Published in Happy Hypocrite 8: Fresh Hell. Edited by Sophia Al-Maria. Featuring William Gibson, Mckenzie Wark, Abdullah Al-Mutairi, Monira Al Qadiri, Stephanie Bailey, Alex Borkowski, Judy Darragh, Navine G. Khan-Dossos, Simon Sellars, Malak Helmy, Raja’a Khalid, Omar Kholeif, Francesco Pedraglio and Lena Tutanjian.
Photography by Simon Sellars
Stopover in Dubai.
A supercompacted blip in time.
The woman walks a few metres ahead of me.
It’s madness to stalk people in the 21st century, with its paranoia and claustrophobia, but I’m compelled. I can’t leave the airport. No one can. Dubai, like everywhere in the Gulf, has retreated indoors. No one can love nor live in the hot sun. The air is artificial and so are we.
We make our own fun.
I follow her from an electronics shop to a café, and back to the departure lounge. She sits down. I’m a few rows behind.
She can’t see me. She hasn’t seen me.
Has she seen me?
She reminds me of someone I once knew.
Someone long ago.
She is all I have.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been here.
Seven years earlier, I was in Dubai for one night, waiting for a connecting flight. I was returning home to Australia from a conference in England. The conference was on the novelist J.G. Ballard. I was writing a PhD on Ballard’s prophecies about the modern surveillance state, and the sense that surveillance systems have become autonomous, producing images for machines by machines.
I wanted to test my ideas at the conference.
I wanted to be tested.
I try to remember the details, the people I met, the paper I gave, the things I learned. But it was so long ago.
If I think I can, I’m making it up.
All I remember is Dubai.
Sometimes I think I will always be in Dubai, or Dubai will always be in me. I will never leave its shabby-chic airport. I will always walk the endless travelator that bisects the long terminal, staring at the gold leaf stamped on the ceiling and the fronds of fake palm trees all around.
That first time, my Dubai stopover was not planned by me but by the airline, which included it on its flight plan. It was not random. I had been placed there, some kind of operative, picked up from England and deposited in the Gulf.
The Gulf is Ballardian.
The Gulf is a cliché.
Dubai is a Ballardian cliché.
That time, I was easy prey, a jetlagged zombie stalking the airport’s gleaming chrome. I don’t suffer jet lag well. I had it throughout the conference, and it tripled in intensity as I hopped timezones home, for jet lag is worse flying west to east, when the body clock must jump forward in time.
Biological rhythms follow a 24-hour cycle. ‘Desynchronosis’, jet lag, results when the body cannot adjust to a new chronological regime. Physical functions fail, including excretion and sleeping, and mental faculties are impaired. I recall a catalogue of horror, an urban grimoire, case studies in a medical textbook that documented the condition. Jetlagged travellers walking into the paths of moving cars, unaware of the speed and motion around them. Driving off cliffs and into lakes. Embarking on violent rampages, just like sleepwalkers.
Jetlagged construction workers falling off radar dishes, hundreds of metres high. Jetlagged businessmen falling asleep in meetings, yet still closing important deals. Once, corporations banned executives from making major decisions within 24 hours of crossing an international time zone. Today, the organism has evolved. If you can sleep with your eyes open, especially during transatlantic business meetings, you are a valuable piece of meat.
William Gibson wrote that jet lag is ‘soul delay’; there is a gap as your soul catches up with your body. When you fly from Europe to Australia, the journey takes 24 hours and you pass through five airports and five time zones. By the time your soul catches up, your body has changed beyond all recognition. In extreme cases, there is no reunion; the docking operation is rejected and your soul is left to drift, alone, in violation of your physiology.
In Ballard’s novel Cocaine Nights, Charles Prentice, a travel writer, is accused by his brother Frank of ‘always roaming the world’.
‘All that endless travelling, all those departure lounges,’ Franks says. ‘Do you ever actually arrive anywhere?’
Charles replies: ‘It’s hard to tell – sometimes I think I’ve made jet lag into a new philosophy. It’s the nearest we can get to penitence’.
Toward a philosophy of jet lag.
After I’d cleared customs, a man blocked my way. He said he was a taxi driver, that he could take me anywhere I wanted to go for very little money. I accepted. I was tired and my mind was dull. I have never been a fast thinker, even when fully rested, and have always yearned for a ‘slow thinking’ movement that could validate my kind, like the ‘slow food’ and ‘slow travel’ movements.
