Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Hello Mall

For those of you who remember the film "Shirley Valentine", you will no doubt remember Shirley uttering those memorable words "Hello Wall" in a monologue to the wall, which reveals her innermost spirit, and by degrees, how narrow, confining and boring her life has become. Shirley wants happiness, challenge and change.
Entrepreneurs and service workers have flocked to Dubai to get an economic bite of the wodge of oil dosh that is transforming this splinter of the East into the West. On the surface, the Dubai development looks like it could bring both the immigrants and the locals happiness, challenge and change, but Joe Bennett isn't so sure.
I have just been reading Joe's latest travel book - this time he delves into the UAE, in "Hello Dubai: Skiing, Sand and Shopping in the World's Weirdest City". As with "Where Underpants Come From" (2008), Joe's writing is most entertaining, with him gently poking his finger at both the Western and Eastern cultures.
However, I was most struck by a couple of paragraphs on pages 60 and 61 of his book, regarding consumerism, and our consumer society, which read:
“Malls are easy to despise, but they are merely covered markets and markets are as old as agriculture. But what a mall offers is far more than agricultural surplus. It offers the ideal fantasy world as seen on television and in magazines. And nothing is permitted to disrupt the fantasy: no weather, no thugs, no traffic, no dirt, no distress. There are security guards, piped music, and cooled synthetic air. Malls are the apex of the consumer society that Dubai has come to represent. And of all societies in history the consumer society is the least social. It emerges from Fortress Home only to make raids on stuff, to take that stuff home in a sealed car, haul up the drawbridge, drop the portcullis and then watch television in order to learn what to get next.
“It is so easy to forget how constantly we in the West are bombarded with a single lie. It is the notion that the things we buy – the cheese spread, the duvet inner, the all-in-one barbecue tool - will make us happier than we were before we bought them. The lie is bellowed from the radio, the television, the newsprint, the roadside billboards. Experience tells us that the lie is a lie. Yet some instinct continues to respond to its siren call, and the balloon of hope keeps re-inflating.
“In our world the call of advertising is as constant as the call of the muezzin. Commerce and religion use identical marketing strategies. The mall is effectively our mosque and, like a mosque, it is built to impress. Like a mosque it is a focal point, the place where people gather to do a culturally important thing. Like a mosque it confirms a belief and gratifies a need. And if Dubai had to choose between mosques and malls, it would choose malls. Indeed, though it would never admit it, it already has. Just as we have chosen them over cathedrals.”
Having not watched TV for fourteen months, Joe's comments give me hope that my consumer edge is becoming dulled. I certainly feel no pull to buy the latest supercallifragilisticexpialidocious goods. Mind you, that could be the results of building a new house and being poor, and having an intense aversion to malls. But I digress.
Buy Joe's book, and support a good, transplanted-Kiwi writer. It is a thought-provoking read.
Bennett, Joe (2010). Hello Dubai: Skiing, Sand and Shopping in the World's Weirdest City. UK: Simon & Schuster.

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