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Arts & Architecture

Dubai Speed: Inside the Bubble

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by Christiane Peitz

2nd of December, 2009: National Day in the United Arab Emirates. To mark the occasion, Dubai is offering fitness events and family entertainment, local musicians perform alongside folklore ensembles from Syria and Andalusia, another highlight are Egyptian show horses: all attractions courtesy of the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Community Development. Only Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest building at 811 metres, was not completed in time for the festive occasion. Its opening had to be postponed until early 2010.

Who knows what else is in the offing for Dubai. At the end of November, government-owned holding company Dubai World asked its creditors for an extension on debt re-payment, citing its 60 billion dollar debt as the reason. Hotel and real estate prices plummeted immediately, along with stock markets in the Gulf region. The one-time wonderland seemed to turn into one giant yard sale.

Bubble within a bubble: Dubai airport. (c) BRB

Michael Schindhelm is one of many who has left. In March 2007, the luckless former director of the Berlin Opera Foundation (which runs the German capital’s three opera houses) arrived in Dubai. As Cultural Director of Dubai’s Culture and Arts Authority, he was supposed to spearhead the construction, from March 2008 onwards, of an opera house and a Museum of World Cultures. Leaving Berlin, whose coffers were empty, Schindhelm was hoping to be able to draw on Dubai’s abundant financial resources. Surrounded by ten-lane highways, artificial islands, and towering skyscrapers, his new employers nourished dreams of, amongst others, a new multiplex theatre for entertainment and music, with a dozen or so stages and a supersized museum complex attached to it. In the summer of 2009, Schindhelm threw in the towel; he now lives in Rome. Whereas construction of the Louvre’s Abu Dhabi branch is well underway and I.M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art has just celebrated its first anniversary in neighbouring Qatar, Dubai’s cultural bubble has burst.

Is this a case of visionary turned disillusionist? 49-year-old Michael Schindhelm – trained as a chemist in East Germany, and active since as a translator, dramatist, artistic director at the Basel Opera House, arts manager, and writer – has always been reinventing himself and his career; perhaps because of this he fits well into Dubai with its artificiality and allure to fortune-seekers. Fortunately, during his stint in Dubai, Schindhelm was vain enough to keep a diary of his adventures as one among the many well-off ‘new nomads’ that used to flock there. In fact, ‘vain enough’ may be an understatement. As a reader one does not really care which brand of car Schindhelm drives in Dubai, how he copes with the heat, which swearwords he uses when he gets into a tussle over a parking spot, and what he feeds his two tortoises (the female, in case you are wondering, is called ‘Europa’). In other respects, Schindhelm’s vanity is to the benefit of the reader. ‘Dubai Speed’, Schindhelm’s chronicle of his year-long stay in this ‘bay of paradise’, offers an insightful view from inside the bubble.

Schindhelm does not bother with the pretense of understanding. His attitude is one of wonder. He allows himself to lower his guard, and simply describes his experiences in the mega-construction site that is Dubai: The sudden changes in scenery, from desert to highway, from idyllic beach to the synthetic world of shopping malls. Artificiality, kitsch, hubris, simulation, conspicuous consumption. “This city is a case of total mobilization”, Schindhelm writes. It embodies “not merely a race against time, but an objection to time itself”. And yet, he still sees in Dubai “a tiny nucleus of hope” – the promise of a multicultural existence, in the face of political and religious radicalization among such neighbours as Iran, Saudi-Arabia, or Jemen. The final image of the book is a pavilion by the beach, a temporary exhibition hall under the scorching Arabian sun: a happy end, wrung from adverse circumstance, and quite possibly spurious.

Schindhelm hopes for a portion of the global flow of capital to be diverted to cultural projects and purposes. He wants to transmute the greed of the financial markets and turn it into a sense of curiosity; he imagines an opera house whose programme would include Così fan tutte, Lebanese dance theatre, the Cirque du Soleil, Chinese opera, and a Bollywood musical.

More interesting than Schindhelm’s visions for the future, however, are his run-ins with an understanding of ‘culture’ that equates art and commerce without so much as a flinch. None of Schindhelm’s interlocutors gets his point that a musical theatre with a capacity of 3000 is hopeless, simply because of the bad acoustics this would entail. In the eyes of his business partners, anyone who believes that for a museum to be successful it need not yield a high return on investment, is simply stuck in an obsolete European mindset. Dubai, an “imagination of a world made purely by humans”, also wants to redefine culture: as a means of profit maximization, which drives up real-estate values. Culture becomes just another show horse.

Schindhelm’s eventual failure is not so much due to overt confrontations of this sort, but is the result of inscrutable hierarchies of men of some importance, and of strange forms of non-communication that characterize the meetings and discussions he holds with the Cultural Council. Who is really in charge? When is a concession merely an instance of stonewalling, whose handshake is binding?

Schindhelm takes exception to the accusation that he is ignoring the existence of censorship in the Arab world. Instead he portrays himself as a victim of the “Idomeneo” affair, in which a controversial, modernist production of the Mozart opera, to be staged by Berlin’s Deutsche Oper, was cancelled, for fear of reprisals by Muslim groups. Schindhelm pokes fun at the “three generals” – the overeager Heads of the State Museums of Berlin, Dresden, and Munich – who visit Dubai in their quest for cooperation. He notes, with a tone of bemusement, how translating a catalogue for the exhibition “Muslim Faces” (the only project Schindhelm completed while in Dubai) led to problems, because of uncertainty about the attributes of prophet Muhammad. Schindhelm accuses the West of arrogance – and yet he himself embodies it. His zest for action, coupled with good intentions, is a phenomenon that is typical of the West.

As a result, the scintillating bubble that is Dubai becomes a bizarre reflection of our modern age. Schindhelm hints at a number of parallels and comparisons: between the construction from scratch of a modern megacity, the square layout of the city of Mannheim (conceived during absolutist rule), and the imported Florentine style of architecture found in St. Petersburg: “The city is a product of genius coupled with savage contempt for human life. In some sense this is probably true of all cities… Who built Babel? Who St. Petersburg? Who Dubai?”

The plot of land that was reserved for Schindhelm’s opera house, in the meantime has been sold on. The new investor plans to build a car park.

Michael Schindhelm: Dubai Speed. Eine Erfahrung
Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Munich 2009.
ISBN-13: 978-3-423-24768-9
Softcover, 256 pages, EUR 16.90

Christiane Peitz is a journalist and head of the cultural section of the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel.

The German version of this article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel, 2 December 2009 (original article); translated and reproduced with permission. Translation: The Berlin Review of Books. All rights reserved.

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