It’s kind of like saying “the least famous Kardashian sister” or “the most trustworthy politician” – it sounds like a matter of such minor degrees, it’s almost a misnomer. And yet, it’s more or less accurate: I lived in the ‘hood of Dubai.
I don’t mean to say it was run-down or crime-plagued or anything like that. It was just a far cry from the glittering towers and posh spreads that dominated much of the city, particularly in the consciousness of travelers and tourists to Dubai. Instead of fortieth-story views of the expansive waters of the Gulf or the soaring skyline along Sheikh Zayed Road, I had a second-story view of a dusty construction site that continually coated our windows in sand and grime. Instead of world-famous restaurants and high-end boutiques in the lobby of our building, we had third-rate school supply stores and a barbershop that doubled as a brothel for Thai and Filipino “ladyboys.”
In my new novel, THE DUBAI BETRAYAL, I described my old neighborhood – Hor Al Anz East – as being on the wrong side of the tracks, only in Dubai, it’s the Dubai Creek that’s the dividing line between some of the older parts of the city largely untouched by massive development projects and ritzy shopping districts dominating the other side, where you’ll find virtually every iconic skyscraper and audacious architectural experiment that has become Dubai’s brand in recent years. The scenes I set in Hor Al Anz took place at night and were beset with trepidation and tragedy rather than the dangerous wonder of much of the rest of the book’s more famous settings.
And yet, I wouldn’t have traded my time living here for the penthouse suite at one of the more fashionable residential destinations in the best part of town. Okay, maybe I would (I mean, come on, free penthouse suite?), but I honestly relished my time in this neighborhood. And one key ingredient played a major role in my enjoyment there.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts and as both protagonist Wayne Wilkins and antagonist Walid Abushakra deal with in THE DUBAI BETRAYAL, Dubai is a strange mix of cultures that tend to clash up against one another and get buried underneath the cyclical demand for shinier buildings, more tourists, and greater external investment. I only learned a modicum of Arabic while there because there was so little opportunity to practice. Most of the shopkeepers are Filipino, while most of the cab drivers are Pakistani. Unless you’re going through customs at the airport or dealing directly with a government-owned investment group (or teaching local students, as I was privileged to do), you are unlikely to speak with an Emirati during your travels to the city. With an expatriate population dwarfing the locals five-to-one, English, rather than Arabic, is the lingua franca of modern Dubai. Furthermore, apart from a handful of buildings and the occasional artistic touch in malls or public areas (most notably the sail-shaped Burj al Arab hotel), much of the Arab culture is somewhat lost in the towering maze of sparkling grandeur and concerted global appeal.
Not so in Hor Al Anz East. While the other expatriate teacher housing our school offered us was in Mirdif, a much more suburban outpost a little further south of the city, Hor Al Anz offered a diverse urban living experience with a relatively strong community feeling. The teachers in our building were among the only Westerners in the neighborhood, with a multicultural mélange of Arabs, North Africans, Filipinos, Pakistanis, Iraqis, Thais, Iranians, Lebanese, Afghanis, Taiwanese, Syrians, Turks, Indians, Bangladeshis, and Indonesians earning livings through a variety of trades. From installing sound systems in high-end cars to offering Arab takes on pizza to running a narrow-aisled corner grocery store jam-packed with all sorts of goods, the neighborhood’s quirkiness quickly found its way into my heart. And as one of a handful of white people in the area, I became fast acquaintances with many of the local proprietors.
I learned to order my favorite meal at al-Farooj in Arabic with the help of the Tunisian cashier. Fatima, the attendant at an Iraqi bakery that opened halfway through my first year in Dubai, lit up with recognition whenever I walked through her door (if you’ve never tried authentic baklava (or baqlawah by its Arabic name), you don’t know what you’re missing). And Aziz, the aforementioned Moroccan proprietor of the barbershop directly next to the entrance of our building, always greeted me when I passed by, even after I started using a different, less brothel-y barber around the corner.
Unlike the rest of the city, Hor Al Anz is virtually devoid of Western-branded businesses. The one prominent exception was the Ramada Continental, a hotel just off the ring road that separated our neighborhood from the next. Since our apartments were just down the street from the hotel, and since any friends or family who came to visit would either bunk with their host/hostess or stay at a much fancier hotel on the other side of the creek, there would normally be no reason for me or any of my colleagues to darken the doorway of the decidedly lower-end establishment. Except for one thing.
Every week, the hotel’s lounge would host a karaoke night, oftentimes complete with a tournament and prizes. Lebanese Elvises would battle Filipino Madonnas in a multicultural celebration that many of my colleagues and I would attend. And while I never won the contest (though I did rock a mean rendition of Live’s “I Alone,” if I do say so myself), I did get to share in a community event that brought the neighborhood together in our shared love of music, bad singing, and an overall good time. From our own diverse assortment of expatriate teachers to the Thai ladyboys from the barbershop/brothel to the chefs at al-Farooj to the rich middle-aged Arabs openly consorting with skinny Russian prostitutes, the scene was regularly one of camaraderie and community despite – and because of – our cultural differences.
And that’s an experience far more memorable than any penthouse view.