Driving in Dubai is like tap-dancing on the 38th parallel. It’s impressive if you can pull it off, but in the unlikely event that you succeed your only reward is survival. Yet that is exactly what I did my last weekend in Oman. In a quest to buy gifts in one of the world’s greatest attempts at erasing culture, the shopping mall, I found some unexpected moments of clarity.
Unlike Muscat, Dubai is a desert city. One interesting effect of building a city on a flat plane of sand is that real estate becomes essentially worthless. One spot is pretty much as good as any other for the most part, at least until the city reaches a certain size. In Dubai though there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that any one part of the city is worth more than another.
A sheikh, princeling, or multi-national company finds a square of sand and construction begins. Half a mile away another begins, and then another, and another. When the projects are completed they must be connected to one another and the rest of the city. In such ways overpasses, underpasses, roundabouts, traffic circles, utility roads, construction cones, and concrete barriers dance haphazardly between the errant shopping malls. Everything is disjointed and caddy cornered, and most importantly, still under construction. Road signs become outdated weeks or even days after they are erected. Tourists drive hopelessly in circles while locals drive them off the road.
It is 2010 when I arrive, and when only a year ago the sheiks could cruise town in solid gold Cadillacs, this year they have melted them down and bought a simple Lexus. Consumption remains conspicuous, but the city that once lived exclusively in the future has been shocked into standing still. Dubai still has the highest concentration of construction cranes outside of China, but they remain idle. They now seem more like the dangling arms you’d find in an arcade, waiting for someone to insert a quarter to bring them to life, but the foreign investment firms burned their cash, and then their credit. The city-state of shopping needs only a few balls of tumbleweed for an official end to the gold rush.
I drove into the city in the late morning, and luckily for me, was heading to a place that I had gotten lost for hours trying to find on my last visit, so the route was firmly burned into memory. Wafi is a sprawling mall complex, complete with mostly designer stores, restaurants, a hotel, an atrium, frescoes, underground complexes, and particularly interesting was the sub-building designed to look like a modern Arab suq. The courtyard, underground but open air, is modeled after a Moroccan coffee shop, whatever that’s supposed to be. The shops though, are a welcome relief from the mass produced, mass marketed, and incredibly expensive designer labels that fill the rest of the mall. In the underground Wafi, craftsmen, whether they are local or in India and China, are making things that at least look genuinely Arabic.
Here in a non-descript shop called the Golden Pen I came to a man named Amir Golshani. His shop was no more a retail space than a car garage with some tools was an R&D hub. Amir sat behind a large desk with an assortment of pens, grinding machines, and sharpened sticks. The focus of the office though was not his desk, but the coffee table and couch, the latter draped with a large brown leather shawl. Around the white walls hung an assortment of oddly shaped pieces of leather, decorated with Arabic wording or pictures that seemed like colored, connected constellations with Arabic designs around the border. Specifically I was interested in one large piece of leather with an almost Celtic looking design, which I later discovered was the entire first verse of the Koran, written in such a way that it looked far more like a design than a piece of writing. Amir’s first love was Calligraphy, as I unexpectedly discovered, conversation came in a close second.
I entered Amir’s office expecting to buy two pieces of art quickly and leave. Six hours later I left with an indelible imprint of a man and a city that defied my expectations. I had seen the piece I would buy that day a few months earlier when I briefly stopped by this place. I picked it out immediately and then began pouring over smaller scroll work on leather. After a half hour my search turned up nothing that I thought really fit.
When I finished looking at the smaller pieces, somewhat dismayed, I went back to the walls, pacing and thinking. My eyes and my thoughts settled on a painting. A striking combination of a blooming flower coming from a stalk and leaves composed of sinuous Arabic script.
I asked Amir if he was also a painter among his other talents. This question prompted a long story about a European woman living in Dubai who he had taught calligraphy, and upon returning home had created this beautiful painting and sent it back. A lengthy conversation about art in the Muslim world piggy backed onto the story, on one side an Iranian mechanical engineer cum calligrapher, on the other a wannabe writer trundling haphazardly around the Arabian Gulf. But these three arts represented a totality of acceptable forms of expression for a long time in the Muslim world. Sculpture seems to have come around to the Arabs more recently, as the forms of men and women had been properly devolved into geometric shapes.
During a lull in the conversation, Amir decided that I was either a worthy aficionado or an easy mark. Let me show you something,he said. He bent over to open the door of a large cabinet and began pulling out a few boxes. The first box he lifted was about big enough to hold a severed head, and when he opened it, lying on cushioned, red felt was a huge shell covered in black script. Before my eyes could really adjust to the letters flowing through the pastel shimmer of the shell he opened a second box with an even bigger shell. This took me six months, he said. Next he took out a box containing two huge ivory tusks with a helix of Arabic script running from the bases to the tips. Lastly he went to the very bottom of the cabinet and pulled out the most beautiful nautilus shell I’d ever seen. It appeared as if the oceans, working in concert, had spent a hundred millennia perfecting geometry.
I could see the latticework of his engravings not yet darkened by ink. He said he was devoting two years to completing this shell, and planned on donating it to the United Nations afterward. He was going to cover the shell with three languages; the Arabic verses of the Koran, seen by the naked eye, the English verses of the Bible, seen with a magnifying glass, and the Hebrew verses of the Torah, seen with a microscope. I wasn’t sure if what he was describing was even possible but I realized at the time that I had stumbled into this man’s deepest passion, and whenever I am lucky enough to encounter such a thing I try to back off and let it roll over me.
He wasn’t done showing off though. He bent down under his desk and dialed the combination to a lockbox that might look more at home in a CEO’s office than a small art shop. He pulled out a few small boxes and placed them in front of me. He opened the first box, about the size of my palm and infused with Arabic script.
Inside the casing was a slender cylinder of an object that was maybe three inches long. The end of it tapered into a smaller silver cylinder that looked like a headphone jack that could plug into an IPod. He took out a piece of paper and pressed the “headphone jack” into it, making a slight circular depression. He passed the paper to me and rotated the giant magnifying glass mounted to the desk. When I looked into the small circle I saw a confluence of symbols that seemed to run like Japanese script, from top to bottom.
It is the name of the Sheikh of Dubai, Amir said as I puzzled over the characters. He pulled of another piece of paper with a few paragraphs of English printed on it. He pressed the tip into the paper and said, “You can press this into the first ‘O’ of any document in 12 point font or greater and it is absolute proof that it comes from the Sheikh,” he said. “Nobody else could make this.”
I felt like I was being pulled backwards through history to a time when Medieval kings pressed their signets into a band of wax while sealing some declaration of truce, or war. I didn’t mention then the fact that most leaders who required such proof often killed the makers of their signets, or forced them to stay in their castle. I continued looking down into the paper, trying to make out the Arabic characters, and failing.
He had finally slowed down his whirlwind of activity, appreciating my appreciation, my awe at discovering the Lilliputian world of his imagination. He walked to the opposite corner of the office and pulled out a magazine from a pile of identical magazines. It was some in-house propaganda rag for the Wafi Mall, but like most things in Dubai, it was extravagant. Every page was covered in color photos on high quality, glossy paper, the kind that feels like plastic. In it was an article written about Amir and his shop. He pressed his tiny stamp into the page and circled it, then he took out a few gold and silver markers and wrote a note out to me in the most artistic and beautiful way I’ve ever seen the English language presented. Living in Asia for the last few years I never even considered that there could be an English calligraphy. I thought it was something that must have been reserved for the Asian languages with their pictographs or Arabic with its endless strings of curves. It was then I discovered that these were just Amir’s opening acts. Out of a small case, without any ornate flourishes or decorative touches, he took out a pin. He handed it to me and adjusted the magnifying lens on his desk. You can’t see it directly, you have to twist it in order to make it clear, he said. After twisting the needle, and my head, the thing finally came into focus, like three waves cresting a gunmetal ocean.
There is only one thing a man as devout as Amir could have carved into history. Allah, he said, it is the smallest engraving in the world. As he spoke I kept twisting the pin, trying to see the strokes that created it. I couldn’t see what I was engraving, I had to feel it. And god was made through faith in the memory of his name. When I handed the pin back to him he quickly replaced it in the case and put the cherished items back in their safe.
Before I had a chance to take in what it was I saw Amir set to work rifling through a pile of papers. He handed me a printout of an e-mail he received from the Guinness Book of Records. The illustrious book of records which tracks such statistics as longest fingernails and heaviest hamburgers sent Amir an e-mail stating that his accomplishment was “too good” for the Guinness book of records. The book strived to include records that were breakable, attainable, that would draw publicity for their dramatic “shatterability.” Amir’s Allah, they reasoned, was such a pinnacle of the art form that nobody could hope to break it and thus made for a bad record.
