SO you're headed to Dubai for shopping is it? Electronics and gold? Beware of the customs," our wary and suspicious friends had interrogated before we (my Punjabi family & I ) boarded the Air India flight bound to the city of Middle East mysticism and commercial capitalism. True. We were headed to upgrade the wardrobe and the locker with new Dubai rich gold.
But the arrival gate at Dubai International Airport offered sights, sounds and smells that made a solemn promise of serving a great concoct of urban Arabic culture curry. The Namaz was being recited and miles away from the heart of the city, the distant voices from a mosque nearby was welcoming one to the United Arab Emirates. This virgin tune in Dubai would re-visit periodically for the next 10 days through malls, hotels, road-side cafes, SUVs, safari, art fair, the derby world cup, museum visits, trial rooms, rest rooms, clubs, dhow ride, at foot of the tallest building in the world and the place we called home in the Indian neighbourhood of Bur Dubai.
Situated in the heart of the free port, Bur Dubai, is as much a tourist touchdown hotel spot as it is for the brown immigrants who made their home in Dubai in the early seventies. The surrounding areas of Al Karama and Al Maraha with its distinct Lebanese, Indian, Chinese and Mexican aromas rising through market corners and squares makes one feel at home on the foreign port. A row of houses lined in bricks and mortar that make for cubicle housing societies, each some stories high give away tell tale signs that Indians and Pakistanis inhabit it: clothes hanging in balconies. There is nothing distinctly foreign about Bur Dubai for an Indian. Not even the electronic gates or the lines of Hummers, Camry taxis or Lamborghinis. Not even the Sheiks on duty speaking crisp Hindi while in their flowing white Kandhuras.
Visiting relatives and borrowing their Toyota Camry, we drove out of Bur Dubai, which is also home to Dubai's only source of history, the Dubai Museum placed next to mud walled art galleries in the square of the trader's textile market, we drove onto the grand Sheikh Zayed road. Wide-laned, spacious, weighed under mutli-storied, multi-angular-shaped, tall glass skyscrapers (some still under construction)…the highway that links all of Dubai to the other emirates, is as royally proud and grand as the former ruler it's named after. All along the expansive highway, besides the grinding breaks and accelerating engine noise of the latest models of four wheelers on the road, the uniquely coloured tiles making way for the underpasses, the faces of the royal family plastered along the highway at brief intervals that truly made you feel a part of the middle east.
The angry looking Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, his young son Sheikh Hamdan Bin-Mohammed Bin-Rashid Al Maktoum and endearing daughter Princess Nada escorted you, probably guiding you to their majestic commercial empire.
They say Dubai is the commercial capital of the Middle east thanks to his endeavours, with the maximum numbers of cranes in the world and also the prospective tallest building in the world, the Burj. The bearded man in the East is rising and fast.
On the way to Jumeriah, home to Dubai's poshest sheikhs and global businessman, the villas start crowding the streets and lanes. Texan in size and crisp Persian in architecture…each home is a miniature palace complete with Golden horses, lush greens and ingenious fountains welcoming the cloaked fortress in the distance. And then luxury in its finest. The only approachable fortress to mere mortals. The Madinat Jumeirah, that vouches for European splendour. Dubai's grandest hotel, Madinat is Venice in fortress, completer with a Gandola, cobbled pathways and riverside rooms. Beisdes being the Sheikh's former favourite home away from home (before the truly ostentatious Burj Al Arab came up, the seven star hotel in the sea that needs you to shell out 350 Dirhams to grace the lobby), it was also this year's venue for Dubai Art 2008, Asia's biggest art fair that had showing from 150 galleries around the world. The artists got richer as Indian and Pakistani art flew off the walls. This was the year when Rana Rashid, Sundaram Tagore and Bose Krishnamachari were talked about in the hallways of Dubai's rich and finest. And while all this took place in the lobby of the hotel, a tired Pakistani crane operator took a nap, wearing his kurta pyjama, on the wheel of a machine. Dubai is a city of contrasts and the social disparity made for a great culture calling.
The remaining days passed in a murmur of more hotel and some great mall visits and one got a glimpse of good oil money put to some grand use. From the rainforest lobby created under the Hull of a ship at the Hyatt, the Arabic Starbucks at the Ibn-Batuta Mall with its Egyptian and Tunisians courts, the ski village at the Mall of Emirates as the outside March heat sore to 38 degrees and the customary visit to the Gold Souk market, where gold ornaments, jewellery and wares are sold in street shops
Of course the dessert safari had to follow near the Oman border. The day-long dune bashing, sand surfing and kababs, sheesha and belly dancing in the dessert oasis camp in the middle of the barren brown sea once out of the Hummer, our choice of dune bashing vehicle, we watched the sun drown in the expansive wasteland. Watching the voluptuous belly dancer entrance the audience, and our Syrian driver Nabeel who roasted kababs and rolled them into pita bread for us and the small box that seated the higher Kandhura clad Arabs…we feared. Feared of the Sheiks who were reclaiming wastelands and turning them into homes for the rich, feared the grandeur that would consume Persia, feared the power and the unsaid discrimination that separated the elite from the immigrant, the oil, the media, the wealth and the Burj.
The day next, we drove to Abu Dhabi on the East and took a ride on the sea side, Corniche to take in the richness and bow down to the massive flag that marked our presence beneath the richest emirate. Sharjah, in the west and Ajman further housed the labour force from the Indian subcontinent that has put their sweat and blood into making Dubai, the Switzerland of the East. I wondered again, are these people who made Shah Jahan's Taj Mahal for him. The slums of the emirates has many diamond shiners. The Mughal empire we lost probably resides in UAE. And it is making the new eight wonder of the world…Dubai.