The Place and Non-Place of Airports

I’m sitting in Dubai Airport.  I sit in lots of airports.  There’s not a lot to do in them but sit.  Sit or spend.  Spend on the same old universal brands: Sony, Samsung, Apple, Smirnoff, Lacoste, Milka, Hermes, Polo and all of the others.  I tend to sit.  Sit and have a drink.  It’s never too late or too early to have drink in an airport because airports are places devoid of a sense of time and place.  I’ll have a Heineken.  Another global brand, but I guess, with Dubai’s rich culture of alcohol, I can let this one pass.


Take Dubai airport as the case in point.  There’s nothing here to tell me that I’m in Dubai [my argument for Dubai to be a non-place will have to wait for another day] other than a tourist tat stall way down the main aisle.  The only mention of Dubai is on the advertising around the building and on my boarding passes.  Everyone here speaks multiple languages, the staff are from all over the world and all of the signs are in English.  Maybe a bit of Arabic, but Arabic’s a widespread language too.  Airports are curiously devoid of a sense of place, other than what you can read into the faces of the staff working there and maybe the languages spoken and written.  Other than that, this place is a transit point.  Most people here are waiting to leave and we’re all heading to different places.  There’s little to unite us other than our humanity and our travel.  But everyone’s so tired that there’s not a lot of socialising going on.  We don’t talk, share or exchange.  We barely make eye contact.


The culture that you encounter in an airport is the culture of airports not the culture of the country the airport is in.  The universal rules of the passport checks, the security checks, the symbols and signs, and the frisking is what passes for a universal language.  Give or take  little flexibility in application, once you’ve been through one airport and its rules, you’ve been through them all.  This is the universal language that unites us; the language of the process.  And when some poor mug shows that they don’t know the process, as they are initiated into our world, we can all roll our eyes together as a sign of welcome and warning “Next time you’ll know how to do this, or you better know how to do this”.  And once you go through passport control, you maybe have your passport stamped, you are passed on from the culturally named and defined place you were in and into the non place of the departure gates and the duty free shops.  We are now packages to be moved from one place to the next with the minimum of fuss and trouble.  If we can spend some money on some blandly universal products as well, so much the better.  What better souvenir of a non-place than a brand with little connection to place – a giant M&M’s character anyone?


And what’s the time I should be living too.  Obviously the time of my next flight is important, but as for my body clock, I’m still on French time but I’m heading to Dhaka. Everyone is operating on their own body clocks, coming from many different places and heading off to many others, passing and crossing paths but rarely encountering one another, except when we get in each other’s way, irritants, barriers and obstructions.


It’s so hard to tell where you are from the signs but also the experience of travelling gives you know clues.  I have been sitting in an aeroplane for eight hours and, except for the engine noise and some occasional turbulence, there was little sense of movement and certainly none of speed.  The distances are so great that, other than knowing that it’s a long way, that they are hard to comprehend.  Time is the other way we judge distance but once you start crossing time zones even this becomes distorted.


The old adage about the importance of the journey over the arrival is crushed by the airport.  There is only a sense of waiting to move but no sense of physical place.  Just an abstract blandness that belongs to all of the world’s airports.


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