Saturday, January 31, 2009

Giggles and Faux-Fur

Strong men waving swords on Arabia steads. Dignified and quiet fathers. Violent and irrational avengers. All of these are stereotypes of Arab men. Not well-know, however, is the oddly kitschy and sentimental stereotype that thrives in closer circles here in the Middle East. Although no stereotypes can be applied to everyone, in this case, there is at least a smidgen more than a grain of truth, at least in the Gulf.

At first it is startling, the electronic baby's giggle coming from the pocket of the man standing next to you. Then he picks up his cell phone and starts a normal conversation. The longer you stay in the Gulf (in my experience), the more common-place this becomes. If not a baby giggling, it's a squeaky version of the 'Happy Birthday' song or 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'.

Although I have never been, I am told that in Cairo, taxi drivers cruising in 1980s Fiats have wired their cars' to play a beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep rendition of "It's a Small World After All" whenever the brakes are pressed. It starts over too every time they are pressed again. Of course the car's atmosphere is completed with teddy bears and "I love you" stuffed pillows lining the back window. In Oman as well, men's cars are often decorated with bright yellow faux-fur seat and dashboard coverings. Don't forget the pink heart decal hanging from the rear-view mirror too.

Odd indeed, but where does this trend come from? Why is this bizarrely effeminate and overly sentimental behavior so common in normal (I think), straight (again, I think) men? I don't have an answer to that question yet, and I'm not sure I want to delve too much deeper...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Emerald City: Part 3

Dolled up and wearing my very Gulf-hip skinny jeans, some fancy heels and long-sleeved party top, I was pumped and ready to hit the famed Dubai night life with my gorgeous husband. Or was I?

Before leaving the hotel, we spent quite a while pouring over review after review in the handy TimeOut Dubai magazine. Would we even be able to get into all these sexily exclusive clubs on the top floor of beachfront hotels? All of a sudden I felt like I didn’t belong. I can rock South Bend, Indiana with my eyes shut and fit into Chicago’s classy nightlife no problem, but could I hack Dubai’s competitive and elitist party scene? Perhaps I just felt intimidated—maybe I could pass unnoticed. But for even a seasoned big-city clubber, Dubai can be a bit of a shock. The drink prices listed were astronomical and nearly every review said that if you weren’t a Brangelina lookalike and sporting the right labels—forget about getting in. Maybe the movie-star standards are flexible and a drink or two would suffice, but since when did having a night out become a designer-label, richest-date competition?

Don’t get me wrong, I love to get decked out and drop a bit of change now and then going out. Feeling like a million dollars and looking amazing has its place, but if you can’t find a friendly, fun bar to wile away an evening with your favorite people and get a buzz without going bankrupt—and without it being a favorite prostitute hangout—then there is something lacking in a city’s nightlife.

This being said, as we were scouring the TimeOut Dubai for a classy joint that didn’t require us to have the paycheck of consultants or actuaries, we happened across a review for a one-of-a-kind spot in the city. Without seeing this article, we might have had to live in the city for months, maybe years, before finding this gem of a place. Tucked away in the Crown Plaza, with a lot less show and publicity than the supposedly hotter joints, we found the Belgian Beer Café. It was a haven of excellent beer, excellent service, and most importantly, excellent company. The clientele were clearly regulars and the sound of engaged conversation roared over the chill background music. For more on this place, see my new blog, Expat Eating.

Despite my new favorite bar, and perhaps a few others, Dubai’s nightlife is a place to show-off, spend a lot, and hopefully “get seen”. This begs the question: how trivial or insecure is most of Dubai’s expat population? How did being seen rise above having a good time? This question could be analyzed by sociologists and therapists alike, but to me the answer is evident. People adapt to their environment, or they leave. Dubai was brought up on money, thrives on money, and will likely die when it runs out. A place where glitz and consumerism dominate over culture and intellectual deepening only knows how to offer what it has been given. Dubai’s extravagance demands to be noticed, as do its peoples’.

The Emerald City: Part 2

My feet hurt. I was wearing my new high-quality hiking shoes in preparation for a day of racing around a new city, but this was just wear and tear from the mall. The massive Mall of the Emirates, perhaps one of the largest malls in the world, had taken its toll, financially as well as physically. Best know for its indoor ski-slope, you can get lost wandering for hours on end. I laughed to myself as I thought of my grandmother who sometimes goes to her local mall during the winter months to get her exercise. She could sure get in shape here.

Everyone who enjoys shopping and isn’t too concerned with shedding a bit of the silver lining would love this place. It’s all-consuming and luxurious, not to mention a great place to people watch. Like an international airport, you have fully masked Saudis on one side, Lebanese hotties in tight jeans on the other; an Indian-Pilipino couple on your right, a young German mother with twins on your left. It attracts everyone. But can a mall be too big? Will consumerism be the foundation of this city and also its demise?

The Mall of the Emirates is only one of many unmercilessly expansive and lavish shopping centers in Dubai, and all of them are busy and successful. Today, the industry is booming. People flock there, spend money they don’t have, then come back to do it again. It seduces you with its extravagance, which is indeed impressive to see. But how long can one city maintain this level of consumerist frenzy? Will people keep coming, or will Dubai’s overpowering and otherworldly development become too much to handle? In light of the economic recession spreading across the developed world, Dubai’s carefree and rapid-fire luxury expansion might out-do itself. Granted, the majority of the expats living in the United Arab Emirates (which is only about 20% Emirati), have money to burn, but these days even the rich are being touched by falling stock rates and job loss. Dubai isn’t a city that knows how to tighten the belt. When the oil runs low, and the budgets get smaller, what will happen to the Emerald City? Dubai does what it does well, but it can only do so if the spenders keep spending. It will be interesting to see in the coming years what happens to this city. Will it remain a safe haven of luxury and decadence despite the hurting economy, or will we witness the crowning jewel of the Gulf turn into a 162 story high ghost town?

While it’s still booming, the city is certainly worth a trip. It may only have a few years to go, so put on your walking shoes and indulge in some of the consumerist extravagance that only Dubai can offer. You might drop a few pounds along with your money.