I feel strange admitting this now, so soon after watching that horrific video of a bloodied senior citizen being dragged through the aisle of a United jet, but I actually enjoy air travel. It’s not just that I don’t mind it; I anticipate it with fondness. Most flights, statistically speaking, do not begin with a violent removal or end in a crash. Most flights are innocuous and safe and soothing. I am neither claustrophobic nor acrophobic nor, as far as I know, prone to deep-vein thrombosis. While in midair, I have a flawless alibi for ignoring e-mails and turning instead to a formulaic movie, or a midday nap, or a nice, long stare out a thick window. Plus, free sandwiches! What’s not to like? In 1995, the anthropologist Marc Augé popularized the term “non-place,” which surely applies to the interior of an airplane. Non-places might be, as Augé wrote, “the opposite of utopia”—still, every now and then, it’s nice to spend a few hours in a non-place, suspended between time zones.
The only thing better than a pleasant flight is that even holier grail, the pleasant layover. A few years ago, my wife and I went to Sri Lanka for our honeymoon. We flew Emirates. As far as I was concerned, this alone made the trip a success. (I’ve never seen so many free sandwiches.) The flight consisted of a New York-to-Dubai leg and a Dubai-to-Colombo leg. Between those, Emirates gave us an option: a quick deplaning and replaning, or a day in Dubai. We figured that Dubai was a destination we’d fly through but never to; as long as we were there, why not look around? From there, the rest was almost eerily frictionless. We landed just after 8 a.m., stashed our bags in lockers, and walked out of the air-conditioned terminal, through an air-conditioned walkway, and into the air-conditioned Dubai Metro. We passed the stops for Al Karama, Al Jafiliya, World Trade Centre, and Financial Centre, and disembarked at Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall. We took a stomach-churningly fast elevator to the top of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, where we paid to see the view we’d just seen from the plane: harbor, beachfront, gleaming glass towers. The skyline, if that’s the right word for it, was garishly, unapologetically artificial. The city almost appeared to be a non-place in the literal sense, not just the anthropological sense—more like an architect’s rendering than an actual built environment. Then, back at sea level, we walked, wide-eyed, through the Dubai Mall, a sprawling avatar of cosmopolitan capitalism. We passed Cartier, Chanel, Chloé, and Chopard. We passed a Cold Stone Creamery, where several women wearing niqabs were waiting in line. We passed the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo, which boasts “the world’s largest collection of sand tiger sharks!,” and a multiplex, where we considered seeing “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” before deciding that our current experience was already Mitty-esque enough. “This is the world’s Vegas,” my wife said, in a tone of both antipathy and awe. In other parts of the Muslim world, you know it’s prayer time because you hear the adhan, the call to prayer, from all sides; in the Dubai Mall, you know it’s prayer time because a digital screen flashes “prayer time,” and everyone more or less ignores it. According to another digital screen, the outdoor temperature was more than a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. News to us: we still hadn’t set foot outside.
We returned to the Metro and kept going—past Business Bay, past Noor Islamic Bank, to the Mall of the Emirates. Dubai Mall was impressive, but the Mall of the Emirates included the one attraction that, in its terrible glory, most epitomized this non-place of a city: Ski Dubai, a full-scale indoor ski slope in the middle of the desert. I bought a ticket and was handed more equipment than was strictly necessary: skis, ski poles, mittens, and a full bodysuit. The interior is kept at exactly thirty-two degrees, with exactly zero wind—hardly bodysuit conditions, at least for a Northeasterner—but I played along and donned the gear. I took a run. It lasted maybe a minute and a half. The snow that day, like every day, was gritty packed powder—not bad, considering that we were in a climate where sandstorms outnumber snowstorms almost infinity to one.
By midnight we were back at the airport, unsure whether to feel cultured or complicit. We were aware that we had just voted, with our dollars converted into dirhams, to support an unusually harsh form of commerce. We knew that the Ski Dubai complex, which juts incongruously into the desert sky like a middle finger aimed at the Creator, was, even then, pumping invisible carbon emissions into an already overburdened atmosphere. We knew that, for many of the non-Emirati laborers who are largely invisible to the casual tourist, Dubai is worse than a non-place, closer to a dystopia. Still, this is the world we live in. What’s the harm in looking, even if all you can see is the lustrous surface? This is what we told ourselves, anyway, as we buckled our seat belts for our second flight and poured our cans of club soda into our plastic cups.