My Scattered Soul, Part 4: Dubai

When people ask me where I’m from, I have a hard time answering.  I hear people around me passionately defending their hometowns during never-ending Islamabad vs Lahore vs Karachi debates, and I can’t really participate because I’m not from any of those cities.  I never lived in Pakistan prior to LUMS; I grew up in Toronto but even with a blue passport and remnants of a Canadian accent, I’m not quite from there either.  It has, after all, been nearly a decade since I left Toronto. As for Dubai, I’ve always treated it as a stopover of sorts, not wanting to reveal it’s where I’ve lived most recently, unnecessarily adding in a little tidbit that its simply where my family resides.

Lately, though, I’ve started to really wonder about that.  I have to head back to Dubai after graduation in a few months and, even if it was, in my mind, simply just a place where my family lives, it will now be a place where I live as well.  I went to high-school there, suffered through the various stages of teenage angst in the sandy city, rolled down sand-dunes the same way I tobogganed down a snowy hill, rebelled and tested boundaries and made a whole bunch of startlingly diverse friends in the 5 years I spent there.  Surely, that makes Dubai a little more than just a stopover?

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Articles about the monstrosity of Dubai are a dime a dozen; from UK’s Guardian to Pakistan’s Tribune newspapers, there have been features about the lack of soul in Dubai.  It’s known as an oil-funded Las Vegas on steroids; a wasteland of a city whose main attractions are not its history or its people but its tall, shiny buildings and ‘world’s largest’ everything.  Google ‘dubai’ and the images that come up are all of a metallic haven of spires and palm-tree shaped islands. But does the fact that everything about the city has something to do with pushing boundaries necessarily a bad thing?

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Think about it: Dubai is a city where you can ski in the middle of the desert and go to the beach in the same day and on a desert safari later that night, audition to be Paris Hilton’s new best friend, shop at any time because there is always a mall around the corner, see every top DJ/band/artist live more than just a few times a year, go sand-surfing and miss school when it rains, earn without having to pay taxes, etc.  The mere wonder of these things gives the city a diversity that it is so often criticized for not having.

But then, there’s a flip side as well.  And this is one that I feel quite passionately about: the attitude that all this opulence imbibes in Dubai’s people.  You meet a range of people of various ethnic backgrounds, and as great as that is, it bears no reflection of the fact that Dubai’s own locals, the Emiratis, are generally known to be rude, arrogant and above and beyond the law.  Some of them are genuinely nice and down-to-earth people, but the majority, those who we read about in news articles regarding car accidents and speeding instances, that majority is the one that vexes me to no end.  Their regard for the law is non-existent, and no fine or penalty will ever be high enough because of the wealth they have at their disposal to use as pay-offs.

Just another Lamborghini. A comment from the blog where I got this pic from: "I know the person who was driving the car. Nothing happened to him. They have many other expensive cars…"

This assurance that nothing can ever happen to them translates into an ugly arrogance: they go by without ever really studying or working as hard as any others because they’ll never get kicked out or fired simply because of their nationality.  Because their father or uncle or cousin owns the city.  Of course, I;m just making a broad generalization here that in no way reflects how ALL locals are, but this is the general dominant viewpoint of them.  It just doesn’t gel with me, this devil-may-care attitude that translates into other people being treated unfairly.  Dubai may be the city of wonder, but it’s also the city where most people don’t clean up after themselves because they’ve got a maid to do it for them.  Yes, I had one of those too.  It spoils you, this city.

I don’t want to simply resign myself to the fact that I HAVE to move back to Dubai and I HAVE to work there.  Most people would be overjoyed at such an opportunity, but my excitement level hasn’t really reached that height yet.  People stare at me wide-eyed and ask “You came to PAKISTAN from Dubai?? WHY?” and my answer’s usually the same: Dubai’s a great place to visit, but for living, not so much. But I’ve realized this dual nature of the city, its charm and arrogance both, is what, I suppose, really makes it whole.  Because, really, what city, or person, or even thing, is entirely good or entirely bad?  We all have a flip side.

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My Scattered Soul, Part 3

I think I was about 10 years old, in grade 5. It was a weekday, and I hadn’t gone to school because I’d been down with a fever the night before. I don’t remember it being cold, so it wasn’t winter. Perhaps Fall or Spring, I’m not sure. I wish I could remember it all.

There was no one home except for Bhai. Mom was at work, sister at school. I can’t remember why exactly he was home, it might have had something to do with skipping college or being down in the dumps after a rough break-up.

We lived at the intersection of Hurontario and Burnamthorpe, minutes away from Square One, a sprawling mall which I’d only gone to with my mother and sister to buy groceries and house-hold things.

Out of the blue, Bhai asked if I was hungry. Of course I was, at that age and weight, I was ALWAYS hungry. He suggested we go to Burger King, which was inside Square One. My eyes had lit up at the thought and I became really excited. Fever forgotten, I quickly got ready and as we were leaving the apartment, Bhai asked how I want to go there. Should we take the bus or walk?

I remember feeling very grown-up at just being asked for my opinion on this. I also remember very very clearly that I pretended to think about it for a moment as we rode down in the elevator together, and making up my mind, I said, in the most grown-up way I could imagine, “I would raaaaather walk.”

We’d been reading something in school that had the word ‘rather’ in it and I loved how it sounded. I remember Bhai looking very amused at me using the word, and he replied “Well, okay since you’d ‘raaaaather’ walk then let’s walk!”

We walked to the mall, and at the intersection, he held my hand and told me very sternly to ALWAYS remember to look both left and right before crossing the road. I’d nodded seriously and to this day, I always look both left and right before crossing.

At Burger King, Bhai surprised my by getting me my own Combo Meal. This was another new and grown-up experience. With Mom and sis, I had always ended up sharing a burger, and being told how to hold it so that the condiments don’t fall out, and then being scolded after getting ketchup on my shirt. Not this time, though.

I sat there, happily chewing on my very own burger that I didn’t have to share. We didn’t make much conversation, I think I must have told him a story or two about school and he had probably made fun of me somehow but it was generally a happy time. We sat in companionable silence, and I felt amazed that he was treating me like an equal.

On the way back home, we sang songs. Or rather, he sang songs and I listened, trying to hum along to whatever Junoon or Vital Signs track it was. At that age, it all sounded the same to me.

I fell into deep sleep, right after reaching back home. It had been a happy day and I remember always trying to skip school again whenever I knew Bhai would be home. I have always wanted to re-create that blissful afternoon.

My Scattered Soul, Part 2

I lived in Toronto, Canada for 7 years; it’s where I grew up. When I think of my childhood, it’s that phase of time that immediately comes to mind. We lived in Mississauga, in a sky-high building that was just a 5-minute walk away from Square 1. I really loved that apartment, it had 2 compact bedrooms, a narrow hallway, a solarium which we turned into a 3rd pseudo-bedroom, a storage room for all the odds and ends that gathered over time and a cute little kitchen that had a heater on which we used to dry our wet socks after they got soaked with snow.

From the 18th floor, everything looks different. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to look out the window, I would look up at the moon and then down at the roads, where Hurontario and Burnamthorpe intersected, and it always seemed as if I was much closer to the sky than to the ground. I would feel as if I could easily reach out and touch the moon, but to try and get near to the minute little twinkling cars which were so, so far down seemed like an impossibility.

During snowstorms, the tennis courts would transform overnight. Previously green and flat, its ground would become covered with high and lumpy snow. I always remember wanting to go down and walk across the fresh snow, before the mowers could clear it away, wanting to place my footsteps and leave an imprint before they could be ruthlessly removed. When the snow reached till your knees, there was this unsaid rule that you should step where someone has already stepped before, it was safer that way. But I always wanted to step elsewhere, where there were no footsteps. I knew it could be unsafe, that I could accidentally step on a sheet of black ice that always sneakily developed under the snow, but I loved hearing the sound of the snow crunching under my feet, flattening in defeat.

I miss the snow quite a bit. It was awful walking outside with the bitter wind slapping your face, with the windchill factor going below -30, with the chance that you could fall flat on your back any second as you navigated across the patches of ice, but I never had a problem with the snow. Sure it filled up your boots, soaked your socks, numbed your feet and gave you wrinkled toes, but it was all part of the experience. Having snowball fights, building snow forts to hide from the enemy, wearing snow pants to roll around and make snow angels, going tobogganing down snow-slicked hills; it’s worth bearing the cold for.

My Scattered Soul, Part 1

Little bits of me are scattered all across this world. In essence, I am not really wholly or completely FROM or OF anywhere.

If you’ve read the ‘Who am I?’ sidepanel of the blog, then you should have an idea about the places I’ve lived in. I was born in Riyadh, KSA and I lived there with my family till I was about 6. I have no true memory of this time in my life, I guess I was way too young, so I just have pictures as reminders.

I do remember one thing that seems to befit the extremely orthodox environment of KSA quite well: I must have been 5 years old or so at the time and I was walking in some market with my family. My sister, being 7 years older than me and thus considered a ‘woman’ rather than a child, had to cover her head and she had a scarf on; I remember feeling jealous and left out about this, I wanted a scarf too! My sister walked ahead of me with my mom while I seethed with envy, and she kept adjusting her scarf from the back over and over again even though it was perfectly fine. I had a strong feeling she was just doing it because having this new garment and the responsibility that came with it made her feel important and all grown-up. I kept watching as her arm curved backward around her spine and her fingers reached to tug ever so slightly at the pointed tip of the scarf, and I just could not stand it any more. Without thinking, I skipped ahead, reached up to grab her black lace-edged scarf, and yanked it down triumphantly.

I must have stood there grinning for just about a second before the loud, furious wrath of my mother filled my ears. Had I no idea what I’d done? Was I out of my mind? Why must I behave so childishly? And I hope I knew that I was never going to be taken out to the market ever again! To be honest, I really didn’t understand the significance of what I’d done then; to me, pulling down my sister’s scarf was a gleeful act of mischief. But in the larger scheme of things, it went beyond that. KSA has Mutawwas, or Religious Police, who, at that time (I make this distinction because I have no idea about the current conditions, and simply reading about them does not give me enough right to write about them), roamed around the streets, looking out for anyone who violated the country’s laws and regulations about ‘the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.’ Even now, the topic of how the Religious Police began cracking down on people in the streets of Riyadh is one that often comes up in my household. One of their duties was to make sure everyone followed the religiously approved dress code, and this included checking to see if all women had their heads completely covered. By pulling down my sister’s scarf, I basically made her a prime target for the Mutawwas, and this was pretty serious stuff. I don’t know what could have happened if she’d been seen by them for the time that her head was left uncovered, but thankfully that lasted only about 2 minutes. Flustered, humiliated and very, very irritated by her baby sister, she quickly pulled her black scarf back on, adjusting it so not a single strand of hair was left visible, and then shoved me before joining my mother up ahead once more.

I still think I had the upper hand, though. She stopped pulling and trying to fix the scarf again and again after that.

p.s: THIS is how serious the views of the Religious Police are on the matter of women’s propriety and dress code:
“Saudi Arabia’s religious police stopped schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress, according to Saudi newspapers.
In a rare criticism of the kingdom’s powerful “mutaween” police, the Saudi media has accused them of hindering attempts to save 15 girls who died in the fire on Monday.”

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/1874471.stm