I followed him like an obedient puppy. I told him the name of my hotel and entered his car. We drove and the meter ticked over. He was no taxi driver. He knew what he was. He knew I knew, so he dropped the small talk and we continued on in silence. I was resigned to it. I knew we would reach my hotel eventually, after he had taken me far out of my way, and charged me the fare he intended to charge. That was OK. Dubai was his country.
Through the windscreen, dreaming architectural spires pierced the heat haze. The road was enclosed on all sides by enormous, variegated skyscrapers. I will never forget that sight. I had never heard of the Burj Khalifa, today the world’s tallest building, but I was looking at its exoskeleton, under construction, halfway to the sky. It reminded me of the Roger Corman film, The Man with X-Ray Eyes. A scientist invents a serum that gives him X-ray vision, but he is tortured to madness when it allows him to peer into the fourth dimension. At first, he sees through everyday objects, like the exteriors of buildings. Repulsed, yet fascinated, he declares: ‘I see the city as if it were unborn. Limbs without flesh, girders without stone, signs hanging without supports, wires dipping and swaying without poles. Flesh dissolved in an acid of light. A city of the dead.’ In the taxi of that man, who may well have turned out to be something more threatening than a mere scam artist, I felt flattened under glass, observing this unborn dead city.
The most intense culture shock I’d ever felt was when I visited Shinjuku in Tokyo for the first time, but this was not that. This transcended that. This was nameless, unknown. Unstoppable. This had no time for me. This passed me by as soon as I blinked. There was nothing beyond the wall of skyscrapers. The desert, everything beyond, ceased to exist, blurred at the edges, like the outer limits of a video game environment where the pixels haven’t been mapped. Then the skyscrapers receded and the sky was revealed to me. White-blue, a porcelain rinse. The sand, bleached of colour. A violent blast, a scorched palette.
We came to the hotel. The driver took all my money. I let him.
When I left the hotel in the evening to visit the market, the concierge asked for my passport. I fumbled for it in my bag but it was gone. I went back to my room, scrambled under the bed, everywhere, but nothing.
I told the concierge.
He said: ‘Go, go. Come back later to look for it.’
I was adrift for a moment but, as with the taxi driver, the feeling passed. My face was Botoxed, forehead stitched tight in perpetual ambivalence.
The next day I found a new driver, a recommendation from the concierge. I asked him to take me to the Palm Islands, the artificial islands of Palm Jumeirah and Palm Jebel Ali on Dubai’s coast. Like the Burj Khalifa, they were under construction. The Palm Islands are in the shape of palm trees, and when completed, will house self-contained leisure, residential and business zones, on stilts and land reclaimed from the sea. I was attracted to them because they are perfect Ballardian worlds, for what is ‘community’ in Ballard if not an artificial environment? His novels are enclosed completely within motorways, business parks, gated communities, high-rise apartments – Petri dishes where psychopathology can flourish, enabled by provisional lifestyles divorced from consensual reality.
I first heard about the Palm Islands from Paul, a friend I have never met. I know him from the net. We used to visit Second Life together. We had so much fun there. I remember every moment, every pixel. We danced in clubs in Second Life and wore different bodies every night. I was a woman, mostly. I took on high hair, stacked heels, boob tubes, pneumatic breasts, glittery earrings, huge lips. More exactly, an imperfect pastiche of a woman, like the form a panicky alien might assume as it tries desperately to pass itself off as human.
Paul said the Palm Islands were interesting because they use fractal geometries to not only form the shape of their fronds but also to make the most of a coastline of finite length. He was developing a theory that tied economics with fractals and property development. I told the driver about Paul’s ideas, but he was not interested. He was angry. He just wanted to rail against the world. He was Indian. He told me about his countrymen that were working on Dubai’s super-sized construction projects, how they sleep ten to a room in filthy conditions for a few rupees per day. He advised me not to fall for the hype. For him, for his friends, Dubai was dystopia.
He said the frond outlines of the Palm Islands can be seen from space, and that with this projection into space, Dubai is advertising to aliens how morally bankrupt it is – a decadent superstructure, supported by a base of wage slavery. He said that when Michael Jackson died, there were plans to make a third Palm Island in the outline of a moonwalking Jackson. This would ensure Jackson could live forever. This, too, he said, would broadcast to aliens that the human race was nothing, just pond scum.
