Sunday 8 August 2021

The Fortress Of Dreams

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Indian School Al Wadi Al Kabir In Muscat, Oman

When I was two years old up to the age of four, for five mornings every week, at 7 AM on the dot, I remember being extremely unhappy. 

I remember clinging to my mother's hand. I remember looking at her with wide eyes, begging, pleading, often with a solitary tear, often silently, but screaming deep inside. On some days, the sadness and angst became unbearable for my tiny heart, and it gushed out in a mournful whisper:

"Mumma, main kab jaunga?"
(Mom, when will I go?)

I remember the afternoons of those unhappy mornings. When the Muscat sun was in its element, we heard the distant rumble of a bus engine, growing louder and louder like an omen. That was the first warning. My mother took a deep breath, chanted a few prayers and braced herself for pandemonium. I ducked for cover under our dining table, fingers plugged in my ears and eyes screwed up in anticipation. The bus came and went, and there was blissful silence for a few minutes. It seemed the danger had passed. I poked my head out of my shelter, ears still plugged, squinting through one eye to look at my mother. 

She still chanted soundlessly, knowing it was inevitable.

And then, with a screech that cleaved our home apart, our doorbell rang.

The earth shook as it rang and rang with a deafening din. Birds screeched in the distance. The dining table trembled, clothing me with sawdust and fear. Steel utensils fell to the floor, adding to the cacophony. My mother staggered through the world that was ending, eyes pinched against the bone-shattering clanging and opened our front door. 

A tornado of ebullience burst through, shaped indistinctly like my elder brother. For a while, we only saw a speeding blur that launched school bags, bottles, shoes, socks and books into every room it passed. Despite the wreckage it left in its wake, the twister chattered nonstop about this dreamland called school. Even when it settled, it yammered through mouthfuls of lunch, barely stopping to breathe. It boasted of dramatic cricketing feats and howled at uproarious pranks pulled on new friends. It doted on these lovely beings called 'teachers'. It spoke of all the adventures, friendships, happiness and love that I was missing.

Everything about it was irresistible. I was dying to go to this wonderland. I longed to be a 'big boy'. I longed to 'study' and answer important questions from adults like "What did you learn in school today?" and "What grade are you in?"

I remember the first time I visited my brother's school. I remember gaping at its giant brown facade, a small solitary figure swallowed by its vast shadow. The Indian School Al Wadi Al Kabir stretched for miles like the length of its name, like the meaning of its name. A giant fortress in the desert, a wadi unexplored, an adventure denied.

I remember it vividly, as it was the source of my unhappy mornings. On schooldays at 7 AM, my mother took us to the curb below our building to wait for my brother's school bus. As it rumbled over, I clung to my mother, my hands encircling her arm like vines on a trellis, beseeching for consolation. The bus conductor was a big, booming man named Prakash who smiled with his eyes more than his mouth. He put one giant foot on the road, with half of his body hidden in the minivan and the other half sprawling out like a genie from a lamp. He greeted my mother, winked at me, and beckoned my brother.

Faceless shrieks of welcome emerged from the shadows of the bus. My brother forgot his early morning tantrums in an instant. He vaulted in, flung his bag on his reserved seat and sat on his knees in reverse, facing the other boys. My mother and I waved at him as the bus rolled away, but my brother never waved back. He never looked at us. He was already deep in conversation with his friends. Peals of youthful laughter flitted through the bus windows as it sailed away towards another day of laughter, adventure and love.

"Mummamain kab jaunga?"

The pain was unbearable, unfair and suffocating. Time was my enemy. I asked my mother the same question every morning, usually with sad eyes accompanied by a tiny, broken whisper. I asked not to hear the answer but to soothe the throbbing ache in my heart.

My mother, to her credit, answered the same question for two years with unwavering love, pity and compassion. She didn't count the weeks, months or years till I went to school but rather the experiences I would have. She described the cartoons on my school bag, the shape of my water bottle. She listed the delectable delicacies she would put in my tiffin box and the loveliness of my notebooks. She painted a picture of classrooms and crayons so wonderful, so positive, so enchanting that I was already laughing by the time we were back home.

When I was four, it was finally time, and my excitement knew no bounds. We went shopping for my bag, water bottle, tiffin box, books and uniform. For days on end, I bounded around the house in full gear, carrying a Mickey-Mouse-themed bag and a camera-shaped bottle, as if school had begun early. I pored over my textbooks and empty notebooks, envisioning the letters I would write, the colours I would fill. I was finally going to that fortress I had dreamed about for years. I was so excited that I failed to notice the strained smiles on my parents' faces.

