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DIARY – Scottish Review of Books
by Hannah McGill


October 29, 2009 | by Hannah McGill

Dubai or Not to Buy

WHEN the Edinburgh International Film Festival first kicked off, in 1947, it was one of three such events in the world, with just Cannes and Venice to rub up against. Now, the calendar is choked with film festivals; they’ve become a requisite tourist attraction, and it seems that every city that doesn’t already have one is looking for a corner of the calendar where it can slot one in. The Dubai International Film Festival is a new kid on the block, with 2007 marking only its third year in existence. Still, it has the wherewithal to do things in style.

I’m accustomed to doing the festival circuit on the serious cheap: budget flights; shared rooms; once, memorably, a Cannes apartment with no electricity or hot water. The invitation from Dubai, however, offers business class flights and five-star accommodation. This is an event with serious investment behind it, in a city that’s doggedly asserting itself as the world’s leading purveyor of very tall buildings, daring investment opportunities, flashy holiday resorts and general deranged glitz.

Even by night, the world’s fastest-growing city looks like a cross between the Blade Runner set and a Meccano convention. Dubai has some $100bn worth of construction projects underway or planned, and it’s estimated that a fifth of the world’s cranes are helping out. Endless crops of half-completed skyscrapers twinkle with lights; they’re worked on through the night by labourers brought in from India and Pakistan. One, the Burj Dubai, aims to be the tallest building in the world.

The Jumeirah Beach Hotel is plenty tall enough for me. Tall and wide, it’s shaped like a great big breaking wave. It forms part of a glitzy chain owned by Dubai’s ruling Al Maktoum family, who control most of the local property market.

“You have a very nice room, on our twenty-third floor,” the receptionist tells me. “You will be able to see the Palm island from your window.”

Ah: the Palm island. This is a man-made peninsula, supposedly in the shape of a palm tree (though rather more reminiscent of a squished scorpion), offering 4000 exclusive seaside boltholes to super-rich sun-worshippers. The standard of resident desired was established at the time of the World Cup, when the England squad all snapped up matching residences at a special thirty percent discount. (How cute that they invest in property en masse! Do they all think as one, like bees? Or did their bikini-crazed WAGs perhaps force their hands, tempted by the proximity of the world’s largest shopping mall?) The Palm Jumeirah, outside my window, is only the beginning: two further Palm islands are under construction. The third one, the Palm Deira, will cover an area larger than Paris.

Still, Paris is small potatoes, in the dizzily ambitious realm of Dubai property development. Why have Paris when you could have the whole of France for your personal holiday playground? The World is another ersatz peninsula currently under construction, designed to resemble the whole entire planet. Rumours about Richard Branson buying Great Britain seem to be unfounded, but Michael Schumacher has already been given part of Antarctica, as a gift from Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. It remains to be seen whether Schumacher’s share will be trimmed back in line with the progress of global warming; or whether other conditions out in the real world will affect property deals. What price a jaunt to the luxurious, restful West Bank? Or a sunny holiday on Little Sudan? Well, if that’s all too troubling to the conscience, there’s always the option of the Palazzo Versace luxury hotel, currently under construction. This establishment will reportedly provide a beach with temperature-controlled sand to prevent residents’ toes getting too hot en route to the water.

A concierge makes off with my baggage, and I head for the twenty-third floor. My ears pop in protest as the glass elevator whistles to its lofty destination. The room is considerably larger than my flat in Edinburgh. The bed would sleep around eight, without call for undue intimacy. One wall is a monumental window, outside which sleeps the Persian Gulf, the Palm island, and the tallest hotel in the world, the Burj Al-Arab. Another Al Maktoum concern, the Burj Al-Arab is shaped like a massive sail, and has the honour of being the world’s only seven-star hotel. The size of the beds may only be dreamed of by mere five-star peasants such as me.

Tuesday 12th December

In the morning, there’s a veil of moody mist over the promised view, and a matching fog of jet lag dulling my brain. I take a deep breath and go hunting for the breakfast room. It’s no use: I find a complex of shops, a number of exotic restaurants, a pool with a piano on a raised platform in its centre, a tanning salon, a hairdresser’s, and countless would-be sunbathers aggrieved by the unfriendly weather – but nothing as normal as breakfast. I head off to the festival HQ instead, which resides in another part of the apparently endless Jumeirah resort complex. The main theatre is in the midst of a sort of stage-set version of a souk (market), with air conditioning, piped music, Christmas trees galore, and no nasty dust or haggling. The first fellow delegate I meet, a Canadian filmmaker, tells me that Edinburgh rejected her last film. I quickly note that I’ve only just taken charge… I’m relieved to spy my friend Antonia, a journalist and programme consultant to EIFF. She lives in Dubai with her family. “So where’s the non-insane bit, where the real people live?” I ask her. “There isn’t one,” Antonia says. She notes that although Dubai is massively ethnically diverse – Asian, Iranian and western expats are the majority, and Arabic, English, German, Hindi/Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil, Persian, and Tagalog are all widely spoken – social roles are deeply entrenched and mixing between ethnic groups is rare. She’s the only one among her British expat friends, for instance, who doesn’t have a Filipino nanny.

