If you live in Dubai then you have been to IKEA. Located deep in the bowels of festival city, it sits like a gargantuan genetically-modified Lego brick, a heaving blue monolith, a discarded spacecraft left to rot by aliens who decided its colours were too effeminate for intergalactic travel. Attached to the mothership is a colossal pole, piercing the ceiling of the sky, that is emblazoned with the store’s name in garish custard yellow letters. Those letters sit there like an unnatural warning: the luminous back of a poisoned arrow frog, the underbelly of a sea snake, the flickering eye of a Komodo dragon. It is a herald of chaos, of misery and of the first time in your life that you remember contemplating death.
IKEA is something of a cultural exception in Dubai, one of the emirate’s few great levellers, one of those uncommon places where you will see the full kaleidoscope of races, religions and nationalities, from local to Lithuanian, Russian to Rwandan and Pakistani to Polish congregating in the same place. IKEA’s affordability adds to this cultural casserole, with the full socioeconomic spectrum represented within its aquamarine confines. Perhaps in no other place in Dubai will you find underprivileged taxi drivers from Sharjah rubbing shoulders with millionaire locals fresh from their Mirdif mansions (except for in their taxis of course), joining together like animals at a watering hole.
This might sound like a wonderful thing, all the nations united under one Swedish mass-produced banner, coming together and recognising the universal truths of the human condition (we must sit; we must sleep; we must buy jasmine scented candles that we will never use) but it is not. Dubai’s IKEA is a place so god-awful that it made me wonder if hell was blue.
Rather than being a collective celebration of cultural difference, it is a petri dish beneath a scientist’s microscope teeming with the bacteria of life, magnifying every fault, every impoliteness, every differential social taboo from the overlapping communities. Ikea is the host and we are the virulent diseases, the parasites riddling its innards.
The British stand there, prostrated, muttering ineffectual curses under their breath, the armour of their useless courtesy all that stands between them and insanity as they tut severely at queue-cutters and sigh with intent at the maniacal children that spring in front of their trolleys.
Russians, who speak neither Arabic nor English, gesticulate wildly at beleaguered shop assistants as they gradually repeat their original requests with exponentially increasing volume and fury.
Indian families arrive with seven generations of relatives with them; great great grandma is being pushed around in a wheel chair by her 3-year-old niece, dad yells impotently at the 17 children who are climbing up curtain rails, wrestling on beds and fighting each other with kitchen utensils, and mum explains to granddad that the sari that he has just picked out as a gift for granny is actually a shower curtain.
Emiratis, sporting families only marginally smaller than the Indians, have mum and dad in control of the trolley; they walk at a rapid pace, ploughing – like cars in Grand Theft Auto – through anyone who dare block the aisles, always at a safe difference from their demonic children, some of whom are trying to pull their maid’s ears off, others of whom are playing chicken with the other trolleys, throwing themselves with death-defying foolhardiness in front of the onrushing wheels.
Western Europeans and South Africans desperately attempt to retain some decorum as they are barged out of lines for the toilets, smashed in the shins by wildly driven flat-beds and hit in the face by meatballs flung across the cafeteria by their own children. Their resolve breaks and they descend into the melee of madness, the carnival of chaos, coming to wear iron-jawed, clenched-toothed scowls, primitive ferocity burning in their eyes as they hold their elbows out at vicious right angles to ensure that anyone who dares enter their space will be smashed.
Everywhere you look there are grey-faced, brow beaten, depressed men. They stand like victims of Medusa, living out their torment in static suffering as they watch their wives load up the picture frames, tea-light holders and herb choppers that they will never use into little home appliance mountains; they were only supposed to be coming for a light bulb. The women cluck in irritation, receiving only apologetic shrugs as they ask their husbands’ opinions about whether the shade of the napkins they have picked out would complement the ambience of their dinner parties.
All of this is offset by the inescapable bedlam of the abortive logistics of the store. Human traffic moves in every conceivable direction; it is as packed as the mosh pit at a rock concert. Head on collisions upturn trolleys and spill pillow covers, bonsai trees and potato mashers all over the floor. The tormented wail of a child who justifiably thinks they are lost forever pierces the air like a dagger to the eardrum.
A small Pakistani woman curses in Urdu at the Danish leviathan who was tall enough to reach for the last mint green toilet brush holder that remained beyond her grasp. Hundreds of languages clash in overlapping waves down every aisle, round every corner, and I wonder if this was what it was like when Noah gathered all the animals on the ark. Wistful sighs, guttural screams and condemnatory tuts jostle for position in your head as your brain threatens to shut down from sensory overload.
You accidentally knee a little kid in the face and get yelled at; you accidentally tread on an abaya and get yelled at; you accidentally run over the toe of a man wearing sandals and get yelled at; your wife gets fed up of you getting yelled at and yells at you. In fact, you can’t remember walking more than 2 feet without someone growling whilst pointing their finger at you like a victim picking out their attempted murderer in a courtroom.
A lost-looking bachelor is knocked off balance by a whirlwind of dervish children and as he blindly puts his arm out to steady himself, his hand inadvertently lands on a local woman’s bum. He would have been better off walking out onto a battlefield with his hands tied behind his back and a placard around his neck saying ‘I had an orgy with your mums last night’. He gets slapped, punched, kicked and cursed for the remainder of his grim journey; all he can do, just like the rest of us, is pray for the end.
And eventually, after stopping for the most soul-destroyingly disharmonious meal of your life, after searching for three hours around the maze of flat-packs to see if someone has misplaced the one garden chair that you need to make a full set, and after joining a queue that seems to grow faster than it recedes, it is all over.
Or at least you thought it was.
Because you return to the car and realise that there is no way in hell, even though you only came out to get a new lightbulb, that all of the stuff you have somehow bought is going to fit into the car. You look back at IKEA, towering high above you like a leering giant, and your heart sinks as you realise you are going to have to go back and queue to organise delivery. At this point you feel like Frodo Baggins arriving back to peace and tranquility in Hobbiton at the end of Lord of the Rings, only to get a knock on the door from Gandalf who tells you that he accidentally gave you a ring that he got out of a Christmas cracker and you’re going to need to pop back to Mordor and assail Mount Doom again in order to plop the real ring into the volcano.
And yet – I miss it. The bold colour breaking up the monotony of the Festival City skyline. The burqas, the kanduras, the saris, the head scarves, have all been replaced by jeans, t-shirts and Birkenstocks. I miss the fact that IKEA was like a furniture Disneyland where entire families would pile in and feel the heady concoction of fun and fury, and this has been supplanted by well-behaved, regular sized families following a coldly sequential and logical root through a store that seems to have lost its lustre. I miss the fact that nobody understands my point of reference when I’m sarcastically explaining that I don’t want to do something and I say ‘I’d rather be at IKEA on an Eid weekend’.
Most of all, I miss the sense of achievement at having navigated my way out like Theseus escaping the Minoan labyrinths, and the chicken schwarma that my wife would buy me at the end of the opus as a reward for being good, like a puppy bribed with a handful of pork-scratchings.