I was born and raised in Dubai. I have spent 24 of my 28 years in the Middle East. Growing up in the Middle East was great.
We lived in a flat in a high rise like most expat families. The thing about the Middle East, especially in primarily expat cities, is it is planned around utility alone. There are plenty of wide roads and highways to handle the crazy amount of vehicles on the road, lots of high rise buildings with as many flats as you can squeeze into them, arranged one next to the other, and because of the oppressive heat, the city doesn’t expect you to want to walk about, go for a run or cycle, so it has no infrastructure for pedestrians.
So growing up, we did all our running around and playing in the building. We had long corridors where we would play, run and scream. When a neighbor from one floor would complain, we’d just go to the next floor and continue playing.
If you had access to your building’s terrace, or any terrace for that matter, it was as good as having your own place with no parental supervision. Terraces were somehow the place to hangout and I had access to mine! We’ve had slumber parties and picnics there, watched the endless stream of traffic on the highway from up there and climbed onto the billboard on the roof and felt like we were on top of the world.
If you want to be at all mobile in the Middle East, you need a vehicle. This holds true till this day. Like I said earlier, because the roads weren’t pedestrian friendly and the heat was unbearable, it wasn’t easy to get to places on foot. Unless you wanted your mom or dad dropping you off places and asking too many questions, you were left with the option of either taking a taxi, which was way too expensive, or riding a cycle. Sometimes, there wasn’t any footpath to cycle on, so we’d cycle on the main road, against oncoming traffic. Being able to cycle around gave us an incredible sense of independence.
However, this luxury ended when my best friend got hit by a van and got her chin split open. She was OK, but our cycles weren’t. Our dads gave them away the very next day.
Schooling was a pretty standard deal. I went to an Indian school where, like most other schools in the region, the girls attended school in the morning and the boys aged 9 and older attended school in the evening. Yes! This system existed! Any interaction with the opposite sex was kept to a bare minimum. We didn’t even have any male teachers.
The last hour of school, when the girls would prepare to leave and the boys would start arriving to school, was the golden hour. Every eye would be out the window, any excuse to get out of class would be used, just to spot the rare male species.
Arabic was compulsory to learn from the first grade until the twelfth grade. Our Arabic teacher, Zakhiya abla, (‘abla‘ is ‘teacher’ in Arabic) was a work of art. She would storm into class with a look of utter disgust. We would jump out of our seats and wish her ‘As-salamu alaykum abla!!’ (Peace be upon you teacher). ‘Wa-alaykumu salam. Juloos!!‘ (Peace to you too. Sit down) she would yell back. The first five terrifying minutes would consist of her seated at her desk, staring at us, almost daring us to speak or make a sound. We didn’t dare make eye contact, in fear that if your face didn’t please her that day, you would be her target. While she eagle-eyed us, she’d pull out 2 long black gloves from her bag and slowly and menacingly put them on. I always wondered why she needed gloves during class. Surely she didn’t want to leave any prints for when she killed one of us for talking in class. In retrospect, she probably didn’t want chalk dust on her hands. Thanks to all those terrifying Arabic classes, today I can read and write Arabic. But I cant speak or understand it. Therefore, utterly useless. Thanks abla.
Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims fast, was our favorite month. In the Middle East, everything slows down during the month of Ramadan. Most companies work shorter hours, all restaurants, malls and cafes are closed during the day. The law forbids anyone to eat, drink, smoke or chew gum in public, whether you are out on the road or in the office. This is a way for people to be courteous towards those who are fasting. You are free to eat in a pantry or in privacy. Most people who fast don’t mind in the least if you eat or drink around them. The fasting begins at dawn and lasts till dusk. Those who fast go without food or water for over 12 hours. In school, Ramadan meant half-day school for an entire month. School lasted 4 hours and it opened up hours of free time.
School picnics were always water theme parks or desert safari! For the uninitiated, desert safari is a typical Middle East outing. There is dune bashing, where you pile into a huge Land Cruiser and a hopefully experienced driver zips up and down sand dunes as you and your friends rattle around the vehicle like beads in a bongo. There are camel rides on pretty camels all dressed up. The highlight is the belly dancer- this mystical creature with her perfect body, wearing almost nothing and moving her hips perfectly to the music. There usually is a magician, henna tattoo artists and a lot of dancing and partying.
It was the advent of mall culture. They were springing up everywhere and it was the ideal teen hang out. I wasn’t allowed to go to malls with friends at first because my dad, rightly so, had a feeling that kids hanging around in malls were up to no good. That didn’t stop me from going of course! If not malls, sheesha (hukkah) parlours, arcades or snooker clubs were the popular spots. We’ve spent hours playing endless games of cards and smoking sheesha. Today, sheesha is illegal for under 18’s. It was illegal then too, just that no one cared.
