Before you were a mall in Dubai, you wandered from your home in Tangier until you reached China by way of the Maldives. Son of Battuta, you told your parents you were going to Mecca for 16 months and came home 24 years later.
You set out alone, the kind of traveler that didn’t worry about the details. So what if there was no water for the next twelve hours. That’s what the camels were for. Son of Battuta, you grew to love to the kinds of gifts reserved only for the fearless adventurer—a wife here, a judiciary post there. Sometimes you counseled kings. From Zanzibar to Mongolia, you discovered that your life re-starts when you trip lightly on blind faith.
Now you are a temple to Lucky Brand and Monsoon, one kilometer long, with courts laid out according to the timeline of your journey. Unlike the fancier malls with their ski slopes and aquariums, you appreciate the everyday people of Dubai, with your key-cutting shop that also does watch repairs and your extensive food court.
An impossibly high Moorish arch marks the entrance to your temple, gathering the surf of discarded food wrappers in the smoker’s area. You alternate between majestic and prosaic. In some parts, you are swanky; your hand-painted tiles reach to the ceiling—other days, unwashed, with stray cats mewing amidst water reeds. As schwarma is the gateway to Lebanese food, so are you the gateway to Dubai for shopping neophytes.
I have sat in your lily-padded court while December days blew cool across Jebel Ali and fed bits of chicken to skinny cats with ears like satellites. I have wandered through the apartment complexes on your borders, where middle-aged Indian women practice slow yoga moves, and they reminded me of 70s complexes in Vienna, Virginia, where I once hid my candy bars in the bushes only to find the ants ate them before I could.
Like the other mall rats, my life in Dubai did not resemble anything before, and surely will not after. A real wandering Jew. Nameless, faceless, jobless, anonymous. Utterly lost, except when I travel north to south in your corridors, from the honey stall to the photo tent where tourists can don a dishdasha and pretend to be sheiks. While my children sweat on your schools’ plastic grass and my husband installs satellite dishes in war-torn Sanaa, I sit across from Lucky Brand, drinking cortados and wondering how this became my life.
In the Maldives, you were shocked by the permissive style of dress, how exposed women were, their breasts as free as air. In your mall, many women are covered; some cover their eyes and mouths and sip Starbucks by lifting the cup under their niqab. Son of Battuta, you took a spouse or two along the way, but they didn’t do much trailing. They were smarter than me. Maybe the first wife followed you to your next country but then thought better of it, bidding you farewell to return to a place where she could wrap her scarf in more familiar ways.
Surely, you have seen in the faces of your daytime mall-walkers a London Dairy-induced stupor. Time for us wanderers is like the elephant that sits at the mid-point of your courts, heavy and unyielding. Dressed in your best travel outfit, you sit astride the beast, the backdrop for an endless parade of photo-takers. Free time is what the traveler craves; time with no boundaries, floating, shifting, liquid time. But I need you, Ibn Battuta, to make it disappear.
Son of Battuta, you have delivered me out of loneliness, hunger, and boredom, and for this, I will always be grateful. Samples of rose-water nougat, and a bouncy castle that delighted my children many a searing afternoon. As if this weren’t enough—the garden of delights, with the stray cats, and the stagnant fountain water—you have also given me nachos in dark movie halls, pedicures, and fresh watermelon juice, all of it served by gracious migrants, travelers themselves, from the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan. I shift with sands, too, journeying to Dubai on the trail of my husband’s job that sends him out to the same places that you once loved: Sanaa, Damascus, Erbil.
Which leaves me where I began: the trailing spouse of a travelling husband, stranded on the shores of Andalusia court, wishing that I was on banks of the Rio Tinto, sipping cardamom coffee with the real you.
BIO: Tej Rae lived in Dubai from 2012 – 2016 when her children were 5 and 8 and her husband was deployed to most of the conflict zones in the Middle East. On many occasions, the donuts, eyebrow-shaping stalls, and stray cats of Ibn Battuta mall were all that stood between her and despair.
Photo: From Dubai Online
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