x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 17 December 2017

In New York, I am in an Abu Dhabi state of mind

Deborah Lindsay Williams finds more similarities between New York and Abu Dhabi than her summer home in New Jersey.

How similar are Abu Dhabi and Manhattan. Ravindranath K / The National
How similar are Abu Dhabi and Manhattan. Ravindranath K / The National

'Tis the season: the season of summer migration, that is, as Abu Dhabians move around the globe in search of a respite from 47°C heat. Whether for a week, a month or the entire summer, people head out of town, wherever time and their bank accounts can take them.

I suppose some people have cancelled elaborate travel plans in response to extremist attacks, while others charge ahead, passports in hand, refusing to be cowed. It’s hard to say which is the correct response, given the pervasive and random violence at work in the world.

Some people are on a family trip – that’s travelling with children, if you have them – and some are on holiday – that’s travelling without children. Regardless, these summer migrations always remind me that to live as an expatriate is to be multiply homed: a world of “both/and” rather than “either/or”.

There is the home of daily life in Abu Dhabi, and there is the home to which we may be returning for a holiday. Perhaps there is even a holiday house that is somewhere between those two. And then there is the home we carry with us, the soul’s inner tent-pole helping us to stay grounded wherever we find ourselves.

I am writing this column from the exotic state of New Jersey, where the radio stations pump out a steady stream of Bruce Springsteen, one of the state’s favourite sons. I sing along with Bruce on the radio, trying not to laugh at the irony of a man who is now a millionaire many times over telling me that “tramps like us ... We were born to run”.

Before this New Jersey visit, I was in Manhattan, and although I am only two hours south, it seems like I am worlds away. It fact, it frequently seems as if Abu Dhabi and New York have more in common than do New York and much of the rest of America.

Like Abu Dhabi, New York is a city where many (if not most) of the inhabitants are from somewhere else, and where, as a result, we must all routinely negotiate cultures and experiences very different from our own.

We each create our own individual maps of our cities – here the favourite coffee spot where they know to add an extra sugar, there the dry-cleaner who knows how to do the shirts, there the restaurant that serves the best hummus. These inner village maps help us to tame the sprawl of the cities and make them our own; we incorporate these cultural differences along the way.

“Down the shore”, as they say here, I am in an actual village, where fishing boats jostle each other in the harbour and where kids with surfboards tucked under their arms ride bicycles to the beach. The green waters of the Atlantic have tested the mettle of my own children, who spend the first day or two of our visit shouting about how cold it is. They’ve become used to the warm waters of the Arabian Gulf. We hear only English spoken in the shops and on the beach.

When I do my middle-aged lady power walk on the beach, I can walk for an hour and see only white people. Given all that, it shouldn’t surprise me that I’ve seen more “Trump for President” bumper stickers in the past week than in the previous three weeks in Manhattan.

Our visit this summer coincided with both presidential conventions, with their diametrically opposed world views – world views that map onto the two sites of my summer holiday. I am hoping that the crowded cosmopolitan vision of New York carries the day: its polyglot chaos, as overwhelming as it sometimes may be, will prove more welcoming than will the homogeneity of this postcard-perfect small town.

Donald Trump may have his name all over various buildings in Manhattan, but ultimately, New York is not his sort of town. He lives in a world of “either/or”, and I cannot imagine any of us being at home in such a place.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi