The Stuff of Life


“Oh Tolstoy, where to look in this great world of ours?”

“Start by knowing what it is you seek.”

“I don’t know what it is I seek.”

“If you don’t know what you seek, how will you find it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then stop bothering me.”



Just when it felt safe to go overboard on the Mastercard, a leviathan rises from the inky depths and takes you whole. Okay, we’re talking more juniper than Jonah, more green oasis than white whale. Nevertheless, a leviathan’s a leviathan. It’s bigger and smarter than your average bear.

Being devoured by mother nature is a death most noble. Shoppers take note, being swallowed by another kind of creature from the deep – the 14,000-space underground car park – might not be. To be spared an eternity of roaming formless under the roof of air-cooled consumerist paradise with your keys jangling does strike fear into the heart of those in our rank and file averse to retail.

Some claim the real leviathan of this day and age is the super-mall, but that’s cobblers. Hardly of biblical proportions for our new age Jonah to repent inside the belly of Victoria’s Secret only to be regurgitated three days later wearing stockings and a diaphanous bra. Malls might be built with a passing reference to the oasis in mind, but try as they might to be the last refuge of life, they don’t quite throb with the same pulse. Unlike the perennially resourceful oasis with its magical ecology, the resilience of the super-mall to creeping desertification and oil’s extinction remains in doubt. No, the thing that devours you in a place like this is the very same thing that holds out some hope amid the hopelessness of the dust and the dunes: the plants that survive. Nothing else comes close.

Oases loom in the Western mind for being frail as they are foolhardy, but one or two are much more than mere outposts consisting of a few raggedy palms beside a receding pool of water only a camel would drink. In fact, one in particular is a leviathan, come from the depths of the water table to commandeer an area of 3,000 acres. The super oasis of Al Ain is a climate-controlled paradise the likes of which Dubai Mall could only dream of. Functioning beautifully by means of an ancient system of irrigation veins, known in Arabic as Aflaj, this oasis has to be seen to be believed. The channels and water margins that run and run with artesian water through 5,000 years of Man ensure the prosperity is ongoing on two counts: by enriching the dozens of varieties of endemic flora with life-affirming water, as well as gifting the visitor with a labyrinth of paths that spread like loving fingers between those iconic trees.

Cut to the tree that keeps fruiting in soil good for nothing: the mall. In terms of variety, climate control, and insulation from these harsh and enveloping climes, the super-mall offers a good juxtaposition with the oasis. Providing tepid relief from scorching sands, from day one the mall seems the only option. One look inside and any old fool can feel the birth of a newish religion underway. A Gulf tourist destination par excellence, the mall is where multitudes forget there’s a world outside that is not overtly pretty. Whereas out there the climate screams F#&k You!, indoors it has no such free reign to wreak heatstroke havoc. The difference means that never have the wide open spaces felt so alone, so unwanted. As for the malls, demand is high. To describe them as an event, a day out at the beach, would not be far-fetched.

Having already integrated reef aquariums, ski slopes, ice rinks, waterfalls and rainforest recordings into the sensory experience, indoor dunes might be the next step. Verisimilitude is a powerful tool for retail industrialists. Turning the outside inside tricks the mind into oozing endorphins normally triggered by oneness with the great outdoors. Bringing in the sand will be cost-effective, too. It’s not as if there’s not enough to go round. Why enjoy nature for free when you can pay for it?

In contrast to the stripped-down nature of the surrounds, the investment cartels that bankroll £niverses have brought an entire rainforest of emporia under one roof. We’re talking a biodiversity, non-biodegradable hotspot. In a desert ecology where one needs to find the devil to find the detail, retail is diversity incarnate: Japanese aesthetics, German kraftsmanship, French panache, English tailoring, Swiss horologists, Fifth Avenue pizzazz. The old souq within the new souq adds a Arabesque centrepiece.

In the Dubai Mall, money spinning mother lode of revenue, New York vies with Paris. Three stories of Galeries Lafayette rise like Optimus Prime on the Westside while on the Eastside Bloomingdales retrofits itself into Megatron. This clash of titans creates such a sandstorm of public interest that it’s hard for the much-maligned desert ecology to get a look in. The best the dunes can do, by comparison, is to let the buggies score them with aimless tread marks. But appearances can be deceiving, none moreso than the good old mirage, so elusive we had to raid another language to describe it. For eons it formed from shimmering lakes and slinking, buckling palms. These days the mirage in these oil sheikhdoms is the mall. The thirst-maddening quest for the real oasis, it turns out, is worth the wait.

If you look hard enough you’ll find it. From the Monaco-size principality that is the mall’s basement car park head south as the camel blows. Keep the great rust desert in the corner of your right eye. Don’t venture in now. At the Hotel Rub Al-Khali you can check in but you can’t check out.  Seven days hard travelling and you’re there in the cradle of civilisation from where Moses sailed his reed basket. The Al Ain oasis truly is a champagne supernova in the sand.


“To the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”




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