x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A portrait of a young country

A book inspired by the poems of an Indian-born teacher documents the story of children born in the UAE to non-native parents in photographs.

A photo titled Grand Dad from Children of the Sun, a book about growing up in Dubai by Paul Thuysbaert and Piyu Majumdar.
A photo titled Grand Dad from Children of the Sun, a book about growing up in Dubai by Paul Thuysbaert and Piyu Majumdar.

They go to school together, play together in Dubai's parks, splash together in waves on the beach. They come from all walks of life, representing a generous slice of the roughly 200 nationalities that live side by side in the UAE. They are a generation of children immersed in myriad other cultures by virtue of being born here, blissfully unaware of their status as a bridge between eras in a growing nation.

Their pictures, filling the pages of Children of the Sun, the first chronicle of the lives of third-generation UAE residents, offer insights into their experiences growing up in modern Dubai. Depicted with the frankness and innocence of a child's perspective, the book illustrates the attributes of a generation whose eyes have been opened to numerous cultures, traditions and languages. Cara Nazari, an American married to an Emirati whose daughter Hannah, 12, is featured in the book, said: "My children do not look at people and ask where they are from; they just see people. They might enter into a discussion about heritage, but essentially, they are very open to the multicultural aspect of living here."

"We have the best of both worlds as they are exposed to both Emirati and American culture," she added. "They can live in either world." Piyu Majumdar, an assistant teacher at the American School in Dubai who has lived here for almost two decades, came up with the idea for the book after writing poems about different aspects of life in the UAE. The book includes more than 30 of Ms Majumdar's poems.

She worked with Paul Thuysbaert, a photographer, to capture images that summed up the essence of a new, emerging generation whose experiences had yet to be documented. Mr Thuysbaert, who was born in the UK but lives in Dubai, said: "My wife is Indian and my children were born in Sharjah. That is a great example of how the world is today. "There is much more connectivity with globalisation and the UAE is a microcosm of that, yet most nationalities still have strong roots to family and culture."

Ms Majumdar added: "I wanted to show the UAE through the eyes of its children as they are more prepared to mingle. Adults come here with preconceived ideas about race and culture but children are more open to their commonality. "I see it in schools, where there is a mixture of every nationality. I felt it was an important story to tell. Children growing up here have a unique childhood, which they would not get anywhere else, because of the blend of cultures and the mix of old traditions and the modern."

Mrs Nazari, 42, a school director, said her children Hannah, Ahmed, 14, and Adam, nine, had enjoyed a safer upbringing with broader experiences compared with her own childhood. She moved to Dubai 17 years ago after meeting her husband Younus, 44, while they were both studying in the southern US city of Atlanta. As he was keen to return to his Emirati roots and his extended family, they settled in the UAE.

"Younus had great memories of growing up here. I was a little hesitant as it was so different, particularly back then. It took me a while but after our year-long trial period, I loved it," she said. "When I had my first baby, I stopped talking about 'going home'. My children have grown up here and are Emirati - it is what they know. "Summers are spent in the US escaping from the heat, and they are anxious to go abroad to university, but it is easier for them to place themselves in the Arab world than the western world."

Monica Valrani, 37, a nursery owner, says her young sons have already had a rich tapestry of experiences, partly because of her own diverse background. Both she and her husband, Navin, 38, a building-services contractor, have Indian parents. Mrs Valrani was born in Ghana and grew up in Lagos; her husband was born and raised in Dubai. As a result her sons Rohan, 11, - who features in a picture showing him surly faced at the hairdresser - and Kunal, eight, have enjoyed a unique upbringing.

"I went to a boarding school and in Africa we had a home help, so the boys' upbringing is very similar to mine," Mrs Valrani said. "We are quite pampered and spoilt here. While Dubai is protected from things like crime, it also means they have quite a sheltered childhood. I don't think they have even seen a drunk person before. They certainly do not 'rough it' here." "We went to India last year for the first time and I prepared them for the poverty they were about to witness," she added. "It was definitely an eye-opener for them, but I was surprised how they took it in their stride. I would like them to travel more and go to university in the US to be exposed to the real world. Being sheltered can be a bad thing as well as a good one.

"We will leave it to them whether they see their future here or abroad." Tarik al Khamis, 15, who has an American mother, Kristen, 46, and Saudi father, Adnan, 47, is central in a series of pictures showing Dubai's astonishing construction boom, with him wandering around building sites in a kandura. Mrs al Khamis, a teaching assistant who also has a daughter, Danah, 11, said she was curious to see where her children would end up.

"Both want to go to college in the US, but the world is their oyster," she said. "For them to pack up and go half way across the world is not as big a deal as it was for us, and that is down to growing up here. They are much more accepting of other cultures. The UAE is multicultural, the lifestyle is easy and it is safe. We don't have to worry about people taking guns to school and there are more opportunities to travel.

"In the US, people tend to stay home rather than going abroad but here, my children get a balance of cultures." She added that there were drawbacks to raising children in the UAE: "We have them in a very expensive school, but I do not feel there are other options. It is also a shame they are not able to go out into the street and play with their friends as I was able to do when I was growing up. Here, you have to arrange a play day and drive halfway across town.

"But I still feel they are getting a much better experience than I had." Jo Baker, 50, a British-born mother of three who helps run the website expatwoman.com played host to the book's authors at one of the group's coffee mornings this week. "There is a special quality about what I call the third culture children growing up here," Mrs Baker said. "My sons have visited the UK where I grew up but they are different. They pepper their language with Arabic, they are a lot more tolerant of other cultures and they have a certain confidence and maturity that enables them to mingle easily with adults.

"Being raised here broadens their horizons." The first volume of Children of the Sun - Growing up in the Gulf was published last month while a second volume is due out in October. tyaqoob@thenational.ae