Every four or five years, certain educators who don’t have enough to do and want to feel important get together to “revise” either the curriculum, the standards or the basic methods of how to teach. Last week, I was sent to Dubai to attend an educational training centred around the newest iteration of the “Middle Years Program” which is being adopted by many international schools. I had only been to Dubai on lay-overs when changing planes, so I was excited to be able to see a bit more of the city.
I had been booked into a hotel called “Mövenpick Ibn Battuta Gate” a 5-star hotel a bit outside the city.
Since I am usually a traveler on a budget who stays in hostels where you have to make your own bed, bring your own towels and share a bathroom down the hall, this was quite a treat. As the cab drove up to the entrance, one person leaped to open the car door for me and another took my bag to bring it up to my room. The hotel had a huge lobby and atrium decorated with Arabic themes and lighting. There were a number of restaurants, a couple of fountains, a roof-top pool, plenty of places to sit and a fairly extensive coffee bar. Oh, and several life-size statues of camels.
When I got up to my room, I found that the large flat-screen TV was on with a message, which welcomed me by name to the hotel and to Dubai and informed me that if I needed anything – anything at all – I had only to ask. The room was spacious and cool and the bathroom had both a waterfall shower and a large tub, plenty of towels of all sizes, slippers and a bathrobe. In addition, there was a bidet and also a sprayer attached to the toilet so you could be sure that your bottom bits were sparkling clean. (Every toilet in Dubai had these sprayer-attachments, including the ones in the malls and the airport. Apparently, the people of the UAE like be sure that they have very clean tushies.)
I had taken an overnight flight, so I availed myself of the shower and then a substantial nap. When I arose, I was ready to try to see a little bit of the city. I had a lovely latte in the coffee bar downstairs and then grabbed a taxi to the nearest stop on the “Big Bus” tour. This cost about twice the amount of any other “Big Bus” tour I have taken – Dubai is a very expensive city!
The tour had a choice of 10 languages.
Dubai is both the name of the Emirate (there are seven Emirates in the UAE) and the name of the city. It is not the capital of the United Arab Emirates (the capital is Abu Dhabi) but it is the largest in population and has become somewhat of a world hub of commerce and culture. Although the economy was originally built on the oil industry, the emirate’s main revenues now come from tourism, aviation and real estate. It is likely the most “westernised” city in the UAE.
The skyline of Dubai is known for its skyscrapers and high-rise buildings, in particular the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. There are also man-made islands and some of the largest shopping malls in the region and the world.
It is a very shiny city, with lots of glass and steel. I also noticed that the architecture includes curves and angles not common to western cities.
The metro system is fairly new (and also quite shiny.) It was easy to navigate, cheap (less than $2.00 from one end to the other) and spotlessly clean. The tracks and stations were purpose-built and are fully automatic. It was first opened in 2009 and has been extended since that time. The stations are pod-like and looked to me like some kind of fantastic beetle, although I have since discovered that the shiny exterior was meant to evoke the ancient trade of pearl-diving, which sustained Dubai before the discovery of oil. There is a very interesting article on the design and construction of the metro system HERE.
One of the stops on the Big Bus was an indoor “souk” or market. Usually these are outside, or a group of individual stores, but this one was self-contained. What struck me was how incredibly colourful it was. I didn’t buy anything…but I sure enjoyed looking.
We went out onto the island of Palm Jumeirah. This is a fully man-made island in the shape of a date palm tree. Here is what it looks like from the air:
There is a tunnel from the top of the “palm tree” to the arches that serve as a break from the sea. There are highly-desirable villas and apartments on the “palm fronds” and a ridiculously expensive hotel called “The Atlantis” on the curved breaks. The entire island was built using sand sprayed up from the ocean floor and with ecological sustainability in mind. It was pretty fantastic, actually.
There was construction of a planned extension to the metro going on.
Dubai is known for its malls. A mall is a mall is a mall, but being Dubai, these malls were a bit…well…shinier. The one near my hotel had a theme. The Ibn Battuta Mall was across from my hotel. Ibn Battuta was a 14th-century Moroccan explorer and scholar known for his extensive travels. Over a period of thirty years, Ibn Battuta visited most of the known Islamic world as well as many non-Muslim lands.
