Methinks thou dost protest too much

I don’t normally use this blog for political comment. I rarely get involved in this sort of thing; I’m self aware enough to know I really don’t know what the hell I’m talking about most of the time. But I do know a few things:

1. I am a white western woman from a middle class background who received an excellent education and continues to live a privileged life in all ways: housing, personal safety, financial security, health, education, social and political freedom.

2. I try hard not to take it for granted, but basically, it’s difficult not to in any real terms. The best I can do is educate myself better about how other people live and try to be a person who says and does things that will improve other people’s lot in life.

3. I believe the most effective way to do this is not by ‘unprivileging’ myself; instead, I can choose to do what is within my grasp to change what I see around me, even if it’s just a little bit. My creativity, through writing and improvisation, is a way to harness this privilege and turn it into something that might make a small difference in the world.

The reason I write this is because I’ve stumbled across a campaign that is currently running to encourage authors to boycott the literature festival in Dubai. At first, it made me sad, from every conceivable viewpoint, that such a thing existed. Then, as I read further, it seemed to make sense, that some people would choose to join in. Then, I wondered what I would do, and I decided that boycotting isn’t something I would consider but it’s fair enough someone else did. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and if their moral compass directs them that they just can’t bring themselves to visit a certain place because they believe the bad outweighs the good, then that’s up to them, I thought.

Then there was some Facebook bashing, and I got a bit cross, because the comments began to come across as part-judgy, part-ignorant and part-patronising, and I hate that. As a few more people who have actually been to Dubai voiced the suggestion that actually, maybe boycotting a literature festival wasn’t the most effective way to show dissent for a particular country, the arguments began. A barrage of reasons…it’s not the festival, it’s the sponsor; it’s what they represent, it’s a terrible regime; the festival is sponsored by an airline and so it’s environmentally unethical; the airline is run by a government that doesn’t support LGBT issues; censorship… again, I thought, okay. Fair enough. And then, as these things always do, it got a bit personal. To those who had been to the festival – authors and visitors – it was suggested (no matter what was said to the contrary), that our experience enhanced our white privileged lives without addressing the other issues on the table – ‘sweeping them under the carpet’ in order to serve ourselves. The usual number of people trotted out lines like they wouldn’t be seen dead in ‘a place like that’, everyone there is a money-grabbing wanker etc etc etc. And then someone suggested the lack of culture in Dubai was reason enough not to go. Dubai lacks culture, ergo, boycott a literature festival. 

Listen to yourselves.

I’m not going to bang on about what this one festival has done for Dubai culturally because you either know that because you live there or don’t believe me because you inexplicably ‘hate Dubai’. Actually, yes I am. I know from personal experience it is a springboard for many people from very different walks of life to explore their individual voices in an alternative way. It created a hunger for cultural activities in the city that wasn’t there before. And audiences crave more. They literally cannot get enough. I’ve been on stage in a theatre with standing room only – where people who have never been to a theatre before have stood for two hours just to watch a show. I’ve played to hundreds of people in the crowded streets of the old town. I’ve stood in classrooms and helped bring stories to life – stories of the children’s own creation – in schools bursting with different languages and religions and skin colour. The festival was indirectly a part of what enabled me to do all that, and enabled audiences to begin experiencing new things. The fact of the matter, whether you like it or not, is that five years on from when it started, there is a thriving arts community that wasn’t there before. And by definition, that means people are experiencing new things. In terms of myself, it allowed me to find a way to mix with other people who aren’t exactly like me, and to explore their worlds a little bit – but it also allowed the audiences and schoolchildren I met to explore mine. And that is a Good Thing. I’m proud to have been part of that.

