Maryam Maruf
31 October 2002

The Immigration Building in the Deira district of Dubai was once the longest building in the United Arab Emirates. Stretching all the way from the Qatar Embassy car park to Choitram’s Supermarket on Al-Ghurair Road, it spanned the length of a football stadium. Built in the late 1970s, dreary and dull to look at, one half of the building was for Government use, including Dubai’s immigration offices (hence the name) and the other housed the city’s surging immigrant population mainly South Asian families, fresh from political and economic turmoil in the subcontinent.

Ignored by tourists and guidebooks, the Immigration Building was famous among the locals, and was the only recognisable landmark between the Clocktower and the now ancient and unfashionable Al-Ghurair Shopping Centre. All the taxi drivers and tradesmen knew it. Recent arrivals from Lahore, my family and I were lucky enough to live on the fourth floor.

Ah, the glamour of Dubai

Possibly carried away by the glamour of our location, every Eid and New Year, and indeed on any occasion, as long as I can remember, we would throw enormous, lavish parties, inviting everyone we knew. And everyone would always come. Our parties were popular not only for the smuggled duty-free alcohol and my mother’s ras malai that was unfailingly provided, but for the fact that we lived in the Immigration Building. Its fascination and curiosity was all the more potent because of the dichotomy it embodied: spectacular and ordinary, drab yet glamorous. It was here and in this context that I became a fan of Spider-man.

Exotic occidentalism

Out of all the comic-book-superheroes-cum-screen-idols, Spider-man is definitely the most likeable. He isn’t smug and self-righteous like Superman (why else would any man willingly wear blue spandex and then underpants on top?) or aloof and fetishistic like Batman (WLTM. Underground chamber and entire wardrobe of tight leather complete with cape and detachable utility belt). Perhaps it’s because he has a better stylist, or perhaps it’s because, like the Immigration Building, Spider-man is a paradox. Not only is he an unlikely superhero (Bullied, gawky teenager from Queens suddenly acquires magical powers), but he is also the subject of a phenomenon revolving round antipathy and adoration. People loathe spiders, but they love Spider-man.

Spider-man would really be loathsome if Peter Parker had actually metamorphosed into a real spider; but he doesn’t, instead he develops so-called spider characteristics – the famous spidey-sense, the ability to stick to walls and the proportionate strength of a spider. Created in the early 1960s by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Spider-man was originally spurned by Lee’s boss, the comic don Martin Goodman, for a being the antithesis of a superhero. A teenager and a nasty insect. The rest is history.

The film, directed by Sam Raimi and starring the brilliant Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, shows his transformation, with perfect detail, parallel to Parker’s love story with Mary-Jane Watson, played by the completely under-used Kirsten Dunst. As Peter Parker gets bitten by the genetically-modified spider that is to change his life forever, Mary-Jane tosses her hair and walks off leaving him in both physical and emotional disarray. This vulnerability doesn’t exist in most superheroes so, despite having all these extra powers and sporting abs to die for, Peter Parker remains Peter Parker – with all the baggage of adolescence.

Comic-book swapping was a craze that hit Dubai in the early 1980s and lasted for the entire time we lived in the Immigration Building. It was just as popular amongst South Asian teenagers as PG Wodehouse, Keats and Michael J Fox. All the comic-books in our home belonged to my brother and sister, who were considerably older than me. They were kept in the big cupboard in their room. Still in kindergarten, I could only watch (and learn) as they expertly exchanged comic-books with the unwitting kids who would come to our parties. Their collection was vast and in pristine condition. But because I was their annoying little sister and because my fingers were always sticky with mango, I was barred all access to the cupboard and was only allowed a comic book if it was rolled up as a telescope for pirate games. My desire for comic-books grew. Especially on Tuesdays, when the Molvi-sahib would come round for after-school obligatory Qu’ran practice. My parents were not strict or pious, but they could not have us failing our end-of-year Qu’ran recital exams.

In North America and Britain, Peter Parker and his alter ego Spider-man were the champions of every loser pre-pubescent boy. The one who pined for the high school sweetheart (girl-next-door on her days off) or was tripped up in the lunch queue by the high school jock (who would invariably be dating the aforementioned goddess). But in Dubai, Spider-man and his comic-book cohorts served a different purpose. Comic books were not exclusively for boys, girls also joined in. It was quite acceptable for a girl to be reading The Amazing Spider-man and for a boy to be seen with, gulp, Betty and Veronica Go Shopping (of the Archie comic book fame) tucked under his arm.

It wasn’t necessarily about the need to identify with any of these comic-book personalities. It was also about having stock, recognisable characters, with a dash of the iconic, which is why Bollywood and Amitabh Bachchan remain so successful. Teenagers and children would read these comic books just as they did 19th century British romantic poetry – for their cheesy, outdated dialogue. Not so as to relate to them, but to enjoy them, covet them, and quote from them because they gave a completely different, idealised, stylised, exotic snapshot of the west, especially white America. Now what kind of post-colonial–post-orientalist predicament is that?

Human, all too human

The common uniting factor in all of this is perspective and landscape. People lose all perspective when they see a spider blotting their landscape, and scuttling towards them. Spiders have always existed in one’s consciousness – in nursery rhymes, fairytales, dares with other children. A spider is ugly, evil and creepy. And Spider-man?

Peter Parker transformed into Spider-Man is really no less of an outcast than he was before. Poor Spidey may be an object of public vindictiveness – a media frenzy fuelled by J Jonah Jameson and his New York paper The Daily Bugle to boost their circulation. And of private hate – Harry Osborn, Parker’s best friend, blames Spider-man for the death of his inventor-turned-businessman-turned-villain father Norman Osborn aka the Green Goblin. But unfortunately most of the computer-generated action sequences where he zips about catching criminals and saving children, and communicating through the black slit in his mask, are somehow forgettable.

By contrast, Tobey Maguire has managed to turn Peter Parker into by far the most charismatic character in the movie: the secret of its success – human existence, before transformation.

I have never professed to be a Spider-man expert, or a Spider-man geek. I don’t have a treasure chest full of comics, all catalogued and labelled, or the complete set of The Amazing Spider-man Series 1–7 on video. I’m not a subscriber of Spider-man Weekly. I don’t have a horde of superhero costumes stashed away in my bottom drawer. And I haven’t pre-ordered the DVD. But I won’t forget that particular coming-of-age when I was eventually allowed to take part in the Immigration Building pop-American sub-culture, and could at last subsume myself in the world of Spider-man, not to speak of King-pin, Robbie Robertson, Doc Ock, Black Cat and Michael Morbius…

It seems that another form of American sub-culture has now arrived to replace that of my childhood. The huge patch that was once covered by the Immigration Building now holds a shopping complex complete with casinos, McDonalds and bowling alleys – dozens of them: part of the Dubai Shopping Festival and the new Dubai. Will that next sub-culture be embraced with as much gusto as comic-books? It’s hard to imagine. But I’m not sure that I care. Because the way it is always ‘to be continued’ is part of the comic-book’s eternal charm. And, I will be going to see the sequel…

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