Each diner received a plate with a whole tomato, cucumber and lemon, carrot slices and greens. I’d come to Dubai several days before the Arab Health conference to acclimate to the time change and vacation a bit in a part of the world that was new to me.
As I constructed my make-it-yourself salad, I watched Dubai come to life from the sidewalk café on a busy street. It was Friday, the first day of the weekend and the only day off for many working-class people. Shops opened after the hour of prayer, and people streamed out into the sunshine. January in Dubai delivered lovely shirtsleeve weather with just a touch of humidity.
I tried to identify the nationalities of the faces moving by: Arab, certainly, but also Indian, Pakistani, Western European, Chinese, Korean, African and Eastern European. Most appeared to be residents rather than tourists.
The architecture is blue and grey, upward reaching with peaks and points. Some skyscrapers look like they have been sculpted on one or more sides, and one even appears twisted. The horizon is streaked with construction cranes. The traffic density lives up to all the horror stories I’ve read.
Hopping onto one of the crowded metro cars, I closed my eyes and listened to the languages around me. Almost everyone here speaks some English, along with Arabic, of course, and a native language, although many of the foreign faces were actually born here, I learned later. I can identify most of the languages, and the ones I can’t intrigue me because I know I’ve seen their written forms. Dubai is a true international crossroads.
As the train left the downtown area, the landscape became brown and dusty, broken by plantings of palm and other drought-tolerant trees and bushes. Water is the product of desalination plants and, as promised by the hotel staff, does indeed taste strange. I looked out on families cheering weekend cricket games, the spectators sitting cross-legged near the batsman. The water I saw in the distance was the Persian Gulf.
Most signage is in both English and Arabic, and on the way to the Mall of the Emirates, I catalogued the various ways the signage combined English with the right-to-left Arabic. The rulers in Dubai are forward thinking, preparing the country to be a commercial hub when the oil runs out. The dual-language signage, in addition to serving to welcome foreign tourists, helps increase English capabilities in the populace.
The Mall of the Emirates has 502 stores. During January, a Shopping Festival is taking place in Dubai. I wasn’t sure what that meant and so I asked. The stores encourage everyone to go shopping to celebrate the new year. The stores are decorated, and there are contests and drawings nearly every day. The combination of the Festival and it being a weekend meant the Mall was extremely crowded. The cultural difference in the sense of personal space also contributed. People here stand much closer to each other—and to strangers—than we do. I admit to being a bit claustrophobic.
Seated out of the traffic pattern with an espresso, I began a study of who was wearing what. There are many variations on the native dress of dishdasha for males and abaya for females. More on that later, along with a report on my visit to the gold souk.