Bill Totten's Weblog

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Dubai Is for Flamingos

by Negar Azimi

Harper's Magazine Notebook (June 2009)

The flamingos at Dubai International Airport had been in quarantine for five days and nobody knew what to do with them. Their handlers had gone missing, I heard, and there was great bewilderment about how to tend to their needs: what exactly they ate, the temperature to which they were accustomed. People said the birds were unhappy, fluffing their feathers and gravitating toward the edges of the enclosure like sulking children, or erupting into great fits of squawking that sent the airport personnel scurrying away. Natives of the Great Rift Valley, they were destined for The Lagoons, a seventy-million-square-foot development of residences, shopping centers, and offices set on seven interconnected islands of finely cultivated marsh ecology in the middle of the city. But the construction of The Lagoons, along with many other extravagant projects in Dubai, had been put "on hold", maybe for good. The story I heard - and Dubai is full of stories these days - was that the primary developer on the project was in jail, held on multiple charges of corruption and bribery. The long-legged waterfowl, dyed a deep mauve color for dramatic effect, waited in awkward limbo.

Since the coming of the plunge, the Persian Gulf city of Dubai has been subjected to a windfall of press coverage chronicling its dramatic decline. Cocktail-party chatter once celebrated the spectacular rise of this "global hub", its multicultural can-do spirit and liberal-leaning ways. Now conversations over artfully carved morsels of cheese dwell on hubris and the inevitability of imploding bubbles. "It just had to end", one hears. "It was too big, too much, too fast". Heads nod in unison.

Earlier this year, the Australian feminist and sometime Marxist Germaine Greer deplaned at Dubai International Airport for all of a four hour layover. Boarding one of Dubai's hokey green double-decker tourist buses, she traveled a typical route that took her from the tallest building in the world (the Burj Dubai) to a hotel shaped like a sailing ship (the Burj Al Arab) to a handful of malls, and proceeded swiftly to eviscerate the place. "For all its extravagant novelties and its masses of petunias, Dubai is a city with neither charm nor character", she wrote in a February issue of the Guardian. Some weeks later, her colleague Simon Jenkins described flying over Dubai in an airplane. He was no more generous, dismissing the city as "a festival of egotism with humanity denied", and concluding ominously, "The towers of Dubai will become casualties not of human greed but of architectural folly. Their lifts and services, expensive to maintain, will collapse. Their colossal facades will shed glass. Sand will drift round their trunkless legs. Animals will inhabit their basements." Animals! Imagine that.

In part, Dubai invites such hysterical interpretations because it is nearly impossible to verify anything there. When the New York Times published accounts of 3,000 cars abandoned at the airport by panicked debt-ridden foreigners, officials insisted that the number was more modest: eleven. Three thousand or eleven? Who knows? The cars are but one example. No one seems to be collecting statistics in any systematic way. What is offered instead is a stream of perennially sunny press releases ("UAE Protects Workers' Rights", announced a piece in the Gulf News last year in response to a report by Human Rights Watch on the dire situation of laborers). And although rumors have always had a magical currency here, these days they have become Dubai's chief commodity. A cursory sampling: Thousands of businessmen have been locked up in prison for bad debts; come the end of the school year, half the expatriate population will abandon their strenuously air-conditioned palaces; the United Arab Emirates, famously tax-free, will soon impose an income tax on all its residents; neighboring Abu Dhabi will shift its border into Dubai in exchange for a $20 billion "bailout"; the posh Atlantis Hotel, perched on the tip of a man-made island shaped like a palm tree, has shut an entire wing due to low occupancy; the ruler of Dubai is dead; judging from the city's ubiquitous security cameras, there have never been so many people weeping in elevators; there are thirty-two purple flamingos languishing in Terminal 3 of the Dubai International Airport.

"It's all lies", an acquaintance from the Executive Office, the ruler's consulting circle, told me defensively as we sat at a Starbucks in the Emirates Towers. "It is all coming from Abu Dhabi", said another EO employee, referring to the emirate's oil-rich cousin next door. And although I knew these individuals were unreliable narrators, I wondered if there weren't also glimmers of promise out there in the vast desert expanse that the journalist Jenkins had so happily left for dead. Long before the indoor ski slopes and marathon shopping festivals that made Dubai both a business-school case study and an inspired tourist trap, this spur of land was part of a vast trading empire that stretched from the ports of Zanzibar to China. Whatever it may have lost in consumer confidence, Dubai remains uniquely situated at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. And so I set out to talk to Dubai's residents, the little people who haven't yet headed for the hills, to see what they thought about the impending apocalypse.

