Smelly fish and flailing beards

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In  Dubai for the British Council’s Going Global 2013 conference, I realize that I was last here in 1982 or ‘83. Dubai has changed in the intervening 30 years. I remember then sitting on a hot hotel terrace overlooking the Creek and thinking it all rather glitzy, but the extraordinary landscape of towers in the new city centre was still empty desert. It is so entirely sci-fi in appearance that you expect to see small gravity-defying pods whizzing to and fro between them, their pilots in spacefleet uniforms, as on Trantor, Coruscant or Gedi Prime. The towers are exuberantly different, wildly asymmetrical, topped with golf-balls and Big Ben facsimiles, absurd temples, knobs and lanterns. Over it all towers the immense Burj Khalifa, a great Babel-tower of glass, narrowing in stages to the raised digit that scrapes the sky. It is so tall that in Ramadan the fast is broken at slightly different times at different levels, the clink of cutlery on china progressing like a Mexican Wave from the ground to the 163rd floor.

Going Global began with a reception below the Burj on a terrace by an artificial lake, with thousands of lights glittering on the water and a gigantic fountain playing. Wasteland until three or four years ago, it is now a lagoon of fairy lights, dominated by the Burj and the Dubai Mall. The conference is one of the British Council’s major events of the year, with 1,600 or so educationalists, vice-chancellors and ministers from all over the world gathering like ants on the sugar-pot in our Rabat kitchen. The conversation is interesting, new research is published, and the networking is frenetic.

I had with me three Moroccan university presidents and two deans – a very good delegation, all of whom made the most of the networking opportunities. One of them indeed – UM5A in Rabat – has a branch campus just up the road in Abu Dhabi where they teach theology, an odd intellectual hyperlink the length of the Arabic-speaking world accounted for by the shared Maliki rite of the two countries (Morocco provides many of the UAE’s judges). It was encouraging to see the appetite among a small but enthusiastic group of British institutions for links with Moroccan universities, not just in the humanities and social sciences, but also in engineering, energy, public health and other areas.  Morocco is ready to diversify its intellectual hinterland well beyond its increasingly constricting post-colonial francophone comfort-zone; and Britain, after a century of overlooking the Maghreb in a linguistic and cultural funk, is at last keen to tango.

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After the conference I spent a day wandering in Dubai. Wandering in this context is a limited business, the larger roads often uncrossable except by occasional air-conditioned bridges, and only spasmodically equipped with pavements for pedestrians. I soon resorted to the metro, a sleek elevated train that whizzes along between the towers, built primarily for the foreign workforce rather than the Amiratis, of whom I saw few on the tube.

The signage is clearly designed in the abstract  by a contractor – the typography is clear, the positioning careful, but the signs seldom relate directly to one’s need actually to find anything. At each metro exit there is an excellent large-scale map of the area round the station on which are marked places of religious significance (pink spots), places of interest (blue spots) and retail opportunities (red spots). But none of the spots is blessed with a name, so mere utility is clearly not the purpose. More practical was a large sign forbidding the carrying of fish on the tube (which reminds me of an interview I once read with an Iqaluit taxi-driver who said that she didn’t allow Inuit customers to bring fermented walrus-meat aboard, because the smell lingers for weeks). Other signs forbade the spitting of paan, with gloriously graphic red splodges to illustrate exactly what must not be done.

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I walked in the streets of old Dubai, and found myself in an Indian or Pakistani town where the language seemed to be either the wonderfully old-world English of the sub-continent, or a medley of tongues that I didn’t recognize at all. Tailoring and saris gave way as I walked to computers and record-players, vast trolleys of cardboard boxes being unloaded at almost every shop. When I went into a supermarket to buy a drink, the cans were not of Coke but of melon milk and aloe vera, mango and young coconut.

Baffled by the nameless coloured spots I walked happily at random for a couple of hours, reached no specific destinations and eventually went back on the metro to the Dubai Mall, to look at the enormous bookshop there. The mall itself is bizarre. It has no evident purpose at all except relieving you of money at an endless variety of shops, every one of them a high-end American or European brand. Amongst the Ermengildo Zegnas and Jimmy Choos, the Mandarina Ducks and Victoria’s Secrets, there seemed to be no Arabic names at all, a bizarre desert of imported labels. As for Kinokuniya (Singaporean), it is extraordinary, a 68,000 square foot showroom of books of every kind. There’s wide and apparently unrestricted coverage – a shelf of books on Israel, another on al-Qa’ida – and if there is a rather large, showy display of the oeuvre of the emirate’s ruler, one can’t begrudge that. More striking is the overwhelming dominance of cooking, fashion, interior décor and management: for a fleeting moment one has the feeling of half-closed eyes, quiet anomie, minds purring gently in neutral.

Four or five days don’t give one more than a sniff of a place, and to draw conclusions would be ridiculous. But I was very struck by the invisibility of the 15% of the population who are Amirati: what I saw was a population of Indians and Europeans, workers, expats and tourists, all making and spending money like crazy. I’m probably not typical in regarding Dubai as a totally inexplicable tourist destination, and the Dubai Mall as a frightful memento mori, to be avoided like the plague. (“Welcome to Everything: There’s nothing else on earth quite like Dubai Mall ….” Visit our branch on Gedi Prime.) Watching those who clearly felt otherwise made me think of owl-pellets, those little dry balls of mouse-bones and fluff that are left behind after an owl has digested all the edible parts of a small rodent.

