x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The naked truth

Wild Wadi is more than a water park - it's the great leveller.

Meet market: hanging out at the water park.
Meet market: hanging out at the water park.

If Paris was Hemingway's "moveable feast", then the Emirates could be a "walking wardrobe". Clothing here - be it the Pakistani shalwaar kameez, the sari of an Indian woman, the kandura, the thobe or the West African Boubou - forms its own street-level diplomacy. It is the nation as polyglot block party: invite the whole caliphate. Costumes required. The UAE's diversity of dress is one of its great fascinations. Clothing is the purest form of cosmopolitan expression and its pele-mele clash of styles, colours, hats and footwear says so much with so little - without cranes, without oil rigs - about where this nation finds itself and the direction in which it is headed.

But such things also stratify and compartmentalise. Clothing reminds us of our differences in ways that language cannot. The limits of speech can only be established after an approach, an outstretched hand and a greeting. Clothing constrains by informing so many things at a glance - nationality, religion, socio-economic status. Suddenly a simple walk down the street becomes a gauntlet of unsavory assumptions.

Which is perhaps why Dubai's Wild Wadi water park, where a sunburn is the closest thing to "national dress", offers such an attractive, alliterative alternative. The fact is, clothing conveys a great deal, but not everything - and where the sartorial story ends, the Wild Wadi's narrative of near-nakedness takes over. Everyday, throughout the year, the park stages an unabashed parade of flesh that is, at the same time, shockingly revealing and entirely unalluring.

Wild Wadi obliges its guests not only to strip down for the rides, but to remain naked to the waist for an entire day. For hours on end, the park's visitors - a minority of whom are European tourists - plod from ride to ride in their bare feet, which slap crisply on wet pavement. They walk, stand in line, eat, smoke cigarettes and lounge on benches as if their own near-nakedness was the last thing on their minds. Their demeanours recall a naked office, a naked cafe or a naked bus ride.

Park-goers soon grow accustomed to the fact that, as they wait in line, their skin will rub against that of others. It is taken for granted that eyes will linger for longer on some bodies than others. And if an endless expanse of flab, firmness, curves and angles does not remind us that, under our clothes, we are all made of the same stuff, then it is the park's rides that place everyone on an equal plane.

One ride in particular, the Jumeirah Sceirah, offers universal indignity to all comers. It is the twisted fantasy of a schoolyard bully: an 80kph wedgie machine that the waterpark's website bills as "the tallest and fastest free-fall speed slide outside North America, cascading a breathtaking 33 metres." The ride begins with at least 45 minutes of waiting in line with about 150 other similarly foolhardy souls. Once the top of the slide has been reached, amid incredible views of the Burj Al Arab and the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, the feelings of expectation give way to those of anxiety and panic. Finally, each visitor is asked to sit down on the slide and launch himself down what seems like a nearly vertical drop.

As the descent accelerates, you get the feeling that you are being forced to wear your only item of clothing, your swimming shorts, as a necktie. Questions arise: How much neck strain can a person withstand? Has something gone wrong? Will an ambulance be waiting at the bottom? In effect, the towering waterslide inflicts humility at tremendous velocity. Once he stops, as the rider peels his reddened back off the slide's damp surface, he realises that he has been initiated, however cruelly, into the norms and mores of the Wild Wadi, where - regardless of colour or creed - nakedness, fear and pain are all just part of the fun.

Just as we are complicit in the restrictions of clothing, so Wild Wadi invites us into a conspiracy of nudity that is accepted without irony. It is the lack of clothing that, at least for a few hours, makes all things equal.