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The International Writers Magazine: Dubai

Dreaming Dubai
Marwan Asmar

I had been to Dubai twice in my life: In 1998 and 2003, the latter was a harrowing experience. Today they tell me Dubai is more modern with lots of skyscrapers and add-ons, but I’d rather leave it to the more adventurous travel buffs!
The first time I went to Dubai, it was a source of imagination and fascination. You were constantly bedazzled by the Sheikh Zayed Road with its impressively tall buildings and decoratively designed skyscrapers, by its marinas and shopping malls. I promised myself I would have to go there again.

The second time I went to Dubai was in 2003, right after the American-led war on Iraq which resulted in the toppling of Saddam Hussein. I was very excited to be going in one of the top English newspapers as a senior researcher.
I was like anybody else waiting to live the Dubai dream if there was one, having spent my last 13 years as a managing editor of The Star English newspaper in Amman. It took me about seven months of internet correspondence and travel to Dubai, to finally get the post. I should have realized something was wrong, but I prayed everything was going to be alright.

My brother told me some of these ‘high-caliber’ jobs require that long and I should just sit tight and wait. He was of course comparing with the work practices in the United States, but this was Dubai for God Sakes and it just takes a couple of months to complete the formalities. Many pack up and go in no time.

Dubai, is really beautiful, it had been, and is being built in such a delicate way to enthuse a sense of a get-up-and-go vibration, it has inspiration, fortitude, dynamism and development, sun-battling water-green turf, and endless construction sites and cranes. It’s a city that is developing at the twinkle of an eye.

My job was simply to write endlessly researched stories and publish them. At least this was what my new chief editor told my I had to do, and I was pleased because I wanted to write.

In between that I was given to understand I was to build a research department, one that was vibrant, active and produce the kind of feature writing, analysis and profiles that would quality-beat any other newspaper anywhere in the Gulf.

Of course I had a head, an Emiriti in her 30s as my new boss, she was strangely beautiful, an elongated face with droopy eyes yet there was an unnerving aura about her, made more distinct when there was more foundation cream.
She wanted to know everything and anything I do and I had to report directly to her. This was a first time in my life I was put in this situation but I told myself I can cope, it was a challenging post since research is something I wanted to do; I want to be part of the capitalistic rat-race, the consumerism, those that spend their time in coffee shops in between window shopping or book shopping of which the city had many.

Many, I tried to convince myself would have given his right arm to be in Dubai just to be part of the dream, the fable and the story. Dubai was also a growing media city with television satellites beaming from there. I certainly didn’t want to give up a challenging chance despite the fact that things started to go wrong after the first month or so.

I wasn’t supposed to offer too much of an opinion, I was supposed to do what I was told, and supposed to speak when I was spoken to. Only later did I realize that and began to practice the rules, although in the beginning I did make statements and ballyhooed opinions that may have been frowned upon.

My boss was the head of the research center, if you can call it that, and not the chief editor whom I seldom saw. It was actually a new set up to me. Back in Amman, I would treat my reporters as a team, listening, discussing and even arguing from stories ideas, to editing and right down to design, here the hierarchy was the most important. You respect your elders, your seniors, your betters!
I was locked. Our offices—one large second floor—was just beyond the Sheikh Zayed Road, from where I was seated I could see a very beautiful zero-shaped sky-scrapper, but sadly I could not enjoyed the exterior qualities of Dubai. There was no time for that.
Our offices were nice, comfortable and should have been exiting, but they seemed and felt austere and alien, nerve-racking, you had to keep looking at your shoulder as if someone was watching you. I would have liked to have made many friends to talk to but there was no time for that.

Every morning a bus would come and pick me up….it would be just me and full of Indian workers….typists, clerks, marketers, and accountants. It was an Indian colony, nothing wrong in that, but you could count us Arabs on your hands.

Because of the geographic location at the tip of the Arabian/Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates had and still have unique historical relations with the Indian subcontinent, where whole colonies would exist on either side. The newspaper reflected that relation, except nationals, Arabs, Brits, Australians and South African whites were in a distinct minority. In a way our newspaper reflected the rhythm of the society, economy and even polity. It reflected the internationalization of Dubai and of the oil-rich UAE.

