Friday, April 3, 2015

Dubai, I'm sorry.

Dubai… I should start with an apology. 

I was arrogant in my relationship with you. I didn’t think you could teach me anything. I thought I was better than you. I refused to love you, until it was too late. When people asked me why I didn’t, I struggled to put my finger on it. You were superficial, I answered; you had no depth. And since I was preaching to the converted, no one ever tested the weaknesses of my opinion. 

The truth is, I never thought you would teach me so much; that I would grow so much with you. And that it would be so hard to leave you.

You have stretched my heart more than I thought possible. It has never felt as much pain and as strong a love as it felt here with you. You forced me to be more honest and genuine about my ambitions, stripping away illusions of grandeur and leading me, for the first time in my life, to be exactly where I want to be. 

You introduced me to some of the best people I have ever met: people with such peace of heart, generosity of patience, and depth of love. Where I thought I would spend my evenings alone reading at home, I instead developed smart, passionate and loving networks. 

My cousins were the first to welcome me when I arrived, helping me to settle in, but more importantly introducing me to Egyptian sheesha caf├ęs in which I would spend much time in the years to come. 

My colleagues were a family: we walked around the office in our socks, shared many a lunch of couscous or waraq 3einab around the conference table, and supported each other in personal and professional challenges alike. We experimented with the "international" (read Pakistani) buffet in Building 2, had walks along the fake lake, and listed our annual goals on the wall to keep ourselves accountable. We were sometimes greeted by a herd of camels when we drove into the International Humanitarian “City” – one of a set of shiny buildings jutting out from the middle of the desert of Jebel Ali.

Many colleagues became good friends. We gathered for wine and cheese, and discussions of books most of us had never read. We pondered life, international affairs, and journalism; attempted to be inspired by uninspiring events in Dubai’s nascent arts scene, and danced until 4am to YouTube classics in my living room.  

I looked for a football team in Dubai before I looked for an apartment. It took me a while to find the right one, but when I did, Platform 3 became the source of some of my closest friends. We sang kareoke in grungy bars, got together to watch the World Cup, and exchanged nerdy gifts at Christmas (that’s how I won a set of shot glasses made of ice). Football was an escape, and the football community in Dubai was something special: people from all of the world who saw each other regularly in various football events around town: 5-a-side tournaments, the Jebel Ali league, fundraisers, Hatdraws. Saturday, I played with the African guys; Monday with the girls; Sunday/Tuesday with P3; and Wednesday/Thursday with different co-ed groups. Like salsa, I could find football any day of the week. Unless of course, I was injured. First the arm. Then the calf. Then the other calf. Then the hamstring. I spent much of 2013 in a cast or on crutches. But I’ve never been as fit as I was in 2014. 

Circuit Factory was another of my favourite eco-systems, run by an eccentric sports trainer with strong views on health and fitness and exceptional marketing skills. Mothers looking to get back into shape after childbirth mixed with overweighters – some of whom lost up to 40 kilos on the program – and sporty types who knew that one session of CF would keep their arms toned for a month. Smack dab in the middle of the Al Quoz industrial zone, we inhaled fumes as we did jump squats, avoided trucks as they unloaded materials, and ran past the local mosque  in our tank tops and tight shorts as it sounded the call to prayer. 

Dubai had all sorts of entertaining quirks. It’s the only place in the world you can find women in bikinis strolling next to women in niqabs. Police drove Ferraris and young men spent their Friday nights showing off their Camaros down JBR’s main street. While chaos raged in the Middle East, top headlines in the Gulf News included: “Topless butler services makes residents lose their cool” and “Cycling 30km to work daily keeps salesman fit as a fiddle.”

But for quite some time, I was never really rooted in Dubai. The first two years were something of a blur. 

I’d wake up in a panic every day. I was late before my day had begun. Late because there was just so much to do. Late because I was already, permanently, behind. I’d rush out the door without breakfast (though sometimes a Starbucks coffee), always running. Always running. 

