The City in the Desert

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I arrived in Abu Dhabi on a Saturday morning and took a shuttle bus up to a place called Chelsea Towers in Dubai, where Johnny was waiting for me. The bus crossed miles of sand on a road lined with palm trees. Mosques and oil refineries were the main landmarks. And as we entered Dubai we passed between two imposing portraits of a man I assume to be Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.

It’s good that Johnny was already at Chelsea Towers when I arrived because I had no means of contacting him. My Chinese SIM card was useless there and I had lost my roaming SIM. I had been counting on finding a payphone but the bus’s terminus was not a proper station, rather something like a derelict parking lot.

It had been some three years since I last saw my good friend Johnny – actor, art house filmmaker, musician, entrepreneur, photographer, writer, fashionista, comedian, free-thinker. The last time I saw him was in London and before that I hadn’t seen him since we were at high school in India roughly four years earlier. Indian by origin he calls New York home but spent a large part of his growing up years in Oman. He completed an undergrad degree in Michigan and recently ended up in the United Arab Emirates where he’s studying for a Masters.

He drove me to his house and described a complete itinerary which he’d prepared for my three day layover in Dubai where I was en route to London from Beijing. It was a packed schedule. But before going any further we had home-made dosai and chicken curry for breakfast. Dosai is one of the greatest culinary inventions in all human history.

Having eaten our fill we drove to Atlantis on The Palm to check out an aquarium there. Marine life-forms are uncanny. Looking into some of the tanks at that place can challenge your perception of reality. The movements of jellyfish can induce hypnosis.

Outside the heat was oppressive. Walking ten meters sapped all your strength, had you begging for mercy. And yet taking a sip of water in public could land you in jail. It so happened that this was the month of Ramadan and an article in the Guardian had informed me that eating, drinking or smoking out in the open during the month of fasting is an offence which could have you thrown in the slammer. All the same we had stashed a bottle of water in the car and after looking over our shoulders we took surreptitious drags from it like teenagers in a school parking lot swigging cheap liquor from a paper bag.

In truth if you’re visiting Dubai you’ll most likely spend your time sealed off in air-conditioned rooms or gliding through the burning streets in a refrigerated car. You will barely notice the migrant workers toiling outside under the punishing desert sun. They are the slaves on whose backs this oil-funded metropolis is being built. They don’t get to put down their tools just because it’s Ramadan. They simply carry on labouring in the forty-degree heat without hydration. At Atlantis there are people employed to just stand outside keeping an eye on the grounds. They barely move except to mop sweat from their faces. (For more information on the plight of this downtrodden underclass refer to this disturbing article by Johann Hari: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/the-dark-side-of-dubai-1664368.html.)

I was crippled by jetlag in the afternoon. I succumbed to soul-crushing fatigue and slept away the remaining daylight hours. Everything up to that point had come to me as though in a dream. Gravity seemed to have doubled the force of its pull on me.

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But in the evening my vitality was restored and I was eager to get out into downtown Dubai and see what the city was made of. Johnny and I headed out to the world’s biggest mall where we drank Turkish coffees and watched the world’s biggest dancing fountain next to the world’s tallest building. It’s hard to get a sense of the scale of the Burj Khalifa when you’re directly under it. It soars above you, piercing the desert sky nearly a kilometre above your head. The human brain does not easily compute such measurements. When looking up at the Burj from its base you might as well be looking up at any skyscraper. If anything the experience is underwhelming.

The mall was like something dreamt up by Roald Dahl. It contained the world’s biggest fish tank. There were vending machines which dispensed bars of gold. A bewildering system of escalators conveyed consumers to the doors of the world’s most powerful retailers. It was like a gigantic monument to Mammon, the god of material wealth.

We went to a bar in the area and ordered tequilas. We drank a toast to freedom. I was relieved to have a break from Beijing where I’d been working flat out for the last seven months. The tequilas were followed by mojitos. It was going to be a long night and we were just getting warmed up. We had three years worth of catching up to do. And Johnny is one of the greatest conversationalists I know. He has pithy insights to offer on almost any topic and possesses a quick, enquiring mind and a disarming sense of humour.

