Sunday, July 19, 2009

Dubai seen in the words of a philosopher

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

A philosopher, whose words are among the most derided today, wrote in 1848, “A spectre is haunting Europe.” More than 160 years later, no such spectre may haunt the world. But for me, he made common sense when I visited Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently.

The visit was strictly personal. I came back refreshed and replenished. But I cannot conceal that it was also political. I recalled a phrase, hanging from the threads of the flower children from the 1960s and 1970s, resisting the Vietnam War: “the personal is the political”, a slogan that was also central to the feminist movement.

The waiter wiped the table with tissue paper

A close relative took me to a family restaurant for breakfast. Outside, it was Dubai in June: hot and humid; cars and concrete. Inside, it could have been any Indian city, any time of the year: dosas and filter coffee; spicy conversation dripping from Indian tongues.

Except, the waiter wiped the table with tissue paper.

I glanced at him. His face reminded me of the waiters who served us at Raj Mahal, an Udipi hotel in Dhobi Talao, Mumbai, when I was studying at St Xavier’s College. I have not seen this happen, anywhere in India. We had our fill of sheera and dosas with chutneys. But as we left by car, our personal meal became my first political insight.

My feelings grew firmer as I rambled for ten days. During a lunch, a student described how she was afraid that Dubai had exploded from a fishing community for a thousand years (dates, pearls) into one of the most modern cities of the world – since the first shipment of oil in 1969, and, more so, within her own memory of barely two decades!

So when I returned to Pune, I dug out and re-read my famous philosopher. This is how I propose to write this post: a sentence or paragraph (in bold italics) from the little book by the famous philosopher; then my observations and reflections. I will try and see Dubai in the words of the philosopher, who dared to change the world.

“The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape (of Good Hope), opened up fresh ground … The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies … gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby … a rapid development. … Modern industry has established the world-market …”

Everywhere in Dubai, you can ‘see’ money shining; and ‘feel’ the naked power of finance capital with “C” in capitals of concrete and steel: in the flashy cars, on the smooth roads, in the magic malls, the Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone; and on people (present on the rich, absent on the poor).

And at the seven-star Atlantis The Palm Hotel, during a fashion show, someone mocked with envy, “Can you see the recession anywhere here, eh?” Merely the air-conditioning had already frozen the marrow of my bones into ice.

“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. The bourgeoisie … has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals ... ”

Tens of huge cool towers lined up the big, main road like two rows of pillars holding up the hot sky. There is sand where I stand. I pinch myself awe-struck at the lawns in the desert. That Dubai is being erected in the twenty-first century does not detract from it being branded a wonder.

As a young man I had read ‘The City of the Yellow Devil’ by the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky (1868-1936). Moving around Dubai in 2009, I knew how Gorky must have despaired when he visited New York in 1906 and published his essay in Appleton’s Magazine, an American publication in August of that year.

Dubai is an ever-changing tribute to world-class quality. The far-sighted and liberal rulers of Dubai have an unparalleled vision that is transforming the emirate into a niche of excellence. The city is shooting up like an adolescent teenager attached to a jet engine.

Like 24x7 ants, thousands of construction workers, from all corners of the world (from India: Kerala, coastal Karnataka, Goa, Bihar, U.P., A.P., Bangladesh), fabricate entire floors of skyscrapers in days. Just the car parks in the basement are three stories tall.

“The bourgeoisie has put an end to … idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the … ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’

Here I should only update my philosopher with the latest touch-screen ATMs and swiping credit cards.

“(The bourgeosie) has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value. And it has set up that single, un-conscionable freedom -- Free Trade.”

Like Ibn-Batuta, I scoured the ‘free trade’ malls. Like Diogenes of Athens, I walked through the ‘Mall of the Emirates’ window-shopping for the countless things I did NOT need. The two books I bought: for me, The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel (second edition, 2007, Three Rivers Press); for my close relative, Maverick by Ricardo Semler. Leaving, at the airport, I was shaken by the last-moment scramble in duty-free Dubai; the key-words here being “free to buy”.

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society … Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch … All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”

Since our summer vacations with our grand-parents, I had known that generations of my native brothers and sisters had abandoned the comfort of red mud, coconut villages, scattered along the Canara coast, around Mangalore, and migrated to the Gulf in search of the good life.

Serving as an editor in the land of my ancestors, where Konkani is the official language, I had heard of ‘Goan Gulfies’, men who came back with finger-thick gold chains dangling from their necks.

In 1967, when I passed Class 11, a close relative of my father had gifted me a Sovar Prima watch – made in Switzerland, bought in Saudi Arabia, worn in Mumbai. On formal occasions, I still wear it as a precious heirloom.

On our journey back from Dubai, we bought a gift for a baby, newly born into our extended family. The baby dress: made in China, bought in Dubai, was given to the baby’s father in Pune, to be worn by the baby in California, USA.

But a wise NRI shopkeeper in Meena Bazar, Dubai, saved me from the embarrassment of buying an expensive Italian shirt made of Egyptian cotton. He advised me that the finest cotton was Indian, made by Century and Arvind, and available along Pune’s very own Laxmi Road. (“All that is solid (cotton) melts in the (Dubai) air.”)

I have returned from Dubai – humbled and chastened.

Sitting here at my Fujitsu-Siemens laptop (“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.”), I dwell in my mind’s eye upon my beautiful, special and different nephew, Adrian Terence D’Souza.

"With sober senses", I visualise the 26 year-old singing Konkani cantara, playing the drums, kicking a football, drawing his blue ‘Time is running out! … Save water!’ picture and laying out the table at the hotel, where he welcomes his honoured guests.

And hot tears roll down my cheek. I hope in international solidarity for my brave brothers and sisters, who toil in Dubai. Peace and love to you, mates.

This then is my Dubai, seen in the words of a philosopher.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, India, Sunday, 19th July 2009.


The Ketchup Girl said...

Much love to Adrian, his painting is indeed moving and beautiful.

Joe Pinto said...

Thank you so much, KG. Love to your Mum.

If you have friends, who like beautiful paintings by special people, please fwd the link, so that they can vote for Adrian.

Peace and love,
- Joe.

Gauri Gharpure said...

This post is relevant to me for i am attempting to read the manifesto. every 20 pages, i go back and read again for i find it somewhat difficult. so, i am still where i began. when i complete reading, i will seek your help.

Anonymous said...

Refreshing to see Dubai from this point of view. Needless to mention, Adrian's painting is beautiful!

feddabonn said...

i haven't read the communist manifesto, maybe i should. the images of communism we have (ussr/china) seem to have as much exploitation and injustice as the capitalist systems.

Joe Pinto said...

My dear feddabonn,

Every ideology like capitalism or socialism or communism shares something in common with religion, since there is a belief system at the core of our ways of thinking about the world.

In action, contradictions emerge, and that is why exploitation and injustice persist.

But with your courage and willingness to think out things for yourself, take out the time to read the CM.

More strength to your scholarly side. What is the typical Maori way to greet a friend and make him or her welcome?

Peace and love,
- Joe.

feddabonn said...

maori use kia ora (pronounced ki to rhyme with the letter p). literally means be well/be alive/be healthy. welcome (as in welcoming someone) is haere mai.

Shashidhar N said...

There you go--another myth busted. I always believed that the Maori made "nose contact."

feddabonn said...

ah shashi, they do that too! it's called hongi, and used in more formal/ceremonial occasions.