I returned to my native UK recently to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Seeing the world enthralled by our pyrotechnics, dancing nurses and, er, Mr Bean playing Vangelis’s Chariots of Fire on a synthesiser aroused in me a latent patriotic zeal.
But what made me even prouder was the afternoon I got on a tube train in London and realised, to my delight, that at least half the people sitting in the packed carriage were reading books.
Not tabloid newspapers, Tweets on their iPhones or tawdry celebrity magazines, but books of every persuasion. And as the train rattled and screeched its way through subterranean London, passengers were each engrossed in their stories, oblivious to the hustle and bustle around them.
As was I, because I too had a book. And for once, I could read it on public transport without feeling like I had sprouted two heads, which, to my dismay, is exactly what happens when I read on the Metro in Dubai. Sometimes I think I’d receive less baffled looks if I removed my clothes and juggled frozen chickens while chanting Buddhist incantations.
Most of Dubai’s Metro commuters seem reluctant to take advantage of the many minutes spent between stations by getting stuck into a story. I look at my fellow passengers staring into space, or scrolling zombie-like through Facebook and I think: what a waste of a great opportunity to learn something, be entertained, enter the mind of another – like all good books let us do.
Sadly, this city that hosts a major annual literary festival has possibly the most literature-averse commuters in the developed world. It’s a constant source of exasperation and one that makes me want to drag my box of unwanted paperbacks on to station platforms and hand them out free of charge to bored travellers.
The chance to catch a few minutes of precious uninterrupted reading time between the office and home is what deters me from buying a new car and reminds me of my time living in London, when the person sitting opposite you might raise a pair of inquisitive eyes from his pages to check out your reading matter, and vice versa. There might even be a spot of bibliographic one-upmanship. Look at you with your dreary Jeffrey Archer as I plough through the more sophisticated prose of Will Self! Ah, happy days. (Predictably, while I was in London almost all the women seemed to be reading 50 Shades of Grey.)
Admittedly book shops here in Dubai might not be as ubiquitous as they used to be. Magrudy’s has abandoned BurJuman Centre, Festival City and City Centre, leaving these locations with either tiny poorly stocked shops or none at all. But there are plenty of small second-hand places where you can pick up cheap paperbacks.
And Kinokuniya in The Dubai Mall – where I often spend hours of my weekend – is probably the greatest book shop in the Arabian Gulf, a store comparable with anything London has to offer. If that place ever closes I would go into a state of mourning.
So go there now. Pick up a book today and let’s make a mobile library of our Red and Green Metro lines. Let’s show tourists that this is a literate city that cares about the written word. At the very least, the next time I pull out a book on the Metro could you please stop staring at me like I’ve just pulled a rabbit out of a hat? It’s just a book – and everyone should carry one in their bag.
Craig hawes is alpha’s features writer, covering such a vast array of subjects that he lives in a constant state of confusion and wonderment.