I apologise for flagging. “I couldn’t find coffee this morning.” “There’s a Star-bucks in the souk!” says Antonia. Well, of course there is.

Later, at a lunch for local distributors, I meet an industry acquaintance who tells me that he spent the previous day skiing. Dubai, where the average December temperature is 24C, and summers can hit 45C, has its own 22,500 square metre indoor ski resort.

The contrast between the preposterously lush local lifestyle and the tenor of the Arab films on show at the festival is striking. These films tend to be concerned with the effects of conflict, poverty and intolerance. Antonia and I are jolted back to reality by a harsh documentary about a young Yemeni woman condemned to death for murder without any proper trial. Then I spend the evening with a no less testing portmanteau film entitled All The Invisible Children, for which directors including Spike Lee, Ridley Scott and John Woo have composed segments addressing stricken childhoods the world over. It’s not great, but the Lee film, about a teenager with AIDS, has me in pieces. I can’t quite get into the mood for the cocktails and canapés afterwards. It’s always a striking contrast at film festivals: a harrowing work about human misery, followed by a cheery drinks reception.

When I get back, the towels in my room have been ingeniously folded into the shape of a rabbit. It even has eyes. I pause to contemplate the fact that it is the job of someone in this hotel to order stick-on paper eyes for the towel animals.

Wednesday 13th December

The fog finally lifts, and I see the shimmering ocean, the mighty Burj Al-Arab tower, and the weird, flat planes of the Palm island. The ground is so far below me that the people doing beach aerobics look like little germs swarming under a microscope. Duly inspired, I gird my loins and finally find the breakfast room. It is more like a breakfast city, populated by zealous converts to a breakfast cult. Every kind of food you might associate with breakfast, and several that you would not, is represented. There are omelette waiters, coffee waiters, toast waiters and juice waiters.

I head to a talk by the producer Barrie Osborne, whose credits include Apocalypse Now, The Matrix, and The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. The audience is largely composed of local students, who take endless photographs of the man with startlingly high-end equipment, but show no sign of listening to him. There’s a general culture of chattering during films and events here that I find almost impossible to tolerate. I get a shuttle bus to the festival’s other main venue, the Mall of the Emirates, where the aforementioned ski resort is situated. There’s a Debenhams, a Virgin Megastore and a Harvey Nichols. I could be absolutely anywhere, but for the eye-smarting heat – and every interior is air-conditioned to the point of shivers. I brought a shawl just in case modest head-covering was required, but I’m using it to keep myself warm in the cinemas. I watch a weird Tunisian melodrama about a gang rape (the victim of which seems gamely to regard as a minor social indiscretion), an overblown Egyptian romance with a Bollywood vibe, and a nice Lebanese youth comedy about sex and falafel.

There’s a spectacular sunset.

The towels have become an elephant.

Thursday 14th December

Rain again. I spend the morning in the very well-appointed viewing room, watching Egyptian films that give the impression of having been made in the 1950s (a raucous rural comedy, a mad weepie set in a mental hospital). Members of the Festival staff are all of a wobble, because the Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan is in town for a stage interview. He came to Edinburgh a few years back; gaggles of girls waited all day to present him with teddy bears. Such is his fame that there’s even a Pakistani film in the programme here called The Death of Shah Rukh Khan, about a young boy obsessed with emulating him.

Tomorrow, Richard Gere and Oliver Stone are arriving to participate in a panel event. I have bad associations with Oliver Stone, having once in my early days as an EIFF consultant shared a dinner with him at which everything that could go wrong rather spectacularly did. Providing adequate care for A-list guests during all the chaos of a festival is one of the greatest challenges. Still, doubtless Stone, Gere and Khan will be consoled by hotel rooms of crazy standards. What glorious artworks will be fashioned from their towels, I wonder? Will the Al Maktoum clan perhaps offer Gere a personal stake in mini-Tibet?

By direct contrast, I’m riveted and heartbroken by an amazing documentary about homeless girls living on nothing in Egypt. I keep thinking about the earnest efforts being made by optimistic westerners to reduce their carbon emissions and recycle their waste. If one thing is depressingly apparent here, it’s that such gestures are a drop in the ocean when so much of the world is either too rich or too poor to care. I’m a fine one to talk, though. By the end of 2007 my carbon footprint will be knee-deep.

The elephant in my room remains, but has been joined by a sort of towel cobra.

I get a very early night, the better to rise at 3 and head to the airport. Even at that hour, the roads are busy, and an accident has jammed up the main road out of Dubai. A taxi sits with its bonnet concertinaed, testament to the notoriously reckless local driving style; its confused passengers stand by in a daze. Still, as a business class VIP, I can afford a bit of a delay, before my chauffeur-driven vehicle turns into a pumpkin and I’m plummeted back into the unglamorous real world.

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