x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

An Indian identity within the Emirates

In conversation with Neha Vora, an Indian-American professor who is at NYU Abu Dhabi this week to talk about her new book and Dubai’s longstanding Indian community and their relationship with the UAE.

The author Neha Vora says she wants her book Impossible Citizens to give a varied account of life in Dubai and the UAE. Courtesy Edmond Cho
The author Neha Vora says she wants her book Impossible Citizens to give a varied account of life in Dubai and the UAE. Courtesy Edmond Cho

Neha Vora, an Indian-American who teaches anthropology at Lafayette College, Pennsylvania, in the US, explores the long relationship Indians have had with the UAE in her newly published book Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora. It is a relationship, she says, that began much before the relatively modern trend of Indians emigrating to UAE that started in the 1970s.

In her book, Vora explores contemporary citizenship, where Indians who have lived in the UAE for decades continue to contribute to society, all the while thinking of India as home, even though some of them – third or fourth-generation Indians in the UAE – may have never visited the subcontinent.

We ask the author about the genesis of the book and its messages.

What attracted you to the subject? Have you or your family been long-time residents of the UAE?

I lived in Dubai for my graduate fieldwork in 2006 and I have made several follow-up trips after that. Around 2004, when I first got attracted to studying in Dubai, it was receiving a lot of media attention, usually through accounts of the lives of construction workers compared with the lifestyles of Emiratis. I wanted to readdress this representation of Dubai by looking more closely at the diversity of Indian experiences in Dubai.

Many people assume that the migration of Indians to the Gulf began in the “oil” era. You’ve pointed out that it began much before.

The interconnections between the Arabian Peninsula and the subcontinent precede European colonialism in the region. There has been a history of trade in goods and ideas across the Indian Ocean for centuries and people have also moved and intermarried. With the British colonial presence, this relationship became codified into Trucial Agreements and eventually into oversight of the Gulf region by the British Raj government in India.

In fact, the Raj afforded Indian merchants in the Gulf protected status, which led to tensions between Gulf locals and Indians, but also to alliances and business partnerships. Many of these long-standing businesses still exist today around the Dubai Creek area. And I interviewed many businesspeople from gold and other industries during my research, whose families have been in the region for generations.

What do you think are the chief contributions of the Indian community to the UAE?

As the largest community in the UAE and particularly Dubai, the Indian community provides many economic benefits to the country, as Indians are employed in every sector of the economy and at every skill level. Many Indians have developed strong emotional ties to the UAE and the Gulf region, some have learnt to speak Arabic and many consider Dubai home.

For the reader, what would you want the takeaway message to be?

There is a lot of literature and media attention out there that paints Dubai as exceptional, over-the-top, as a non-space, as exploitative of labour, as too materialistic, etc. I wanted, in this book, to provide a more robust and varied representation of Dubai and the UAE, one that emphasises that what is happening in this country and in the Gulf region is by no means exceptional within our contemporary globalised world. Many Dubai-Indians feel completely at home in Dubai and can’t imagine living in India, despite holding an Indian passport their whole lives. I want readers to think about how people exist in complex and contradictory ways around the world that do not always correspond to their legal status and how people in seemingly different places might have quite similar daily existences.

artslife@thenational.ae

• Neha Vora’s book Impossible Citizens is published by Duke University Press and is available at Amazon

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