Even if I never really appreciated you, Dubai, I did always feel a moment of awe as I drove out of JBR’s concrete jungle onto the bridge over the Marina on my way to work: the skyscrapers, the yachts, the various pieces of architectural genius – it was indeed spectacular. 

The awe quickly receded, though, as I drove down the highway at 139 km per hour, just under the limit, refusing to exit the fast lane when Sheikhs in 4x4s rode up behind me flashing their highbeams to encourage me to get out of the way. It was poor etiquette on their part and I insisted on stubbornly teaching them a lesson. Off the highway, and into the last desert stretch of the journey to the office, I passed labourers standing on the side of the road in traditional kameez and kurtas looking for a ride (I could never figure out how they got there). At the entrance to the office, security guards mindlessly checked our cars for bombs and put our lunches through an x-ray machine – protocol imposed by the UN Department of Safety and Security, with whom I would have many less-than-friendly interactions in my travels to come. 

Reporting for IRIN took me to Libya, where UN agencies were camped out in a fancy resort along the sea that had supposedly been used as a hiding place for the Qaddafi family during the uprising. It was October 2011, just after the war between Qaddafi and rebels had ended. To do interviews, I had to quietly slip out of the complex unnoticed because travel in anything but UN cars was not allowed. I saw Qaddafi’s destroyed presidential palace and the bullet-hole riddled central square. I was moved by communities’ abilities to take charge of themselves without any effective government: volunteers ran traffic and former rebels divided up neighbourhoods to provide security. I was drawn to Libya – to its tribal layers, to the very rich dynamics in its Touareg south, to the sense of opportunity that followed the uprising but would  – like in so many other cases – quickly lead to more chaos. 

Afghanistan in January is something I would not wish upon anyone (though London currently feels just as cold). Its landscape is stunning; but its people tired and, after decades of war and outside interference, intolerant of more meddling. Systems are broken, and cycles of crisis are difficult to interrupt even where solutions are obvious. 

In March 2012, one year into the Syrian uprising, I was in the Jordanian capital Amman, following around activists who had developed informal channels to get aid into Syria and speaking to refugees as they crossed the border. I would return many times and, on one occasion, spend the night in the biggest refugee camp, Za’atari. I sat in the reception area as mothers dragged suitcases and exhausted children into the queue, speaking to the new arrivals as they waited to be processed. “Among us, there are stories to fill many more notebooks,” one man told me. And he was right. I left feeling emotionally drained. How they handled their emotions with such grace is beyond me. 

There were more formal trips, to Kuwait, Qatar Geneva, to watch Valerie Amos sign MoUs, listen to presidents of countries neighbouring Syria plead for more support, and witness one small part of how UN member states come to agreement on issues of the day. There was hypocrisy, sure. Bureaucracy, inefficiency, pomp and circumstance, conferences for the sake of conferences. But in some corners, I saw a genuine desire to get things done, for example the humanitarian coordinator of Syria as he tried to convince the “Friends of Syria” representatives that their approach to the conflict wasn’t appropriate ... and the gradual increase in mutual understanding between the UN and aid agencies working in the Gulf. 

In July of that year, I flew into Baghdad International Airport (“BIAP” in UN terminology), and was introduced to the lives of UN aid workers under self-imposed lockdown behind 12-foot-high “T-wall” concrete blocks, barbed wire, watchtowers and checkpoints. Some of them flew into Iraq on a UN flight, bypassing the commercial airport altogether, saw bits of an Iraqi highway on the armoured van ride to the Green Zone, and never enter the “real” Iraq before flying back out 28 days later for R&R. Iraqis who worked for the UN, of course, did not have the same luxury. I met local staff who left their homes for work before dawn so that their neighbours wouldn’t know where they went: affiliation to the UN was dangerous, and the fewer people who knew, the better. Iraqis, like many others I have met in my travels, are a resilient people who have learned to fend for themselves. One colleague summed it up by saying: “In Iraq, the people don’t trust the government and the government doesn’t trust the people.”

