Michael Schindhelm: a story of culture and accountability

A German author, once charged with the establishment of a new arts district of Deira, talks about the potential of Dubai and his new novel.

Michael Schindhelm's latest novel, Dubai High: A Culture Trip, his sixth published work of fiction and non-fiction, opens with a disclaimer: "Some characters and episodes have been fictionalised in deference to the privacy of various individuals. This diary is nonetheless an authentic and accurate account of the substance of my experiences."

Schindhelm's book documents a year in the life of a European expat recruited by Al Adheem, a fictional property development company, to act as a cultural figurehead (a "Mr Culture") for its ambitious plans to reinvent a dusty plot in the emirate's Deira neighbourhood as a world-class cultural complex.

The narrator arrives in Dubai in January 2008 when almost anything seems possible: markets are rising, confidence is high, buildings are reaching for the sky. As the year progresses, the plans for the arts centre are routinely redrawn into ever-grander designs to reflect the swelling confidence coursing through the streets far below.

But when the financial markets melt down at the end of 2008, (spoiler alert: if you don't want to know how it all ends, please look away now) Dubai High dissolves into a tale of redundancies and residency visas abruptly cancelled.

The text inbetween, written in the form of a wide-eyed expat's diary, is both a consideration of Dubai's real present - its narrator spends much time wondering whether "this city is really a city?" as he settles into his new life - and an attempt to understand what messages the emirate might be transmitting to the wider world.

"This city has nurtured a new breed of economic nomad," writes the narrator in one of his early, breathless entries, "who, by choice or necessity is constantly in transit, looking for the next big thing... Dubai's legacy to the cities of tomorrow will be its people - a generation of culture hoppers."

So far so good. But a quick look at the author's CV blurs the already thin line that Dubai High toes between what might be fact and what really is fiction.

In real life, the German-born Schindhelm moved to the UAE in 2007 to occupy a senior role at the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority. He had previously worked in Berlin, where he had been responsible for the merger of three independent opera houses into one foundation (Stiftung Oper Berlin), before streamlining their operations to cope with the economic realities of running culture programmes in contemporary Europe. His life was one of budget constraints and problem-solving.

In Dubai, he was charged with progressing the Khor Dubai project which promised to reinvent a 20km stretch of the creek into the city's arts and cultural hub, and the Zaha Hadid-designed Dubai Opera House. His days were occupied with big budgets and problems that could and would be solved. The job seemed too good to be true.

It was. He left the emirate two years later when his projects lost momentum, returning to Europe where he is now a writer and a cultural adviser to international institutions.

But it is not only Schindhelm's unfolding plot that develops the strong sense of Dubai High being more a memoir than a novel.

His pages are also punctuated by a series of documentary photographs taken by Aurore Belkin. The images are not random either. Instead, they reflect both the real events of that year - President Bush's visit to the UAE, the opening of the Palm - and the narrator's words. Surely then, Schindhelm can't expect readers to interpret Dubai High as anything but non-fiction?

"I hope not," he told me last week during a telephone interview from his home in Rome. "I hope people will understand that more than anything else, the book is meant to be entertaining."

Is he not then worried that his "inside the bubble" take on Dubai circa 2008, which concentrates heavily on a series of first convivial, then crisis meetings with local dignitaries will attract unfavourable notices from the people he had access to?

"I had no anger with Dubai, nor any against its people. It is an extremely well-developed and nice place. The book was not written to bash anyone or to blame the city," he says. "It was not meant to be a revenge novel either. There was no reason to play that game. I really tried diligently to avoid direct harm to anyone. Some characters though are so-called people of history and, as such, they will have to live with being public figures."

In saying all this, Schindhelm reveals how he still feels protective of the place he once called home.

"I still believe that Dubai is an unprecedented example of a potential model for how to bring people, skills, knowledge and backgrounds together.

"I felt pretty sad about some of my experiences In Dubai. I was often furious when I was there. I could see both this great potential the city offered and also how much of it was being wasted. But that fury really comes from the serious faith I have in the place."

Nevertheless, the book ends with the cancellation of the fictional city's cultural ambitions, a conclusion that might lead the reader to believe it had been written by a disenchanted former employee determined to take down his one-time paymasters?

On the contrary, he says there is a "strange paradox" at work here. "The book tells the story of the failure of developing culture in Dubai, but it is at the same time a product of developing culture.

"Thousands of books have documented the history and progress of great cities like London, Paris, Berlin and Rome. These cities have been used as metaphors for novels and other forms of art. Now this is something which is starting in Dubai too."

First published in German in 2009 under the title Dubai Speed: Eine Erfahrung (An Experience), it received favourable notices in his home country - decent enough to persuade Arabian Publishing to repackage and republish it next month in a new language with a new title. While the translation remains true to the original, Schindhelm still seems somehow more at home with the novel's previous name.

"I finished the book while I was still working there, so at some point I was living some kind of parallel life: one of experiencing [this velocity] and documenting it as well. It made me look at my environment from many different angles: as a cultural director, a resident of the city and as an observer of this experience.

"By late 2008 [the] extreme speed [of the city] was a major part of my Dubai experience. That was something that made me alarmed even before the financial crisis." Indeed, the book sets up the crisis as being somehow inevitable. "Everything was going too fast."

Not any more. That, says Schindhelm, is natural, at least when culture is traded as a commodity in new or emerging markets.

"Culture will probably always develop very slowly."