I can't help but stare. You would too. Inside the Spanish clothing store Desigual, known for its wild use of color and ultra-modern cuts, a woman dressed in traditional Muslim clothing – only her eyes revealed – picks ups a brightly-colored sleeveless sundress. She holds it up to her petite frame, trying to assess the size and imagine the fit, as any woman would do. The contrast of this wild and sexy print dress against her black burqa is nothing short of striking.
Her male companion watches her, and makes a face to indicate he doesn't love the dress. She puts it back and moves on, and as she turns I am surprised to see her black head-covering is adorned with beautiful, multi-colored beads. Over her shoulder rests a large Fendi bag. Her wrists and fingers are fabulously adorned with jewels, her nails polished to perfection. From the little I can see of her actual face, I know she is absolutely stunning.
Later, I am deep in conversation about culture and religion with a Pakistani security guard outside Garret’s Popcorn shop. I beg for him to explain to me the laws and traditions that govern this woman's dress, and to help me to understand when and where she will wear that sexy sleeveless number she was admiring in the shop... Inside the home? While on vacation? I am needy for information and facts, desperate to understand how religious tradition and the likes of Louis Vuitton can blend together so seamlessly here in Dubai. The guard simply can’t answer. A devout Muslim, he is dismayed that women have become "too much sexy" in recent years. And so I am left wondering, and fascinated.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I have made my way to a mall. But this is more than just a mall: the famed Dubai Mall is a shopping planet. For perspective, take this factoid: inside this one building, there are 15 – yes 15! – optical shops. More than 12,000 retail shops, a gigantic indoor aquarium, an Olympic-sized ice rink, an indoor golf course... this is a world onto its own. Anything and everything can be found here, from Gap t-shirts to Magnolia Cupcakes. One Red Velvet cupcake to go, please!
There is little I really need to buy, other than some toiletries and underwear. But when in Dubai, shopping malls are the place to be. It's Friday night, and this place is packed. The shoppers here represent every degree of religious tradition you could imagine: from ultra-conservative to none at all. Referred to as the (wealthy) melting pot of the Middle East, (almost) every walk of life, (almost) every ethnicity, (almost) every religion is represented in Dubai - and certainly they are all here in this mall tonight. The blend of culture reminds me of New York City, only cleaner – and without any Jewish delis.
I spend most of the evening people-watching. I realize that whether the Pakistani security guard likes it or not, there is no denying that the women here are incredibly sexy and absolutely stunning, even where only their eyes are revealed. Makeup, handbags, shoes, jewels... anything that can be seen on the outside is simply fabulous. Amongst all this extravagance, I feel plain. I make a beeline to Sephora and sit myself down in a chair at the Shiseido counter, requesting a makeover. For the next two hours I trustingly place my face in the hands of Rudy, a lovely Venezuelan-Syrian nomad who has made her way to Dubai by pure chance. Her English is limited, and she is relieved to discover I speak Spanish. We chat about Dubai as she transforms my eyes and face into a degree of gorgeous I have never known before. All around me, cosmetic-hungry Arabic women eagerly fill their designer bags with perfumes, eye shadows and lipsticks as their men patiently wait. Just when I start to think how normal this all seems, that I could be anywhere, the blaring music inside Sephora stops and all goes quiet, indicating it's time for prayer.