My Dubai Musings.


When I was young, I had a childhood fantasy about Dubai. I imagined it as this magical, faraway land, at the edge of the world, with a huge dhow like hotel where a pretty Arabic princess clad in a dazzling white dress resided. She waited to be swept off her feet by Aladdin and his magical lamp. I remember being jealous every time the glittering beads adorning the dress whooshed with the slightest touch of wind, silently screaming “Watch me!”   

When I finally moved to Dubai six years ago, I didn’t know it then, but I was just about to embark on an emotional rollercoaster. The moment I stepped out of the airport building, I literally choked on humidity. No number of forewarnings by my friends could have prepared me for the unforgiving heat.   

My guardian angels having worked overtime, I had been spared the fearsome bed bugs and cramped living conditions, that I had been warned about. My neighbors next door however, not so much, as I soon came to discover.  See I lived in company accommodation that was smack in the middle of Dubai’s largest labor camp. My premises however were an oasis in the desert. Complete with staff cafeteria, entertainment and recreation center. It was a mixed residence, although males and females were housed in separate blocks. To top it off, there was a walled perimeter fence and a stern looking sentry by the gate, warning me on the dangers of venturing out on my own.  

I wasn’t to be stopped and off I went. The stark contrast of my accommodation and the surrounding buildings was palpable. As far as I could see, there was not a single woman in the vicinity. It was just men and more men, either sitting, or standing in pairs, alone, and staring at me as if I was a UFO. After a while I realized the reason; my accommodation was the only one in the whole camp that housed women. The staring then stopped bothering me. I just nodded and walked on, taking in the depressing surroundings.   

I did this trip whenever I was off duty. I watched as the men, got ferried out at dawn and back after sunset from various construction site locations in the city. They always looked so tired and sometimes frail. They were a far cry from site workers back home who dictated payment terms, and punished site managers periodically with boycotts. I wondered what were their stories. I tried so often to start a conversation at the grocery, but most could only speak their ethnic languages. Although I enjoyed improvising with sign language, and it often made the sun cracked faces break into a smile albeit very shy ones.   

On one particular morning, I noticed some workers carrying clear plastic bags filled with what looked like soup and rice, at the beginning of their shift. When I got back from work, I quickly rushed to the grocery down the road to speak to the attendant who was slowly becoming a friend of sorts. When I inquired about the soup business, he informed me that the labor camps didn’t provide food for the men. They had to pool their meagre resources and cook together so as to save and stretch the month until pay day. They would bring the rice mixed with soup to work and eat it over the one hour break they got halfway through their twelve hours shift. My friend Ali was from Bangladesh, and he had not been home in seven years. He couldn’t afford to call home, as he preferred to send fifty dollars to support his wife and four children. That’s all he could afford, otherwise he would be forced to starve. “I am lucky, I don’t work at the sites. This is an easy job. My friends are not that lucky.” He told me. He hoped to finish his contract, pay off debts back home and get home to his family. I was heartbroken. There were a thousand Ali’s a stone throw away from where I lived.   

It was time to visit the Dubai of my fantasy. Something a little less despondent. First on my list was the Burj Al Arab the big Dhow like hotel. Mercifully it was as magnificent as I had imagined it would be, although I only saw its exterior. I stood there watching it, silently trying to summon the feelings I had as a child but the magic was missing. Maybe I was experiencing a culture shock. I found it quite difficult to reconcile the opulence in front of me and the poverty-stricken waste land that I resided in.   

In quick succession I visited Dubai mall, and watched in fascination sharks and giant sting rays, from behind the safety of the glass. I next visited the imposing Burj Khalifa. That building is truly a piece of art, and I couldn’t get it to fit in my camera. As I sat in silent contemplation, watching tourists and residents alike milling around the Burj, snapping away with frenzy and just awed by it all. I realized at that moment there can’t be any place in the world like Dubai. It was a kaleidoscope of sorts. A city chasing modernity at a neck break speed at the same time trying to hold on to tiny bits of culture. There seemed to be three prevalent groups. The elusive locals proudly clad in their beautiful Arabic dresses, oozing superior confidence. Then there was the working class that ranges from the very rich CEO’s living opulent lifestyles, to the call center attendants like myself. Finally, there was the forgotten or rather unknown laborers living in the desert. With nearly every nationality represented here, the city’s culture is diluted and concentrated simultaneously. It’s a complicated city and definitely not for the weak at heart.   

As I walked away from the crowds and moved to the other side to view the Burj from a different angle, suddenly the speakers by the dancing fountain came alive. I was mesmerized by the water swaying its hips to the soothing tunes of Whitney’s version of I’ll always love you. I was hit by such a strong sense of melancholy that my breath caught in my throat. I wondered how many of my neighbors at the labor camp took part in the construction of this steel and glass beast in front of me. How many men lost their lives working on it. Did they have a memorial plaque for them, or records. In that moment, I found a new respect for my neighbors. I made a pact with myself, to smile and chat more. It’s the least I could do.   

I like using public transport as watching people is one of my favorite pastimes. The metro in particular used to be my favorite, before the current mass invasion. I once completely forgot about the no eating policy and happily chewed away at my gum. Until the attendant approached me. The interaction was very short lived, the chewing gum had landed safely in my stomach. “Ma’am are you chewing? May I have your I.D please.”  He told me with gusto. “I’m not chewing, why would you think that, are you trying to embarrass me in front of all these people?” I replied in my best voice. “I’m sorry ma’am, I thought you were, my apologies.”  I chastised myself for my dishonesty, but being fined on a metro for eating wasn’t going to be fun.   

I went on a trip to old town Deira in search of local culture which was the missing piece in my puzzle. I had seen the flashy and opulent upper east side, even experienced it. I had even gone to the British inspired Friday brunches which are to put it mildly, wild. The night clubs took partying to a new level. Appearances matter here. After all people, businesses and even clubs have reputations to uphold. The upper east side was cold and precise. I had also seen the garbage strewn labor camps, lived there and made friends. The stench that hung in the air doesn’t leave you even when you leave. It wasn’t my favorite place in Dubai, but it taught me lessons. The interactions I had daily with those workers were my highlight. The nods, and sign language was all I could ask for. The men were deprived of many necessities but they kept moving forward.  I admired their strength. So where were the locals?   

Emirati mostly keep to themselves. As a result, I’ve had very few interactions with them.  For instance, there was the really kind police man at the station, who came to where I was standing, singled me out of a crowd of women who were mostly covered in Arabic dress, took me to the front of the queue and did my paperwork for me. All because I couldn’t understand Arabic. I literally jumped the queue. How amazing was that! Then there was the guy who stopped his car for me to cross the road. Oh, what about that lady who gave me my final driving test. She was so personable and kind. These few locals shattered the illusion I’ve had of Emiratis being inaccessible. Yes, evidence of their culture is fast fading, but when you meet them in person, you can get a glimpse of the generous people they are. Regular folks like you and me.   

Unlike neighboring Oman and Yemen, where traditional Arabic culture is still very evident, Dubai is nearly overtaken by modernity. I love living here though. I love my daily interactions with people I see daily. I look forward to hearing mini tales about Kerala from my friends at the shop down the road every week. Drives through the desert are exhilarating, and an occasional visit to the souks in Deira and Bur-Dubai are must haves. The oriental feel pulls me in. Though am not a fan of the constant hassling by traders, the combination of pungent smell of countless spices, and the shiny gold and diamond items often transports me back to the fantasy land of Aladdin and his magic lamp.   




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