Ma’a salama: Two years (and 14 days) in Dubai

We are in a club – only this club is in a hotel. I am wearing black eyeliner and dark lipstick and Antonis’ chain hangs from the loops of his jeans. Over two days we see the one group I wanted to see (Lacuna Coil) with another thrown in for good measure (Moonspell) and at least 6 heavy metal bands from the region – from Bahrain, Saudi, Iran and the UAE. At the end, my voice is hoarse from shouting “Forza Cristinaaaaaa!” to the Lacuna Coil front woman and Antonis has answered his pre-move question on whether or not we would find concerts.

We did. We found concerts and art and language and culture, we found people and food and fun. We found the beach, we found the desert and we found hard hard work. We found friendship. And now, it’s time to pack everything up in our memories and get on another plane, for another place.

There are some things we need to get out of the way before I go any further. Like I’ve noted many times in my 20 London Stories, there is no *one* London and that’s true for Dubai too. Like ANY CITY – but possibly more here than most other cities – there are different facets to Dubai, depending on who you are and how you can/ want to live. My experience is that of a professional white heterosexual married woman operating in a privileged immigrant bubble. So there, now that’s out of the way, let’s talk.

You may recall that we moved to Dubai in March 2022 after 20 years in London because my job brought us here – myself, the Knight in Well Travelled Armor and the Lord of Gondolin, Bane of Gothmog, mighty beater of his headboard, conqueror of the slide, aka our child. We left behind a beloved city, a sack of friends and any certainty that our life was what it was. We didn’t think we would stay here forever, we didn’t think we would stay only two years. We came for the job and the adventure but now that a new adventure is about to start I’m compelled to share some of our Dubai stories.

The word that always comes to mind when people ask me about Dubai is “easy” . And it’s not even a “be paid enough and all places are easy”. This is really, honestly, easy to navigate and live in (again, see caveats above blah blah blah). In the whole of the UAE the nationals are a mere 11%, the rest is made up of immigrants (consistently called “expats” here which drives me up the wall). We found ourselves in a multicultural city – even more so than London – with services in English and a high degree of government digitization.

Of the early days I recall us visiting Expo 2020 and being truly amazed with the architecture, the spaces, the operations of the whole event and the heat. The oppressive, immediate heat and humidity. The cars, the other cars and some more cars in the massive, complicated and really well done road network. The beaches, with fine sand and their tepid sea. My visits to an almost empty office – those being the days we had just come out of the pandemic. And the rush to get the visa, find a house, get out of temporary accommodation and start some sort of normal life here.

This concept of the “normal life” is starting to sound a bit ridiculous, especially knowing now that we’ll be boarding a plane again soon to go and do this all over again at the other end of the world (almost). But we tried, in a way that Antonis and I know how, by being curious, and hopefully, we’ve also infected our kid.

When we got here, Philip was just 2 and a half, still a bit of a baby. Two years later he is a little boy, who sings the UAE national anthem at the top of his voice (half in Arabic, half in gibberish but I think it still counts). He wears the Greek national colors at International Day at his school, he insists on wearing a traditional Emirati kandura for UAE national day and when you ask him where he is from he answers “I live in Dubai but I am from London”. His “brother” is Amir – and Amir’s mama is Palestinian and his dad is Lebanese and they gently make fun of my stiff modern standard Arabic and help me with the Levantine versions of the words I know.

It’s true, we found friendship here, some of it through Philip, some of it through work and art. But we also found friendship through my blogging. One of my blogging friends from years and years ago had settled in Dubai – both of us being students back in the day – then meeting with families for the first time in a Dubai Greek restaurant. Throughout our time here they became our constant, the people who helped us answer questions, the ones we celebrated Greek festivals with – cooking for each other, meeting the grandparents, exchanging gossip, supporting each other through the hot and cold(er) days in this city.

