It felt like I had interrupted someone’s toilet. Some parts of the city, as we drove in from the gleaming new Terminal 3, looked perfectly made-up, manicured and well-dressed. Some parts were still putting their knickers on, the preparations for looking good visible in the tall scaffolding and cloth covering the face of the buildings.
Dubai is a city on its way to becoming stunning, slowed down by the greatest economic crash of the decade. It took me a while to warm up to Dubai. I had looked it up on travellers’ Bibles like Rough Guides and Lonely Planet, but could not find much. It had pothole-free roads, terrific malls, scores of muscle-bound skyscrapers and the $1.5 billion Atlantis The Palm — that much everyone knew, but what else? Sketchy details came from my cousin who lives there.
But, in fact, the personality of Dubai is hard to describe and the impressions begin to sink in only after a couple of days.
At this time of the year, you need to be brave to get some local flavour — because it would mean stepping out of the cocoon of air-conditioning and walking down the streets in the heat. Unbearable, unbelievable heat. The warning of a 45 degrees-plus summer had not bothered me; after all, I live in Delhi. But the heat in Dubai hurts, especially as it comes with the double whammy of sky-high humidity.
However, it does not sap the energy of the enterprising Indian community — a number of them run mini supermarkets or cellular phones businesses. I explored a few of these places, jam-packed with shops selling pretty much anything that can be run on electricity. Surprisingly, this has not robbed them of courtesy — the one item generally in short supply at home. The Gujarati Muslim shop-owner near my hotel went to great lengths to find me the right camera batteries and showed off his Indian connection. It felt odd, when I lost my way, to ask for directions in Hindi, but eight times out of 10, it got better results than in English.
A less agreeable side of Dubai’s association with the Indian sub-continent is the presence of construction workers. The few occasions when I felt uncomfortable walking around the city are when I encountered these gangs in overalls, with their insolent stare, fingers up the nose, loud babbling and unpleasant demeanour.
The ultimate escape is always at hand. The malls in Dubai are what malls should be — each has its own character, a great variety of cafés, an embarrassment of riches by way of stores and, most importantly, space. For a visitor, these malls come as close to being the social hub of Dubai as possible. The Emiratis do not mingle with the expats much, unless work brings them together, but in these malls you can observe families up close. Here, at least, the Arab women seem free. Half of them wear abayas (the black body cloak) and many wear the hijab (scarf covering the head and the neck), but there is little or no shyness in their movements.
Before leaving the city, I shuffle some of the Dubai pictures in my head — a newspaper report of a homosexual rape committed by a Pakistani driver; the national media convulsed by the death of Michael Jackson; a store window glimpse of jewellery inspired by the famous Austrian artist-architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser; the sight of attractive faces covered in bright make-up, framed by black headscarves; sunlight reflected by the glass façade of a tower, a metaphor for Dubai’s aspirations.
I am at the airport with only a light carrier bag — Dubai Duty Free is a scam; the best shopping deals are in the city — and a queue begins to form as our flight to Delhi is called. Punjabi mummies jostle to push their children ahead, swerving strolleys hit my shin and everyone generally behaves like the plane might take off without them. I am already back.