The mall is “themed” according to the countries he visited and there was an interesting exhibit in the very centre, describing many of the inventions and discoveries made in the Arab world during this time. It struck me that although I consider myself well-educated and certainly well-read, I had never before heard of this great adventurer and explorer.
It was a bit incongruous to see so many western-based stores smack up against Arabic culture, dress and decor. There was a huge 14-screen movie complex right in the middle of the mall…surrounded by an ancient sailing ship and a guy on a life-size elephant. And behind the elephant, there was a Cinnabon. The food court had American chain restaurants as well as more traditional fare, and there were people in all kinds of dress – from traditional Arabic robes and full burka to women in shorts and halter-tops (although these are supposedly discouraged.) I watched one traditionally-dressed father sit exhausted at a table covered with McDonald’s wrappers while his two little girls shrieked and played with balloons until his burka-wearing wife returned with a huge shopping bag and berated him for allowing the girls to run wild.
Although Dubai is less restrictive about dress than some other Arabic cities, you still see plenty of women dressed in full hijab, some with just a head-covering and some with the veil that hides the entire face except for the eyes. Westerners who visit Dubai do not wear the head coverings, but my colleagues who worked at schools in some other places in the UAE like Ajman and Sharjah told me that almost everyone wears an abaya there – you feel out of place without one. “Abaya” means “cloak” and is a garment you wear over your regular clothes. These can be quite fashionable. Here’s one designed by Louis Vuitton!
To be honest, I can see the attraction of covering up. You never have to worry about a bad hair day, or about someone leering at you, or feeling too “fat.” You don’t have to worry about how you sit, how you walk or if you’ve got your make-up on. And in the bright, hot sun, it make sense to cover your head – I had a light-weight scarf that I used when walking.
Black is the common colour for hijab amongst Arab women (although the Hindu women wear brighter colours) and I saw an advertisement posted in the ladies room for a product designed to “Keep your blacks really black!” Some women also decorate their “blacks” with sparkly sequins and glittery stones. I also saw a young woman in the bathroom sitting on the counter, her head scarf pushed off, talking on her iPhone and smoking a cigarette!
The Dubai Mall was about three times as large as the Ibn Battuta. This place had a merry-go-round and full-sized dinosaur skeleton in it. Also an aquarium. A full-sized aquarium. In the mall.
There were some fantastical glass statues and sculptures as well as decorative windows and passageways.
The Big Bus took us down into the older part of the city, with smaller stores and residential areas. There is a creek which flows through Dubai and is the life-blood of the city. You could take a water-taxi (an “abra”) across to the other side. Boats and barges were lined up with their wares stacked on the shore. Traffic signs were in English and Arabic (as almost everything is in Dubai) and although Arabic is the “official” language, most people also have at least some English. In listening to conversations and announcements on the trains, I realised how many English words come from the Arabic language. Some common ones: algebra, cotton, zero, spinach, sofa, orange, mummy, lemon, giraffe, candy, artichoke and alcohol…and many, many others.
Although the air is dry in Dubai, the mid-day temperatures can get very hot. These are air-conditioned bus stops!
I spent the next two and a half days at the Greenfield Community School, learning the intricacies of the “new and improved” MYP, hearing buzzwords like “up-skill,” “synergistic,” “dynamic” and “standardised assessment” and trying to bite my tongue. I did not always succeed. However, the host school was very welcoming and the catering company had pretty good food. And, as always, it was good to hob-nob with my fellow wizards…
I found the people of Dubai invariably friendly, helpful and welcoming. I did not feel out of place as a “westerner” and enjoyed exploring the incredible architecture and browsing in the malls. I would like to return when I am not tied to a conference and spend some time down by the creek, shopping in the souks and taking an little cruise along the water. As it was, I enjoyed sitting in the outdoor lounge on my last evening, having the “special drink of the day” and an assortments of tapas and feeling the desert breeze on my face.