That sensation was heightened by the anticipation that attaches to being somewhere new. Although I had been to the UAE before, I had not visited Dubai previously. As I think about it, that does appear odd. Dubai is well known to many Australians as a port of call, and it has developed as a major hub for people heading in all directions across the region. But for reasons best known to my travel agents, I always by-passed it when heading out this way. Hence I was happy for the opportunity afforded by a scheduled appointment to have a couple of days to look around.
How does one describe Dubai? Adjectives and similes must be multiplied. In some respects it feels like an arid version of Hong Kong. The skyline is said to resemble that of Chicago. Buildings and construction works abound. Who fills all these places? Can anything possibly be left over for Doha’s similar foray into futurism? There are some impressive and stylish works of architecture, but more generally in the extensive up-market, conspicuously consumerist and ostentatious parts of the city, it is as if Doctor Moreau has manipulated a monster hybrid by blending the gene pool of Disneyland with that of the Arabian Nights. Still it remains that in quieter parts and in the back streets, an array of unmistakable sights, smells and sounds reassure one that, whatever else Dubai may be, or imagine itself to be, it is an authentic Arab town. Alas, the germ from which all this has sprouted is to be seen only in sepia images on the walls of the municipal museum. However in Dubai, the Emirate Arab identity has not been lost with the long vanished fishing village, but rather has been transformed (at least on the surface) by a breathtaking experiment with the contemporary.
Some will argue that Dubai is more a global than regional phenomenon. In particular, they will point out that a great deal, if not nearly all, the sweat, ingenuity and sheer hard work of constructing, energising and sustaining this desert metropolis has been provided by imported cheap labour, particularly from the Indian subcontinent, and stimulated by the intellectual capital of the West. That hardly can be denied. But the fact that Dubai has imported the labour, skills and know-how required to make its transformation, does not make that transformation any less impressive. Neither should that consideration mitigate the profound local contribution—be it the impressive vision that drives this city, the money that has made such a transformation possible, and above all the aspirations which Dubai attempts to address.
Given these considerations, it seemed to me that Dubai may have something to say about the impact of higher education on Arab societies. I did not have the opportunity to visit any of the universities in Dubai, so I will not comment on how those institutions may (or may not) consider their role in terms of Arab perspectives on scholarship or on impacting the socio-economic, cultural and intellectual development of the Arab States. However, I did have the opportunity to discover something of interest in a shopping mall.
Dubai is famous for its gargantuan and over-the-top shopping malls, and having a perennial fascination with the kitsch, seeing at least one of these edifices was at the top of my ‘to do’ list. A colleague at AEI shrewdly suggested that I should visit the Ibn Battuta Mall, quite some distance from the city centre. Thus twenty minutes later and three times as many UAE Dirhams lighter, I arrived at what from the outside had all the appeal of a suburban Westfield shopping centre. However, one thing stood out immediately—it was big, really big—being in fact the largest themed shopping centre in the world.
Inside was a treasure trove. Here, I’m not referring to the 257 stores and 50 eateries that ply their trade, but rather to the wonderfully crafted and colourful interior that traces the travels of the medieval Moroccan explorer, Ibn Battuta.
Abu Abdullah Muhammad Ibn Battuta, was born at Tangier, Morocco, in 1304 (A.H. 703). At the tender age of twenty-one, he set out in 1325 on the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), thereby embarking on a series of journeys that lasted for about thirty years. Ibn Battuta is the only medieval traveler known to have visited the lands of every Muslim ruler of his time. Critical scholarship has disputed the extent of his journeys, but he travelled also to Sri Lanka, China, Byzantium, perhaps southern Russia, and to African kingdoms, including Mali. It has been estimated that his journeys amounted to at least 75,000 miles. Eventually he returned to Fez, Morocco, where he became a judge. He recounted his adventures to the scholar Ibn Juzayy, who combined them in an extensive travelogue, completed in 1355, and popularly known as the Rihla or ‘Travels’ of Ibn Battuta. This remarkable adventurer died at Fez in 1369 (note 1).
Now, six centuries later, Ibn Battuta is celebrated by a shopping mall: and why not? Malls are where people meet and gather, just as in the souks and marketplaces. Ibn Battuta himself made many of his contacts and gained knowledge of the peoples and cultures he visited in such places. Stepping into the themed mall, the shopper is surrounded by reminders of medieval Arab and Islamic achievement. The mall is themed so that the shopper passes through in succession a series of large courts that reflect through architecture and clever displays each of the main regions that Ibn Battuta explored – starting at Andalusia, then Tunisia, Egypt, Persia, India, and finally China.
As well as highlighting events in Ibn Battuta’s journeys, the displays also feature a variety of scientific and intellectual achievements, such as the mechanical devices created by the twelfth-century engineer, Al Jazari.
It is not perfect. As my AUB colleague, Dr Saouma BouJaoude, himself a science educator, pointed out to me, it is an idealised presentation, designed more to impress than to accurately convey the complicated development of such achievements.
Further, it is apparent that the Mall seeks ideologically to reinforce specifically Islamic values, and it does so by focusing on one particular period. That may be necessary for the theme, but what the Mall seeks to capture will run the risk of distortion if it is forgotten that Arab achievement is a continuum - each era to the present has its own story to tell of intellectual and cultural gains; and that includes the centuries prior to the advent of Islam (note 2). Moreover, the Mall is a commercial venture. It would be naïve to imagine that the ambience created by the exotic theme is not designed to reinforce the psychology of consumerism – the adventure of shopping.
Yet, notwithstanding these considerations, I am impressed by the circumstance that here is an attempt to represent Arab erudition in a way that conveys something of the richness of the tradition while, at the same time, making a statement about the relevance of that tradition today.
At present, much thought is being given to the nature and shape of teaching spaces. The Ibn Battuta Mall has something to teach regarding the imaginative use of public spaces to foster lifelong learning. This model goes beyond the familiar examples of occasional booths and static displays, to integrating a body of knowledge into the fabric of a public space – a space that is designed to engage not the 'interested few' but the populace in general. It is almost education by stealth: I come to get shoes, I leave knowing something about a topic that I had not considered and that otherwise might have passed me by. Perhaps, as part of the obligation of universities to apply knowledge socially, thought should to be given to mall-based learning in Australia. For a start, efforts to educate Australians generally about Indigenous Australians, their achievements and their perspectives, might be served well by forging partnerships with our mall entrepreneurs. And, if nothing else, there at least may be a few bargains.
(1) For a general and lavishly illustrated summary of Ibn Battuta’s achievements, see Douglas Bullis, ‘The Longest Hajj: The Journeys of Ibn Battuta’, Saudi Aramco World 51 (2000), online at: http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200004/the.longest.hajj.the.journeys.of.ibn.battuta-editor.s.note.htm
(2) Compare Samir Kassir, Being Arab. Tr. Will Hobson. London & New York: Versio, 2006, esp. pp. 31 -52.