What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

by Garry Craig Powell

This famous sail-shaped hotel in Dubai, Burj al Arab, one of the most luxurious in the world (suites come with full-time valets!) is reminiscent of the hotel to which Khalifa takes his mistress, Randa, in “No Free Lunch” (the final chapter of Stoning the Devil. They have lunch at a restaurant, which is described thus:

“On stepping out of the submarine, Randa found herself in a softly lit tunnel, round, ribbed with gold. The floor was black marble. The hushing of the air conditioning gave Randa the impression she was meandering along an inner ear.

“As Khalifa had predicted, the maitre d’, a sallow-faced Indian, looked askance at Randa for a moment. Fortunately, Khalifa was so lordly that everyone assumed he was a sheikh. With an obsequious smile, the maitre d’ wished them bon appetit and summoned a waitress.

“With a wall of glass separating the diners from seawater that seethed with weed and fish, the Al Mahara Restaurant was cold and clammy and bathed in bluish light. Randa felt she had slid into some primitive dimension where instinct governed and reason was useless. A manta ray flapped past with the deathly elegance of a moth.”

Khalifa and Randa meet Sultan there, one of K’s Emirati friends, and his Russian mistress, Oksana. While there, the two men make a proposal which Randa finds repugnant, but prior to that they have a conversation that reminds her of the one in Raymond Carver’s story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”–which is, of course, anything but love.

So far in these blog posts I have talked much about the traditional way of life, but western luxury of an extravagant nature is very much part of the Gulf scene. In fact, so prevalent is it that in many ways I think the Gulf can be regarded as a microcosm of super-capitalism: here consumerism and hedonism are catered to, indeed pandered to (at a cost, of course–an subservient and poorly-paid populace of Third World workers supports it), and the reigning atmosphere is of fantasy. Most visitors remark on how Disneyfied the Gulf is. It has an air of unreality that I find distasteful. Some may object that it’s clean, beautiful, and glamorous, but like the world of Disney, it’s a kitsch world, in which (to borrow Milan Kundera’s definition) shit has been abolished. People are lulled into thinking they are in a perfect fantasy world so that they will be unrestrained consumers and shoppers. Thus capitalism goes hand in hand with sentimentality. The latter is used to further the former. Just as in the west, Emirati girls have Hello, Kitty handbags, and cuddly Disney toys. This is not to say, of course, that all Arabs approve of this. Some lament the loss or exploitation of their culture. And in fact at the end of this chapter of Stoning the Devil, Randa takes a stand. You’ll have to read the book to find out what she does.

This is another photo from the Yolanda Reinoso/Kevin Watson collection, by the way. Thank you, both of you. I shall shortly be back to using my own.