The best spots were the ones no one knew about, or so we thought. Terraces, the corniche, back of construction trucks and helipads. Helipads were commonly found on top of especially tall residential buildings. No helicopter has ever landed on one of them. My friend’s building had one and a bunch of us used to chill on it often. That is until one night, the watchman caught us in the midst of a very embarrassing dance routine. We never returned. I think my friend moved.
The cops were very friendly and helpful. If they found a bunch of young people out of their way, they’d stop to find out if we were OK or needed help. I remember one cop who stopped to help my mom and me and started speaking to us in broken Hindi.
I didn’t feel too far away from my culture, or what I knew of it, growing up in the Middle East. Having gone to an Indian school with Indian friends, plenty of Indian restaurants and movies and music, it had made me as Indian as it gets.
It mustn’t be easy for parents to raise kids in the Middle East. I have witnessed my dad’s transformation from fighting all the perks the region offered him to completely embracing the lifestyle he worked so hard to get us.
At first, my dad fought anything that challenged his sense of familiarity including the lifestyle he had worked hard to get his family and didn’t have himself growing up. It was almost as if he felt guilty for what he had. He worried that his kids would grow up knowing nothing about their culture and become spoilt because of all the perks we were being exposed to. It was a constant battle for him. He wanted the best for his kids and family when it came to our home, our school, our education. But at the same time, he was worried about the independent, strong headed and opinionated person I was becoming because of all that he had given me.
Over the years, he got accustomed to it and mellowed down. It’s sad and sweet and makes me feel guilty for how easy my life turned out, thanks to my parents. I suppose every parent wants better than they had themselves for their children.
My parents’ answer to getting us in touch with our culture was taking us on a month long culture shock ‘vacation’ to India. Not to one of the many cities in India, but to our family home in the village we’re from. Back when I had to do it, it was tough. Insects I did not know existed visited daily, it was eerily quiet at night and there wasn’t anything I recognized on TV. It was all a bit unfamiliar and scary. Looking back, these were some of the best experiences of my childhood and the only source to know more about where I came from.
As an expat kid, the rules were clearly set by Dad. The first rule- you are in their country, so respect them. You wouldn’t let anyone mess with you in your own country, so don’t mess with them in theirs. The second rule- this is where you are but not where you’re from. The third rule- never discuss their politics. It’s none of your business and you don’t need to have an opinion about it, let alone voice one.
I had a few epiphanies the first time I left Dubai and moved away. I lived in Bangalore, India for 3 years for my undergrad then moved to Leeds, UK for my masters.
The first thing that hit me was the freedom. Not because I was living alone for the first time, but because I was in a country where I could wear what I wanted, do what I wanted and say what I wanted without risking serious consequences like jail or deportation! It wasn’t something I actively thought about when I lived in Dubai but it became a constant realization when I was away.
I understand the concept of behaving a certain way depending on which part of the world you are in. It’s a way to respect the local culture, feel welcome in the city and feel comfortable. Walking around in a sari in a beach shack in Greece is going to give me as many stares as wearing tiny shorts in a mall in the Middle East. That global understanding and respect for the world and it’s ways is what makes our generation different.
Nevertheless, that feeling of freedom was great. What I had to give up in return for this new found freedom was the sense of safety that I took for granted. Living in a small Middle Eastern country like U.A.E or Qatar, where the bio-metrics and every detail of every individual residing in the country is recorded in the system, crime wasn’t something we had to deal with or think about. Once I got out, I was no longer living in a sheltered bubble.
So, what are the lasting effects of growing up in the Middle East? I think I have a lot more understanding, respect and, for lack of a better word, tolerance, for the culture and the things you can, and more importantly, can’t do here compared to the expats who have just got here. I know people who are so affected by the restrictions they feel in the region that they are overpowered by it. I’m OK with it as long as I travel a few times a year and experience the other side. It maybe because I’m so used to the way of life here that this is my normal. Any additional freedom is just a bonus. This region has made me a tolerant person who is a tad bit over concerned about offending the people around her.
I’ve learnt a few tricks for expat-ing successfully from my dad who spent 35 years in the region. Why are you here? What will you do with the money? How long will you be here? What is your exit strategy? What is your contingency plan in case of a sudden exodus? If you can answer all these questions confidently, you are good. Sit back and enjoy that tax free income.
The downside? I don’t know where ‘home’ is. Home used to be the apartment I grew up in for 16 years in U.A.E. But once my parents retired and moved back to India, that home was gone forever, just a notion in my head. When I left U.A.E, I had to get my residence permit cancelled. When I saw the big red ‘cancelled’ in my passport, it broke my heart a little. I was born here, my passport will always say ‘Dubai’ under city of birth, but now I need a visa like anyone else to enter the country I was born in. It doesn’t recognize me.
Living here is a give and take. It gives you tax free income, proximity to more than two thirds of the world by an 8 hour flight, good schools, good health care, an easy life and a great lifestyle. In return, just play nice.