I do recall one evening, after dinner with a friend I met in Dubai, wandering alone an underground parking lot attempting to find my car, in full glam and high heels. Desperate (and with my feet hurting) I took a random elevator to a closed mall to find another elevator to go down and eventually locate my car. Any woman alone will understand the blind panic this would have induced – all alone in heels after midnight – and yet it never crossed my mind to be scared – Dubai being the place where we never lock our door, where we leave our expensive phone on a table to claim it, where I left my laptop in a public toilet and went back a couple of hours later to find it exactly where I had left it.

It’s a place that can spoil you – sitting on the 40th floor, smoking a shisha, the December breeze being chillier than you would have assumed. And Dubai does that sort of nightlife exceptionally well – a nightlife that I had desperately missed in London of the ancient clubs and the dirty floors. It is a place that can enrage you – sometimes things happening at an unspecified point in the future – “inshallah”, the salesperson will respond and you’re left wondering if the thing will happen or not. But eventually, “inshallah” makes sense and you learn to move with the rhythm of this place.

There is no place that brings this rhythm home to me than the vastness of the desert, driving around with partially deflated tires in the early hours of the morning, terrified that if your friend was to disappear you would have no idea how to get out. And yet, these people found a home here, for generations, their leaders getting together just a few years ago to agree that being together makes more sense than being apart and creating a new country.

I did travel a bit in the region, going to Saudi Arabia and to Kuwait. I find that the question I get asked the most is how it is being a woman in the Middle East and to be honest I’ve always felt respected and looked out for – knowing full well of course that my fundamental foreignness is a factor. And I notice things, everywhere, courtesy and tradition and family, girls in abayas and flowing fair, women in business achieving amazing status, countries moving at a pace and in ways I don’t understand. So I did what I know how to do, I read and I started learning Arabic, language after all being the best window to culture.

There is something poetic about Arabic, the unifying nature of Classical and Modern Standard, the variety of the colloquial language. The flowing script, the maddening grammar rules and for me, the sense of recognition, many Arabic words having made their way to Greece by way of the Ottoman empire. Kitapi, rahat, mousafiris, nani nani – all of them found in similar versions in my textbooks.

Looking back, these two years in Dubai were a bit different. The first year it was all about discovery, enthusiasm and the battles within our little family as we were negotiating new ways of doing things in a new place. I recall that year with fondness, I remember vividly my sense of wonder at the art, the language, the food and the people. The second year was slightly different, because I made a choice in work that catapulted me in a place of stress and amazement. I started working a lot more, I started sleeping a lot less and Dubai became smaller in my day to day, squeezed into a couple of hours here and there, anxiously trying to live something before diving back into the mountain of exciting and exhausting work. I have no regrets – once again, that work is taking us to a new place, my employer making me an offer that cannot be refused.

– Why are you planning to go to the United States, the official at the Consulate asked me.
– For work, I said.
(But also to see Captain America, I thought, this being one of the positives of the United States that I’ve explained to Philip.)

So yes, California beckons. We became that couple I used to hear about, their jobs sending them to different countries every two or three years, boxing up their belongings and jetting off to a new adventure. We’ll ride this wave for as long as it’s available, we’ll go have a new adventure and learn how to make real mac n cheese and how to celebrate the Fourth of July.

This past Sunday we brought the friends who could make it together in our little garden, the Dubai summer heat having already started, our house half empty because we’ve sold some of the furniture, cataloged the books and the LPs and got rid of the junk that just accumulates when you’re not looking. It was this Sunday that I truly realized we are going, because before that it was a mad rush to get a visa, to sort out the paperwork, to finish a couple of work projects before jumping on to the new ones. This little mix of sadness and enthusiasm hit me – a new adventure beckons and yet we’re leaving so much love behind.

Admittedly, the most difficult decision so far had been to leave London. 20 years in the place we both became adults, where we got married and had Philip, it’s a lifetime we closed the door on. Leaving Dubai has been somewhat easier, different, our roots here being somewhat lesser.

And yet.

And yet……..

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