Leaning on my luggage in front of a tower named Sama, I watched the sky turn dreamy with light. Rising up infinitely behind the mosque and the hospital and the still-sleeping buildings, streaked with pink and wisps of pearly cloud, it seemed to me as sublime a sky as I had ever seen. Deeply aware of my own breathing, I wanted to hold on to that moment, keep it forever in my memory: Abu Dhabi at magic hour, Abu Dhabi at its most secret, Abu Dhabi at its most beautiful. Abu Dhabi that I have known, Abu Dhabi that I will never know.
On the road to the airport that day, I peered through the car windows and gazed around at the city in its first half-stolen moments of waking. The sun, casting a golden mist over all that it touched, flashed through the window at times, sticking white dots in my vision that would disappear with each slow blink of a sleepy eye. The palm trees lining both sides of the long, straight road seemed, in that magical light, to be covered with a fine layer of pure golden dust.
The white minarets of the Grand Mosque rose at first as small, instantly recognizable shapes on the far horizon, but soon—too soon—we were passing them by. I stuck my face to the window, looking backward, and watched until they were completely out of sight. I felt an unnamable loss, one that I often feel, going from city to city and from life to life, always trying to catch one last glimpse of something beautiful.
Questions upon questions in a haze of thought: How would Abu Dhabi look when I returned half a year later? In what ways would it change? In what ways would it stay exactly the same? Moments before I went down to wait for the car to take me to the airport, I had pressed my nose flat against a window on the sixteenth floor of Sama Tower. I had noticed that there were two bulldozers parked in Qasr al Hosn, and the wall that had surrounded it for years and years had been partially opened, and there were now three dhow boats marooned on a wavy sand dune near that opening. And I had marveled at the fact that I had only been gone for one month, yet already the city was changing, becoming unfamiliar to me.
Abu Dhabi is not, and will never be, my true home. Even if I live the rest of my life here, it will never belong to me, and I will never belong to it. Like so many other people living in this strange transitory city, I am just passing through.
Whenever I tell anyone that I study in Abu Dhabi, I can anticipate a variety of reactions, but always there is surprise—and confusion. People wonder why I would ever want to live in such a hot and inhospitable place, so far away from my family and friends and everything I have ever known. New experiences, I answer, with a helpless shrug, as if I’m not the driver of my own body, as if I can’t help but hurtle headlong into whatever I do not know. Sometimes I wonder if my predilection for new experiences has made me a stranger to myself, or who I want to be. I can’t be an expert in anything; I’m a visitor wherever I go.
I am a bird. I am a migratory falcon. A few months ago, I went to see a falconing demonstration at the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. We got lost driving there, a big long bus full of students and faculty who had all signed up to see a most peculiar form of entertainment: a captive predator performing what should be a natural act of survival for a crowd of humans that could never understand it.
When we finally arrived, a white South African falconer invited us to sit on a soft sand dune, then showed us the dead animals that he would later circle around his head on a rope for the falcons to catch in mid-air. An unexpected thrill convulsed my body at the sight of those bloody animals, already stiff yet still dripping with remnants of life. The way of nature.
The falconer explained to us that in the old days, the Bedouins used to catch falcons migrating from the wintry north to the more temperate south, and keep them for a few months, using them to hunt, before releasing them to go their own way again. The story was only a brief note in his introduction, although I can’t recall any of the other topics now.
In this impermanent world of ours, we can’t keep anything forever. Even as paths intersect, so they must someday part or end. This is not sad. It is merely the way of things. That’s what I kept thinking to myself, repeating it over and over. This is not sad. It is merely the way of things. But saying something to myself and actually believing it are two different things. Endings make me sad. Partings make me cry. I can never handle saying goodbye.
The demonstration soon began, snapping me out of my pensive mood. We rose to our feet in unison, oohing and aahing, bringing out our phones and cameras and snapping away. We were all in a frenzy to get a good photo, myself included. Did any of us actually see the falcons fly? Or did we only see a portion of it through our lenses and viewfinders and technological accoutrements?
Upon its release later in the show, one of the falcons flew away, escaping so quickly that it was soon completely out of sight. The falconer had to cut the demonstration short and chase after it, hoping against hope that he could recapture it somehow. Nothing against the falconer, but I wanted it to get away. I wanted it to be free like birds should be, soaring on a thermal high up in the sky.
