Here in Dubai—it really is Dubai—you have to pinch yourself sometimes. The place can be disconcertingly dreamlike (or nightmarish, when you find yourself trapped in a rush-hour jam on that freeway). And the most dreamlike spot in all Dubai is here, at the Ibn Battuta Mall, where the sort of temporal and spatial slippages we usually experience in sleep have spilled over into the reality of waking life. Not that the elements of that opening scene were quite real—except, of course, the road, the desert and the sea.
From my swaying aerial viewpoint, I surveyed the setting of the mall and remembered my first visit to Dubai six years ago. Then, there was little here that was man-made but the highway linking the emirate to its neighbor, Abu Dhabi. Now, that single main road had sprouted into knotty junctions and multiple offshoots that fed vigorous growths of building. A mile or two away, a dense clump of tower blocks rose far higher than my balloon on its 150-meter (500') tether; in the distance beyond them, Burj Dubai rose far higher still, a stretch-ziggurat of a building destined to be the tallest in the world. (Rumor has it that its completion is on hold, just to make sure it overtops potential rivals.) Dubai is a grow-your-own Manhattan, fed on a rich mulch of cash. And the growth isn’t just sky- and landward. As if having the Empty Quarter next door weren’t elbow-room enough, Dubai has thrust giant limbs out into the sea—the artificial peninsulas of the Palms, already beginning to bristle with villas. As I craned out over the rail to peer at the hazy outlines of this rampant real estate, it wasn’t dangling from a balloon that made me dizzy: It was the sheer speed at which a city could expand. The mapmakers’ nightmares must be worse than the motorists’. It is Nakheel, the company also backing the Palms, that developed the Ibn Battuta Mall, which is the largest themed shopping center in the world. Seen from above, it was not a beautiful building: 110,000 square meters (27 acres) of gray cement roof and air-conditioning ducts, relieved by three oddly placed domes. But its size was undeniably impressive: The irregular range stretched 1300 meters from end to end —four-fifths of a mile.
Judging by the number and acreage of its malls, Dubai’s national sport is not camel racing, but shopping. (In modern Anglo–Arabic, “mall” is mawl; the classical Arabic meaning of the word is, by a nice coincidence, “wealth.”) Mall-builders go to enormous lengths, and not only literally, to draw potential customers. Not far away along Shaykh Zayed Road, for instance, is the Mall of the Emirates, an unremarkable building into which a Star Trek-style spaceship appears to have crash-landed. This vast metallic pod, simmering in the fierce Gulf heat, is actually a gigantic fridge-freezer containing a ski run with (real) snow and pine trees. Given this sort of competition, I had been intrigued to hear, back at the end of 2004, that Nakheel was designing its contribution to Dubai’s mall culture around the 14th-century Moroccan wanderer Ibn Battuta.
He may well be the greatest traveler of all time, and his Rihlah the greatest travel book, but it seemed to me that his crowd-pulling qualities might be overshadowed by the prospect of slaloming down the ski slope while the desert outside broils.
As the balloon descended to its mooring by Egypt Court, I recalled that Ibn Battuta’s own story had taken off, so to speak, in Egypt, with a vision of flight and of distant lands: “I dreamed I was on the wing of a huge bird which flew me in the direction of the qiblah [toward Makkah], then to Yemen … then far to the east.” Only another nice coincidence? Perhaps the Ibn Battuta Mall did make a sort of sense. For the people who dream up malls, big is beautiful: Why not build your plan around the man who’d spent half a lifetime following his own dream across the known world of his day?
Back in the severely air-conditioned interior of the mall, however, I began to wonder just what Ibn Battuta himself would have made of this evocation of that world of his. It was certainly too cold. And was it not also perhaps a touch too… Las Vegas?
