By Kathryn Streeter
I posed a million-dirham ($272,260.72 in today’s US dollar) question: “Do the children of Dubai play in sandboxes?” Our family, newly transplanted from the Washington, DC area where sandboxes had provided our children with hours of fun in earlier years, mulled over this question the summer we moved temporarily to the desert metropolis of Dubai. Even with all of Dubai’s development, if one catapulted high enough above the impressive skyline, Dubai seemed not too unlike one massive sandbox with ribbons of various roads lying thickly near the coast and rapidly thinning out in numbers the further away from the sandbox’s edge of the Arabian Sea, until only interminable sand remained.
The subject of driving, however, quickly claimed our attention as it rapidly morphed to the level of top priority. This critical arena of living required quick-study because learning this new turf involved navigating Dubai’s roads, roads which often betrayed the foundation they were laid upon: sand.
From our company apartment’s location, we easily realized that we were isolated without a car. As urbanites, we had associated walking with city living. Going to a coffeeshop or grocery didn’t require a car. Walking the kids to school? No problem. Bike trails and sidewalks connected neighborhoods and ultimately, people. Not so in Dubai, where pedestrians were merely walking to their cars, that in and of itself often life-threatening because Dubai was built with cars, not people, in mind.
Additionally, Dubai had grown so swiftly that very often there was just one route to a destination. Thus, sometimes the only way to reach a destination took one in the wrong direction before it backtracked toward the desired direction. Seasoned expatriates warned us that if that particular road required construction, then the dip into the sand would demand a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Well, that certainly eliminated the less expensive economy car we thought would work for us so we decided instead on a 4-wheel-drive SUV. We never looked back.
During the intense summers where temperatures averaged 108 degrees, Dubai’s residents mostly remained in air-conditioned homes and malls, getting from point A to point B in their air-conditioned cars. As rookies in the Middle East, we followed the steps of the experienced and boarded our car. If we wanted to take a walk, we drove. Areas such as the Dubai Marina where pedestrian strolling was possible called for logging in approximately 30 minutes by car.
Once inside the car, the scenes out of the window required acclimation too. Driving on desert highways yielded a wash of beige right up to the horizon, an occasional camel, acacia tree or perhaps a hut, evidencing toughness and independence. What type of person could thrive in this environment? I wondered. Today’s locals, who comprise just 13% of the entire kingdom’s population, would likely consider cleaning their own bathrooms a day’s work. On its face, one could detect more differences than similarities between the Emiratis of today and their desert forefathers.
By implication, the desert doesn’t suffer fools. Annals of sheikhdom history stored away somewhere would reveal a disposition of obstinacy and a knack for survival to spite the desert. The records would recount tales of life and death, of marriages and of children and grandchildren. Of personal triumphs and crushing losses, of military victories and cruel disastrous defeats. And finally, of oil in 1959 and independence in 1971.
I would hope that the desert fills the locals with nostalgia, as do the plains to my Kansas-born mother, because this landscape more than the gleaming high rises of modern-day Dubai tells the unvarnished truth of the place. One can’t understand the real story without considering the barren desert. The B.C. existence of the region forever changed with the discovery of oil, ushering in their Anno Domini, and eventually birthing the global city of Dubai.
Our driving, however, more commonly engaged us in the dense cityscape along the unrelenting Sheikh Zayed highway which runs parallel to the sea. This main traffic pipeline is flanked on either side by skyscrapers that provide the foundation to a skyline that has globally turned heads.
I will never forget the day I passed a rickety unairconditioned bus rumbling along this massive highway. It was packed with laborers primarily from Southeast Asia. With bony elbows and arms hanging out of open windows, remnants of adult men seemed desperate for one small gust of air, one breath of life. The level of despair in the male faces staring out of that bus evoked a well of sadness and pity I’d never known before. These grown men unabashedly gawked at me, a western woman behind the wheel of my own car traveling with my children in the backseat and going where I wanted to go. They looked more dead than alive, as if they were heading to hospice care rather than back to their labor camp.
I could not pretend to understand the degree of misery they were living in. Neither could our perceptive kids. The pain and affliction we witnessed in the ever-present mass population of migrant workers drove us into conversation depths with our children much sooner than had we still been living in the US.
Driving in Dubai left a deep impression in another way as well: it simply required nerves of steel because when you slid behind the wheel in Dubai, you were effectively entering a competition in which opponents came from hundreds of different countries, each with differing interpretations of public space. It was an aggressive sport.
One weeknight evening we set our sights on a recommended British-style pub in the Deira neighborhood across the historic Dubai Creek, a mere 6 miles away from us. It was in an unfamiliar part of the city. How fun, what an adventure, our chatter went. But our evening progressed from anticipation to utter frustration and concern: each stretch of road was choked with streams of cars all seemingly going in our direction.
