i [heart] Dubai

Dubai has a new heart. If Rome is the Eternal City, if Aleppo is the longest enduring city, and if Beirut is the regenerating Phoenix, then Dubai might just get along by having a new heart installed every so many years. Dubai’s heart was once split. Between two towns. Dubai and Deira stared at each other across Dubai Creek. The two were eventually stitched together by modern engineering. Tons of concrete and steel hardened the creek’s edges into something anyone might believe would last forever. Dubai then had a heart that was in neither town but drifted between the two reinforced shores. Dubai had a heart in its void. Urban planners compulsively drew circles of ring roads around the creek, as if swirls of asphalt and exhaust would keep the heart alive.

Ever since Dubai built an airport with a runway made out of hardened sand, it has been sold as the center of the world, just at the moment it was positioned to lose its own. Conventional wisdom says the heart left the creek sometime in the 1980s, when there was enough commercial attraction in Dubai’s newest districts to pull people away from its pulse. But the heart didn’t move; it dissipated. Or maybe it just burst, trying too hard to be loved by too many people, too many demographics. Newness, the planners learned the hard way, was marketed as Dubai’s heart.

Dubai became a city of cities. Or, if cities are organic, then Dubai was like a starfish, or a sea cucumber, reproducing by fragmentation. By having many hearts, Dubai might have had many ways to be loved. Multiple hearts also meant that one heart didn’t have to replace another. Hearts could beat as one. Or not. Hearts can share blood, or reject blood. Hearts were options. Or at least appeared to be options. Some hearts beat better, and longer, than others.

Once Dubai started to get its first fully interiorized living experiences (the World Trade Centre, Al Mulla Plaza, Al Ghurair Centre), its wave pool at Al Nasr Leisureland, a night-lit park in Karama, Dubai’s heart was everywhere and nowhere. Always parallel hearts pumping of their own accord on the dashboards of their own proprietary HVAC ecosystems. To be “in the heart of Dubai” meant somehow always to be outside it. It was the city of parallel and contradictory experiences that only through telepathy or heroic empathy could be co-experienced. Desensitization often kicked in.

Dubai has taught me something about people, about life. It brings me back to size. What people point to and call “so artificial!” gives me pause to feel my own blood coursing through my own veins.

Dubai is certainly about life. Thanks to Dubai’s growth philosophy in the previous century, the old heart on the creek was left alone to its own devices, to pump its own ancient systems of circulation. I’ve always been drawn to the creek and the suggestive parallel worlds it teases me into believing exist, where I recall once seeing IKEA glassware being shipped out to Iran and then another time witnessing some crew members load a fleet of pink kids’ bikes onto a boat to Pakistan while the rest crew took showers in the public facility.

Dubai’s heart yearns from a long time ago. There’s no room for nostalgia though. The city’s firmament heckles anyone with a tendency toward sentimentality. I used to heckle them too, until I realized I held onto a Dubai anno 2007. It happens pretty regularly that I get the question, “But…do you like Dubai?” As if Dubai was the talented but unlikable contestant in a pageant. As if my [like] mattered.

On the topic of nostalgia, I’m reminded of “Center of Now,” an advertising campaign that ran on LCD screens around the Burj Khalifa and the New Downtown district. It ends with a model, the typical kind in Dubai ads that defies easy racial categorization, singing something operatic from the Burj’s lookout balcony. Since the street screens were silent, I don’t know what she sings. But then I think of an Oum Khaltoum song that she could sing, one that an Egyptian friend once translated for me while we listened. If Madame Oum Kalthoum is right, then the heart is there all along; it just waits for you to return.

The beautiful nights and the yearning and the great love / From a long time ago the heart is holding for you.

Many watched with a veritable mixture of engagement and doubt when Burj Dubai, as it was known then, started to rise. Its immeasurable accumulation of concrete looked ominous. The tower’s construction was relayed in engineering machismo and sheathed in German techno-glass. But concrete and steel had once before made way for a heart. The Burj Khalifa’s opening was extravagant fanfare, followed by a quickened and grounded discovery that Dubai had a new heart. The spaces around the engineering feat, misted with the chlorinated water from the world’s largest choreographed fountain, didn’t feel exactly public, but they did feel central and more welcoming than anything before in Dubai. Well, maybe since before the shallow shores of Dubai Creek were hardened into an economizing aquatic machine.

* * *

This new heart I read about today is called Dubai Creek Harbour. It includes a tallest piece of architecture, though not very inhabitable. The needle tower is designed by a famous architect who is new to Dubai. It too will be an emblem of “achievements”, “challenges”, and “beauty”. Santiago Calatrava’s “human architecture”, we are told, is inspired by the bud of a lily just before it blooms. (Wasn’t the Burj Dubai also based on a flower?) It seems then appropriate that the tower is referred to as a “centerpiece”.

The proposed new heart at Dubai Creek Harbour circles us back to Dubai Creek. Dubai’s mythology might be meted out to a stomping march forward, but the city has a bag full of comebacks. One soundbite promises that the tower “celebrates the world one more time”. This time, the return is to a part of the creek mostly left alone during Dubai’s growth spurts. Once, when the creek was still the bull’s-eye of the planners’ concentric road rings, there was talk about developing this particular part. It was referred to as a “lake”, and it was proposed as a marina for Dubai’s wealthiest. Here is where Dubai’s first man-made island was planned.

