When my world of sophisticated urbanite and Mother Nature friends come to Dubai, there is an inevitable rolling of the ideas
and what has become a cliché to my ears, “This place is all about the malls.” Like blatant consumerism and the globalization of American brands in an air conditioned utopia is a bad thing. Until recently, I would have agreed. But recently I paused and looked back on the malls of my life. They are where I would take my parents as they got older, just like they took me years ago when I was younger, the generic atmosphere being something that different generations can roam around in comfortably with each other. It’s a safe place to get away from our psychological disconnects, in that there are things to wander amidst together, diverted from what divides, our disagreements temporally swallowed up by the high ceilings and wide concourses filled with stuff.
There, I just gave you one good thing about malls—an escape from reality. In moderation, we all need that, and a mall is healthier form of escape than drugs and cheaper than a resort vacation in Thailand. Of course, drugs, ice-cream, junk food, credit card abuse and several other not so healthy opportunities are also available at the mall but they are everywhere else, too, from that resort in Thailand to prison, and the mall is a good happy middle.
The mall isn’t what is once was–places that were primarily for shopping and lunch when it was too hot or cold to be outside. In the early mall days, only one group of people saw the mall’s future potential—cool 7th graders. They figured out it was a place hang out without their parents, flirt with opposite sex, try on make up with their girlfriends (mostly girls back then), and play video games (mostly boys back then). To the rest of us that were never cool enough for 7th grade, malls got labeled the anti-place for people too cool for 7th grade, hot spots for boring middle America suburbanites.
But those 7th graders had it right. They grew up and built the Mall of America—shopping, skating, movies, game arcades, deep-fried food concoctions galore. And then others dreamed even bigger and built not just the biggest mall in the world, but the world’s grand city of malls, Dubai.
In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself at the Dubai Mall, the newest of the Emirate’s landmark destinations, for various reasons unrelated to shopping. Because of its vastness, I have rarely been in the same spot twice, and I’m okay admitting that I stopped more than once to be awed by the aquarium, a couple of fountains, a painting, and the sighting of my first UAE Taco Bell. The Dubai Mall, as well as the Mall of the Emirates, with its famed ski slope, and the history-themed Ibn Batuta Mall, are like visits to happening small towns–or as a friend of mine said, the modern souq, places where folks gather to catch up with friends and family, people watch, have some coffee, maybe dinner, visit a doctor or dentist, view some art, see some entertainment, be that cool 7th grader no matter what your age, see what’s new in the world, pray, and maybe spend the night. The hotels and entertainment options are way beyond Khan Al Khalili and maybe one day we’ll look at what the malls offer as charming, too.
These malls are often organized like souqs—entire sections dedicated to carpets, gold, chocolate, perfumes. And you get other things that in the heyday of souqs wasn’t so needed—exercise, easy parking and plenty of security. Try and top that in the real world outside, especially when it’s 120 degrees.
I’m beginning to wonder if the malls, with their overwhelming number of options for the same type of product, shouldn’t throw in bargaining and make the souq connection complete. But the souqs were –and still are—connected to the greater reality around them, a place to hear the local news, good, bad and ugly. You won’t find any of that reality nonsense at the mall. But maybe if they allow some bargaining, they could bring it down to the street level, so my too-cool-for 7th grade friends won’t feel trapped in utopia with a credit card.