x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

How I realised the problem was not with Dubai - the problem was me

When my favourite restaurant, despite its flaws, shut down to move to a hotel location, I gave up on Dubai.

My career as a bully began and ended the day I found my little sister crying alone in a stairwell at our school. Overprotective and underutilised, I threatened to hunt down and devastate her offender. First I needed a name: who was responsible for these tears? My sister blew her nose and shook her head sadly, as if dealing with the ultimate simpleton. Turns out she was crying because her hamster had died. I felt dumber than a sea sponge.

Russians say that happiness cannot be harnessed like a horse. Arabs says it can be found at the feet of mothers. Scots say it's some haggis and a loyal dog. Scot or not, I'm into haggis. But for a more sustainable high, it's loyalty that feeds me, even when it works against me.

Historically, my loyalty to Abu Dhabi over Dubai has been militaristic in its rigour. Even when I lived in Dubai, Abu Dhabi was the safe house. For starters, the takeout here is better, partly because transit times are minimal by comparison. Anything that's spent an hour suffocating in foil while being ferried across any of Dubai's excruciatingly congested thoroughfares has suffered for it — and anyone eating it will be suffering next.

When in 2005, my warm, discreet regular weeknight restaurant hangout in Dubai closed permanently with plans to reopen the following year in a huge new hotel, my hope shut down with it. The place was nothing special — friendly service, a decent club sandwich, those cottony pre-frozen fries that are the bane of every restaurant by a pool, and a lounge singer with a thick Ukrainian accent doing Elton John covers. Still, having a place outside the home where I could go and be myself seemed crucial — and I couldn't stomach the pretence, expense and corporate alien decor of most hotel restaurants.

And so I grew used to feeling my battery drain when I crossed Jebel Ali heading north, and I'd flee Jumeirah on the weekends to convalesce in the sweet refuge of the Bateen. After a while, my preference became my polemic, no longer based on empirical evidence or recent experience. And just as I didn't need to eat a Pizza Hut pizza to know that I wasn't going to enjoy it, I gave up on Dubai.

In Santa Fe, I eat at least two meals a week at a restaurant called Atrisco. To me, it's golden, but my fondness is stripped of objectivity. If I set out to defend my obsession or to try to convert others, I'd fail. Nevertheless, in my eyes it can do no wrong — even when it does everything wrong. You know the rules about loyalty: you can say whatever you want about your family, but nobody else is actually allowed to agree with you, unless they want their teeth knocked out.

Last week in Dubai, I took a sleep aid that made even my water taste bitter — a common side effect of the drug. It got me thinking about the benefit of blind tastings — and how badly I need to conduct a few of my own. I hadn't spent two consecutive days in Dubai since 2006 until last week. All the important factors were in place: good company, inspiration, comfort and fun. Then, consistently, after sundown, I marvelled at bizarre transgressions that seemed so unique to the city, and on every end of the economic spectrum.

Eventually, I started considering the selectivity of my biases, and realised they had stopped serving me, instead becoming liabilities. Dubai was a filter through which everything appeared flawed, when the obvious problem was me.