In Other Words

Waste Land

The literature of Dubai's doomed quest to become a cultural mecca.

When the bubble burst last year in Dubai, an endlessly reported detail was the number of cars abandoned -- some supposedly with apology notes stuck to the windshields -- by debt-burdened foreigners fleeing an economy in free fall. Now the German impresario hired to oversee the emirate's ambitious cultural plans has also quit his post, leaving behind not a missive on the Volkswagen Touareg SUV he drove in the desert boomtown, but Dubai Speed, a unique insider's memoir of the grandiose -- and all too fleeting -- attempt to use state power to reinvent a culture.


Michael Schindhelm's impressionistic account of Dubai's failed bid to buy an artistic identity by importing talent from around the world joins books in German and English about Dubai as the instantaneous city, with its made-to-order architectural majesty and astonishing new acts of consumerism, on the brink of cracking up even as it was being built. This emerging literature of the collapsed Dubai experiment gives a more detailed picture of the backstage bluster and indecisiveness that led to such unparalleled overreach than one finds in the news coverage. The portrait revealed is depressing, from the fortune-seeking Western consultants jockeying for position to the money-mad al-Maktoum dynasty with its thwarted pretensions to international grandeur.

Schindhelm was already a master of reinvention by the time he arrived in Dubai in 2007, after resigning from his job as director-general of Berlin's venerable trio of opera houses. Born in communist East Germany, Schindhelm worked briefly as a chemistry professor with future chancellor Angela Merkel, then started directing regional theaters in Germany and Switzerland before moving on to Berlin, where he quit in protest after the financially strapped city was forced to cut opera funding. Schindhelm subsequently traded Berlin for a postmodern city-state that, at least at the start of his sojourn, lured him with promises of unimaginable riches and boundless excitement.

"One doesn't really know whether the man is to be pitied or envied," the German newspaper Die Welt commented when Schindhelm departed for Dubai. After all, weren't the Gulf states a "refuge for those who had substantially failed and now far away use gold to build fake artistic dreams and castles in the air?" From the start, Schindhelm found in Dubai a land of superlatives and excess in stark contrast to the sober constraints of home. "This city is in total mobilization," he writes in his book, currently available only in German, "not only in competition with time; it is a protest against time.… Everything is in a process of transformation, marching forward."

His pressing task was to create swiftly what Dubai's leaders proclaimed would be "the most comprehensive cultural destination in the world." This included, first and foremost, an opera housed within an undulating structure designed by starchitect Zaha Hadid to resemble sand dunes and meant to accommodate an audience of 3,000 in a society with no tradition of theater or music. Schindhelm tried in vain to point out the acoustic drawbacks of such a mammoth auditorium, pushing instead for a never-to-be-built opera house that would reflect Dubai's aspirations as a laboratory for globalized culture. "On today's program is Così Fan Tutte," he imagined, "and tomorrow a Lebanese dance theater group; then follows an appearance by Cirque du Soleil, a modern Beijing opera, and a Bollywood musical. And the auditorium is actually a melting pot."

Soon state museums in Berlin, Dresden, and Munich were working with Schindhelm to build a Museum of World Cultures, and there were plans to create dozens more museums, libraries, theaters, and galleries. The cultural authority was also in talks to include the Hermitage, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the National Museum of China in building "the world's largest consolidated museum."

But Schindhelm was hampered from the outset by the profound disarray and highly opaque decision-making of Dubai's madcap dash to globalize. He was assigned to work in the same skyscraper where Dubai's top government authorities sat on the 52nd floor, while his own office was located on the 28th with two phone lines, only one of which could make international calls. The fax machine was on the 36th floor, and the photocopier was on the fourth.


He was also confronted by particularly Arabic notions of Western culture. He was told early on, for example, that Dubai natives believe "piano playing comes from the devil's fingers" and warned, "You will have to convince us otherwise." Opera for some in Dubai, Schindhelm reports, is really the Lion King. His local colleagues on the arts authority weren't overly devoted to the task at hand, and Schindhelm recounts how one preferred to spend time learning to fly his new Gulfstream G250, while a white-robed 24-year-old employee passed the office hours perusing a green silk-bound book containing photos of his personal automobile collection of more than three dozen vehicles.

Worse, he was never certain whether censorship threatened the entire endeavor. When Dubai participated in live broadcasts from New York's Metropolitan Opera as a test-drive for introducing Western high culture, scenes from the Dance of the Seven Veils were cut out of Richard Strauss's Salome to avoid offending Islamic sensibilities, though Schindhelm reports that this was hardly necessary because a good number of Dubai ticket-holders failed even to show up. In an interview about his book, he told the Berliner Morgenpost that Dubai customs officials would not let him receive by mail a monograph about the painter Francis Bacon because they feared its contents contravened Islamic dietary strictures.

Weary of such frustrations and hopelessly lost in Dubai's labyrinthine decision-making process, Schindhelm quit last summer as Dubai's economy crashed around him, bringing down with it the vision of a new mecca for the arts. His dreams and those of the ruling dynasty have come to naught: There's now a parking garage on the site intended for the opera house, and the scheme for the Museum of World Cultures disintegrated as hastily as it was conceived.

