Dubai is nuts! A sleek, modern, moneymaking oasis in the desert and home to some of the most beautiful hotels, restaurants, skyscrapers, and property developments in the world. Westerners wearing Armani business suits scurry from skyscraper to skyscraper as if somebody has just thrown a wad of cash into the air and they’re racing to pick the bills off the ground. Local men wear gleaming white kaftans and red and white checked head scarves lean against their Ferraris conversing to their drilling managers through handfree, Bluetooth phones. I was lucky to meet Mehdi on Couchsurfing.com otherwise I would have been looking at a sheik’s fortune to stay at a hotel. Mehdi is from Iran, grew up in Denmark, and has been working in Dubai for the past couple years as a fitness equipment sales manager. In fact hardly anybody here is actually local. Young people are flocking to Dubai from all over the Middle East because of the vast employment opportunities and easy entrance requirements. Western professional are being enticed by multi-national corporations working in the Emirates in the construction and financial sectors. Thousands of labourers predominately from the Subcontinent (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis) but also from developing African and South-East Asian nations come to Dubai alone and send the bulk of their paychecks (meagre by Dubai standards, a king’s ransom compared to Indian wages) home to their families.
Mehdi grabbed me from the airport when I arrived at 6am and took me back to his flat located in the midst of several dozen cream-coloured, four storey, apartments blocks that resemble bunkers. The development is certainly suburban in form, but considering the surrounding landscape is sand, there was a definite not-in-Kansas-anymore feel to the place. The neighbourhood is called International City and down the road is a Chinese shopping mall in the shape of a dragon, which apparently can be seen from space. As my host had just gotten home from the nightclubs at 5am he told me to help myself to anything in the kitchen and went back to bed. I chatted to one of Mehdi’s two South African roommates and then hit the sack myself, glad for the ridiculously comfortable mattress, after my red-eye flight from the Maldives. Preparing my own food in a clean, modern kitchen and sleeping on a mattress thicker than 2”, I was distinctly aware that I was in a state of culture shock.
When we awoke a few hours later, Mehdi took me to a pool party at one of his friend’s swanky condos off Sheik Zayed Road. I met a cool group of young professionals from around the world at the gathering. Two English girls from Middle Eastern descent, a neurotic girl from the States and a polite one from Toronto, a couple dudes from the Netherlands, and Mehdi’s mate Mazzen from Syria. The three of us took on three guys from Saudi in a pick up basketball game. The competition was fierce but we pulled out the second and thirds games by a wide margin. Quite proud of our efforts, though Mehdi and I were in for a couple days of limping as we’d played barefoot, we sat down to celebrate with some pizza and vodka. Yalla! Went to the shisha joint where it appears the gang gets together nightly. Met Hema, a cool Indian girl who has grown up in Bahrain and Dubai. We had a really warm conversation about spirituality in India versus capitalist and consumer-centered way of life in most other parts of the world. This seems to be the most prolific topic of conversation with me now. After the shisha was smoked and the kiwi juice drank, the gang took me out to sample the revered Dubai nightlife. One round of drinks at Zinc cost an entire weeks food bill in Sri Lanka. Needless to say I was uncharacteristically sober when we left hiphop night at the Apartment Club in the basement of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel to head home.
As Mehdi works during the day, I was left to explore the city by myself. Although they must have Mediterranean hours of work here because he never left for work before 10am. He and his mates had tried to dissuade me from walking using the argument that nobody walks in Dubai… it is the desert after all, and there isn’t any infrastructure for pedestrians. This failed to convince and I decided that after months of trekking through jungles, over volcanoes, amongst acres of ruins, and around the Himalayas, I figured I could walk through Dubai… so I did. The path involved blocks of brand new sidewalks, intersected every so often by 8 lane highways (remember that scene in Bowfinger where Eddie Murphy tries to cross an LA freeway?… it was like that), then you find yourself walking along swaths of sand between the squat concrete homes through the residential areas. It was a cool way to see the city because you actually get a chance to interact with the people. The low-income workers were the most friendly and helpful. Westerners didn’t have time to stop and give me directions and most of the local people simply ignored me. In less developed Asia, my white skin meant I was treated as a privileged class but it didn’t mean anything here. People see my long hair, dirty jean shorts, worn tee-shirt and now I’m the one getting shooed away from the front of storefronts when I sit down to sip my chocolate milk. I didn’t really see poverty here. Certainly there is a class distinction but everyone works. There aren’t any beggars or homeless people. The ruling families do a good job of distributing the wealth among the native people. Now they drive Mercedes not camels.
I had a good few days wandering around eating at local restaurants, scrutinizing the architecture and people’s demeanours, staring with awe at all the buildings under construction. Apparently Dubai has one quarter of all the tower cranes in the world.
I spoke with a young Filipino on a mini-bus who works in a flower shop. The company he works for arranged his airfare from Manilla and paid the $2500US for his work permit because there just aren’t enough people to do the low levels jobs here. Took a taxi to meet Mehdi and his mates at the Irish Pub next to Stadium where the Dubai Tennis Open was being played. The driver was Pakistani and told me he’d been working here for 7 years while all his family remain in Pakistan. He reminisced about the clean air and the mountains near his home village. He told me he didn’t particularly like Dubai, but said he didn’t have any choice as the money is so much better. I shared noodles with two young Japanese engineers, got directions from a Kenyan security guard at the mall, drank tea with Jay, a well-dressed Filipino ad-man while he waited for his girlfriend at the spa. I took Mehdi’s spare mobile phone into Sony Ericcson to find out why it wasn’t working and had three Colombian girls fawning over me (the sales girl and her friends) trying to get it online. A Bulgarian lady and her German boyfriend chatted with me in line at Emirates where I was confirming my flight to Joburg. A Bangladeshi waiter asked if I could help him to get work in Canada. (Bangladeshis are always asking me this.) Borrowed the cell phone of an Irish bartender to text a friend. Spoke to a really nice furniture salesman from Kerala on the bus to meet Mezzan in Deira for another basketball game. We discussed the difference between India and Dubai and lamented over the fact that poor people seem so much cheerier than those with wealth. Mehdi told me what he liked most about living here is that it’s such a cultural smorgasbord. I definitely see what he means.
On my last night Mazzen and his brother Firas took me to dinner at Instanbul Flower where they have the best humous I’ve ever tasted. We went across for shisha at the regular hangout and rendez-voused with Mehdi, Hema and Alex from Hong Kong.
The group asked me more about my adventures and seemed so genuinely interested in how I see their city and the culture in the Emirates. We joked around like old friends. My Middle Eastern Posse! Firaz invited me to his wedding in Boston if I get back to North America before September. Hema came by to take me to the airport the next morning. Mehdi and I traded clothes. A Team Canada T-shirt for a ballcap. Nice. Met some really awesome people in such a short time here. I was actually sad to leave.