Former expat shares tales from early years of Dubai in her blog
“I‘m hoping for this to become a book, which is all quite exciting really,” says Jan Constable of her blog, Tiptoeing into the Bloody Abroad, which chronicles her experience of 1970s Dubai – as a “middle-class, middle-England” girl from Surrey.
Constable, now 73 and living in Spain, enjoys reliving the past. She began writing the blog, which she says garnered a million page hits in seven months, after taking a writing class.
“We left London on the eighth of May, 1970, and nobody at that time had even heard of Dubai,” she says, ”so it was like actually saying one was going into the deep blue yonder: unknown territory.” After a brief pause, she reflects: “But one had to do it.”
Her husband Mike worked for the oil company Shell, and with the oil boom in full force, his move to the Trucial States – the collective name for the pre-unification Emirates – was inevitable.
“Nowadays, if girls have a husband – which they don’t at 25 – but didn’t want to go, they wouldn’t go. But, in those days, one had to do it. My husband could never have gone back to Shell the next day and said: ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t go – my wife will be homesick.’ That just wasn’t on the cards.”
Her sense of trepidation increased when Shell advised her to stock up on everything she needed for a whole year. Her first blog details how her “first priority was to be well turned out at all times, disregarding the sweltering temperatures”. This ambition sent her running across town, having herself fitted for cocktail dresses, evening dresses, tea dresses and all the other essentials: “tennis, golf and swimming gear”. She feared she may even have to hide herself in a burqa or abaya, perhaps even remaining tucked away at home.
Reservations aside, she donned her best outfit – the type she would wear “to Harrods or the Ritz for lunch” and set off – arriving at what could only loosely be described as an airport.
“There were just, oh, one or two people there. More or less, you stepped onto the runway, through a door, through a Nissen hut, through the other side and there you went.” She remembers the drive to her first home, the Riviera hotel on the Creek: “There was nothing there, no InterCon, no municipality building. Most of it was just sand.”
She was pleasantly surprised by how unfounded many of her fears were. “You could always get things in the souq. And there was Jashanmal, which had a few little bits and pieces.”
There were some initial challenges, though, such as knowing how a woman conducted herself within the community. Fear of breaking social taboos left Constable cooped up in her Riviera hotel room for six weeks, while her husband was out at work.
“There were only two furniture shops in town and in those days, Shell had a rule: obviously, we were young and Mike was a junior chap and because you were junior, you were only allowed a three-seater settee, but, in the town, in the two shops there were only four-seater settees.” She recalls finally pointing out “a nice settee” to the general manager’s wife, who replied “you can’t have that, because it’s a four-seater”.
“I nearly died. If she could not have found a three-seater, we’d have been sitting on the floor. It was literally like going back to boarding school.” However, by their first trip home, nine months in, the couple had found their “sand legs” and from here until the end of the decade, it was a “lovely life; as long as you met it halfway”. Soon, the InterContinental opened, as well as the Sheraton, the Dubai Country Club and the Dubai World Trade Centre. While the population was counted in tens of thousands when they arrived, Constable says by the time they left, it was counted in millions.
They have returned, though – Mike worked in Abu Dhabi in 1995, and they also lived in Dubai just after, though the pair felt more at home in the capital at this point, because it felt more like the UAE they knew. They also returned six years ago, visiting the Burj Al Arab for tea.
“My impression now …” she reflects. “I’m not sure that unless you’ve got a lot of money in Dubai you really can enjoy what is on offer. For us, it was a hardship posting and the salaries were treble London. And then everything was paid for, all your apartment, the whole lot, so you actually were able to save a lot of money, whereas now I believe a lot of people find it very difficult.”
Visit Jan Constable’s blog at tiptoeingintothebloodyabroad.com
Hareth Al Bustani is a features writer at The National.
Updated: March 5, 2015 04:00 AM