Enter the Sandman The plane entered a blinding yellow sky. I strained against the window to catch something of the approach, but the desert was hazy and featureless. The lady on the seat next to me clutched her stomach and closed her eyes, as if on the verge of a gastric implosion. Then the plane lurched and lowered itself into the burning still life, the city of sand. She turned to me, smiled feebly, and said, “In the desert, you can never tell when you hit ground.”
For several centuries, Dubai was little more than a struggling coastal outpost, a minor collective of fishing communities that survived at the edge of a real desert, full of cacti, rocky outcrops, shifting sands and daily storms that make every desert setting a yellow daytime nightmare. But now, in barely a generation, the natural ecology of the desert landscape—rough, parched, pitiless—has been given the opposite lease. Man-made and unnatural to the order of Disneyworld. Desalinated and air-conditioned like Las Vegas. Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s superhuman effort stretched architectural ideas beyond all limits of logic, defying all possible conventions. The tallest man-made structure, the Burj Khalifa; the biggest single mall, the Dubai Mall; the largest man-made island, the Palm Jumeirah.
Walk along the golf greens for the Dubai Desert Classic, the soft earth and grassy mounds have the tropical feel of an Indonesia or Thailand. During the short Dubai winter, television cameras follow Tiger Woods and Colin Montgomerie, leaning on their clubs on thick grass against a backdrop of formidable skyscrapers and sunny blue sky. A mix of tropical lushness and western urbanism. Is it Hong Kong? Or New York’s Central Park against the apartments of the East Side?
The Reclaimed Fruit Our tour guide was a Christian from Kerala, the driver a Punjabi Pakistani from Lahore. Except for a Nigerian family, everyone was Indian or Pakistani. The 12-seater Mercedes van sped across the treeless coastal road to the Palm Jumeriah, a seafront carved in the shape of a palm tree. Million-dollar houses stretched out in curving rows, facing the shallow waters of an artificial inland sea. White sand in truckloads has been spread above the artificial concrete breakwaters to give the illusion of a natural beach. But—like the white expats and the brown workers—you are never sure if it belongs there; or if it was trucked in from Australia. Along the way, the homes, part-Mediterranean, part-Florida, are topped by artificial wind towers to lend an air of Arab authenticity. “Shahrukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan both have houses here,” said the guide for the benefit of the Indians.
An open bus, a windowless heap of clanking steel, passed us on the highway. I could see the dark faces, much like our own, chattering under yellow hard hats, heading out of their work shift. India in captivity, a miniature moment of displacement. A small part of the millions of Indian and Bangladeshi labourers trucked daily to building sites, the blood ’n guts builders of Dubai. The tourist route is carefully chosen to avoid any visual contact with such members of the Third World. Still, however hard they try to blend this mass of brown population into the dusty background, their blue overalls mark them out as foreign workers. Their shabby makeshift domiciles are in striking contrast to the glass and glitter of Dubai.
Acrophony Our van stopped for a glimpse of Atlantis, the splayed arms of 1,500 rooms looking out to sea, Dubai’s famous expat hangout. Its architectural inspiration is hard to pin down: Arabian night windows, a high entrance archway, a Las Vegas frontage—the assembly owed more to casino design than to its desert setting. An Eastern fable on a giant western scale. Its displacement was palpable; we drove away with the nagging feeling that Atlantis was only a temporary encampment for a luxurious occasion. What’s immediately obvious is the sheer weightlessness of the constructions, a city from instant mix, a Lego set assembled on a metropolis’s monumental scale.
I rode up the elevator’s electronic hiss in the Burj Khalifa. From ground zero to the 132nd, the black soundless lift gave no indication—visual, tactile or acoustic—of this enormous height. I was deposited soundlessly on the observation deck. Looking down, the other glass towers below appeared diminutive and frail—dwarfed and grounded in yellow dust. Dust remained suspended around the glare of mirrored glass, the brownness extending to the horizon. Like a miniature city swirling in a muddy water tank. From that great height, Dubai looked like a grave mistake. An unfortunate marker to one man’s folly. The city was a model that the Sheikh ought to have tested first in miniature.
Other than the Sea, Dubai has no source of water. If, for whatever reason, the resource to desalinate ran out, Dubai will go the way of Fatehpur Sikri. A 21st century glass citadel, abandoned like Akbar’s capital.
Delhi-based architect Gautam Bhatia is the author, most recently, of Comic Century; E-mail your diarist: gbhatia100 AT gmail.com