Creativity. This amazing gift we are given is the essence of what makes us human. It empowers people, educates, entertains, and allows us a window onto a different world where the things we don’t/can’t/won’t experience for ourselves in our everyday lives are brought to life for us from the pages of a book, or the scene of a film, or through a painting, a dance, a moment on the stage, or by looking at a photograph or listening to music. As an audience, we learn and grow from these moments, and as the individual creating them, we express our unique point of view, to share and be counted. So what sort of sense is there in boycotting a literature festival? Surely that is censorship of the worst kind? It’s saying the audiences (and let’s forget, for a moment, about the thousands of adults that attend) – the children and young people from every kind of background who wait for this amazing experience of having authors and poets visit them, talk to them about any number of things and explore new worlds with them – it’s saying all these kids don’t deserve a festival which encourages creativity and conversation, because they live in the wrong place. It’s forgetting that these children will one day be grown ups themselves, and that if doors are opened and new worlds are seen through the eyes of their imagination, maybe when they are the ones in charge, their view might be different; they might be the very people to make things better, the way we all want them to be. Those ‘over-privileged Emirati kids’ you don’t want to meet? They are precisely the ones you should be meeting. One day they will be the rule makers and well, wouldn’t it be nice if they were as well-rounded and thoughtful and ‘right-on’ as, say, you? 

They say one person can’t change the world. It’s never really been my thing, and I will hands up say I’m not very good about taking extreme stances on anything, but I agree that protest en masse is sometimes the only way to be heard. And yes, sometimes it works. But a literature festival? Hurting something that’s so precious and relatively fragile – a place where the conventions of normal Dubai society can be set aside and where there might be a single genuine, allowable moment that might change a mind or plant a seed of knowledge inside a young mind – this can only have an outcome that will be damaging in the long run. We should be using our privilege, our education and our social and political freedom to show what being a good citizen of the world looks like – and how can we do that by denying others of ourselves?

We are creative people. Our imaginations know no bounds. Our responsibility as a creative person is to open minds and hearts and fill them with the voices of the world. Each to their own, indeed; but I fail to see how walking away in disgust will help anyone. We should be saying ‘I believe the world can be a better place’, not by holding a banner up at the people in charge of today, but by sharing knowledge, challenging viewpoints and figuring out a new way, a better way, a more creative way to make it actually happen tomorrow.

 

 

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#mydxb

It’s the eve of the eve of the eve of the eve of our departure from Dubai and I’m feeling nostalgic. I’ve lived in Dubai for nine years, and there are so many memories here, so many little parts of Dubai that are gone forever, so many people that have moved on, so much that has changed. So what will I miss about this city? What has made it, in the words of the social media hungry, #mydxb? What is so extraordinary about this place, that despite my best intentions, I ended up falling in love with it? Here’s my top five:

1. The people. Yes – there’s good and bad here, like anywhere. Yes – there’s a lot of irritating arrogant idiots around who should be ashamed of themselves. Ambition and self-belief are the cornerstones of Dubai society; admirable in small quantities, obnoxious in larger ones. But there’s a bigger picture here too: the general tolerance and acceptance that people show, the easy harmony with which everyone rubs alongside each other that makes the city special. Rarely will you see such a mixed bunch of nationalities and religions all hanging out together with such comfort and good humour. So many people have not a good word to say about this place, but IMO the rest of the world could learn a lot from this city.

2.  The roads. Okay…so the driving is – how shall we say – erratic. But with nearly ten years of driving in the Middle East under my belt, I feel pretty invincible returning to the UK roads. There’s something perversely enjoyable about driving here too. Absolutely NOTHING that would surprise me anymore. Someone talking on their phone while driving? Amateurs. Unless there’s a falcon flapping about in the back, or someone is reading their newspaper at the wheel, or backing up the on-ramp of a motorway, I’m not interested. Also – I must hand it to the transport authority. When we arrived there were about five roads in Dubai, each a variation on a theme, entitled ‘will I get to work and back without being in a car crash today?’. There were no speed cameras, no maps and no street names. Driving frequently involved large tracts of sand, using the now-demolished Hard Rock Cafe as the the mainstay of all direction-giving, and trying to avoid hitting the ‘red flag man’ acting as live bait as your traffic lane ran out. These days, the roads might still be, er, challenging to negotiate, but they are a VAST improvement. And there’s buses, and a metro, and the boat thingy that crosses the creek and the marina, and the trolley is coming…it’s quite amazing, how much has been achieved in less than a decade. Makes returning to the M25, South West trains and the District line pretty unattractive, to be honest.