I fly often too, although I get no joy from it. I fly long distances—fourteen, sixteen hours at a time. What do I do on all those flights, hours of my life being whiled away on nothing? I sleep, mostly, and do not dream. Sometimes it feels as if time doesn’t pass up there, as if we were stuck in a different dimension, far away from any notion of real life.
But then, real life often seems to me more of a dream than anything I could imagine. I have the habit now of tracing foreign words on surfaces in my own made-up Arabic calligraphy. The curling letters, the way they flow into each other like rivers joining to meet the sea. Although I know the Arabic word for dream, I prefer my own. I trace mine over and over again, thinking it, an endless script in my head. I feel a warm affinity when I hear Arabic being spoken, a sense of familiarity.
And yet my sense of home has somehow melted away. When I am in Abu Dhabi, I miss New York and Chongqing and Buenos Aires and all the other places in the world that mean something to me. And when I am in those other places, I miss Abu Dhabi. What a terribly strange thing it is to always be missing someplace wherever I am in the world. What a terribly strange thing it is to belong nowhere because I could, if I chose to, belong anywhere.
At the same time, my wonder at seeing new places has also diminished. The more places I go, the less charm travel holds. That awful human trap: becoming used to wonder. The ability to travel is an astonishing gift that I should never, ever take for granted—and yet, I do, sometimes. Often. Of course I do. It’s not new to me anymore.
I’ve noticed that I have too many things, too many physical possessions. Packing is so much easier when there are fewer things to pack—and I pack often. Sometimes it seems that I never really get to unpack before I’m off again to another place. I fantasize about getting rid of everything, just throwing it all away, and living a hermetic, monkish life. But I’m too weak to resist the temptation of the comforts of modern life. I’ve never had enough willpower. Yet my life in Abu Dhabi, which is marked by a constant coming and going, has naturally divested me of the great majority of my possessions. Abu Dhabi, a transitory city, has turned me into a transitory being.
As much as it has changed my life, I still don’t know Abu Dhabi. I spend almost all my time here in Sama Tower, where I live, or in DTC, where I take classes, and yet, somehow, I love it. I regard this city with an infinite fondness that some of my best friends, who have lived here for as long as I have, do not understand. I love Abu Dhabi, and yet I don’t know it. Despite having lived in Sydney for less than three weeks, I understand it better; I recognized it instantly. Abu Dhabi is still shrouded in dust and mystery.
I’ve explored the city a bit, although not nearly as much as I told myself I would. The reality of things and my dream of them can never be easily reconciled. Most of the exploration I’ve done has been in the pursuit of interesting locations to shoot my films: an old abandoned mosque, the star walls on the Corniche, the underground pedestrian tunnels, a jungle-like garden, the Riviera restaurant, graffiti in Al Bateen, a broken-down house. Abu Dhabi has some spectacular finds, but they’re hidden beneath the polished, artificial veneer. You have to go and look for them. I often don’t have the energy to leave our little bubble of community in Sama Tower. I have always been a homebody, pretending to be young.
I am different when I travel. I wake up early, I walk a lot. I make an effort to do things and see things and begin to get to know a place. I guess I think I have more time in places that I call home, so I don’t make the same effort as when I travel. There’s always something else to take up my time: homework, hanging out with friends, working out, the Internet, sleeping. Always another excuse.
When I do go out, I never check the weather report. I don’t have to. I know what the weather will be: in the summer months, unbearably hot; in the winter months, surprisingly pleasant. But almost always dry. Just another thing you get used to.
I remember the first time I experienced rain in Abu Dhabi, almost three years ago. We all rushed outside and held our faces up to the sky and spun around, laughing at ourselves, because it was really only a tiny drizzle, but still—it was something. We felt just a little bit less homesick, and vowed that we would celebrate that day every coming year. Soon we all scattered to different places around the world, and the yearly celebration was just as easily forgotten. Still, I remember the first time. The taste of the raindrops on my outstretched tongue.
I remember lying on the Corniche with Bethany and Paige and Alyazia on a seemingly regular night, and the most beautiful fireworks I have ever seen just started going off right above our heads, terrifyingly close, colossal explosions of color and light, sparks landing next to us on the sand. We stared up at the fireworks, having no idea at all what they were celebrating, but assured by that perfect moment that Abu Dhabi had its own particular brand of magic.
I remember sneaking onto the roof of the Intercontinental with Adam after a free jazz show and roaming around exhilarated at being on top of everything and seeing the lights of the city laid out so clearly below us and feeling the wind on our faces and the thrill of being young and wild and free, and fuck the fact that Abu Dhabi isn’t a great city, isn’t a young person’s city, because for us it was everything, and for us it was great because we made it great, and we shouted from the rooftop helipad our names and imagined that we were flying.
