ArticleA Desert Mirage
North American Downtowns are teeming with skyscrapers like the one above. European City Centres have them, too, but they, so-to-say, specialize in “history written through architecture”: streets or even whole quarters built in a particular style - Gothic, Classic, Baroque, Rococo and such - typical of a certain historical epoch. However, when it comes to the Gulf Countries, one would rather expect construction dominated by oriental motifs - like, for instance
And yet, the skyscraper in the cover picture, known as Burj Khalifa, is located neither in Europe, nor in North America but in Dubai - a city whose very name has over the last several decades become synonymous with “wonder”. Coincidentally, the “tower” (which is the English equivalent of the word “burj”) is one of the wonders of the modern world - simply because at 830 meter, it's the world's tallest building - but not necessarily the wonder of Dubai itself!
It so happened that so far, I have covered only those wonders I personally saw and experienced. This is the first - and possibly the only - exception, and my hand is, in a way, forced: I couldn't realistically visit the place in question but I can't fail mentioning it either. A hotel with a floor-to-ceiling window right next to an aquarium that features 65,000 marine animals. To be precise, the hotel is essentially within the aquarium, because it is located underwater. Aptly, the hotel's name is Atlantis.
Atlantis opened in 1999, and staying there must have been considered an experience rather than any kind of necessity. For obvious reasons, it was impossible to just drop by for an hour to dine in the restaurant or hang around in the lobby - so, to see that phenomenon, one would need to book a room. A 10,000 USD a night, if I were to believe the local guide hosting the city tour I participated in. The concept of “underwater hotel” might have lost some of its lustre by now - an inevitable result of living in a “global village” where everything becomes known right away, and copied soon thereafter! - but it can be hardly considered a common place, either.
The list of Dubai wonders must be quite long (there is, for instance, Burj Arab nicknamed “the only 7-star hotel in the world”), and many of them deserve a chapter, if not a whole book. However, there is a wonder that is the easiest to overlook - Dubai itself, or maybe I should call it “the spirit of Dubai”. As recently as the 19th century, Dubai was a traditional fishing village, and that village is still the core part of the modern megalopolis! As words are often ill-suited to describe “spirit”, the famous adage mentioning one picture and thousand words has never been more useful!
This time the architecture is quite traditional but the courtyard itself is a tiny part of a behemoth mall where the concepts of “shopping”, “entertainment”, “leisure”, “culture” and such seem to be completely western. Buildings looking like alien spaceships are rubbing beams with palms.
People in traditional attire are everywhere, and the number of locals speaking English is not much smaller than it would be in London or New-York (the same might be true regarding other European languages). Most of them are happy to answer questions and/or volunteer information - such as, for instance, that passing a car belonging to a member of a royal family is a legal crime (the offender might end up in jail for a number of weeks), or that foreigners are legally forbidden to sue Emirates citizens. Segregated beaches, strictly tabooed for the “opposite gender”, go without saying. Alcohol is illegal outside private homes of non-Muslims, and licensed hotels - maybe that's why Dubai has for years been chosen for parties and celebrations by celebrities and VIPs from all over the world!
By mentioning “a city of contrasts”, one often means a discrepancy between wealth and poverty. Dubai has plenty of the former and none of the latter - and yet, it might be the truest and most genuine city of contrasts on the planet: a megalopolis with the heart and soul of a fishing village.