On the way to a conference, Sarah and I recently had the thrill of visiting Dubai. An impressive, ultra-modern city rising in the desert, Dubai’s scale is overwhelming. It had the prettiest shopping malls and stores I have ever seen, with hockey courts and indoor ski mountains.
Our first goal, however, was to visit Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. (Remember Tom Cruise in the last Mission Impossible? That building). Before we took the elevator, there was an introductory tour, and what struck me the most was actually the tour. Grandiose descriptions of the project and its architecture were accompanied by ambient music similar to that of a spa, with soothing oriental sounds. It was a curious atmosphere, which felt more than anything like a religious atmosphere. To our surprise, we felt that we were walking into a temple, a temple dedicated to the greatness of that building.
Then we came across the following description, engraved on a wall in English and Arabic. It is signed by Burj Khalifa, as if the building was talking with us. A chill went down our spine as we read those tall, commanding, divine words. They were the words of a god.
I am the power that lifts the world’s head proudly skywards, surpassing limits and expectations.
Rising gracefully from the desert and honouring the city with a new glow, I am an extraordinary union of engineering and art, with every detail carefully considered and beautifully crafted.
I am the life force of collective aspirations and the aesthetic union of many cultures. I stimulate dreams, stir emotions and awaken creativity.
I am the magnet that attracts the wide-eyed tourist, eagerly catching their postcard moment, the centre for the world’s finest shopping, dining and entertainment and home for the world’s elite.
I am the heart of the city and its people; the marker that defines Emaar’s ambition and Dubai’s shining dream.
More than just a moment in time, I define moments for future generations.
I am Burj Khalifa.
I am. I am the power. I am the magnet. I am the life force. I am the heart of the city and its people. I am Burj Khalifa.
That is no random turn of phrase, no rhetoric for the sake of grandiosity. More than a new Tower of Babel to make great the names of Emaar and Dubai, these are charged words. Who says “I am”? “I AM WHO I AM,” says God to Moses at the burning bush, when Moses asks his name. It is such significant, explosive language that Jesus uses it latter to refer to himself: I am the light of the world, I am the bread of life. “Before Abraham was, I am,” Jesus says to the Jews, and they get the message loud and clear: they try to kill him, for he has claimed to be God, the one and only true God.
It was an eye-opening moment, to stare at that wall. It made things clear, explicit. The purpose of that tour and of that building was to inspire awe, admiration, worship. It was made to seduce and win over hearts, to command people’s respect and devotion, to reconfigure human souls and the world’s geography with that building at its center. “I am the power that lifts the world’s head proudly skywards…”
This experience encouraged me to look at the world with more discernment. I’m tempted to look at it as a tourist and grow wide-eyed at its landscapes. I’m tempted to look at it as a consumer, as a world of gadgets for my self-centered well-being. Yet things are not as they seem. Many people, corporations and constructions do not have revelatory paragraphs like Burj Khalifa did, but it’s my heart and my worship they’re after. Many of them are shouting “I am”. Many are striving to be my marker, my magnet, my life force. What will catch my eye? What will I worship? What will I surrender to?
“There are more idols in the world than there are realities,” said Friedrich Nietzsche.