November 14th, 2013


Postcard from Dubai

Dating in Dubai is like dating in high school.

Not just, "being young and giggly and fun," although yeah, that's happening. But like being physically in a high school, under watchful eyes and underage.

Can we hold hands here? Oh, let go, it's prayer time. That's a mosque over there. Too many full burkas around. There's a couple of guys who are clearly righter than right wing (long beards, Taliban-style hats, angry glares). No, there's a camera in the elevator. Someone's on that balcony. Can the waitress see your hand?

It adds the spice of young crush and the furtiveness of adultery to a second date.

Dubai is a mecca for malls. Pleasant sandy beaches (as long as you leave before 10AM, when it gets hot). Lots of immigrants, lots of expats, a fair number of sundresses and shorts mixed with the traditional Indian, traditional Pakistani, and shades of Middle East from full-burka-veiled-face-no-eyeslit to jeans-long-sleeves-turtleneck-headscarf. It's the crossroads of commerce in this part of the world. Friendly nations load cargo to ships bound for unfriendly nations. If you've got money, they'd like to do business with you.

But it's also a Muslim country. My job stops at prayer time--no sound check, no practicing. The music in the mall stores, thumpy dance pop, stops at prayer time, replaced by singing Arabic. Everywhere, indoors and out, five times a day, the sound of prayers goes through every loudspeaker.

Not that everyone's praying. Sure, a fair number of Muslims duck into the masjids, the separate praying areas for men and women that are in every public building (in the malls, they're next to the restrooms, where every toilet stall has a spray hose for ceremonial foot washing before prayer). But there are still black-robed and white-robed Arabs moving through the theme park, the mall, the streets, perhaps pausing briefly for a moment of silence before continuing on to buy and sell.

As a Muslim country, lots of things are illegal. As a resident non-Muslim foreigner, you can apply for a license to own and consume alcohol in your home, which means filling out a form that swears you're an alcoholic and can't function without booze. It's basically a doctor's note to drink. The big hotels are licensed to serve non-resident expats, but they don't ask for your license or proof of address. Drinking is in the category, "We probably won't bust you for this--unless we want to." In which case, one can be jailed or deported with no return, at the King's pleasure. Which is not a metaphor.

Public affection between men and women also falls into this category. No making out on the beach, no kissing hello, no hugging goodbye, no holding hands.

A couple gets into the elevator with my date and me. They are teenage. She wears a burka-with-eyeslits. He wears jeans and an Abercrombie t-shirt. His hand brushes her back. She adjusts her headscarf. They look nervous, and get out on the second floor.

I say, "I wonder what their deal is?"

My date looks puzzled.

"Well, she's clearly from an observant Muslim family, and women are not allowed to be out with a guy who isn't a relative. He didn't look like her brother. Or maybe I'm reading the body language wrong because it's a different culture."

My date doesn't know, either. So we go to my car, the one place it is possible to be alone without being in a bedroom, and scan carefully for cameras before we get in.