Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Making the desert bloom and other absurdities

Our posting is going to be rather scatter-shot over the next fortnight or so, as we are presently in the arid sandlands of Arabia, visiting Pa's brother and his little brood.

Wait, did we say 'arid'?

If you fly into Dubai or Abu Dhabi, and hug the coast, you might believe that all this talk about 'the deserts of the Middle East' is so much hokum dreamt up by racist propagadists. Foliage blooms in wild profusion, trees hug the broad avenues and fountains leap in piazzas and at random traffic roundabouts. Look closer, however (or be alerted by your host, as we were), and you'll realise that a grand con is being perpetrated. A hidden network of pipes and sprinklers delivers water to keep all that greenery from promptly browning. Venture further into the interior, away from the arterial roads that are kept lovingly lush, and the desert sands assert their rightful claim to the terrain.

There are parents we know, as it happens, who are operating very much the same confidence game. It's all about projecting a front, erecting a false facade that suggests you are not quite what you really are. But there's a distinction that bears making. The folks in this part of the world have money oozing out their follicles: The gulf states of Arabia earn so much from oil that they can make vast financial investments yet be left with enough play money to tart up their cities, prettify their environment and just darn shout their wealth to anyone within hearing distance. It's not subtle - but there's no rule anywhere that says everyone should be discreet about splashing their money about.

With plenty of parents, similarly, stocking up on brand-name kidswear, piles of extravagant toys and all the rest could well be a way of camouflaging a certain poverty of the spirit; neglect is dressed up as 'earning enough to keep the family in provender' and lack of self respect shows itself in displays of ersatz plenty. In its own way, it could be a little morally distressing, but on the other hand there's no doubt that such monied Mas and Pas possess fat enough pocketbooks.

There are those parents, however, who aren't really all that well-off, but who are seduced by the displays of material comfort by others into thinking that they are somehow trapped in some essential race to keep up with the Joneses. Instead of making sensible provision for the future, they spend more than they should to keep their offspring excessively clad and equipped. It's transparently short-term thinking, but not thereby unheard-of. And who should we blame, is the obvious follow-on question? Those whose initial expression of wealth ignited the silly comparative race to begin with or those who should have known better than to join in?

Luckily, those of us who may observe at a distance, with perhaps wry expressions and hopefully with a little compassion, are at no obligation to ladle out guilty verdicts. The fountains are pretty over here, the greenery is easy on the eye. We're not paying for it - but in some parts of the world, the grand monuments and impressive sights are literally squeezed from the weak, voiceless and oppressed.