x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Celebrating this welcoming haven of peace I am proud to call home

Over the years, in my travels as a global nomad, it has become increasingly apparent that true internationalism cannot be prescribed. It has to be lived.

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

One of my favourite Dubai moments occurs at dusk on a Friday evening, during the soothing call to Maghrib prayers in the cooler months. There is a spot on the Bur Dubai side of the Creek. Visitors to the area can hear various muezzins' voices rise through the air, as abras ferry passengers across the Creek; one can watch Emirati men go indoors to pray, after talking animatedly outside one of the Arabic coffee houses in Bastakiya as a queue of Hindu and Sikh devotees wait to enter their places of worship. Young western couples discover the Old Quarter as they pass the chatter of Arab, Indian, Iranian and Pakistani children playing on the grass close to the lapping sounds of water.

Aside from the magnificent views the setting simultaneously offers - the Burj Dubai soaring through clouds and the old Deira souk - it is a synchronisation of otherwise dissonant sounds. And yet, if one were to move ever so slightly from this point, the state of equilibrium is instantly disturbed. As National Day approaches, to me this moment captures much of the spirit of tolerance, enterprise and opportunity that is unique to the UAE - in a region that is primarily defined by tensions - and one that is unfortunately taken for granted. It is a glimpse of a soul that is so often said to be missing by the less-informed.

My family moved to Dubai nearly 20 years ago, when I was a gawky adolescent. I had no idea what Dubai was and certainly no foresight of what it could or would become. Dubai was a word I had seen growing up in Hong Kong in the early 1980s. Guests visiting our household would bring goodies in bags labelled Dubai Duty Free. In those days, on the rare occasions I was allowed to watch a Bollywood film, I would be told that the men in white robes were Arabs. With these images in mind, I landed in Dubai, a fortnight after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

Within months of our arrival, the city was in mourning over the passing away of Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai at the time. We read in great detail in the local media whatever we could about his life, his sons and how along with the country's founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, they had set the foundation of greater acceptance and understanding, defining the UAE experience for expatriates. With all that we read, Dubai was no longer a word. The UAE had become our home. And remains so.

For any writer, the UAE provides limitless stories. Tales evolving from a vivid past, taking place in a rapidly changing present and setting the tone for an interesting future. Few international cities offer such narrative diversity on a cultural, social, economic, and above all, human level. The questions, needless to say, are numerous. The stories are sometimes simple, but the setting is often more complex than admitted by the international media. In the past year, while sourcing stories for the Personal Finance section of The National, one undeniable truth has emerged from the UAE's many foreign communities: this nation has stood up for them when their own countries of origin have let them down.

Young Arab men and women tired of the conflict and political chaos consuming their homelands have wished their nations' leaders would prioritise the state over sectarianism and offer more diversity in the job sector. South Asian migrant workers have said they pray for the well-being of the UAE's leaders, having been disappointed for generations by their own countries' politics, corruption and failure to lift them from abject poverty.

Middle-income skilled western expatriates forced to take pay-cuts here in the past year have explained their reasons for preferring to downsize their standards of living and choosing the multi-cultural UAE over their homelands, where integration remains a much-debated issue. Looking back, our integration into the UAE's society was seamless. At school, we sang the UAE's national anthem in addition to the Indian one. At home, I learned to read my mother tongue, after completing my Arabic homework. In short, the platform and conditions for becoming part of the UAE always existed. How well people integrate here boils down to how hard they try.

Over the years, in my travels as a global nomad, it has become increasingly apparent that true internationalism cannot be prescribed. It has to be lived. There are no degrees that certify mastery over the subject as it is a state of mind which allows individuals to live a more compassionate way of life. And no matter what the curricula of programmes in international relations, they cannot confer a degree in global citizenship.

To many in the UAE, the Emirati way of life has led by example as a culture that has always welcomed foreign influences - with warmth and without any fear. Despite remaining largely rooted to their core Islamic traditions and Arab identity, they have adapted to modernity - they remain open to dialogue and debate while articulating their perspectives to varying ethnic audiences. In living and letting live, an organic process of integration has occurred in the two decades I've known the country.

For many Indians in particular, the Gulf countries have offered the most important of all opportunities: possibility. Whether it is the textile trader who arrived here for the first time 75 years ago and left a business legacy for his grandchildren to continue; or the 38-year-old accountant, who landed in the late 1980s and educated his children in the United States; or the unskilled worker, who works long hours so his family of five can upgrade their living, all have enjoyed better prospects than they otherwise might have.

Now married in the UAE, my French husband and I find our collective sense of internationalism growing daily through a palette of experiences, events and incidents. We find ourselves taking tiny steps towards achieving a better understanding of the differences that define our fellow humans in a way that can only be achieved by living, sharing and caring in a country with such a diverse ethnic make-up. More simply, we also find ourselves taking forward the childhood lessons of internationalism taught by our mothers: reach out, shake hands and be friends.

Although it is easy to remain within the cocooned protection of our own ethnic bases, it has been far more enriching to embrace the diversity around. The friendships that have followed are both endearing and enduring. Vinita Bharadwaj is a freelance writer based in Dubai