Before I return to regularly scheduled blogging (mainly end-of-decade/end-of-year lists, of which I'm seriously lagging behind), I figured I should get some final Dubai-related thoughts out of the way.
I could have just existed within the film festival for 8 days and not really developed much emotion toward Dubai itself, but I've always found it difficult not to explore a city when you get this privileged opportunity to go there. So I did. And I've never been struck with such inauthenticity (though I've never been to Vegas). I mean, in a certain sense of the word, Dubai is amazing. It's like a capitalist experiment gone mad, and for the first few hours you get to witness it, a lot of jaw-dropping is involved. On the ride out to the desert safari, our driver kept pointing out all these fun facts about various buildings and developments we passed. There was the university shaped like a submarine. And the plans for a building that will be 30% higher than the Burj Dubai, which is already the tallest building in the world. And Dubai World, a 3 billion square foot world's biggest theme park/world's biggest hotel/world's biggest mall that includes a residential area where robotic dinosaurs walk around.
But you can't help but root for rough financial times ahead. There is such a disgusting amount of greed and wealth and gluttony in Dubai that hoping its insane ambition meets its match in a recession and that the whole city turns into a futuristic ghost metropolis just feels right. And there's obviously corrupt shit going down. The much-reported migrant-labour underbelly is evident when you see these busloads of workers going onto the construction sites, knowing they are paid next to nothing and living in squalor outside of the city. I asked a local about this once and he recited "they make much more than they would in their home country," which is probably true but means nothing considering they made almost nothing to begin with. Someone else told me dozens of people died building the Burj Dubai but not one of it is reported.
I also just kept wondering why the fuck all these rich people were coming here for holidays. As my friend said when we were there, "If I had this kinda money, I'd be renting a castle in Italy." I mean, my room & flight was paid for by the festival, but whenever I attempted to see the sights it was waay out of my price range. I went to the Atlantis Hotel (where - excess alert - a fucking LIVE WHALE SHARK is in the aquarium in the lobby) and was going to go this water park where you can swim with dolphins. I didn't even want to swim in the dolphins (that cost like $500 US), but just to ENTER the premises you have to drop $100. I had actually hoped to do some Christmas shopping there as the UAE's tax free shopping is apparently a big deal. But nothing was cheaper, as everything is imported. The only deals are gas and cigarettes.
Dubai also prides itself on being a "liberal, Westernized city" (I don't know how many times I heard someone or some ad or some magazine describe the city this way), when in fact its obviously intensely repressive. Which I knew going in, but discovered more severely firsthand.
I started this year off in Havana, where I did a mild investigation of the gay underground scene. Dubai made a strange bookend to my 2009 travels, in that it was only the second time I'd travelled somewhere (third, if you count Utah) where I was super conscious of the fact that being gay was essentially not acceptable. But in Havana, there was actually something really endearing about the underground scene. I spent New Years Eve on a farm with hundreds of gay Cubans, and there was a ridiculously joyful and authentic vibe to it all. On my one night out in "gay Dubai," I felt nothing but lethargy and fear.
A gay friend of a gay friend lives in Dubai, and one of the first nights there he took out me and my friend Matt (another gay, who was at the festival from London). Beforehand, I barraged him with questions about what its like there, as its impossible to find much information on the internet. I had already got the vibe that despite the laws (where, just fyi: being homosexual is NOT illegal, but any homosexual activity is - which sort of defeats the purpose), there were many a gay in Dubai. Walking back to the hotel from the festival's opening night party I was definitely cruised by a group of guys, not to mention there were a good dozen questionables at the party itself. Anyway, friend of friend informed that Dubai is actually quite gay, but it's all underground. And underground in this unromantic, contemporary way: It's all sex via the internet. Apparently Dubaisexuals have also discovered the Hotspot Shield (which I've been using for a good year to watch NBC and Hulu in Canada), a device that gives you an anonymous IP address. Via the Hotspot Shield, all the porn and gay social networking sites in the world are available.
