‘OH, DUBAI. I DO NOT UN­DER­STAND YOU’

A culi­nary tour of the emi­rate known for its ‘seven star’ lux­ury be­witches — and be­wil­ders — nov­el­ist

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Heather O’neill

A culi­nary tour of the emi­rate known for its ‘seven star’ lux­ury be­witches — and be­wil­ders — one of Canada’s best-known nov­el­ists

IWENT OFF ON a foodie ad­ven­ture tour of Dubai. I knew rather lit­tle about the place, other than its rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing lux­u­ri­ous. I’d read that it has seven-star ho­tels. But if five out of five is a per­fect score, then what do the sixth and sev­enth stars stand for? The first taste I get of Dubai is on the Emi­rates Air­lines flight there, aboard an A380, a plane that has al­most be­come leg­endary for hav­ing pri­vate suites and show­ers and a bar. I have very long legs and usu­ally feel like I’m try­ing to fold a com­pli­cated chair when I sit down in planes. But the chair in my busi­ness-class pri­vate pod is more com­fort­able than the arm­chair I write in at home. It’s al­ways a drag to sleep next to some­one on an overnight flight, but I’m amazed at how se­cluded I feel; all I can see of the man next to me is his feet and his tele­vi­sion screen, on which he is watch­ing a film about an at­trac­tive de­liv­ery man who is in charge of trans­port­ing two kan­ga­roos.

I usu­ally look for­ward to food on a plane be­cause it kills time even though it’s aw­ful. In this case, a splen­did menu is handed to me. I or­der the shrimp and lob­ster ap­pe­tizer and a fish en­trée on rice with veg­eta­bles. They are served beau­ti­fully, on plates, restau­rant style. An as­sort­ment of wines is of­fered. The point of lux­ury is to make you for­get en­tirely about real­ity. I write a fairly in­spired piece of fic­tion in my pod. I press a but­ton on the side of my chair, and it turns into a bed. A flight at­ten­dant ar­rives with a mat­tress. Lit­tle stars ap­pear in the ceil­ing over my head. I am en­chanted.

I IMMEDIATELY as­sess that Dubai’s most defin­ing fea­ture has to be its sky­scrapers. For me, sky­scrapers are by def­i­ni­tion ugly. They are util­i­tar­ian and cheap look­ing. But the sky­scrapers in Dubai are ar­chi­tec­tural feats, spi­ralling and twist­ing into odd an­gles. They are pretty im­pres­sive. But beau­ti­ful? Ev­ery­thing is lin­ear in Dubai. There is noth­ing that im­i­tates na­ture in the de­sign of these build­ings. But, then again, it is a city erected in a desert. I go to the top of the world’s tallest build­ing, the 830-me­tre Burj Khal­ifa, for high tea at At.mo­sphere restau­rant. There are cook­ies and square sand­wiches served on four-layer golden trays. There are stacks of colour­ful mac­arons. It re­minds me of the dishes brought to Marie An­toinette in a movie I’d seen set in Ver­sailles. Now Ver­sailles — that is a place of sim­i­lar op­u­lence, which is in­dis­putably beau­ti­ful from any an­gle. I walk over to the win­dow, look down and am met with a phe­nom­e­nal sight: Dubai from above. In most cities, the spec­ta­cle of it all is achieved by look­ing up. But Dubai, I re­al­ize, needs to be seen from a height be­cause from up here it re­sem­bles pop art. The pools are gor­geous blue cir­cles. The roads are in swirling con­fig­u­ra­tion. There is or­der in the mad ex­cess, the frenzy, of new con­struc­tion. It is beau­ti­ful.

I AM STAY­ING at the W Dubai Al Habtoor City ho­tel. You have to be care­ful where you drink in Dubai, and you are sup­posed to wear mod­est cloth­ing — a dress that goes be­low your knees, say — in re­spect of lo­cal cus­toms. But I am in­formed that in ho­tels you can do what­ever the hell you want. The W turns into some sort of night­club when the sun goes down. There are line­ups to the el­e­va­tor, which is packed with women with masses of coiffed hair wear­ing miniskirts and ridicu­lously high heels. They look fan­tas­tic and keep ad­mir­ing them­selves in the re­flec­tion of the el­e­va­tor walls. I don’t know where they’re go­ing. I don’t bother to find out. Also, I haven’t brushed my hair since I was in Grade 4, so it’s not my scene. I’m late for din­ner at Namu, the Kore­anJa­panese restau­rant on the ho­tel’s 28th floor. By the time I ar­rive, the ta­ble is al­ready spread with sushi rolls, which are madly de­li­cious. I immediately start hog­ging the salmon sashimi, as is my way. The woman next to me asks if I want to hang out with a prince later. I shrug — what’s there to talk about with a prince? I look out the win­dow and am sur­prised to see some­thing I’ve seen so many re­pro­duc­tions of that ac­tu­ally look­ing at it now, in per­son, is sur­real: a cres­cent moon hang­ing up­side down, and to its right, a sin­gle star.

hands with. The meat is de­li­cious and ten­der, sim­mer­ing in the flavour of spicy, rich sauce. We stop at a shop that sells baklava, each of which has a dif­fer­ent name. I see one shaped like a nest with nuts that look like small eggs in the cen­tre. It is called The Nest of the Nightin­gale. How ex­quis­ite! The name is like a poem, I think, as I pop it in my mouth. Another one is called A Baby Finger, which seems a tad macabre. I pop it in my mouth, nonethe­less. I go to another restau­rant to eat a dessert, and am led into the kitchen where the dessert — some sort of but­ter con­coc­tion — is be­ing made on the stove. It’s too hot for me, so I wan­der into the back of the restau­rant, where there’s a large aquar­ium with a large pho­to­graph of a sheik above it and a bub­ble gum ma­chine next to it. Out­side, there’s a skinny cat who has spilled its food on the ground. This more ram­shackle Dubai may not be that old, but it is lovely in an en­dear­ing way.

