Copyright 2010 Neill Fleeman

Raman and your correspondant

Ishtar Meets MI-4
The Filmland Chronicles - Dubai Edition

So here's the set up:  I'm riding down the Sheikh Zayed Freeway in Dubai headed back to my hotel. It's Thanksgiving Day in the States.  And I'm looking at the five million skyscrapers  that have become pretty familiar scenery along the route  in the last week and I'm not thinking about much of anything when Jaap, my Filipino driver, turns to me and says: “So I see you in `Dogs of Chinatown'. Very nice movie. Very good.”
What? `The Dogs of Chinatown'? Somebody actually saw that turkey? And he turns out to be the guy assigned to drive me around Dubai? Give me a break!
Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates, a confederation of seven small countries on the Persian Gulf and is a pretty interesting place. I'm over here doing what I do when I'm not in front of or behind a camera - advising some people about the assembly of turbine engines. But I've been getting around a little, too, seeing a few things. Dubai is one of the richest countries in the world - you can read the statistics on Wikipedia or some place - and there's a lot of stuff here, take my word for it. Like the Burj Kalifah, the tallest building in the world. Like Terminal 3 at the airport that's the largest building in the world. Like a huge hotel called Atlantis that looks like the set for `Intolerance II'. Like a building that looks like a six hundred foot tall sailboat. (It's the one Tiger Woods hit the golf ball off of in that TV commercial.) Like these man-made islands out in the Persian Gulf. And on top of all that it's where `Mission Impossible 4' is currently filming. So with Tom Cruise and the Dubai Film Festival starting in a couple of weeks everyone is kind of attuned to the movie business here right now.
But my driver has seen me in `Dogs'? Who would believe it? I've never even seen the movie myself. When I get back to the hotel I text my friend Laura, who, you may remember, played my wife in `Dogs.' Her response is a string of exclamation marks.
But let's talk more about Dubai.
Dubai owes its current position in the world pretty much due to the oil business. Every time you fill up your tank some of the money winds up here. Thinking ahead twenty-five years, the Powers-That-Be have been developing the real estate, tourism, and other markets for when the oil runs out. Otherwise there's not much here and by nothing I mean a very big nothing. Just sand. A LOT of sand. I was out in the desert one night and believe me, there's a lot of sand.
One of the curious things about Dubai is that since it never rains, there is no humidity. If you wash your hair, by the time you turn off the taps your hair is dry because the humidity is about .001 per cent. There is nothing green here unless it is irrigated. Before my driver digressed to the topic of my checkered history in film, he was telling me that from 2001 to 2007 it didn't rain here. Not just a little drought, mind you, but ZERO RAIN. Not one drop. For seven years.  It has rained twice here this year, the last time only about a month ago. A tenth of an inch. So this has been a pretty wet year.
Nearly all the fresh water in Dubai is desalinated from the Gulf. This necessity makes water a pretty expensive commodity around here and you can get in trouble if you waste it. Take car washing for example. With all the dust in the air you really have to wash your car about three times a week. But if you wash it in your driveway and let the water run down the street you can go to jail. You have to take your car to an official car wash station where all the wash water is collected and re-processed and used to irrigate the parks, golf courses, and other green spaces. Washing your car at one of these places costs 50 dirhams - about $15. So figure about $2,500 a year in car washing if you want to live here and want to keep your Ferrari clean.
It can also be warm here. On Thanksgiving, when Stockton was enjoying a seasonal 32 degrees, Dubai was in the grip of cold snap: it was only 92. A month ago temperatures of 115 to 120 would have been normal. But despite what you might think, the sun does not beat relentlessly down through cloudless blue skies. Because of the previously mentioned lack of water the air is filled with very fine particles of sand, making the place an instant Joad Family-style Dust Bowl. That sort of atmosphere makes it exceedingly difficult on human sinuses but also produces spectacular rose-colored sunsets. Any sort of mechanical equipment that has to operate in the environment also has a rough go of it. In fact, I hear that the MI-4 production crew has been having a difficult time keeping sand out of their normally bullet-proof Panaflex cameras.
Getting back to the subject of the heat, natives of the region, I understand, have only the most fleeting concept of cold. Ice is not usually served in drinks and snow is only a vague concept in the minds of most. To fill this information gap a couple of enterprising guys, a few years ago, built a huge indoor alpine and skiing facility inside a giant refrigerated stainless steel tube a few miles from my hotel in the Media district. Many of Dubai's schoolchildren experience snow and ice there for the first time in their lives. But don't hold your breath waiting for Dubai to field a bobsled entry in the next Winter Olympics.
