Prospecting for something real

There’s no escaping the intentional, the created, the artifice, in Dubai. Some of the oldest parts of the city (which, by almost any other country’s standards are not old, but still) are marked for tear-down, to rebuild into fine housing, complete with shopping complexes et cetera. ‘Islands’ built in the shape of palm trees host fine housing and shopping complexes, et cetera. A giant mall is home to a ski hill. A waterfall inside another giant mall. A fake cloudy blue sky inside another giant mall. Another mile-long shopping complex, devoted to Chinese goods, is built in the shape of a dragon. There is a little fake ‘city,’ built to look like cities of old, with a little fake moat where perfectly silent little boats motor tourists around, replicas of stinkier, noisier abras on the real Dubai Creek a few miles southwest. Inside the fake city, a fake Bedouin–really, a worker from the Indian subcontinent or Philippines–poses as a falconer. There is a hotel shaped like a sailboat, floating on another created ‘island.’ And another collection of islands, The World, lies just off the shore of the beach where I like to swim. I can see it out there.

This has not been easy to swallow for a family from the Upper Midwest, used to dirty fingernails and the smells of soil, rotting leaves, manure and what-all else on a morning commute from home to school and office. Now, my husband’s commute is 25 minutes on a seven-lane stretch of racecourse dotted with heavily irrigated landscaping and ineffectual traffic cameras, where that guy in the Mercedes G55 AMG or Porsche Cayenne won’t think twice about actually bumping you if he thinks his hurry is more important than yours–and, let’s face it, it is. Just get out of the way. The children ride the bus, earlier than holy highway hell hour, but on the same stretch of road. And don’t think I don’t worry.

The creation of community also relies on artifice here. Web sites are the medium through which people ‘find’ one another, and then dates and times are arranged where people meet, usually at safe public places (at least the first time). Groups are created based on common interests, perhaps shared backgrounds, hobbies, even aspirations. For religious minorities, churches and temples provide a place to meet people with shared…well, shared something. For the majority, the Muslims, no worship community–just worship.

Last month, I gave a book club a try. I met with a group of women at the appointed time and place, ordered a coffee and jumped into the conversation. It was all right, but as with so many intentionally created things–things that, in my opinion, are just better in a more organic format–there was a slight reek of pretense hanging off some participants. It made me want a gavel, something to ring against the table mid-conversation, or a whistle to call time and say, ‘look, twenty-year-old girl. I’m not here to impress you; please do me the kindness of knocking that off.’ The book wasn’t brilliant, which might have been the first problem. The second would have been that only some of the group was there for community; the rest was there for an audience. I would argue that there are more appropriate venues for that–karaoke, open mic, or some such.

I want to go back and try again, but I have yet to get interested in their upcoming book selections.

Last night was a writers’ group. I was excited to learn they would be meeting close to where I live. In fact, I can see the building from the sidewalk in front of our villa. So I walked over to the cafe and squeezed in at the end of a table. The ones around me were kind, and even a recently-published novelist (!) at the table seemed perfectly human and delightfully modest. People asked many questions about one another, listened to and read one another’s work and offered feedback, honest feedback, in an earnest manner. There was a lot of hand-wringing over the hows and whens of just getting it written in the first place.

It felt okay.

In fact, a couple of people sitting next to me made me feel really quite all right, for that hour at that cafe. I admitted that I have terribly mixed feelings about being here, admitted to being a displaced farmer. I betrayed some of my feelings about stratified society, what I think about when I run down the Beach Road in the mornings, and how I feel about privilege. At some point in the conversation, the novelist turned to me and remarked about the strange jumble that I am. How interesting, he thought, this American farm girl who likes to greet all the Subcontinental gardeners on her morning run, who studies the teachings of a Sufi order and writes copy for a living. Him? Twenty-five years in banking.

As we chatted on, the woman next to me and I discovered that she is in the same book club as my neighbor, with whom I visit at the compound pool while our children swim. She recommended what I am sure is to be my next read, and even suggested that I consider joining their book club. They’re looking for another member, and they don’t have an American (they try not to have doubles of any one nationality).

I’ll think about it.

At any rate, it was only an hour, and I didn’t bring along any of my own work. With my husband’s travel, it will be difficult for me to regularly participate in any adults-only group. I don’t feel it’s fair to make commitments to groups when I can’t be reliable. And I’m already starting to gaze ahead to 2012 on my calendar and think about where that year might take us.

We spoke a little bit about deadlines, too. Another woman in the group works for an ad agency in town, and she agreed, deadlines are just the best. Without them, very little work is ever done. At least, this is true for me. I referred to so many of my creative friends, the artists, how they seem to either have children or marriages, but rarely both–with the exception of the men. I don’t know why this is, or I don’t want to think too deeply about it. There was some nervous laughter, as though I was maybe a bit of a pyromaniac at the table. The woman next to me insisted that in Dubai, it’s not like that. Possibly because fewer women are working here. We’re dependent. We’ll make it work.

Anyway, after an hour or so, I excused myself. Someone’s got to put the kids to bed, I said, outing myself yet again as maid-less. And as I walked home, I thought, I’ve taken something good from this evening. First, I don’t need to be cool enough or witty enough or rich enough. Second, if I really want to, I suppose I can always surround myself with people; but I should first decide whether I really want to. And third, I have some deadlines of my own, just over that hump in my calendar. So I’d better keep writing.

I’ll probably meet up with these writerly folks again. Like I said, they’re earnest people. Not overly friendly or bubbly, but certainly not taking themselves too seriously, either. I think I might just let the book clubs do without me in the meantime. If I’ve found one good thing, one real thing, I should probably focus on it, and not be distracted by some beckoning mirage a little further on.



5 responses to “Prospecting for something real

  • Sarah

    Interesting post. You’re not the only one who feels this way. Dubai has no identity of it’s own, just a bit of everyone else’s, and it creates this casserole of things that simply are not meant to be fused. It’s impossible not to like some aspects on their own, and this is where I too find myself divided. I love this place, but constantly find myself making excuses for elements of it. I’d be interested in knowing more about the writers group. Are they accepting anybody who wants to come along?

  • Wendy

    On not being reliable enough to join a group: I’ve got a few professor groups going. Lack of reliably is pretty much assumed. We live crazy and busy lives with a lot of travel and/or spouse travel. It sounds like Dubai is not that different. If it seems like the people are appropriately compatible, just jump in, and they’ll take you in, crazy schedule, lack of maid and all. Good luck finding local, meaningful relationships.

  • jkohnhorst

    I was laughing a lot, which is a good sign, right? I was just talking to a friend about meeting you the other day, and you were a strange jumble then: pierced and mohawked valedictorian dairy farmer. It was, and is, one of my most favorite things about you, your ability to be yourself even if it looks to others like a walking contradiction.

    Your observation: “they seem to either have children or marriages, but rarely both–with the exception of the men. I don’t know why this is, or I don’t want to think too deeply about it.” is astute and hilarious.

    Book Clubs in my experience, are only really fun when they are an excuse for something else. Good writer’s groups are hard to find, but a real boon when you do. Your efforts to make friendly with people are heroic. It is hard. Nice work.

  • Becky Van Elsen

    Two words I had to look up in the dictionary:

    1. skill, ingenuity, or craftiness.
    2. Obsolete, the command of a learned trade or skill.

    a. To arrange or separate into castes, classes, or social levels.
    b. To separate into a sequence of graded status levels.

    As always, thanks for opening new doors Jo. You make me a better (and smarter) person!

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