A week before my first day, my mother informed me that I wouldn't be going to the fortress. ISWK had constructed a small new kindergarten school, far off in the Muscat desert. Slightly taken back, I still maintained the spirit. After all, I was finally going to school, wasn't I? 

On my first day of school, my father insisted on dropping me in his car.

"No, I want to experience the school bus," I beamed. 

Years later, I discovered that my father had driven behind the school bus that morning, on the chance that I might start crying as kids on their first day invariably do. Yet Prakash reported to him that I sat silently on the tiny footrest they used as seats for the little ones, not speaking to anyone but just looking around with wide eyes, afraid to blink, trying to take it all in with just my sight, unable to contain a smile. This is it, here we go, my first day of school. I entered the class to begin my new life of happiness. 

In a few hours, I experienced the worst day of my life. 

On my first day, I sat amidst wailing girls and boys, miserably crying tears upon tears, filling up puddles by their feet.

"This? This is school?" I thought in disbelief for the entirety of those hours that stretched for years, for decades, for centuries.

Just an eternity of crying? An eternity of abject misery and pain? There had to be a mistake.

My mother beamed at me when I got home, hoping her son's day was filled with as much joy as he had hoped for years. 

"Kaisa tha pehla din?" she asked warmly.

I stared at her with suppressed tears, shocked by the tragedy, stumbling for words. I broke down, unable to comprehend if it was a huge mistake.

Over the weeks, as the kids' tears dried up and I started settling into school, I still felt incomplete. School was the formidable fortress my brother attended. This modest dull building in the middle of nowhere did not compare. My parents decided to carpool our morning ride, with driving duties split between my father and a friend's mother. Every morning, a car carrying four kids stopped first at the fortress, dropping off three of them. Then it sputtered deep into the desert towards my shanty, my nose pressed against the backseat window as I watched my brother and his friends disappear beyond the big white and blue gate.

Two years, my mother coaxed and cajoled. By the end of KG 2, my excitement was on the rise again. "Now, I begin school", I thought as I gambolled across the house. Once again, I failed to notice my mother's strained smile in my delirium.

A week before Grade 1, my mother sat me down to explain that ISWK had now shifted primary classes from the main school to expand intake. A dull new building, housing Grade 1 to Grade 4, had been erected next to my KG building in the extremities of the wilderness. My dream would have to wait for another four years.

The first year was easy since all four kids in the car headed to the same building. But a year later, we were back to dropping them off at the main school while I stared mournfully through the window. When I reached Grade 4, I was no longer oblivious. All year, I had heard the thudding hammer and grating saw. My mother sat me down to explain that they had added another floor to the primary school, to include Grade 5. 

Just one more year, she consoled, and I would finally go to the big school.

Nearly a year later, a month before I would have finally started classes in the main school, I had my face pressed against a car window once again. But that afternoon of April 7th was different. We were moving permanently to Dubai, away from the only apartment, building and city I had called home. 

I never walked through the gates of the main school, the fortress of dreams.

I haven't returned to Muscat ever since.

* * *

What have you done?

You either die a window seat loyalist or live long enough to see yourself picking aisle seats on flights (if you prefer the middle, then you'll be pleased to hear that there is medication for what you have). Ever since I reached the age of reason, I scoffed at window seats. Two minutes of good views on the fringes of hours of darkness were not worth perching like a tarantula with legs bent where they shouldn't be bent.

My loyalties started to sway on my annual redeye flights from Manchester to Dubai. As the flight descended on the lands of Arabia, I craned my neck from my aisle seat to steal a glimpse outside the window. Darkness was all I saw. Impenetrable, spreading all across and beyond, unrelenting in its uniformity. I yawned, stretched, hit my knee in the process, cursed aloud, whispered an apology, checked the time and returned to waiting. 

After minutes that felt like hours, hours that felt like years, I heard a whisper from a window seat. A child tugged his mother, pointing excitedly into the void. I craned forward once again. 

This time, I saw it.

Far off in the abyss, one small golden dot had blinked into existence.

Then another, and another. In a matter of seconds, like golden dominoes toppling into sight, lines of dots emerged at the horizon. Yet, there was structure in their formation.

In 1903, the Argonaut anchored off the shores of the Trucial States, as Lord Curzon did not deem the land worthy to set foot on. Instead, he welcomed the sheikhs onboard for a durbar. 

"We found strife here, and we have created order," he exclaimed bombastically.

A century later, peering out of an airplane window, I did see order in the desert. 

But it was not the British who had created it.