3. The cleanliness. OMG it’s clean here. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be desperate for the toilet than in Dubai. Nowhere else I’d rather have had my toddler crawling around the floor than here. Nowhere else I can walk along the streets knowing that I will never, ever have to worry about gum, dog shit or bins smelling of sick with filth spewing out of them every 500 yards. It seems like a bit of a weird one, that this has made me fall in love with a city. But, well, I think it’s going to be a huge culture shock to be back in a place where your snot turns black and travelling anywhere in flip flops means certain pedicure death. Sigh.

4. The nightlife. I have been lucky enough to eat and drink in some of the most amazing restaurants in the world. It’s not done my waistline any favours but it’s been an incredible privilege to eat at so many beautiful places. Superficial? Yes. Spoilt? Yes. But it’s been part of our wonderful adventure here and we’ve had some truly spectacular nights out in Dubai. I will miss it.

5. The arts scene. When we arrived, there was one amateur dramatics society, one theatre and a sprinkling of art galleries. Ten years on and the city is blossoming and blooming with stand-up comedy nights, improv comedy, theatre and film festivals, street festivals, art, photography, dance and literature, independent theatres and classes and courses to suit everyone and anyone who wants to flex their creative and cultural muscles. I’m so proud to have been part of building it, at the Courtyard Playhouse – so happy that I got to make real change and be involved in something from the very start. This little corner of creative paradise found will forever be my Dubai. It is the part I will miss the very most.

There’s so many more memories of my time here, of places and people and sounds and smells: Crossing the creek on an abra surrounded by jellyfish;  the old man in Bastakiya creating beautiful calligraphy; the bustling ‘foreign-ness’ of Deira and Bur Dubai; the Disney wonderland of the Madinat at Christmas; the majestic Burj Khalifa; January rain falling on the grey gulf waters; the desert sunsets, beach sunsets and city sunsets; sandstorms and lipgloss; it’s a fascinating place, built on hopes, wishes and dreams, a city that I will miss knowing as it changes and grows without me. But let’s face it, a city is only the sum of it’s people. The never ending waves of people, coming and going and staying and leaving, friendships fluctuating like the tides of the ocean. They are what I will miss the most. They are #mydxb.

Still going…

So, the container left yesterday. There were tears. There’s been a lot of tears this week, and tantrums, mainly in the car to and from places behind the relative safety of my sunglasses so I don’t upset/annoy/embarrass the very people I’m crying over. I’m trying to be mature about the whole thing. Trying not to sulk about leaving. Trying, goddammit, to leave well. (I rue the day I ever heard that phrase). But every time I think I’ve nailed it, something happens, and it’s the last time it will happen, or the last time I will go there, or the last time I will see that person, and my world comes crumbling down again.

I know London is going to be great in so many ways. It’s not going there that I’m sulking about, it’s leaving here. Although, I am sure, as long as it’s not pissing down with rain when we get there, that London will score heavily over Dubai almost instantly, in that it’s pretty much a guarantee I won’t have to stand unloading a container in 45 degree heat. I don’t think I have EVER been as hot as I was yesterday, sitting by the truck ticking off 265 boxes of our stuff on a bingo sheet as they made their way into their metal hulk of a home for the next weeks.No bottle of cold beer has ever been more welcome than the one I popped last night after it was all over. A friend swung by on a mid-morning mercy trip with 24 bottles of water after we ran dry in the house, took one look at the state of me and offered an oscillating fan on an extension cord from the garage, which I refused out of kinship with my packing team. I was okay. I would survive. Of course I regretted the decision around about school pick up when I had a six pack of salt-sweat marks on my vest top and a sunburnt forehead. But I didn’t dare complain, because at least I wasn’t the poor sod lifting my 265 boxes onto the truck. Those guys are amazing to do what they do. Bloody amazing. The bloke that came to pick up some of our furniture at the weekend spouting ‘sorry I’m late, I’m just waiting for my monkeys to turn up’ nearly got knocked out cold by me on the spot. Working in this heat, lifting and carrying someone else’s shit for a pittance of a pay packet…anyone doing it deserves a bloody medal, a hefty tip and a whole lot of respect.

