Growing Pains: DUBAI



by Ashiq Rahiman

My father, Mohammed Abdul Rahiman Nalakath Karukathil, is an aviation engineer and has spent more time working at a single company than I’ve been alive. In October 1982, he moved to a relatively quiet city and began working at a fledgling airline company. Today, Emirates Airline is counted among the best airlines in the world, and I often use the growth of the company as a metaphor while explaining the growth of Dubai. Recently, Emirates featured Jennifer Aniston in a rather corny commercial that captures the essence of traveling in luxury. My personal sentiments aside, this strange fact conveniently serves as a metaphor for the current state of affairs in Dubai.

Most people who live and work in Dubai (and in the United Arab Emirates) are citizens of other countries. There are more Indian citizens here than people of any other nationality. Therefore, most schools are affiliated with and teach from foreign syllabuses, and there are more Indian schools than any other kind of school. I attended one of the most expensive Indian schools and grew up interacting with kids whose parents grew up in several different states in India. Unlike most of them, however, I was raised in a suburban house and in an oddly diverse neighborhood. My neighbors spanned the globe in terms of national origin. Consequently, I grew up at the rare intersection of many of Dubai’s most visible and influential populations.

In 2007, I left home for colder winters. On August 15, as India brought in its 60th Independence Day, I quietly celebrated some small interruption of my own. I began life as an international student in the United States, too many miles away from everything I’d known. One of the first changes I felt moved to make came during my very first week of college i.e. I began to claim Dubai as my hometown.

To the untrained eye, Indians may all look the same. However, once you’ve spent enough time in the field, it’s not hard to spot an Indian anywhere in the diaspora and successfully guess where in India their roots may be. In Dubai, if it’s mutually understood that all parties in a conversation are Indian, people will name their native state in India when answering the question “where are you from?” I imagine most other expatriates also do something similar within their respective national groups. So, my response to that question is either “India” or “Kerala”. In the United States, I started saying “Dubai” instead.

In my first few years of college, I wasn’t hesitant to tell anyone I was from Dubai. Most folks I met didn’t know where it was; and I had fun exploring different ways of explaining what it was like growing up in a place where I’m no longer welcome unless I’ve secured a job offer or a tourist visa in advance. Nearly ten years later, far more people are aware of where Dubai is. For many reasons, Dubai has entered the purview of the general US American public in a significant way. It comes as no surprise that just a little more international recognition has made conversations about home less than enjoyable for me.

Many people who live in other countries sincerely believe that everyone in the United States is happy, handsome and wealthy. People everywhere have begun to believe that about Dubai, but that false notion is driven by something insidious. There is a widespread belief that Dubai’s dangerously rapid industrialization wouldn’t have occurred without an expendable migrant labor force, comprised almost exclusively by young men from the Indian Subcontinent. This belief has been updated to include underpaid and otherwise mistreated women who care for the children of the rich. These women tend to be from the same region, but also hail from countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Ethiopia. You may encounter this belief in a Human Rights Watch report, a BBC article, or even a Vice documentary.  Edward Said would call it Orientalist; I call it lazy.

This seems to be the only topic some people want to explore when I begrudgingly divulge that I grew up in Dubai. These people also seem convinced that they are somehow more enlightened; perhaps it is an attempt to come across educated. At any rate, I made a decision years ago that unless someone approaches me with respect and some fundamental understanding of human history, I would not discuss politics with them. Lately, I’ve been forced to extend the same policy to people who ask me about Dubai.

I’m not thrilled that I have no legal rights in the city I know best, the place where I was born and brought up; but I also understand that citizenship is not a guaranteed birthright in most other countries. We do struggle with archaic immigration and labor regulations; but I also understand that most cities that have undergone a comparable level of expansion have also had to work through the same issues. To pretend or presume that literally every other metropolis hasn’t had a more or less identical story is ridiculous; and to imply that capitalism under Arab rule is more wicked than capitalism under White supremacy is even more ridiculous.

Life as an immigrant in the United States has helped me reconcile some of the realities of my life in the United Arab Emirates as an expatriate. Dubai is my city. My father was fixing airplanes before Emirates Airline had hangars. He found a way to brave countless hours in the blazing sun (40° C/105° F) so he could give his children an upbringing better than his own. He did that with no complaint. My mother was learning conversational English from watching Bold and the Beautiful. She found a way to adapt through my intersectional childhood, even when multicultural settings brought nastiness, anxiety and unpleasant experiences. She did that with no help. My parents will be returning to a house in India soon; and they’ve earned the right for me to tell my city’s story as it should be told.

Dubai and I grew up together. Just as I’d tell a new friend about an old friend, I’d be happy to show someone around the city; but if you refuse to see Dubai through a more sophisticated lens, then I’ll just drop you off at the expensive restaurants and all the other tourist traps you’ve seen on Instagram. If you seek an authentic experience, every meal we have will be under $10 and you will have the time of your life.