julia dimon/for metro toronto
With what seems like an endless supply of high-end boutiques, Dubai is a tax-free haven for shopping addicts. With more than 40 massive malls, it’s hard to know where to go first. There’s the Deira City Centre, Wafi City, the Mercato, Twin Towers, The Village and, let’s not forget, the largest shopping complex outside North America (the West Edmonton Mall leads the pack) — the Mall of the Emirates.
When hunting for story ideas for my column, malls rarely make the cut. I like to write about quirky sub-cultures, unusual foods and extreme adventures. I like to push the conventions of the travel writing genre and go beyond the fluff.
Writing a column about shopping makes me feel as deep as an inflatable pool but, here in Dubai, mall hopping seems like the thing to do. With multimillion-dollar architecture and excessive décor, shopping outlets have become so opulent, they’re tourist attractions in themselves.
Following the flock, I humour the retail gods and … sigh … go shopping. I stumble upon a themed mall dedicated to the 14th-century Arabic traveller Ibn Battuta. A mall dedicated to one of history’s first travel writers? Hmm. Suddenly I’m interested.
The corridors of consumption are divided into five zones: Egypt, Persia, China, Morocco and India. Here, tourists can get a taste for world travel without leaving air-conditioned comfort. Through interactive displays and organized exhibits, I learn that Ibn Battuta travelled some 75,000 miles across Persia, Africa, India, Southeast Asia and the Islamic world. Battuta lived a wandering existence. He explored for 30 years through 40 counties, covering more ground than any of his contemporaries, including Marco Polo. His travels were turned into a book called the Rihla, which has been called the “greatest travel book of all time.”
Back in the 1300s, I imagine, travelling was far more dangerous and difficult than it is now. Battuta had to fight pirates and plagues, but today’s adventurer can opt for last-minute RyanAir flights, just-add-water Ramen noodles, online hotel bookings and Skype calls.
There are many malls in boomtown Dubai, but Battuta is the only place you can learn about the historical and scientific achievements of the Islamic world — while shopping.
- Watch Julia in Dubai tonight on Word Travels, airing at 10 on OLN.
Freelance writer Julia Dimon is editor of The Travel Junkie and host of Word Travels, a new reality TV-series to be broadcast on OLN in 2008. Contact her at