Monday, July 25, 2005

The San Francisco Chronicle really, really hates Dubai, and the paper isn't coy about giving us reasons, starting with the title of the piece ("Dubai is a chimera to be: Sheikhdom's future promises excess, sin and sadistic violence"). I have to smile a bit at the idea of someone from San Francisco clucking at the thought of "excess, sin, and sadistic violence": It sounds like just another typical Saturday night at the neighborhood bathhouse.

Now seriously, the author does point out the truly nasty business that does happen in Dubai:

The Russian girls at the elegant hotel bar are but the glamorous facade of a sinister sex trade built on kidnapping, slavery, and sadistic violence. Dubai, any of the hipper guidebooks will advise, is the Bangkok of the Middle East, populated with thousands of Russian, Armenian, Indian and Iranian prostitutes controlled by various transnational gangs and mafias. (The city, conveniently, is also a world center for money laundering, with an estimated 10 percent of real estate changing hands in cash-only transactions.)

But this sort of stuff is only a small part of the piece. Most of it consists of sneering descriptions of the city's tourist attractions:

Your jellyfish-shaped hotel is, in fact, exactly 66 feet below the sea surface. Each of its 220 luxury suites has clear Plexiglas walls that provide spectacular views of passing mermaids as well as the hotel's famed underwater fireworks, a hallucinatory exhibition of "water bubbles, swirled sand, and carefully deployed lighting." Any initial anxiety about the safety of your sea- bottom resort is dispelled by the smiling concierge. The structure has a multilevel fail-safe security system, he reassures you, that includes protection against terrorist submarines as well as missiles and aircraft.

Although you have an important business meeting at the Internet City free- trade zone with clients from Hyderabad and Taipei, you have arrived a day early to treat yourself to one of the famed adventures at the Restless Planet dinosaur theme park. Indeed, after a soothing night's sleep under the sea, you are aboard a monorail headed for a Jurassic jungle. Your expedition encounters some peacefully grazing apatosaurs, but you are soon attacked by a nasty gang of velociraptors. The animatronic beasts are so flawlessly lifelike -- in fact, they have been designed by experts from the British Museum of Natural History -- that you shriek in fear and delight.

The author follows this with editorial comments that leave no uncertainty as to the way the audience is supposed to look at Dubai ("a pastiche of the big, the bad and the ugly"..."not just a hybrid but a chimera: the offspring of the lascivious coupling of the cyclopean fantasies of Barnum, Eiffel, Disney, Spielberg, Jerde, Wynn, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill"..."the city's monstrous caricature of futurism") until he gets to the point, the dirtiest and meanest invective he can think of: "the latest fad in urban capitalism."

In fact, I have no doubt that the "excess" referred to in the title of the piece is the excess of wretched consumerism. I get the very distinct feeling that the author is not as upset about Dubai's human trafficking and child slavery--which in any case happens all over the Muslim world, often with full religious sanction--as much as he is about the Evil Capitalism on display there. There is little doubt that the author, Mike Davis, disapproves of it all: In consecutive sentences he compares the city's architectural style to Nazi Germany (in case you missed the cute reference to "Albert Speer and his patron", i.e. Hitler) and Las Vegas. Now there's excess for ya.

Dubai is the kind of place that Mohamed Atta, like the author, hated. This is one of the points where the beliefs of Islamic head-choppers and granola-eating hippies coincide exactly: They hate flashy developed cities, and they both want to impose their mutual vision of dusty mud-huts for all on the world.

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