Sky high in Dubai: reflections on a Marmite town

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I never thought I’d love Dubai. But the first time I went I was curious. Years ago I had been staying close by but never made it. And now, living in Muscat, Dubai is our London. It sings a show tune across the mountains. How could we resist?

We reached the city late. Sand ghosts crossed the motorways, a reminder of what lay beneath. Towers lumbered, concrete dinosaurs. We saw swimming pools balanced on rooftops. The breeze blew our gaze across the most competitive skyline in the world. Tallest, Highest, One of a kind. A ski slope in the desert.

Dubai is the Middle East’s Marmite; visitors like and loathe in equal measure.

The city is a mimic. Big Ben’s replica stands like a gift from a cracker. New York’s Chrysler juts to the sky nearby. A post-modernist mickey take?  Or maybe all these buildings are just a loving tribute to the old metropolises of the world.

A giant Duty Free curated to entice. Dubai. Where they opened up the box of What Was Possible, used cash, brains, shiny western toys…I wonder, if like a cat, the city herself is secretly laughing into her whiskers.

What would Sheikh Zayed make of it? He who put the first stones in the sand, as progress spoke to him in easy signs. Did he, could he, guess at what would come?

A single road he built, across the swathes of desert dust. Need, no more to swat away the flies, the sand became not home but holiday. While Europeans wore flares and Beatlemania was almost passé, a desert rose was rising from the dunes, nurtured by  the leader, Zayed’s hand.

The city’s soundtrack is technology’s hum. Its people, visual chess pieces robed in black or white: uncommon doves, giant eyelashes fluttering like jazz hands.

We dine at the top of the tallest tower. The elevator rocks as the floors reach into the 100s. The staff guide us around a building shaped like a needle.  There is no pat down here, no airport style security.  I try to ban the zeitgeist from my mind.

The world has changed since Zayed built the UAE. I want to ask him what he thinks. Say that wars are fought on ground no more, but ideologically, illogically by computer grid, rocket, splinter group, so many hidden interests, when most are pleased with peace.

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The building sways a touch. We focus on the menu. I shake a little like the tower, see swathes of lights across a sea of navy blue. Planes pass the building at our level. Horrified. Exhilarated. What were they thinking these architects?

Before leaving the city I hope to buy a lipstick.  Three people rush to help before I’ve even reached the counter. By the rack of plums and pinks I’m offered water, juice, ‘Shall I take your bags?’ Led to the counter as though I’m the only customer in the shop.  ‘This one looks nice,’ she holds out a brownish nude. I agree, head for the tills, ‘Special price, today,’ she smiles for commerce here is art.

Zayed was a reformer, a visionary who advocated dialogue above arms. In the second half of the twentieth century he brought schools, hospitals, basic infrastructure to a diseased people and harsh climate.

What would he say to Dubai’s commercialism, her bare faced architectural cheek? My guess is that were Zayed here today, he’d see the city’s skyline and he’d smile. Dubai innovates with flair, a whim in a world too filled with frowns. A city state of swaggering imitation, while at the same time, tongue-in-cheek unique.

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Have you been to Dubai? What’s your ‘Marmite’ take on it?

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Story-writing, science and the grace of flight

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I started writing poems when I was twelve. Messages to myself, which aided, in the end, with adolescence. I would never, I vowed, show a soul and no one asked about them because nobody knew.

At university I saw the scribbled comments of a teacher on a set of poems and felt a rush of hope. He didn’t understand what I wanted to say, he wrote, but they seemed to be ‘about something’.

I didn’t know, then, that the reader sits strapped in and the ‘something you want to say’ is their experience. That writers open up doors inside so the reader may step in and find themselves there too.

I didn’t get this until I met the novelist, Jennifer Clement in Mexico who wrote stories like paintings. Every scene was a frame of colour, of life and I wanted to move inside her book, to live there indefinitely.

I thought it was art. All of it. I thought it spilled out like blood from a wound, that a writer was opening up their soul and that the gold of their literature came directly from the fabric of their cells.

