Each time I see the soaring skyscrapers of Dubai that cut through the clouds, I instantly go back to being that starry-eyed child who was awed by the glitzy skyline of this beautiful city that I embraced as home. Each time I post a picture of a magnificent sunset at one of its golden sanded beaches on Instagram, without a pause I use the hashtag #mydubai. But today I paused and wondered, Hey Dubai, (or, the Gulf), are you really mine? Actually no, that’s a no-brainer, you will always be mine. Question is, will I ever be yours?
Also Read: When Malayalis Fled From the Gulf in Fear
The Gulf has always been portrayed as a shiny, superficial, and luxurious place and has been the backdrop for a lot of movies in the past. The wondrous 163-storied Burj Khalifa, which is the tallest building in the world, had several minutes of global fame owing to Tom Cruise, in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, effortlessly gliding down 1,700 feet, sending chills down one’s spine. On that note, cut to the scene where Biju Menon in Maribhoomiyile Aana, gets off an exquisite Hummer and opens the backdoor to a pet tiger hopping out. Of course, the Gulf, in particular, Dubai is a place that oozes glitz and glamour with people who spend their weekends being extreme retail freaks by day, brunching it up at grandiose hotels and smoking it up at the Shisha Bar by night. That’s what you think, right?
On the surface, the prospects of being in a country with exotic sites, gorgeous and golden deserts, zero tax, all-year-round sunshine, and a Ministry of Happiness (I know!) that formulates initiatives to spread positivity and mental well-being seems out of this world. But a lot of people fail to realize that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the skin-deep and glossy facade, lies a raw amalgam of layers that unveils itself only when you have spent a considerable amount of time in this country. “So, you might be minting money there, huh? And you don’t even need to pay taxes! How cool is that?”, is something a lot of expats commonly hear. Yes, I am minting money, only to have it fly out of the windows in the form of ridiculously high rents, bills, visa renewal charges, and ever-prying cameras that slap driving fines on me.
This isn’t another one of those Gulf bashing pieces, but I was contemplating some of these aspects ever since I’ve watched the news of late. It feels so heavy to hear about the thousands of long-term residents who are leaving the city because the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on their lives. Loss of livelihood sources hardly leaves you with many choices in the Gulf. This expat exodus we witness daily has all sorts of people – people who concluded that living with a pay cut in this city is infeasible, people who got laid off unexpectedly, women who wanted a safer pregnancy period in the comfort of their homes, wives, and kids who had to part with their main men because staying together just doesn’t seem monetarily plausible anymore.
Apart from the folks who fall in these buckets, there’s a group of people who absolutely dread leaving the city. Because Dubai is all they know! I’m talking about those true blue Gen 2.0 expats by birth. The offsprings of those Gen 1.0 expats who chipped in their blood, sweat and tears to build the city it is today. Those who had quashed their gloom to give the skyscraper city its much sought-after glam! To their kids, Dubai is their first home. The land where they were born, raised and taught to chase their dreams. This is the city where they discovered themselves and made a million memories with friends and family alike. The sad reality is that these kids who’ve been here for the entirety of their lives get so attached to the city that they’re shaken up when the time comes to leave the city. And when does that happen? Once their parents are out of their jobs! Or once these kids have graduated but remain jobless for a period of more than a month! So basically to avoid getting kicked out, either you have age on your favor or a job to fall back on. Like someone once said, living in the Gulf is like balancing a scale. There are a lot of opportunities on one side and then there are factors like age, salary and hardships on the other scale. Once you feel the scale of opportunities being weighed down by the other, you know it is time to say “Au Revoir, my home city!” As much as you know you’re going to miss this place, what’s more overwhelming is the fact that you need to hunt for a new home country (in case, you don’t want to return to India, that is). What hurts is that the concept of giving permanent residency to these kids who were born and raised here remains an alienated idea to this land. You don’t even get citizenship or PR if you live here for three odd decades or so, let alone being that once in a blue moon kid whose mum had a sky birth when the aircraft was flying over the Gulf skies (fluke of the century, but no luck here cuz the whole “baby gaining citizenship based on airspace” happens only in the US! And Canada, maybe?)
Most of these kids have their whole lives rooted in this place and don’t connect or sense a feeling of “belongingness” elsewhere. I’m immensely thankful to my parents for getting me to bond with my actual hometown right from the start of my expat life here. But for a lot of kids, their hometown is just the place they get to spend their yearly summer vacays (not exactly luggage-free though!). And even if they decide to go back to India, won’t they always remain that spoilt kid who grew up on camel milk, wore gold-plated belts and hogged nothing apart from shawarmas, in the minds of those back home?
We, the Gen 2.0 expats, grew up singing Ishi Biladi (the UAE national anthem) at the school assemblies, sipping on Areej juices during break time, catching the good old wooden abra to get across the creek and taking refuge in the golden desert dunes. We held our heads high each time Dubai broke a world record and swore to stay ambitious in our lives and attain superlative titles just like the city does. We embraced the vision of the city as our own and loved it with all our core.
I remember the time one of my friends who’d applied for a PR in the UK came to Dubai for a visit and told me how warm she felt when she was seen off from the UK Emigration saying, “We hope to see you home soon”. I couldn’t but help getting a tad pensive over this. I’ve been a resident of this country for more than two decades, but honestly, I’ve never been told something like that, in all the umpteen number of times I’ve flown out of here. Which gets me back to my original question: #mydubai, why is it that you never called me yours? Was I ever considered one of your people? My brain immediately dismissed the last question, quite sure that every cell of it was unanimously going to yell “NO”. Which is just…well, unfathomable? Yes. Painful? Heck, yes!
If you’re a Gulf Malayali, and would like to get your hands on our “Gelf Malayali” t-shirt, head to the link here.