‘Only in Dubai,’ the driver said, ‘can such bullshit take shape.’
He took me back to the hotel, still complaining. The concierge was there, a curious look of disdain on his face. Something had happened while I was gone. The concierge seemed to know something that he had no intention of ever telling me. As I walked upstairs to my room, I felt his eyes burning into my back. I turned around and he held my stare. I could not read what was behind those eyes.
When I entered my room, my passport was on my bed. I sat down, opened it. It was intact. I didn’t want to ask questions, didn’t care. I lay down on the bed and slept.
Seven years ago.
I’m still here, watching the woman.
I am no longer an academic. In the intervening years, my PhD on Ballard was completed and I became a doctor, but it means nothing. I work as a digital strategist, now, whatever that means; seven years ago, that profession didn’t even exist. Yet Ballard remains, something I do in my spare time. A hobby.
I am trying to reach home.
This is familiar. I know this feeling.
In Oslo, two weeks ago, I was a guest at an arts festival. I gave a presentation on the links between social media’s dark side and Ballard’s surveillance prophecy. I’m supposed to give it again at a conference in Melbourne, but I have to get there first.
Dubai is in the way.
The woman is.
She is slim and striking, almost mannish, with shoulder-length brown hair. High cheekbones. Long arms. Long legs. Enormous blue eyes.
She is real.
She is self-contained.
She is a micronation.
I cannot read her.
I am soul delayed.
I don’t think I can take it, don’t think I can handle this condition. It seems like my watch has paused, that it is taking minutes for the second hand to complete a single click. I am in purgatory, inhabiting multiple time zones at once, a reflex mechanism consuming breakfast at midnight, preparing for sleep at midday while all around buzzes with daytime proclivities. The past coexists with the present; the future bleeds in.
Flying from Melbourne to Oslo, I imagined I was travelling through an enormous geodesic dome that sealed off an irradiated outer world from the planet’s dwindling population. Time folded in on itself. The physiological morning was encased in an environmental night. Now, as I sit and listen to the leaden thud of the airport travelator, I have the sense that a version of myself from seven years ago will glide down it, passing through on the way from Australia to England.
Maybe I have always been here.
The woman remains.
I must look busy, must not arouse suspicion. Soon we will be together again.
I open my laptop, and click on a link Paul sent me. It’s his latest video, a short film called Majlis al Jinn (Meeting Place of the Jinn), part of a series he shot while living in Abu Dhabi a few years ago. He was working on computer systems there, I think. Some kind of government contract. I never knew the details and didn’t care. He lived in a super hotel, high above the clouds on the top floor.
Micro movement fascinated him. He filmed the Abu Dhabi cityscape at night, the million pinpricks of light across its construction sites and half-formed buildings. In the morning, he filmed the clouds from the top of the hotel as they slowly swathed the highest skyscrapers, then again as they evaporated in the nuclear blast of Gulf heat.
At ground level, he filmed the red-orange sand blowing over the highway, covering the road so completely the tarmac was no longer visible. Then he filmed the sand drifting away, slowing down the footage, as if the tarmac was being uncovered in an archaeological dig thousands of years in the future, perhaps by the same aliens attracted to the Palm Islands space beacon.
He also recorded Abu Dhabi’s sonic ambience, manipulating everyday sounds on his laptop, slowing them, stretching them, breaking them apart and reassembling them to become the soundtrack to his videos, sound moving apart and reforming in the same way as the brilliant red sand. With these simple tools, married to his extraordinary eye, he uncovered something I’d never seen before: a new spatial logic, a sentient, self-replicating landscape powered by hypercapitalism, the strange stirrings of a future urbanism found all across the Gulf.
Paul is a Ballardian – that’s how we became friends. In his microfilms, he wanted to merge Ballardian landscapes with Islamic mythology. He told me about the Jinn in Islam, supernatural beings that live in a world parallel to ours. The Gulf’s new buildings, always in perpetual construction, inhabit that non-place, as do the Palm islands, still a work in progress 14 years on. The Jinn watch us from the steel and girders of Paul’s undead cityscapes. Life pushing through into our world, our dimension. There are ghosts in Ballard’s novels, too, but in reverse. They are found in his ruined urban landscapes and abandoned hotels, in the empty swimming pools that are his stylistic signature. A psychic mist, the outline of life once lived.
