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At the Spice Souk in Dubai

After spending an hour-and-a-half at the Museum of Islamic Civilization in Sharjah, we continued on our way back to Abu Dhabi via Dubai. We could see examples of  traditional wooden ships–the dhow–docked along the waterfront. Out of the window I caught a glimpse of a grassy area by the corniche in which red flowers had been planted to spell (in English) “Smile You’re in Sharjah” (Apparently, there’s also one in Arabic on the other side.)

We stopped at the Spice Souk in Dubai, with its low tin roofs and winding alleys. One of my colleagues expressed relief at being in a place that felt a little bit more connected to everyday life than the aggressively modern urbanity we’d experienced so far. It wasn’t, of course, like the souk in Cairo which has the feeling of being really old. But it did convey a sense of being older than much of the city around it, a sense of not having been built just yesterday. And it was full of wonderful scents, emanating from the bags of spices lying open in front of small shops. We ventured into one of the shops, where the merchant was pleased to offer us smells and tastes: we ate two kinds of pistachios and some dates, as we looked at the variety of spices he had to offer. My French Department colleague jovially displayed her bargaining skills, and ended up with a small container of top-grade Iranian saffron at a much, much lower price than you’d find in New York.

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Arcade in the Dubai Spice Souk

We wandered through some neighboring souks: my History Department colleague was in search of pashminas and some kind of traditional knife to give her son (who collects them): we  found the former, but didn’t have enough time to explore enough to find the latter.

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Dubai Evening: From the Spice Souk with the Burj Dubai tower visible in the haze.

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Burj al Dubai

As evening fell and the light mellowed, we heard the call to prayer. And then we drove to the Jumeirah Mall. On the way we passed some of Dubai’s famous buildings: the almost-completed Burj al Dubai, now the tallest building in the world; the infamous ski slope (no, we didn’t stop); and the line of towers that have created a virtual cliff facing the sea and apparently significantly altered wind patterns in the city. Our NYUAD liaison told us that as we entered the mall we’d have a fabulous of what is arguably the most beautiful building on the Dubai skyline, the Burj al Arab, a self-styled “seven-star” hotel that only guests are permitted to enter. He was right about the view.

We were told that Jumeirah was one of the first self-contained swanky
ex-pat districts: it offered rich ex-pats so many services (entertainment, recreation, and shopping) that they would never have to venture into the rest of the city if they didn’t want to. The conceit of the Jumeirah mall was to offer fancy modern shops in a souk-like atmosphere. The contrast between the Spice Souk and the Jumeirah Mall sums up one of the challenges that faces NYU Abu Dhabi: how to give our students a sense of connection to the history and traditional culture of the region in which they’ll be studying, even as we promote the site as a gateway to the new  global culture of the twenty-first century? Will it be enough for NYUAD students to feel that they have had some new-fangled “global” experience? Won’t they also expect an experience that is also authentically “Arabic” or “Islamic,” steeped in the rich history of the region?

And that’s something that Abu Dhabi is struggling with as well. How to preserve a sense of the past as the emirate rushes forward into the future. On our first day, we met with representatives from ADACH (the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and
Heritage), which sponsors both presentations of Western culture (the New York Philharmonic’s visit to Abu Dhabi and Al Ain this weekend, for example) and seeks to preserve and promote “heritage.” The idea of “heritage” itself seems to be inflected by a nostalgia for the relatively recent past, dating back to the beginning of the ninetieth century at the earliest. There’s a nostalgia for the pre-oil days of pearl fishing and nomadic desert culture, but seemingly much less interest in the very ancient past of the region.

The Emirates lack the kind of grand residue of the past that one finds in, say, Cairo or Istanbul. What the Emirates have is present grandeur. And that makes visiting and–I imagine, living in–Abu Dhabi or Dubai a very different kind of experience from visiting or living in one of the ancient cities of the Middle East.