Saturday, June 20, 2009

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree

God sends almonds to those without teeth! Ancient Syrian Proverb
My journey to Syria began at a subway station in on the Upper West Side. On my back I had a backpack packed with all I would need for the next month. In my hands I clutched some pizzas and calzones from Cafe Viva, all I would eat through the course of my thirty hour trip to Damascus. My brother wished me a fond farewell, thoughtfully leaving me with the parting request that I avoid getting into trouble and screwing up his wedding in late June.

An hour later, I left NYC transport behind and arrived at JFK. My check-in gate for my flight to Dubai was split between Indians and Arab families, the latter of whom largely sported flashy jewelry and designer jeans. Emirates Airlines can and should be criticized for its disgraceful lack of kosher food (see previous post). But it also should be recognized as possessing the most impressive entertainment options of any flight I have ever been. More important, the staff give Emirates the appearance at least of the world's first truly international airline. The stewards and stewardesses speak a range of languages and reflect an even wider range of nationalities. A disproportionate number of the stewardesses, though, are Asian. I suspect this is anchored in economics yet also draws off the age old association in the Arab world between Asian women hospitality and female beauty (see classical Arab art as a historical example).

I chewed on calzones, slept some and watched a smattering of five films during the smooth flight to Dubai. We arrived on Monday evening and after a quick assurance that no passengers had swine flu, I was issued a fifteen day visa to the United Arab Emirates and driven to the complimentary hotel room I received thanks to the layover I had requested when booking the flight. The layover gave me a chance to see Dubai, the modern marvel of the Arab world and the financial linchpin in what many are now calling the New Silk Road between the two ends of the Asian continent.

Dubai is not a city to enjoy on the cheap, however, and so I passed on the pricey nightclub scene for a walk along the beach and a tour of the glamorous hotels and malls that sparkle along the coastline. The city is not known for its soul. But as I waded through the waves of the Persian Gulf and gazed off at the distant coasts of Iran, my MP3 supplied the soul thanks to the tunes of Idan Raichel, Soulfarm and Moshav. My steps eventually led into the Burj al'Arab, the deluxe luxury hotel that symbolizes the city's boundless mercantlist ambition. The hotel resembles the sail of a boat, and it plays the likeness one step farther with its location on an artificial island one thousand feet from the shore. I had read one scathing critic describe the hotel as "the very pinnacle of tackiness - like Vegas after a serious, no-expense-spared, sheik-over." From my single visit, it is a marvel of engineering and as stunning as it is beautiful. Looking up at the interior of the hotel from the palatial interior, with the aqua blue rooms providing a honeycomb effect as they spiral upward, is marvelous.

I did not have the means or the manner to do anything besides look around. So after riding the glass elevator and taking a second look at the expensive cars in the parking lot, I slipped off to a nearby mall known as the Mercato. The mall has a fair share of local and international clothing and food stores, with the only rule seeming to be that everything is upend and top-class. At first I was struck by how the international inventory recalled the legendary bazaars in Baghdad and Damascus from the Arab world's golden age, when the treasures of the Far East mingled with exotica from darkest Africa and the benighted lands of Europe. Gradually I realized that this modern reinvention lacks the authenticity of the original. Dubai may be tops for banking and trading but nothing of cultural or material value seems poised to emerge from within. I left the city the next morning sure that I will return, though, so my reservations about Dubai will surely have another chance at engaging the urban reality in the future.

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