There is an unexpected side to Dubai – one that, like an expensive perfume, makes a subtle yet lasting impression. Long after you return home, you remember your trip to Dubai and it’s not the uber modernity or the unnervingly creative architecture that come first to mind. Instead, it’s the small moments and simple things.
It’s the feel of the night desert breeze blowing across your face as you laze on a Persian rug looking up at a different carpet – one woven of stars, the likes of which you never see from the city. It’s the welcoming plate of plump fresh dates and carafe of Arabian coffee scenting the air of your exquisitely decorated hotel lobby. It’s the impossibly intricate patterns on the hand painted tiles at the Jumeirah Mosque, each one a miniature work of art. It’s the haunting sound of the early morning call to prayer , entering your sleep, as timeless and peaceful as birdsong in the near dawn.
In Dubai, what you see is what you get. And it pays to look closer. It pays to slow down and appreciate the attention to simple detail. The quiet notes of an ancient history that can only be heard if you turn down the pop music. Not always easy to do in a destination which completely bypassed flashy and headed straight for totally outrageous. With superlatives screaming for your attention from every guidebook and tour desk. Look at me, I’m the highest tower! No! look at me, I am an indoor ski slope and I have penguins. Hey! over here; I’m a hotel room built into the stands of a racetrack. Bah, that’s nothing; I’m a hotel room sharing a perspex wall with an aquarium…doesn’t get more exciting than sleeping with the sharks.
Yes, Dubai hosts spectacular horse racing events that beckon the designer clad jet set, their entourages and inevitably the paparazzi, but Dubai’s leading sport, its most revered, is falconry. Watching a handler patiently training his bird by whisper and whistle, or visiting a falcon hospital where the dress code is strictly lab coat and the vibe is hushed concern, is every bit as riveting as cheering thirteen hundred pounds of horseflesh and jockey over the finish line.
Gold glitters everywhere in Dubai. There are even souks (markets) devoted entirely to all things gold, including jewelry ranging from plain to intricate to downright vulgar. Centuries before oil was discovered, however, the simple, elegant pearl was the mainstay of the Dubai economy. Pearling boats carrying between 15 and 60 men stayed out at sea for as long as four months, moving from one pearl oyster bed to another and running for shelter from storms on the lee side of Gulf islets. Equipped simply, with little more than a nose clip, ear plugs and finger pads, and surviving on a diet of fish and rationed water, the men would dive on weighted ropes to depths of around 50 feet. Holding their breath for up to three minutes at a time they could collect up to a dozen pearl oysters and burst to the surface gulping for air. They would repeat this 50 times a day.
The nightlife in Dubai draws fun seeking visitors from other, more restricted Muslim nations as well as casual tourists. The clubs in and around major international hotels pulsate until the early hours, when they spill their cosmopolitan guests into sports cars and limousines. An equally common after dinner sight however is a group of Emirati men, dressed in their still immaculate white abayas, quietly enjoying each other’s company and a smoke at a shisha cafe.
I went to a fancy party in Dubai once. Instead of buffet tables, there were dozens of mini restaurants, and food counters similar to the ones in Harrods lining the perimeter of the room. A sushi bar, a Pho shop, a creperie, a steakhouse – a potpourri of global cuisine. Instead of waiters bearing drinks trays, there were acrobats dressed as ballerinas perched on chandeliers. You raised your champagne flute in the air, and they flipped upside down gripping the chandelier with their legs and poured Moet into your glass… without spilling a drop. Smiling, they flipped right side up again. That Cirque du Soleil style beverage service wasn’t the entertainment, however. No, no; a flash mob which exploded into a routine of dances from a Broadway musical covered that. That is Dubai.
I went on a small boat ride in Dubai once. There was a local family aboard, traditionally dressed. Father, mother, young son and daughter were all holding hands. In her free hand, the little brown eyed girl clutched a huge bag of popcorn, her treat for the excursion. After seeking permission, she opened the bag, and, before tasting even one fragrant kernel herself, went to every other passenger and, smiling politely, held out the bag. With her simple act of hospitality, she made every passenger on the boat part of her family. That is Dubai.
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