Photo: woman shopping mall Dubai
A woman makes her way past a cosmetic poster in the Iranian designed section of a shopping mall in Dubai, Saturday, August 23, 2008.

Photograph by Shawn Baldwin, The New York Times/Redux

By Don George

July 2010

Book of the Month
Layover in Dubai
, by Dan Fesperman

Dubai has been in the travel spotlight so much over the past few years that my curiosity has been mightily piqued. Unfortunately, I’ve not yet had the chance to get there, but happily enough, this month I found a vicarious ticket in the form of Dan Fesperman’s thriller, Layover in Dubai.

Fesperman’s tale of corporate intrigue, international skullduggery, and mob murder is entertaining in and of itself, but for me the real richness of the book is its portrait of the two Dubais that co-exist uneasily side by side. Through Festerman’s taut, pointed prose, we see the “eerie insta-city” of construction cranes and traffic jams, Versace and Dunkin’ Donuts outlets, palatial hotels and Vegas-style malls, rug merchants from India, prostitutes from around the globe, and imported office workers who labor in almost slave-like conditions. But we also see the Dubai of traditional modes and mores, where men and women are not allowed contact in public, head-to-toe abayas are still de rigueur fashion for women, old-fashioned abras (water taxis) ply the city’s waterfront, men gather in domino parlors and feast on mutton kabobs, and the desert looms just beyond the city limits.

These jostling worlds are embodied in the book’s two main Emirati characters: a pudgy 50-something cop named Anwar Sharaf, who fondly recalls making a living diving for pearls as a young man, and his 20-something daughter Laleh, the CEO of her own company, who wears Western dress under her abaya and mingles easily with European colleagues and ideas.

The other main character, American corporate auditor Sam Keller, drives the narrative as he seeks with Sharaf to unravel the mystery behind the murder of his business colleague. As we roller-coaster from clue to clue and revelation to revelation toward a tense denouement, the grandest revelation of all is the many-sided personality of that daunting, driven, paradoxical diamond in the desert, Dubai.

Eastern Adventures

The Sultan’s Shadow: One Family’s Rule at the Crossroads of East and West tells the little-known story of Oman’s Sultan Said and his rebellious daughter Princess Salme. Author Christiane Bird paints an exotically compelling portrait of a country that, in the first half of the 19th century, controlled the entire East African coast and its highly lucrative trade with Europe, the U.S., and India. Sam Miller’s Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity treads the Indian capital’s streets and suburbs, visiting its less celebrated corners. Beneath the Sands of Egypt is archaeologist Donald P. Ryan’s memoir of a career spent retrieving the remains of Egypt’s past, including the rediscovery of a lost tomb in the Valley of the Kings that turns out to hold the mummy of the female pharaoh, Hatshepsut.

If You Liked ...

... Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, check out Taylor Plimpton’s ode to New York after hours, Notes from the Night: A Life After Dark. Plimpton, son of George, captures the excitement and charged potential of a New York City night: the exclusive clubs beckoning behind velvet ropes, the dance floors perpetually jam-packed, the music thumping. “Here in New York,” he writes, “a good night never ends.”

One Last Thing:

Plumbing the Depths

As a documentary filmmaker and diver for three decades, Julia Whitty has plumbed the Earth’s oceans from the Sea of Cortez to Newfoundland to Antarctica. Breathtakingly learned and lyrical, her new account, Deep Blue Home, offers oceanic revelations, from the ancient lineage of leatherback turtles (“inhabitant of the deep blue home for at least 110 million years”) to the sexual secrets of barnacles (“not only are barnacles hermaphrodites, with two sets of genitalia, they are also in possession of the longest penis in relation to body size of any animal on Earth, up to eight times their body length”) to the single coursing current of the deep ocean river and its critical role in our collective fate.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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