by Judith Williamson
This extraordinary advertisement for Emirates airline has been running in recent colour supplements. It is unsettling in a great many ways, some of which are built into the ad itself, while others are about the knowledge we bring to it.
The words 'Middle East' in any newspaper or magazine at present conjure up some of the most violent and distressing situations in the world. In this context, the ad's exhortation to 'Be there when the Middle East shows you around' is doubly disconcerting, as a sense of political scariness rushes into the gaps left by its multiple lapses of logic. These are in themselves quite bizarre. First, there is the fundamental tautology - how could you not be there in a situation where you were being shown around? The mind boggles at this notion and must either give up trying to make sense of it, or come to some very weird conclusions: would the alternative mean being comatose, or not alive at all? We know perfectly well from the news that staying alive is not something that can be taken for granted by inhabitants of much of the Middle East, or by some of its visitors.
Which brings us to the second bizarrely nonsensical element of the caption: how can the Middle East show you around? It is a place, not a person, though it seems to be personified by the flapping edge of a keffiyeh - the traditional Middle Eastern head garment - at the right of the picture. This sense of the Middle East as a being is, again, disturbing: the lack of any actual person representing it in the image gives 'it' a ghostly, spectral quality. The keffiyeh and a glimpse of a white garment, with no bodily presence, suggest the Middle Eastern figure - or Middle East - just out of the frame. Altogether, the lack of sense in 'Be there when the Middle East shows you around' forces the 'sense' of the phrase onto other levels: when logic is abandoned a feeling of the uncanny is loosed, and this spooky quality produced by a lack of fixed meaning connects with our knowledge of the actual dangers of the Middle East to suggest something both thrilling and frightening.
This sense of danger and thrills is explicitly evoked in the image of the young travellers having what is effectively a white-knuckle ride: the truck they are on is moving so fast their hair is flying back and they are shown as literally gripping the edge of the seat. Most striking of all is their facial expressions, which are exactly those of people riding a roller coaster. Their intense, almost manic laughs, their eyes screwed up against the wind, portray a mixture of fear and fun - they seem to be holding on for dear life, but enjoying every moment of it. This is the kind of image that has become a familiar trope of funfair ads or selfies taken by fair-goers. Here, the facial expressions portray an excitement that is hard to account for by anything in the image other than the speed of the truck; however, the wider implication is that being shown around by the Middle East is a dangerous and exciting ride.
But what, exactly, are these tourists being shown? The country around them is desert, with a single scrubby tree beside the dirt track. Driving in an open truck through this landscape suggests a kind of safari, with all its connotations of vast spaces inhabited by wild animals. The Middle East they are being shown (by itself) is unpeopled and seems to be a state of mind rather than anywhere real. The inset says 'Fly to 17 destinations across the region and enjoy its boundless hospitality'; the list below includes Baghdad, Basra, Damascus, Sana'a - and yet we see a desert, inhabited only by an unpictured wearer of a fluttering keffiyeh!
There are two kinds of photography most commonly associated with the Middle East. One is the genre of news photography that shows us war-torn cities, bombed landscapes, refugee camps. The other is the glossy colour photography of the holiday ad, showing turquoise swimming pools, hotel balconies, sandy beaches. The Emirates ad deliberately positions itself in neither of these genres. It is clearly directed at those seeking an edgy holiday experience, something 'real' and 'alive' which is suggested by the idea of 'being there'. The conventional holiday spots around the Middle East are highly contained, Westernised resorts; the idea of venturing out into territory beyond these is intended to demarcate the 'traveller' from the 'tourist' - a distinction that is important to Western holidaymakers who see themselves as not quite being that. Yet the reality of much of the Middle East at present is too problematic to be shown here, so the ad has to present its adventurers traversing an empty landscape, excitement shown reflected on their faces rather than in anything that can be pictured around them.
This advertisement is part of a series: it was followed a week later in the same magazine slots by one for another Emirates destination, India. That ad shows a couple of Westerners covered in paint, looking at once intense and slightly uncomfortable, in the midst of what is clearly the Holi festival of colours, with the caption: 'Be there when India bursts into colour'. These ads share the pitch of offering experiences that are at once challenging and 'authentic', and the slogan common to the series, 'Hello Tomorrow', underlines the sense of exploration, of stepping forward intrepidly into the unknown.
Emirates is one of the world's largest airline companies - though it is probably most familiar in this country for its sponsorship of Arsenal football club, whose base is now the Emirates Stadium in North London. The company has pursued aggressive competition with other international airlines in recent decades, developing routes from its Dubai hub all over the globe. The slogan 'Hello Tomorrow' can be interpreted in two senses: as the future being greeted by the exhilarated holidaymakers shown in its ads, and the future being embraced by Emirates' own corporate expansion.