This was not a game of speed but of merciless tactical strategy. With no prior knowledge of the area, we were too naïve, helplessly giving ground to vehicles that belligerently threw themselves into our lane forcing us to defensively storm our brake. Our trained reaction to use the turn signal to alert those around us of our intentions was a kindness not returned. Once in a wrong lane seemed to predict ‘always’ in the wrong lane. And then we’d miss our left turn. We were paying dearly for a rookie error. We should have consulted the expat veterans before leaving but that was small comfort ensconced in this horrific traffic jam.
Additionally in play were the official unofficial rules of the road. Perhaps more than anywhere, the domains of power in Dubai were punishing and relentless on the roads. Those traveling in souped-up armor-like SUV’s with their persons obscured by the darkened windows were likely to be the local Emiratis. Discretion and sound reasoning urged one to defer each and every time to their wishes on the road. Do not tangle with the giants of the region, was the general posture we’d been taught repeatedly through various stories from veteran expats, who astutely described us western expats as ‘3rd class’ after the Emiratis and Gulf Arabs. If one of these exclusive-looking vehicles comes barreling up beside you and decides to cut you off to make their exit ramp, just be grateful that there are roads to drive on through the sand.
In general, that posture had served us well. But tonight our deference was getting us nowhere, certainly not to the restaurant.
And that wasn’t all. The old, densely packed area of the city we were driving through plus the time of day brought everything to a head. As if perfectly coordinated, Dubai’s inhabitants were pouring out of air-conditioned offices, shops or homes into the welcomed starlit night, now mercifully void of the punishing sun. People from every culture and walk of life spread out before us like a dense barrier.
Dubai’s entire 2 million + population seemed to be at our feet in all their riotous forms and colors. Indians, Filipinos, Pakistanis, and many other Central and Southeastern Asians moved in motion. The Indian women were draped in vibrant saris, regal full-length gowns with intricately woven designs, so feminine and bewitching; the Pakistani and other fellow Southeast Asians were clothed in the ubiquitous shalwar kameez of region, a loose pant topped with a long tunic combo for men and women, and sometimes, for a splash of personality, a sash or scarf added. This dress enabled easy customization, which spoke of the wearer’s sex, resources, age and place of origin.
Crossing the streets, the workforce pushed and pulled, each rushing to their next destination—some elbowing their way with determination simply to get home to greet husbands, children, mothers or brothers. The white embroidered short-sleeved cotton barong for men commonly worn by Filipino office workers was designed with an intimate knowledge of hot, humid climates. It was at odds with those men wearing western-style professional garb, dressed illogically for the heat in traditional dark suits, complete with the throat-throttling necktie.
These and many more examples of cultural attire solidly marked the non-Arab foreigner, contrasting vividly with the traditionally-dressed Arab. The hijab, a head covering for Muslim women, hid the neck and shoulders but revealed the face in the glow of the evening’s city lights. A quick scan over the wash of humanity also revealed the recurrence of the classic abaya. Ever the center of Arabic fashion, Dubai’s reinventing of the elegant abaya was hard to miss: a black loose robe-like garment available for the discriminating Arab woman from high-end designers replete with excessive additions such as diamond-adorned sleeves, with the most exclusive design valued at $17.7 million USD.
But the somber all-enclosing black burqa draped a woman in black from head to toe. Startling, with the full covering of the face complete with netting to hide the eyes, the traditional gown extends to the ankle.
Even from inside the car, a group of austere burqa-attired women filled me with a now-familiar rush of intimidation laced with aching confusion provoked by an ensemble that essentially robbed identity. Were there tears or smiles behind those veils? I had noticed that typically, a group of women dressed in burqas would walk in silence without the carefree laughter and gesticulations that often accompany time with friends out shopping together.
The very swishing of the thick robe denoted life while simultaneously connoting nonexistence by the sheer severity of cover, an attempt to extinguish individuality by perfecting sameness.
Woman as I am, I felt at complete loss to identify with the cultural norms by which these women lived. My bewilderment settled into what is best described as a respectful awe, whether there was aggression or passivity, anger or sorrow, defiance or humility in the hidden eyes.
The perplexity of the strict cultural norms forced open an abundance of opportunities to broaden our kids’ understanding of people and place. But often, there were no satisfying answers for their relentless refrain: “Why?” The burden of the sights and sounds of this very different culture added to the burden of parenting.
Horns blaring brought back the present, presenting the pervasive dress for the Arab man: the kandura, a standard long white crisp tunic paired with the keffiyeh, a plain but fresh white or cheerful red-white checkered head covering.