Yet maybe I was being a touch too cynical. Strolling through the mall’s six courts, themed on some of the lands he had visited—Andalusia, Tunisia, Egypt, Persia, India and China—I saw plenty that wouldn’t have struck him as entirely alien: striped walls in the Mamluk hall, imitating the variegated stone used by Egyptian masons of his age; the carved lattice windows of India Court (even if they looked more 17th-century Taj Mahal than 14th-century Tughluqid); the great tiled dome of Persia Court, a fair simulacrum of the dome of the Shaykh Lutf Allah Mosque in Isfahan (again a quarter of a millennium too late for Ibn Battuta, but borne on piers borrowed from Baghdad’s Mustansiriyyah Madrassa, a building he did see). Even the pleasing profile of the rubbish bins looked as if it might be an echo of the big martaban storage jars the traveler came across in Southeast Asia. A purist would niggle about materials and anachronisms, but only a hopeless pedant could fail to be impressed—and not just by the scale, but by the sheer fun of it all. Like the 19th-century confections of London’s Leighton House and Frederic Church’s arabesque mansion by the Hudson, this was nothing if not orientalism at its most exuberant.
But it wasn’t only the architecture that was exuberant: So too were the contents. A 24-meter (78') sailing junk with a yawning hole in its side sat high and dry in China Court. It would have gained a rueful nod of recognition from Ibn Battuta, who lost his companions in the wreck of just such a vessel. But next door, under the dome of India Court, the life-sized wooden elephant would have mystified him. “Al-Jazari’s Elephant Clock,” a sign explained. As I read the plaque, human figures in an elaborate double-decker howdah on the elephant’s back began to move, as they never had in the original, which didn’t get beyond a drawing in al-Jazari’s 13th-century manuscript The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. More ingenious devices were scattered about the other courts, jostling for attention alongside re-creations of armillary spheres, astrolabes and other scientific instruments of the Arab Middle Ages, a camera obscura, and displays about ‘Abbas ibn Firnas, the ninth-century pioneer of hang-gliding, and Zheng He, the Ming Dynasty Chinese Muslim admiral and voyager. To say the least, the Ibn Battuta Mall had a habit of wandering off its theme; but then, like all the best writers of his age, Ibn Battuta himself had been nothing if not digressive and impulsively curious.
There was, of course, another theme. “Great Stuff,” says the mall’s motto, “Fantastic Place.” The stuff—the goods, the shopping—comes first. Ibn Battuta’s world that starts in Andalusia and ends in China also begins with the Géant Hypermarket and culminates in the Grand Megaplex 21-screen cinema with IMAX-in-the-round, a world of hyper-consumption and mega-entertainment unimaginable to Ibn Battuta—and indeed to the majority of 21st-century humanity. To me, the resulting incongruities were no less fascinating than al-Jazari’s elephant clock: the tile-spangled azure vault of Shaykh Lutf Allah’s dome above and Debenhams department store, with its “Mid-Season Savers,” below; an Emirati lady, in discreetly expensive sunglasses, chatting on a cell phone next to a giant cuddly emu outside a pharaonic toy shop; an Australian voice echoing among the hieroglyphic friezes above Gloria Jean’s coffee shop—“A free croissant? But nothing’s free in Dubai!”
Nothing was free in the Dubais of Ibn Battuta’s age either: the great emporia such as Calicut in India, Zaytun (Quanzhou) in China and Tabriz in northwest Iran. In 14th-century Tabriz, mall-going also seemed to have been the national pastime: “They were buying huge quantities and were trying to outdo one another,” Ibn Battuta said of the power-shopping Mongol ladies in the city’s gold and perfume bazaars. “What I saw of this was a scandal!” But more often, Ibn Battuta wrote in praise of healthy economies and well-stocked suqs. Besides, I had seen nothing overtly scandalous here in Dubai, and I felt that, after the initial shock of the hyper-and mega-scale of it all, he might have admired the commercial side of his mall. But the fact remained that the resulting juxtapositions, or collisions—Mamluks and Marlboro Classics, Adidas and astrolabes, Persian tiles and Pizza Express—were very strange indeed, far stranger than the idea of skiing in the Mall of the Emirates, that architectural Baked Alaska down the road.