A decade later I don’t think it works like this. I found this out when I started writing a book of my own and saw the blood spilling, canvass spoiled. For writing is a construction, closer to science or engineering than a kind of formless art.

It has, I think, as much in common with flight as artistic expression.

An aircraft is built to do a job, just as the plot of a novel is (usually) planned to allow a story to be told. The runway allows the machine to gain momentum, like plot points propelling a story forward.

When the airplane reaches cruising height, the story has taken flight and the readers or passengers are there for the long haul. If the thing has been built right it will keep itself propelled until the end. The landing is of course, the ending and readers, like passengers want a good one.

There are functional, physical facts which keep a plane flying. After coming to a standstill with my own novel and reading a lot of writing guides, I discovered that there is a system too in the building of a novel. Points in the plot when certain things should happen, like the flaps of an airplane moving to allow or suppress lift.

The parts a novel needs to fly can be numbered and maintained, that following these rules doesn’t guarantee a brilliant piece of work, just as keeping a plane in good condition will not make for a perfect flight, but it helps get it off the ground.

And in the end, beyond the engineering, a great novel has the elegance of flight, that grace which makes the reader wonder: How did that just happen? Part science part serendipity, something has taken place, something has moved.

What do you think makes a great novel? Writers, what helps you structure? Please feel free to comment below.

The kindness of strangers

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In the first draft of the novel I’m writing, one of the main characters is a therapist called Lucie.  Trying to create this character, I was stuck. I live in Oman, interviewing UK therapists was not an option. I wanted Lucie to seem real. I wanted to know how a therapist would think.

I finally came across a  website called ‘What a Shrink Thinks’. A blog where a therapist in America shares her daily work:

 ‘I’d leave therapy drenched in sweat. As if I’d fought a dragon barehanded. Or wrestled with an angel all night long. I never understood why I’d leave so damp from exertion  until I sat in the therapists chair and watched my clients, one after another, search for their sticking place and screw their courage there committing staggering acts of bravery. Of will, of strength.

From ‘The Sticking Place’: https://whatashrinkthinks.com/page/3/

Spurred on by therapist-blogger Martha Crawford’s vision, I had something to shape into a character. So humane was her writing, that reading it was therapeutic in itself. I had, thanks to a complete stranger, found the holy grail of my research.

One afternoon last week I was driving to the bank in Muscat. The city consists of freeways which join communities, a bit like LA but the speed limit over here is a fantastical myth. The distances feel so vast that sometimes I  wonder if I’ve actually covered London-Aberdeen to pick up the dry cleaning. Roadworks are frequent so that occasionally the painted arrows on a re-directed motorway are still pointing back at you. It’s unnerving. A little thrilling.

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I had settled into a program on World Service Radio.

A man called Burhan Sönmez was talking about his time, decades ago, in a Turkish prison. Enclosed in a dungeon-like cell the size of a Persian rug, he shared the space with a number of other people. Routinely removed from their jail and tortured in terrifying ways, Sönmez was describing how he and his companions endured the situation.

It turns out they went for walks.

In a cramped prison?

What they would do is line up around the perimeter of the space, and they would start by arguing.

‘I want to go to the Bosphorus,’

‘But what about the park?’

‘We went there last time,’

After a while they would decide on their route and as they walked along each wall, they would comment on what they saw.

‘The sky is so blue today,’

‘It’s true. Do you know what kind of bird that was?’

‘Which one?’

‘The one that flew right past your nose,’

For a certain time each day the prisoners’ imaginations outstripped the ink of here and now; their hourly hell became a paradise of Turkish countryside. They had turned the lead of hardship into gold, just by walking, talking, telling tales .

I entered the bank with tears streaming down my face and later tweeted the man, who is now an author, to tell him how deeply his story had touched my heart. He ‘liked’ my comment’ and ‘followed’ me back and I couldn’t help but think of Tennessee Williams’ line about the ‘kindness of strangers’.

Our tools today connect us to distant corners of the globe. At the click of a mouse another different life can fill the frame. Despite the tide of hate on media, news and print, our ocean of humanity still makes its presence known.  The Turkish author, the therapist-scribe, our world so filled with human care if only we would let the light fall there.

 

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