A few weeks ago, I had an email from the British Council in Dubai asking if I could pop over and teach the basics of origami and kirigami. I know this is an origami blog, but forgive me if I give a slightly broader picture of my visit – I’ll try to leave out the personal trivia!
After a couple of seconds thought, it was agreed. They had seen a previous connection with the V&A museum and were hosting exhibits from the Jameel Prize, an exhibition of contemporary artists and designers inspired by Islamic traditions of craft and design.
Thankfully, given my propensity for confusing myself, all the travel and other arrangements were organised by Anita and Dalia from the Consulate, so all I had to do was leave home at 8.30am and arrive in Dubai at 3.15am the following day. The airplane seats had several fascinating cams to choose from and as we were catching up with night, darkness came sooner than expected.
Despite the locals assuring me the weather had started to cool, it was perhaps the hottest place I’ve ever been to. Any thoughts of randomly walking round were quickly dispelled and I spent far too much time on the top of the hotel, watching the sun set from the hotel pool.
On Saturday, a taxi arrived to take me to the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, a 20 minute ride from the centre of Dubai. I was delighted to see that Sharjah was far more representative of normal life than central Dubai with it’s gleaming spires. The teaching session was oversubscribed quite considerably and I ended up with 40 or so students, including a group of special needs adults.
I used my usual selection of simple designs and with the aid of various museum staff, the class seemed to be very successful. There were a few English people in attendance, along with several other nationalities and, of course, quite a few local people.
The paper supplied came in small plastic boxes and turned out that every sheet had already been pre-folded in half twice! I had requested squares from A4, but they didn’t materialise. The paper was also fairly low quality, but I was probably the only one to notice this!
I spent half the time with origami, then taught the basics of kirigami – it wasn’t long before the floor was littered with confetti! Like all new buildings, the room was air-conditioned, so the three hours passed smoothly.
I was recommended to check out the “Dubai Mall” in the evening, which was reached via the metro (where I entered a “women only” carriage) then a feeder bus. It turned out to be an utterly faultless tribute to Western capitalism – a monstrous (440,000 sq ft) shopping mall with live sharks, waterfalls and shops heaving with expensive goods.
The food section contained every US brand I’d ever heard of, not a solitary choice of “local” food. My daughter would have loved it. Slightly depressed, I went back to the hotel roof to gaze once more on the amazing 360 degree view of Dubai by night.
Sunday a.m. I taught a group consisting of various museum staff, most of whom were educators of some kind. Remembering my advice not to touch the women’s hands, we had a great time. I checked in advance about how formal to be in my teaching and was relieved to find a chilled out attitude was fine. I tried to give a “pocket guide to teaching origami”, but with only 3 hours, could barely scratch the surface. I just hope some are inspired enough to continue.
At lunchtime, my assistant Dalia and genial museum guy John (from Scotland via Nottingham) took me to a local market place for perhaps my only true glimpse into real life. We had a wonderful biriani served in the local style and Dalia did an amazing job haggling down the cost of presents for the family.
In the afternoon, I burned a sizeable wad of AE$ taxi-ing to some of the older areas that Dalia had recommended. One seriously old market turned out to be closed, but I did get to meet some local moggies to have a chat with.
6pm, up on the roof (again), the piped music from the hotel mingled strangely with the voices from the several nearby mosques. I felt it was the sound of the Arabic soul crying for the loss of their heritage. I get these kinds of thoughts sometimes…
Everyone I met was unfailingly polite and helpful, but it seemed to my untrained eyes that Western culture had imposed itself rather forcefully on local people, many of whom were apparently forced into the suburbs where life was more affordable. I was also surprised to see no signs of solar energy gathering, in a place where you could probably power an entire house from a few panels. A 5am start on the next day saw me reluctantly leave the UAE and head back to Manchester, where (shock horror), the sun was out.
I’d like to thank all the staff at the consulate who were efficient and friendly, all the staff and students at the Museum, my taxi driver, (who tried his best to explain the basics of Islam to me) and the hotel staff at the Sheraton. Plus, of course, apologies to my wife and daughter who really wanted to come along!