Dr. Rana AlMutawa rebuts Orientalism in Kutubna Cultural Center exhibition - GulfToday

Dr. Rana AlMutawa rebuts Orientalism in Kutubna Cultural Center exhibition

Rana AlMutawa 2

A scene from Kutubna Cultural Center’s exhibition.

Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer

Kutubna Cultural Center, Dubai’s newest independent bookstore and cultural centre, has announced the opening of Dr. Rana AlMutawa’s urban ethnography photo exhibition Everyday Life in the Spectacular City. Free to attend, it runs May 12 - July 4, at the Center’s space in Nadd Al Hamar. The show is Dr. AlMutawa’s first solo exhibition in Dubai and the photographs in the exhibit form part of the research that she conducted for her book, Everyday Life in the Spectacular City: Making home in Dubai. Published by University of California Press, the volume is a pioneering urban ethnography that explores how middle-class citizens and longtime residents of Dubai interact with the city’s spaces to create meaningful social lives.

The exhibition showcases over 33 documentary photographs taken during Dr. AlMutawa’s fieldwork from 2017-2021. The photos highlight the forms of belonging that take place in shopping malls and other so-called superficial spaces (anything but) and demonstrate that inhabitants do make meanings within the hustle and bustle. The author shows that development projects from big malls to megaprojects serve residents’ evolving social needs, transforming Dubai emirate’s spectacular spaces into personally important cultural sites.


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Dr. AlMutawa, herself an Emirati, finds a nuanced story of belonging that rejects stereotypes portraying Dubai’s developments as alienating and inherently disempowering, coming from her exhaustive fieldwork. The book delves into three interconnected themes: authenticity, belonging/exclusion, and agency. When people talk of Dubai as a “superficial” city, they expect that inhabitants must be alienated there. In such narratives, residents are depicted almost as victims in cities changing beyond their consent, lacking in agency. Setting a counter-narrative, both the book and the photos address these themes as well as many sub-themes under them, such as cosmopolitanism, social hierarchies, and inequality.

Commenting on the exhibition, Dr. AlMutawa said: “Everyday Life in the Spectacular City was borne out of many frustrations, especially the Orientalist narratives about places like Dubai. I want to show that “superficial” places are important cultural sites: ones where people go to see and to be seen by members of their community; where people have memories from their childhoods; and where social and gender norms are observed and negotiated. I hope that the book and exhibition can generate more debate about how to go about understanding these places, without repeating the stereotype about inauthentic Gulf cities.”

Rana AlMutawa 1 Dr. Rana AlMutawa.

Dr. AlMutawa is an Assistant Professor of Social Research and Public Policy at New York University Abu Dhabi. She focuses on urban ethnography; social hierarchies (race, class, gender, citizenship; Orientalism; social distinction); and belonging. She completed her doctoral training at the University of Oxford in 2021 and published her first book, Everyday Life in the Spectacular City: Making Home in Dubai, in 2024, with the University of California Press. Prior to being at Oxford, she worked as an instructor and researcher at Zayed University in Dubai for three years. As an Emirati woman, she was interested in and wrote about questions on state feminism, national identity and ethnic diversity among Emiratis.She has published her work in Arab Studies Journal (2020); Hawwa (2020); Urban Anthropology (2019); New Middle Eastern Studies (2016) as well as in other public platforms such as the LSE Middle East Studies Blog, where she wrote about navigating multiple lived experiences in the Gulf; social distinction, and perceptions of authenticity. “This exceptionally engaging book offers a uniquely compelling account of the contemporary Orientalism inherent in the Western liberal gaze on cities like Dubai,” says Sneha Krishnan, Associate Professor in Human Geography, University of Oxford. “It is a must-read for anyone interested in everyday life and political subjectivity in the Global South.”

“Everyday Life in the Spectacular City is a timely and excellent intervention in Gulf studies. Focusing on Dubai, it sets out to show how ‘spectacular’ spaces are inhabited, upsetting binaries of authentic versus fake spaces, belonging versus marginalisation, and resistance versus capitulation,” says Noora A. Lori, author of Offshore Citizens: Permanent Temporary Status in the Gulf. “This book does the very important, useful work of demystifying Dubai — with relevance for its regional neighbours — and presenting it as a real, lived place that is neither utopian nor dystopian but an actual topos of everyday excitements, disappointments, adjustments, and improvisations,” says Ryan Centner, Associate Professor of Human Geography and Urban Studies, London School of Economics.

“A refreshing, necessary, corrective lens for viewing contemporary Dubai. While other observers wield the city as their ideological lodestone, Rana AlMutawa reveals contours of a real Dubai with all its complexity. A city notorious for constant transformation, we learn, undergoes change in the hands of people making a home out of it,” comments Todd Reisz, author of Showpiece City: How Architecture Made Dubai. “Accounts of Dubai are almost never written by Emiratis themselves, let alone people like AlMutawa who actually grew up there and know what it is like to call the place home,” observes Natalie Koch, author of Arid Empire: The Entangled Fates of Arizona and Arabia. Kutubna Cultural Center was established in 2023 as an independent bookstore and literary hub for Dubai and the Gulf region. It celebrates the accomplishments of Khaleeji, Arab, Middle Eastern, North African, and Muslim writers, poets, thinkers, artists, and researchers through lectures, readings, guided conversations, workshops and activities for people of all ages. Kutubna offers an inclusive community space to enjoy books, art, specialty coffee, and cultural events.

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