x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Dubai: the city that creates cultural chameleons

Prayers with puja and contemplation with celebration: the UAE welcomes Islamic New Year and Diwali side by side.

Last weekend, the Islamic New Year coincided with Diwali, mixing prayers with puja and contemplation with celebration. Throw in a bunch of new faces, and you have everything I love best about this country: the delightful clash of cultures that throws you off kilter and catches you before you fall.

My own motley crew converged at Manvaar in Karama. This Rajasthani restaurant is a five-time winner of Time Out Dubai restaurant awards, and on Diwali night it was packed with exuberant diners in desi garb: men in kurta pajama (traditional knee-length shirt with fitted trousers) and women with bangles on their wrists and bindis on their foreheads. Not all that jingles is desi, though. We had at our table - in addition to the obligatory Pakistanis and Indians - an Austrian, a German, a Brazilian, a Greek and an Argentinian. So what's the big deal, right? Just another day in the UAE?

For those of us living in a country that is home to people of more than 202 nationalities (according to the Ministry of Labour), it's easy take a multicultural society for granted.

Growing up in Saudi Arabia and attending an American school, I have childhood memories of friends from all corners of the globe: Ian from Canada, Yvette from Lebanon, Megan from Norway. Moving back to Pakistan as a teenager was a culture shock; it was all so homogenous. Where was the cacophony of different accents? The peculiarities of curious cultures? The nuances of numerous nationalities?

Everyone spoke the same language and belonged to the same country. I was desperate for diversity. And then I moved to Dubai. The city and its many nationalities welcomed me with open arms and once again I felt at home by virtue of being away from it.

This open embrace is another endearing quality of the UAE. "Back home" is where people grow up together as part of a seldom-changing equation. It's hard to find your feet in a group that has been together for decades. New faces don't happen very often and are dealt with awkwardly and reluctantly.

The UAE, in contrast, is transient by nature. For a group to remain unchanged over the years is an anomaly. People drift in and out of the country and your life. You learn to welcome enthusiastically and bid farewell gracefully.

Somewhere down the road, you learn to do it in many languages. You can kiss hello at least three ways (European, Lebanese, Emirati), raise a toast in Russian, pass a compliment in Arabic, celebrate "name day" and Navratri, appreciate tango and tanourah. You become a cultural chameleon.

It was with this same spirit that we celebrated Diwali this year. I bet the Brazilian girl and the German boy - couch surfers who just happened to be passing through for several days - had not anticipated full-on desi celebrations when they looked at the tiny dot that is Dubai on the world map and thought, "This might be a nice place to stop by on our way to Sri Lanka from Iran."

Turns out it is a very nice place, for those two and for those like us, who have been passing through for several years. It might not be home itself, but for those of us lucky enough to find friends we can call family, it is everything a home should be.

PS: If you were expecting a comment on the highly anticipated Diwali release of Jab Tak Hai Jaan, then please register my lack of comment as the comment itself. And with that, I've already wasted more words on the film than I really should have…

The writer is an honest-to-goodness desi girl living in Dubai