There is also a very slight nightlife scene, which I was about to discover. One bar called Zinc tends to have mostly ex-pats at Emirate Air flight attendants, so stereotypically you can expect a good portion of gays. Then there's Submarine. Which on Thursday nights is the closest thing you'll find to a official gay club in Dubai. It being a Thursday, that's where we headed.
In the basement of Dhow Palace Hotel in Dubai's relatively untouristy Bur Dubai area, Submarine costs the equivalent of $33 to get in. At the door, two bouncers awaited us as we tried to barter down the price (it was 1am, and the bar closed between 2 and 3), but they told us some internationally renowned DJ was playing so no dice. After 15 minutes of hassle regarding my "weird ID" (a very official looking Ontario driver's license) and jokes about me looking 15, they let us in. And it was generally unremarkable. This internationally renowned DJ was mostly playing shitty 1990s electronic music. And aesthetically it just looked like your average shitty club. It was quite packed though - with a mix of ex-pats and Arabs buying ridiculously overpriced drinks and cruising each other. The energy felt seedy and desperate. Havana this was not.
I was informed that various security guards were in the bar, watching to make sure no one touched each other. You could talk, exchange numbers or make plans to meet later at some private location, but that was it. The whole thing made me feel like I just wanted to leave, and no amount of $20 vodka sodas was going to change that.
I went out for a cigarette in the parking lot, not realizing you could actually smoke inside. There were a couple people hanging about there, and I realized afterwards that they were probably prostitutes. When I came back in to re-enter the bar, I suspect the man who greeted me thought the same of me. I showed the man - who was wearing traditional clothing (a dishdasha - a white, ankle-length, collarless gown) - my stamp and he asked for ID. I took it out, and then he took out his police badge and showed it to me. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Him: "Where is this ID from?"
Him: "How old are you?"
Me: "25. It says right there, under the photo of me."
Him: "I don't see it."
Me: "Right there" (I point).
Him: "You don't look 25."
My "I get that all the time.. ha ha" line is not working on him. And at this point, he tells me to come with him. He aggressively takes my arm and I follow him back outside into the parking lot, on the verge of vomiting and/or fainting. He takes me to a police car parked 50 feet from the door. Outside of it, he starts questioning me again.
Him: "Why did you come to this bar?"
Me: "I came with my friends, who are inside."
Him: "Friends from Dubai?"
Me: "One lives here yes, but he is also Canadian. The other is visiting."
Him: "Why are you in Dubai?"
Me: "I'm a guest of the film festival."
He just stares at me blankly, and I explain to him what that is. He says he's never heard of it, asks me what I do for a living, and where my passport is. I say it's at the hotel. He tells me to get inside the car. At this point, I feel totally out of it, short of breath, heart beating rapidly, etc... and don't even know half of what I'm saying. I plead with him that the passport is at the hotel, I have done nothing wrong, and repeat my story about being there with friends, being a journalist covering the festival, etc, etc, etc. Same blank stare, and another motion to get in the car.
In the car, I repeat everything again and search my pockets for any more proof of my identity. I do not want to go anywhere with this man. For all I know, he's not even a fucking police officer. I could be identity-less and building skyscrapers by next week. At that would be a gentler scenario than some.
I find an indieWIRE business card, and it's the first sign of anything good.
Him: "You work in New York?"
Him: "What is in-die-wire?"
Me: "It's a magazine. About film. It's very important in the United States."
Him: "But you are from Canada?"
Me: "Yes. I have an American visa. It's in my passport. That is at the hotel."
I ramble on as confident and convincing as possible that I'm some sort of big deal, and after a long pause he gets out of the car, opens my door and motions for me to get out. He says nothing and I say nothing and I speed walk back to the bar, find my friends and order a $20 vodka soda. Twenty minutes later, we leave & basically spend the next 6 days at the hotel.
So, basic moral of story: Don't ever fucking go to Dubai.