Dubai's real estate collapse, which forced the country to seek billion-dollar bailouts from its prosperous neighbor, Abu Dhabi, had other casualties, too: the architectural wonderland conceived in the boom's feverish days. The Burj Khalifa skyscraper, for example, is now the highest building in the world, as tall as the two World Trade Center towers stacked atop one another, but is having serious trouble attracting tenants since it opened in January.

The fantasyland of Dubai, the countless towers erected in inhospitable desert out of a need for telegenic architectural monuments, is carefully analyzed in Dubai: Stadt aus dem Nichts (Dubai: City Out of Nothing), a collection of essays and interviews edited by Elisabeth Blum and Peter Neitzke. The contributors examine the astounding array of man-made islands and environmentally unsustainable architectural inventions -- the bulk of them unbearably gaudy but with a wow factor unrivaled almost anywhere -- intended to market Dubai's development. The volume includes a piece on the exploitative working conditions of imported Southeast Asian laborers who built the Burj and other towers and concludes with the dark and now fully realized prediction of plunging prices for the massive construction boom financed by debt.

Perhaps the best look at this desert mirage is the prescient book Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success, published in 2008 by British political scientist Christopher M. Davidson. Well before the real estate debacle, Davidson raised questions about how long Dubai could remain immune from regional conflict, organized crime, and terrorism, all of which would swiftly affect its allure as a haven for investment and luxury travel. He voiced concerns over its development model, aired the deep misgivings among its people, and suggested that it faced a rising level of security threats from within and without, including serving as a center for organized crime operations involving massive smuggling, gunrunning, and money laundering.

Dubai today seems to have lost what was once a cultural arms race with other Gulf governments. Abu Dhabi's plans to import Western culture via branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre are moving ahead. New York University this fall will welcome the first students to its Abu Dhabi campus, where the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, is an advisor. Qatar has already opened its impressive I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art and is planning to construct a museum of Middle Eastern modern art.

But one observer, at least, has not lost faith in Dubai's potential: Schindhelm writes in his book that Dubai is still working to create an alternative to the social injustice and religious fanaticism in neighboring Saudi Arabia and nearby Iran and Pakistan. Perhaps he was naive to see in the desert sands an opportunity for a cultural utopia, but he's wise to warn against gloating over the end of the city's glitzy heyday. With its central location between Europe and Asia, Dubai seems likely to survive and thrive, if more soberly, as a trading center. But next time, it might do better to realize that culture is worth more than just eye candy for real estate megalomania that can too easily run amok.

In Other Words

North Korea's Race Problem

What I learned in eight years reading propaganda from inside the Hermit Kingdom.

View a slideshow of the poster children of North Korea

America talks the talk; Pyongyang walks the walk. At least according to Kim Jong Il's domestic propaganda machine. In countless posters displayed in city centers, North Korean resolve is contrasted with American spinelessness. "If we say we do something, we do it," a towering Korean People's Army soldier shouts in one poster as he slams his clenched fist down on the continental United States. "We don't utter empty words!" Other posters depict North Korean fighter planes and missiles destroying the U.S. Capitol while helpless American soldiers, mere spindly, insectlike creatures, are hoisted effortlessly on bayonets or squashed under missiles.

Such violent imagery isn't confined to posters. Even North Korean math textbooks draw on the vocabulary of military might: "Three People's Army soldiers rubbed out thirty American bastards. What was the ratio of the soldiers who fought?" Dictionaries and schoolbooks encourage North Korean citizens to speak of foreigners as beasts with "muzzles," "snouts," and "paws," who "croak" instead of dying. In a chilling illustration from a recent North Korean art magazine, a child with a toy machine gun stands before a battered snowman; the caption reads, "The American bastard I killed."

This triumphalism might seem irrational in view of North Korea's small size and obsolete military hardware. But according to the country's propaganda, the pure-bloodedness and homogeneity of the Korean race make the North's army a uniquely tight-knit and formidable fighting force. This way of thinking reflects an official ideology that many outsiders misperceive as communist but in reality belongs on the far right and not the far left of the ideological spectrum. No, I'm not referring to the pseudo-doctrine of North Korean "Juche" thought, a mishmash of humanist bromides (such as "man is the master of all things") that has never had the slightest effect on policymaking. I'm referring to the ideology that the Juche smokescreen is meant to hide from the outside world: a paranoid nationalism that has informed the regime's actions since the late 1940s.

This worldview is not set out, at least not straightforwardly, in the writings of North Korea's father-and-son dictators, which are more often praised than read. Yet it informs all of the country's mass propaganda, most of which can easily be accessed at the North Korea Resource Center in Seoul. This material is varied in form if not in content: Over eight years, I've examined everything from nightly news reports and television dramas to animated cartoons and war movies; from the glossy-papered Rodong Sinmun, the Workers' Party organ, to women's magazines printed on gray, low-quality paper; from short stories and historical novels to dictionaries and school textbooks (these last printed, semi-legibly, on the worst paper of all); from reproductions of wall posters to photographs of monuments and statues. There is no way of knowing how much of this material is produced every year, but so significant is the propaganda apparatus that it was one of the few North Korean institutions that did not miss a beat even during the catastrophic famine of the 1990s.