Anyway, I'm just getting over the `Dogs of Chinatown' business as I dress for dinner a couple of days later. In the shower I've been contemplating reshoots for `The Third Act' and some vague ideas for a  Dubai movie that's sort of a `Ishtar'  meets `Up In The Air' meets `Pretty Woman' when Raman,  my turndown guy, shows up. Raman always arrives just as I'm headed out the door for dinner and he never gets to do his job, which seems a shame. Since I have time in hand tonight I figure I should let him do his thing so I fiddle around at the computer while he bustles the pillows off the bed, puts the breakfast card and orchid on the pillow, and generally tidies up. We start talking and it turns out Raman is a pretty interesting guy. He's from Nepal and is here to make money to support his family since there isn't much of an income to be made back home. He's been here for two years; it's difficult and he misses his family. In about four months, he thinks, he will go back, having saved enough money to see his family through for awhile.
Another curious thing about Dubai is, as with Jaap and Raman and the crew I'm training at the turbine facility, no one is actually seems to be FROM Dubai. At least not anyone I've talked to. And the working people have a sort of caste system of their own. The more educated, like the hotel staff, are often East Asian - Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean. The manual laborers are more likely to be Indian. The construction workers putting up the high-rises are most often Pakistani. The bosses where I'm working are Brits and Scots. And I even ran into another Yank somewhere in my travels but I can't remember just where.  
Dubai is an Islamic country but they're not as rigid about it as a lot of other places. You can't jaywalk or get a beer on the street - only in a hotel - and you need to be careful about some words and gestures. And they consider graffiti to be vandalism, not a form of artistic expression. But there's no Taliban-style stuff. Western dress is not a problem and down at the hotel pool or on Jumeirah Beach you can see as much exposed skin as anywhere in the States. (In the interest of accuracy I checked this out personally.)  Still, it is a bit disconcerting to see a woman covered head-to-toe in a black burka, with only a quarter-inch wide eye slit to see through, walking out of Victoria's Secret in the Emirates Mall and momentarily flash a four-inch Gucci spike heel as she steps onto the escalator.
One night Raman and I get into a discussion about the national parks in Nepal and the United States. And he's been looking at the website for `The Third Act', too, and has several questions about the film. Katmandu, he reminds me, has an international film festival and he thinks we should submit `The Third Act'. He has family there and he could show us around. Sounds like a pretty good idea to me.
The next night it's off to dinner at the Fairmont Hotel with Jim Adair, my contact at the turbine facility. Jim mentions that he's seen the Flow Automotive commercial I did last year.  He says he had to watch it several times before he realized I was The Old Man. This makes me feel pretty good... I think...
By now my Dubai movie idea has morphed into `Pretty Woman' meets `Little Drummer Girl' meets `Syriana' and the MI-4 crew are shooting scenes in the Burj Khalifah, the skyscraper I was telling you about. So I figure I'd better go see it. At 2,717 feet it's the tallest man-made object on the planet and will likely be for some time to come as there isn't much reason to build anything taller. By comparison, the puny Empire State Building in New York City is just about half as tall. But here's another funny thing I discover: the Burj is empty. Or practically so. Only about 10% of the building is occupied and they've had to drop the rents 45% to achieve even that. Nearly ALL of the skyscrapers in Dubai - and there a LOT of them, HUNDREDS of them - are mostly empty. But that hasn't stopped the building boom. Within a half mile of my hotel twenty more high-rises are under construction and that's just the beginning. In the Jumeirah Beach and Marina area another twenty buildings of forty stories or more are going up. And in Al Barsha, the Internet Village, Knowledge City, and Jebel Ali. What they are going to do with all that square footage is beyond me. Looks like when the oil runs out Dubai could be a really glitzy ghost town.
Eventually the MI-4 crew wraps and heads off to Post-Production Land and I wrap up my turbine work and head to the airport to come home to audition for the lead in a small film and to get `The Third Act' rolling again. After two and a half hours of metal detectors, X-rays, frisks and carry-on searches I'm allowed on the plane. The flight is only about half full, a real break since I'll be able to stretch out and get some sleep during the fourteen hours we'll be en route to Washington DC. I'm just getting settled in as the guy in the next seat goes through the menu of movies offered in-flight. “Ummm,” he says. “  `Salt'… `Get Low'…`The Dogs of Chinatown'…”
Isn't this where we came in?