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MOSTLY FILM: The World, Under Construction

Display board outside the Grand Cinema, Ibn Batutta Mall. Click for readable version.I first visited Dubai in the winter of 2011. I didn't feel the need to say much about it at the time, apart from a passing reference in a Simian Substitute Site entry. I was only there for three days, and located in an awkward part of town with limited access to public transport or taxis, so I didn't really get to see that much of the place.

Nearly three years later, I went back. It was quite a bit warmer than it had been during that winter visit, and they'd built a few more things in the meantime. But the important thing was that this time, I was a lot better organised, and managed to do stuff other than working in an office or vegging out in a hotel.

My latest piece for Mostly Film covers part of what I did in Dubai last week. Monoglot Movie Club: The World, Under Construction reviews both of the Arabic language movies that were showing in cinemas while I was there. If you're wondering about the title, click on the map at the top of the article and that should clear things up. If you're wondering what else there is to do in Dubai apart from watch films, then just keep reading this page of backup material instead.

Regular readers should have put two and two together by now, and realised that this trip was the reason for my absence from the final day of the London Film Festival. Instead, I spent most of that day on the plane to Dubai, flying with Emirates for the first time. Apart from that whole business of them censoring the tits out of Badges Of Fury, they're actually a really good airline. Attentive staff ensured that I was kept fed and watered all the way through the seven hour flight, meaning that for once I didn't feel like Pigpen from Peanuts when I got off at the end. The attention to detail is astonishing throughout: take, for example, the little stickers they give you to put on your seat, notifying passing cabin staff if you should be woken up for meals or duty free shopping. I didn't really appreciate this touch until my Qantas overnight flight back home, where the rotten buggers let me sleep all the way through the breakfast service.

As this was my second visit to Dubai, I felt a lot more confident about negotiating my way around. The Metro system is a little basic (just two lines), but efficient and dirt cheap. The red line is your main route across the emirate, passing through the airport and largely running parallel with Sheikh Zayed Road, the highway that's effectively Dubai's spine. Frequently, the Metro station walkways are the only way pedestrians have of getting from one side of the road to the other.

The one tricky bit of the Metro system is working out how to pay for it. Ticketing is all done with Nol cards, which come in a variety of different colours - as a short-term visitor, you'll be using the red ones. The thing that takes a while to work out is that once you've bought a red Nol card for a particular journey, you can top it up and use it again, and save 2 dirhams in the process (the fee for the card itself). But the Nol card is tied to a journey of a particular length, for example across two fare zones. If you then want to make a three zone journey, you'll have to buy a three zone Nol as well, and remember to top up the right card next time you're travelling. One more note specifically for Londoners: whatever magnetic system Nol cards use, it interferes with the system used by Oyster cards. If you try using an Oyster back home while you've got a Nol in the same ticket wallet, the readers get very confused.

I may have been working in one of the richest cities on the planet, but my expenses were being closely monitored throughout, so I was living in a Holiday Inn Express the whole time. Actually, that's not as bad as it sounds. Holiday Inn Express Dubai Internet City is, as its name implies, located close to the hi-tech district. (I suppose it's the sort of area they'd refer to as Silicon Valley in other countries, but given that large swathes of Dubai are sand dunes, that probably makes the term 'silicon valley' open to misinterpretation. So, Dubai Internet City it is.) It's a perfectly acceptable business hotel with all the usual facilities you'd expect: anonymous-looking but comfy rooms, a choice between two types of wi-fi (free and slow, or paid-for and fast), a slightly bland international menu in the restaurant.

The big advantage that the Holiday Inn Express had over my previous Dubai hotel - Lotus Hotel Apartments & Spa - was accessibility. A thirty second walk takes you to a road with plenty of hailable taxis on it: a five minute walk takes you straight to the Metro station, and unlike the Lotus you don't have to pick your way through a building site to get to it. With the whole of Dubai therefore opened up to me, it's moderately shameful that my two main excursions were to shopping malls, but to be honest that's what many people come here for.

Dubai Mall is notable for being in the same part of town as the world's favourite surrogate penis, the Burj Khalifa. When I came here in 2011, I found it irritating that once you got off the Metro, you had to walk for about a mile through another one of those building sites to get to the Mall: but at least you got to walk past the Burj and gaze up at its fabulousness. Three years on, there's now an airconditioned covered walkway with travelators to get you directly from the Metro to the Mall in the shortest possible time. However, it means that you now can't see the Burj unless you lie down on a travelator at precisely the right time, which tends to get you funny looks. Anyway, the Mall is still as oversized and overstuffed as ever: it's home to the Reel Cinema where I saw Tom And Jimmy, and a food court full of restaurants of all nations (I ended up having a good value Szechuan fish stirfry at Chinese eatery Soy).

Over on the other side of town, Ibn Battuta Mall is a little less gargantuan, but heavy on the quirkiness. It's divided into a series of six zones, each one decorated in the manner of a country visited by the explorer who gave his name to the mall. This means you get all the same luxury stores you see in other Dubai malls, but you also get elephant statues, ornamental fountains and a full-sized Chinese junk suddenly appearing when you least expect them. Grand Cinemas run the multiplex at Ibn Battuta where I saw Qalb El Assad, easily identifiable from the gigantic LED board that shows all their film times simultaneously (see picture at top of page). Dinner that evening was at Lebanese bread-based chain Zaatar W Zeit, who do rather yummy 'pizzas' that are really just traditional flatbreads with ingredients laid out on top of them.

Anyway, that was Dubai. Next time I go there, I'll try to visit places other than malls and cinemas. But in the meantime, let's wrap this up with one more movie trailer: the Andy Lau vehicle Switch, which is currently playing in a number of Dubai cinemas. By all accounts, it's rather terrible: the current top-rated comment for the trailer on YouTube reads "This movie sucked balls so badly I wish I could date it." Still, some of these locations should look familiar to a Dubai audience...


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