"Most of the England has been purchased by Iranians", says Mr Nouri, a thickly lashed sixty-something seated in the management office of International City, a sprawling housing development on the edge of central Dubai. We are in China - aptly, the most populous of the developments, which also include France, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Persia, and Spain. Mr Nouri, who works for an Iranian oil company and is shaped like a sweet potato, is suspicious of me and my queries. I have suggested that I am in the market to buy an apartment in England (whose architectural flourishes have all the character of a Ramada Inn), though I am also seriously considering Morocco.

"Four years ago there was no one here. And the prices were almost twice as high. Now there are no parking spaces in the England." He seems satisfied with himself. Eventually he discloses that he is also an owner: "I bought myself and my daughters a second home here at a bargain". However, he concedes, "sometimes it smells in the England. But only when there is a strong breeze."

As it happens, England is situated alongside a massive sewage-processing plant, a fact that has inspired more than a handful of persons to refer to this Olympic village as "International Shitty".

"But it is getting better", he assures me. "They are working on it. Soon, the smell will be gone".

At Mr Nouri's urging, I spend several hours after we part ways wandering around in the sun looking for an Iranian restaurant in China. (International City boasts an Afghan grocery in Greece, an Indian restaurant in Persia, and a dumpling cafe in Italy that is owned by an Iraqi. Still, cosmopolitanism has its limits: Dubai's large population of South Asians notwithstanding, there is no India.) It turns out China is vast. I settle on kebab in Turkey. Later, while strolling through the finely palazzoed streets of Italy, I find that a cup of sweet melon juice is the same price as my entire Chinese meal.

That same day, I meet Mohsin, a Pakistani man with severely pomaded hair who runs a one-man real estate business in Dubai's Deira neighborhood and does a swift trade in homes in International City. A sort of Naipaulian antihero, he left his wife and children behind in Torrance, California, and seems to be plotting out a sweet enough existence in Dubai, where he caters to Nigerians and Iranians in the market for a second home. In spite of the general real estate downturn, he tells me, the Nigerians and Iranians, whose respective economies have been slower to feel the effects of the global crisis, are still buying in droves. As a result, he made more money in the first few months of this year than in the past five years put together. "Big money", he says, insisting on the "g". He holds up his hands as if indicating a fish yea big. "It's a buyer's market, so for me business is good. Dubai will bounce back. You wait and see".

"We are the Burj AI Arab of chocolate", says Martin van Almsick.

Just off the road to El Ain, a few kilometers from the densely zigzagging skyline that marks "downtown Dubai", is the world's first producer of camel-milk chocolate. Al Nassma, aptly located on a patch of desert where the only colors in sight are various shades of light brown, operates under the patronage of Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the vice president of the UAE, and houses 3,000 of the finest camels from around the world. Van Almsick, the general manager of the farm, is a German-born chocolatier who once served as director of Cologne's chocolate museum. He is a sprightly, energetic man who fell in love with the East while reading Karl May novels as a kid. Like a box of Cracker Jacks in reverse, all the pocket editions of May's oriental tales, he tells me, had a bar of chocolate inserted within.

"The newspapers write about Iraq and Afghanistan and all these sufferings, but people have had enough. They need chocolate! We all need it. It is something related to our childhoods", he says, biting into a piece of chocolate shaped like a camel. "And camel's milk has higher-than-average levels of vitamins B and C - iron, too". Al Nassma's flavors, all of which have a distinctly mineral flavor, include cocoa, date, macadamia nut and orange zest, and, the company's flagship, "Arabia" - a blend of honey, cardamom, and other spices. It is 10:30 am and I am certain this is not his first chocolate of the day.

He continues, "What goes through your head when you hear the words 'goat milk'? Nothing, right? But say the word 'camel' and people's eyes light up. They are the most charming animals! And what's more, they are part of the local heritage. They have three sets of eyelids, you know. Because of the sand."

Al Nassma, like International City, is faring well. Since its launch last October, van Almsick has attracted many customers, among them several luxury hotels in the region and the Saudi royal family. Soon you will be able to buy his chocolates from Harrods, in London.

By now, we are sipping cups of camelicious cappuccino, a prototype in early stages. "This is a story that can only happen here", he tells me, a perfect halo of sunlight having suddenly illuminated his head of golden locks. "Chocolate is recession-proof. Maybe people can't afford big cars or yachts anymore, but these little pleasures are forever. There has never been a better time to eat chocolate."

