x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Parting is such a sweet cliché

Absurd little things acquire emotional resonance when one is preparing to leave a country after six years.

Every story starts with an ending. I'm not sure whether I read this line somewhere or whether I just made it up, but it has a certain greeting-card logic to it, one that I've been turning over in my head lately. I'm moving to Spain, bringing to a close the six years I've spent in the UAE, and I like the idea that my last days here will be a prologue to what lies ahead.

Certainly, a crucial transformation occurs the moment you decide to leave a place. At first, it's a process of forced nostalgia, best accompanied by Crowded House ballads on the car stereo. You'll gaze at the Mall of the Emirates as you drive by, trying to feel something, but the speed cameras demand your attention, and the mist you'd hoped for never arrives.

As the reality sets in, something else happens. The most familiar details of your own back yard - the banana tree that's clinging to life, the tea stains on the rickety patio table, the hosepipe that spends its days snaking across the lawn, tripping everybody up, the stupidest things - become infused with meaning and melancholy.

These responses may arise from the basest emotions - sentimentality masquerading as sorrow - but they are seductive. We all have a little adolescence left in us, and saying goodbye to a place allows us to dust off that old sense of being profoundly, unutterably sad, which is the ego's most acute mode of expression.

What you cannot do is arrange this muddle of emotion into a coherent picture. There is no My Time in Dubai, only a swarm of moments that flicker in and out of view. You can say that you've been happy in a place, you've met some amazing people, you've learnt important things about yourself and the world, but you'll only ever be telling a tiny fraction of the truth.

Before I came to Dubai, I discovered a website with a live video shot of a random street. I'd sit in my office in Boston, Massachusetts, and gaze at this tiny patch of pavement, thrilling when someone walked by, trying to imagine where that person might be headed, what might lie outside the frame. I read lots of guidebooks too, of course, one of which advised me not to wear shorts in public.

It seems ridiculous to say so, but my impressions of Dubai may have been more coherent then than they are now. Once a city has been filtered through what you are - your appetites and fears and finances - a distortion occurs. This is what keeps anthropologists in business.

And it is why leaving columns are always a bad idea - you end up clutching at platitudes, resorting to mush, identifying patterns and parallels where no such things exist.

In the end, all you're left with is the time you went to Ski Dubai and had a blast, or the time you went to a nearby ATM to see if there was any money in your account and went home disappointed.