x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Socrates in the sun

Saloon A Dubai philosophical society looks on the bright side.

Matt Swift (left), leads a meeting of 'Rendezvous,' at the Palace Hotel in Dubai. The new monthly discussion group is devoted to talking about 'the things that really matter in life... without getting heavy'.
Matt Swift (left), leads a meeting of 'Rendezvous,' at the Palace Hotel in Dubai. The new monthly discussion group is devoted to talking about 'the things that really matter in life... without getting heavy'.

A Dubai philosophical society looks on the bright side. At around 8pm on a recent Monday, Matt Swift sat in a corner of the lobby at the Palace hotel and issued a stern admonition to the small cluster of people gathered before him. "I'd like you to keep your contributions positive," Swift said. "I'm not saying everything has to be positive, but, for the most part..." At his back was a large window, beyond which the Dubai Fountain, as if on cue, shot blazing cascades of water into the sky.

Swift's announcement marked the official opening of the second session of Rendezvous, the Dubai-based debating society he launched recently with a woman named Moira Mackintosh. Having held their first discussion a month ago, Swift and Mackintosh plan to run these events fortnightly at venues around the city, with the aim, as the society's website has it, of inspiring "meaningful discussion" about "big picture issues".

The idea for Rendezvous came about last year, after Swift and Mackintosh met at a dinner party and hit it off. "Matt and I are sort of amateur philosophers, always talking about things," explained Mackintosh. "We thought that by doing this we'd meet like-minded people and have more interesting conversations, rather than the chit-chat you get in a pub." Swift and Mackintosh recruit participants via Dubizzle. Each event has a theme - say, "How do we achieve a balanced life?" - around which the conversation is meant to revolve. For Monday's debate, they'd decided on: "Dubai - top 10 reasons to stay!" While the phrasing here left little wiggle room for cynics, Swift had his concerns. "The remit is to have an upbeat discussion," he said shortly before the Palace debate. "This is not to say we won't recognise reality, but if someone's going to go on a diatribe about how miserable life is, we don't want to know. Take that elsewhere."

The evening got off to a promising enough start. The turnout was relatively healthy - a dozen or so people showed, about twice as many people than the first event. The attendees also represented a nice demographic mix: multicultural, male and female, ranging in age from late-20s to early-40s. Occupations included banker, market researcher and real estate agent. And while no one touched the nibbles arrayed on the coffee table, the mood appeared to be bright.

The debate was opened by an accountant named Angela, who said she'd been in Dubai for two years. "There's snorkelling, scuba diving," she began, reading from a list. "You can build a social life around these beautiful hotels." Angela, who wore a flowing lilac dress with diamantes around the neckline, added that she also drives a nicer car than she could have afforded back in England. While her fellow debaters pondered this point, Swift chipped in: "One of my fondest memories is seeing the sunset in the desert." This remark was met with a round of appreciative nods.

Originally from London, Swift, 38, has been in Dubai for 18 months, and has not had a particularly easy time here. He used to be a small-time player in private equity; more recently, he worked in real estate. "Right now I'm not working," he said, "for reasons I'm sure you can guess." He has plans, he added, to get into life coaching. Mackintosh, 35, came to Dubai about a year ago, having previously lived on England's south coast. She, too, is in the midst of a career switch: she used to work for a bank, but is now interested in alternative therapy.

Other than a shared interest in self improvement, the pair behind Rendezvous make for an odd team. Swift is slim and preppy, with closely cropped hair and a serious manner. Mackintosh is blonde, country-girl pretty and quick to laugh. During a lull in the debate, she poked fun at Swift's no-negativity policy, calling him "the positive police." And while she stressed the social aspect of these events, Swift seemed to have something more meaningful in mind. "The thing I miss most about living here is that there isn't more culture," he said. "So if what we're doing adds a little something to the cultural make-up of Dubai, then fantastic."

There was a moment, about mid-way through the discussion, when things seemed about to move to a higher plane. "People say Dubai is plastic," said a slight, soft-voiced Indian man named Sachin. "But if you look closer, you will see the things that count most in the world are more real here." This thought, however, was cut short by Khaled, a young Syrian wearing a trimmed beard and a dark T-shirt. "No matter how you turn it," Khaled said, "Dubai always comes back to money."

Next, talk turned to Dubai's melting-pot racial make-up, which seemed promising. "I get people coming in with their heads chopped off, from racial fighting, people who've been thrown off balconies," said Debbie, who works in the trauma centre of a state-run hospital. Another woman, who requested anonymity, added that an Emirati acquaintance of hers is thinking of emigrating to Saudi - Dubai has become too cosmopolitan for her liking. As the debate continued in this vein, Swift increasingly wore the expression of a man who had sat on a quiche.

"It's interesting to see how the city has changed, how different it is," remarked a woman named Jane, gamely, but it was too little, too late. The topic of Dubai driving had arrived, inevitably and with predictable results. Words like "idiots" were being used, and Swift's hopes of an uplifting, transcendental conversation were put to rest once and for all. The fountain, again, gushed dramatically in the background.

The day after the event, Swift called to say that many attendees had stayed behind until 11pm, an hour after the debate officially ended, which he believed to be a good sign. "Interestingly," he added, "it became more and more challenging for people to stay positive toward the end." People were, at least, mostly upbeat about the event itself. "I enjoyed it," said Debbie, the hospital worker. "But it may have come too late for me. I'm leaving this place in two months."

* Chris Wright