Postcard from Dubai

Published: August 9, 2011

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.

  • Amjad

    Sorry guy but everyone disses Dubai and the Gulf except from poor Third World types from South Asia who are easily impressed by garrish shows of wealth from barely educated Arabs. Otherwise all the Westerners I know in North America and Europe think of the Gulf region as some backward joke. Yes poor labourers from Pakistan want to go there to earn a few bucks but we all know there is no future for the Gulf. When the oil runs out, it will return to the barren desert it was before. Don’t expect the people to change either, they will remain the same as before in terms of education and outlook. Money buys a lot of things but it can’t buy class.Recommend

  • Siraj Ahsan

    not so true mate! you need to see these westerners in dubai…. they love it here… they exploit and enjoyRecommend

  • Asad

    @Amjad you forgot to mention the shallow middle class pakistanis who made is there and now look down on fellow Pakistanis. Btw don’t agree about the westerners not liking dubai probably you are just hanging around with some red necks who have never left their small towns.Recommend

  • MK

    this reminds me of the time i met a Pakistani-American lady travelling back from the US to PK, and we were having a discussion on Dubai – in her view, Dubai was just hooh-hahh and she never wanted to raise her kids there, because it had no authentic culture and no bookshops :)Recommend

  • parvez

    I sort of got what your saying but the way you said it has caused me say ‘ what the ‘ in amazement. For me the delivery overshadowed the message.Recommend

  • Amjad

    @Siraj Ahsan: The only Westerners who go there do so to make a quick buck and leave it. The funny thing is that the majority of Westerners who go there are the ones who can’t get a decent job at home and the Arabs are only too happy to pay these unqualified Westerners some high rate even though they are often incompetent. This is the reality of the Gulf. Go and be impressed by those second rate Westerners who have trouble finding a job in the West but most of us abroad see them for what they are.Recommend

  • Siraj Ahsan

    Very true and I agree with you but generalizing westerner as one lot was where I objected. Recommend

  • Shoaib

    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.

    Agree cent percent with this. I being an engineer, having solid experience in my field, wont leave the govt. job here and go to Dubai for work. REASON: Same, its temporary, there might be a difference in pay as much as about 2 Lakh, but hey what if they say to you 1 day, Your services are no longer required.. You will be ofocurse back and that will be it, you will have to again search for a job here, which you all know how hard it is!
    But having said that, if really has to gain something and earn money, he/she has to take risks, and this is one of it! Recommend

  • Hassan

    I live in Dubai, and I do not see why the world is so quick to criticise this place. Firstly, to achieve what the nation did from its inception in 1970s to now is incredible. Stop hating so much, Dubai has and always will be home to me. It’s the place where I grew up, spent some of the best years of my life and will keep returning here. Remember for outsiders, it might just be another place but for those who have grown up here and many respectfully, it still remains home and it’s rude to insult. On the whole, the blog was pretty silly. eTribune needs to step up it’s game! Recommend

  • Ludwig

    You pathetic envious lot! It’s sad that you quote other people while talking about Dubai’s lack of culture when you lack any culture yourselves. And calling A Gill brilliant, the one who writes a vitriolic piece after a two hour layover in a place that has acquired far more depth and education then you all will never begin to understand!!Recommend

  • Homa

    Very funny and well written. Very true also…Recommend

  • Amjad

    @Hassan: I hope you always stay in Dubai and the Gulf even when it returns to its former self. We all know that the oil based economies are living on borrowed time. What will the locals do with you then. Especially when you tell them you think it’s your “home”. Please plan well in advance !Recommend

  • Amjad

    @Ludwig: Come now Ludwig. Should you really be the one to quote others when you have assumed a Germanic name. Talk about pathetic. Are you somehow smitten with Ludwig Van Beethoven or are you so overcome by insecurity that only a German sounding name means something to you. I guess you learned this from the same insecure people you met in the Gulf who are paying through the nose for any European or Western brand name to make their dessert autocracy somehow sound more fashionable!Recommend

  • AK

    Had the people from the west been really so incompetent, Dubai (and the UAE) would not have been able to do as well financially as it has. The people make a place. The people living in Dubai have made it ‘Dubai’ regardless of the fact that they have been coming and going.

    Agreed, the locals have more than they can spend. Its not only from oil, though. There were pearls, real estate and tourism too, somewhere in the whole story from the 1970s to date. And now, there will be manufacturing and infrastructure in Abu Dhabi. This ‘new oil’ will not run out any time soon unless there’s a tsunami or a similar natural calamity! But then, this has happened with Japan too…

    The temperature of the water was hilarious though! So true yet not talked of enough :)Recommend

  • ace


  • Asma

    I personally think the article employs a somewhat derogatory tone, not too mention jumps to conclusions way too quickly. Having lived in Dubai for 18 years, I can testify that some of your statements are just plain wrong. There is cultural preserverance and a respect for heritage here, albeit one that hasnt received its due recognition, but that does not diminish its value or its potential. Undoubtedley, this place, like any other in the world, is beset with its own problems, and you correctedly identified one of them being its naturalization policies which don’t allow most people to truly call it home. Despite this, I feel a sense of belonging there, which is why I felt the need to defend it. It may not be perfect and it may be unfair in some aspects, and those deserve to be spoken about and eventually resolved, but lets put things in perspective here. This is a young country, dependent largely on a limited natural resource that is trying to expand to other industral sources of national income and it still has a long way to go.
    Oh, and as for the scalding hot water, no argument there. NEVER shower at noon, unless you particularly fancy being burnt to a crisp.Recommend