Dubai: Somewhere Between Disappearance and Appearance

Dubai skyline at sunset. Picture taken with Hipstamatic app for iPhone. Copyright Ismail Lagardien

 By Ismail Lagardien

14 October 2012. I read somewhere, a long time ago, in a book-length photographic essay on New York City, that in order to best photograph a city and capture its essence, it was important to either know the city very well, or not at all. I never tested that claim…. I recently spent two days in Dubai. Although my intention was not to photograph the city, I came to see the city, as it were, through some of the images I made. There were two things that stood out in Dubai: The way in which the country, the United Arab Emirates, seem to have, for now at least, “conquered” nature, and the liminality of the city, of its people and its social relations. Two days is not enough time to draw any firm conclusions about any city, least of all one as dynamic and emergent as Dubai, but there are, to be sure, no limits on what may be discussed or thought.

City on a Threshold Between Disappearance and Appearance

There is an overwhelming sense of liminality that you get in Dubai. It is not quite an interregnum in the Gramscian sense (one would have to do much more than empirical observations over two days), but in the sense that society, at least the dominant group, those who “belong” seem to have abandoned many of the rituals – as well as the routines and repertoires – that previously ordered their social relations, but have yet to fully make the transition to wherever it is that they are heading. In this sense, Dubai sits on a threshold that separates the earlier period from the new, which (new) rituals are battling to establish.

Advertisement for women’s underwear in the Burj Al Khalifa Mall. Picture taken with Instagram for Android. Copyright Ismail Lagardien

Like Hong Kong in an earlier period, Dubai has (successfully) experimented with cultural self/re-invention and inserted itself into late capitalist globalisation as an international space, less as than a particular place – where the latter suggests a sedentary, fairly stable, existence and the former a more open field in which agents and social positions (and identities, for that matter) are located then constantly negotiated and renegotiated. Consistent with Ackbar Abbas’ concept of “disappearance,” which he applied to help understand the culture of Hong Kong, Dubai represents the dialectic that emerges from the push/pull of disappearance and appearance. To establish itself as an international port and insert itself into a putative global political economy, both cities had to, at least nominally, renegotiate indigenous cultural identities and become global or international cities. The old had to disappear and the new appear. In both cases there emerged a particular cultural space defined by “floating identity” (what I describe as a liminality).

Dubai Cityscape. Like a scene from a Ridley Scott film. Picture taken with Hipstamatic app for iPhone. Copyright Ismail Lagardien

In Abbas’ work, Hong Kong’s peculiar lack of identity is derived from its status as “not so much a place as a space of transit,” where the inhabitants consider themselves as transients and migrants from somewhere on the way to another place. In Hong Kong, media saturation changes the experiences of space to the extent that it becomes abstract dominated by signs and images that dispel history, reconfigure memory and attempts to define presence.

In Dubai, if you cast your gaze above the street level, the city is (stated here somewhat contradictorily) a post-modernist anonymity in which structures, tall buildings, compete with each other and conspire to appear, hyper-real as it may be, as something “other than,” something new, something less local and more global, as the tiring cliché would insist. The city that gleams in the desert sun – not the older parts of Dubai, which unavoidably seems to linger as the “exotic” other – represents the modernist imaginaries which presage the reconstruction of urban spaces into hyper-realities and geographies of global capitalism with its attendant divisions of physical, emotional, intellectual and cultural labour. What emerges is, then, a stark postmodern city, that is, at once, unable to shake the divisions of labour that are inherent in capitalist organisation of society. Post-modernists may cringe at the thought that class or labour divisions remain a defining feature of late capitalism. Nonetheless, under these condition, the (human) worker is a foreign import (a thing), that builds and maintains the physical and social structures of post-modernity, while remaining alienated from the product of his/her labour.

Worker: Building the City. Copyright Ismail Lagardien.

Coming in to land, over the barren desert, the first images of Dubai are of neat lines, of roads that link what seem, at least from the air, to be multiple towns or cities, somehow disconnected, but linked by wide multi-lane highways. Here is a city where the car is a central feature of social relations, in the sense that access to the gleaming city in the distance is restricted to those who can afford a car. That, anyway, was the conclusion I reached when we were coming to land in Dubai.

Coming in to land. The neat rows of homes and roads on the outskirts of Dubai. Picture taken with Hipstacam app for Android. Copyright Ismail Lagardien.

“We have many cities, in Dubai,” the Bangladeshi taxi driver explains as we hurry along the pristine roadways between the airport and my hotel near the World Trade Centre.

“We have media city. Internet city. Health city… I live in poor city,” he says.

Passing by one building that is part of the world trade centre, he says: “Concrete cancer”.

