© Anushka Bose. All rights reserved.*
The summer of 2018 was an incredibly joyous few months with my parents in Dhahran. One of the highlights of that summer was our trip to Dubai in the UAE. Although we had been there before, this trip was signified by our stay at the Atlantis Hotel—which is the best hotel experience I have had, to date. I recently came across photos of Dubai on my social media, and it made me very nostalgic. That nostalgia led me to dig up the photos I had taken from my trip. The beauty, the food, and the Middle Eastern hospitality — I felt the warmth of that trip all over again looking at the pictures.
Reflecting on the trip, what I most loved about Dubai was how diverse the city is. It is composed of multiple contrasting layers: conservatism, liberty, modernity, individuality, and artistic expression. These layers are visible through the fashion scene, the growing business community, the hospitality sector, and most of all through the interactions with the locals. From the taxi drivers and restaurant servers to the bellboy at the hotel, there is a sense of contentment among the locals. The common phrase I kept was, “There are lots of opportunities here.” It is the welcoming, diverse, and booming energy of the city that makes it one of the most beautiful places in the world.
From roaming the souks, enjoying the cityscape, and absorbing the international cuisine, I could feel the integration of numerous cultures embedded into the city’s spirit. And at the heart of it all, the city has a soft voice that keeps saying, “I want to succeed.” It’s a reassuring reality if you compared it to what Dubai used to be. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, Dubai’s primary economic stronghold—the market for artificial pearls—was severely impacted. To remedy the city’s travails, Sheik Saeed scouted for other sources of income and invited Indian and Iranian traders to settle in the city, without paying any taxes. Soon after, Dubai emerged as one of the leading export towns in the world. Thereafter, in 1966, oil was discovered in Dubai, a reality that changed the entire country’s future, slowly progressing to what it has become today: a hotspot for fashion, business, hospitality, food, art, and a conglomerate of vibrant cultures and traditions, where cultural exchange is the norm of the city.
Comparing Dubai’s booming reality to its nascent past is a reminder of the city’s transformation into modernity. This is the very aspect of the Modern Middle East that makes the region so intriguing. The clash between sustaining the old traditions and welcoming modernity’s developments is a dance in which many middle eastern cities are engaged. Is it possible to reconcile the two? I think so. Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry is one such example of the recent modern developments of the Kingdom. As the Kingdom opens up to tourism, there is much focus on preserving historic sites. The tension between tradition and modernity is a tale as old as the beginning of time, one that has been repeated across spatial and temporal horizons around the world. While a city like Dubai has transformed into a modern hub, a quick visit to Old Dubai or spots in town will remind you of its history, a reminder that the old can still exist with the new without feeling threatened by each other’s existence.
On that note, I open it up to you: how can Middle Eastern cities straddle the tension between tradition and modernity? Are the two forces even at odds with one another?
Anushka is a current PhD Student at American University in Washington, D.C. She spent her youth growing up in Dhahran, where she attended Dhahran Elementary, Dhahran Middle School, and Dhahran Academy High School. She loves learning about new cultures and is fascinated by the diversity that brings us all together, especially the expatriate community, where the only thing that is common is that we are all different, in culture, language, and the perspectives we hold. One day she hopes to publish a book on the Third Culture Kid experience. Dhahran continues to hold a big place in her heart.
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