To me, a memory is a story whose cast and lines change imperceptibly with each recollection. Seen from other angles, memories become a kind of hazy witness report. Put together, they overlap to form some kind of truth. Three years ago, in a fit of nostalgia, I began to write a long, flawed memory of our life in Dubai. It is by no means accurate, but I had hoped to capture what I remember of this family before it became entirely fiction. This urge to record was always there, but it became more urgent when an uncle threw out a trove of old letters, photographs and documents because he needed the trunk for storage. I suddenly realized how much I wanted to read those letters, and see those photographs.
(A note. This was meant to be much longer, but I reasoned that a series of stories would allow me to delve into this history in greater detail, so I chopped it off abruptly.)
Not long after its independence, my elders landed on Dubai’s shores. They came by ship, one after another, heeding the trunk calls from other relatives in the desert. Come here, life is good here, get a job here. Here was the place to be. Between here and where they were, this was not a difficult choice to make. The Seventies were swinging elsewhere, and leaving India couldn’t have been easier. So they came, as others from India and its neighbors had, without a job, their confidence built on the rickety rumors of better prospects. They came with eight dollars in cargo class (because that is what India allowed them to carry outside) stopped at Karachi a while, and arrived here, unbathed and unshaved, five days later.
On arrival they walked to their new home under a burning sun. Word would spread. Another one had arrived. That evening the clan would converge, happy to have grown in number. I was not there then, but they would have danced, as they always did. Their arms jolting rhythmically and convulsing bodies following, their eyes closed, forefingers up, as if to say ‘bear with this for a minute’; the dance of men who could not groove. Wives and sisters, newly acquainted, sat on carpets with the air conditioning turned up, and talked about things the men had no time for.
Photographs show them before the wrinkles appeared, before the desert took its due. They look beautiful in their saris and pants, with the lady from Bombay in her short hair, and the new entrant from Indore in plaits, her eyes wide open. In hindsight, those years were lean but uncomplicated. Decades later, when they finally had the money they wanted, the simplicity would be gone.
For all it signifies, Dubai remains a small city. Along the way, its planners were galvanized by the idea of a greater destiny. The first attempts at greatness were classical: the world’s longest cake, the world’s biggest clock. Sharjah, the emirate next door, had the world’s third-largest fountain. These were diligently reported in the Khaleej Times, our local paper. Supportive letters were sent to the editor. Relatives gathered every week to discuss these achievements in earnestness. If anyone missed these drunken meetings, as an uncle who ran a photo store did, he would be heckled by the mob. “Note-chaap,” they would say to his face. Money-printer. And then rib his sons who had stayed behind.
Every now and then, a cousin would down a few drinks and claim to have seen the blueprint for Dubai’s growth. It involved breathtaking road layouts and supreme architecture. It was a great conversation stopper. For a moment the family would pause to consider how plausible this was. It was entirely plausible. Only fifteen years ago there had been nothing here but houses in the sand and a creek. Now there were malls and central air conditioning. Even then, it was implausible. The idiot had drunk too much. They would continue discussions over Amstel and Planters cheese balls. It was not a place or a time for introspection. One arbitrary ruling by the royal family, would have meant we’d be back in Indore. So the future, for many people, was of course filled with unknowns, but it held no promise, only the dread of tomorrow. They otherwise earned and lived well, better than they would have elsewhere, but many of them lived from day to day.
The cousin would not tell us how he knew. You only need to see a picture of modern Dubai to know he was right. There will be trains in the sky, it will be a city of skyscrapers and huge attractions and ten million visitors each year. You could see pictures of the same place, year by year from 1972, and understand that this advance was inevitable. But in 1990, which falls halfway between 1972 and 2007, we had simply no idea. Dubai was Dubai, it stood for nothing else. People made money there, but that was all. It would be a decade before it was compared with Monaco, giant islands were built off shore, and the Burj shone like a jewel in the Dubai skyline. But I missed this breathless growth. In 1996 I left to start my own life.
Breathless activity has its downsides. Where I used to live is now unsympathetically called old Dubai. Twenty years old and it’s known as old Dubai. The beating heart of the city has shifted twenty kilometers outward, and so planned was the approach that for a while the city had a downtown filled with cranes and construction workers and not a finished building in sight. Before modern Dubai, a place like it existed only in Sim City 2000.
