Back In Dubai – Part 1

In the 30 years since I left Dubai to reside in Canada, I had returned to the emirate only once, eight years ago. But on that occasion, my host had focused on introducing me to the “world’s biggest” attractions that had sprung up in the intervening years and made Dubai the Las Vegas of the Middle East: Palm Island, Burj Dubai, Burj Al Arab, Dubai Mall, the theme parks, and all the “cities within the city” like Computer City, Sports City and Medical City. We had travelled down massive highways and traversed the urban sprawl that now connected Dubai and Sharjah, and Dubai and Jebel Ali, where once there had been only white sand desert between those points. None of these new places, monuments and concrete jungles had any significance for me on that trip. So when I returned this time in January 2017, I wanted to be right at the heart, where it had all begun for me, at the Carlton Tower Hotel in Deira by the abra boats that crossed the creek and had taken me back and forth to work twice-daily.

The airport is a bit of a shock—massive, is an understatement. Transferring from an arriving flight to the arrivals terminal can take 20 minutes by apron shuttle. The insides of the airport are opulent, littered with duty-free shops and built to carry expanding traffic for the next 20 years. On the outside, the airport stretches way past Al Ghusais which was once the outback for us. The airport taxis come in different flavours: metered, limos, and liveried with female drivers for women passengers and families. We took a liveried taxi with a courteous female driver who efficiently delivered us to the hotel, at a fare that was only a few dirhams more than the fixed rate of 30 dirhams we used to pay the stern, uncommunicative, male Emirati drivers burning rubber in Mercedes Benzes.
The Carlton Tower, where I spent my first two weeks in Dubai back in 1980, had been my initial refuge because Ramadan was declared a couple of days after my arrival and finding food during daylight on the street was impossible; the restaurant in the hotel had been most obliging. Today that restaurant had been supplemented with a coffee shop and two nightclubs, Thai and Russian, testament to Dubai’s growing diversity and boldness. Outside my window, the creek still bustled with dhows and smaller boats but many of the dhows, once used to carry cargo up and down the Gulf, had been converted into “dinner and show” sailing boats for tourists. The temperature in January hovered between 15-20 degrees Celsius, pleasant, compared to my initial entry on the hottest day of the year (48 degrees Celsius), in July 1980, when they fried eggs on car bonnets, and the exhausts from air-conditioners blowing out into the streets made a walk outdoors feel like stepping through Dante’s Inferno.

I walked over to the abra dock, formerly a flight of stairs leading down to the water where you jumped off the last step into the boat and hoped you didn’t fall in the drink, where the captain sat in the central well of the vessel and banged his fists on the floor boards midstream, demanding that the twenty passengers seated around the gunwale toss their 25 fils coin at him as passage fare (those who threw larger coin were frowned upon and those who didn’t throw anything were tossed overboard, or so the legend went), and where the smell of diesel fuel was so overpowering that you disembarked on the other bank with a petroleum high—the mark of living in a petrodollar state, the legend also said. This time the abra dock was secure with gates, and steps led right on board the many boats that came and went in rapid succession. The price for crossing the creek had climbed up to a dirham (still cheap!) and the captain courteously collected his money by walking around, handing out change where necessary, and doing all this before we took off. And now, an overabundance of gulls followed us, a population that had seemingly thrived over the years, diving in riveting formations whenever anyone threw food overboard—a spectacular show of aerial acrobatics during the ten-minute crossing.

I had learned by now, when visiting places after long intervals of time, to follow the road, for the road never changes, the buildings around it do. I decided to revisit the Souks, following the familiar pathways that had once taken me to them. The Textile Souk on the Par Dubai side covered most of the streets radiating out from the abra station. I remembered bargaining for silks to take back home as gifts that the relatives painstakingly tailored into saris, pants and blouses; now that practice was inconvenient, for we only bought disposable garments ready-made in China, sold with American brand labels. And yet bales of cloth in all colours and textures stood proudly displayed inside shops in the souk, manned by Indian merchants armed only with a pair of scissors and a calculator, ever-ready to “cut a deal.” And while we walked, the muezzin called loudly from loudspeakers in the many mosques that dotted this neighbourhood. On the opposite bank, in Deira, the Gold Souk and its companion Spice Souk, another set of narrow streets with canvas overhangs in the old days, had become tourist attractions; groups descended from boats and busses and flocked to these souks that were mazes of well-marked and illuminated streets glittering with the precious metal displayed in fragile windows and overflowing with bags holding rare spices from around the world. I wondered whether the Three Wise Men had stopped here en-route and stocked up on gold, frankincense and myrrh while following that elusive star—they had surely missed out on the red saffron that seemed to be everyone’s hot favourite!

