With its lack of expat Arabic speakers, Ross Brown wonders when our city started turning into the Benidorm of Arabia
The taxi driver started chuckling as we left the Sheraton Dubai Creek, was laughing at the bridge and by the time we were approaching the airport was borderline hysterical, tears streaming down his face, his mouth wide open to let the torrent of unstoppable laughter pour out over his startling white teeth. ‘Sir must not joke,’ he gasped during a brief pause to dodge an oncoming truck and wipe his eyes. Then he was off again, banging the wheel with his fist and howling at the windscreen. ‘Sir must not joke!’
I racked my brain. What did I say? Good morning? Not that funny. Take me to the airport? If he finds that funny, he’s in the wrong job. I’m amazed that the Sheraton looks exactly the same now as it did in ’79? I was amazed – it is the same and, as small-talk starters go, it wasn’t bad. ‘Ah, sir,’ sighed Captain Chuckles as he unloaded my bags from the car. ‘Everybody knows there were no buildings in Dubai before 1980, just tents.’ Then he patted my arm sympathetically, got back in his car, and laughed off into the distance.
A few hours later, as I leaned back in my plane seat and looked down over the city skyline, I realised I had some sympathy for my hopelessly misinformed chum. Because, great though the place is, history is not Dubai’s strong point. Most expats I know come here for a few years, make their money and leave without ever learning a word of Arabic. They shop at Waitrose, bank at HSBC, get their news from Sky, buy clothes at Debenhams and eat at the Rivington Grill. Any Arabic culture comes by way of a big Lebanese lunch.
Benidorm in Spain, with its all-day breakfasts and themed English pubs, is the traditional home of the Brit determined to have a holiday abroad without actually feeling like he’s left home. It’s a deplorable place. How did that happen here? Arabic culture is one of the oldest and proudest in the world: surely we can’t go home having only learned the word ‘tabbouleh’.
It’s not easy, I’ll admit, especially in a society where interaction with the indigenous population often starts and stops at passport control. But that’s not an excuse. Far from it – that’s the challenge. So this summer, rather than mastering brunches, I’m learning Arabic. I’ve already downloaded my Easy Arabic podcast. If you see a man marching around the Marina at 5am, headphones on, bellowing, ‘My name is Ross. I am going to the market, would you like an onion?’, why not say ‘marhaba’ and join me? We can always do Benidorm next year.