Archive for July, 2010|Monthly archive page

the creek

On Friday I had a taste of authentic Gulf culture when my wife and I visited the Creek in Dubai for the first time. Or at least that’s how I was going to start this. But what does authentic mean? What’s authentic about an old Arabic souk when most of the goods come from China anyway? And what exactly is not authentic about malls and SUVs and freeways and glass towers and villas? Those things have replaced souks and camel trains and wind towers and pearl diving because they work better in the modern world for most people. They are as real as anything (or as unreal as anything). When archaeologists excavate malls a thousand years from now, they will not find them cheesy like we do.

What other misguided adjectives fit the feeling inspired by the Creek? Historic? True? Real? Whatever it is, I was gripped by an irrational, possibly arrogant, and delightfully contented feeling of being connected with something as we walked on the pavement along the Creek (which is really more like a canal) at sundown, adhans on both shores ringing cacophanously in the thick air, beat-up wooden dhows with their sky-blue cabin tops docked on the other side next to endless stacks of cargo, hundreds of abras, the pragmatical diesel-powered gondolas swarming to and fro ferrying passengers across the Creek, the forms of the souks and the mosques and the 80s apartment blocks surrounded by tawdry shops rising on both sides, so plain in contrast to the surreal gleaming image of postmodern Dubai. And people of all descriptions walking around languidly or sitting on concrete slabs at the edge of the water in the relative relief of evening.

Well, all kinds of people except for two glaring exceptions: no Emiratis. None at all. And not many Westerners: certainly none of the fat, pink, villa-dwelling bankers you see elsewhere. The reason these people stay away is this oldest part of Dubai is lately run down and considered tacky. No air conditioning, no Starbucks. No Baskin Robbins for their fat kids. The same reason it seems so authentic to misguided types like me. Indians, Pakistanis, Bengalis, Filipinos, Malaysians, Persians, Omanis, Yemenis, and Chinese make up the crowds here, each doing their own thing. It doesn’t feel like the Arab world. But it doesn’t feel like anywhere in particular. It’s a free zone, a trading zone. Which is what Dubai has always been: an interim place for people from everywhere to meet and trade, someplace temporary. It can’t have the same allure, the same culture, the same densely folded history of Bombay or Istanbul. A hundred years ago you would have seen the same kinds of people in souks that looked just the same trading some of the same things. I wonder if it was considered just as tacky then: the old-world version of a mall?

Through the Textile Souk, with its jeans, T-shirts, sports jerseys, sunglasses, sneakers, sandals, jewelry, toys, souvenirs, shisha pipes, snack vendors. Big crowd around a guy squeezing and hawking fresh orange juice. In case you’re wondering there are textiles too, and Persian carpets.

Back out onto the Creek we paid a dirham each to board an abra. No docking lines, no railings, nothing to grab onto, everyone steps or jumps aboard in whatever fashion works as the boat rolls around in the water. As we got under way we jostled and bumped into the dock and other abras in the vicinity several times. These things have no fenders; they’re made of stout wood that’s scratched and worn to death from all the chafing and crashing. The diesel smell, the noise of the engine, the garish lights along the shore were pleasant in the simulacrum of breeze as we moved through the torpid night air.

Across the way to look into the Spice Souk with its cinnamon, cassia, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, mustard, turmeric, dried ginger, big bags of fake saffron, little plastic containers of real saffron, lavender, huge baskets of dried Persian lemons and limes, incense, perfume, pink salt, indigo, rock sugar, thyme water. Every shop selling the same thing. It’s a splendid place.

Outside, walking along the dock where the dhows tie up. Not the floating restaurants shaped like dhows. The dhows that actually sail the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, hauling cargo to and from Iran and Yemen and beyond. Sailors that haul carpets and cashews and herbs a long way under an unforgiving sun with only those funny sky-blue wooden canopies to comfort them, and maybe a cheap AC unit. Guys that might actually meet the Somali pirates we only get to joke about. They park the cargo right on the dock, right by the side of the road — literally tons of cargo of all kinds, you can walk right up and touch it. I was awed by the pink shrink-wrapped boxes of cashews stacked twelve feet high. Never seen so many cashews in my life.

