“Where are you from?” the taxi driver asks.
I don’t know what to say.
The car’s edging up to 120 kilometers an hour on an eight-lane highway, past 30-story buildings rising under the arms of dozens of construction cranes, in the heart of the desert that is the United Arab Emirates. I’ve lived in Dubai for more than a year, and I still don’t know how to answer the inevitable question.
The UAE is a tongue of land on the Arabian Peninsula that laps into the Persian Gulf. It drinks up traders, laborers and consultants from lands nearby – Iran, Pakistan, India – as well as far away – Uzbekistan, the United Kingdom, China, the Philippines.
More than 85 percent of the people who live here are from another country, and the labor force is 98 percent ex-pat. The oil money that started 40 years ago was far more than a few thousand Emiratis could use themselves for development, and so they imported expertise and dispensed calluses in return for high wages.
In Dubai it’s a natural icebreaker to ask strangers about their nationality, that question from every textbook dialogue.
I’ve learned to say “I’m American” in Chinese, French, Spanish, Dari, German, Khmer, Russian, and Arabic. But here, where I can reply in the lingua franca of English, I hesitate.
My impulse is to say, “I’m from Afghanistan.” I lived and worked there for two years before moving to Dubai, and those two years felt like 10 years of life anywhere else on the planet.
In many ways I related to Afghans – their humor, values, and spirit – more than I did Americans. I was proud to say that I lived in Afghanistan, and Afghans became my brothers, sisters, elders and children. Training Afghan journalists and building a news agency completely absorbed me; my husband felt abandoned even though we lived and worked together. I’d go months without emailing my family and friends, and they often assumed I was dead.
But after two years of 80-hour work weeks, no water or electricity, fecal-filled dust, oily bland food, and military helicopters constantly swooping overhead, it was time to live somewhere else. Dubai, a paradise of efficiency, safety, cleanliness and modernity, was very much a reaction to the hardships and hazards of Afghanistan. Here, we can recover our health and our marriage, while shifting our careers into the Middle East.
In that sense, I am “from” Afghanistan in much the same way that I was from Ohio when I moved to Seattle, almost 22 years ago. I used to say that Ohio was a good place to be FROM, as in, to get away from – it was backward, rusting, collapsing, and Seattle was young, hip, and booming. In the shiny ease of life in Dubai, I am happy to be from Afghanistan.
I tried saying “I’m from Afghanistan” a few times, in my first few months in Dubai. This utterly confused the taxi drivers. Although I was still wearing my Afghan clothes then, I have blonde hair, Germanic features and an English-only accent.
Yet I don’t want to say I’m from America. It seems untruthful.
For one thing, I haven’t lived in America for five of the last 15 years. The focus of my work has been international news and training journalists overseas, and my home in Seattle became my base of travel. While training journalists in emerging democracies, I wanted to show them a different kind of American face, an American who wasn’t wielding a gun or lecturing them on how to run their countries. I have no intention of moving back to America anytime soon.
I also downplay my American citizenship because the current administration undermines everything good that America used to stand for. I am ashamed to be identified with a country that, to many, has no credibility, only double standards; no charity, only an insatiable greed. I am always afraid that saying I’m American will hold me up to ridicule or disgust because of our policies.
“American” connotes a lot of ugly things, especially in this part of the world: domineering, violent, ignorant, paranoid about Islam, generally devoid of morals. I am none of those, but I know many Americans do have some of those traits, and fairly or not Americans are portrayed that way in the regional media.
Luckily, ordinary people in this part of the world do not generally assume that the policies of the American government have anything to do with me. Probably that’s because they live under governments that don’t listen to them, either. Most of the time their attitude is, “I love Americans – it’s America’s actions I can’t stand.”
Over the years, America has become more distant from my heart and mind. Watching the Katrina damage in New Orleans on CNN was just like watching the tsunami damage in Indonesia – I felt great sorrow for the victims, anger at the lack of warnings and the inefficiencies in getting aid to them.
I no longer feel “American”.
Actually, I am not really certain what “American” means – either to me or to any given taxi driver. He might be from Pakistan, Egypt, or Sudan, each with its own historical and contemporary experience of the United States.
There are still Americans who fit my remembrance, the people like my family members and a handful of American friends: hard-working, eclectic in thought and culture, respectful of all religions, defender of the oppressed, generous, compassionate, and solidly rooted in values such as justice, rule of law, tolerance. Maybe that taxi driver knows some Americans like that.
