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Excerpt | ON THE GAZE


PREFACE

All That We Have

Because no one is there

We will lie down

On the shoulder of a dune

Gazing silently

At colors of far hills

We wait for no one

You might say

No more Bedouins

They disappeared

All of them

Before we knew them

Or wrote their names

On the skins of our tent

Before we learned love from them

And I would say

Look carefully

Behind our dune

I can see their souls approach us

Rising from the mirage of distance

Or

Appearing to us from

The future.

Khalid Albudoor


Port towns are known for gathering people from different parts of the world, whether on small islands—I think of Greece’s Syros—or the larger, famously known cities of old, such as Egypt’s Alexandria, the port of Chittagong in Bangladesh, and Greece’s Piraeus, which enabled the Ancients to defeat the Persians in the famous battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. China, too, since its ancient past, has been home to two of the world’s largest ports, which today are in Shanghai and Shenzhen. All this to say that the ports of the Arabian Gulf have attracted traders from different continents for centuries, with the Dubai Creek being one of its hubs. Today, Dubai’s Jebel Ali Port constitutes one of the world’s largest harbors, after Shanghai, Rotterdam, and Hong Kong. I don’t know that geography is destiny, but it certainly makes access to the world at large likely or less likely. That Homer’s Odyssey traverses seas that connect peninsulas and coasts is no accident. Was this perhaps my interest in writing about Dubai, or what’s come to be today’s megalopolis city? I was interested in the desert as much as the port. The desert being a kind of tabula rasa for projections that trade in possibilities, a trade that the Dubai Creek harbor made possible in the early days of its development—in 1901 Sheikh Maktoum bin Hasher made the creek a free port with no taxation on imports or exports promising merchants protection and tolerance, as well as providing them with some land. As the Emirate poet Khalid Albudoor writes with some melancholy, “the mirage of distance” suggests both a lost Bedouin past as much as the possibility of a future—in this case, a future in which such loss may be more fully understood.


There was much I did not know when I first arrived in Dubai. In that, I was like so many. This essay is about that journey, both the fact of not-knowing as much as the fact that I found myself part of a larger question regarding what it means to live in liminal spaces; the “in-between”1 as the postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha puts it, is a space of “intersubjectivities” that deconstruct the ways we see within our specific (cultural) self-referentiality. Bhabha notes that “the overlap and displacement of domains of difference” in such in-betweens bring about a “disquieting” but also potentially fertile encounter with the other. For Bhabha, the encounter with cultural difference is one of mutual disquiet and negotiation in which “one both abandons and assumes associations” (Bhabha 1941–2). As such, the gaze—how one looks upon the other—ruptures any neutrality of how our subjectivities come to bear on what we see. Having lived between cultures for most of my adult life—in Greece, for short stints in the United States, as well as Germany and Scotland for brief teaching assignments—perhaps I was already attuned to a sense of liminality, my own as much as the city’s.


On one of my first days at the school in Dubai where I would be working, I was asked if I knew anyone in the city or region; when I said no, the answer seemed to surprise HR, a Jordanian man who was helping me with onboarding. His expression seemed to recalibrate how smoothly I would acclimate myself. Friends and colleagues (in the States especially) were somewhat reserved about my decision to work in the UAE (United Arab Emirates). “How do you feel there, being a woman and on your own?” I didn’t feel any more “disquiet” than I’d felt teaching in the United States, where racism was palpable and the dollar a craven deity. I was surprised to learn that several of my colleagues in Dubai left their apartment doors unlocked; in a region where 90 percent of the inhabitants are transplants, we become guests not only within the mores of our host country but also within the changing terrain of our personal subjectivities. I was interested in who gathers here. As strangers in a desert sharing unlikely common ground, we formed a community.







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