Things I picture with eyes shut loosely, drifting away to sleep: flashes of summer heat (unbearable, scalding), pink villas and bougainvilleas lining the streets of Al Bateen (rusted gates, sun-bleached walls), the sun setting big and red over the Grand Mosque (paddling on a dragon boat at the Shangri-La, eyes stinging from the salty water), skyscrapers rising up into the starless night sky (neon lights and giant golf balls).
My favorite time to walk in Abu Dhabi is after a long night spent in the editing lab at DTC. The night is quiet, mysterious, alive. Half-asleep, gazing around at the buildings and the lights and in wonder at everything, I barely even notice when the sun is out in full force. I drift back to Sama Tower along Airport Road, and no one else is around, and the streets look different, and the giant neon Marks & Spencer billboard lights up the immediate sky, and the golf ball perches so oddly on the top of the c, and I pass through the wind tunnel around to the back of Sama where I will wait one day for the car to the airport and watch the sky turn dreamy with light, and I take the elevator up to my room and fall into my bed with layla thrilling through my body, and I feel a sense of deep calm and inexplicable joy, and I know that this is somewhere I belong.
When I wake, that feeling is gone, vanished somehow into my myth of Abu Dhabi and its nights.
I miss the call to prayer when I’m not in Abu Dhabi. I feel strange when dawn comes and goes and there is nothing but silence to accompany it. Although I have lived most of my life with that silence, now it feels foreign to me, like the call to prayer used to feel. When I stay up too late and the call to prayer begins to echo, I am always surprised that I am still awake, and then sad, for I know that the night is ending, and its mystery will fade with the coming of the light.
One late night/early morning, taking the usual route home, I caught a glimpse of a taxi driver, probably Pakistani, masturbating in the backseat of his taxicab. Face turned upward, eyes closed, vulnerable and unaware of my presence—how secret this stolen moment, how dingy it seemed to me. As I hurried along, nervous in the way that many women would be upon seeing a strange man masturbating in a deserted parking lot, I wondered fleetingly if he had anywhere to go besides his taxicab. If he had a home. If he had a wife.
I often feel nervous in Abu Dhabi, like I am constantly being watched. Sometimes I walk around the city and notice, jarred, that I am the only woman in sight. Only men around me, endless lines of men, staring at me and laughing to their friends, shouting things sometimes, and I feel so uncomfortable that I don’t go out alone again for a long while.
On National Day in my second year of living in Abu Dhabi, I went out with my roommates and some other friends to the Corniche, because we had done it the year before, and it had been fun and exciting and crazy, like Abu Dhabi rarely is. But that year, the fortieth anniversary of the UAE, something was different—something was sinister. Men lined the street leading to the Corniche, and when we tried to pass through, they surrounded us, swarming us, touching and grabbing and violating my friends, these vibrant and beautiful and gifted young women, many of whom would be reduced to tears by the mass molestation. Somehow I don’t remember being touched inappropriately. Was I the only lucky one amongst all my friends? Or was it so awful that I have blocked it out of my memory?
Being a young woman in Abu Dhabi inevitably invites disturbing incidents. I was walking in the parking lot behind Sama one night, wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt and carrying bags of groceries on my arms, but still a man stopped his car by my side and asked in a heavy accent, “How much?” I was stupefied—even if I had wanted to, I could not respond. He repeated the question, but after I continued to gape at him in shocked silence, the man drove away. I stood rooted there in utter disbelief. How could anyone think that I was a prostitute, wearing the least feminine clothing possible and carrying bags of groceries on my arms? How could anyone be so creepy? How could anyone be so desperate?
Of course, there are a lot of desperate men living in Abu Dhabi: migrant workers from Pakistan, from India, from Sri Lanka, from Bangladesh, from the Philippines, from Indonesia, from Nepal, from Egypt, from Ethiopia, from Sudan. Mostly single men, many of whom have left their families behind, so they can make money and send it home, single men who want a life here but can’t seem to find it. I guess most of them are sexually frustrated.
