Thursday, June 9, 2011

Old Dubai

If you read scathing articles about Dubai by the likes of A A Gill and Johann Hari, you would think that us ex-pats go out of our way to avoid mixing with the locals.  That's certainly not the case in the Sand household, but it does happen to be the case that we don't come across Emiratis very often.

This can be attributed to a number of reasons.  Firstly, there simply aren't that many of them.  I've seen estimates ranging from the Dubai population being as high as 20 per cent Emirati and as low as 10 per cent in a population of 1.87million (estimated in 2010 which means that could be radically wrong as there have been one or two changes since then).  Second, although the Sand Warlock meets people of every nationality every working day, he doesn't meet many locals as they're not supposed to drink.  Thirdly, the best local spotting pursuit is walking the malls on a Thursday or Friday night when they tend to go out and about with their families shopping, going to the cinema or enjoying the deliciously random activities on offer in malls here: Iceskating, skiing, going to an Aquarium, playing arcade games, buying gold nuggets, going to KidZania, the place where kids can try out various careers including brain surgery (!) or Emirates air steward, etc.

It's true that this is the time when you would see locals out and about, but, they're with their families.  It's not exactly an opportune moment to pop over and say: "Salaamaleikum, kayfalal (Hello, how are you) alhamdulelah (I'm fine thanks to God).  An a Sand Witch, An a min London, fi Ingeldra (I am the Sand Witch from London, England).  Please, tell me about your culture."  Frankly, they would probably think you were mad, which would be fair enough.

The more time you spend here, though, the more likely you are to meet the locals and learn a bit more about their lives now and BO (I've just invented that for Before Oil).

Take one of my bosses who is a longstanding English ex-pat who told me this rather tragic tale about an Emirati she knows who can well remember what life was like before Dubai became a boom town. 

The chap, who is probably in his 60s, he's not really sure as he doesn't know when he was born, so, like many of the older Emiratis, he simply picked a birthday.  He can remember as a child making the journey from Abu Dhabi to Dubai by camel as one did during the days before the roads were built and when the Bedouin were the primary population.  One moved around according to the seasons in search of water.  This journey, which now takes an hour or so by car, took three days by camel.  Now, you know, I love camels, but I think would have fallen out of love with them after three days of sitting on one in 45degree heat.

Part way through this burning hot journey through the desert, members of his family realised his baby sister, who was being carried in a camel pannier, was missing as she had fallen out on to the ground.  It was a while before anyone noticed, probably because they were all comatose with boredom watching the perpetually shifting sands and suffering in the heat. And, because the baby herself would probably have been too dehydrated and subdued by the heat to cry out.  By the time they realised and got back to the spot she had fallen, she had died, either of injuries from falling from the camel, or a heat-related sickness, be it dehydration or some form of shock. 

It makes you think, doesn't it?  There is a tendency here among some ex-pat circles to dismiss the locals as spoilt and lazy because of the generous benefits endowed upon them by the Government and the preferential working conditions they enjoy.  But the fact that many of them endured or have parents or grandparents who endured, Medieval living conditions casts them in a rather different light. I think if I was an Emirati who could remember times before air con in cars and in buildings and sitting on a camel for several days just to find enough food and water to stop me from starving to death, I'd probably want every possible indulgence I could get my hands on.   

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