I have just spent a very interesting week in Dubai visiting my daughter. Now, I have travelled to various parts of the middle east before, and I know that the souks or markets are terrific places to find interesting old things. It was a surprise to find that the local Emerati community of Dubai seems to be totally subsumed by the consumer needs of their expat population. Traditionalism in arts and crafts or cultural practice are hidden from the tourist gaze.
What is left is what Baudrillard, the french philosopher would call, a simulacra - an artificial construction - a simulation of the real which in Dubai translates into an arab type disney world on a large scale in the form of resort type living communities, and huge shopping malls which cater for the western taste.
The picture above shows a flea market in downtown Dubai. Set in a beautiful park, it consisted of expats offloading their stuff before returning home and eastern Europeans selling costume jewelery.
I was hoping for something interesting to buy, but there was a lot of ikea and huge piles of modern clothes at bargain prices. You could hardly move for the crowd and this was at 8.30 in the morning!
Shopping malls look and feel like every where else in the world except that there are skiing fields or giant aquariums in them, or history lessons full of life ancient boats and ancient architecture. These add a welcome interest to endless big brand shops. Souks it turned out were also full of contemporary tourist trap stuff. The beautiful bedouin dress below was unusual. The lights although traditional were also new and can be found in Morocco.
I can't complain however about the use of traditional architecture in these contemporary souks, such as in Medinat below. The richness and ornateness of middle eastern art continues to be a fascination. As there was nothing old to buy- I focused on the design elements of this fascinating hybrid city.
In particular I was taken with some of the interior design of the Burge Al Arab - the famous sail shaped 7 star hotel in Dubai (yes, thats a helicopter pad on top - you can't expect guests to enter by foyer can you?)
By western standards it has been criticised as kitsch and extravagant and yet it is particularly middle eastern in taste but in a contemporary form. The lift doors for example are pure deco to me - yet on closer inspection they are arabic words and nature inspired shapes and forms that are traditional to the culture and have long been in use as decorative motifs (no doubt influencing the west in the early twentieth century)
The balconies above reference old middle eastern domestic architecture and the colours reflect the surrounding sea and sand of the desert. The gold plated everything that you see above in the foyer (yes, real gold) is an expression of opulence, wealth and power, and it is far less garish and tasteful than the same use of gold at Versaille or Trump Tower for example.
Kitsch by western standards? I don't know - is there anything more kitsch than acres of bland marble, steel and glass that is supposed to represent class and elegance in the western corporate hotel and shopping mall world? We seem so bland in the west, so lost in what Billy Connolly the comedian calls beigism.
In Dubai, it turns out that there is evidence of continuing traditional craftsmanship everywhere - if you look for it. Give me the energy and individualism and rich iconography of other contemporary cultures every time!