“Excuse me. What was that?” I asked.

Pointing to a building on our right, he said: “Concrete cancer. That building is going to be demolished. The sand they used [to build it] had too much salt. It is now eating up the concrete. Concrete cancer.”

The driver points out how clean Dubai is, “not like India or Bangladesh; like Singapore”. Singapore, that other city that invented itself and inserted itself into the global political economy as an international city. Indeed, Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai may, perhaps unfairly, be described (mutatis mutandis) as the generic cities of late capitalism, in the sense that they were created as spaces reserved as functional entrepôts – the nodes of global political economic activity. To describe them as generic may seem unfair (although generic refers, in Abbas’ terms, to the functionality of capital, low production costs and attempts to place architecture outside the realm of other social values), because aesthetically the architecture of each city would seem different. Architecture is, however, a form of artistic expression as well as being part of the social world with its attendant social relations. Architecture is, therefore, not just drawing or engineering. It is, also, not just construction. It is the creation of social spaces and forms of expression situated at the interface between functionality and signifying or communicating.

Cityscapes, therefore, tell stories about the people who live in them and, perhaps more so, about the people who designed and erected the structures that make up the cityscapes – notwithstanding the fact that, at the outset, buildings tend to serve functional roles. However, in the same way that a spoon serves a functional role, it also denotes a certain way of eating and signifies that way of eating. Architecture, Umberto Eco wrote, can and ought, thus, be placed within specific (and general) cultural contexts.

Dubai’s late capitalist period skyline represents some incarnation of a futuristic world in which its inhabitants acquiesce to eternal displacement and corporate nomadism. Parenthetically, it may be purely by co-incidence, or irrelevant, that some of the pictures I made in Dubai (see the picture at the top of this post) reminded me of scenes from the Ridley Scott film, Blade Runner. (Read a critical analysis of the film, here) Reflecting on the film, I imagined the new part of Dubai as a type of replicant; a perfect ‘skin job’ that looks human, walks, talks and acts human, and may even have feelings and emotions – but it lacks history.

Humans Against Nature

Standing tall over the cityscape, Burj Khalifa, the tallest human-made structure in the world, symbolises something of a pinnacle of possibilities among skyscrapers, all of which provide context and meaning to the people who live and work in Dubai. Seen from the sky, it glistens in the haze like a shard of glass in the desert sand. Down below, on the other side of the city along parts of the banks of the waterway that runs through Dubai, there is a riot of colours, cars, bicycles, carts and workers, invariably migrant workers, and open markets with shoppers and hustlers, noises and smells and the general detritus of human activity. In the gleaming, glistening part of Dubai consumers shop in air-conditioned malls.

In the older part of the city, along the waterway, people shop, barter and truck in more familiar open spaces; in hot and steamy streets, alleyways and squares where men (always men, it seemed) sit or squat, sometimes feet-up, sometimes barefoot – with their slippers placed beneath their carts – in spaces designed for more intimate human interaction. You have to go where the working class dwell (in this case, immigrant workers who build and service the city) to see people undressed, as it were, and uninhibited, on foot, on bicycles and on benches – sitting and talking, smoking, and doing what people have always done, communing more intimately and casually than in the gleaming skyscrapers of the new, emergent, more liminal city across the water….


In some ways, Dubai represents the perennial contest between humans and their social and natural environments. As humans, we can’t fly so we build planes; we can’t move at high speeds or carry heavy loads over long distances, so we build cars, trucks and trains; we can’t survive extreme weather, so we manufacture clothing and build shelters; we can’t readily drink all the water we find, so we purify that which we can capture; we can’t stay out in the sun for lengthy periods, so we cover our eyes with sunglasses and protect our scalps with hats; we can’t physically prevent mass human migrations (not without resorting to violence and injustice), so we produce laws and police borders to coral, discipline and control, and in the post-modern “generic city” we don’t build the physical structures in which we dwell, nor, it seems, are we able to produce, for consumption or nurture and protect ourselves – so we ask other humans to do it for us….

Taking a ladder somewhere. Picture taken with Hipstamatic app for iPhone. Copyright Ismail Lagardien

There is no hiding the fact that Dubai is built in the desert, and deserts are water-scarce and, well, hot for most of the time. It seems almost trite just to say that. Nonetheless, in the battle between humans and their natural environment, between Dubai and the water-scarce desert, humans appear to have won. As a show of force, of triumph by humans over nature, there are elaborate fountains and “water features” almost everywhere one goes in Dubai – especially in the glistening-gleaming part of the city.

Water feature in the international departures lounge of Dubai international airport. See picture of fountain in Burj Al Khalifa Mall, below. This picture was taken with Instagram app for Android.

