Driving down Sheikh Zayed Road, the main highway that links the old and new of Dubai, is the usual route I take to show someone visiting around town. As I point to landmarks that now classify Dubai for what it is, thoughts rush into my head of the ‘good old days’ where I used to play in the sand with my friends on this very road.
I remember the World Trade Centre being a pinnacle in a bird’s eye view of the city. Six years later, the World Trade Centre has long been towered over. In some ways, I look around with a sense of nostalgia, wistfully remembering barbeques in parks, grabbing shawarmas walking on the Corniche, and even drive-in movie theatres. These old school memories still resonate within me but now have been replaced by a very different type of buzz from our new Paris of the Middle East.
Growing up in Dubai in the early 1990s was very comfortable. The economic boom wasn’t apparent as it is now. Back then, Dubai had a small town feel. All of us in Dubai lived quite contentedly with the two or three malls that we had, unlike the plethora of shopping options we have today. We celebrated our religious festivals as we wanted and had the opportunity to mix with other cultures from around the World as well. Entertainment was quite simple then. The Indo-Pak cricket matches in Sharjah were the highlight of the year and a drive to neighboring Muscat was a mini-getaway. In essence, we lived a tempered lifestyle and at one point even forgot that we were in a conflict-ridden region during the Gulf War. Then there came the time of expansion for Dubai. We saw our city proudly flourish and aspire to be a chosen financial hub, an epicenter of investment and a tourist destination. Suddenly, the mosaic of Dubai changed.
Dubai today is vastly different to the Dubai I grew up in. People constantly debate whether its progress was a good thing or if Dubai has lost its golden charm – whether it has spiraled out of control. In my opinion, Dubai simply grew up. It opened its arms and offered its jewel encrusted safe haven to more people from around the globe.
For global desis like my family, Dubai is the perfect sync between the East and the West, and most importantly, is a short enough flight from South Asia. Having lived out of India for a number of years in places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Miami, my family feels the most comfortable in Dubai. For my parents, Dubai has given them what India could and yet brings comforts they became familiar with abroad. My Dad has lush and pristine golf courses to spend time on for his weekends, a network of international financiers, bankers and businessmen to tap into and the Indian community’s support system in most organizations. My mum similarly has her backbone of house help, adores working in an International School close to our home and knows that when the day is done she can relax with her chai watching Indian Soaps on TV. They sleep peacefully at night and their attitude towards a young girl like me out on the town is much more relaxed than if we lived in a place like New Delhi.
Ironically, the local culture of Dubai has absorbed desi culture more than the other way around. Many of the Emaratis, the local Arabs of the UAE, speak Hindi and know more about Bollywood than the average Indian on the street. Radio frequencies boast a number of Hindi, Punjabi, and Malayali stations, whilst television networks have links to South Asian channels. Places like the Gold Souk, Spice Market and Dubai’s many Bazaars with the smells, sounds and utter chaos are reminiscent of shopping in India. Conversely, beach clubs, polished malls and posh hotels with bars, clubs and world-renowned restaurants also give us some of what the West has to offer.
At a time in my life where I have spent equal time in the East and West, I know that I can find what I covet and love between either sides of the world here. I have found a circle of friends from all over, including my Indian “family friends.” I have access to all the brand names and high street fashion I love with events like Dubai Fashion week and independent exhibitions bringing the tingle of electric current one would feel in Milan or Paris. At times, when I want my paani puri and chaat I know that I can find it in the bustling lanes of Meena Bazaar, a nook in Dubai that’s pretty much a broken off piece of India. Stepping into my beauty salon I can chat in Spanish to the lady who does my nails whilst complaining about traffic in Hindi to one that threads my eye-brows. Yalla, wallah, and Inshallah have become part of my vocabulary and are quite hard to define to outsiders and even so replace in phrases! Dubai has made me look forward to Ramadan and Eid, not only for the shorter work hours, but moreover for the delicious and grand meals that are prepared when my friends break their fast. Winter here fills my social life up immensely and brings out the best in Dubai. The Formula One in Abu Dhabi, the Dubai Tennis Open, the Golf Classic and for party go-ers concerts of Eric Clapton, Kanye and Snoop Dogg, and beach parties with beat popping DJs to dance the night away are a sample of what Dubai has to offer. For a lot of young people like me, it truly is a great place to be amongst the cosmopolitan cities on the international stage.
All said and done, Dubai is home. It is where my parents are and where they see themselves for a while. Though conversations around me continuously churn about what the city has become, I think Dubai has just evolved and like me, it has grown with the times.
Natasha Bhandari wrote this article, boarded a plane to travel around the world, before beginning her studies in International Education at Harvard, where she’s currently based.