The newspaper was big, huge you can say, full of color, though it was money talk rather than journalism walks. Despite its glitz the culture of Dubai in terms freedom of speech reflected what was going on in the Arab world, you can show a lot but it must not be critical, it has to be borderline, vague at times and full of glory.

I thought my research and article publications were quite good, in fact, at first it was much liked, obviously they thought I was a writer, I talked about the rise and fall of Saddam Hussein, about the World Bank, date production and agriculture in the UAE and lots and lots of translations, weekly actually, from the Arabic press.

Sinister things started to develop. I was no longer allowed to suggest, I started to take orders of what I should write about. When I would write something it would conveniently be shoved under the table in between other papers, if you had tried to talk, I would be confronted with "what", "why", "its ok", or "why did you not do it" and "who told you to do that". And so life moved on, I should have come back to Amman, but stuck it out.

And instead of enjoying the Dubai culture, its shopping malls, and elongated skyscrapers, along with the many faces of Europeans, those from former Eastern Europe, Russia, China, and any other nationality you can think of, you spend yourself thinking about the work processes, and what is exactly people want of you and demand of you.

Living in the Third World is indeed a problem because you never know what people want from you, there are no fixed rules, no established procedure of processes, you have to go on whims, prejudices and types of thinking. Because the system is still in the making, a novice like me becomes subjected to the number of friends you can make, how close you can get to them, pamper them, if you can’t pamper and say nice things every morning, noon and night, then I am afraid you are in trouble!

If you satisfy the calls of one editor, you may be dissatisfying another. Living in a secluded atmosphere of the weekly newspaper in Amman, you can control to a degree the pressures of office politics, in a large newspaper, you can’t: The hierarchy, especially if you are not working according to the principles of an established system based on meritocracy, is frustrating, demeaning, outlandish.

Dubai is a city that is overwhelming, outside the dreams of anyone. Walking alongside Khor Dubai—the water inlet splitting the city in two halves and connecting it through a bridges and barrages carrying commuters from one side to another—is rather pleasing. The water-soaked turf, the benches, the blue water in front of you, projecting the business side of Dubai, is spiritually exiting, taking you out of your system to ponder of what things could be.

There are over one 100 banks in Dubai, showing the extent of the mercantile activity that exists there. In that little city that has indeed a big heart. I would walk, many a time, on the other side of the Khor, starting from its small public library, passing the city center, hotels, and lots and lots of dhows and boats that transport goods to different destinations of the world, and actually feel proud about a city that is making it in a tough world of globalization, of competition, bank accounts, the need to balance books in the face of giants.

Dubai is about economics and business, it’s about speaking of one building project today, and making it happen the next. Here there was no time for waiting, the pace was too short. This was certainly not a place about politics, but it was about political relations for business growth and economics.

God blessed the UAE with oil and lots of it that give it lots of money. Dubai, as one of the seven emirates that made the UAE had its fair share from oil revenue but time and again you can hear it being said the Dubai success story lies in its commerce, export-import trade, as it is a major trading port, and the business acumen of its population, albeit a tiny one.

It was in this euphoria I was thrown in, a euphoria where I had to say "yes mam", "no mam", "three bags full mam". I could not, so I was probably made to pay. In the end nobody would touch me with a hot poker, my Emirati editor just put up his hands in the air, my English editor buried his head in the sand, my personnel officer closed her door having caught her once with a sandwich in one hand and having an international call with another poor prospective employee who is likely to fly over and live the dream at the end of his tether.

My Dubai dream world did not work. I picked up my bags and left, much more easily than when I came in, I was handed back my passport at the airport. An Indian clerk came especially from the newspaper to hand me the passport, I made myself to the departure lounge, and he drove off into the city. I had already befriended him at the prayer room where we would meet every afternoon.

There was no time for me to ponder on the past 12 months for I was deluged by the amount of passengers going to different destinations. There was no time for the likes of me, I had to keep moving, the city was expecting more tourists to live the Dubai dream. If they didn’t make it well, tough, the airport is 10 minutes drive from the city if there is no traffic jam that is.

In my last days at the newspaper, haggling my professional status, my superior gave me 3 out of 10 in her last report. I was taken back to my kindergarten days but what can I do, it’s their home, we are mere mortals!

© Marwan Asmar September 2007

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