Our next stop was the Buddha Bar where we had Jack and coke and cocktails. On a normal night this bar is a buzzing place with live music. But during Ramadan music is not allowed so it was pretty sedate that night. Make sense of this if you can: indoor drunkenness and other discreet debaucheries = ok; music = not ok.

We ended up in a sports bar in Johnny’s neighbourhood where his younger brother Sam joined us for beers.

***

On Sunday we took it easy in the morning. We drove down to Jumeirah Beach, looking for a coffee shop, and ended up going for a dip in the sea. We just took our shirts off, emptied our pockets and waded out into the waves. The water was crystal clear and warm as a bath. The sand was fine. A couple of crazy white people were prostrate on beach towels with their torsos oiled up like slabs of steak. They looked like some kind of sacrificial offering to an uninterested Poseidon. I wondered what an extra-terrestrial David Attenborough would have to say about it. The beachfront was lined with apartment blocks which hung like marionettes beneath tall yellow cranes. A Rolls Royce gleamed in the fierce sunlight. There were several outdoor cafes but because of Ramadan there was an eerie absence of life. On that afternoon the city had the feel of an abandoned frontier town after a sudden short-lived gold-rush.

We spent a large part of the morning in Johnny’s room where he played me some of the songs he’s been working on. He has quite a nice set up – two Mac desktops, a synthesizer, an electric and an acoustic guitar. Most of the music he’s been writing lately is electropop. He’s working on an album called Guiltbitch. It sounds good so far but most of the tracks are unfinished so he wouldn’t let me copy any on to my laptop. Sam has also been composing tunes and he demonstrated a few for me.

In the afternoon Johnny and I went dune-bashing – a wild 4X4 drive in the desert. Johnny booked a driver called Sadeek who picked us up along with a trio of Pakistanis and drove us way out into the desert. On the way we stopped at a convenience store out in the middle of nowhere. We both bought a keffiyeh, the traditional Arab headdress, and a blind man with a falcon perched on his arm let us take photos with the bird in exchange for money. I felt like a regular tourist – both the exploiter and the exploited.

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Then we were on the move again. All I know is we were cruising down a tarmac road which abruptly came to an end and there was nothing in front of us but miles of unadulterated sand beneath a raw blue sky. Once off the road Sadeek gunned the engine and the vehicle leapt up a 15-foot sand dune and plunged down the other side. For a few seconds we were all weightless and then we were tearing up the flanks of an even bigger dune, wheels spitting sand.

The 4X4 was equipped with a roll-cage, which was simultaneously reassuring and unsettling. Johnny and I noted that Sadeek’s 10 year old kid, who had also come along, was not even wearing a seatbelt. We were drifting across the sand. There was very little friction for the wheels so the car’s movements were fluid and Sadeek effortlessly performed handbrake turns.

We met another party of dune-bashers. There were at least a dozen vehicles criss-crossing the sand within meters of each other at high speed. After a while Sadeek stopped and got out to pray with another driver. Johnny and I wandered off into the dunes, out of the sight of the others, so he could have a cigarette. He was wearing skinny jeans, leather boots, an army surplus jacket and the white keffiyeh he’d bought earlier. He looked like he was in the Mujahideen or something. We walked along the ridge of a giant dune. Below us the two drivers were kneeling in the sand. Sadeek’s kid was walking away toward the featureless horizon.

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Soon we were on our way to a Bedouin encampment. The sun was hanging low in the sky and burning orange. The fading of the light put Johnny and I into a reflective mood. We delved into inexhaustible existentialist topics. Why are we here? What is the nature of God? Is there a master plan? We also talked music. We discussed the work of Bukowski and the films Barfly and Ironweed.

In front of us the Pakistanis were making jokes about desis. For those who are unaware, the word desi refers to people from the Indian subcontinent who have left their home country to live abroad.

‘My life is one big existential crisis,’ Johnny remarked. ‘I can count on one hand all the times I’ve been truly happy over the last year’. ‘Me too,’ I said. ‘For the most part my life is overshadowed by depression, apathy and anxiety. I hate the fact that fear holds me back from making the most of this life.’ Johnny nodded and looked out the window at the dusk-bathed desert. ‘You are one anxious son of a bitch aren’t you,’ he said.

