Scanning the skyline of Dubai is like watching bamboo grow. Nothing seems to be happening, but look away for a moment and it appears that all those skyscrapers under construction have grown by four floors.
As one of the most liberal areas in the Middle East, I’d expected to find a thriving rock scene. Iran, Iraq and Pakistan are quietly exporting metal bands -- I’ve come to the desert of the UAE to drink from the waters of Western-style Arabic rock. I was misinformed.
The UAE is firmly in the thrall of pop. English-language radio features either Justin Bieber all the time or endless re-runs of ’80s hits like Out of Touch by Hall and Oates.
Even buying music is difficult — not because of censorship issues, but because there’s nowhere to buy it. The Dubai Mall — so big that you locate stores by latitude and longitude — has just one little music store.
The Mall of the Emirates — the one with the indoor ski hill where the temperature is kept at -3 C, even when it’s 47 C outside — may have a Virgin Megastore (the only music retailer out of 466-plus shops), but its floor space is devoted to DVDs, video games, computers, Rock Band/Guitar Hero displays, musical instruments and T-shirts. The few racks of CDs are way at the back of the store. It took me ten minutes to find them.
“Can you show me any local or regional rock?” I asked the person heading up the section.
“Here,” he said, handing me a Serj Tankian CD, “Arabic rock.”
“Um, no,” I responded. “This guy is Armenian, lives in California and was part of an American band called System of a Down.”
“No,” said the clerk. “Arabic.”
And so it went with him seemingly picking CDs at random and me gently explaining how he was wrong. In the end, he stumbled upon a genuine local thrash-metal band called Nervecell. We also found a compilation CD featuring a Pakistani group called The Kominas who sing a song called Sharia Law in the USA! (I later read about an alt-rock group from Abu Dhabi called Juliana Down. I couldn’t find any CDs but they do have a MySpace page.)
I tried one more time at duty-free at the airport. The clerk smiled and handed me a Justin Bieber CD.
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