The dots were streetlights. They snaked out like tendrils, linking up with other patterns emerging from the sides. As we flew, the roads of the Emirates emerged thousands of feet below, awash with bright golden light, twinkling in the haze just like the stars in the heavens above. As I watched the child try to trace the lights towards the horizon, a destination was apparent. There was a purpose, a crescendo. With gradually increasing radiance, all paths led towards a giant golden dome of light on the horizon. It was something extraordinary, still hundreds of miles away, still indistinct, yet ominous in its presence.

It had the mark of a creator, divine and powerful. 

At that moment, I stopped craning my neck to look outside the window. I settled back into my inferior aisle seat, sheepishly muttering apologies to the passenger in the middle for nearly sitting on his lap. 

I sighed.

All year in Manchester, I lived a stranger's life. When you're a young student, it's easy to get lost in certainties. Of course, you are supposed to study, revise, party, travel and repeat it all over again. Of course, you are supposed to go back every semester. Going to school, moving up grades year after year, then going to university and doing that for another four is just part of the plan. 

You are supposed to do it. There are no big decisions to be made, no conscious thought.

I always lost myself in those certainties in Manchester. My past was safely ensconced away on the dark side of the mind, unused until further notice. I was connected faintly with friends, family and old memories yet detached. I was supposed to ignore it. There was no time or point. I had grades to achieve, memories to make, a life to live.

Those shackles weakened earlier that day when I first saw it.

I was standing at the airport departure gate, gaping at the object beyond the high glass windows. It was a gleaming, pristine aircraft with fluidic calligraphic lettering on its flank. It had welcoming colours of red, white, black and green on the rudder. 

At the other end of the world and in a completely different life, a convoy sent by my past. 

At that moment, I felt a shadow of a thought, almost a sense of deja vu, fledgling and innocent, not yet stirred into an opinion or emotion. 

That shadow of a thought grew as I watched the flight screens play introductory videos in Arabic. It grew as I fumbled for a grimy sim card, dumped unattended for a year in a spare spectacle case. It grew and grew as the flight speakers crackled with the melodies of the oud.

Finally, near the end of the journey, it happened. As I drifted in an ocean of twinkling jewels, in the sky above and ground below, the thought took shape. Before the pilot crackled landing instructions, stewards glided over collecting disposables, seats buckled and unbuckled, overhead carriages shut and opened, for a brief moment, I found peace, joy and silence before the chaos. 

I found order in the strife.

I was finally home.

Dubai Lights At Night Aerial View

* * *

"One of man's oldest dreams is to turn the desert green."

In 1979, Queen Elizabeth II inaugurated the World Trade Centre with her royal scissors and majestic proclamations. 

In 2005, when my father's Toyota Camry entered Dubai, the World Trade Centre (now the Sheikh Rashid Tower) barely featured in a list of must-see places. Even if you sympathized with the former tallest building of the Middle East, what then of the others? Can you proffer your sympathy to the Emirates Towers? Deira Clocktower? Burj Nahar? Fish Roundabout? Deira City Centre? Burj Al Arab? Even if you squeezed them all in, with Dubai's prodigious love for the Marina or Palm, can you secure a spot for the Creek today? 

Where bedouins, or bedu, napped while floating on extremely salty waters to combat the heat. Pearling vessels floated out, carrying divers with noses clipped shut and weights tied to their feet. Dhows coasted in with lateen sails, bringing Persian wares, and soon the Persian merchants themselves. In 1938, it mediated the uprising of Dubai with the rulers in Bur Dubai and the rebels in Deira. The creek that built this sleepy fishing village and then divided it. 

Today, if you looked at Deira across the creek, you would see a set of geometrical buildings that were once the original skyline of Dubai: the convex National Bank of Dubai, cylindrical Rolex towers, triangular Chamber of Commerce and spherical Etisalat globe. If you stood on the opposite end, you saw the influence of migrating Persians in the Bastakiya district, badgirs jutting out of the mass, abras flitting voyagers across the channel.

They say big, old cities like New York or London or Delhi or Bombay feel like they are never yours. They make you feel lost. No matter what you do, those cities have existed for centuries without you and will continue to exist for centuries more. You are nothing but a temporary speck, a petal in a field, replaced every year. 

The Dubai I grew up in was neither big nor old. But it still wasn't mine. 

I was still lost. 

An orchestra conductor walks on stage and climbs onto a raised platform. He dusts his tuxedo, snaps his spotless white gloves and stands up straight. A momentary pause, and then he points the baton to his left.

I hear "This city has no future" from an uncle shaking his head, arms folded in defiance. We were celebrating his 60th birthday in his gilded mansion. He had lived more than half his life in the city of no future.

The conductor snaps the baton to the right. I hear "I don't have freedom here" from friends in a pub, irony effervescing like the froth of their beer, as iridescent spots of light sporadically light up our table.