North Korea's ideology is not merely a nationalist-tinged communism of the old Yugoslav variety. It is a race-based worldview utterly at odds with the teachings of Marx and Lenin. And yet, the outside world continues in the illusion that North Korea is a hard-line Stalinist state. True, the nation's first leader, Kim Il Sung, was installed by Soviet occupiers after World War II. It is also true that the personality cult of Kim Il Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong Il bears superficial resemblance to the cults of Stalin and Mao. Yet look closer, and it's clear just how different North Korean ideology is. Not for nothing was the country almost as isolated during Soviet times as it is now in the post-communist world.

North Korea's race-centric ideology was inspired by that of the fascist Japanese who ruled the peninsula from 1910 until the end of World War II. Having been taught by their colonizers to regard themselves as part of a superior Yamato race, the North Koreans in 1945 simply carried on the same mythmaking in a Koreanized form. This can be summarized in a single sentence: The Korean people are too pure-blooded, and so too virtuous, to survive in this evil world without a great parental leader. This paranoid nationalism might sound crude and puerile, but it is only in this ideological context that the country's distinguishing characteristics, which the outside world has long found so baffling, make perfect sense. Up close, North Korea is not Stalinist -- it's simply racist.


The celebration of racial purity and homogeneity is everywhere in North Korea. The citizens pictured on the country's new currency, for example, could pass for members of the same family, which in a sense they are. A worker in one painting appears much like a farmer or soldier in another, while the children pictured in schoolbooks are downright identical. White is the dominant color in Pyongyang: White concrete plazas, white or at least blond-stoned buildings, and white statues of virginal maidens in long gowns abound. Pyongyang is often photographed or depicted under snow, a favored symbol of purity itself. "Our nation has always considered its pure lineage to be of great importance," a North Korean general told his South Korean counterpart during a 2006 meeting to discuss realignment of the maritime border between the two states. "Since ancient times our lands have been one of abundant natural beauty," he said. "Not even one drop of ink must be allowed."

North Korea has often been called "solipsistic," but strong racial pride always entails intense awareness of an inferior other. For the North Koreans, foreigners are inferior -- even the friendly ones. Typical is a panoramic painting of a procession of exultant tourists during 1989's Pyongyang World Festival of Youth and Students. In whatever direction they happen to be looking, their faces are partly obscured by a sinister shadow. A fat Caucasian woman wears a low-cut blouse, while a few African women appear in halter tops; in Pyongyang today, such clothing is considered indecent. Here and there, unsavory-looking men sport long sideburns and denim, more signs of Western decadence. The only well-groomed and attractive person in view, and the only one whose face is evenly lit, is the Korean guide -- an innocent young girl, naturally -- who leads the way in traditional dress.

Although popular imagery strongly implies that all foreigners are morally inferior, and occasionally criticizes the Jews' influence on world affairs, it subjects the Japanese and Americans to the worst routine vituperation. Like the "Japs," the former occupiers, the Yankees are condemned as an inherently evil race that can never change, a race with which Koreans must forever be on hostile terms.

Even the Soviet Union, for all its decades of patronage, is remembered with more contempt than fondness. In Eternal Life, a 1997 historical novel, Nikita Khrushchev is called a "traitor," one of the "fake communists" who betrayed world socialism. In the same book, Kim Il Sung chuckles about how he learned Soviet secrets by getting Leonid Brezhnev drunk. History books rarely mention the Soviet Union's demise without sneering about how it went down "without firing a shot."

The Korean War predictably occupies a central place in anti-foreigner propaganda, but this tends to focus less on the U.S. Air Force's extensive bombing campaign (which is hard to reconcile with the myth of a protective leader) than on isolated village massacres and other purported outrages. The killing of tens of thousands of civilians in Sinchon in October 1950, which was actually perpetrated by Korean rightists, is held up as the Yankees' most heinous crime. The Americans are held responsible for the nation's current economic woes as well. Last June, the nightly news in Pyongyang constantly intoned that the Yankees are "the cause of all our people's misfortune."

What is especially significant and perhaps unique about North Korean nationalism is its emphasis on the vulnerability of the race. Whereas World War II-era Japan's racialized worldview equated virtue with strength, the North Koreans are taught that their virtue has rendered them as vulnerable as children in an evil world -- unless they are protected by a great leader who keeps a watchful eye on military readiness.

Unfortunately for the United States, there is no place in this for any improvement in relations between the two countries. Were Kim Jong Il to abandon his ideology of paranoid, race-based nationalism and normalize relations with Washington, his personality cult would lose all justification, while his impoverished country would lose all reason to exist as a separate Korean state. The problem for U.S. negotiators is therefore not one of sticks versus carrots; the regime in Pyongyang will neither be bullied nor sweet-talked into committing political suicide. Nor, to dispel an increasingly popular pipe dream, can Washington expect the Chinese to make the North Koreans commit political suicide. If you want to know why there's no possibility of a deal, you can read all about it -- in Kim's own propaganda.