City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Evelyn Waugh on Dubai

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Reading Evelyn Waugh’s fabulous travel book ‘Labels: A Mediterranean Journal‘, published in 1930, I chanced across this description of Dubai:

"This triumph of industry and order over the elements seems to me typical of Dubai. Nothing could be more supremely artificial, except possibly the india rubber bathing beach which they had just decided to install, but there is a consistency and temperance and efficacy about the artificiality of Dubai which Paris so painfully lacks. The immense wealth of the The Palm, derived wholly and directly from man’s refusal to accept the conclusion of mathematical proof; the absurd political position of the state; the newness and neatness of its buildings; the absolute denial of poverty and suffering in this place, where sickness is represented by fashionable invalids and industry by hotel servants, and the peasantry in traditional costume come into town to witness in free seats at the theatre ballets of Le pas d’acier and Mercure; all these things make up a principality which is just as real as a pavilion at the International Exhibition. It might, indeed, actually be some such pavilion in an exposition arranged in time instead of in space – the Palace of Habitable Europe in the early twentieth century; it seems to me to bear just that relation to our own lives today which Mr Belloc’s idea of medieval Christendom, or the sixth form masters’ Greek city state, bear to the actual lives of the Greeks at the time of Pericles, or the Christians in the time of St. Thomas Aquinas."

Actually, I’m pulling your leg. Of course that wasn’t a description of Dubai. Dubai in 1930 was a small town, barely larger than a village, known mainly for its pearl exports. Waugh was actually describing Monte Carlo; I simply switched the words ‘Monte Carlo’ for ‘Dubai’ and ‘Casino’ for ‘The Palm‘. Other than that, exactly as Waugh had it.

I was struck by the similarity of tone and example in Waugh’s depiction and that of contemporary descriptions of Dubai; from the acute air of artificiality to the newer-than-new architecture to the uncomfortable politics. Waugh’s book was arguably the first to observe the mainstream travel experience as it emerged; before 1900, travel could be largely described as the "survivors of the grand tour" being awkwardly accompanied by the new industrialists after 1860. But Monte Carlo provided an entirely new kind of ‘leisure centre’ for a new generation of so-called ‘tourists’, just as Dubai suggests a new iteration almost a century later. And how familiar Waugh’s observations seem. Perhaps we’re seeing a different city through exactly the same lens.

Monte Carlo 1930, Dubai 2006


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