Dubai surfaced from the emptiness like Las Vegas does. All of the sudden, freeways snaked around us. McMansions fronted the roads. Shopping malls hulked. Silver-paned skyscrapers watched over it all with cool, elegant indifference.
It wasn't until sunset, when we explored the area around our hotel, the XVA, that I realized I might actually enjoy this city. Dubai is divided by a "creek," which is really a large inlet from the Persian Gulf. Walking along it, we watched the criss-crossing of water taxis, each one filled with a collection of women in black-robed abayas, men in the long white shirt-dresses called dishdashas, and tourists in their mishmash of T-shirts and sports sandals. Old wooden dhows crowded the banks, and behind them stood the blocky modern buildings of banks, including one from Iran, located just across the Gulf. People from all over the world passed by us, wearing colorful saris, headscarves, floppy hats, and taqiyah (Muslim caps). With the skyscraper lights starting to glitter on the water, the scent of jasmine and frankincense perfume in the air, and the sound of the call-to-prayer undulating from the nearby mosque, I felt I had been transported to the capital of another planet and another time. The Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars might have been just around the corner.
There's a reason why Dubai feels so otherworldly. More than 80 percent of the city's population is foreign-born, with especially large groups of immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. The result is a cosmopolitan mix that centers more on the East than the West, unlike in other bustling international cities like London and New York.
After wandering down the textile souq, where rainbow piles of fabric lined the stores and vendors called out "Pashminas! 10 dirhams!," we had dinner at Bait Al Wakeel. The food was expensive and poorly prepared, but the the view was worth it. Sitting on a balcony overlooking the creek and its busy boat traffic, we felt we were in the middle of the water, with the alive, awake energy of nighttime Dubai swooshing around us.
On our way back to the hotel, we followed a stream of people turning down a small alleyway. Suddenly we were in a tiny corridor, filled with Indians and little shops selling fragrant garlands of jasmine and marigolds, hundreds of tiny statues of Hindu gods, and smoky incense. Piles of shoes rested at the foot of several staircases, which led up to a temple. There were no tourists around. We had found a passage to India, a street named Hindi Lane, in the middle of the Middle East.
That's when I thought, I love Dubai.