The streets here were labyrinth-like and narrow. Traffic had trapped us at an intersection so sufficiently backed up that we scarcely moved with each passing green light. Figuratively and literally, we were a captive audience to this play acted out on the stage of the street and sidewalk surrounding us. Through the car windows, this spectacle of humanity was teeming with motion on life’s stage. I didn’t doubt that each particular character possessed a precious narrative, alive to the day’s particular hardships or joys.
But stuck in traffic on what seemed a jinxed attempt to procure some reputable fish and chips, the swirling colorful forms amounted to no more than an impressionist painting seen from one standing too close. Unable to separate individual from mass, this impenetrable wall was moving with innumerable human forms bedecked in traditional dress—some raggedy some richly— covering the sidewalks and crosswalks, oftentimes spilling onto the road and making driving infinitely more dangerous so surrounded by pedestrians were the cars.
Our little American family seemed very small and vulnerable indeed, outmatched by the aggression around us. “Can’t we just turn around? I’d rather eat at home,” our kids worried from the backseat. But Dad was not giving up.
My conspiratorial mind wandered though my stomach rumbled with hunger. Was this about us being Americans in an Arab nation? Was this a sign from God that we shouldn’t be on this road or heading to this destination in this part of town? Would advocating retreat signal wisdom or paranoia, only serving to deepen the kids’ anxiety?
Two words defined our evening, the first unsurprisingly being lost. “The road signs are so approximate,” was my husband’s on-going lament as we futilely peered ahead trying to distinguish where that promised road sign went to. My place as chief navigator—map splayed across my lap—automatically put me in a bad mood because there were questions I just couldn’t answer. Even the detailed map didn’t know that tacking across a sandy lot to re-join a road which had a section barricaded with construction fencing was the route. It wasn’t only acceptable, it was the only way.
Our maze of mistakes made us dizzy, numbing our sense of direction and easily befuddling Google Maps. We triumphed in finding the landmark Clock Tower roundabout we’d heard about only to get pulled over by a policeman for apparently driving in the wrong lane. As taught by veteran expats, if one ever had the misfortune of crossing paths with law enforcement, assume the role of the contrite westerner, clueless and submissive. My husband did so.
When we shakily re-engaged the roundabout we encountered bullying, the second word that marked our evening. For the first time in their lives, our children witnessed their dad letting his emotions fly unreservedly when an intimidating heavily tinted black Range Rover experiencing road-rage threatened to ram us in the left back door, precisely where our little 10-year-old daughter sat—sending my husband into full engagement. A thunder of words and hand motions ensued from behind our steering wheel and out of our driver’s window, leaving our young backseat occupants wide-eyed and, for the first time that night, silent.
We finally arrived at the British-style pub. Our appetites were subdued though we were able to laugh about the journey that got us there. There to the restaurant but beyond it all, there to Dubai.
After the harassment of the evening, we processed with our kids over pub fare. The general onslaught of the sometimes exhilarating and often disturbing unfamiliarity such as was found in doing daily life in Dubai constantly challenged us to laugh rather than to cry. This had been but one of those times.
We had known all along that our time in Dubai came with a sharp albeit indefinite backend. I had felt an urgency to quickly absorb the chaotic norms of everyday life in order to make room for all the life-changing experiences at hand. Go on a desert safari? Check. Go skiing at Ski Dubai? Check. Swim in the Arabian Sea? Check. Spend a day at Wild Wadi (Dubai’s premier water-park)? Check. Ride a camel? Check. Get a henna tattoo? Check. Traverse into neighboring Oman? Check. Adventures of this kind would amount to memorable times in the life of any family.
Instead, what seemed to be the unimportant emerged as bedrock material. The very messy act of tackling the often anxiety-producing challenges presented daily by a culture so very different would dare us to either pull together like a tribe, or fall apart. The shared emotions of discouragement, stress, fear and general agitation of finding our way in this Middle Eastern city fundamentally served as a family drawstring perhaps more than did the shared memory of riding camels.
Every time we had to drop a tire off the road, I was reminded that sand was Dubai’s foundation. What was being challenged was the foundation of our family. So instead of wishing for effortless acclimation, I came to appreciate being thrown onto the wild highways of this city-on-the-sand because it served toward answering the critical question about our own family’s foundation.
With thanksgiving, I deftly credited this instructive journey to a Dubai restaurant as part of a more significant narrative. There was real growth in the desert after all.
As for the driving part in particular, I could do without it except that it produced solid lore our family will tell and retell each other for years to come. The sand, however, will in no way be missed. Our kids grew leaps and bounds in those three months in Dubai leaving sandboxes in a far distant past. Their longing? Grass.
*This piece was originally published in The Briar Cliff Review, Volume 26, and was a finalist in their Creative Nonfiction Contest.
Kathryn Streeter’s writing has appeared in publications including The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy and Brain, Child Magazine. Find her at www.kathrynstreeter.com and on Twitter, @streeterkathryn.