The quest for the real
Recently FailToPlan came back from a two-week break in Sri Lanka. Now before I spend this blog post tearing my own holiday apart- (and I have to admit, there was a point about 4 days in when I was getting work withdrawal and was drawing parallels between the symptoms of vacationing and those of depression; if you were wondering the similarities are waking up late with nothing to do, no sense of purpose, sitting around, doing nothing, feeling lethargic and drinking too much) it was an incredible holiday; stunning range of scenery, wonderful people, beautiful beaches, fantastic weather, fascinating culture (that’s got the tourist board off my back…) at the end of the trip, I also spent two day in Dubai.
Now the two couldn’t be any more different on the surface of it. In the red corner we have rugged landscapes, breath-taking contrasts, elephants parading through the streets on festival days, tuk-tuks and tea plantations. And in the blue corner we have petro-dollars, the worlds tallest building, robot camel-jockeys and a man-made archipelago that is a miniature replica of the world.
I love Dubai, albeit in the same way that motorists love to slow down when there is an accident on the opposite side of the road, but even then its not going to help me win friends and influence people in Dalston, but despite the initial reactions of most of my (near-homogenous) unrepresentative sample of friends, colleagues and acquaintances, neither one of these places is chalk, nor cheese; they are not a set of binaries- deep vs. shallow.
It is another post and an aside that deserves further discussion that to pass of Dubai as a glossy simulacrum of real life is to miss the point by coming at it from a specifically European Enlightenment tradition POV, not least because of the depth of opportunity if you want to ‘make it’ globally while remaining grounded in your regional-parochial traditions and history ( as told to me by an brilliant creative director who I worked with in the region many years back.
But rather than making that case here, back to Sri Lanka for now. It currently seems to be the destination du jour for a certain strata of jaded western European early-adopter member of the precariat- the freelance photographers and social media consultants; those of us who work jobs that don’t count as real ( ie. Anything that you cannot explain to a child under 11 in one sentence…go on, take the Pepsi Challenge on that one); it has become India-lite for the avant guard of the young professional- a pale imitation of our bastard boomer parents travels (the generation that liberated, then commodotised the world, leaving us with the pasteurised dregs- again, ‘burn the old’ is another discussion for another time)
On my return from this trip of two-halves, my fellow marketing ninjas as brand consultants began to engage me in the common pastime of ‘Tick-box tourism top trumps’…“Did you see this…?” “Visit that…” “Stay here…?”
As we talked, it struck me; how different is taking three-wheelers and night trains on the same well-worn path round this island from homogenised fake beaches and pristine malls, or really even now, a ‘bucket-and-spade-ten-days’ in the Costas? The target audience and therefore the ‘executional vehicle’ is different but how substantively different is the play that is being made? Is there a real qualitative difference between ‘we all sit on the same loungers by the same beach near the same pool’ to ‘we all visit the same bay, take the same surf lesson, climb the same trail, wash the same elephant’? They are both just different commodities for different tastes. But they both still commodities (In a related post, I have said before that because of this, we are in fact living in a ‘Golden Age of Staying at Home…)
But I believe there is a difference. The superficial artificiality of Dubai is more honest- a ‘genuine fake’. It doesn’t try to pretend it is more than it is, which makes it in many way more substantive and more real. The malls, the waterparks, the 7-star hotels, the ‘worlds highest bar’ in the ‘world tallest building’ leave no room for irony and never apologise for what they are. Many hate Dubai, but most of those have never been there. Go, and feel free not to like it afterwards, but on some level you cant help but marvel, and actually, respect it. There is no room for irony. This is not to say that Dubai is a qualitatively better, more diverse and rich place than Sri Lanka ( in fact on a personal level I would argue the opposite…) but to dismiss one because of the other shows a certain kind of skewed and privileged view.
There is a lot to disagree with culturally (and that is before we get into the big political stuff around women, sexuality and civil liberties, which are wholly vile, and for which the UAE deserves censure but which are also off the agenda for this post) but to hate it culturally, to not even simply be able to appreciate it as a marvel of the audacity of (post)modernity, is to show quite how jaded and calcified one it.