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Poets, Eunuchs, and Pricks

When Apollonius and his disciple Damis paid a visit to Rhodes in the winter of 68 AD, they stopped by the Colossus where the young man asked his mentor if society could aspire to anything greater. Apollonius replied: "Yes ... a man who has acquired wisdom through innocence." Philostratus, who noted that instance of wishful thinking down in his Life of Apollonius, got a few facts wrong. Not only had the Colossus long since fallen victim to an earthquake (226 BC), he even ascribed the incident to a different Apollonius. Regardless, the anecdote points to a fascination with oversized engineering which we haven't yet managed to shake loose. From seven ancient wonders we are down to one. Yet Dubai's mighty petrocrats are outdoing one another in their efforts to rectify history by devising a whole new list. The aptly-named "Palm Islands" are leading contenders as is "Burj Dubai," a tower set to take primacy as the tallest of the superfluous super-tall at two thousand six hundred and eighty-four feet.

Whether it is wonderfully inventive torture one day or megalomaniac construction projects the next, Emarati Sheikhs are keeping busy, setting punters and satirists salivating at their antics. In a characteristically outlandish twist, the Sheikhs have now decided to set their mores on sexuality down in stone by commissioning a gargantuan eunuch—which is to lord over Dubai's Zabeel Park, fifty hectares smack in the middle of what is now some of the world's most valuable real estate. At over one hundred and fifty feet, the statue of Al-Hakawati "the storyteller" would relegate Rhodes' Colossus to an also-ran.

The designers plan to install speakers throughout the park, allowing people to tune in to the giant as he plows through recordings of traditional stories and legends. For those who might find the sight distressing, the statue would sport recreational rooms and a library located at the base in the Giant's ankles. One wonders whether the architects took the metaphor "to study at someone's feet" a little too seriously. In a city almost exclusively dominated by state of the art, air-conditioned phalluses, such a statue would not only be sexless, but be equipped with a series of elevators that would transport one through parts of the body where few Fundamentalists dare to tread, while from its viewing deck, situated in the Giant's hollowed-out cranium, one would be able to enjoy Dubai's skyline as it stretched out to where neon lights spider over the rust-colored dunes in the distance.

Whether or not the project comes to fruition, now that the current credit crisis has added another anti-Western string to the traditionalists' bow remains to be seen. What it does suggest, however, is the deep-seated ambivalence the Arab world displays when the 'word' intermingles with Islam's current conservatism. Poetry is often dubbed sihr halal, "legal magic," which, aside from the peculiar phrasing—one that would be unthinkable in other contexts as the average Arab has an understanding of magic not too dissimilar from that of Salem's witch-hunters circa1692—points to a marked difference between East and West. Whereas poetry in both the United States and Europe has retreated into the inner sanctum of academies and private endowments, it remains both a lucrative and legitimate form of popular entertainment in the Arab world. Mahmoud Darwish, Nizar Qabbani and Adonis, that perennial Nobel contender, were and have been known to fill stadiums with record audiences. So whilst Dubai dabbles with its hybrid of eunuch Golems and Jinns, a hundred miles to the south, Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, has now extended it's falconer's arm to welcome culture vultures in what is arguably a ploy by Abu Dhabi's reigning Nahyan clan to style themselves after the Medicis and establish their city as the artistic counterweight to Dubai's financial hub.

The audiovisual jewel in their tiara is "The Prince of Poets"—a contest held at the Al Raha Beach Theatre on the outskirts of the island emirate. Run along the lines of "American Idol," thousands of applications are processed until a select thirty-five poets compete in the broadcasts which unfold over the course of ten weeks. Contestants range between the ages of eighteen and forty-five and must be able to recite poems of an average of twenty rhymed or blank stanzas in the hopes of securing prizes of up to one million dirhams ($270,000). Now in its third year, producers claim ratings in the hundreds of thousands and the contest regularly spawns heated exchanges on the virtual grapevine.

