November 12, 2011

Illusion: 'A Tale of Four Cities'

Here is a literary (or creative, if you please) non fiction piece, Illusion on my shopping experiences in Dubai which was published in the newly launched online literary magazine, A Tale of Four Cities. Chronicling narratives from the cities of New York, London, Mumbai, and Dubai, the magazine is looking forward to receiving submissions from writers, especially those writing about Mumbai and Dubai. 

I, for one, both enjoyed reading the different vignettes from each city and also, writing about Dubai. In general, when it comes to my creative writing pieces, I usually find it difficult to write about the Gulf Middle East, which has been my home for much of my life. However, perhaps due to a few posts I have written for this blog and pieces such as these, my resistance to writing about my current homeland is gradually crumbling and I am finding it easier to respond to and  represent it in my writing. In fact, I am also currently working on a short story which captures much of the atmosphere of the early days of shopping in Dubai.

And here is the link to the piece as it appeared in the magazine...


For some odd reason, the only photographs that I happen to have of Dubai in my possession are ones featuring my family and me in its streets, markets, and malls over the decades. Take this one: my toddler brother and I awkwardly stand amid the sun-bleached chaos of Deira. In another, taken just before I began university, I playfully wreathe my face with a patently faux vine of creepers; the same trip also witnesses me warily standing by a mannequin. Yet, where is Dubai amid it all? Are these shopping-centric photographs testimony to the fact that shopping is the only and ultimate way to define my relationship with Dubai?

Having lived in Muscat, Oman for most of my childhood and adult life and thus, in relatively close proximity to Dubai, I have always largely associated Dubai with a simultaneous sense of holiday and familiarity. While Muscat was content in remaining a backwater, Dubai patently did not exercise similar aspirations and accordingly gained an exciting hold for us Muscat denizens. During Eid and Oman’s National Day holidays, Muscat would witness a virtual mass exodus of its population to Dubai; it was common to find Dubai roads crowded with Oman’s distinctive mustard-yellow license plated cars or bumping into one’s colleagues and classmates at shopping malls.

Dubai was that veritable Aladdin’s Cave of shopping: ombre-hued chiffon saris from Meena Bazaar, blankets from wholesale markets where Persians sold them in floppy, transparent plastic suitcases, and Lladro figurines from Al Ghurair Shopping Centre. Once, when Ramadan fell during January, we walked the entire length of Al Fahidi Street one cold night before reluctantly calling it a night at 2am.

During summer Dubai trips, in the brief pockets of time spent outside when flitting between shops and taxis, we would smell an exclusively Gulf urban scent: petrol fumes and roasting shwarma converging with dry, intense heat. Lunching in Indian restaurants with oilcloth-covered tables and plastic vases containing faux yellow roses, we would consume thali while watching Zee TV’s then most famous soap, Tara on 27-inch TVs. 

In little market squares studding Deira and Bur Dubai, we would transit from one textile store to another, the majority virtually indistinguishable from one another: the harsh, unflattering overhead white tube-lights, bolts of cloth in every pattern, color, texture, and fabric imaginable, and the glass-topped counters barricading us from the fabric. I would murder boredom by peering at what lay beneath the glass: catalogue pictures of statue-faced models wearing latest salwar-kameez designs or rummaging through cardboard boxes stuffed with freshly sheared scraps of cloth, which made excellent temporary scarves or blind-folds. Outside, in the lank, heavy air, we would walk past electronic stores, where crowds had gathered to watch India play one-day cricket matches on multiple, differently-sized TV-screens. 

I was unable to visit Dubai between 2001 and 2007 due to various reasons; however, it had been impossible in the interim to be unaware of the massive transformation that Dubai had undergone during those years and indeed, when I arrived in August 2007, the city seemed to be at the apogee of its extravagant reinvention. There was an overt sense of Dubai being prettily packaged for display which resultantly made it somewhat inaccessible and unattainable. 

Fresco at Mercato Mall

In this new, picture-perfect Dubai, I felt as if I was gradually losing my moorings altogether when migrating from one mall to another. Had it not been more or less reduced to that: city of malls, those palaces of illusions? At the Mall of Emirates, I peered at visitors reveling in the pleasure of encountering snow in Dubai of all places. At our next stop, at the Mercato mall, we examined quasi Italian-frescos and mock pastel fa├žades while sunlight generously drizzled through the glass skylight into the crisp-autumn air cool interiors.

Dome at Ibn Battuta mall

Finally, in Ibn Battuta mall, which had brought together myriad worlds under one roof while depicting the journey of the eponymous 14th century traveler, Ibn Battuta, they had even defiantly turned day into night. I felt as if I was in a movie set what with the faux buildings, streets, and the stars studding a mauve evening sky; the harsh daylight bleaching the world almost white seen through the entrance door seemed incidental. Which one of those worlds was real and ersatz respectively? Did it even matter? 

Faux evening at Ibn Battuta mall

 Like the accidental, incidental beam of sunlight, shopping seemed to have become irrelevant to our Dubai experience. When we strayed beyond the city perimeters and encountered the blank dun dunes, I wondered how long it would be before they would be transformed into yet another faux universe. Dubai was a work of progress then, the canvas constantly being re-painted, and improvisation being the name of the game. 

For some reason, once again, years have elapsed since my last Dubai visit and the gap has been sufficient enough to subsume the last visit into the many visits undertaken to Dubai over the years. So, even now, I cannot help but experience that feeling of ‘going to Dubai’: a sensation that has not quite yet evaporated from my childhood, which tastes of excitement and newness and acquisition. 

Going to Dubai involves the ritual of crossing the border, through the mountains, past the enormous rust-hued dunes at Hatta, and finally glimpsing the billboards: those gateways to the kingdom of shopping. By the time we approach the city outskirts, the skyline, citadels of that kingdom, deigns to appear in the distance: an unique mirage which becomes more and more solid the nearer you approach it. 

What we thought was illusion was real, after all; such is the thin line between illusion and reality. 



  1. A good compilation of what Dubai has to offer!

  2. Thank you for visiting, Rahul, hope to see you again over here...and yes, for me, shopping and Dubai are virtually synonymous with one another so it was an interesting piece to write:)

  3. Very interesting thoughts on Dubai!


  4. Lovely to see you again, Leia and thank you for your comment:) In fact, I was just thinking that as it has been such a long while since I have been to Dubai, I wonder whether I will feel differently about it on my next visit. I have a feeling the visit might happen soon, I have a need to indulge in a big dose of retail therapy!

  5. Very interesting post on Dubai! I am planning a trip there next summer and I cannot contain my excitement! I have read so many intriguing things about this great place! I really can't wait for the Desert Safari Dubai we have planned, have you ever been? Thanks for this great blog!

  6. @Deena, first of all, welcome and thank you so much for stopping by! I am happy to hear that you enjoyed reading the post and I would be interested to know as to what you will make of Dubai when you visit - here's wishing you a great trip in advance! And no, I haven't ever been on the Desert Safari Dubai...but seems like I only shopped in Dubai, never indulged in the typical touristy things;)


Thank you so much for taking the time out to leave a comment. I look forward to hearing from you!