Postcard from Dubai

Published: August 9, 2011
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You know, I really wouldn’t say another nasty thing about Dubai if I didn’t know a secret. Yes, it’s true. Dubai and other Gulf states which sear their bottoms on the desert sands have a dirty secret that doesn’t get publicised. And I am going to tell you what it is.

To be fair, however, let me just say that there are really no points for you as a critic for singling out Dubai for criticism. Namely, because a. it is an easy target; and b. it doesn’t make a difference. And I agree. In fact, I think it is unfair to diss Dubai. Consider.

Never perhaps in human history has a people and a place combined so much financial wealth with such destitution of imagination and culture. The place has been variously summed up by the brilliant AA Gill of Vanity Fair as “a holiday resort with the worst climate in the world; a financial Disneyland without the fun; Las Vegas without the showgirls, the gambling, or Elvis.” It is a blanched sandscape dotted with air-conditioned sky scrapers and is a place utterly bereft of any activity that can be qualified under the broad rubric of ‘culture’ — although to give credit where it’s due, lately they have been trying to import some culture by paying artists and writers abroad to come and visit but I suspect they still cannot figure out how this fits in with the annual shopping fest. Also, since there are few takers for books and book talk in that town, there is also some talk of importing universities from the US, including their students.

Given all these constraints, it is really not fair to talk down to Dubai. At least I wouldn’t do so and you shouldn’t either — except when you have a secret to leak, of course.

So despite having the world’s tallest building, highest restaurant, the world’s most expensive racetrack, etc, the denizens of Dubai in their taps, toilets and showers make do with waters at desert temperatures. That is their secret. The water in Dubai’s taps boils and blisters. It is a constant and rude interruption in the air-conditioned pipe-dream that is the city and it happens whenever one wants to relieve oneself. And that, sirs and ladies, is simply troubling.

The other thing about Dubai is you’re always a temporary there. No matter how people adore it, it is a piece of earth not amenable to setting one’s roots. And that brings us to our poem this week.

Postcard from Kashmir
by Agha Shahid Ali

Kashmir shrinks into my mailbox,
my home a neat four by six inches.

I always loved neatness. Now I hold
the half-inch Himalayas in my hand.

This is home. And this the closest
I’ll ever be to home. When I return,
the colours won’t be so brilliant,
the Jhelum’s waters so clean,
so ultramarine. My love
so overexposed.

And my memory will be a little
out of focus, it in
a giant negative, black
and white, still undeveloped.

The narrator feels closest to home in a four inch postcard image. When he returns to his native geography, he will be in another place — his memory out of focus with the reality it encounters, the pain of feeling his love ‘overexposed.’ That is the tragic claim of the poem: the immigrant’s memory is forever in disjunction with the space he occupies, even when he is in the place he calls ‘home’. His memory has ceased links with the place and now the memory is an island within him.
Their memories do not reconcile with their space.

That is also the tragedy of the laborers who move to Dubai and elsewhere.

Bilal Tanweer

Bilal Tanweer

A writer and translator who teaches creative writing at LUMS.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.