BY Lisa Lindblad
January 18, 2011
I couldn’t quite believe it. 36 hours after I had left the snows of New York, I was dining beachfront en plein air, in an Italian restaurant located on the trunk of the Dubai Palm development. I gazed across at the truly beautiful soaring sail of Burj al Arab.
My welcome to Dubai.
Most everyone who knew I was coming here said how little I would like this city. Known as an Africaphile, an off the beaten path kind of person, I was gently warned not to have lofty expectations. The flight was easy; the arrival faultless; the hotel – The Address Downtown Dubai – welcoming with great volumes and a comfortable bed. I decided not to crash and hailed a cab to set off on a look around. My wanderings took me first to the Dubai National Museum in El Fahidi Fort with its extensive and superb presentation of the geography, history, culture and archaeology of the city and its region. My breath caught when I recognized my beloved African Swahili Coast in the architecture of the original buildings of the area. Of course! It was from this Peninsula that the great dhows sailed, arriving in the Lamu archipelago and then sailing south – Mombasa, Malindi, Pemba, Zanzibar.
I crossed the Creek in an abra to Deira, and then walked through the souks: textiles (mostly from China now) with a few wonderful pieces from Holland; clothing; household items; handbags; and gold. The skies were threatening – in fact it did rain – and I made my way back to the hotel as I had come, on foot, on abra, in taxi. The journey took 30 minutes, yet I had crossed centuries in just a few miles, from old Dubai to the Dubai of the moment, a moving target of a city characterized by the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa, the largest mall in the world, Dubai Mall, palm trees wrapped in tiny Christmas lights, cranes and new construction marooned in the desert landscape.
Cold, yes. Soulless, perhaps. Beautiful, some of it. Impressive, certainly. Interesting, absolutely. And what I find most fascinating and most impressive, beyond the feeling of safety and the pleasure of cleanliness, is the great human diversity that exists here. I don’t know if my Mumbai taxi driver was correct when he told me that there are 1 million Emiratis and 4 million foreigners; he himself has lived here for 35 years and has witnessed the change from desert to hub and seemed to know a lot. Whether those stats are correct or not, the fact is that from porter, to taxi driver, waiter to masseur, accountant to lawyer, I have not yet spoken to two people from the same place. Everyone speaks English – another pleasure because I can listen to the stories of other’s lives – and they are of all religions and all colors. Ethiopian, Indian, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Indonesian, Brit, American, Moslem, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist. Reminds me of New York, and I love that!
The other thing that I find interesting to contemplate – and I know little about yet – is how His Highness Sheikh Mohammed manages to rule such a diverse population in such a small space.