Introduction: Portfolio of Writing from the Arabian Gulf

By DEEPAK UNNIKRISHNAN

 

The first line in my bio is the only one that matters: that I am a writer from Abu Dhabi.

There is also my name, which gives away my origins and hints at mud-colored skin.

My name is, however, silent about my life, my distaste for nationhood.

This line is meant to offer pause.

I started putting Abu Dhabi in my bio in the early aughts. It was an act of resistance, which nobody, except me, cared about. I needed people to know I had roots in the Arabian Peninsula. That people like me—children of the transient diaspora the Gulf cultivated—nonchalant about allegiance and flags, counted and existed. That within the confines of some of our own homes, the only heirlooms left were the stories. And not all of them were about rootlessness, pining for the homeland, or the perils of displacement. Because some of them were also about growing up, falling in love, queerness, feeling lonely, suicide, what our crushes talked about, their scent, as well as kicking and kissing ass, homegrown fare like the awkward rhymes hummed in Amma’s kitchen, Hamdan Street blues, hunting Tupac in RAK, making deals with hookers, and sipping Laban by the beach.

The first line in my bio is about where my life began, why those memories are relevant.

This line also factors in the languages I grew up hearing. That even though I don’t speak Arabic, I can read and sound out the letters. As though offering aural tribute—recognizing the letters of those in charge, then making sound—meant something.

Back then, I was too frightened to mimic the men I wanted to be. But if you asked nicely, I’d tell you the truth. That I wanted to be Local. Because I wanted to walk through walls, because I wanted to stay. Then my father could stay, and my mother could stay, and then I could engineer a mock row about whether my sister should stay. I wanted to be Local because the men in my family feared and envied them. I would have been fine being Arab too. In the high school I went to, an Indian community school, the boys who were most revered were the confident ones, especially the rarified few who dared to stand up to boys from other schools who spoke smack to them in Arabic. We may have been children, but we learned quickly that language marked you in the Gulf, just like your passport decided your pay.

But with my face, my parents’ two-room rental, the only languages I had access to were the languages of family, school, work, and barter—Malayalam, Indian-school English, Hindi, and Urdu. Tagalog hung in the back like birdsong. And like birdsong, my buddies and I paid Tagalog no mind.

But the Abu Dhabi line is also about my body, my parents’ bodies, how they arrived young, then left, aged out of the economy. Their situation is far from unique. Hundreds and thousands have come and gone: men, women, children, and grandchildren, generations taking their tales and photographs and belongings with them. Some returned to the oceans and seas and hills of their forebears. Plenty turned elsewhere, hustling for passports, wired to roam.

Our people dropped in on the men, women, and children of the Arabian Peninsula, on those who claimed an older history within these cliffs, desert, and sea—tribes and wanderers who recalled the boats and thunderbirds of Empire, the footsteps of oil prospectors, and the machines and men that followed. Then their women. Then the dreamers, drifters, from places nearby and far away, my parents’ generation. Far too many people, far too quickly perhaps.

In an ideal world, the Arabian Peninsula would encourage open debate between all the residents of these parts, including those on the margins, about the thrills and scars of enforced transience. These conversations would include dialogue between the oilman and the professor, the cabby and the nanny, the native and the resident. These debates wouldn’t be orchestrated to drum up state-sponsored PR, nor filled with racist, hate-filled, and don’t-like-it-go-home rhetoric. Even academics, especially those out north, would take a back seat and park their jargon, in order to actually listen to what was being said about the people they write about and name and speak on behalf of. Ideally, such discourse would be held in the Indian Ocean languages that are just as much a part of the Arabian Peninsula.

Perhaps this hypothetical town hall à la majlis would be one way to kick-start conversation about how petrol managed to resurrect economies, court dominance, and reward and destroy people from various swaths of the globe, all at the same time.

I am aware that critique of the Gulf is meant to be negotiated with care, but I am also fed up—as a student of mine put it—with the rituals of gratitude, where the master is perpetually sacred to migrants like my parents. For the most part, the people I speak with who share my concerns don’t want an audience. They prefer to talk in private, where they can pause and think and argue without consequence. They come from different generations. They speak languages I don’t speak. They have thoughts and questions, as well as observations about race, labor, even love, and their own place in the Gulf’s ecosystem. Some of these people are young, like my students. Others include friends, artists, writing contemporaries, or strangers. When they drop by to chat, answers are few, but we rarely run out of questions.

Oh! So many questions—

When we leave, where will we go? And when we do, what will we recall?

What will become of our memories of childhood, blue-collar work, middle-class dreams, expat life?

Will we be truthful? Can we be critical?

Will we talk about the power of costume, the performative nature of citizenry?

Will we talk about the segregation, classism?

What do we think about miscegenation?

What about war? Will we talk about propaganda, surveillance, fear?