The Dubai Fort had been a crumbling relic of the time when the Trucial States guarded the waterways of the Arabian Gulf and extracted tolls from merchants. Today, the outer fort remained the same, and yet below-ground was a vast museum: an array of subterranean displays built to depict the life of the Bedouin who had settled this area, including a room with artefacts from the Ruler’s private collection that provided clues to this civilization’s connection to the classical Abbasid caliphate, artefacts uncovered from archeological digs in nearby Jumeirah.
As I had no interest in Dune Bashing or Sandboarding, two popular tourist activities for the more physically agile, we decided on a sedate creek cruise. Back on the Deira side now, and after a brief bargaining session which satisfied both buyer and seller (one always bargained here – it was a cultural requirement), we took a water taxi for a ride down the creek in the opposite direction to the earlier abra rides. As we neared the Al Makhtoum bridge, I recalled that my two road accidents in Dubai had been on this very bridge—one while crossing Deira into Par Dubai and the other while returning in the opposite direction—results of the manic speeds that everyone behind the wheel of a vehicle in the emirate had to follow lest they be run over or side-swiped. I remembered the little park by the bridge on the Dubai side beside the British Council Library where I had tried to teach my son to play cricket; that attempt proved unproductive for he was snatched up by baseball instead when he got to Canada a few years later. There were newer bridges across the creek now, in addition to the Makhtoum Bridge, the more distant Al Gharoud Bridge and the Shindaga Tunnel of the past, but our boat had to turn around at the newer Floating Bridge as it was closed to water traffic during the day.

As we sailed back, the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, rose like a needle piercing the heavens, rising behind the very private, late-Qatari Emir Sheikh Ahmed’s palace (one of his wives was the daughter of the former Ruler of Dubai) that graced the banks of the waterway, a vast property secluded now as it was then, making me realize that for all the years I had lived in Dubai, I had never been offered a glimpse into the lives of the Emiratis. We expatriates, who vastly outnumbered the locals, then as now, had led compartmentalized lives within our ethnic enclaves, meeting for exchange and intercourse only when engaging in some kind of forced business or social transaction. The locals had always lived apart and had been our bosses and sponsors, whose assent gave us permission to reside and work in Dubai, and for some of us earning a sufficient amount of income, the opportunity to bring our families along with us.

(To be continued…)

Sri Lanka Revisited – part two

An ultra-modern “village in the jungle” (with apologies to Leonard Woolf) is how I would describe the Cinnamon properties (the Lodge and the older Village) situated in the middle of the Habarana wilds. While monkeys roamed the vast grounds, guests enjoyed peace and quiet in semi-detached chalet-style apartments, replete with every type of modern convenience.

Habarana is a great jumping off point to the attractions in what is now known as the Cultural Triangle that includes Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Sigiriya and Dambulla, each situated within short drives from the hotel complex. In this part of the country, the well-paved roads are less crowded and the traffic is more likely to be stopped by a straying wild elephant (and we saw plenty of them by the side of the road as we toured).

The historic sites have been restored and cleaned up since my last visit 8 years ago. There was also a conscious effort being made to portray the religious side of these sites, in particular, their Buddhist aspects. Where once upon a time all visitors had to remove footwear prior to entering hallowed premises, now women, especially tourists, had to additionally cover necks, shoulders, arms and other revealing skin.

The water tanks, built by far-sighted Sinhala kings, that had been allowed to languish in colonial and post-colonial times had been restored, for there was actually water in them now; the Sea of Parakrama was actually a giant body of water helping to irrigate farmers’ fields in the vicinity. Gone, I hoped, were the droughts of my childhood, or the excuses of droughts, when whatever rain that came was supposed to have fallen outside the catchments of the tanks, leading to the lack of food, to power cuts, and to other shortages.

Onto Trincomalee, a place I had visited in my childhood and youth. I remember taking a never-ending boat ride around the giant natural harbour, walking through the streets of the old town, and vacationing at my great-uncle’s sprawling estate home where everyone was welcome, where the food was plentiful, where there was no electricity, where we sat outside at night under the stars and swapped stories while listening to a battery-powered radio.

My great uncle and his family emigrated to Australia a long time ago, and the great man himself had since passed away, and so I decided to experience another side of Trincomalee – the beach. We spent two days on the beach outside town and it was a restful break from the constant travelling of the last few days. The seas were rough but the water was warm and the beach was strewn with dive shops, guesthouses and sea food restaurants. The local fishermen conducted a daily ritual of running a giant net out into the water, without a boat, and then hauling it back very slowly, the lead fisherman bobbing out far in the rough seas as he towed the net out and in. The sorting ceremony that was performed on the beach opposite our hotel after the laden net came in resulted in a battle between the gulls and the crows for the spoils left behind by the fishermen – a raucous event, and you had to watch out for falling offal from the sky. The unevenness of the beach became clear after while: this entire strip had been washed away in the giant tsunami that ripped the island in 2004.

