23 April 2009

Parallel universe less than three hours away

There can’t be a place more unlike Kabul than Dubai, an oasis of affluence on the Persian Gulf, where I recently spent a few days in a training workshop. Dubai, a city of 1.4 million in the United Arab Emirates, is largely one designer shopping mall after another with a series of monstrous hotels to accommodate the shopping tourists and some beachfront. One mall I went to had an aquarium with sharks and a glass pedestrian tunnel that afforded a 180 degree view. The floor above the aquarium housed an “underwater zoo” with separate habitats for selected species of fish, amphibians, and other aquatic creatures.

Eighty percent of the residents of Dubai came from somewhere else to work, according to visitor’s guide I picked up at the hotel where I stayed, which means the city has sizable populations of south Asians, southeastern Asians, other Arabs, and Westerners. It is also a place of remarkable contrasts: for example, a woman cloaked in ankle-length black fabric and fully veiled with only a two-inch window through which she can see another woman passing by in a short skirt and a sleeveless top.

In one of the several English-language newspapers, the ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, assured the public that the global recession was over. The same paper the next day reported that residential real estate prices in the city had fallen as much as 42% over the last six months. There are anecdotes floating around about real estate agents abandoning their luxury cars at the Dubai airport before boarding one-way flights to someplace with fewer creditors. Man-made islands, Burj Al Arab, the world's tallest freestanding hotel, indoor snow skiing, salons and all sorts of restaurants.

Then it’s back to Kabul and going shoulder to shoulder with the throng fighting over space at the only luggage conveyor belt in the airport, while the new terminal, which had its grand opening last fall, lies still. After wresting control of your belongings, you tote them through several layers of concrete barriers to get into a van that can’t drive through the city center because of security alerts about possible violence. Though it really doesn’t matter which way you go because it is rush hour, plus no vehicle can go faster than 25 mph because the potholes are so deep they would crumple your frame. Eventually, after a “five-minute” shopping trip, I got home and realized that somewhere between the conveyor belt and the van I had forgotten a bag full of gifts and a biography of the Prophet I was looking forward to reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment