As I crammed myself into a crowded A-train this morning, I couldn’t help but miss Dubai. Of all of the natural wonders and cultural experiences I had over the past two weeks in thrilling Thailand, Dubai is what I missed this morning. The reason is simple: in Dubai, a woman does not have to be on a crowded subway train, chest to back against male strangers. Despite all of the criticism the West seems to dole out on the Middle East’s supposed mysogynistic culture, Dubai does one thing right. Dubai creates safer public spaces for women. This may not be important to women who don’t frequently take subways or cabs, but for us New Yorkers, this is a huge part of our lives. In Dubai, there are separate subway cars for women and children. These cars are merely optional, but pretty much all women in the diverse city choose to take them, unless they are traveling with male companions. Also, there are taxis with pink roofs, signaling that there is a female taxi driver. Not only does the rider have the security of knowing that her driver is less likely to be a creep, but it allows women to be taxi drivers! I can count on one hand the number of female cab drivers I have encountered in New York City.
But other than that, there isn’t really much that I miss about Dubai. Perhaps it’s because I was travel weary when I reached the last leg on our journey. Perhaps it’s because we had only a day and limited our sightseeing to Dubai-specific activities, as each of us had already visited North Africa and had experiences trekking into the Sahara and visiting mosques. Or perhaps, it’s because the newness of the city and lack of authenticity just didn’t do it for me. Dubai reminds me of Las Vegas.
But before I get into all of that, I’ll start with what I did like about Dubai, one of the seven “Emirates” that make up the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Monochromatic Fashion. The women wear black robes with black scarves; the men wear white robes with white scarves. Percentage wise, there are not many Emirati in the UAE (about 15% of the population are actual citizens, the rest are expats), but the ones you do see that wear the traditional garb of the Arabic peninsula really stand out in a fashion forward, flawless kind of way. I thought women in New York did all-black-everything fashion the best, but the Emirati women have us beat. The abaya (long black robe) can be incredibly chic, as the material is often made from luxurious fabric, flowing gracefully as the women walk. In addition to the variety of luxurious textures, great care is taken into the cut of the abaya, especially for younger women. The hijabs (scarves) often have intricate embroidery, adding even more layers of textile differences, a hallmark of monochromatic fashion. Lastly, these women glam it up through accessories and makeup. You will often see all kinds of bling glimmering from beneath their abaya, and the make up is some of the most bold i’ve seen. Women of this region are typically blessed with wide, piercing eyes and prominent eyebrows, and these women excel at elegantly highlighting these features by using eye make up techniques like smoky eye–even in the daytime.
The men are equally dapper in their dishdash (long, white robe) and keffiyeh (white scarf). The dishdashes I saw were perfectly white and perfectly crisp. I couldn’t help but wonder who is doing these guys’ laundry. But, what was far more impressionable than the abaya or dishdash alone, is the abaya and dishdash together. Some of my most vivid memories from Dubai are when a woman in an elegant, flowy black abaya with piercing eyes struts by, in tandem with her male companion, enrobed in the crispy, white dishdash, with the desert and Dubai skyline as a backdrop. The fashion is fierce.
Modern Architecture. The arhcitecture of Dubai is far more than “interesting” or even “record-breaking.” It’s downright arrogant. It knows it’s the best, and it knows that it has zero competition. We visited two architectural feats–the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world and the Palm Jumeirah, a man-made island shaped like a palm tree. The Burj Khalifa is conveniently connected to the city’s cultural center–the Dubai Mall. It is not only the tallest building in the world, but it is also the tallest man-made structure in the world. The architect based the neo-futuristic design of the building on the spider lily.
We ascended to the observation deck on floor 124; although, the building has a total of 163 floors. The elevator ride up 124 floors took less than a minute, and you could barely tell that you were moving. The view from the observation deck was rather astounding; although, it would have been better if it were clearer. (This was a common theme of the entire trip– the worldwide pollution problem that we have created).
Later that day, we decided to check out the Palm Jumeirah. Dubai has an excellent public transportation system; although it involved quite a few transfers and a very long ride to arrive. The easiest way to see the Palm Jumeirah is to take the monorail to Atlantis, where the monorail follows the length of the palm. From the monorail, you can see the rows of cookie cutter McMansions built along the man-made beaches, shaped like branches of a palm tree.
The Spice Souk (Spice Market). This was our old-school culture stop for the day. I was antsy with anticipation to see the colors and smell the aromas of the region. We journeyed through the hustlers in the gold souk to get to the spice souk. The gold souk has some of the largest, flashiest, most gaudy pieces of “jewelry” I’ve ever seen. Finally, we found the Spice Souk which was little more than a couple corridors of shops and stalls selling everything from saffron, to fresh vanilla beans from Madagascar, to dried hibiscus petals and even dried lemons. I stocked up on some superbly fresh whole vanilla beans that were very large, moist and stunningly fragrant. I also picked up some giant cinnamon sticks–they had cinnamon sticks that were up to two feet long. I had never seen such giant cinnamon sticks! Lastly, I picked up some incredible-smelling incense. It has a clean, masculine scent, and you light it as you would a hookah by placing it on top of hot charcoal.
Why Dubai isn’t a city that I need to visit again
Dubai is a huge city right in the middle of a desert, but you will forget that you are in a desert, as many of the malls and subway stops have long air-conditioned tunnels. I can’t imagine how hot it would be walking around without those tunnels. If you are planning to visit Dubai, there are two main things you need to take take into consideration when planning when to go: the summer and Ramadan. During Ramadan, the culture police are in full force, issuing tickets for every minor infraction, such as drinking “in public” (i.e., at a restaurant).
Also, the mall is somewhat of a cultural center. Sure, the mall has unique things like an aquarium and even skiing, but it really is just a mall. Plus, the mall, like most places, has a modesty policy–this means that women are expected to wear “respectful clothing.” (As you can see, I had a scarf wrapped around my shoulders for much of the day.)
Lastly, the food was far from inspiring. This might be because I was not splurging on meals at 5-star hotels, but what can I say, I’m a street-food girl at heart. Nearly every eating establishment that I encountered in Dubai was a chain restaurant that is popular in America, London, or Tokyo. For example, a Red Lobster offers prime seating for the Bellagio-esque fountain show outside of the Dubai mall. And right next to that Red Lobster is a California Pizza Kitchen. Right next to that is a Tim Hortons. You get the drift.
Dubai was a decent enough place, but if I’m traveling halfway across the world, I want to experience authentic culture. And I certainly don’t want to eat at American chain restaurants. For these reasons, I’d skip Dubai. There are too many wonderful places to experience authentic Arabic culture and Arabic food–Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, so many more! I am impressed however by Dubai’s sheer will. It willed itself into an international city and embraced the mantra: If we build it, they will come. They built it, and we came–for whatever that’s worth.