It is true that many people are leaving Dubai. The offices of Aries International immigration services are on the second floor of the Emirates Bank Building in Karama, a residential neighborhood - one of the city's oldest - along the Dubai Creek and filled with members of the city's white-collar South Asian community. The Aries reception area is a small, wincingly fluorescent-lit room, a perfect square, with a potted fern, four red plastic chairs, and a stack of faded oversized coffee-table books about Australia. I spy Australia: Images of a Timeless Land. Seated behind a desk surrounded by a plastic barrier is Aby, a petite Filipino woman wearing a complicated bright-green top and chatting away on the phone through an earpiece. She has one hand wrapped around a can of diet soda and the other poised for AIM chat. Seated before her are two men from Pakistan. Aby, who once dreamed of being a television newscaster like Christiane Amanpour, is very good at her job, which involves receiving visitors, answering phones, making appointments, and collecting heaps of CVs from people hoping to get work visas in Canada and Australia. Given the spike in layoffs these past months, demand for Aries's services has never been greater.

Aby gets off the phone to address the two men standing before her.

"You are both clients, right?"

Blank stares.

"Do you have file numbers?"

More blank stares.

"Mr Sumesh, Mr Ritesh, my name is Aby. I want to help you, but I need to know if you are already in our system."

Finally, Mr Ritesh speaks up - in flawless, albeit non-sequitur, English.

"I want to move to Canada".

"Do you have a file number?"

"Canada", he repeats.

Another man comes in, looking vaguely expectant.

"Who are you?" he asks Aby.

"My name is Aby. A-B-Y. Please sit down and wait for your turn, sir". The queue is growing longer by the minute.

Aby, who came to Dubai nine months ago from Manila, found her receptionist job on the Internet. "All they required was knowing how to use a computer!" She works eleven-hour days, seven days a week, but is happy simply to have a job. She even received a raise last month - in fact, everyone in this busy office did - bringing her salary to 3,000 dirhams a month. "I tell my colleagues we are so lucky. Things are bad here for many people. I heard they are capturing more jaywalkers on the streets just to make money. Maybe they will come and get me for saying these things. They will say, 'You are saying Dubai is going down'." She corrects herself, "But you know what? They are visionaries here."

The Dubai World Cup, touted as the world's richest horse race, goes on as scheduled. Each year on a Saturday in the spring, thousands of people descend upon this patch, of grass in the desert to watch horses circle a magnificently fancy track. In the public section, where admission is free, the Sudanese, most of them northerners, turn out in the biggest numbers, followed by the Pakistanis, the Indians, and assorted others; together they partake of a Woodstock-sized group picnic. In what is referred to as the Apron View section, where tickets go for several thousand dirhams, droves of drunken expats, beet-colored from the sun and abundant booze, stumble about the lawns in pointy heels and hats shaped like birds and paisley suits and watch anything but the races. There is a champagne bar called The Bubble Lounge, a Style Arena in which an elaborate ladies' fashion competition is staged, and much slurred enunciation and giddy gyration to very bad house music.

This year's race, I soon learn, should be tight, with a front-runner named Albertus Maximus and his closest competitor, an Argentine-bred horse named Asiatic Boy. I lean across a gaggle of Sudanese men in the public section, one of whom asks to borrow my pen. They are hunched over a red betting slip for which the winning prize is 60,000 dirhams. As the pen passes through twelve sets of hands, I ask them why they have come to the day's event. "We came for the lottery money", Hassan tells me. "The view", says Saeed. "To see the foreigners in their clothes", offers Magid.

Later that evening, a locally owned and trained horse, jockeyed by a local man named Ahmad Ajtebi, races to a first-place finish. This has never happened before, and the cover of the Gulf News shows the wiry jockey, his arm outstretched in a victorious pose, with the headline: "Ajtebi The New Role Model for UAE Kids". A hero is born.

On one of my last days in Dubai, I drive past The Lagoons, its entrance blocked by security and the scenic marshlands visible only from the adjacent highway. I have been thinking about the flamingos again. How long will they remain in the middle of delirious Dubai, locked in by the busy Sheikh Zayed Road on the one side and skyscrapers on the other? Will they ever go home?

I call up Sama Dubai, the stateowned development firm that was in charge of The Lagoons project before it all came to a screeching halt. I am eventually referred to Kevin Hyland, a British-born flamingo specialist at Dubai's Wildlife Protection Office, who confirms that the real estate venture was supposed to have included flamingos, though they've never set foot in an airport. They're local birds - about 1,000 of them - and Hyland has been tending them since the 1990s, at their home in the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, which was to be one of The Lagoons' premier attractions. Nor have they been dyed purple but are instead a standard shade of pink. And if the new, grand lodgings envisioned for them fail to materialize, at least they are not in jail, where several executives of Sama Dubai have, in fact, been obliged to take up residence. Like flamingos everywhere, they cluck, squawk, and flutter, but these are not necessarily noises of complaint. I've come to think of them as stoic, strutting under the sun as they weather the interminable downturn.


Negar Azimi is a senior editor of Bidoun magazine.

Bill Totten


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