So it was a great relief to be staying, after the conference was over, with British friends of 35 years in their charming and comfortable home in Jumeira (162 floors lower than the Burj), where the shelves were full of good books, the dog slept on the rug and we ate supper in the little courtyard while tortoises nibbled softly on peppers. Irresistible too, was the Arabic restaurant we visited, where the oriental waitresses were gloriously and mysteriously dressed in hennings, the pointy hats with pendant chiffon favoured by ladies attending late mediaeval tournaments. Or perhaps they were a vague stab at the lid of a Moroccan tajine?

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We went on Friday to the Book Fair – the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature – an annual event that brought together a small galaxy of mainly British and Indian authors including Jeffery Archer and – more interestingly – William Dalrymple, Anthony Beevor, Artemis Cooper and Eugene Rogan.  It’s an impressive event, busy and cheerful, with good audiences and books selling like hot cakes, the temporary tills of Kinokuniya ringing merrily, the titles by Sheikh Mohammed stacked high here too though, unlike Jeffrey Archer, their author was not signing.

The first day of the Book Fair saw a panel on the crisis of the Arabic language, which I missed, being still preoccupied with Higher Education, but followed in the excellent local press. The panel reflected, passionately, on the way Arabic is suffering beside English in the UAE, as parents compete to equip their children with the global lingua franca. Speakers clearly felt that Arabic is not being given a fair chance – badly taught, for perfection rather than for communication, it is becoming a less attractive prospect for Amirati children. They said – as I heard the translator Leslie McLoughlin say a couple of days later – that the difficulty of learning Arabic is much exaggerated; and two speakers cited the British Council as an example of how to teach a language, simply and attractively, around the world.

I sympathize with the cri de coeur of Ali Abdulla al-Rais, Head of Printing and Holy Koran in the Dubai government, that by teaching an Amirati child English, and neglecting his Arabic “you are not building his future. You are uprooting him from his roots, and history. And people with no past can have no future.” Nearby, this week, there was also a spirited attempt at the Dubai Handicrafts Village, to reawaken interest in traditional children’s games, with much hopping in sandpits, throwing of oddly shaped objects, and playing of what appeared to be a local variant of draughts. It all looked rather fun.

But I wonder how easy it is to be an Amirati, to keep your roots in the ground, when you are part of a 15% minority in a sea of English-speakers, all living their separate lives among the towers of Gedi Prime. It’s hard enough to persuade English children to play hopscotch and spell in England, amid the competing attractions of Playstations and text-messaging: how much more so in Dubai, where there is a linguistic schizophrenia built into the fabric of this strange and wonderful place.

The other side of the same coin was well demonstrated by the comedy turn at the close of Going Global, a popular young entertainer called Wongho Chung. A Korean, born and brought up in Jordan where he attended local schools, he is fluent enough in Arabic to keep an Arab audience laughing at his torrent of puns and plays on regional accent. His jokes were mostly about the embarrassing double entendre of his name, his fluid identity, and the almost permanent double-take he lives as an apparent oriental who speaks Arabic, a Korean Arab, or an Arab Korean – with a Jordanian passport, a home in Dubai and a career in the Gulf. Dubai is supremely multicultural in one sense, but in another it seems quite tightly defined by assumptions about language, identity and the assumed roles associated with each.

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I read the local papers with interest, and there was much that was intriguing (would there was as good an English paper in Morocco – and may the North African Post soon become it). But one thing stays with me, nothing to do with the UAE at all, a report on the oafish clothing company which recently advertised on the internet (an automatic text-generating programme supposedly running amok) T-shirts with texts like KEEP CALM AND KILL HER, and KEEP CALM AND RAPE A LOT. Vile, particularly as the papers were full of real and horrific rape stories from India; but what struck me was the wonderfully revealing self-contradiction of the Australian owner who reacted thus: “I apologize for the offensive response this has created around the world.” Not.

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Finally, a small bellwether of cultural globalisation, in a report in the Gulf News of the whirlwind success of the Harlem Shake, and its role in fuelling violence in Tunisia. I see that the story that has run round the world’s press like … well, like the Harlem Shake. It all started, we read, with a video made by the students of Al-Menzah High School, in Tunis: “a single student dances to the song, quietly watched by others until the halfway point; then the video cuts to a whole slew of students, some in their underwear, some dressed as bearded Salafists, flailing around.” The Minister of Education has “announced an investigation of the school for allowing an ‘indecent’ video to be filmed on the premises.”

I’m not clear which element was indecent, the underpants or the beards, but we clearly have a cultural watershed here. There are copycat videos springing up across Tunisia, prompting sometimes violent attacks by religious conservatives, outraged demonstrations, po-faced declarations by public officials and police intervention. There was even a protest performance outside the Ministry on March 1st, and one Shaking student is recorded as saying that “We are here to express with our bodies our need for freedom and we do not want to live as our parents did before the revolution. They were not able to express themselves and their concerns.”

I think it must have been the beards, possible exacerbated by the flailing, that upset the Salafists. But in the week when four beard-wearing flailers have been arrested on suspicion of murdering Chokri Bensaid, one is tempted to reflect that when you’re in a hole it’s sometimes best to stop digging.


One thought on “Smelly fish and flailing beards

  1. I like your joke about Dubai being like Gedi Prime. When I was there my first reaction to it was that it made me think of Luna City, the metropolis on the moon in a Robert Heinlein novel. Heinlein imagined Luna City as a place to which the most able and ambitious people (or other sapient life forms) from all over the galaxy were drawn, but in which only the toughest could survive. That’s how Dubai seems to be.

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