To explain how the Gulf countries behave like bad boyfriends to millions of Malayalis, there are three disclaimers we should first cover.
One: The Bad Boyfriend metaphor refers to behaviour we’ve seen in pop culture in the past. It’s not an observation, much less an endorsement, of what relationships are or should be like today.
Two: In this metaphor, every Malayali, female and male, is the girlfriend of the story.
Three: None of this might be relevant to you personally, but I believe countless other Malayalis will relate.
People like me who were born in the Gulf in the 90s first noticed The Boyfriend when we were in school. The Boyfriend was cool. Literally, there was an air conditioner everywhere, because He was just so considerate about our well-being in the desert. Like with most high school relationships, the object of our affection was made more appealing once we compared Him with the alternatives.
The Boyfriend didn’t let us suffer from mosquitoes or the heat like when we went to our parent’s hometowns. The Boyfriend offered us Omani Chips and creamy Al Marai milk when we were tired after school. The Boyfriend didn’t bore us with Doordarshan because we had MBC and Dubai One to watch. Some said Doordarshan was excellent, but we never really stuck around to find out for ourselves.
As we grew up, our love affair seemed to deepen. Once we finished middle and high school, The Boyfriend seemed to grow up and become even cooler. Instead of football in the park in the evening, we were invited to shisha parlours in the city at night. We had our first Marlboro, our first Lebanese shawarma, and our first Karak chai.
We were in love.
And like all love affairs, distance only served to cement the bond.
When our parents pushed us to study in India, we cried for countless nights, missing the comforts that our amazing Boyfriend had always offered. Instead of toasted chicken sandwiches with just enough mayonnaise, we had to make cup noodles while we studied for our exams.
The reunions were so joyful! The Boyfriend embraced us and took us all around town when we visited during college holidays. We gorged ourselves on Mcdonald’s double cheeseburgers and Karak chai and caramel popcorn from the Mall’s theatre. We inhaled the shisha smoke deep into our lungs and took sips of piping hot Suleimani tea as we cherished our time back with our clean, cool, quiet, safe, fun Boyfriend.
We started talking about perhaps planning for the future. What would we do once we’d finished our education? Why, what better path than making things more permanent with The Boyfriend? The Boyfriend who saw you get your license for the first time would surely love to see you buy your first car. He who expanded your horizons from the neighbourhood park to the city’s corniche to the sand dunes on the outskirts….what new adventures would he take you on?
You found out soon enough. Fresh from college, back in your childhood hometown, ready to build a new future with The Boyfriend, you quickly realized He was giving you the cold shoulder.
You had good grades, you had a formal education. But why was it so tough to find a job? The Boyfriend bristled and asked you if you knew anyone “connected”. You were perplexed for a minute. Connected? Weren’t you connected, to this whole country, since your birth?
But that wasn’t enough. For the first time, you started to wonder if The Boyfriend was treating you differently. Did He…was He judging you because of your skin? Because you were Indian or “Hind” as you’d heard him whisper, and he was Arab?
Surely, there couldn’t possibly be a divide between two lovers who grew up together? Companions who went from running through the local baqala (grocery shop for your friends in India) to strolling through the brand new Lulu hypermarket. You poured so many pocketed one and five riyal notes into his hands, to buy all the foods that you’d grown unable to live without. Surely, such a lover wouldn’t be so…so superficial?
If there was any doubt remaining, it was squashed by the thin weight of your first paycheck. What you were earning was good enough for someone starting out in the country, your family and friends assured you. But you’d already seen how your Boyfriend was rewarding others in the office. He was flattered by the British man, who’d arrived just six months ago but earned four times what you did. And never stayed late in the office like you.
Then it was a series of heartbreaks, big and small, that slowly confirmed the worst.
The Boyfriend wasn’t treating you well. At all. He screamed at you when you fumbled for a bit in traffic, He made you run through hoops to sort out some paperwork. He wanted to know when and for how long you’d be going away, and you had to check back often or else the relationship was over.
For someone who was so possessive, why was He so adamant he didn’t want you around? As a child, He eagerly invited you to the new Mall’s opening. Now, He doesn’t think you should enter with your single friends.
He was no longer fun-loving. Or perhaps, you outgrew the kind of fun He was willing to offer. As a college kid, you loved hanging out with Him, going on long drives, and staying out late. But now…when you want to have a few drinks, He sets down rules. You can’t drink on your own. You can’t buy booze unless you earn a high enough salary. You can drink from a bar he’s chosen, but then you’d probably not be able to afford another one.
Slowly you realize the years are passing and the relationship is stifling you. You’ve grown fat and tired from working long nights and overtime without pay, and then having to order food from outside and forgo the gym. Yet you haven’t saved much, because the rent has increased and so have the expenses.
The Boyfriend doesn’t seem to care. You hear that he could lower your rent if He wanted to, but He won’t. His friends are making a huge profit, and that’s going to continue.
Your bills keep piling up, and the more you run behind in your work, the more speeding fines you seem to accrue. Yet it’s your Arab and Western neighbours whose cars keep getting bigger.
Some of your friends start talking about how they are tired of their relationships. They’re thinking of leaving their Boyfriend. They’ve been told they deserve better, and moving abroad is the solution.
You can’t fathom that. Not after being born and raised in the desert heat, face cooled by air conditioning, tongue-savouring dates and Masafi water, feet running through hot sand. You don’t want to leave the place that made you who you are. The Boyfriend who you fell in love with.
Then one of several things happens.
You get fired from your job or decide to quit because the pay is terrible. The Boyfriend doesn’t lift a finger. Even when he knows your visa is up in a few weeks, he stays indifferent. He could very well have offered you a place to stay. Instead, He stays quiet.
You’re left to mourn as you drive around the city you love one last time. You have your favourite shawarma and one last cup of Karak tea.
Or…you start falling for Another Guy.
He’s different. You’ve heard a lot about him. You’ve heard how He offers a better lifestyle, how He’ll make sure you won’t have to work overtime the whole week. He actually cares about your work-life balance! Best of all, He’s willing to commit. To a longer, more permanent relationship. Why…He might even make things official with you in a few years!
You start contemplating leaving The Boyfriend. Would He miss you as much as you’d miss him? Would you be happy elsewhere?
Then you see how He’s already moved on. He’s making a lot more money now after being in a bit of a tight spot. He’s courting many other people. Many other Malayalis.
A couple of years later, you return to the Gulf. To see how your Ex-Boyfriend is doing. It feels bittersweet. He’s changed a lot. He’s obviously been doing well. A lot of the old spots have gone. He’s built a lot of fancy new buildings.
You meet someone who’s currently dating Him.
They tell you how they’re happy. You wonder if they really are. Or rather, when that happiness would crumble.
You wonder if you should warn them. To leave The Boyfriend. You wonder if you should tell them all the hurt and loss you’ve felt. How The Boyfriend only cares about making more money, building more buildings, and attracting more attention from others. No matter how much you love Him, He’ll always pay more attention to people who speak Arabic or those who look white.
Instead, you decide to return from the Gulf. To your Fiance. One, who in just a few years’ time has showered you with more love than your Ex-Boyfriend ever did. One who is getting ready to marry you.
You’ve made your peace with the fact that you were never meant to grow old in the desert. You’re glad you made that realization before it was too late.