Flamingoes now live near this part of the creek. They were once flown in from somewhere along the Great Rift Valley. The wading birds’ first days in airport quarantine were frightening, both for them and the ill-prepared airport staff, but even they eventually made a home at Dubai’s old heart.* Fauna can be imported, too. They are part of a nature reserve that Dubai Creek Harbor promises to protect and even make flourish.

When Calatrava came to Dubai, he posed with the model of his design. The tower and its appending tensile wires balance the bud, the heart, at the top. It is like a syringe whose tip is swollen with a sworn-by panacea. Calatrava’s pose with his design reminded me of William DeVries, the heart surgeon who once posed on the cover of Time magazine with his own model. Like an architect. Except the doctor’s model could actually do something. It was the Jarvik-7, the man-made object DeVries inserted into another man whose own “ravaged” heart “tore like tissue paper” when DeVries removed it.

As I arrived at the sales center for Dubai Creek Harbour, a busload of well-heeled American retirees arrived for a tour. A Scottish member of the development team welcomed them and told them that Dubai Creek Harbour was as big as a Scottish town. Someone told him that his analogy didn’t mean anything to an American. The guests asked who would live there. The answer included references to investment opportunities and Dubai’s appeal to markets in China and India. What about the environment? The project was actually “giving green” back to the creek, not taking it away. They asked about public transit. They were shown a video of how Calatrava’s tower “worked”. Only the top part—the swollen tip—was inhabitable. You buy tickets to reach this part. The more you pay, the higher you go. The video demonstrated how the translucent membrane of the bud can open and close. Balconies unfold outward from the interior. An icon of movable parts, not unlike the translucent and bio-mimicking chambers of the Jarvik-7. Plastic and metal promise to pump people and capital. Here, at an undisclosed number of meters above Dubai, another set of artificial chambers, thanks to “precision engineering”, will somehow manage high-speed winds so that ticket buyers can take in a peaceful view of Sharjah, of the Burj Khalifa, and, if they dared to look steeply below, of Dubai Creek. A heart’s blood finances an altitudinal nosebleed.

“Our project won’t look anything like the old Dubai Creek,” said the Scot. It was a promise, not a lament. The retirees had no plans to visit the creek, but some spoke among themselves further about environmental risks. “There’s nothing here, so what could be the harm?”

As engineers and builders prepare to hoist an artificial heart to a record height, more work continues along the shores of the “old” creek. The horizon-bound dhows, with their boatmen inside, have been mostly shuttled off the creek to a “wharfage development project with integrated infrastructure”. Dhows were once Dubai’s most expressive creatures. They proved Dubai’s connection to the world. Now they have all but disappeared, accessible only by the stevedores who have to carry access cards to open the guard gates. Back at the creek, the dhows have been replaced by their derivative cousins: floating receptacles for tourists, decked out in colorful LED lights and all-you-can-eat buffets. Culture is coming to the creek.

Indian investors were essential to financing Dubai’s very first building boom in the 1950s. And, if the Scottish tour guide is correct, Asian investors are going to keep his client in business, and maybe Dubai in business too. It can’t yet be determined whether today’s investors will ever step out onto the boardwalks suspended over the district’s rejuvenated marshlands.

Besides the financial investors, there were those who invested even more: tradesmen, craftsmen, tea servers and chambermaids who arrived from continents to take a chance on Dubai’s broadcasts. The men and women who came to build and fit out Dubai harbored ambitions that did not need to be more virtuous than improving their own lives and those of their family members. It was a trickle that crescendoed into an invigorating pulsation.

It wasn’t and isn’t pretty. It is a mushy palpitation. It is not made of glass or high-grade translucent fiberglass. It is muscle that can atrophy into tissue paper but somehow can manage to endure longer than any high-tech membranes. It is a heart of hearts.

Dubai’s hearts won’t happen in the return to the lagoons at Dubai Creek Harbour. They won’t happen in the air-conditioned galleries of a Condé Nast-approved museum. Those are Jarvik-7s. The artificial heart, we’ve learned, was not a long-term option. It wasn’t cost-efficient. The Jarvik-7 was eventually phased out in favor of recycled hearts. People, relieved of their “ravaged” hearts, lived longer on ones left behind by the deceased than on the one cradled in DeVries’s hands. Resuscitations are free, if a little sweaty and physical.

There have been master plans, cultural plans, visions, press releases, closed-door expert assessments, and feasibility studies to rediscover the creek’s heart. As if it were ever lost. The creek has kept its heart all this time, even at the moment engineering took its tides and sandbars away, prevented people from dipping their feet into its ripples, and turned a tenuous body of water into a cost-conscious harbor. The creek—at least for now—still has its own rhythms and arrhythmias. It still conducts its essential urban and regional circulations. It’s hard to kill this old heart. But it is certainly possible.

* Negar Azimi “Dubai is for flamingos,” Harper’s, June 2009.

An edited version of this article was published in Uncommon Dubai, 2018.

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