The first time I went to Dubai, two years ago, I wasn’t impressed. To the extent that when my parents and I booked our trip to Abu Dhabi last December, I wasn’t particularly excited to go back to Dubai. Now, I’m glad I did. Twice.
Unlike the first time, when I saw all the city’s landmarks in one day barely getting off the car, last December I took my time. My last, yet vivid, impression of dawdling about an amorphic cluster of buildings that badly suited each other, now became an enjoyable walk along an elegant scenery where, I was to find out, there is the space for both old and new.
As a see-what-we-can-do welcome, the first sight I had the pleasure to lay my eyes (and my camera its lens) on was the world’s tallest building, 830-ish-mt, awe-inspiring Burj Khalifa, introduced to first-time visitors by Colombian artist Botero, or better, one of his sculptures, a chubby horse, typical of his style.
Past Botero’s horse, visitors can approach the queen of the show, this steel tower that somehow seems aware of being at the center of everybody’s attention, certainly one of the main reasons why Dubai is a thriving tourist destination and constantly photographed.
Burj Khalifa commands the view to a series of shopping malls, restaurants of any nationality you might feel like eating, hotels and a huge pool with dancing fountains in the middle. When I went, however, the fountains where only hinting at the basic ballet steps as divers were fixing and testing them. Given this was happening in the very center of a super modern and busy city, the view was still able to lend a peaceful atmosphere and the water gave us a sense of space wider than it actually was.
After capturing the new and glitzy side of the city which, like it or not, is stunning, we moved onto more traditional shores, or at least more traditional-looking. Dubai Museum, like Abu Dhabi Heritage Village, aims at reproducing the city’s former lifestyle, before the flashes of both skyscrapers and paparazzi.
Devotedly created for foreign visitors and over-pampered local posterity, Al Kaimah is the primitive residence of the Gulf’s population, built with branches of palm trees and usually consisting of one room designed to face desert unfriendly temperatures by allowing coveted breaths to blow through. In summer, the favorite residence was Al Arish, equipped with wind towers able to channel down the air and make the inside cooler, a sort of forerunner of modern A/C. I hope Dubai Tourism Office will forgive my cynism in feeling that although the museum admirably represents the tribe’s ancient way of living, the sensation of being catapulted back in time is not straightforward, and the past vibes of frugality are too hard to grasp as surrounded as we were by some of the most luxurious trademarks of our times.
Queueing to take pictures of slightly out-of-context boats, beds and desert wells inevitably spoilt the effort of sensing authenticity, which I was bound to find nevertheless. Leaving behind the museum, I headed to one of my all-time (and all-place) favorite sites, where I know I won’t be disappointed, the local market. By the time I stepped over the imaginary threshold, I had already noticed it looked familiar. I entered a spice shops and had my impression confirmed: I was at the old Iranian souq.
Far from complaining, I knew I would have enjoyed it as much as I did at Tehran’s markets a couple of months before. The main difference with the markets in Iran was that here shopkeepers spoke every language. Despite their good will though, it wasn’t the sign in a perfect Italian that lured me in the spice shop (please don’t talk to me in Italian, I’d rather try my way in Farsi!), but the beguiling display of Iranian saffron, on sale for a tenth of the price I would normally pay in Italy. Iranians’ obvious knack for trading combined with my love for spices and herbs had the predictable result of a bigger purchase that I had envisaged.
Along with a bartering talent, Iranian traders have somehow the ability of decoding one’s origins in the twinkling of an eye. So, after the mandatory bargaining, he enthused: “Aahh, Italy, the most beautiful country! And Venezia, the most beautiful city!” Italy always plays a romantic role in people’s mind, but in this case I soon learned they knew what they were talking about. When they told me they had been to Italy several times for business, I thought sensible surprising them with the revelation I, too, had been to their country. “Whaaaat???” Was their first reaction, making me grin contentedly. “And why did you not come back with an Iranian husband?!” Now, I was the one taken aback. Iranian husband? Me? When? How could this happen? I started babbling some lame excuse, aware that our cultural differences were not going to make us find an agreement in what proved to be a moot point.
I might have left Iran (and Dubai, for that matter) still single, but I was pleased to find out that in the Near East, unlike China, I’m not considered completely hopeless yet.