I was in the Dubai Marina in the back of a taxi when I noticed the people falling from the sky. Tiny oblong dots of color dropping rapidly, getting bigger and bigger until it was easy to make out the shape of arms and legs, human heads, and, finally, the parachutes ballooning above them like narrow opalescent awnings. They seemed to be falling from nowhere and disappearing into the skyscrapers and construction sites, half choreography and half magic, and yet no one—not the driver, not the tourists milling around the luxury hotel entrances, not the people in the cars beside us—seemed to care. This wasn’t remarkable; it was Dubai, and people were paying hundreds of dollars to be released above the city and fall.
I had come to the Habtoor Grand Resort, a two-tower, 446-room, five-star hotel, to purchase tickets for the next night’s New Year’s Eve concert, a lineup of international and local DJ’s followed by the American rapper Flo-Rida. The online tickets had already sold out and the woman on the phone had insisted that the rest of the tickets would likely be gone before the day was over, and so here I was in person, ready to spend more than a hundred dollars a ticket for a concert that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go to. The point, my friend Lily had told me, was not to enjoy the concert. The point was to experience New Year’s Eve just once in Dubai-style splendor.
Dubai is a city more famous than its country, and it is famous for two things: conspicuous consumption and contradiction. It is a spectacle, maybe, but if you are going to live in the United Arab Emirates, you can either appreciate the glitz for the amusing diversion that it is or spend your time perpetually pissed off. Many of Dubai’s landmarks of wealth are silly, but so too are the ways many Arab and Western expatriates deride them. To roll your eyes at the money and the excess isn’t just a cliché, it is also a critique that ignores the role of Western interests in the ugliest parts of UAE’s brand of economic development while simultaneously discounting the UAE’s success. It’s commonplace to hear people say skeptically of any gleaming mega-project from the Burj Khalifa to Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, “well, it looks nice.” People mean not just that much of the development seems to take shortcuts in order to build so much so quickly or that fake islands are already sinking, fires ruining just-built residential towers, but that all things Dubai lack substance. “They didn’t do anything to get rich,” a Canadian ESL teacher told me shortly after I arrived in the UAE. “I mean, they stumbled onto oil and now they’re buying things. If I find money on the ground and use it to get a television, is that television something I get to feel proud of?” [End Page 152]
Lily reminded me that my chances to experience a “Dubai evening” were limited. “How often will you be here?” she kept saying, by which she meant 1) in June, you return to the United States, and 2) in a week you’ll be living in Al Ain again, two hours away; but this week, while my friend is in the U.S., you have your own Dubai hotel apartment. You can, therefore, this week only, go out with me in Dubai without crashing on the floor of my studio apartment and disrupting my food/exercise/work routines in ways that unnerve me so much that I cannot bring myself to invite you.
Lily and I had known each other since we were kids, had seen each other through broken relationships and engagements, surgeries and health crises, but this was the first academic school year in a long time when we were geographically close. She had lived in the UAE for four years, teaching at a university in Dubai and collecting data on cross-cultural communication...