On flying through Dubai


Amit Chaudhuri writes for the LRB blog about flying through Dubai:

Two months ago, before the so-called (and oft-denied) crash in Dubai’s economy, I saw, rushing to catch a connecting flight, Western tourists gaping at, even photographing, the immense granite walls in the airport, with perfectly measured sheets of water cascading down them. I was reminded briefly of a Bengali proverb descended from colonial modernity: ‘To show a Bangal the High Court’. ‘Bangal’, in Bengali, means, strictly speaking, ‘East Bengali’ (someone from the region that’s now Bangladesh). But, just as north and south, east and west, have country-specific, often prejudicial connotations in, say, the US or in England, so too, in Bengal, ‘Bangal’ denoted a villager, or the opposite of a sophisticate. Calcutta was in West Bengal, and the East, for historical reasons, was seen to be agrarian, feudal, and less developed in ideas and institutions; notwithstanding the fact that a great deal of Bengali ‘high’ modernism was the work of East Bengali migrants.

To take a ‘Bangal’ to see the High Court, then, was to confront the oaf with modernity and power. While watching Western tourists at Dubai airport, I reflected on how many Europeans remain ‘Bangals’ at heart. Development generates its own simple but profound enchantment. I, on the other hand (and this too is an oafish anomaly), look out for old buildings and doors when I find myself in new cities. In Fribourg in Switzerland, I found versions of the specked mosaic floors we have in middle-class apartments in India; in the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels there were red stone floors identical to those in my uncle’s (now destroyed) house in South Calcutta; in Cheltenham, noticing balconies, I couldn’t decide whether some memory of light among retired colonials had led to these (for England) unique additions, or whether the balconies themselves produced a special effect of light in Cheltenham. In turn, I’m surprised that more people who visit India – or Dubai, for that matter – don’t chance upon buildings, cornices, and windows that stir some buried, unlooked-for memory that tells them more about themselves and their histories than their guide books (which are about famous monuments) can. Dan Jacobson once told me that this was a habit of looking that migrants have: as we stopped to stare at an astonishing old bench on Hampstead Heath, he observed resignedly: ‘The locals don’t see this.’ In a few days, on my way back to Calcutta, I will be flying through Dubai. I can’t think that it will be any different from how I now imagine it.

Read the rest here.

The photo is by Martin Becka, from a recent exhibition “Dubai, Transmutations” at The Empty Quarter in Dubai, in which Becka used 18th century photo equipment and a view camera from 1857.

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