Sunday, September 17, 2006

Brainfuck City

Remind me not to go back to Dubai if at all possible. It's what happens when you leave the keys where the postmodernists can get at them, a formless mass of rapid urbanisation running along the coast from the border with Sharjah to beyond the docks at Jebel Ali. "Sprawl" doesn't describe it, because sprawl implies that there is a city centre out of which suburbs are expanding. Here, the whole thing is centre, or rather multiple artificial centres, with infill.

Construction rages everywhere. You can buy off-plan, without money up front, borrowing in any currency you can imagine, with a guarantee that you won't have to make payments until you move in. You're not expected to move in, but rather to sell at a profit before the thing is even built. John Kenneth Galbraith remarked in The Great Crash that one of the most impressive features of capitalism is the ingenuity with which it relieves the speculator of all the burdens of ownership except the capital gain. This kind of baroque finance is usually the mark of a wild speculative boom, and as if more proof was needed, the boom is now too big to fit Dubai itself. The biggest developer, Emaar, is currently advertising "the Portuguese lifestyle at Canyon Views" - Canyon Views, you discover only if you read the small print, is actually located near Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

And what buildings. The only common denominator is size, the huger the better. But strangely, as huge as they may be, they rarely if ever evoke the dignity and awe of the monumental. The rampant skyscraper-building somehow doesn't create the gut excitement of the City of London or the skyline of New York, just noise. See our shopping mall, six times the size of Brent Cross, its steel frame concealed under faux-adobe lumps and Andalusian detailing, as a vast dark glass office tower hurtles past..but where you might expect a three-story Corbusier pilotis, are a set of sand-coloured Doric columns, flanking the entrance to a white marble lobby the size of an airfield, decorated in the taste of Saddam Hussein and airconditioned to the approximate temperature of Dick Cheney's heart...while illuminated banners for another shopping mall beseech you to "Visit China! See Andalusia! Travel to Persia!" and a vast likeness of the late Ruler, Sheikh Zayed al-Maktoum, looms from out of a UAE flag on a giant billboard, chops set in a cruelly fatherly grin. He's perched on another neoclassical pillar, too, although Roman civilisation never extended here. Presumably some signification of imperial might attaches to it. As the sun sinks in to the soupy air, the whole semiologist's smorgasbord is spotlit from below with Yves Klein blue..

Travel to Persia, indeed. It's only a day's sail on a ferry or half an hour's flying time away. Huge stacks of shipping containers marked IRISL for Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines await forwarding at the docks. Iranian dance music is a current fashion (it sounds like 90s Italian house with an odd Russian touch of nationalist/football chant and some folk influences), but presumably official discourse would rather not call attention to a profitable but despised neighbour. That is, in fact, a motif for the whole place. The monopoly telecoms operator blocks more URLs than China, but goes to particular lengths to discourage VoIP usage for crude financial reasons. But, with effort and clue, most sites are reachable; when YouTube was banned recently, the censors somehow forgot to bar its www2 and www3 mirror servers. Tor and various VPN solutions are widely used, and the locations of uncensored WLANs circulate.

As with all tyrannies, what they want you to do is forget. Forget that the censorship is obvious and widely circumvented, that Iran is to the north and Saudi Arabia the west, that 90 per cent of the population are not citizens of the UAE and are subject to deportation at any moment, for example if their employers wish it. Forget that most of those are desperately poor subcontinental building workers, dependent on the boom's continuation. Forget that booms do not continue. Forget what happens if they don't want to leave.

Forget you're even in Dubai. This is a desert with daytime temperatures of 40 degrees C, where at this time of year the minimum temperature is in the high thirties. Everything must always be airconditioned, especially as it's usually built of glass curtain walling. Water is desalinated, or to put it another way, produced from oil, but every new building has lawns and palm trees. Golf courses are big business. Next door in Sharjah, 10 kilometres away, water is in short supply and delivered by tanker. At nine o'clock at night, you can be stuck in a traffic jam of water trucks going West, away from the border, to supply the builders with water to mix their concrete. No public transport worth speaking of exists.

The best meal, in fact the only local meal, I had was in a club for hardhat British ex-pats, the sort of place you go for the all-day breakfast, satellite football and Guinness. Elsewhere it's all global gunk, a bit of Indian, a bit of Thai, a bit of sushi. Although you can eat whilst observed by a four-storey and historically inaccurate statue of Buddha, and probably witness the crucifixion of a gorilla if you're willing to spend a little cash and make the effort, it's only realistically going to be terrible.

The key to the local economy isn't oil, it's everyone else's oil. Everything you see has been built since the Jebel Ali container terminal and the tanker-repairing yards opened in 1976. More recently they built another container terminal, and then the giant airport.

Viktor Bout's last-known address, by the way, was Villa 5, Cornish Road, Coral Compound, Sharjah. I didn't go.

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