Back In Dubai – Part 2

Off the boat, we took a break at one of the many open-air restaurants that now dot the creek’s boardwalk, running from opposite the Carlton Tower up to the Radisson (formerly the Intercontinental). The coffee was excellent; just don’t ask for beer—alcohol is still quite a challenge and comes at a steep price within the larger hotels that serve it. And talking of the Radisson, a place I used to hang out once upon a time with visiting Air Lanka crew members who were friends, it now had a range of restaurants, the best being the fusion Emirati one that gave you a sense of how subsistence Bedouin food had been elevated to haute cuisine with money and imagination—we ate there twice during our brief stay and the food was excellent.
I walked into the bazaar area, where I had once lived after my time at the Carlton Tower, and my money, had run out, back in 1980. It had been a warren of narrow streets overflowing with single South Asian men, the working class who were unable to bring their families across, who, dressed in baggy pants and flowing kaftans, held hands and stood chatting, or were busily shopping, or who frequented the many restaurants in the vicinity to partake of masala, khorma, thaali and kababs, accompanied by pickles, onions and lassi, the local diet that my westernized stomach could no longer handle but which had been my staple food back then. In those days, the shops had been filled with electronics, accessories and appliances that every expatriate loaded up on to take back home—the raison d’être of living and working in Dubai, and for some, a side-line import-export business. Well, the shops, the electronics, accessories and appliances were still there, on a larger scale now, and the streets had become more orderly, but the restaurants had vanished—perhaps zoning had come in to separate merchandize from food. And the single men were still holding hands and thronging the place, especially as it was a Friday, the weekend.
My old apartment building, in the heart of the bazaar, where I had shared rooms with two other expatriates, had now been converted into a hotel and was looking in better repair then when I had lived there. I walked past the various offices that my brothers and I had worked in and they had all changed names, but their buildings were still standing—a way of life had vanished but trace-lines of the past still remained, like embers after the flame has died out.
Emerging from a side street, I fell upon Baniyas Square, once a signature destination, a park with the twin peaks of the Deira Tower on one side, the British Bank of the Middle East on the other, and a host of other bank towers lining the third side of the grassy catchment in the centre into which Al Makhtoum Road fell and circled after heading in from the direction of the airport. This was the place I used to drive first-time visitors directly upon their arrival, to show them the glittering lights and clean streets of the emirate, before spinning around and heading back to my apartment (the second and last apartment I lived in) beside the Deira Clock Tower. I wanted to give them a favourable first impression of Dubai, and that detour always helped. Well, today Baniyas Square was less well-illuminated (LED street lighting, I guess) and the buildings were a bit worn (they were 30 years older, I had to remind myself), the banks had been replaced by hotels—banks add stability, security and modernity, while hotels bring transients, clutter and sin, I’m told. I realized why some of my friends who still lived in Dubai did not come out to this place anymore: this was the old Dubai, this was the equivalent of the downtown Sands Hotel area in Las Vegas; everyone preferred the uptown Belagio, or in Dubai-speak, “the world’s biggest this and that” areas. And yet, as I walked around Baniyas Square, I recalled shopping here with my family, especially for clothes, as my son outgrew his once a month, a pastime we also indulged in as there wasn’t much to do in Dubai in those days, and popping into Baskin Robbins (lo and behold, it was still there!) for one of its 32 flavours at the end of those expeditions—fond thoughts to wrap myself in as I walked in this city-state that had undergone several incarnations since I left 30 years ago.
On our last day, I took a final walk along the creek at dusk, past the municipal building that now sported the pictures of the rulers of both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and I wondered whether the dual representation of power, that had never previously existed, had something to do with Abu Dhabi bailing out Dubai in the last financial crisis; I mean why had Burj Dubai suddenly changed names to Burj Khalifa? I concluded that I knew nothing about the labyrinthine world of Emirati politics just as I didn’t understand its society, and that is how it would remain—heck, I couldn’t even figure out why Americans had voted for Donald Trump!
On my walk, I met this lad bicycling towards me. He must have been in his early twenties. He promptly stopped alongside and said. “Sir, can you get me a job?”
I was taken aback by his directness. I explained that I was a visitor from Canada with no such powers of creating employment, even though I had once lived and worked in Dubai.
“Can you get me a job in Canada, then,” he asked, unfazed.
“I’m afraid, I can’t do that either. Do you have a job here?” Everyone usually had a job in Dubai, especially if they belonged to the migrant labour class.
“No, Sir. I’ve come here on a visit visa to look for a job.”
I found out that he was a nurse back in Pakistan, earning 20,000 Pakistani rupees per month, a wage slightly higher than the minimum.
“In Dubai I could earn ten times more, Sir.”
A familiar bell rang for me. I had also come to Dubai, a lifetime ago, at his age, to earn ten times more than what my home country had been paying me. Over seven years in the emirate, my tax-free “enhanced” salary had helped me raise a family, build a nest egg, immigrate to Canada and start a new life comfortably. His was not an unrealistic expectation.
“What’s stopping you from applying to the hospitals? I see a pharmacy on every street corner, there must be a lot of sick people here.”
“I need a special government nursing certificate, Sir. And for that, money has to change hands back home, many times, before I get it.”
“ I see.”
“And I don’t have that kind of money, Sir.”
I didn’t know what to tell him, except to wish him well and move on. The last glimpse I caught of the young man, before twilight got in the way, was of his swaying bike as he peddled it vigorously. His was a different world and a different time to mine, I guess. But he, like me, had gotten out of his world and come seeking, and I was sure that by some combination of determination, effort and luck he would land on his feet somewhere in this Emirate. I knew that he was not going back to Pakistan with his tail between his legs, that was for sure, he was not the type, not with that direct approach of his. I bet that even to get out here on this “exploratory” visit, money must have changed hands many times back home.
As I returned to the hotel to pack my bags, take a nap, and head out to the airport, I realized that many like that young man, like me once, had come to this place, built nest eggs and moved on to enrich other countries and themselves. And through it all, Dubai, like a faithful investment bank, has soldiered on, giving birth to these immigrants while gathering strength over the years despite the occasional financial slump, despite being surrounded by warring and hostile nations all around it, nations that seemed scared of touching this oasis in the desert and destroying the hope for humanity that somewhere in the world there was still a place to make a fresh start with no questions asked (and no answers given). Perhaps the rulers of those hostile nations regarded Dubai as their “out” in case things got bad at home. There were a lot of things that didn’t sit right here, they never have, but coming from the developing world as I did, I cannot deny that Dubai gave me the launching off push to the First World that my home country never did, and for that I am grateful.
I was also glad that I spent my time on this visit in the rustic part of town where everything had begun for me, in my Dubai, not in the artificial one that is splashed in the tour brochures.

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…)