I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
(P.B. Shelley, Ozymandias, 1818)
Drive down the E11 in Dubai and you will see a profusion of urban development as rabid and utterly transforming as anywhere. In the space of forty-four years – half a lifetime for the long-lived – this geographical dot in spacetime has gone from pearl fishing village, coveted by Bedouin rulers for its natural inlet, to a thinned-out Fritz Lang Metropolis without the b&w medium.
This city-state fancies itself as the next in a long line of challengers ready to take the mantle from the reigning champion, the desert. Up the buildings go, floor by floor, day by day. Legions of hired labour, almost exclusively from the sub-continent, toil and bubble for a relative pittance under seven months per annum of broiling sun. Here in the new Egypt their paymasters drive them hard. The law states that when the mercury tops 48 Celsius work comes to a standstill. To say they get to go home early would contradict the fact that they have no homes to go to. In neighbouring countries little regard for the lives of countless coolies means that 48 hovers and 49 never comes. These Indescribable conditions represent the work of progress: the majority serving the machine so the few may serve themselves. This kafala nightmare has trapped many a poor Nepali migrant worker on the death march to work on various outdoor projects for World Cup 2022. For to realise ambition in such short time, home comforts need side-stepping.
Here in all fairness, 48 means 48 . Work has been known to stop. Nevertheless, 47 is hot enough. Try watching concrete dry on the 55th floor of some new, yet to be defined, development. It’s almost midday. Stand for a while under the late May sun. Now put on a hard hat and remain sun-soaked a bit longer. Now force an exterior fixture into position while men babble Bengali all around you. Finish a 12-hour shift without contracting heatstroke and you know you were designed to withstand a hard life.
The higher the floors go, the more desert reveals its vastness on the eastern horizon. It is an unremitting work the work of progress and none more so when man, the relentless pursuer of progress, has no option but to endeavour in the most hostile and most insuperable of natural environments. Mesopotamian man started it first of all with his Ziggurats. Then came the Egyptians with their pyramids and their Alexandrian Faro. The Greeks followed with their colossus and then architectural vanity stepped aside a notch to build perpendicular for a better hand up from the Almighty. We had the cathedrals of Lincoln, of St Paul’s, of Strasbourg and Vienna, all arisen with exquisite craftsmanship within a mid to late medieval period. And so the story goes, of man. Nothing, but nothing, could surpass New York when it rose from five boroughs no higher than the parabola of spit, to a Gotham of awesome proportions within a thirty-year period at the start of the 20th century. Most of these attempts to outgrow the sequoia tree have failed in their unstated mission to outlive that most celebrated of pines. New York still shines like a beacon, but even it was put to the test fifteen years ago when its two towering sentinels sank in less time than the Titanic. Unremitting is the work of man and his damned progress; unsentimental is the certainty of end that stops him in his tracks.
The city swells, the city protrudes. It even burrows down beneath the eons of sand to bedrock that last saw the light one-hundred million years ago. The young city is a self-actualizing personality looking to become. But it is not a self-regulating mechanism – unlike that of nature herself – free from tributes to the silent, omnipotent landlord. Meantime the roads grow fat and the main arteries clog, and the heart that beats sounds out a warning: that there is no real heart to it. The pulse is an echo of somewhere else, some place that hung on, like Paris or Tokyo or New York. These road names are no more significant than as coloured flags semaphoring the motorist to proceed from A to B to A. And proceed he will but ever slower on these clogged highways that lead nowhere but back to the desert that looks on ever patient for the comedown, for our demise and its re-rise.
We bite the hand that doesn’t feed. Wounded, the hand bites back. But not before the world looks on in awe at how all this nouveau architecture could emerge from what, forty years ago, was not much more than villages, date palm groves, one-man mosques, and wave after wave of rust-red sand abutting rocky mountains; a truly Martian landscape. Yet the physical transformation is far from complete. Until it shrinks it will grow; it’s that kind of place. Stagnation cannot live on a bed of shifting sands.
They say the taller they stand the harder they fall. It’s the spiral of the sky-piercing Burj Khalifa that will be time’s sole survivor, too tall to be ignored by the passage of time; too shard-like to be toppled and too Arabian to be attacked by the four seasons. Man will in time be brought down a peg or two. Not, though, his greatest of works. They will endure the geological age named in dishonour of us. Cushioned by pillows of sand sloping up to the fortieth floor, its 25th century fall will be a soft one. By then the foreigners won’t be around to witness it, though you can bet the autochthonous Bedouins, falcon in hand, will be. Children of the desert and its Qur’an, they were the ones who prophesied the end of the present. In spite of their avid embrace of hyper-consumerist ways, a few saw beyond the now to the transience of it all. Native contentment rested on the belief that the best was yet to come. Those nouveau riche of the oil kingdoms, who from nothing found themselves overflowing with imports beyond their grandparents’ wildest imaginations, might spend a lifetime taking the ebb of progress with the flow of sand but it will be worth all the threats from the encroaching desert when their long voyage on the ocean of oily sand leads straight to eternity’s shores on paradise island. The rest of us meanwhile, will have to settle for the plane home.