From the gentle bubbling brook in the airport departures lounge, to the large water parks, Wild Wadi and Atlantis (such irony) artificial islands “reclaimed” from the sea, there is water everywhere in this desert town. The water parks, it seems, are purpose built for tourists. On the far end of the city, in the Al Souk al Kabir and especially the historic Bastakiya, water seems more precious. It was ironic, actually, that the receptionist at my hotel did not know where or what the Bastakiya was. He said a taxi driver might know. Anyway, in the Al Souk al Kabir and Meena Bazaar (where the migrant workers, mainly from South Asia) live, the streets are bustling.

Whereas in the new part of the city, where the skyscrapers mark the cityscape there are more cars on the roads than people on the sidewalks, in the Meena Bazaar and Al Souk, there are people on foot, on bicycles, pulling or pushing carts – or simply milling about. There are, also, fewer tourists here. Here, the waterbody that runs through the city is precious. Here, river taxis, what seem like house-boats, in various states of disrepair, criss-cross the water or line parts of the banks. Here, there is graffiti on the walls. Here, you find workers sitting on sidewalks, drained by the heat; others continue to chisel and work away, sweat sealing shirts to their backs – their eyes face the ground in anonymity.

Workers hammering. Picture taken with Hipstamatic app for iPhone. Copyright Ismail Lagardien

In the shiny part of town, humans have, for now, won the battle against the unrelenting heat with airconditioning, which places significant pressure on electricity. On the hottest days of the year, the United Arab Emirates channels up to 60% of its electricity consumption for cooling buildings. With the expansion of economic activity over the past 30 years, electricity demand in the UAE has soared.

In the Meena Bazaar, people use a lot more passive cooling; they simply spend a lot more time outdoors. The discovery of oil in the 1950s ushered in a dramatic shift in building patterns, away from the traditional old design and construction methods, towards more European models. This shift was, in part, to accelerate nation building, but also because of a lack of local design professionals, and the influx of foreign professionals who had little knowledge or insights into local climatic conditions and building culture. Knowing, now, that architectural design and urban planning produced unsustainable demands on energy, there is a slow movement underway in the UAE to start looking at the country’s own architectural heritage and historical methods of passive cooling.

Worker taking a break from the intense heat in the Historical Bastakiya District of Dubai. Picture taken with Hipstamatic app for iPhone. Copyright Ismail Lagardien

Before the spread of 20th century liberal capitalist orthodoxy to the region, the UAE, like most areas outside the European world, relied heavily on community, for both social and environmental protection. For instance, in the UAE, traditional towns were usually clusters of inward-facing houses, some with shared courtyards. (The next time I visit Dubai I shall stay in a guesthouse in the Bastakiya, and not in one of the airconditioned skyscrapers! On this journey circumstances made it so that I had to stay in a hotel among the skyscrapers in the modernised part of the city.)

Al Diwanya Guesthouse in the Historical Bastakiya District, Dubai. This is where I will stay the next time I visit the city. Picture taken with Hipstamatic app for iPhone. Copyright Ismail Lagardien

In terms of traditional cooling systems, historically, houses were connected via narrow pathways, which typically ran north to south, creating shaded areas, reducing heat gains, and benefiting from prevailing winds. These urban design patterns meant residents could walk in relative comfort during the harsh summer months. Traditional architecture also used wind towers that rose above the roofs of buildings, and opened to all directions. These towers provided ventilation and passive cooling by capturing wind and channeling it through narrow shafts into interior spaces. Buildings also benefited from high thermal mass building material, which protected the interior from increases in outside temperature and solar heat gain, making the interior easier to cool passively. The preceding passages on passive cooling are based on the work by Carboun: Middle East Sustainable Cities. As the government of the country continues to grapple with the soaring cost of battling the heat, Dubai continues to grow and fascinate.

Divers of the Waterfall at Burj Al Khalifa Mall. Copyright Ismail Lagardien

Photography teaches you to look at the same things that others look at, but see them differently. It helps you see more, or less than what you look for, often that which affirms our prejudices and sensibilities…. Dubai was all at once surreal and hyper-real, but none of this could conceal the fact that the place was deeply divided socially, culturally, in the division of labour and in the battle of humans against nature. In the “new” part of the city airconditioned skyscrapers and cars outnumber people. In the old part of the city, there are more people than buildings and cars. Two days were not sufficient time to see the city and “capture its essence” through a lens or otherwise; and anyway, essence is so terribly defiant a concept…. I would need more than two days to reach any firm conclusions.

This link will take you to an impressive set of photographs on,  Dubai, ‘Then and Now”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *