The Underbelly of a Place I Call Home

Cross-posting this from my Livejournal. Someone dug up the Johann Hari post and along with that, this post too! Johann Hari writes about The Dark Side of Dubai


Karen who had moved to Dubai from Canada after her husband was offered a plush job there says about Dubai, “Life was fantastic. You had these amazing big apartments, you had a whole army of your own staff, you pay no taxes at all.”

If you ask me about Dubai that’s pretty much what I’ll say too. It was where we drove luxury cars and wore Gucci to our prom nights that we attended at five star hotels with our dates who also wore Armani suits and drove fancier cars. It is the city of spoils, extravagance and indulgence. Alternatively, it’s Sin City.

It was the American dream in a familiar Indianized package. We spent our days at the-where else?- mall slurping coffee at Starbucks and Coffee Bean or when we wanted to venture far, Coffee at Second Cup and Coffee at Coffee Convention at the World Trade Centre; spent weekends dining at the Blue Elephant or Asha’s or Al Dawaar or Planet Hollywood or Dynasty. It was where we had family brunches every Friday at the five star hotels and spent summer vacations lazing by the pool in Sanmie’s house. We bought our fruits and vegetables from Spinneys, while Lulu Supermarket the Mallu-run chainstore was sidelined:

“The fruits look fresher at Spinneys, you know!”

It was a perfect picture of life that I’d think spoilt brats led. ‘You got the new skechers?! Mom, I want them too!’ 'Let’s have a girl’s day out at the Spa at Metropolitan!’ 'Thursday night at Atlantis then?’ They have new stuff at Mango!’ Yeah as sixteen and bimbo as can be!

I’d like to think it was the no-taxes combined with the money we had at our disposal that brought upon us the curse of being spoilt, rich brats. I know I wouldn’t have spent four years in Manipal living in my luxury hostel which would have passed off as five-star hotel had it not been for the Dubai money. Hell, I wouldn’t have studied in the US either. Maybe my parents would have made it big in India, maybe they wouldn’t have. But I know Dubai made their dreams real. How then can I not call it my home?

“Every evening, the hundreds of thousands of young men who build Dubai are bussed from their sites to a vast concrete wasteland an hour out of town, where they are quarantined away. Until a few years ago they were shuttled back and forth on cattle trucks, but the expats complained this was unsightly, so now they are shunted on small metal buses that function like greenhouses in the desert heat. They sweat like sponges being slowly wrung out. ”


My house overlooked the Dubai Creek. 'Take the road exactly opposite Citibank and then take a left near the Pakistani Consulate. Our house is the third one on the left. Yeah, right next to Omega!’ That was till they renamed streets (our street was renamed 16th Street) and started building the Bank of Umm Al Qawain and York Hotel opened doors down the road, opposite my second home- the Starbucks at Dragon Castle. (The picture is what the view from my window was. We lived in Bur Dubai, so what you see is the Dubai Creek and Deira Dubai.) 

I would leave for school at 7 30 am and we would stand at the bus stop and watch the labourers in their boiler suits and towels wrapped around the head being herded out of cattle trucks. Come back at 1 pm when the temperatures touched 122 F and these men would still be there atop buildings in the sweltering heat pounding away at what was to be the Bank of UAQ. Evening and they would pile again.

I remember those letters to the editor about how ugly it is to see these men being huddled into those trucks, I remember the furore. Then they passed a law making it illegal to transport people in cattle trucks. 'Buses, Buses!’

While at school, even our corridors and toilets were air-conditioned. And at home, even the kitchen.

The Indian community heaved a sigh of relief when that law was passed. Ram Buxani probably praised the government and BR Shetty probably posed for pictures with the Sheikhs. The Indians and Pakistanis and Pathans and Bangladeshis continued to huddle into buses like cattle and into their wooden boxes they called home.

“Sonapur is a rubble-strewn patchwork of miles and miles of identical concrete buildings. Some 300,000 men live piled up here, in a place whose name in Hindi means "City of Gold”. In the first camp I stop at – riven with the smell of sewage and sweat – the men huddle around, eager to tell someone, anyone, what is happening to them.“

Sonapur though was always mentioned in hushed tones, meant only for the adults. The rest of us acted like it didn’t exist. Just the way we thought of Al Ghusais which lies on the Dubai-Sharjah border. *scrunch nose*

eeee! you live there?

*scrunch nose*

Uh, ok. We are headed to the India Club. You could join us. But who will drop you back?

*scrunch nose*

Till that day during my Internship at Standard Chartered when the Pakistani man came upto me and asked me to find out why he only had Dhs 25 in his account when he was supposed to have Dhs 50. 'You’re now a silver card holder!’ I told him. 'You were a bronze card holder and they updated your account after a year.’ And he spilled his story. He earned 500 Dhs a month, 350 he paid his employer for the loan he had borrowed, he spent another hundred on his food and accommodation and he was hoping to have 50 Dhs to spare. 'They gave me that card saying a car would pick me up from the airport!’ Perhaps just like those hundreds of Afghani men you’ll see at the airport with heavy stuffed rolled up blankets for luggage sitting like slaves, waiting for their fate at the slaughterhouse.

Yes, 500 Dhs he earned per month. 500 Dhs that we kids would spend on one Thursday evening.

Johann Hari goes on to write, I approach a blonde 17-year-old Dutch girl wandering around in hotpants, oblivious to the swarms of men gaping at her. "I love it here!” she says. “The heat, the malls, the beach!” Does it ever bother you that it’s a slave society? She puts her head down, just as Sohinal did. “I try not to see,” she says. Even at 17, she has learned not to look, and not to ask; that, she senses, is a transgression too far.

If you grew up in Dubai, you probably also know what to do when prostitution stares you in the face. You step away from the Russian woman in her bikini top standing on the pavement being hounded by the Arab boys who are probably ten or eleven screaming, 'Walla! Come Come! 10 dirhams I give you!’ The shurthi (police) driving by ignore her, and so should you.

Even when you walk down from Dragon Castle and you see all these labourers standing around York Hotel with their faces stuck to the glass and peering inside, you ignore them. When you walk by Imperial Suites and all those women tumble out, you ignore them. You pray that the idiot in that Merc with makhfi (tint) ignores you and instead focuses on those women. You run and run and run into your house till you can’t hear 'Aye Hindi!’ no more.

They admit, however, they have “never” spoken to an Emirati. Never? “No. They keep themselves to themselves.”

And we keep to ourselves. Lines that shouldn’t be crossed, boundaries that must be enforced.

“The expats are terrified to talk about anything. One critical comment in the newspapers and they deport you.”

There was something however that I think the parents always knew. Someday after they had made their pots of gold, they had to go back home. To India. 'What will we do buying a house here? They will throw you out once they find no use for you!’ If you were wise, you chose well.

Dubai is not just a city living beyond its financial means; it is living beyond its ecological means. You stand on a manicured Dubai lawn and watch the sprinklers spray water all around you. You see tourists flocking to swim with dolphins. You wander into a mountain-sized freezer where they have built a ski slope with real snow. And a voice at the back of your head squeaks: this is the desert. This is the most water-stressed place on the planet. How can this be happening? How is it possible?

Then they etched out plans to build a bubble city, suspended somewhere in the skies above Dubai. Then came the Metro that made getting around Dubai hell. 

Let’s just walk, screw the cab. And man, that Mallu taxi driver will get friendly and start blabbering away!’ And that sixty year old man who had 20 children? They awarded him 2 million dirhams.

Between the malls, there is nothing but the connecting tissue of asphalt. Every road has at least four lanes; Dubai feels like a motorway punctuated by shopping centres. You only walk anywhere if you are suicidal. The residents of Dubai flit from mall to mall by car or taxis.

I now live in what is possibly the ugliest and most decrepit part of Los Angeles, Downtown LA. And use Public Transportation. I miss Dubai, it’s still home for me. Dubai is where all my memories are. But I don’t miss the lifestyle. There’s nothing there. It’s empty anyway.