One evening, while I was filming in a jungle-like garden by the Corniche, an Egyptian man approached me and expressed interest in my camera. His English was very poor, so we ended up communicating in broken Arabic about the camera and my university and his job as a waiter and various other things. He wanted to get dinner with me, and I wanted to practice speaking Arabic with him (rare is the opportunity in a city where English is the de facto official language), so I agreed. On the walk over, as we were cutting through an empty lot, he suddenly grabbed me with terrible intensity and slobbered on my neck for two sordid seconds. Then I shoved him away, violently, and he apologized, profusely, and we resumed our walk again.
I was wary of him from then on, but still I felt pity for the desperate expression on his face, the raw need in his voice, the sadness and the loneliness laid utterly exposed. At the restaurant, he kept repeating over and over again, ufakir fiki, ufakir fiki, I’m thinking of you, I’m thinking of you, even as we were sitting there together eating shawarma. As I walked alone back to Sama, I thought of his lips on my neck, and felt repulsed, and then ashamed—for who was I to judge him for his loneliness? I, too, have felt loneliness and need; I have merely been luckier in life than he has.
The story ends like this: I gave him my phone number, for whatever reason, maybe thinking we could really be friends. The truth is, I ignored every single call (and he called quite a few times every day), feeling ashamed and disappointed in myself each time. But still, I never picked up. I was, and am, a coward. A few days later, I left for Buenos Aires, and I’ve never seen that man again.
There are single women in Abu Dhabi too: maids to Emirati families, workers in grocery stores, waitresses. Melba and Janna and Wealthz and Eva, the kind and caring women who work in the cafeterias of Sama Tower and DTC—beautiful, spirited women whose stories of generosity and sacrifice have made me cry. All these people, and the stories they rarely tell, make Abu Dhabi what it is today. They work so hard and receive so little in return. Abu Dhabi is not kind to them. Abu Dhabi is not their home. Abu Dhabi invites them in and spits them out again like wastewater instead of human beings. When I think of this ugly part of a city that I love, I feel sick and ashamed to love it.
But what do I do about it? Nothing. I sit in a place of rare privilege. I am a student at New York University Abu Dhabi, and I don’t pay for a single dirham of my education and its accompanying costs. I have been treated with unimaginable generosity by the government of the UAE, and I have been privileged to be invited here as an honored guest, as a young person with the potential to give back some of what I have been given.
I owe so much. And still I don’t know if I want to stay—if I even can stay. Abu Dhabi has been my home away from home for the past few years, but I can never be a citizen, even if I spend the rest of my life here. Abu Dhabi is full of people who come here to make money, to use and be used, before going back to whatever place they call home. Australians, British, Pakistanis, Indians, Indonesians, Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Chinese—do any of them view Abu Dhabi as their true home? Do any of them want to stay permanently? Or are they are just passing through, as I am just passing through? The thought makes me sad. It makes me feel terrible. But sad as it is, terrible as it is, I suspect it’s the truth.
At the end of my first school year in Abu Dhabi, I went to Spain for a month. Walking down the aisles of La Boqueria in Barcelona, in awe at the sheer variety of fresh fruits and vegetables on display, I told myself that I would never, ever live in Abu Dhabi long-term. That after I graduated in 2014, I’d be gone. Start adulthood in a better place—someplace greener, cooler, younger, artsier. A city where I could find fresh fruits and vegetables and good Chinese food and live music, where trees grew naturally, where it rained on occasion (or even sometimes a lot), where there were seasons, where I could walk, dance, breathe. A city I could love without feeling guilty for it. A city I wouldn’t have to explain to people who will never understand.
I love the rain too much. I love fruits and trees and flowers and snow and people kissing on street corners and naturist beaches and cute dogs, and none of those things I can find in Abu Dhabi, at least not for real. As much as Abu Dhabi tries to import what it doesn’t have naturally, it will never be able to replace the real thing with a fake thing, and I know in my heart of hearts that the fake thing will not do.
I miss Abu Dhabi when I’m not here, but nostalgia is not the same as living. Still, Abu Dhabi has changed me, marked me, given me some part of itself. Its whips of sand, its half-finished buildings, the call to prayer five times a day, its early-morning skies and late-night mysteries, all the things that I love about it and all the things that I hate about it. Although I don’t yet know where I’ll end up after graduation, if I stay or if I’ll go (never to return?), I do know what Abu Dhabi has given me—everything. I want to give back, someday, some way, even if I cannot find the strength to stay.
How? How? I trace my script for dream over and over again in the sultry air, I remember the taste of those first raindrops on my tongue, I dance on the Corniche against a yellow star wall, I wait for sunrise, I wait for the call to prayer, I wait, I wait, and ufakir fiki, ufakir fiki.