The fight between tradition and modernity

Dubai… the very name conjures up pictures of tall glass buildings shimmering in the desert, of shopping malls that contain more riches than King Solomon’s mines, of a cosmopolitan metropolis that is home to people from across the world, and indeed perhaps an example of man’s triumph over nature.

I have made a couple of trips to the city to date and at the end of each trip I leave trying to make sense of this city of contrasts; the fight between tradition and modernity is so very apparent here. I get restless in Dubai, this city of extremes. You see skyscrapers and shanty houses, dancing European women in miniskirts juxtaposed against local women covered head to toe in abayas (or burkhas as we know it), and designer stores in a country where most locals only wear black and white. I saw a man walking with his three wives in black robes and one Russian (I think) wife. The Russian was wearing a short skirt and all his kids were walking behind wearing designer clothes. Commercial sex workers walk freely on Sheikh Zhaid road and one night one of them held my hand. I felt I was walking on Clark Quay in Singapore.

There is something odd here, but I do not know what… maybe this city has a young soul and I missed the old soul of India. On the one hand Dubai is one of the first open societies in the Muslim world. It is a man made oasis that celebrates capitalism and is the perfect showcase for extreme wealth and ultra luxury. I think of it as the Las Vegas of the Middle East! It’s common to see fashionably dressed young people walking along streets sided with cafes much like Europe. On the other hand, their parents are still dressed traditionally – men in kanduras (white ankle length robes) and women in abayas and hold on to their traditional lifestyle and orthodox views.

Dubai is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world but its economy and society is skewed in many ways. The country consists of 17% Emeratis with the rest being foreigners. Of the foreigners, a majority are Indian (51%), all there to earn their fortune. From the construction labourer to the jet setting doctor, all dream of earning their millions in the city. Few, however, actually plan to settle there because the city does not encourage settlers. Much like the Army, it expects professionals to put in the best years of their life to city and then leave. And funnily enough people are ok with this. Companies are owned by the Emeratis, managed by westerners and run by Indians and other Asians. Visa regulations are strict and many have been known to get into trouble. Reports about human rights violations, labour issues, women’s rights, and prostitution are common and many foreigners get into trouble with the authorities over debt and visa issues. Despite the facade of modernity, the country still has a feudal mindset and is not very good for women. A recent incident of a Norwegian woman who complained of rape and was slapped with an adultery charge in return and jailed as a result, comes to mind. Thankfully, the courts realised the outrageous nature of the counter suit and have dropped charges but not before causing much distress and trauma to the victim.

I see Dubai as a city which is perfect for a holiday. It caters to all one’s needs from sandy beaches to water sports, ice skating, desert safaris, shopping, luxury hotels and restaurants. But as for living in the city, one has to be focused on only one thing – accumulating material wealth. It’s a city for those who want to make their fortune and true enough much of Kerala has been funded with money coming in from the Gulf.

When I ponder about my feelings for Dubai, I realise that at the root is the city’s energy – it is a city characterised by grey energy (see my essays on The Energy Principles). Just as different people have different types of energies, so do places and time. Dubai is a young and vital city, yet to move beyond its crazy adolescence or wild young adulthood (and I don’t mean that in a chronological sense). It is revelling in being alive and has a hyper vitality that is bent on squeezing out every little pleasure that life has to offer. It is city of action where the end or the goal is all important and determines the means. It is a city that is difficult to satisfy and is restless and there is no end to its cravings. It is the city of desire and pleasure.

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