03 Dec 2012

Dubai: A Return to the Past in a Place That’s Defined by the Future

Childhood memories: we all have them. Some of them playful, some of them embarrassing, some fond and others not, but we can all jog the memory bank to bring them back to the projector of experience playing in our mind. Think of the sights, the sounds, the faces and places, the feelings and thoughts that guided you through youth; now take it away.

From 1991-1997 I spent some of the most formative years of my youth in Dubai, U.A.E., a far cry from my hometown of Durango, Colorado. Splitting my school time in Dubai and my summers back in Colorado added a myriad of challenges to the naturally difficult adolescent years. Eventually American culture became foreign and I felt more normal swimming in the ocean, eating shawarmas and camping in the desert than I did devouring cheeseburgers, riding bikes and fishing in the Colorado streams of my hometown (although there was still plenty of it). Then, suddenly after seven years of this routine, my time in Dubai, my friends, my experiences and my normalcy was taken away without warning. What I thought would be another routine summer in Durango ended up being a new life here in Oregon. No goodbyes, no time for closure, no way to prepare and at the drop of a hat, a new life. It was at this point, whether I knew it or not, that I began a new idea of a haj, to return to the place I used to live.

On October 23, 2012 I stepped off the plane into the familiar arid desert heat I was once so used to. 15 years after I left Dubai I was now back on her soil. Memories began flooding back as I anticipated that this week before traveling for business to India would provide a chance to revisit the physical locations of my youth, hopefully allowing me to re-live some of it as well. I was also on a mission to find a sense of closure.

Let’s go back to those memories of childhood. Have you ever taken out the photo album and just reminisced of simpler times? While those times may exist in the mind and perception of those who were involved, there may also be physical evidence that can evoke feelings, thought and conversation. Maybe it’s the house you grew up in, the corner store you used to frequent, the foods you often ate at gatherings and celebrations; these are all physical things that shape our life experience. Like anything, physical things change, grow old, give way to new structures or in some instances remain the same. Durango, Colorado over the last 15 years… some change but mostly still the same. Portland, Oregon… some change but not completely different than it was 15 years ago. I would stand firmly to say that this is the case with most cities and towns around the world.

Dubai though, like I would soon find out, is the exception this and pretty much every rule of limits and change that the world commonly accepts. Driving from the airport to the hotel in a jet lag induced haze I looked around me hoping to recognize any landmarks to make me feel like I was “back”. But there was nothing but an urban megalopolis, carved through by 18 lane highways, lined with 70 plus story buildings on each side of the highway, all of which was completely foreign to me.

Wide awake the next morning at 4:30 in the morning I decided to go for a long run along the beach to view the sunrise and merely try to reconnect with the environment. The hotel was only about a half mile to the beach so I figured it’d be an easy jog to the sand and then I could go from there. What seemed an easy route ran into a dead-end, then a re-route, then a sidewalk under construction, then a private palace, and a private hotel, and EVERYTHING was under construction. I ended up running several miles along the beach just to find an access point, of what I later found was one of only three public beaches on 20+ miles of beach head.

The Dubai that I remembered was one lined with miles of open beach and fortified by miles and miles of open desert. We’re talking Lawrence of Arabia desert; wind whipping off perfectly formed sand dunes, prickly sparse shrubbery, wild camels, scorpions and not a lot of water. The current situation was nothing of the sort. Everything was private and everything had a price tag.

Once I finally reached the beach as the sun was peeking over the horizon I stepped into the warm 80 degree Persian Gulf, and just stood there for 10 minutes taking it all in. Then it felt the same again. But as I stood there all alone in the water, I started realizing just how much this place had changed.

Directly in front of me lay the 8th wonder of the modern world, The Palm Island Jumeirah, to the right of me stood the Burj Al Arab (the most luxurious hotel in the world), and far off in the distance piercing 2,722 feet into the Dubai sky was the tallest building on earth, the Burj Khalifa. Directly behind me stood a massive new skyline that resembled Batman’s Gotham City. When I lived here this entire area was desolate, filled with desert and nothing else. This had all changed and it looked like the Manhattan of the future.

Soon I left the beach and began to try to retrace my former steps. The first thing I did was go to my old house, only to find it demolished and sitting as an empty sandbox. Was it under construction for something grander or not up to Dubai snuff? Probably both.

Continuing on my exploration I found three storylines with a common theme to be consistent: construction, architecture and malls, all tied together by a boatload of MONEY. Sure the architecture is beautiful, engaging and stunning to see. The luxury is second to none and the amount of money available seems to be able to fill the oceans of the world.

But to me the Dubai I knew and love was gone. The culture and beauty of soul of a budding city had been sold to the highest bidder. My Dubai was dead and along with it were the physical memoirs of a fortunate upbringing I once experienced. I’ve since accepted this certainty and am happy to have had the opportunity to experience this return. There were still some things I was able to relive and reconnect with, but I really had to seek them out.

I believe John Waller may have put it best by summing up what the Dubai experience is now, “How high can you stack the crystal champagne glasses before they all come crashing down? Dubai seems to seek that answer.”

By Steve Engman