Photo: The author as a child in Abu Dhabi.
I WAS CURLED UP IN BED IN THE HOTEL in Abu Dhabi. I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t even tired. So why was I watching the World Dart Championships on TV for the third night in a row? I was finally back where I grew up in Dubai, “showing it off” to my husband and I was falling short. It was not living up to all my proud boasting; or rather, I had changed and it had changed and I didn’t plan this very well.
My family has a history in the Middle East. In fact, oil and gas afforded my dad the chance to grow up in North Africa in the 60s, then return to Libya again in the 80s. Of course, being a baby I don’t remember any of Tripoli but my memories of living in the United Arab Emirates were grand. That time we were there for over a decade and up until the late 90s it was all I knew. Those were the years of my carefree youth and also, with the exception of the brief Gulf War, the most recent era of relative peace and prosperity in the world.
My dad knew how much I glorified our expat past and what my expectations would be so he had cautioned me, “You can’t go back, kid.” He opened up to me about how hard it is to visit now. For him, the city had changed so much it was almost unrecognizable and without a family it wasn’t much fun anymore. That, and my mom had died.
Despite this, wanting another adventure, I glazed over his advice and Ryan and I started our vacation with New Year’s Eve in Dubai. On that hot night, we raved on the beach under the lights of the Atlantis Hotel drinking over-priced champagne. The debacle that ensued after was exhausting, yet humorous, making me relish in the fact for having expected it. In true Middle Eastern fashion, it was “all the best of the best” but when it came time for the fireworks there was a 30-minute delay and leaving Palm Island was a complete and utter disaster.
Dubai was so different now; I was there when the Burj Khalifa was under construction and now we were standing in its shadow like tourists, recalling it from Mission Impossible movies. When I lived there, going to the mall as an adolescent with local friends was a normal past time. I’m not sure why we hung around it so much when we visited. I’m embarrassed for not having better alternatives lined up for us. I guess I made the slightly entitled mistake of assuming that awesome things would just happen, like they used to.
What I realized is “authentic” moments from my past were really painstakingly planned by my mother before tourism had spoiled our little secret. Those special camping trips out to the desert with my girl scout troop were more realistic because it wasn’t mainstream and commercial yet but the experience this time around was so phony it stunk to high heaven. After the caravan drove cautiously through the dunes we arrived at a permanent bedouin camp with big generators, port-a-potties, and a cement dance floor. I was disheartened for Ryan’s sake. This was not at all how I remembered it.
Dubai left me with a bitter taste in my mouth overall (which I’m ashamed translated to Ryan) but I was much more comfortable in Abu Dhabi, at first. When we went to have dinner at my childhood friends’ family home it was quite special. The family is Syrian and Lebanese and I cherished the privilege of growing up eating at their house; and now her mom was cooking for me again, at my special request. It had been over 15 years but when I walked in the front door I was greeted by the familiar smells of her stuffed grape leaves and kibbe. It was far more sentimental to me than anyone might have imagined.
The beautiful water was the same as it ever was and made me exceptionally happy. Growing up, I always had a waterfront view of the bright blue Persian Gulf from my room. We spent a lot of time on the beach and I had many memories climbing trees with friends at the Beach Club and looking for sea shells with my mom. She was so fun to pick out seashells with; she lit up and everything slowed down. As Ryan and I walked along the shore I thought about how life was easier for our family there and wondered if things would have been different had we stayed.
Later on, another dear friend met up with us and we picked up right where we left off. I was feeling more at ease now, even laughing some at the funny coincidence that a Pit Bull song was still playing in her car, just like when I’d left her 10 years ago. We had a great visit but I was disappointed that more people didn’t join her. That’s when I lost my nerve. I had anticipated taking my husband to my old school campus and walking down memory lane. After all, my family helped “build” the place in a sense. But by now I felt like an intruder and we didn’t go.
Maybe I was asking for it when we swung by my old apartment; the entryway, once adorned with bougainvillea and pretty Persian pottery, was sterile now and on the brink of being torn down. They had turned it into a government office, aptly named, “Crisis Center.” Hemingway’s pub was strangely the most comforting. The familiar smell — a combination of beer, liquor, tobacco, Eucalyptus, chlorine, and cologne — took me back to my past of early evenings-turned late nights watching my parents socialize with everyone. I wanted to recognize one of the bartenders whom I had fond memories of, but he wasn’t there, perhaps long dead. At least they served cold beer.
The whole trip had become a hard pill to swallow; I was realizing a place really does boil down to the people and that no idealized version of reality could bring them all back. I was exhausted from trying to make this place from my past something it was not. It had worn on me, seeing every old memory and subconsciously being reminded of my late mother or how things used to be. I wanted to change our flights and leave early but it was too expensive. I felt heavy but I recognize now it was a step in the grieving process. And with all these ups and downs I guess I found relief in the hotel room from the pressure I had put on Abu Dhabi and myself. My dad had been right all along: You can’t go back. And I don’t know if I ever will.