That’s crazy,I said. He seemed to have come to terms with this lack of recognition though. He felt recognized in much more significant ways than a line item in a record book. The next thing Amir showed me was a slide show of his customers and visitors to his shop. Whether he remembered these people or made up their nationalities and titles as he went a long along I’ll never know, but the parade of diplomats, politicians, scientists, and professors was almost endless. Many have invited him to show off the creations he showed me in European exhibition spaces. After a half hour or an hour or a day the pictures finally stopped scrolling and he took a picture of me to add to his illustrious patrons. It may be the only time my picture will be included in such company.
I felt like I had just run the gauntlet of the man’s professional history, but I had also discovered the true power of Dubai. Here was an Iranian practicing his art a few miles across the Strait of Hormuz from the artistically oppressive regime of his native land, and across that chasm he is caught, gladly, in a maelstrom of countries and cultures. Dubai, like maybe no other city in the world could take him so far, so fast into the collective thoughts of planet Earth.
Finally it was time to figure out what shape the last memento I brought back from Amir’s shop would take. I started looking in earnest at the small cache of necklaces he had above one of his cabinets. Icons and Arabic script looped and curled around the subtle kaleidoscope of polished shell and pearl. As I looked over the visible items he beginning opening drawers full of more and more objects. After a while I thought I’d found what I was looking for and he asked me who I was shopping for. “My sister,” I said.
“What does she look like?” He asked. After I described her, her physical features, her personality, what she was doing he asked, “and what is her name?” I wondered why he wanted so much information about someone just to write their name on the necklace. I like to get a picture of the person in my head before I design anything for them, he said, I don’t really engrave on the shells, I engrave on the mind.
He poured a few dozen shells on the top of his desk, they were mostly a little bigger than a quarter, and they each had that slight phosphorescent glow of things that once grew in choral beds. He traced the shell I picked out on a piece of paper and then proceeded to design my sister’s name in Arabic on the paper. When he was finished with his drawing he showed it to me. It took me more than a minute to realize that the design was Arabic letters spelling out her name.
After his tracing with a wooden reed dipped in an inkwell was finished he allowed me an unobstructed glimpse of the design. From another drawer behind the desk, he pulled out a box of Omani dates. “I like to have a little bit of sugar before I work,” he said. While he chewed his date he picked up a remote control and turned on the stereo in the corner of the office. An aria emerged softly from the speakers, and he walked over and locked his door. After seeing all of his creations I realized that I was anxious to see the creative process unfold in front of me.
Before he sat down again I asked him to give me the paper from the Guinness Book of Records. If the only true art I could practice was bullshit, at least I had a chance to practice it here. As Amir used the reed pen to draw the design on the shell I re-read the horrific response of the record book and began composing a response in my head. He was scratching the surface of the shell gently, wiping excess ink on a napkin as I pulled a blank piece of paper from near the magnifying glass. The singer was growing more emotional, more powerful as I began writing a letter on Amir’s behalf. After some time I heard a noise like a dentist drill. He had begun piercing the shell with his etching machine, which looked like a water pick.
The two of us remained in the same position for the better part of an hour. He slowly carving and then re-tracing the lines with ink before polishing the finished product to a shine, me trying to appeal to the artistic sensibilities to the Guinness Book of Records and argue than the absolute limits of the human hand could never touch those of the human mind.
I walked out of his office at least partially satisfied that the simple ability to play with words, if not adequate to change a man’s mind, or a company’s policy may have at least provided Amir with a small comfort, a slightly more permanent testament to his art than the “ooohs and aaaahs” of the usual passerby.
After being locked in seclusion in the small room for so long, the blinding afternoon sun coming off the spires of glass was overwhelming. The towers and hotels loomed slightly more gigantic and monolithic than they had on the way in. The city itself was taking on a few new added dimensions. Dubai is actually one of the most spiritual cities in the world. In a way it is a testament to all the gods we’ve created, all the idols of modernity. The old faiths have been cast aside here so that the temples of scale,and the monks of marketing could baptize the sands with a system of faith greater than any one consumer.
But I find some solace in the idea that the old gods will never die. Even after all the great works in their names have been destroyed, their temples and testaments, obelisks and observances vanish from our consciousness, they will be there waiting, humbly staring back at us from the head of a pin.