Will we think about what we were complicit in, who we were complicit with?

Did we make enough money? Who made more?

Is there room for kindness? Who made deals with the devil?

If we want children, where must we raise them?

And whiteness, how will we manage whiteness?

Will we miss how whiteness made us feel?

Will we talk about the Americans, their military bases? The Brits? The EU?

Will there be halting conversations about privilege, whether we lived in a colony built to our specifications?

Were we relieved to leave?

And regrets, what are our regrets? And what must we forget?

Finally, what have we become?

Once we scatter, depart or return, as we often do in the Arabian Peninsula, archiving the past may not be top priority. Not everyone cares about such things. Eventually, there will be a struggle to recall the names of streets, then the buildings. The names of neighbors, apartment numbers, and dates, until there is no need to return to the past, because the ones who felt what you felt, they are somewhere else, happy perhaps, with no use for cities left behind. Or they recall only the extremes, the good times and the bad, little in between.

But, for those who aren’t required to leave, because they reside in the Gulf and they have the passport and the family book, or those who are unable to leave, like the Bidoon, because they have nothing, I have questions for them too.

Will they remember those who left? Will they make their food, speak their language, call them back? Will they write and talk about them? Will they dream about them, envy their choices? Or will they say good riddance, God bless?

Twenty years ago, I began to write in order to figure Abu Dhabi out, then to preserve Unni and Indu, a man and a woman from Kerala, my parents. Their experiences weren’t going to be written into the state archives in the UAE, and India wasn’t interested in them either.

In 1971, my father, in Bombay, saw an ad in the newspaper and applied for a job in the Trucial States. He landed in the UAE before the federation’s first anniversary. My mother followed him after marriage. They stayed for the kids, immediate and extended family. They stayed through heartbreak and aspirations. They stayed far too long, in my opinion, because when they left, they were leaving home, not going home.

My parents were economic migrants. They lived in Abu Dhabi for forty-five years. They left penniless. My mother said it was time to go after my sister and I discovered it was cheaper for our aging parents to get better healthcare in India.

I began writing in New Jersey, in my dorm room. I continued in New York City. Eventually, the stories piled up. I finished the book in Chicago in December.

Throughout the writing process, I wondered whether there were others like me, mining stories with Gulf roots, intrigued by the language of impermanence, a legitimate dialect of migration, where the rules and rituals are in perpetual flux. Such conditions, I felt, deserved eclectic storytellers, trained to live out of backpacks and suitcases. I sensed they were around, but where? And when would I meet them? Because surely my generation wanted to talk.

Gradually, as I discovered others who wrote about the Gulf—when I was an infant, or before I was born, in languages translated into English—the more convinced I became that other stories were brewing in minds as young as mine. Then I started looking for these people, and I began to find them.

For some time now, a different generation of writers and artists, many of whom inherited transience as their birthright, have been producing literary and artistic material for examination. They write from different parts of the globe, including the Gulf. Some of them are my contemporaries, people with skin in the game, who think in various tongues, writers hard to categorize. Not all of them are interested in being marked by their flag, face, faith, name, and language. Instead, they claim the cities/places they have resided in, as though that is enough. The best part is, these writers write what they want and don’t need to be told their stories are worth telling. They understand the rules, but they also break them and challenge the status quo about what writers with Gulf genes are supposed to look and sound like, and how their writing is expected to behave.

Call me old-fashioned, but I would like to continue to believe that literature is that place where difficult discourse is possible, where you, the reader, can look and gasp and rage and mourn, and have imaginary conversations with people you presume to get but barely know. I read to sit with the darkest parts of me, in characters who don’t look like me but may very well be me. I read to introspect, laugh, live, and hope. Perhaps these are some of the reasons I hunt down writers with connections to the Arabian Peninsula, because sometimes when I read their writing, I feel like I am in conversation with kin. They are not kin, but they might as well be. It is through them I join the dots, to learn more about what wasn’t spoken, what may have been secrets between friends, young life that mirrored mine in the Gulf, even though we rarely intersected, because we lived in different neighborhoods, segregated by class, passport, and all our prejudices about the lives of others.

Because what I remember acutely about childhood is the loneliness, feeling misunderstood and bitter, and not knowing why and where these feelings came from, whether anyone else felt this way, whether those concerns were mapped by other children and their families, and whether they all felt they needed to be grateful.

The children have become adults. They have started to talk back.

Remember us, some are saying.

And you will, because we went everywhere.

 

Deepak ഉണ്ണികൃഷ്ണന്‍

 

Deepak Unnikrishnan is a writer from Abu Dhabi. His book Temporary People, a work of fiction about Gulf narratives steeped in Malayalee and South Asian lingo, won the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, the Hindu Prize, and the Moore Prize.

Introduction: Portfolio of Writing from the Arabian Gulf

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