Under the Skyscrapers, the Sand

dubai skyscaper construction in desert

Despite Dubai's burgeoning urban environment, the desert is never far away, writes Ali Alizadeh

One of the slogans of France's May 1968 uprising was 'Sous les pavé, la plage', which can be translated as 'Under the cobblestones, the beach'. This statement, inspired by Situationist radicals, claimed that the truth of the land — in this case, Paris — had been concealed by the spectacle of a modern city. The beach, that primordial site of interaction between humans and water, the source of life, had been buried under the cobblestones of rapid, contemporary urbanisation. Can this analogy be extended to Dubai, one of the most spectacular examples of urban development and civil engineering of our time?

Dubai is indeed a spectacle. The city houses, among other record–breaking monuments, the world's tallest man–made structure, as well as one of the world's longest indoor ski slopes, highest water fountains and largest shopping malls. But these facts would be of little interest in and of themselves if they did not indicate the incredible metropolitan and, of course, architectural explosion of a city that was, until 60 years ago, little more than a cruise port of the British Empire.

The city's gradual emergence as the major re–export centre in the Middle East, and the discovery of oil in the late 1960s, precipitated its transformation from a seaside cluster of tents and mud–brick wind towers into a major urban centre with an airport, roads and modern buildings. Then came the establishment of free–trade zones, wars across the region that resulted in the relocation of much business to politically stable Dubai, and the city's rebirth as a popular tourist destination in the 2000s.

I arrived here a year ago and live not far from two of the city's best–known tourist attractions, the famous indoor ski slope, Ski Dubai, and Burj Al Arab, the world's second tallest hotel. (The world’s tallest hotel, the Rose Rotana Tower, is also in Dubai.)

The ski slope is a curious phenomenon. From the outside, it resembles a four–legged beast — a gargantuan bulldog of grey concrete — raised on its front legs amid suffocating heat and the occasional sandstorm. Inside the huge edifice, chairlifts hoist tourists above the gradient of fake, frozen snow. Emirati adolescents, girls in black abaya and boys in white kandura, snow–fight and tumble over sleds in oversized down winter jackets and thick woollen caps. Plastic snowmen smile on, and the digital image of scorching orange flames burns on the flat–screen TV inside the fireplace of the restaurant at one of the pseudo–snow cabins. This simulation of a European winter in the Middle Eastern summer is not uncanny because it so manifestly contradicts the norms of the natural environment, but precisely because its presence seems so normal, so inevitable. After all, isn't the artificial ski slope a logical extension of refrigeration and air-conditioning?

As for the tall hotels and towering buildings, what seems incongruous, even iconoclastic at first, soon becomes conventional and commonplace. Gigantic totems seem to burst out of the arid landscape to climb to dizzying heights, propped by the panoply of tower cranes and the armies of construction workers. The sheer number and size of the city's ever–expanding forest of skyscrapers may seem stupefying at first, but it soon starts to make sense and becomes all but conceivable. This is, after all, only one manifestation of the global property boom of recent times. Once flamboyant and outlandish building projects have come to be seen as a major tourist attraction in and of themselves and there seems nothing more economically rational than investing in and creating colossal postmodern citadels and man–made archipelagos.

What is amazing, then, is not that a once–impoverished city in a turbulent region can boast extremely luxurious — and yes, very big — shopping malls and golf courses, but that amid this intense and accelerated development, something of the land's ecological truth continues to survive. Here and there a natural palm tree — as opposed to the perfectly manicured trees transplanted from foreign greenhouses — insolently holds its ground amid the cement pillars and pylons. The dry and cracking face of the desert surfaces in the shadow of the concrete viaduct of the city's driverless metro. And the heat and the sand are eager to engulf and bog down anyone foolish enough to momentarily venture out of the safety of opulent hotel and air–conditioned bus stops. Most hauntingly, some mornings an eerily dense haze of dust cloaks the city and completely obscures even the tallest towers.

The deserts of Dubai, in short, declare their existence from beneath its heavy, monumental cobblestones. In the older parts of the city, down by the Dubai creek, standing next to the city's oldest building, Al Fahidi Fort, one can still hear the disconsolate shrieks of hungry seagulls amid the cacophony of bulldozers, earthmovers and dump trucks. The truth of the land makes its dogged presence known.

Ali Alizadeh is an Australian poet and writer. His latest book is the novel The New Angel, published in 2008 by Transit Lounge Publishing. He is assistant professor of English at the American University in Dubai.