Dubai trades in inspiration and produces ideas worth spreading

Hisham Wyne

5 August 2010

The article can be found on the KT website here:

A key issue with established discourse is that marginalises details. Such is the nature of the human mind that not only does it dislike randomness, but absolutely adores a narrative. This means that disjointed facts will only stick in memory if they form part of a story, with a beginning and an end. Whether that story actually fits the random nature of the events sequenced in the mind is another issue altogether.

Some iPod listeners swear their devices understand their mood, or that their song repositories favour some tracks over others. Neither, of course, is true – iPods may be many things but not telepathic, and the shuffle function uses a true random number generator that treats all tracks equally. Nevertheless, these stories persist for the mind ignores happy tunes when in a bad mood and vice versa. Songs that resonate stick in mind more than others. Narrative is established, even when it is blatantly untrue or incomplete.

Such is the nature of our knowledge of the world, regardless that many of us purport to be global citizens. Darfur calls to mind images of hunger and strife. Cuba is the land of embargoes, cigars and communism. Latin America is known for the ubiquity of salsa, bachata and merengue, while Brazil in particular is the land of cheap shoes and drug cartels. Pakistan is a frontline state in the war against terror. The Palestinian narrative is one fraught with exile, war, illegal settlements, civilian killings and the siege of Gaza. India is the world’s largest democracy, and has a surfeit of IT experts, accountants and curries.

All these narratives are woefully incomplete. A bare 15 months back, I distributed through social media a video clip of Pakistani teenagers at a rave, enjoying avant-garde techno tunes imported from abroad. The action was assailed by many as giving too much importance to what was essentially a video of spoilt brats with too much money. They were putatively not deserving of any attention. My response: I was trying to establish a discourse alternative to myopic mainstream options. Regardless of government policy and foreign interests, the country and its sprawling urban centres house hoards habitually expressing themselves through a diversity of mannerisms. Collectives of people always beget culture and self-expression that is conveniently ignored by popular discourse when it doesn’t fit the mould we want it to. Take Dubai’s example. In my meanderings abroad, I’ve realised it means many things to many people who have never been residents. It is either a brilliant holiday destination with great weather – pointing to the success of DTCM’s numerous campaigns, a place that is a tribute to ambition, a city where dreams can be made in a week and chasing the leprechaun really does mean an easy pot of gold, an ephemeral landscape destined to a reality check (cue numerous Ozymandias clichés that must have P B Shelley rolling around in his grave) or a place benefitting from competitively priced labour not offered sufficient safeguards. The reality is all, yet none.

Fortunately, people are stepping up the plate to challenge the simplicity of such discourses all over the world. For instance, there’s TEDx Ramallah. It’s an event inspired by, and held according to, the format of the renowned TED (technology, entertainment, design) annual conferences attended by the crème de le crème of thinkers, activists and opinion makers. The most recent wrapped up in Oxford not long ago. TEDx Ramallah the first such conference to be held in what can effectively be described as occupied territory. Its organisers are determined to not allow Palestine’s current geo-political situation define its people. The conference will broadcast alternative stories of humanity, culture, creativity and brilliance that have little or no bearing to the common stereotypes of war, death or resistance. In effect, it reminds us the Palestinians are people and not a mere tragic cause. Its beauty stems from the exploration of complex stories, not just the ones our minds condense for our convenience.

It is a lesson worth remembering. Cities and countries are described through residents’ narratives of creation, understanding and interaction. Many of the people working towards narrating Palestine’s complex tales without resorting to the simplifications of war and exile are Dubai residents. Dubai, with its pluralistic, multicultural society, is recognising its own complexity and also helping others realise theirs. Our city has long been a trade hub, and all indicators show it will long be. The only difference is that we are now also trading in inspiration, and ideas worth spreading.

Hisham Wyne is a columnist, radio commentator and copywriter fascinated by global socio-politics as well as local arts, culture and community activities.