Once, Paul told me a story. He was relaxing on the synthetic beach at his Abu Dhabi hotel. He was reading Vermilion Sands, Ballard’s cycle of short stories about a leisure resort of the future, set somewhere in an unnamed desert.
A woman appeared from nowhere. She saw the cover of Paul’s book.
‘Vermilion Sands exists,’ she said.
She told him about the orange-red sands out on the highway perimeter, a few hours from the hotel. She gave him directions and left. He never saw her again.
Paul drove to the location and filmed the red sands, footage that became the indelible micro work that left its psychic imprimatur on my soul.
I can’t let the woman go, like Paul did. I must follow her to the ends of the Earth, because I know she holds the key out of this interdimensional maze.
I must not arouse suspicion, must look busy.
When I found out I was returning to Dubai, I watched Stopover in Dubai, a short film by the great French director Chris Marker. For a long time, no one knew if it really was by Marker, or a hoaxer, for it was published with no fanfare or advance notice. Later, I discovered Marker had his own YouTube channel, on which he’d been quietly releasing subversive microfilms for a number of years.
Stopover in Dubai is compiled from CCTV footage released by the Dubai Department of State Security. The footage tracks the movements of a Mossad assassination squad as they stalk Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mahbouh across Dubai’s architectural interiors, then prepare to kill him in his hotel room. Al-Mahbouh wanders through Dubai’s airport terminal, past the same duty free shops I have passed, through arid shopping centres and beige hotel lobbies. His stalkers follow. It is CCTV, so we never see the outside world, only Dubai’s airlocked interiors. Intertitles and captions explain the story. Marker adds a haunting soundtrack by the Kronos Quartet. With its sudden stops and starts, the music moulds this found footage into a stifling narrative of inevitability.
A man is being followed. Soon, he will die. When I first saw it, I knew the storyline but did not know the context. I just knew it was a Marker film I’d never seen. Were they actors? It was so odd. At times they look at the camera, as if forgetting their cues and waiting for instruction. But how did Marker gain access to the airport’s secret recesses to film in stealth? How did he arrange the actors to walk past the camera on cue in a live setting, with hundreds of people milling about? If not actors, then who? Innocents caught on random CCTV footage downloaded from the net? That must be it. Marker has invested them with agency, woven an assassination narrative around the crushing predictability of their environment.
Not so long ago, at my lowest ebb, I spent many hours at home, isolated and depressed, trawling live surveillance footage online. I’d navigate to countless hospital corridors, hotel lobbies, university computer labs and city squares, watching the people within who never made a mistake. Waiting for them to react against their quotidian prison, to commit a crime, any crime, live on CCTV. Without the context from Dubai State Security, which I only found out about later, that’s all Marker’s ‘characters’ were to me: dreary people wandering around hotels and airports, emerging from lifts, passing through doorways, getting into taxis. People manipulated by Marker, bored with their ordinariness, into a plastic passion play about mundane architecture, surveillance and death.
I am watching the woman.
I am invested in her.
I have given her agency, life, a narrative.
Who is she?
She is my found footage, my interdimensional key.
I replay her.
She rises and leaves.
There is nothing I can do but follow.
I will submit to her.
I will experience Dubai through her.
I will go wherever she goes, no matter where she goes.
She will lead me away from here.
Chosen at random.
The airport has changed since the last time. The light is purple now, purple lighting everywhere. Before, blinding fluorescent. So many plastic palm trees, now. Plastic Palm Islands.
My skin is purple under the light. I think it is just purple, anyway. I have aged. Dubai will be gone, is gone. But I will be in Dubai forever.
I remember that first glimpse of the Burj Khalifa. Thinking about its unborn state reminds me of a Marc Bolan song: ‘Light all the fires / it’s the King of the Rumbling Spires / Light all the fires / it’s the King and he’s coming home.’
I check the online news. A Dubai building is engulfed in flames, a super tall apartment complex called ‘The Torch’. A burning spire.
Rumbling spires… light all the fires…
I divined this, knew the building was on fire when I flashed on the Bolan song. The future is bleeding in. That is the terrible gift of my jet lag, of my unwanted X-ray vision.