It was a long drive and night was closing in when we arrived at the Bedouin camp. It was obviously a very touristy place. It was crawling with camera-wielding holidaymakers in flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts. People were riding camels in circles and surfing on the nearby dunes and riding quad bikes.

Inside the camp a performance stage had been set up under the stars and it was surrounded by cushions and low tables. We drank instant coffees and Johnny broke open a pack of smokes. We sat cross-legged on the cushions. Johnny reminisced about his old freewheeling New York life and ex-girlfriends. He misses the bohemian art scene of the Big Apple. Doesn’t care much for the business-oriented sterility of Dubai – a city full of investors and thrill-seekers.

There was a buffet of Arabic food – various kebabs, different kinds of hummus, pitta bread, salad, barbeque chicken. Speakers played upbeat poppy songs of praise to Allah. We ate heartily. Johnny tried to teach me some Arabic phrases but I promptly forgot them.

A male dancer took to the stage and performed a traditional Bedouin dance which involved spinning rapidly while removing layers of skirt-like garments. Apparently the camp normally has belly dancers but they are forbidden during Ramadan. We were a little crestfallen by this of course.

We met a couple from Tehran who wanted to borrow batteries for their camera. We couldn’t supply batteries but by swapping SD cards they were able to take pictures with my camera. When introducing himself Johnny unhesitatingly said he was from New York. ‘Saves a lot of hassle,’ he told me afterwards. ‘If I say I’m Indian people want to know why I’ve got this accent and why I don’t fit their preconceived idea of what an Indian looks like.’

Towards the end of the evening we went to another cushioned area to smoke shisha. We took long pulls on the pipe and blew smoke at the stars. It was around 11 O’clock when the tourists started leaving. Sadeek found us and told us to take our time. The Pakistanis were waiting at the car but since they had kept us waiting a long time at the start of the journey we were under no obligation to hurry up for them. We were the last ones to leave the camp.

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***

The following morning we took it easy. Johnny took me through his music collection and transferred about 3,000 songs onto my laptop. I learned on the news that London was burning at the hands of rioters and America’s credit rating had been downgraded.

Johnny cooked breakfast – a dish native to the area whose name I have forgotten. He said he felt like he’d been asleep for days. ‘I always get these vivid dreams about dragons and shit’. He went on to describe the nature of his recurring psychedelic dreams.

I thought back to our school days. In many ways Johnny is still the same guy he was then – lively, animated, funny in his stand-up comic impressionist way. Prone to moments of quiet reflection in which he seems to drift away from the room. But he’s always aware of what’s happening around him. A dreamer but firmly rooted in the reality of the present. There is nothing like meeting up with an old friend in a foreign land and hitting it off like no time has passed at all.

We went swimming in the pool on the roof of the building joined by Sam, Johnny’s younger sister Hiba and one of their neighbours. Johnny set up his portable speaker system and we listened to The Doors and Boards of Canada while reclining in the Jacuzzi with cans of coke. Music was a constant presence. Every time we drove somewhere Johnny would prepare a playlist on his iPhone. He’d jam the phone into the tape deck and play tunes through the iTrip. So my memories of Dubai play out to the beat of Moloko, Roisin Murphy, Phantogram, The Go! Team, Beatles, Yacht, Dâm Funk, Portishead, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, The Weeknd, Toro Y Moi, Yeasayer, Little Dragon, Com Truise, Shit Robot, Animal Collective, The National and more. Occasionally Johnny would play an instrumental and rap to the beat while driving between the skyscrapers.

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In the evening we drove down to the mariner – Johnny, Sam and myself – the car vibrating with deep bass, cigarette smoke curling up to the tops of the windows. A cloud was wrapping itself around the top of the Burj Khalifa. I noted that the skyscrapers seemed to be arbitrarily placed in clusters, not evenly distributed. The skyline had as many gaps as a boxer’s teeth and it was bristling with cranes. The city lights had an odd coldness to them. There was no gaudy flickering neon. Dubai is no Seoul or Manhattan or Tokyo. It’s like a city which is still trying to discover its identity.

Down by the mariner we met some friends of Johnny and Sam at a shisha bar. We played cards and puffed on watermelon-flavoured shisha and drank cups of dark, rich Turkish coffee.

Then we drove to Chelsea Towers where I picked up the bus to Abu Dhabi airport.

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