While I may resist putting down roots in the sand, my daughter Astrid is not in doubt. This city is her home and, as a result, it is my home too.
Home is where your daughter is
"Home," writes WH Auden in a poem called Detective Story from 1936, "the centre where the three or four things / That happen to a man do happen". Geoff Dyer, who refers to these lines at the beginning of his book about more than a decade spent wandering the planet, Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, struggles to apply Auden's version of home to his own life. He "can't refine down the number of things that have happened" to fit Auden's version. He's done too much in too many different places, he says, for this idea of "home" to work for him. The fragments of his life are too scattered, the events are too dislocated, to give the concept of "home" any meaning. I know what he means.
Home is a notion that can quickly become muddled here in Abu Dhabi, a nexus for people from across the globe. Ask a resident if they are "going home" (without the appropriate context that would clear up any misunderstanding) and you are just as likely to be briefed on details of the next trip to his or her native country as you are to be informed about the journey back to an apartment or villa for the day. The confusion is understandable. After all, home is not something you can rationalise. It's a gut feeling, an emotional response. You cannot persuade yourself that you are in "the centre", as Auden put it, when you feel like you are on the periphery or simply passing through.
Home became much clearer to me, more coherent than it has been for many years in fact, upon returning from a holiday in Jordan recently. Over the past two and a half years, I've struggled to muster what I feel is the appropriate response to the sight of a desert looming beneath me through the aeroplane window and the captain saying, "welcome to Abu Dhabi", as the wheels come to a halt on the tarmac. Each landing has felt more like home, but only because memories of previous homes have been eroded and the recollections of them have slowly melted away.
All that changed when I saw Astrid burst through the door back into the apartment after the trip. She ran quickly between the rooms, picking up toys and casting them aside, pulling book after book from her shelves, leaping on the bed and hugging the bears, bees and dolls that did not fit in our luggage. She was excited to be back. She was, in short, happy to be home.
This response might seem a tad superficial: you could say it's the possessions, the belongings, their positioning and their familiarity that provoke this response. Set those elements up anywhere in the world, give them time to bed in and Astrid would probably react in the same way. But that is missing the point.
There's a Scottish term for the home of your youth: it is called "calf country". It refers to the land in which you spend your earliest years, the place where your senses are first sparked, the realm of your first sounds, smells and tastes. Although Astrid was born in Edinburgh, Abu Dhabi is her calf country. She puts her hand to her ear at the sound of each call to prayer. She rarely wears socks. She devours labneh, olives and halloumi.
While I may prevaricate about Abu Dhabi and resist putting down roots in the sand, Astrid is not in doubt. This city is her home and, as a result, it is my home too.
* Robert Carroll