Striking Out

I didn’t know what to expect on my first trip overseas. Outside of trips to the East Coast or to Florida to visit my grandma, the prospect of getting on a plane and flying to the other side of the ocean was… well… foreign to me. I recall the excitement and the apprehension. The idea that two years of high school Spanish would allow me to communicate with these exotic people. I recall the feeling that even though I was looking forward to the adventure, I hoped that I would be able to manage it as best as I could, that the whole experience would not be too foreign.

This was my mentality for a long time. To the point where it took me a while to become comfortable going anywhere that didn’t either speak English or my somewhat comfortable second language of Spanish. It wasn’t until the Czech Republic that I was among a people who didn’t speak any language I knew at all. But deep somewhere within me there was this romantic and adventurous spirit that made me want to go somewhere exotic. Foreign. Made me wonder if there was somewhere in the world still like that.

Worlds Unknown

I remembered from books a time when people set off on ships and docked in places that were totally unlike their own. The people with customs foreign and different. The things they traded or sold were things you’d never see at home. Things that would fascinate everyone around you. It was with this fantasy that made me want to go into the world and discover new things. New places. New people. To in some way escape the homogenizing tide of globalization. 

If there is a place left in the world like this, I don’t know it. The internet has made even the most exotic mementos from the farthest places just a click away from displaying on your mantle just as if you had been there. But it was with this desire to see the world that I chose probably the most westernized “Arab” city in all of the Middle East: Dubai.

What is “Western?”

But no. I don’t think the Emiratis would ever consider themselves “Western.” Their hotels don’t have five stars; they have seven. They don’t have Disney World; they have Dubailand, which was designed to be twice the size and much more extravagant. They don’t have lots of skyscrapers; they have ‘supertalls’ which stand above 600 meters and no other city has more than Dubai, topped off, of course, by the tallest building on earth: the Burj Khalifa with its 160 floors, a full four times higher than the Carew Tower which I marveled at for years as the tallest building in my hometown of Cincinnati. The Emiratis are here to say: Anything you can do I can do better. And they have in many ways.

This mentality that there is a place you can go and experience something totally unlike what you have seen… I found it in Dubai. Yes, it’s a giant city that many will tell you has given up its “Arabness” and you will not experience Middle Eastern culture there. In some ways, that seems correct. But it’s fundamentally wrong. This is Arab culture at its finest, the Emiratis will tell you.

Living in Western Europe, it’s hard not to see how visitors are causing many old medieval era cities never designed to be bustling hubs of tourism to burst at the seams, some even actively seeking to reduce tourism… but Dubai’s solution is simple: become bigger, build more, build higher. As our guide Hichem would tell us, they have eased regulations for foreign investment and broken down as many barriers as possible to flood this former desert fishing village with tourists from every part of the world. Even the guides seem to have a unified and rehearsed script down: Dubai will be safe, be clean, and always be innovative, fresh, and new – these are the keys to their success.


I must have painted a unique sight to the Uber driver on the way downtown, craning my neck upward looking at the skyscrapers, each taller than the next, and each so unique and modern such as to look like a scene from a futuristic space city in which edgy architects were given a blank slate to do whatever they wanted. We whizzed past a replica of the iconic Chrysler Building in New York City, but for good measure, the Emiratis made two standing side by side. Figures…

But amidst all of this, I did get the sense of what I had heard from some friends about this city: that it is manufactured. Artificial. A city that has risen from the desert in just a few decades. I’ve heard the same said of my former home of Las Vegas. And for the same reasons people flock there as well to be transported to an otherworldly wonderland that is totally unlike any other city on earth. But there is a beauty and an allure to it that makes you (or at least me) to be totally taken away by it all.

A Side Trip

However, after a few days, I was ready for a change in scenery, making my way to what I learned was surprisingly the financial and industrial hub of the UAE, despite Dubai’s elegance and big-time money: Abu Dhabi.

Drawing its name from something like “father of the goats” from a folktale of a man who raised a large herd of goats in the area, the origins of its name in no way bear witness to the incredible place it has become today. Home to the The Qasr al Watan (Royal Palace) and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, it shows off its “Arabness” in ways that Dubai does not (or at least I did not see). The Royal Palace and Grand Mosque are so impressive and opulent that they border on being ostentatious, both having been erected in the last twenty years, and one would expect nothing less of Emiratis after having seen Dubai. But here at least you experience what is conjured in the mind when one thinks of stereotypical Arabia: the sun-kissed plazas, the white walled Arabian buildings topped by impressive domes, the gold-trimmed halls adorning elegant palaces, the hauntingly beautiful call to prayer echoing through the plazas.

Dubai: Modern Tradition

So after a few short days in the UAE, I saw a side of Arabia that was in some ways not Arabic at all, but in others Arabia at its finest, and exactly what one would hope to expect from this culture and this region, which was after all, was the very birthplace of civilization itself. From the sand, this country rose to become one of the most impressive in the world. Its people proud and modern, yet still clinging in many ways to their traditional Muslim roots. It’s a place that you really do have to see to believe, and despite being in such an interconnected and globalized world, it is the closest I have ever been to that vision of centuries ago in which explorers stepped off of caravels in faraway lands only to have their conception of their known world completely turned on its head, walking in a totally foreign land and barely believing their eyes at every turn. This was Dubai.

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