x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Comment: Keep left for the Twilight Zone

If Al Ittihad Road were a film, it would be so painfully slow and long-winded that a third of viewers would probably ask for their money back within the first 10 minutes.


Mahmoud Kaabour If Al Ittihad Road were a film, it would be so painfully slow and long-winded that a third of viewers would probably ask for their money back within the first 10 minutes. Unlike a film screening, however, the notorious highway between Sharjah and Dubai does not allow for a change of mind. Once the 10 minutes are through, a driver's endurance and sanity are put to the test in a traffic gridlock that gets many Sharjah residents breaking down every day - in tears or in wet pants.

My parents and sisters are among the disenfranchised masses who have been driving Al Ittihad Road for so many years. I see eight clogged lanes in their eyes when any of us dares to make the journey to meet up. Their bodies are decorated with its unique accolades: shaky hands, aggravated slip discs, stiff necks and hypertrophied right calves. The road has cost them a big share of their lives in the UAE and separated us while it masqueraded as an urban link.

Its mere seven kilometres eat up an average hour and a half to cover, with drivers proceeding by intermittently releasing their brakes. During evening rush, the crossing back to Sharjah can take up to two and half hours, not including rage-induced collisions that plunge the infinite vehicular serpent into further slowness. Al Ittihad is also a lot of science fiction. It's a road that seems to grow longer in the morning and shrink back to its actual length by late night. It's a rite of passage, setting its travellers into dark internalisations that make them speak to dashboards and scream behind closed windows. Time expands on its lanes like in another dimension, with the "rush hour" stretching into four. It's a road that challenges science by discrediting the invention of the wheel. Not so long ago, it was ironically enhanced by flash radars for much-needed comic relief. Were the great poet Robert Frost alive, he might have written The Only Road instead of The Road Not Taken: a eulogy to human choice to which Sharjah residents are not entitled. It gets more vengeful every day for not being anybody's favourite road. And its narratives are defining an entire generation, the way a war or a famine would in another country.

Like many Arab families, my parents settled in Sharjah in the late 1980s when this road was its selling point: "Enjoy living among the vibrant Arab community in Sharjah and send your kids to the finest international schools, 10 minutes away in Dubai." I can almost remember it in a reassuring radio presenter's voice, and it was true indeed. My sister and I often reached Al Nasr Cinema in Bur Dubai before we could settle on which movie to watch.

My fondest memories from high school, a good 15 years ago, are the bus rides back to Sharjah. I used to dream of what was to come for me in life as I stared out of the window at the rapidly shifting desert. But the landscape shifted slower year after year. Construction sites started dotting both sides of the road and residential towers rose high, as rents in Dubai rose even higher. That is how the exodus to the new peripheral neighbourhoods of Al Nahda and Al Tawon began. Within a few years, Al Ittihad became an alley in the skin of a highway, overextended under the tens of thousands of commuters who work and study in Dubai but can afford to live only in Sharjah. With rents still aiming for the sky, Al Ittihad might one day get jammed beyond any recognisable mobility, permanently disconnecting the two emirates.

My youngest sister and pride, Maya, is studying at Al Mawakeb School in Dubai as I and my other sister did. But living in Sharjah is proving a dire paradigm for her young body. She might be Sharjah's earliest riser, beating birds and the dawn call to prayer with her 4.45am alarm. She dresses, skips breakfast and then takes the bus at 5.15am to get to school by 8. At 2.30pm she takes the bus back to arrive home for a lukewarm lunch at 4.15pm. Maya's school bag includes accessories that I never had, such as the bus pillow and blanket that she also uses for naps in the playground during break time. She naps most of the afternoon and evening, and gets to homework around 9pm, studying until bedtime at midnight. Her sleep, and that of her schoolmates on the Sharjah bus, is intermittent. She is often tired, down with chronic colds and dreaming of guitar lessons.

Maya's favourite part of the week is "hyper day", made possible whenever I take one for the team and leave my desk at Dubai Media City around midday to tackle Al Ittihad Road. I eat a late lunch with her and my parents, and then drive her back to my flat in Bur Dubai to spend the night. There she finishes homework and enjoys nine hours of sound sleep before I drop her at school in the morning in a mere 15 minutes. At my place, Maya is most jubilant about rising after the Sun has. Her energy on "hyper day" causes alarm among her exhausted friends and good grades whenever exams are given. It is also a day that incurs financial losses for my business.

My father has been doing a lot of business in Abu Dhabi as of late. An 11am meeting in Khalidiya somehow translates into a total of 10 hours of driving and no other business completed except the meeting. He says he spends a lot of time at petrol stations, drinking tea and stretching; not the most comforting thought. He rarely has the energy to visit me in Dubai. "There are no hours left to drive," he says.

My other sister, Marwa, has gone through all imaginable transformations doing the rush hour drive for four years. She's read books, explored new music genres, called clients and spoken to dashboards while driving to work and back. Her trips on Al Ittihad were also the times when we bonded, with her calling me in Canada for good one-hour chats in which she described her and her friends' driving experiences, giving me many of the notes for this column. While driving one morning she made the decision that has changed her life since: to move to Dubai and never visit Sharjah again.

My mother is blessed with a job that she gets to on foot. She invests her free time cooking comfort food for her children. But she is often heartbroken at the lack of messengers who will carry it to Dubai on her behalf. I live on the convenient Mina Road in Dubai and feel as distant from my family as I did in Canada. I try to constructively think of what can be done to Al Ittihad Road to ease this misery. With all expansions and freeways failing so far and "The Union" continuing instead to divide and alienate, I feel it might be time this road was at least renamed.

Mahmoud Kaabour is an award-winning filmmaker who lives in Dubai