Take the first season when there were claims that the judges, hoping to foster a sense of national pride, awarded first prize to the Emarati Maatouk, while the far more popular Palestinian Barghouti came in fifth. Barghouti, whose father, Mourid is the author of I Saw Ramallah, could no doubt take solace in the not inconsiderable cheque ($27,000) and in that he walked away with that much sought-after accolade, the modern poet's wreath, which he was accorded when his poem "Jerusalem" was immortalized with a cell-phone ring-tone. Nevertheless, the mini-scandal drew attention to the deep seated divisions between local and foreign Arabs. Palestinians and other Arabs constitute a second tier to privileged Emaratis. They are employed as schoolteachers, clerks and low-level administrators and are a resented but necessary part of Emarati society—whose only citizens (as the UAE refuses to impart privileges on the hordes of foreigners that constitute over eighty-five percent of its total population) occupy the top economic and social positions.

Such control requires stricter measures that the Emirates' well-paid advertisers in London, Paris and New York would care to communicate. Censorship laws in the United Arab Emirates are perplexing—to say the least. Though few books that are critical of either the government or Islam get approved for distribution, there are often loopholes via online retailers that allow one to thumb through them regardless. Then again scholars and journalists are often detained and deported according to the Department of External Affairs' whims. Christopher M. Davidson, one of the few, if not only bona fide academics to be able to claim an in-depth knowledge of the country and who, on a number of occasions has had his articles either blocked or amended describes the situation reasonably well in his recently published Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success. These limitations proved baffling when as an adolescent, I came across a copy of Abd'l Rahman Munif's Cities of Salt. The novel describes the arrival of western oilmen in the desert oasis of Wadi al-Uyoun and the resultant transition from nomad Bedouin life to the anachronistic oligarchies that currently dot the Lower and Upper Gulf. A single copy of Peter Theroux's fine translation was purchased by Abu Dhabi's National Library in the late 1980s and yellowed with unlove until my arrival a few years later. When at the time, I enquired as to whether I could check the book out, my request was denied. By persisting with my request I was eventually told I could photocopy the book on the premises and take said hot bundle home. On my most recent visit I took the time to pick the book up from its dusty shelf and sadly noticed its lack of wear.

As I pen the closing lines I am sat on a bench in the Villa Borghese's English gardens in Rome. In front of me is the statue of the "original" Prince of Poets, the Egyptian Ahmed Shawqi, whose bald morose countenance faces east towards a time when Alexandria wasn't a lower Nile backwater and Cairo was still a British Consulate corniched by a dying Caliphate. Born to a privileged family, Shawqi fled the court of Khedive Abbas II and led a life of exile in France and Andalusia before returning home in 1920—setting a prolific end-note by churning out a number of well-received plays and novels. But let's back to the statues. The Borghese gardens are presumed to have been built on the ancient site of the Horti Lucullani, whose owner, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, a contemporary of Cato and Cicero and hero of the Armenian Wars—was a patrician who, according to Plutarch, spent his patrimony on collecting statues which he had erected along the length of his gardens, a tradition which the Borghese continues.

It is here that I receive an email from an old acquaintance who attaches a picture of a new project in Dubai—a building which he affectionately dubbed "the cheese grater." It is a circular twenty-five story skyscraper pock-marked by large, also round windows. Its particular exoskeleton allows it to stand without the use of inner columns and looks, from the pictures I was sent, as if slices of Swiss cheese had been wrapped and crammed into one of the few empty lots left along Manhattan Avenue, the informal expat name for what is now officially "downtown Burj Dubai." Despite the florid descriptions, on afterthought the building actually resembles a recorder, although admittedly with far more holes. The way the photographs capture the sight of sand in mid-air reminds me of the once desolate roads where gulf drum beats would float above the visibly humid air—where young men in long flowing white dishdashas would kick open the doors of their jeeps and clap their hands as stereos boomed and cool air wafted towards the sidewalks. One couldn't tell whether people congregating around them were drawn by the performance or by the much-needed relief from the heat. But a warm afternoon, I find, is conducive for nostalgia. I miss those pied pipers, the pricks, and their haywire censorship; most of all the poems. Yet let me finish this by offering thanks to the Eunuch God, which one hopes will soon be gracing Dubai's skyline, urging parents to reconsider their birds and bees speech when questioning toddlers tune in to the giant's bedtime stories.

Published Jul 30, 2009   Copyright 2009

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