Dubai is a pretty city, but there is an erasure of most culture and history the United Arab Emirates can offer. Elizabeth, an old friend of my mom, introduced me to Mike and Tracy who are from the U.S. and now they live in Dubai. When Mike picked me up from the airport, he told me, “This place is like Oz. It is fun but if you look long enough you can see behind the curtain.” I quickly saw that he meant the city is a wonderland for tourism, but the labor that makes it all happen disturbed me.
My second day, Mike and Tracy took me on a tour of the Dubai Mall. I was delighted to see that it had Krispie Kreme, Red Lobster, and Five Guys. There was no Chick-fil-A, but the burger I had from Five Guys was a welcomed piece of American food. We sat outside for our burger and watched a beautiful fountain show that in the background played Con Te Partirò by Andrea Bocelli. The fountain sat right below the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The Burj Khalifa was so tall that to get a photo with the building Mike had to take a panorama of me instead of a regular picture. The Dubai Mall claims to be the largest mall in the world, and it appears so with an aquarium and an ice skating rink inside. There is also a model of the Tower at Dubai Creek Harbor, which will be even taller than the Burj Khalifa. There is no end to making Dubai bigger and newer.
The next day, I took a kayak tour around the palm. The palm is this peninsula extending into the gulf surrounded by a crescent. I took a taxi over to the Sofitel Resort where the tour began, and we, a group of 6, paddled around the crescent for a 9.2 km tour for the next 3 hours. The tour guide was from the Philippines and he pointed out the Atlantis hotel and the new W hotel with twice as many rooms as the Atlantis hotel. Sweat poured down our faces as we paddled, and we got to swim during the tour. It was odd how still and warm the water was while we swam, and again I felt the unnatural tint of Dubai around me.
The most authentic part of the stay in Dubai was the speaker event at Tracy’s school. Lee Watanabe Crockett, an internationally recognized advisor on education, talked to us about the transition education needs to make from a focus on information to a focus on process. His reasoning was that people are producing information faster than kids can learn it, so we need to teach them to love the process of learning so they can constantly adapt to the changing world around them. I think I enjoyed this event most because it finally helped me think about fatherhood because it had to do with child development. I was not getting any closer to the topic any more than Dubai was getting me near Emirate culture. The whole place felt like a distraction from the lives of real people who live there. This place rapidly transformed in the last decade into an expo for expats.
I also experienced a few sightings of the workers who build the pretty buildings throughout the city. On more than one occasion my hosts mentioned that their passports are held by their employers and I would see them packed in buses on the highway without any air conditioning. These conditions sound inhumane to me, but I do not know the whole story. I wish I had tried harder to talk to one of the workers, who might have come from another country to work and send money home to their families. A more complete picture of this city would have been available if I learned how immigrant fathers are impacted from working there away from home. I do not know what their experience is with fatherhood, but immigrants from the wide spectrum of socio-economic status are 85% of the population of that city so they have a huge impact on the erasure of the culture of the native residents in Dubai. This combined with learning about the labor, which is comparable to modern day slavery, makes the country one of the most interesting places I have visited.
The United Arab Emirates fathers could feel such a confidence in their ability to teach their kids about their culture that they do not feel particularly threatened by the ballooning population of expats. They could also see the need to talk to their kids about why immigrants are packed into these buses while they are driving down the highway. I quickly felt the uncomfortable under belly of my walk through the Dubai Mall and my kayak tour. I do not know what it is like for families from Dubai to spend time with their fathers, but I could see how conversations on culture and status are shaped by the environment.
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