The Kingdom of Kitsch

by Garry Craig Powell

This is Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai–a sort of kitsch recreation of a pseudo-traditional Arab architecture that never existed, though some of its features (like the wind-tower) look real enough. Note also the Emirati girls taking photos of one another, although the Quran explicitly forbids the making of any images of any living creatures by humans. Most people in the Middle East seem to have decided to ignore this particular rule, as photography is very popular, though women are still reticent and shy about having their photograph taken by strangers. Nevertheless, my students at UAE University would often show me photographs of themselves, including ones taken of them in their hostels (dorms), where they would wear western clothes, often quite provocative ones–mini-skirts and clinging blouses were the norm, and they told me they had parties where they would dance to Arab pop music, mostly Egyptian or Lebanese. It is after just such a party that “Titanic 2” begins, in Stoning the Devil. Alia feels rather guilty after waking up the next morning, because she feels that the dancing awakened her sensuality; at any rate she’s just had an erotic dream about her English teacher, Mr. Colin. The sexual awakening causes her a lot of trouble in the pages that follow. And here’s another photo of Medinat Jumeirah, with Burj al Arab in the background. Despite the ‘traditional’ wind-towers, you can see how modern the edifice is, made of reinforced concrete rather than mud bricks, and of course totally air-conditioned. As Wilfred Thesiger said, you can’t blame the Arabs for welcoming comfort into their lives. It’s just a pity that most of them, like most of us, prefer to live in an artificial fantasy world that is a sentimentalized version of the organic one they used to have. I don’t think this is just a matter of taste, of aesthetics. It affects the very fabric of reality. When you live in a theme park, it’s hard to behave like a human being. Instead you start behaving like the celebrities you see on TV and on video games. You become a character in someone else’s narrative. This is partly what Stoning the Devil is about.