(Yes, I read the book. It was intriguing.)
I had dinner in Dubai the other night at the hotel bar with my other flight mates. Never done that before. The hotel is so upscale that I feel frankly out of place with my iHop culinary tastes and my Carhartt wardrobe. No one looks askance at me, though I'm honestly more at home with mystery-meat-on-a-stick from a street vendor.
I knew before I came over here that most true Emiratis don't work; most of the laborers you see around Dubai--the zillion folks working at the airport, the people staffing the malls, the cab drivers, the hotel employees--are imported from neighboring countries. And further afield than that. Our mechanic on one of our departures was a guy from Atlanta. The bartender for our dinner was a woman from China. "Lucy"(her adopted Western name) had been in Dubai about four years. Presumably working as a bartender at one of the top-drawer hotels in such a wealthy city constitutes a pretty good job. She was friendly enough, but not effusive with the details of her personal life or story.
But it got me thinking. As a woman, especially a single woman, I wonder if Dubai would be my first choice for a place to emigrate for work. Both because a woman's inferiority is coded into law and custom here and also because Chinese folks seem pretty rare in the Middle East. I would find this combination unsettling.
And yet. Dubai is said to be the most liberal of Muslim nations, and one senses that folks here have seen everything, that nobody shocks very easily whatever they may feel in their deepest recesses. Walking around the mall one sees the full spectrum of dress and behavior. Most people are in the standard Western uniform of jeans and a polo or button-up shirt, and overtly sexual dress is rare--but not extinct. Victoria's Secret and several swanky French lingerie shops are scattered throughout the mall and have the customary risqué displays. And mixed with this Western dress majority are thawbs and burqas. All traditionally-dressed women have their hair entirely covered--and many more liberally-dressed women wear hats or head scarves, though there are plenty of Western-dressed women who do not--and full head coverings with slits for the eyes are fairly common. (I think I mentioned in an earlier post that one occasionally sees a woman with a full head covering--no eye slits--being led around like a blind person by her mate.)
I find the Burqa unsettling, and the full-coverage variety repugnant and a bit shocking. But the formal robes for Arab men-the thawb--seem regal and stately to me. There's something magnificent in it. I suppose that impression is reinforced by the fact that only the wealthy seem to dress this way, based on shoes and jewelry and on the perfection of the garments. (I assume, perhaps wrongly, that this dress is a kind of indicator of who's a native and who isn't). I've never seen a thawb that was wrinkled or had a speck of dirt on it, or the headwear--the keffiyeh--askance or out of place. It all seems very desert, a mode of dress harking back to a utilitarian origin in the heat and blazing sun of the sand sea. One occasionally sees boys in their teens in the thawb, typically with an older man, and the boys are invariably sedate and quiet and regal. I even saw a young couple walking together in the mall--thawb and burqa--though of course not holding hands (perhaps brother and sister?). I simply do not understand any of the customs involved.
(A couple American friends just took jobs in Qatar and moved 5,000 miles away from Wisconsin with their son in tow. He will have no difficulty, I imagine, but she is strong and outspoken, exactly the characteristics that are rejected for women in these traditional places; I wonder continually at her experiences. Whatever I'm thinking about all this, these questions must be much clearer for the two of them, having deposited themselves in a semi-permanent fashion right in the thick of things.)
We pushed back from our gate and taxied out to depart for Cologne as the sun slipped behind the desert horizon. And I found myself musing that there is just something alluring about this place. We were supposed to feel that about Greece, I thought, though neither of us felt much pull in that case. But Dubai: the desert, the brutal heat, the passionate and excitable nature of the people, the sudden influx of vast amounts of money, the foreign-ness to a Westerner and the unsettling unfriendliness to Westerners (or at least the ambivalence); all this makes it a place that feels different from any other place I've visited. It's one of the ironies of this traveling life that on the one hand there is incalculable value in getting to visit diverse and widely-scattered cultures, to get an expanded taste of what life is like for people whose experiences are so different from what we know; and on the other hand, the more I see, the more I come to think that people are people are everywhere. The great bulk of our lives is consumed in things which we all recognize and understand. The devil may indeed be in the details, but those details can often be summed up more briefly than you expect.
After Dubai, Cologne seems almost to be America.