Reading a press release in the mall management reception area, I found that it fairly reveled in the happy hybridity of the place. “Edutainment,” it announced, was “a key element of the mall,” while Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, executive chairman of Nakheel, explained that the six courts “strongly project the historical and cultural richness” of Ibn Battuta’s life. A few lines on, however, I learned that the same six courts were “retail zoned”: Andalusia, Tunisia and so on were also themed “Convenience, Family, Modern Trends, Lifestyle, Designer Fashion and Entertainment.” In the Ibn Battuta Mall, a strange marriage of Mammon and the Muses, I suspected it was Mammon who was calling the shots.
The management people agreed that while Ibn Battuta was, of course, “added value,” his mall was essentially “retail-driven.” And from their point of view, the drive was clearly heading in the right direction: It was already attracting around 10 million shoppers a year, and with a residential building boom virtually in its back yard, that number looked set to grow. I left the office with a notebook bulging with figures: 60 cleaners, 275 retail stores, a 3500-member gym, 5000 parking spaces—you get the idea—and a nagging twinge of that faint cynicism that had bugged me ever since I’d first heard of the Ibn Battuta Mall. “Added value”? As if Ibn Battuta was the cultural gilt, so to speak, on the commercial gingerbread.
It was José, the Filipino waiter who served my Lebanese lunch in the China Garden, who made me start to think I was being a little unfair. “Oh yes,” he said as he cleared away my plates. “I know all about Ibn Battuta.” He did, too, because he spent the occasional breaks in his 14-hour working days playing “the game.”
“What game?” I asked.
“The Ibn Battuta treasure game, in Tunisia Court,” he explained. “It’s good to find out something about Middle East culture.” So it seemed that edutainment might even work.
“Actually we prefer ‘interactive learning experience’ to ‘edutainment,’” Ludo Verheyen told me as we made our way toward Tunisia Court. The well-named Ludo, Dutch director of the Cape Town- and Dubai-based MTE Studios—the firm responsible for putting Ibn Battuta into the mall—was not only the best person to take me to play the game; he was also an enthusiast, and thus the perfect antidote to my lingering cynicism.
An enthusiast and, it turned out, a perfectionist. “We brought in Moroccan artisans to work on Andalusia Court,” he told me, “and the decorators who did China Court came from Fuzhou, in Fujian Province.” (One of the Chinese cities Ibn Battuta visited, I remembered.) “Oh, and you saw the external walls of China Court?” Ludo went on. I nodded, recalling their distinctive terracotta red. “We, er, removed a strip of paint from the wall of the Forbidden City, to get the color just right.”
“What about the ‘Ingenious Devices’?” I said, as we reached India and the elephant clock. “They don’t exactly have a lot to do with Ibn Battuta.”
“Well, after we’d planned the courts, we realized we’d ended up with these huge empty spaces, and we had to fill them with something.” To judge by the number of mall-goers photographing each other next to the elephant, the automata had proved an inspired choice. Moreover, Ludo told me, a recent CNN television program on Dubai had used two “iconic” shots to illustrate the city-state: Burj al-Arab, the sail-shaped and allegedly seven-star hotel in the sea; and the elephant clock. Two more eloquent public-relations images could hardly have been chosen. Dubai, they say, is futuristic, innovative, wealthy; but it is also rooted in a long tradition of Arab and Islamic ingenuity.
But as the figures on the elephant clock moved, operated not by al-Jazari’s intended hydraulics but by microchips and, because of the brevity of modern attention spans, every 10 minutes rather than every hour, I felt another twinge of doubt coming on: Wasn’t this all just “instant heritage,” “history lite,” ready-made, packaged and imported? On the other hand, given that virtually everything else was imported, from the English mall manager to the cream in the zucchini soup, why not import the history too?
