It was the night they walked for the last time down the cobbled pathway of an uprooted garden that changed something within me forever. Seeing my mother wail like she had never before and my father sitting in the car outside the house stone-faced and holding back his pain, I swore that I would never make the same mistake, never stay in a place for too long without having the opportunity to be its citizen. – Sangeetha Bhaskaran, “Goodbye Dubai,” July 23, 2017
Dubai-based blogger Sangeetha Bhaskaran wrote “Goodbye Dubai” in 2017 as she was preparing to leave the city for good. It was an ode to the city while also lamenting the fate that will eventually befall the majority of its population. She talked about heartbreak, loss, attachment, and memories. The blog went viral and was reposted on social media, commented on, hailed, criticized, and everything in between. It even was published in the local Khaleej Times, and Bhaskaran was interviewed by media outlets. Their focus was on the positive aspects of her story – that she misses Dubai and is so grateful for having been allowed to set foot in the city and enjoy its generosity. However, the underlying premise of her piece – the policies that led to her parents’ loss and pain – is not addressed at all. Several other writings followed, in which people talked about their own sense of loss. Second generation migrants, children who have grown up in the cities of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, and elsewhere in the region, have come of age and realized their tenuous and precarious status.
The khaleeji city at its very core embraces the fleeting and transitory. Its countless migrants are replaced with new waves of eager job seekers, who in turn make way for the next wave. And yet amid this transience, migrants have attempted to create a home, to set down roots. However fleeting this may be, it nevertheless is an attempt to assert some form of belonging to the cities they have chosen to reside in. And in doing so they share similar strategies and tactics as migrants do in other places in the world. While these strategies vary, they all reflect efforts by migrants to lay claim to “their city” by leaving traces, or through informal practices that subvert intended use and transform a setting. In a similar way coming together in groups in abandoned sites and interstitial spaces asserts migrants’ presence in the city. But this is not just restricted to migrants; residents and locals through various practices, such as gardening, aim to personalize their habitat and strengthen their connection to the land. However, both migrants and locals share similar challenges in the fast-changing environment of the Gulf Arab city.
Leaving Traces and Claiming the City
One of the fascinating aspects of life in the Gulf city is how people personalize their living environment. Spaces appear to be lived in – the very antithesis to the manicured, curated, and sanitized spectacular city. There are traces left behind by migrants – people who inhabit or have inhabited these sites. Worn passage ways and alleys, graffiti, flyers posted on lampposts and buildings, clothes hanging to dry – these are all traces indicative of a desire to set down roots. They are also indicative of informal practices.
Informality becomes a way to proclaim an alternative order that subverts the rigidity of the formal. Yet, given the context of the Gulf, the informal cannot be compared to the chaos and randomness of Egypt, South America, or India. Here it is at the level of small gestures, an indication of city dwellers’ resilience as they adapt to restrictions and rules. There are numerous ways by which people occupy spaces in the city. Invariably they involve changing intended uses – alleyways transformed into a space for commercial transactions, or a street corner that is converted into a mosque.
Sometimes migrants hide in interstitial spaces where they are safe from the overbearing and encroaching city. In a darkened alleyway in the working-class neighborhood of Bur Dubai is an improvised shoe repair shop set up by a migrant from Pakistan. He has been working in this area for decades. The shopkeeper is in his own world, unaware of his surroundings as he diligently carries out his task. In this darkened and anonymous alleyway, a “place” is created by the very fact that an informal business has been established there.
Gathering, Meeting, and Playing
Sidewalks, streets, squares, parking lots, and entrances to buildings are not just functional settings facilitating movement or access. They are also important sites for other activities, such as meeting friends, watching pedestrians, playing, and sometimes also protesting. There is the planned, utilitarian city envisioned by city planners and officials, and then there is the “other” city where unprogrammed uses take place. In the khaleeji city it is not always easy to engage in such playful acts. It is seen typically as a form of subversion, a defiance against the established order; but it tends to be tolerated as long as it takes place in controlled settings and does not infringe on the more formal parts. This bifurcation in the use of urban space is quite glaring.
Standing at a street corner, sitting on a lawn near a major road, playing cricket in a parking lot, and congregating around the entrance to an alleyway are ways for migrants to claim a part of the city as their own. By imbuing these sites with what they like to do, they establish a presence, and thus a form of longevity. It is a way to make a space homey. For instance, a man sits on a chair in a parking lot, talking on his phone, while observing a group of children playing an impromptu game of cricket. A passerby takes a quick glance at the game and in the background are the lights of the migrant city. It is a mundane scene. However, in its quotidian rhythms, it evokes a sense of normalcy. People are settled and this is their home.
Or, near Dubai’s Ghubeiba Metro station the green area above the traffic hub is packed with mostly Nepalese workers, male and female, sitting together on the green lawns in a festive and boisterous atmosphere. The sight of women, mainly in groups, while there are also couples, is very unusual. At the same time there are South Asian male workers sitting close by watching the interactions unfolding in front of them. Some parts of the “park” are used for an impromptu game of cricket. This used to occur in other parts of the city too, like green traffic dividers and along expressways, to the extent that such places were dubbed “mini-Nepal.” There, people played cards and sometimes met their future partners, as was relayed by a Nepalese worker who said that he saw his fiancée for the first time in one of these spaces. Additionally, along Dubai Creek, not far from Nasser Square, Chinese women perform Tai-Chi. They appropriated an empty parking area in the evening for their activity while being respectfully watched from a distance by a group of Pakistani workers. Similar to in other cities, such as Hong Kong or Singapore, and in spite of much more restrictive conditions, migrants have found a way to assemble and occupy part of the city in a manner that was not originally envisioned by city officials. The simple act of meeting and coming together establishes their right to the city.
Gardening and Establishing Roots
One of the interesting aspects of the khaleeji city is the proliferation of gardens and parks; there is a desire to combat the clichéd trope of the city and the desert, despite the extensive amount of irrigation required to maintain such green areas. Yet aside from aesthetics, planting gardens in such an arid environment reveals the desire to set down roots. Nurturing a garden requires some time commitment; it takes time for a seed to grow and for plants to mature. It is thus another way to establish permanence in a city that promotes transience. This yearning is sometimes so strong that it takes place informally; people create gardens throughout the city going against rules and regulations. In one instance, the sidewalk pavers have been removed and in their place a small patch of greenery has been created; or a small Ethiopian café in a side alley in Abu Dhabi uses planters to define a small outdoor seating area. Such practices extend beyond the act of migrants in dense urban environments. They can also be found in suburban areas populated by long-time Emirati residents who seek the restorative qualities of green spaces.
Nowhere else is this more evident than in the traditional homes, known as Shabiya, occupied by Emirati residents. What makes these dwellings, hailing from the 1970s, so remarkable is that they are sometimes totally enveloped by vegetation. It is a way to establish privacy and create a micro-climate, but it is also an expression of a desire to set down roots, to make a connection to the land. One of these houses is located in Shabiyat al-Shorta in Dubai. The house will soon be vacated but the elderly woman living there continues watering the garden. Though she was admonished by her neighbors, she defiantly proclaims: “I will continue to nurture this garden till I leave.” Such practices are an embodiment of the kind of resistance that is displayed by residents in the fleeting and rapidly changing urban environment that they inhabit.
There are many ways residents of the Gulf Arab city establish a home thus enabling a sense of belonging. Such practices do not differ greatly from what occurs in other parts of the world. Wherever there are migrants, they find a way to come together and lay claim to the city.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He previously served as a visiting scholar at AGSIW and is the author of “Temporary Cities: Resisting Transience in Arabia” (Routledge, 2019).
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