Hungry in Dubai

French censored Carrefour supermarket where I went hungry

French censored Carrefour supermarket where I went hungry



The last time I visited Dubai I had to stay much longer than planned. As usual when I have a lot of time on my hands, I wanted to use it to read. I was sure that there must be  some good bookshops in Dubai but no one in the street nor a single taxi driver  knew where these were located. I also saw no one sitting in a park or coffee shop reading a book. Of course I should have looked in the telephone guide or on the internet for bookshops, but I didn’t, I think because I was unconsciously hoping just to run into one. Stupid!

I am not saying that you can get novels, poetry and philosophy books in every supermarket in Holland, my native country, but you can buy cultural and political weeklies, and other magazines with long articles on important things in the world.

Nothing of the sort is available in Dubai’s supermarkets and shopping malls I noticed. In the end I bought every day The National, an English language daily for the Emirates’ expats with one of the world’s most beautiful newspaper designs and lavishly edited (although equally censored) pages on culture and art. I also managed to find some British Sunday newspapers with a fat cultural supplement, that is on those Sundays they didn’t contain any negative reporting about the effects of the financial crisis on the Emirates. Yammie yammie!

I was thoroughly disappointed. In fact I went hungry for a month, and turning to Dubai television in the hotel didn’t help at all. I only started to hear the ding-dong-dong  melody of  the Dubai One channel  in my nightmares with armies of red glittering commas moving around – without any significant text between those commas. (The red comma is more or less the logo of Dubai One.)

But, to be honest, it’s an international phenomenon.

Take for example the articles grouped under “art” in “the” quality newspaper of Holland, NRC. It’s all about money and freakish behavior.

  • Artist “kidnaps” guests
  • The Tzum Award for the Most Beautiful Phrase goes to Erwin Mortier
  • Lira Prize for Ros and Meijer
  • Art academy doesn’t get new building
  • Pipo the Clown becomes classical hero of youth tv
  • The Concerts Palace has to cut its budget
  • Making songs at three in the morning
  • Archives of novelist Elsschot go to Antwerp
  • The Dutch Music Days will be discontinued

The same for the British newspapers’ art and culture supplements: one supplement  talked about the debts of Michael Jackson, the deepest thought of a millionaire designer, bestselling books, the value of art works going down at auctions, the sex life of an actress etcetera.  People like me who want to die after having written at least one book, painted one canvas or created one piece of music  that will delight generations, people like that didn’t appear. No one interviewed them, no one followed their life and struggle, no one recommended their products.

It seems that the gradual reduction of the distance between what we formerly called high and low culture, or elite and popular art, is actually leading to the refusal to give  high and elite art to the masses. We need a new, what the Germans like to call “cultural war” to save them.

Of course there is still high culture, but it seems it is being chased back to where it came from, from isolated enclaves of individual innovation and creation. While the Dubai government might consider it dangerous from time to time, it seems newspaper and magazine owners think it doesn’t sell. The result is the same: a flood of popular culture reinforcing mainly conservative values such as romance (marriage) and merciless competition (sports and business). Unlimited consumerism (happiness at home and showing off in public places) is promoted as well as all kinds of superstitions (horoscopes, inexplicable events in which God might be involved , miracle medicines, etcetera ).

Next time I go to Dubai I’ll bring my own books with me. A girl has to defend herself .

(First published in 2009)


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