Well here we are in the desert! C had a work trip to Dubai, and since my schedule is still fairly flexible and open-ended at the moment, I was able to tag along. I travelled through Qatar on Thanksgiving Day. During periods of wifi connection, I received pictures of turkey preparation, table setting, nighttime snowman construction, and my entire family sans moi grouped together with aunts, uncles, cousins and girlfriends.
We arrived in Dubai on separate flights, where C’s brother-in-law met us and took us directly to Al Ain, and thus my first taste of the UAE was neither in Dubai nor Abu Dhabi, but one of the lesser known Emirates. The desert weather is perfect in November. It feels like a mild NJ summer with warm sunny days, cool clement nights, and 0% humidity. The well-watered plants outside a balmy breakfast nook that served us plates of omelets and individual ceramic pots of coffee with hot milk Exterior corridor leading to the pool where we spent lazy hours, while back in New York, crowds rushed into the cold for Black Friday shopping sales. Al Ain’s starkly beautiful mountain that was once submerged underwater. Trip to the Al Ain zoo. All the animals appeared to be quite lively and happy in their habitats. Driveway with gorgeous tiling against the backdrop of a cloudless cerulean sky.
How to document this visit? I have certainly never been so emotionally befuddled by a place before. I hesitate to seal all the nubivagant thoughts that dance around my brain into concrete sentences here. The convergence of interior experience and exterior stimuli is not something that can be measured, and so I question whether my response to this place is stirred up by fatigue or by the distance from my family and all that is familiar to me, and yet there is something uniquely isolating about this place that I have never encountered anywhere else. Snapshot 1: We are at the pool. The weather is perfect; we race underwater and come up to sip margaritas and let the sun heat seep into our bones. All the guests at the pool are foreigners. Many are young Americans and Europeans who come to party and sometimes make money teaching English. A few have lasted longer periods. It is comfortable and the money is easy. The staff are mostly from the Philippines and India. They are kind and cheerful and the service is excellent. The water mimics the hue of the sky, so if you sink down and let your eyes rest right above the surface of the water, you can look up and down at a seamless shade of blue. Color is a miracle. The lawn and palm trees are so diligently maintained that the yellowing at the edges can barely be detected. Still, there is that haunting glimpse of always-impending molder: the flowers that line the highways are replaced each month; the roots of the trees do not dive deep but spread out along the surface of the earth, thirsty for the moisture of the sprinklers; there is a constant red shadow of dust blown over the step-stones of the walkway: all these signs are small cracks in the constructed illusion of a tropical oasis, and I can’t help but wish the arid land were left untampered with. The mournful wail rising out of a mosque in the distance echoes across the water and cuts through the superficial tourist utopia as a reminder of the primitive aridity of the land. The sound is somehow comforting. It belongs here. It is one thing that is not contrived. Snapshot 2: We descend the duney mountain and drive towards the mall. The mall is a microcosmic glance into the lifestyles produced by the rentier oil state. Locals enter the overly air-conditioned metropolis of stores as a pastime of choice. Both the men and women are covered head to foot. As an outsider, I note the varying levels of the women’s niqabs: some faces are exposed with full make-up and heels peeking out from below the black fabrics, some have only thin slits for the eyes, and others disappear completely under a veil of black. The air conditioning is for them then. Their absolute shrouds call into question the very existence of the bodies below. What power are women thought to possess that would elicit such fear that they must hide away so completely? Some men are accompanied by three or four women. Their children roam the isles until they find something that strikes their fancy, and for the most part I can see that they are at liberty to pull what they wish from the shelves for purchase. No wonder the motivation is lacking amongst students. They barely know what to aim for; everything is already at their disposal. And yet I saw a poll earlier in the day that listed the UAE at the bottom of a Global Happiness Scale, if such things can be measured. I was not surprised. I am homesick here, both for Lebanon and New Jersey. I do not think I could stay. I imagine I would feel as though I were stuck in a suffocating golden room amongst men I am not allowed to speak with, and women who have no faces, and children who have never been taught to dream. These realities are so new to my first-hand experience. Perhaps I am narrow-minded, but from this vantage point the oil wealth is a curse. From here I can appreciate the value of knowing want and dependency on the people around you and always the hopeful reach towards the future, and the net of support from the family and friends who surround you when you fall.
Goodbye you desolate stunning land. I am off to Dubai, your touristic international sister city.