Published: January 2007
Afshin Molavi

Writer Afshin Molavi holds the attention of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, following the launch of Dubai's latest dazzling real estate project. The Bawadi development will transform six miles (ten kilometers) of hardscrabble desert into what developers describe as the "largest concentration of hotels in the world," including the world's largest hotel—a six thousand-room behemoth called Asia Asia.

What was your best experience during this assignment?

In 1947, shortly after independence, India was violently torn apart. Muslim-Hindu violence left one million people dead. Another 12 million migrated: Hindus to India, Muslims to newly formed Pakistan, in one of the largest, deadliest transfers of refugees in human history. Ishwari Srichand Tourani, matriarch of a sprawling Dubai-based family of affluent Indian expatriates, was one of them.

She was a teenage bride from the Sindh region of India (in today's Pakistan) when the hostilities arose. A Hindu, she followed other co-religionists out of Pakistan. The partition tore her family apart. Brothers, sisters, cousins, all got lost in the swirl of chaos. She even briefly lost track of her husband. Once she reconnected with him, they led a refugee life, eking out a meager living while trying to track down other family members. "We struggled for two years," Tourani said in a soft whisper. "Life was very hard."

In 1951, they boarded a boat for Dubai. Her husband, a successful merchant before partition, picked up where he left off, setting up a successful trading enterprise. Over the next decade, they brought in dozens of their family members, who also benefited from their new opportunities in Dubai. Today, nearly six decades after partition, she is the matriarch of an affluent family of some 600 people, more than half of whom were born and raised in Dubai. "Dubai gave us hope," she said.

When photographer Maggie Steber snapped her portrait, alongside her daughter, Jyoti, and two teenage granddaughters, Riva and Diva—one of whom was headed for Columbia University—we noticed a small gold locket around her neck. In it she had placed a tiny picture of her late husband. She wanted to make sure that he, too, was in the photograph. That gesture was profoundly touching. It reminded me of what's so positive about Dubai: It offers people a chance for a new start.

What was your worst experience during this assignment?

I wanted to report on Dubai's underbelly of fleabag hotels and talk to people involved in the low-cost prostitution business (as opposed to the higher-end nightclubs and hotels full of ladies of the night). It was in the worn, nondescript, tiny hotels, I was told, that the trafficked women—those who were here against their will—could be found. So, I walked a few blocks away from the sunburned tourists and smiling merchants of the spice market toward the back alleys of Nasser Square. "You'll find it there," a local journalist told me. I walked amid Pakistani porters with heavy loads on their backs, cell phone-toting South Asian gold traders, a smattering of young Arabs in white robes, and Russian bargain shoppers. I spotted a few tiny one- and two-star hotels. But, which hotel? I didn't know where to look.

A teenage Indian with slicked-back hair approached me. "You want woman?" he asked, guessing this relatively young, confused-looking man might be a good mark.

"Uh ... yes," I stammered.

"Come with me," he said, and glided past a pair of Indian women in green and red saris and a red-faced Russian carrying a bag of recently purchased electronics. We entered the hotel lobby. It was small and drab and peeling. We walked up two flights of stairs. He opened a door. Inside a small, cramped room with two beds, I saw six women: three from India and three who looked eastern European. One of the Indians looked to be no more than 16, the others their early 20s.

"Indian woman 50 dirhams," he said. "Russian woman one hundred." The young Indian girl sent me a contrived wave and flashed a thin, troubling smile. I approached her, handed her 50 dirhams, and walked out the door. She followed me.

"Please tell her it's a gift," I told the young pimp. "I don't want anything." He laughed, said something to her in Hindi, and she handed the money over to him. That's when I realized what had just happened: I had just paid the pimp. She would not see the money.

Suddenly, I was in no mood for an interview. I argued with the man. I told him that I wanted the money to go to her. "She always gives me the money," he said, shrugging his shoulders matter-of-factly. After a short argument, I walked out the door, deeply sad and angry. She still wore her thin smile as I left.

What was the oddest experience that you encountered during this assignment?

Dubai has emerged as one of the great culinary capitals of the East. Star chefs from Europe, the Far East, and the United States regularly do tours in Dubai's top hotels. Dubai also does comfort food quite well. A whole range of mid-priced options—local noodle houses; Lebanese salad and grilled-meat joints; friendly Indian restaurants; and the ubiquitous TGI Friday's, Fuddruckers, and Chili's—round out the non-fast-food dining experience. Dubai insiders, however, have a secret: The best deal in town is the weekend lunch buffet at the Iranian Club. For less than $14, diners can sample a wide array of plum and celery and pomegranate stews, saffron-soaked kebabs, and steaming plates of basmati rice, served with sweets and fruits and washed down with tea.

One afternoon, two Russian ladies—wearing tight pants and cleavage-busting tops—found their way to the club. There's just one problem: Women are asked to wear a headscarf and obey strictures of modest Islamic dress on club premises, a nod to the religious conservatives who rule Iran (the club is government-funded). At first offended, the women relented, accepting a thin white headscarf from the club receptionist and tugging at their tops.

As they sampled the buffet's wares, they had made a decision. "I can deal with this silly headscarf," one of them told me, "because the food is so, so good!" Yes indeed, the other added: "If it's the price we have to pay, I'll do it again."

I went back to my own table, a plate of rice with red currants and saffron chicken awaiting me, and wrote in my notebook: "A buffet worthy of a headscarf."