IN THE EVENING, I am back in New Dubai and am go­ing to eat at an Ital­ian restau­rant. This at first seems ab­surd. Why would I go to an Ital­ian restau­rant in Dubai? Be­cause it is the na­ture of New Dubai. It is the realm of ex-pats, of a mix of peo­ple com­ing and go­ing from all over the world. The restau­rant is called The Ar­ti­san. It’s sup­pos­edly where celebri­ties hang out. “Check out Shakira over at that ta­ble,” a woman next to me says. I look over at a ta­ble, ex­pect­ing to ac­tu­ally see Shakira. But she has picked up the lo­cal cus­tom of call­ing women Shakira. The cock­tails are spec­tac­u­lar. One woman has hers served in a glass in the shape of a sea shell with a straw pok­ing out. Another has a cock­tail that comes in a Chi­nese take­out con­tainer. Mine has a tiny clothes peg hold­ing a flower on the side of the glass. I am jeal­ous of the oth­ers. There is some sort of pud­ding in a cup. There is an ar­range­ment of choco­late shoot­ing out of it that re­sem­bles trees. I pho­to­graph it. I text the photo back to Mon­treal. If you want to know what Dubai is like, then look at this pud­ding. It is try­ing to do some­thing spec­tac­u­lar just be­yond the tra­di­tional lim­its of lux­ury.

I’M RID­ING in a van on Ara­bian Ad­ven­tures’ New Dubai City tour. The Ger­man tour guide ram­bles about the dif­fer­ent neigh­bour­hoods we pass. She points out a Tim Hor­tons and says that when the shop opened, no one in Dubai had any idea who Tim Hor­tons was and what he had to sell. Then she laughs. The guide stops the van for a few min­utes out­side the Burj Al Arab, con­sid­ered one of the most lux­u­ri­ous ho­tels in the world and which re­sem­bles the sail of a dhow, a tra­di­tional Arab boat. We then walk along the beach, and the guide points to the wa­ter, ex­plain­ing how off the coast of Dubai are groups of ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands, one set of which is built to re­sem­ble a map of the world. I ask the

If you want to know what Dubai is like, then look at this pud­ding. It is try­ing to do some­thing spec­tac­u­lar just be­yond the tra­di­tional lim­its of lux­ury.

guide to re­peat this, be­cause I can nei­ther be­lieve it nor un­der­stand the point. I jump out for a photo in front of the great pink arch­way of the At­lantis, The Palm ho­tel, which is at the apex of the palm-tree-shaped is­land. This ho­tel is based on the myth of At­lantis, has a wa­ter­park in­side and is known to host Kim Kar­dashian when she is in town. We pass the Mall of the Emi­rates, which con­tains an in­door ski hill, and then ac­tu­ally go into another shop­ping cen­tre, the Dubai Mall, where we walk through an un­der­wa­ter tun­nel — part of the Dubai Aquar­ium — as sharks swim over our heads. “How does this com­pare to the Toronto Aquar­ium?” I ask a woman next to me. “We’re in a mall!” she an­swers. I stop at a café and no­tice that the donuts are square. Oh, Dubai. I do not un­der­stand you. ON THE FLIGHT HOME, I immediately fall asleep. It’s like re­turn­ing home to a com­fort­able bed af­ter a long trip. I wake up in the mid­dle of the night — or the mid­dle of the plane ride rather, as who knows what time zone I’m in. I’m too lazy to put my shoes back on, and I walk to the back of the plane in my stockinged feet to a horse­shoe bar. The bar­tender is chat­ting with a cou­ple of flight at­ten­dants. I feel like a child who has wo­ken up and wan­dered into the din­ner party. There are small sand­wiches on a stand. I sit at the bar and eat and talk. They sug­gest they can whip me up some­thing more spe­cial, if I like. Nah, I say. And then I re­mem­ber the pret­ti­est thing I saw in Dubai. That one star hang­ing out by the moon.

Per­haps noth­ing speaks to Dubai’s fa­mous lux­ury and ex­cess bet­ter than the 830-me­tre Burj Khal­ifa.

The Ar­ti­san restau­rant ( top) of­fers fresh takes on Ital­ian dishes such as seafood-rich Spaghetti alla Chi­tarra ( above left) and a deca­dent hazel­nut choco­late-based “cremino” ( above right).

The grandiose Gold Souk at the Dubai Mall, which also houses the glass view­ing tun­nel of the Dubai Aquar­ium and Un­der­wa­ter Zoo.

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