So anyway, now it’s over, and it feels a bit weird because I actually have some time on my hands. As in, I’ve got a stack of things still to do, but I’m not running about like a headless chicken. I’m in purgatory, caught between one world and the next and it all feels very weird. So of course, I’ve spent the day closing bank accounts and shopping for teacher gifts and having a healthy lunch for once and generally trying to ignore thinking about the next bit: getting on the plane.

I don’t want to deal with it. I  keep thinking about it and wigging out. I know it’s just an emotional time and I’ll get over it, but I’m so tired of feeling this way. I don’t feel ready for a new adventure. I like this one, thanks very much. Another one just feels like a lot of work. But, inevitably, I’m slowly coming around to the fact that we just NEED TO GO. I know, deep down, that I’m done. I’ve said my goodbyes, drunk my own bodyweight in beer, made my peace with the fact that the next 6+ months are going to be exultant and arduous in equal terms, and now I just want to get there, get the keys, unpack, stop mourning my old life and get on with the new one. It’s so difficult, letting go, and this bit is the worst, when you know you are nearly on the plane but there’s still time left, which inevitably gets spent with dear friends that you end up even more emotionally vested in than you were before. It’s some kind of torture, then, to finally let go, and walk away.

Even though we aren’t planning a return to live, leaving is not a finite act. We have too many ties not to come here again. I lived half my adult life in Dubai and I can’t act like it never happened. I refuse to act like it never happened. It’s just too much part of who I am. But I know from bitter experience, it takes discipline not to cling on too hard, not to imagine that I can keep my life on ice and pick up where I left off when I pop back here for weekends or holidays. Especially in Dubai, where the expat merry go round spins in continuous motion, I can’t ever come back thinking that it – or I – will be the same as I left it.

Maybe it takes the experience, of leaving, and of being left, to understand and accept that moving on as an expat is bigger than simply changing countries, or going home. I know that when I leave Dubai, I cease to exist. Or at least, cease to exist in the way that I existed before. I will never be the same person again, as I am right now: not even close. That is the loss I am dealing with, that is the pain I feel, the thing that I am mourning.  And no doubt I will spend a large portion of the next few months figuring out where the balance lies: figuring out how to be happy and ‘at home’ in one place and the graceful alumni of the other. Figuring out who I am next.

But for now, I just have to remember to pack my sunglasses for the plane.

…get set…

And suddenly, we’re four weeks away from leaving. My days and nights are crammed with coffees, lunches, dinners, drinks and shows with the best of my friends, in a frantic attempt to make up for the fact that after June 27th, the door will slowly close on all the wonderful times we’ve shared together and things will never be the same again.

My last show at The Courtyard Playhouse was on Saturday. It was a 12-hour Improvathon to raise money for the Children of the Mountain Nepal Earthquake disaster fund. We managed to raise over Dhs 10,000 on the day through sponsorship and donations on the door. If you want to donate, you can contribute here.

The day(and night) was magical. We had a lot of fun, and the audience did too – as you can see here from this rather amusing video taken from one of the shows, there were several silly moments – and a whole lot of laughs. And then there were the tears. At the end of a three year adventure that began in a living room with a bunch of random socially challenged egomaniacs making stuff up, it was a true privilege to perform together one final time to a packed out audience in our wonderful theatre that for me has become synonymous with home.

It’s heartbreaking to know it’s all over. Four of us are leaving, and it was the last performance for all of us. An incredibly emotional day – and given the hole left in our original cast of nine after the massacre is over, not just for the ones of us who are going. While the show must – and will – go on (even I am not big headed enough to think I am irreplaceable), it will never be the same. I feel terrible that I’ve played a part in that – guilty, that I’ve betrayed them in that way. Sorry, my friends, so sorry.

