Many people like to describe Dubai as a cultural melting pot, and on certain levels that moniker may be true. However, I prefer to think about it is a cultural lasagne, because I believe that although a myriad of races, nationalities and religions all reside within the same place, often their lives are lived quite separately and distinctly from one another, much like the ingredients divided by the delicious pasta sheets within the Italian classic. Lives are not so much intermingled as lived like different lanes within the same race, with one competitor rarely crossing over or leaving the lane marked out for them and into another.
The Western expat community often has little interaction or anything to do with the Emiratis; the Filipinos live in tightly knit communities amongst their own, and the lives of the Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis living in Deira and Bur Dubai couldn’t be more different to the thriving, moneyed Iranian or Russian communities spread out through Downtown, Business Bay and Garhoud. The coexistence of these philosophically, linguistically, behaviourally and culturally incompatible groups can often result in some fantastic outcomes. So, welcome to the city of a thousand eyes.
I call it the city of a thousand eyes because nobody, from any community, is ever further than a handful of minutes away from being the victim of gape-jawed ogling or fixed-eye bewilderment when values, traditions, colours and customs clash like hammer on steel in the forgery of cross-continental blacksmithery. Whether it be straight men from India holding hands in sight of uptight British friends who would rather punch their mate then touch him, topless sunbathers laying next to Burkha clad Bahrainis, or bemused Africans watching Australians stoically wait for hours on end for waves at Um Suqiem 2, there is never a shortage of ‘other’ to gawk at.
Eyes At The Beach
A white Russian woman steps onto the beach at JBR. Her hair is platinum blonde and her eyes a cool, dewy blue. She lays down her towel and a picnic basket. As everybody finishes work for the day, the early evening call to prayer sounds in the background. The Russian woman takes off her sarong to reveal a sheer white g-string constructed of so little material that it looks like she forgot her bikini and decided to construct a replacement out of dental floss and a solitary cotton pad. If there is anything left to the imagination then it is only because there must be some biological irregularities in her downstairs mix-up that nobody is aware of.
A group of Pakistani labourers, hazel-eyed and raven haired, Kanduras skittering in the sand, are ambling along the beach after a gruelling day’s work. The Russian woman takes off her top to reveal two augmented orbs that could comfortably double as Geography room globes if only they had maps of the world on them; it is a wonder that they don’t have their own fields of gravity, and as the Pakistanis, about as subtly as a firework display in a Buddhist monastery, half walk, half run towards her, I wonder if they are indeed exerting a gravitational pull.
They stop about six feet from the towel that Barbie is now laying on and then just brazenly, openly, unashamedly gawp and stare. There is absolutely no guile or sneakiness to the staring whatsoever, no half stolen glances, peeps over their shoulders or sideways glimpses; they simply stand, front on, and look, like children peering through bars at an exotic animal – in fact they make a horny teenage boy clumsily attempting to conceal his multitudinous glimpses at his crush’s cleavage look as stealthy and secretive as the actions of Sherlock Holmes. But the indiscretion in this increasingly zoological encounter of cultural contradictions does not stop there.
A couple of mobile phones are snuck out from a concealed pocket. The men arrange themselves as if they are going to take a photo of one another. However, they are not positioned facing out to sea where the sights and sunsets are, oh no. They are positioned in front of and slightly to the left of Chesty McSilicon, who by now is laying on her back sleeping, with her hamster ball boobs protruding directly upwards like twin hills from a pink Legoland landscape. The photographer (or perhaps we should say amateur pornographer) clearly points his camera to the right of his two friends, pausing only long enough to zoom in close enough to Chesty to be able to see the fibres on the string struggling to ensnare her prosthetic udders.
The same dirty smirk that adorns the faces of old men pawing through top-shelf magazines in petrol stations stretches across his face, and the process is repeated twice more for his friends’ mobiles. The men shiftily jiggle their hands in their pockets as they return their mobiles. You can’t shake the disturbing thought that the wank bank has enjoyed a late evening of extremely prosperous deposits.
Because of moments like this, there are areas of Dubai where they have even introduced beach ‘referees’ who whistle and send off anyone coming to the beach who is not dressed as if they are there to swim or sunbathe. So if you head down to Kite Beach or the Russian Beach, make sure you have your boardies or bikini on, or the beach ref will send you off for loitering with the intent to ogle. If you are wearing a kandura then I wouldn’t even bother parking the car.
Eyes In Karama
If you ever need the toilet in Karama and you are not in a restaurant or bar, then I would strongly recommend that you simply void your bladder or bowels – it will probably end up being less embarrassing and more dignified. I once had the misfortune to need to heed a sudden call of nature whilst negotiating the price for a knock off Abercrombie t-shirt in Deep Look. I was directed to the public toilet. The Karama public toilet. This was urgent, so I moved as rapidly as I could.
I headed in.