Nor was the history necessarily lightweight. Descriptive panels by the exhibits featured such non-household names as that of the astronomer Ibn Dawlatshah of Kirman. Watching an interactive video, I enriched my astrolabe-specific vocabulary with the terms rete and alidade. In fact, by the time Ludo and I had reached Tunisia Court and toured the main Ibn Battuta exhibit (featuring not only the traveler and his career, but also related subjects as diverse as the textile trade and Chinese guzheng music) I was positively in need of some light relief, and thus I was glad when Ludo introduced me to the treasure game.
He left me following the traveler round the Old World on an interactive touch-screen, while simultaneously collecting chests of gold to give to the present-loving Sultan of Delhi and dodging (as Ibn Battuta had) a devilish figure representing that dreadful 14th-century pandemic, the Black Death. Even here, though, the intellectual pressure was maintained: To get the gold, you had to answer multiple-choice questions, and if you got one wrong, you lost a life.
I had to admit I was being edutained. But what about the other mall-goers? I decided to find out what they’d learned.
Mr. and Mrs. Da Silva from Nigeria could be forgiven for thinking Ibn Battuta was “an early Muslim leader,” as they’d come straight from the airport. Mr. ‘Abdallah from Saudi Arabia stroked his beard: “Ibn Battuta was a scholar.… No!
A great traveler. It’s good to see all these civilizations together here. We can benefit from them.” Mrs. Kirstens from Denmark, window-shopping with a small baby, knew that Ibn Battuta had traveled from Morocco to China. She wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what his dates were, but Mr. Rami from Syria got it exactly right, despite his tentative, “Er,… first half of the 14th century?” It was Mr. Husam, a Palestinian living in Jordan, who proved to be the model edutainee: “I’ve come mainly to see the exhibits,” he told me. “I can go shopping anytime. But I’ve come to expand my knowledge about Ibn Battuta, and I can’t do that just anywhere.”
A further half hour hovering around the central Ibn Battuta exhibit in Tunisia Court revealed that Mr. Husam wasn’t alone in his search for knowledge. During this time I noted that more than 30 people, of various ages and races, looked closely at the displays and the descriptive panels. A few sums in my notebook produced a rough but surprising figure: Here, in the course of a year, perhaps as many as a quarter of a million people would discover something about Ibn Battuta and his world.
The cultural message was getting through to the mall’s younger visitors, too. A screen showing the animated adventures of the Young Ibn Battuta (in appearance an Arab cousin of Pinocchio) attracted a small but enthralled audience. But for one of these at least, there was another star that even the cartoon hero couldn’t upstage: Adam Bashir, aged eight, from Manchester, England, didn’t have to think twice when I asked him what was the best thing in the mall. “The elephant!” he declared. (“Phew!” said his father. “I thought he was going to say McDonald’s.”)
My cynical self was by now so thoroughly disarmed that I went and had my photo taken with Ibn Battuta, or rather the young cartoon version of Ibn Battuta, brought to life by a roaming actor in a padded suit. I could see the real Ibn Battuta having some reservations about being played by a character out of Disneyland’s central casting, but at the same time, I couldn’t help feeling that he might have rather approved of his mall. After all, his own aim, stated in the introduction to his book, was to offer “entertainment … delight … edification … interest”—and what is that but “edutainment”?
It was now mid-evening, prime time, and the courts and domes of the mall hummed with the voices of thousands of shoppers, or potential edutainees. I was exhausted, but then I must have walked from Andalusia to China and back half a dozen times. I’d also explored Ibn Battuta’s world on the even more microcosmic scale of the treasure game. And here I have a confession to make. Having spent the last 12 years physically following Ibn Battuta’s journeys through the real world, and having written three books (stocked, I was pleased to see, by the bookshop in Egypt Court) and presented a television series about the traveler, I still failed miserably: I lost a life in Marrakech, another in Calicut, and I finally fell victim to the Black Death in Chittagong. Clearly I still had a long way to go, in every sense. And with that in mind, I actually bought something for that wider world outside the mall: a pair of walking boots.