The baton points to the middle. I hear "The market is down" from clients as they network at hotel lounges, pose for flashy awards and splurge on lunches and brunches. For two decades, I've never heard of the market ever being 'up'.

The baton swirls around, and I hear "There is not much to do here, there is no culture" from people who only visit the same cafeteria every evening for karak.

The tempo rises, the loudness gets painful. I hear "This place exploits workers," and heads nod in unison.

The tempo rises and rises. I hear "It feels fake, feels artificial," and "We have no stability," and "We can't call it home." The same routine, same tunes, same beats, repeated year after year. It gets faster and faster, building in crescendo, until I'm back under a table, ducking for cover, eyes screwed up. It gets louder and louder, with crash and clamour, and the world is ending. I stagger through the racket, ducking under vicious debris, to stop it the only way I know. 

By agreeing with everything I hear. I agree, piling dust and sand back on the shine, and just like that, there is silence again. 

You got me, I'm convinced. I'm eulogizing a showpiece city, foolishly inebriated by the romanticism of youth, delirious in Dubai. 

I must leave.

Yet, even in my self-imposed alienation, this city has a way of creeping up on me. A moment comes, which comes rarely but comes with force when it does, when I'm standing at Bluewaters, or the Palm Crescent or Sheikh Zayed Road, dwarfed by the magnificence of Ain Dubai or Atlantis or the Museum of the Future. A moment comes when I'm cruising dreamily on Garn Al Sabkha or Al Khail road, and the columns of Dubai Marina or Downtown Dubai rise into existence. As I get closer, the shapes begin to take form with the fluidity of a dimmer switch. The edges cut across the sky at astonishing heights.

The silhouettes sharpen, and I see it.

Spires of glass, glistening like crystals in reflected sunlight, piercing through the clouds. Higher, higher and higher. Towers of sparkling diamonds, testament to human ability and spirit, built on heat and sand.

At that moment, it hits me. The magnitude of this city's accomplishment, its audacity, its insolence. I'm struck by a single thought, one that surges through like a bolt of lightning:

What have you done?

How dare you do it? Who said you could do it? How many doubted you? How many never looked your way? Unable to come to terms with giving up their homeland to make more money, they tried to explore your darkness. They speak of history but never visit your forts, tombs, falajs or wadis. They speak of culture but never explore your art, architecture, poetry, music or theatre. They don't try your luqaimatshassan mattars, shawarmas, Pofak chips, date milkshakes, Areej juices or porotta wraps. They don't see the vintage Toyota or Lexus with decals all over, tinted black, still flaunted with pride. They don't feel the lethargic Friday morning lull when Dubai sleeps while the world still works.

Despite your apparent vices, they stayed and continue staying, grumbling publicly but afraid to confront the truth of going back home. 

You were the village on the Pirates Coast that a British general described as 'enjoying the safety of being undesired'. Now, they don't doubt, don't question, don't ignore. Now, they see, they marvel, they gape. Now, tourists stream in for luxury and leisure, descendants of guffawing generals stream in for tax-free havens. From barastis to the Burj, you defied the prophecy. The makers, the divine creators, locals and expats, hand in hand, creating order in strife, turning the desert green.

Once the city with no future, now the city of the future.

What have you done?

Today, I leave this city for New York. A city that is a grandfather of urbanity compared to Dubai's infancy. I leave to be a petal in a field of the quintessential metropolis, a grain of sand in the Rub' al Khali. At the cusp of this nation's 50th year, a month before its biggest global event in history, I leave it. As it sheds the final scraps of reticence and steps forward on stage announcing its ambition, I slip out the back door.

I left Muscat in search of a home. Despite a decade in Dubai, I'm still bothered by a question: did I find it here?

I don't know. All I know is that as I grew up, this city grew with me. We are entwined, this city and I, hand in hand, heart and soul. We still call it the Sana signal, but there is no Sana. The Sukh Sagar street but there is no Sukh Sagar. We still say it's next to 'Al Nasr Cinema' or 'Ramada Hotel'. Still reminisce Musalla Tower's dragon and Lamcy Plaza's clown. 

I marked the Burj Khalifa's ascension in my mind, like a mother notching her son's height on his bedroom wall. As I got taller, its spires reached higher. As I moved faster, the golden lights reached out even further, swallowing the desert. A mist, a shadow, a thought spread through this city and me, in our hearts and soul. It spread through the dunes, through the heat, taking in the barren wasteland to create hope, ambition and dreams.

We were the ones born in the dark who stayed around for the sun, this city's midnight's children. 

Can you take that away from me?

Dubai Skyline Burj Khalifa

* * *

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