Reconciling With Dubai


Maryam Wissam al Dabbagh writes about what it means to be from Dubai, and ponders the paradox of exile. Do you remember how Dubai was? It’s a question I am often asked when the other person finds out that I was born and raised in this city.

I cannot answer this question, like many others about me and Dubai: “You were born in Dubai, but you are Iraqi? How? What do you mean Sheikh Zayed road was non-existent in the 1990s?” It’s a relationship so complex that I don’t know how to negotiate it anymore. When do I stop examining it, and start living it?

But the truth is, I cannot remember Dubai because I have lived in it all my life. How can you remember what you never left behind? I don’t recall how it was, because I know what it is: Dubai for me has always been constant. The rate of change in Dubai was never alarming, but reassuring—a characteristic I grew accustomed to. I remember during the late 1990s, for example, streets would change in a matter of weeks. New places would start mushrooming, such as Sheikh Zayed Road and much later, the Dubai Marina area. Yes, it is strange to think of change as the defining element of a hometown, but for me, Dubai has always been the city of reinvention.

A born and raised Dubaian, I was never invited to examine my Iraqi roots while growing up. It was always in the background, along with historical anecdotes about Baghdad and the two rivers my parents often spoke about. My family drew an image of Iraq that heavily relied on its historical artefacts, rather than its reality at the time. Consequently, as a child this is how I pictured it to be: a land with a rich history, and two very famous rivers. Only—back then, I was less concerned with where I originated from. More important was the fact that I knew how to sing 3eeshi beladi in the school morning assembly, and that I participated in traditional dances, wearing Emirati-embroidered dresses while waving a tiny Emirati flag.

But soon after that dress and flag, I was faced with the harsh reality. The country of two rivers and three stars became a constant headline in the evening news, forcing its descendants to suffer the consequences of its war-torn geography. All of a sudden, I was an Iraqi that represented oppression against a neighbouring Khaleeji country. An Iraqi that should be ashamed of what she’s not done, and apologetic for what she doesn’t understand. Negative sentiments towards the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait were growing worldwide, and the UAE was no exception. As Kuwaiti refugees became part of the UAE’s then small population, I remember meeting many of their new faces in my building, and also being kicked out of its playground for being Iraqi, or more specifically, bint Saddam which translates to Saddam’s daughter.

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