Saba Karim Khan works at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus and is the author of the forthcoming novel, Skyfall.
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