But downtown came later. This was a quiet town once, before the desert was swept back. At the time, a single low aerial snap could capture every building in town. A creek slunk through its center, splitting the population in two; Deira with its electronics stores on one side, and Bur Dubai’s south Asian textile shops on the other. The place couldn’t have been closer to heaven for immigrants from India, of whom there were multitudes. They lived a life radically different from anything their own countries could afford. Dubai offered wealth and familiar food and entertainment. Of course rules had to be followed, the first among them being unofficial - that the Arab always took preference over all else. It was a wisdom that held true, as people learnt from the unfortunate experiences of others. Deportations and jail terms were common. But such were the benefits of staying in line and keeping your head down that the city, at least as the papers reported it, experienced virtually no incident or crime.
Back home in India, people argued that they lived in a democracy. In Hindi movies the term ‘Dubai-return’ was coined to describe a peculiar comically stylish breed of sunglass-wearing Indian. The city came to be renowned as the den of smugglers and thieves whose motive was to destabilize India. Those were naïve times, although the truth is that the Indians who stayed behind lived an unforgiving life. There was violence and corruption and taxes and an uncooperative bureaucratic regime and a list of wrongs as lengthy as history.
The view in Dubai was of course different. To them, the freedoms of an authoritarian country were not as taxing as those of the democracy left behind. Naturally dissent was unacceptable, but they were here for work and the good life, not trouble. It did not matter whether internationally wanted men moved among them for the city was content and promised lasting peace. And peace was kept, despite the immigrant population consisting largely of Indians and Pakistanis afflicted by Partition’s festering wounds. Their recent history had brimmed with injustices that often boiled over into wars, but the immigrants here had long ago decided that nationalism did not buy a new car. Besides, Dubai offered only one chance.
They took that chance to build businesses that thrived for decades. Movie theaters and drive-ins, jewelry stores, supermarkets, photo studios, music stores, restaurants – the small businesses sprouted everywhere, making it like a sanitized version of home. This happened by strength in numbers. The photo studio I sat at was bracketed by an Indian fast food restaurant and a tailoring shop – one run by a sikh, the other by a South Indian. Down the street small and identical music stores did business, and flourished. Which was befuddling, because everyone sold the same video and audio cassettes. Indian textiles flooded the market. Hindi was adopted by Arabs, and they spoke a broken version of it: “Ek minute. Hum aati.” The Indian hand was everywhere. And so, given the evidence of their culture flourishing, each day convinced the immigrants further that the land was their own, even if they couldn’t buy it.
Perhaps they overestimated their supposed stake, because one morning the exodus began. The day’s papers mentioned a new ruling that forced workers below a certain income to leave Dubai immediately. As days went by the reports of departures nurtured an old insecurity. Our family meetings were more politically inclined. ‘Who knows what they’ll come up with next?’ some would ask in anger. It was true. Rulings came with no prior warning, and had a nasty way of forcing upheaval upon large swathes of the population. The children, my cousins, who had so far been unaware of the impact of new legislation, were now old enough to latch on to catchphrases. “Who knows what they’ll come up with next,” a cousin parroted and was immediately shushed up. My parents would wait until the last guest had left before holding me to never repeat conversations at home. The reigning Indian policy of no confrontation had worked for them, and they wished for us too to become invisible in some ways. The local populace, we understood, had to be respected and feared. An Arab was always - always - connected to someone who could alter the course of your life. Proof of this was not required. When enough people speak about a thing, it becomes true. Dubai was not the kind of place where you learnt from your own mistakes.
The theory of cooperation and respect was tested during the first Gulf War, when the city swarmed with marines. I’d spend time with my uncle at his photo studio in Bur Dubai where a cash register swallowed green bills with a frequency unimaginable to us. The volume of work had overwhelmed the small staff. He needed an extra hand. I’d help with feeding the negative into the processor, cutting it in to strips and slipping them into plastic sheaths. Then the photos would come out of the machine, one every half minute or so, with these alien white faces doing strange things. They were big and had blond hair and freckles. They dressed differently, and wore shirts untucked. Sometimes they were bare-chested. Sometimes the women wore almost nothing. My uncle would look at every picture, replacing bad prints with a reprint, not stopping to linger on any one a little longer. He betrayed no curiosity. Racy pictures were destined, like all others, for a drawer under the register filled with envelopes marked for customers. I think back now, remembering his glasses perched half-way up his broad nose under his thick Sindhi eyebrows, skipping through these prints quickly. The faster he did this, the more he earned.
Ever so often a local walked in to the crowded shop. Experience had taught them that Arabs will get attention, so nothing need be said or demanded. My uncle stopped what he was doing and would speak with him directly, bypassing the customers who arrived before. The others waited testily, but said nothing. Americans looked at things differently.