I stood, for a while after the show was over, and watched as audience and performers mingled, and chatted and laughed together. I hugged a few people. I cried quite a lot. I said some goodbyes – to people I’ve taught, people who taught me, people I’ve worked alongside, people who I don’t even know but who’ve been to see the shows and know me, if not by name then by sight. I sat in the front row for a bit, taking it all in. Then I knew what had to be done – the moment I’d been dreading. It was a terribly quiet moment; a contrast to the raucous but comforting noise all around me. I found my friend and stage partner, Erik, who’s also repatriating. I could see he was as lost as me. ‘Come on,’ I said, ‘it’s time to go.’ I knew he felt the same; he didn’t want to leave either; it was just too final. But in true improv style, without saying anything else, we held hands, quietly walked the few paces to the back,stepped through the curtain, and with a deep breath, left the stage.

And just like that, the adventure was over. There were drinks, and more tears, and speeches, and more giggles, for hours after, and I know life here, with them, will continue for a few weeks yet. But leaving the stage – saying that goodbye – was the end of something truly wonderful. My time here is something I will remember and cherish forever.

It’s pretty much how I’m thinking leaving Dubai itself will be. A glance back at my lovely friends, the knowledge that I have to leave them to their lives, their conversations, to each other – that I have to let go – and step over some invisible threshold (let’s call it the doors of an A380)  quietly, without any fuss, into the next chapter. It all feels so wrong at the moment, like I’m not ready; I keep feeling that there must be some way of making it last.

But there isn’t. I realise, now, what people mean about leaving well vs. leaving happy. I’m not going to leave happy. Oh no. I’m going to be devastated – I already am devastated – and no doubt my poor husband will cop the worst of it for a while to come. But I believe I am leaving well. I’ve jacked in the idea that anything – work, writing, packing, planning – is more important than just spending time with people until I go. Not just any old people, but the ones that I want to say ‘I love you’, ‘I’ll miss you’, ‘I think you’re an amazing friend/mother/person’ to; friends I want to keep, even though we are miles apart; friends I will treasure in the future as much as the ones I am returning to in the UK after so many years.

And as much as I am clinging on to life here right now, when the time comes, I know I have to go without regret. And I will. I have no regrets. What a phenomenal and special journey this has been. And continues to be. I am so glad I had it – so thrilled to have experienced all of it, even the bad bits, but especially the good. I feel strong even though I am sad; I know things will be okay even though I am scared; I know I want to go as much as I want to stay. I’m older and wiser than I was when I left home and I know that great things lie ahead and this isn’t the end of life by far. It doesn’t stop me feeling sad, but it helps to know I’ll get over it (eventually). I think this is what is meant by ‘leaving well’.

So with four weeks to go, I embrace it all, taking in every moment, loving every part, before disappearing quietly from this, my wonderful stage.

 

Seven signs it’s summer in Dubai

1. Due to lack of fresh air and sunshine, your face has taken on a greyish, putty like consistency usually reserved for when you’re lying on the slab at the undertaker’s.

2. You don’t decide what to wear based on what you will sweat least in, just what will show the least sweat.

3. Your spare room is hosting a plethora of open suitcases containing jumbles of new clothes for the holiday bit of your summer in the Med/United States/Cornwall (delete as appropriate) and a collection of ancient light jumpers and jackets for cooler days in the UK that, for the eighth year in a row, you wish you’d replaced during the spring sales.

4. If you have to walk outside for any reason, you track shade like an overgrown scorpion.

5. You avoid going anywhere with a small child who can’t (or won’t) get in their car seat within the 30 second window you have to get their seatbelt fastened before you melt onto the pavement.

6. Your child actually says things like ‘can we turn off the television and go outside to play?’ And you actually say things like ‘no.’

7. You tell all the newbies that ‘it’s not as bad as last year’ because your sunglasses haven’t fogged up and left you staggering around blindly in the car park at drop off yet, and despite the fact that your mascara has slid down your face and landed on your cheekbones by 8.30am, you’re somehow convinced it isn’t.