I’m the King and I’m coming home.
I close the browser, revealing my email client. I notice an unread email from Paul, hitherto buried by the client’s bad UX and unnecessarily complicated thread management.
‘Simon,’ it says, ‘I never fully explained what I was working on in Abu Dhabi, but I think it’s time you knew. It was an all-encompassing surveillance system for a government agency. Serious surveillance, designed to track every available signal coming into Abu Dhabi, from every possible source. The aim was to link together airports, hotels, banks, taxis, shopping malls, restaurants. The lot. They wanted to connect all data, trying to find patterns of “anomalous behaviour”. A crazy project, in a crazy place.’
Filming, Paul explained, was his release. He’d walk around Abu Dhabi, wondering about everything he saw: ‘Is this real?’ He filmed on Al Reem Island, when it was under construction. Al Reem is another land reclamation project, another artificial community inset into the Gulf. Paul said Al Reem was ‘between dream and reality’. He shot worlds to come, empty structures in the process of becoming whole. Ruins of the future. That footage became Majlis al Jinn.
‘The Reem Island Ghost was a couple of years later,’ he wrote. ‘It happened in a shopping mall beneath a building I filmed when it was half finished. Maybe that was my subconscious attempt at surveillance: recording crime before it happened.’
The future bleeding into the present.
The ‘Reem Island Ghost’ was the name given by the media to a Yemeni woman who stabbed to death an American teacher there. CCTV captured the incident, and the Abu Dhabi police uploaded the footage to its YouTube channel.
Everything is on film, except the actual murder. The ghost, covered by a burka, and dressed head to toe in black, glides into the mall. An apparition. She nonchalantly picks up a newspaper, enters the women’s toilet and waits.
The ghost hurriedly exits the toilet, trying to reach the lift, as panicked shoppers and children stream away from her.
Ribbons of blood smeared across the toilet floor.
The ghost leaves the mall, merging into the night…
One of the strangest details is the soundtrack: the police overdubbed the footage with music from the Batman film The Dark Knight. In its own way, the choice is as artful as the soundtrack to Stopover in Dubai. Dramatic, swelling action chords punctuate the action, turning the vicious murder into a thrilling cat-and-mouse game. The music plunges the remote footage into a valley of deep surreality, placing its violence centre stage, and throwing into stark relief the fact that violent crime in Abu Dhabi is extremely rare. In fact, the police, with their ridiculous Batman fetish, seem to be enjoying it. Quite possibly, this was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to them.
Although covered by the burka, and, therefore, ostensibly immune to surveillance, the ghost was arrested within 48 hours.
Ghost in the vision machine.
Nowhere to run.
Where to hide when everything is visible?
I am thinking about the soundtrack. Something about it nags me, makes me question anew the authenticity of the Marker film.
What if, like the Reem footage, it was Dubai State Security, not Marker, that had added the soundtrack and intertitles to Stopover in Dubai? What if all Marker did was download the film, exactly as is, and press ‘publish’ on his YouTube channel?
In the end, it doesn’t matter.
In the near future, we will all star in someone else’s psychodrama, whether we want to or not. Whether we are aware of it or not.
The police are the real auteurs.
Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame have become a judicial sentence.
‘Simon,’ Paul’s email continues. ‘In the Gulf, without doubt, someone is watching you. You think you’re watching someone, and that’s where it ends, but someone else is watching you. Always. The Gulf has eyes. That’s how it is. Look around the airport. The air is so still.’
Completely absorbed in Majlis al Jinn, I forgot to keep an eye on the woman.
I look up, look around.
She has gone.
Taken everything with her.
Taken the world.
I am nothing, everything an illusion, even my own body. Flesh dissolved in acid of light.
I am so tired I see spots before my eyes, but they are not the usual vitreous jelly. They are grains of time, which is degranulating, like Paul’s shifting red sands blown off the highway, and as time itself is swept away by the cosmic wind, Dubai’s outline is revealed beneath it, and I am lost within the coastline’s fractal fronds, which repeat identically as I follow them.
The further out I go, and the more they repeat, the more I see there is no beginning or end, and it is only then do I understand.
There is no way home.
There never really was.
Simon Sellars is the publisher of Ballardian.com and the co-editor of Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard 1967–2008. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from A Parallel Universe.