I observed another phenomenon in Trincomalee, a town that has always been predominantly Tamil and Muslim: the burqa had replaced the salwar khameez. I wondered whether moves by the previous government to firmly entrench the nation as a Sinhala Buddhist one had resulted in religious minorities retaliating and staking out their own turf, and whether a subtle polarization was taking place – again. Or were returning housemaids from the Middle East wearing their work clothes to avoid buying a second wardrobe to wear at home? When the driver advised me that in the recent census, Muslims instead of Tamils were now the dominant minority in the country, I raised my eyebrows even more. And talking about politics, I realized why the common man was still enamoured with the last regime, corrupt or not; he had witnessed visible signs of progress with the last gang: roads, infrastructure, and price controls on essential goods, on a scale never seen before. The common man did not care that the new guys were saddled with the former guys’ bills, or that the new guys were still trying to figure out how Green and Blue (traditional rivals since Independence) could work together, or that they were trying to reduce – yes reduce, not increase – Presidential powers that lead to dictatorship.

Last stop: Jaffna. I have been trying to get to Jaffna since 1978. On that last occasion, I had turned back on my bike due to the “troubles” that were brewing, especially as my pillion rider was an American friend with a powerful camera who could have been mistaken for a CIA spy. But this time the rebuilt highway (and railway track) ran uninterrupted into the northern city with scarce traffic accompanying us. I saw the signs of the recent war immediately: military camps in every major town en-route, police check-points spot-checking motorists (we were stopped twice and my driver said that the cop was disappointed when he saw two tourists in the car, preventing him from collecting a customary bribe), the bombed out water tank in Killinochchi lying on its side as a stark reminder despite reconstruction going on around it.

My old school teachers used to tell me that Jaffna was a hot place where they only grew chillies and garlic. Well, if those pundits are still alive I’d like to inform them that they are wrong. Many tanks and ponds accompanied us as we entered the peninsula, and paddy fields, coconut estates, palm and corn fields ran right up to the outskirts of the city. Jaffna itself is a smaller version of Colombo with its teeming Pettah-like centre, the fishing harbour, the stately colonial buildings, the Fort (a military one unlike the commercial one in Colombo), and the temples and churches (make that Hindu temples and Catholic Churches). There were no Buddhist shrines to be seen, unless I missed them. But the signs of “We beat you, now buckle up and behave” were everywhere: the army’s foot patrols that walked the town, bullet-scarred houses of those who fled or died crumbling into decay beside modern structures of those who survived rising beside them, and hotels with management staff who spoke only Sinhala and English, sent from head-offices down south to manage lower level local Tamil staff. Temple Road leading to the famed Nallur Temple, once dubbed NGO Row had lost all its NGOs as those benevolent organizations had packed up and returned home when the war ended. Our Tamil tour guide lamented that now they had no help in the reconstruction as the foreigners had left and the government in Colombo was wrapped up in its internal conflicts. Testament to his lament is the state of the Jaffna Fort, slated for reconstruction but only with its outer walls restored, the inside is still a mass of bombed out structures with cattle grazing in the tall grass growing amidst the rubble. The only sign of hope was the fully restored Public Library, burned down twice in recent history by those who have no appreciation of history; I now only hope that its sparse collection of donated books and periodicals would increase and multiply over the years. Unlike in the Buddhist temples where we had to cover up, I was asked to remove my shirt at the Nallur temple, and I wished I had been permitted to take a selfie – darn!

We took the train back to Colombo. And we travelled “local” this time: second class. The CGR (Ceylon Government Railway) is still the same as it was 40 years ago; its rolling stock, its railway lines, its stations; the toilets still stink and there are no garbage pails so you are encouraged to throw your refuse on the track outside. Vendors ply their trade on board between stations, and railway guards turn a blind eye because there is no restaurant car. But we left and arrived on schedule, 7 hours later, something unheard of in the old days.

Before I left the island, I had to revisit my old home in Nawala where I had lived for 18 years. I had learnt by now that old landmarks are useless after 40 years, only the narrow, un-expandable road remains constant. The turns, inclines and declines in the road were my markers, except that over-construction in the once open land on either side had shrunken distances. I followed this road to my old address, but it had vanished behind a giant wall, even the number on the gate read differently. After much jumping up, ferreting, and snooping like a thief, I discovered that our former garage had now morphed into the main building and the old house was just an annex. Over the top of the wall I caught a glimpse of the American-style bungalow roof that my mother had picked out of a magazine and my father had charged the contractor to build for us. I could not proceed further; I did not know the new residents, and to all intents and purposes, I was an intruder. However, I was lucky to find my former neighbour, a retired octogenarian doctor and an eminent writer, at home, as well as a former teenage buddy (now retired, sobering thought!) who came rushing home from wherever he was as soon as his wife phoned him to announce that I had arrived unannounced. And their instant showers of Sri Lankan hospitality, replete with fish cutlets, patties, cake, tea and Lion Lager beer, all magically produced from the recesses of their kitchens and the kindness of their hearts, were… well, heart-warming.

And then it was time to leave Sri Lanka. However, I left with optimism. This country may not be my home anymore but it is a place where I feel extremely comfortable, in its hustle and bustle, its polluted traffic, its mouth-watering food, it’s side-splitting humour, its social contradictions, its irreconcilable political differences and its incomparable beauty. It is a place to return to, again and again, because HOME, after all, is only a state of mind.

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