Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Looking for Dubai

Two of the bloggers I follow regularly, two of my real favourites are a bit lost in the Sandlands. Both Jeff Jarvis and Josh Spear attended a conference last week in Dubai where their views on the future of the media and popular culture had, I sincerely hope, an ettentive audience.

But on BuzzMachine (in the blog roll on the left) Jeff recounted his efforts to find the 'real Dubai'. Now Jeff and Josh are both Americans; they tend to expect that, beyond the borders of their own still relatively young nation, cities will have a history, an authenticity visible in the form of architecture and cultural vestiges left over from another age. I myself rejoice in the fact that here in Munich I can walk down narrow streets between houses built centuries ago, through palaces beautifully restored in spite of their original true purpose having been lost in the dim, distant past. Munich celebrates this year 850 years of existence, and that makes it by European standards a very young city indeed.

I remember when I first encountered the cityof Dallas as a seventeen-year-old. It was somehow a shock to be unable to find the 'real Dallas'. The oldest edifice was, as I recall, just a centenarian log cabin, lovingly conserved as a 'heritage' site. Dallas, I had to conclude, was just something that had very recently sprung up in surroundings hitherto quite empty and quite inhospitable, an essentially artificial construct owing its existence to mercantile opportunism.

The 'real Dallas', I would argue, emerged only when there were suddenly more than just downtown skyscapers and sprawling suburbs. Dallas was endowed with a durable, indelible narrative when John F. Kennedy lost his life there. And then, possibly even more important, the city became mythical when mediatized by dint of the eponymous television series seen all over the world. The 'real Dallas' is something quite recent as has little to do with heritage. A lot to do with perception.

Isn't this a hint as to why a 'real Dubai' is hard to find? Why the cries of the national population seeking to defend culture and heritage seem anachronistic, given that it has been decided that mercantile opportunism, among other factors, should permit a metropolis to spring from the dunes, to be built by, lived in by and justified by an imported multi-national and multi-cultural population far outnumbering the natives?

Dubai is, I think, waiting for its myth. The three-dimensional reality of vast construction projects, towering buldings and soaring highways, that is, for better or worse, already in existence. But the 'real Dubai' needs that fourth dimension, one which is abstract, conceptual, also probably digital. The myth should not, we must pray, be rooted in a calamity like the assasination of a president or worse. And in the post-television era "Dubai: The Series" is also not a requirement (although I bet someone will try it!).

If Dubai is to be, as optimists like me hope, a prototype for a future form of self-evolving socio-economic entity with a culture of its own then it will be the acquired mythical quality which will make it memorable, not the concrete, nor the well reported growing pains. Not an adobe replica of an insignificant fortification which once stood to guard fishermen and pearl divers. The 'real Dubai' will exist primarily in the mind.

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