We haven’t got a lot to be thankful for these days in Pakistan. But at least we are not Dubai.
Fed up with loadshedding, bombs, and TV cynicism pervading Pakistan, I recently escaped to Dubai for a holiday. Big mistake. Huge. Ten days later I returned, gasping for Karachi’s polluted, but far sweeter, air. Dubai may have the world’s tallest building and the world’s largest shopping mall, but it also has the world’s tiniest soul. It’s a plastic city built in steel and glass.
It has imported all the worst aspects of western culture (excessive consumption, environmental defilement) without importing any of its benefits (democracy, art).
This is a city designed for instant gratification a hedonistic paradise for gluttons to indulge in fast food, fast living and fast women. It’s Las Vegas in a dish dash. You want to eat a gold leaf date? Munch away.
You want to drink a Dhs 3,000 bottle of champagne? Bottoms up. You want a UN selection of hookers at your fingertips? Tres bien. Let’s start with the malls. These cathedrals of capitalism, these mosques of materialism are mausoleums of the living dead. Slack jawed zombies roam around consuming food, clothes and electronics in a desperate attempt to fill the emptiness of their existence.
Whilst at the Mall of the Emirates the azan goes off. Nobody appears to move to the prayer room; everyone’s too busy performing sajda before Stella McCartney, genuflecting before Gucci, and prostrating themselves at Prada. With Dubai, one recalls F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
The people are modern day Gatsbys, buying shirts that they will never wear and books they will never read. Like Fitzgerald’s roaring 20s America, Dubai is a moral failure a society obsessed with wealth and status. Everyone is trying to keep up with the Jones’ or the Javaids. You see the goras with their perma-tans, streaked highlights and their flabby cleavages.
The upwardly mobile South Asian man prances around wearing a silly shirt with a large picture of a polo player on a horse, whilst their women wear oversized sunglasses and carry oversized handbags. And the Arabs walk about with enough gold bling to blind you at ten paces. But not everything that glitters is gold. And Dubai is not only morally bankrupt it is also financially bankrupt.
Lately, Dubai, and its ruler, Sheikh Mohammed Al-Maktoum have been compared to another piece of literature — Percy Shelley’s famous poem Ozymandias, which illustrates the inevitable decline of all leaders and the empires they build. Shelley finishes it thus: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains.
Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away With $80b of debt and a stock and property market that has tanked, the comparisons with Ozymandias are apt. Abu Dhabi may have bailed them out but can Dubai survive as a regional hub in the long-term? Or will this city of hubris built on sand and folly sink back into the dunes a desert mirage that evaporates once the public relations people, the speculators and the tourists disappear?
So for all you naysayers that bemoan Pakistan and its numerous problems please temper your pessimism. Take time to celebrate our cultural, religious, linguistic plurality and richness. Stop the cynicism coursing through your corroded veins. For all its inadequacies, at least we have a democracy.
For all its irresponsibility, at least we have a robust media. For all the police corruption, at least we are not a police state. For all our littering, at least we have paper wallahs. Remind yourself that at least we have a heart. At least we have a soul. At least we are not Dubai.
April 21, 2010