Syria was perhaps the most stressful of trips. I stressed about what to bring, what not to bring, opting for an empty laptop with no files, and ditching my big camera at the last minute. I carried a hard drive with a passcode in my inner coat pocket, and locked my suitcase everyday before leaving my room in the hotel where all UN staff stayed – said to be controlled by Syrian intelligence. I never got out of Damascus, but even so, met so many people whose lives had been turned upside down by the war. Aid workers, displaced people, Syrian friends of mine living in the diaspora – many have been irreversibly affected by the destruction of the country. 

I would come home from these trips feeling disoriented, sitting in the back of the women’s taxi from the airport, watching the familiar scenery of Sheikh Zayed Road fly past me. 

As constraints on IRIN’s reporting increased, particularly on Syria, I started questioning the value of my work. I felt disconnected and insincere and wanted to feel more direct impact and engagement. 

I got involved in a project to use art and culture to show the world a different side of Palestine.  I thought that would give me the value I was looking for. Instead, it taught me that many inspiring creative types aren’t quite so inspiring when you get to know them. The concept of the week-long festival was brilliant. The execution less so. I walked away with the conclusion that activism and revolutionary thinking often amount to much less than they proclaim.  I learned to stop romanticizing. 

Over time, the tumult slowed and I began to settle. 

Dubai, when I moved to you in September 2011, I knew you were a place of luxury and over-indulgence. But I imagined existing on the edge of that world, without engaging it. Very quickly, though, and without realizing it, you became a part of me. You allowed me (and many others) a life I had never even conceptualized. And it felt good. There, I said it. 

It felt good to indulge, to be glamorous, to have money (Keep Calm. Dubai is Tax-Free!). Things that used to be out of reach were suddenly at my fingertips: living in a spacious apartment on the beach; spending hundreds of dollars in an evening; jet-setting around the world for work (with the E-gate card that got me past all the lines at customs); wearing trendy dresses to dine in trendy restaurants: Argentinian steak at Gaucho, Lebanese cabaret at Mawal, shrimp tartar at Burj al-Arab. And of course: valet parking. The sun was always out. The streets were always safe. Life was easy. 

You made me feel like a Queen, Dubai. And you made me feel free to be whoever I wanted to be.

Sometimes, I just let myself fall into your arms. I lived the way one does when they are in love with Dubai: I partied, I ate well, I was carefree. Blue Marlin. Caramel. 360. Boat cruise. Brunch. Delivery. Table Service. Bottle service. 

Life was about work, fun and football. I could go weeks without thinking about much more. And what was so wrong with that? If this life was possible, why would you live any other way? 

A Sudanese friend of mine from Canada wrote to me, asking about job opportunities in Dubai. When I told him I was leaving, he couldn’t understand: “I hope it's for a better place," he said, then added: "It's hard to think about a place better than that from my point of view.” 

But ultimately, you were never enough for me, Dubai. Something between us was always missing. Some level of trust, and a long-term commitment. My time to move on has come.  

IRIN’s new chapter has been one of the most interesting of my life – a whirlwind of meetings with donors, press conferences, late night phone calls across time zones. We sketched staff structures on napkins, woke up in the middle of the night with ideas, and felt free to dream. 

Through it all - IRIN, life, the ups and the downs - there was of course, an unsteady constant who saw me through. He is one of those special souls that you are lucky to meet once in your life. He taught me about sacrifice, partnership, integrity, faith. Just the thought of him still makes me emotional. And every inch and corner of you reminds me of him, Dubai. So it was probably best that when I left him, I would leave you too. 

But I will not forget you Dubai: our stories and experiences, your crazy contradictions and difficult questions. They have shaped me, grown me, stretched me. And for that, I am humbled.