Back onto another abra, another dirham to get across again, to sit at an open-air restaurant hanging right over the Creek. It was built 1935 and it showed. The night air was 90 degrees but we had a fan right on us and plenty of local water. I had a fresh pomegranate juice that was cool and gritty and perfect. My wife and our mate had glasses of bright-green lemon-mint juice. The Lebanese fare — hummus and falafel and fatoush — was humble and satisfying. The Creek is satisfying place.


i … shot that

Tomorrow marks Youtube’s “Life in a Day” project. People from over the world are encouraged to shoot video of their own lives (or whatever else moves them) and upload it; a team of filmmakers headed by director Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland, Touching the Void) and executive producer Ridley Scott will sift through the entries, take the “most striking” footage, and create a feature-length film. The finished product will be screened at the Sundance Film Festival next year. Meanwhile all entries will be stored on a permanent archive-cum-time capsule on Youtube — as long as they don’t violate Youtube’s “community guidelines,” or come from Syrian, Burmese, Sudanese, Iranian, Cuban, or North Korean citizens. (I’m not sure why these six nations are thus singled out. They certainly aren’t the only nations with troubled or unjust regimes; nor the only ones to have difficult relationships with Youtube. For instance, the site is banned in Turkey but apparently Turks living abroad are welcome to take part.)

A mash-up collage of clips from punters everywhere telling the story of one day on Earth? Youtube is billing it as “unprecedented,” “historic,” and other gushing, hyperbolic things.

Click here for more information and instructions on how to take part.

I’m almost reluctant to admit this stunt has captured my attention just a little. Youtube calls it an “experimental documentary,” and I’ll be damned but the thought of it fascinates me. When I was a kid my family had a copy of A Day in the Life of America, a book of photographs taken all over the States on one day, and I used to love it. It was the first thing I thought of when I heard of Youtube’s project. (The other thing I thought of was, for some reason, Slacker.)

Really the whole thing is an ingenious brew of populism, corporate marketing, and independent filmmaking taken to its logical extreme. As a friend and colleague has already written, it’s like the Beastie Boys’ Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That on a fuckin’ global scale. Shoot film by any means necessary indeed. Or is it edit other people’s film by any means necessary? (Actually, if nothing else, this project is a great way for Youtube, Sundance, and the filmmakers to get a lot of publicity out of a film on almost no budget, the production done entirely by willing crews around the world for no pay.)

I have mixed feelings about taking part. I do like the idea — it seems fun; and it would be kind of cool to win the lottery so to speak and be featured in the finished product. Even being a part of that archive sounds pretty satisfying.

On the other hand the timing is weird for me. For a number of reasons I’ve been inspired, after a dormant period of many years, to make films lately. My wife brought her video camera to Abu Dhabi for the express purpose of getting some footage here so that we can do something, anything with it. And for the past couple of weeks I’ve been going around the city, taking snapshots, and brainstorming visual art. I’m especially drawn to the weird landscapes of the massive development projects seen everywhere here — the ripped-up desert, the cranes and other machinery, the exposed infrastructure and weird bits of rubble and colored plastic lying around.

So, I definitely have ideas forming. But I don’t know how I feel about pulling the trigger on those ideas tomorrow — going out and filming just because Youtube says so. Maybe I should abstain in protest, and film something the next day — just for me.

I’ll think about it tonight. If I do take part, here’s what I want to do. It occurs to me that the project, however well-meaning, cannot represent everyone. It’s true that the means of shooting video are cheaper and more accessible than ever, and in the hands of more people around the world than ever. And this has at times taken on great significance, as when the government of Burma was exposed by an covert network of citizens documenting police and military abuse with handheld video cams. (See the film Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country.) Youtube’s promo clip for the project makes a subtle but definite reference to this phenomenon: in the promo’s inevitable rapid-cut montage, you can spot a brief clip of some nondescript riot police.

But not everyone can afford a video camera, nor even a phone that shoots video. And not everyone has the leisure time to spend on filmmaking. I’m especially thinking of the thousands of migrant construction workers here in the UAE. These guys come over here from the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and the Philippines to work six days a week in insane heat and often dangerous conditions for very little pay. They live in camps in the desert, ten or fifteen to a cheap and poorly ventilated hovel. Their labor is creating a science-fiction megalopolis in a desert where there was nothing before. We see the monstrous, sublime, ridiculous towers under construction everywhere we look; and we see these guys going to and fro in their beat-up buses with no AC, or walking along the roads languorously, dressed in color-coded coveralls, cloths tied around their heads to protect them from the sun. We see them in the evenings, sitting dirty and exhausted under palm trees on the median strips of the city streets, hanging out and chatting with what little free time they have. Have they heard of Youtube’s project? Have they heard of Youtube? Do any of them own a video camera? Or a computer? Have any of them ever thought about filmmaking?

I have no interest in documenting my own life in such a way, but I’d like to document them. Not in a pushy way — I wouldn’t want to film someone without permission or otherwise exploit them. But I’d like to find a way to somehow represent lives often taken for granted and certainly without an effective voice in the media.

If I don’t manage to get out and film these workers, anyone who reads this is welcome to do so. Steal this idea. Document these guys’ lives. By all means. By any means.