A ubiquitous brownish liquid on the floor, metallic squat basins and cubicles devoid of doors were the delightful vista that greeted me. But I had to go. Just as my ordeal had begun, squatting, trousers round ankles etc. someone walked in. Footsteps approached my doorless cubicle as I froze in horror; eventually an Indian gentleman peered around the frame of where the door should have been. He repositioned himself so that he was facing me head on, waggling his head and smiling a smile totally incongruous to the repugnance of the situation. From the intentness of his gaze you would have thought that he was contemplating the hidden meaning within the brushstrokes of a Renaissance masterpiece, rather than watching a desperate bloke defecating. God only knows what grim intrigue he found in the situation; maybe he was trying to see if the urban legend that white people produced white faecal matter was actually true. Of course, I hurled a barrage of pleas, admonishments and expletives at him, but nothing could compel him to move, not even when the final act of wiping was underway. As I made to get up, he ran off. I stood there feeling dirty, defiled and dishonoured, yet mildly relieved that he hadn’t gotten his mobile out to immortalise my degradation.
If only they had bathroom referees as well.
Eyes On The Bus
A couple of years ago my wife and her sister went on a weekend break to Muscat. They flew with Fly Dubai and thus found themselves in the transfer bus at Terminal 2, making their way to their plane. The bus was, as ever, pretty crowded and the both of them found themselves cramped into a huddle with a group of subcontinental men.
After a short while, a mobile phone was pulled out of a pocket with all the craft and intricacy of a barbarian pulling a club out of its sheath. The man, with his back to my wife and sister, began to crouch slightly down and stretch the hand holding the phone downwards. The mobile, in full and obvious view of my wife and her sister, made its way towards an angle that would enable the holder to take an upskirt shot that the British gutter press would have been proud of. They watched as an uncoordinated, disorientated thumb tried to press the record button; they also watched another two mobiles appear like unwanted guests trying unsubtly to creep into a party.
My wife started to push the first offending mobile away and challenged the men as to what they were doing. All of them reverted to a cartoonish melodrama of ignorance and innocence; they wouldn’t turn around and started looking around the bus in different directions and even whistling in an ‘honest it weren’t me guv’ fashion. It does make the mind boggle somewhat as to what cultural stereotypes have been passed on about white women, if people think they can snap away at a woman’s privates without them getting upset about it.
Eyes At The Clinic
Vast swathes of guys from rural areas of Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan get flown over to Dubai every day to take up jobs in the construction or security industries. Their first stop is usually to one of Dubai, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, or Ras Al Khaimah’s blood clinics to have the tests that we all needed to have in order to get our visas. These clinics are invariably absolutely packed out, with disorderly queues spilling out on to the street like a jailbreak. It is not unreasonable to assume that a lot of these guys are coming from places where sightings of Europeans or Westerners are pretty slim, making the first white people they see seem like curios from a fanciful natural history book. I am confident that I have been that anthropological oddity on at least a couple of occasions at the clinic.
When I had my first ever blood test in Dubai, I waited in a gargantuan crowd at a clinic in Deira that I can only describe as a subcontinental stew, one white potato in a soup of saffron, nutmeg and turmeric. The second that I arrived, every last set of eyes was permanently fixed on me, standing a full head above most of the people there. I was reminded of the arcade grab machine in Toy Story where the little green aliens stared with awe and wonder at the clawwwwww, following it with a thousand eyes united in mutual bedazzlement. I have never felt so exotic or interesting, mainly because I am neither exotic or interesting, but that is another story. For this one moment I was like a rainbow coloured Minotaur.
Everywhere I walked, the gazes shifted with me like motion sensors. My mouth ached from permanently attempting to smile back at all of the people who were looking at me. And when I finally made it out of the melee in the car park and into the clinic, the guys who were in there that hadn’t already seen me started elbowing and nudging their friends once they’d clocked me as if the campus weirdo had just walked into the cafeteria. They were making sure that they didn’t miss out on the Caucasian freak show playing out in seat 17a.
After I’d been waiting for about two hours, a guy in a Manchester United shirt clocked me and his eyes lit up as if he’d just seen a landed angel. Across the crowded room he met my eyes and simply screamed ‘ENNNGGLLLLAANNNDDD, WAYNE ROOOONEEEEYYYY, DAVID BECKHAAAAAMMMMM, MARGARET THATTCCCHHHEERRR’ as if possessed by some anglophile demon. He followed this up by barging through the masses until he reached me, giving me high fives as he listed the names of as many British celebrities, politicians, bands, sportspersons and places as he could think of. He couldn’t speak English as such, but he did know who Simon Cowell and Jordan were, which would probably be enough to get him through a UK citizenship test.
I left the clinic feeling like a celebrity who had done absolutely nothing to deserve their adulation. Always wondered what it felt like to be Paris Hilton.
No Eyes On Me
Now I’m back in Europe, I’m just another boring white face amongst millions of other boring white faces. My wife’s knickers are no longer the object of photographic intrusions and nobody has stared at her chest for longer than a few seconds in months. Our self-esteem is at an all-time low. If it gets any worse, perhaps I’ll have to dig a Russian porno bikini out of the closet for my wife, and a Man United shirt and some speedos for me and we’ll go and take a long, slow, walk down JBR beachfront.