But maybe he doesn’t. And a taxi ride is too short to explain.
In Egypt, where I worked on a US-funded program for local journalists in the 2005 elections, we were accused of being spies and an illegal operation trying to meddle in Egypt’s affairs. It took several months to convince them that we were trying to help all Egyptians to have a voice in their own country’s affairs. I was careful, as always, to emphasize that I am teaching professional standards of journalism and international principles of good governance – not the “American” way.
I hold an American passport. But even that seems a bit artificial – almost a counterfeit. I don’t feel a citizen of anywhere, anymore. And that doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. It seems like the ultimate freedom.
I have fantasies of a world where there are no limits on migration, a political free market where people could choose the government they wanted by voting with their feet. Sure, there would be an initial rush to America, but in the end it would even out.
Probably that’s why the only place in America I still feel comfortable in is New York. Although it is not like anywhere else in America, it is in some ways the most American city of all. It is intrinsically tied to the whole world, absorbing immigrants and composting them into Americans. And everything lands in New York, the best, the worst, the richest, the poorest, the most enlightened, the most corrupted. Much like Dubai.
The New Yorkers will scream – how dare I compare Dubai to New York! They consider us a shallow upstart at best, all glitz and kitschy architecture, or at worst a front for a den of sneering terrorists who are buying American hotels and ports. But the UAE is a land of immigrants, and Dubai is a city being built on dreams and sweat in equal measures. Dubai is a place where ambitious people from all over the Middle East and South and Central Asia imagine themselves. It is a colossus of architectural fantasy, because it is also the home of some of the richest powerbrokers, who build whatever will make them stand above everyone else. Competitive optimism manifested in steel.
But, much as I defend Dubai, I could never be a citizen of the UAE. I hold a three-year residence permit, which is as good as it gets for a foreigner – a sticker in my passport that can be cancelled at a moment’s notice. That’s how the UAE keeps its visiting residents in line, and avoids any liability for their well-being.
UAE nationals get free land to build a house on and an interest-free loan to build it, free utilities, free education, free health care (including private Medivacs to London), and priority hiring in any job, public and private sector. Residents pay housing taxes but do not qualify for these benefits. Sometimes I think that Emiratis continue to wear their traditional dress so that everyone knows they are members of the privileged class.
Applicants for work visas line up in anxious rows in cavernous health centers for their blood to be drawn, a modern version of Ellis Island, as they can be rejected for health problems or being HIV positive. A resident can be thrown out of the UAE if the employer decides to fire him without cause. A resident can be evicted for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, including any attempt at spreading religious intolerance. And we work to build the country knowing that none of us will ever become a citizen.
There’s a man named Bashir who works in one of the ministries. He’s from Jordan, and he moved here 38 years ago. He has worked for the government of Abu Dhabi all that time – even in the five years before it became the capital of the new nation, in 1971 – and Bashir is nearly retirement age.
He can’t stay in the UAE when he retires, because he won’t have a work sponsor or a labor permit. He has applied for citizenship every year, and every year he’s rejected. “Maybe next year,” his boss, an Emirati, tells him.
There are hundreds of others like Bashir – residents of more than 30 years, people who literally built the Emirates, without whom the UAE would still be one big sand bog. There are many thousands more who have given 10 to 20 years of their careers to the UAE, sending the money home to support families in poorer countries while living a meager lifestyle themselves, and they too will have to go when their workblood is used up.
The only ones who get citizenship, it seems, are the nationals of other wealthy Gulf countries, the richest of the foreign merchants, and the friends of the sheikhs. In other words, the ones who don’t really need it.
This work-for-hire approach is one of the few things I dislike about the UAE. I also hate the heavy-handed Internet censorship, and the timidity of the media. It isn’t that I want political rights so that I can demand UAE citizenship. I just want to keep living here – and as long as I put out, I will be able to.
In my stateless state, I want to say to the taxi driver that I am from the same place as he is: That we are all used by the governments who claim us as citizens and by those who run multinational businesses. We are used as cannon fodder in state-sanctioned wars, we are used as labor by the resource-rich, we are used as income generators by our poor home countries that receive billions in remittances, and we are used as collateral on loans that we cannot afford.
What sets us apart from one another is the degree to which we can choose how we are used, and what we receive in return for it. And that is what makes me American. I won the lottery – I have an American passport, an American education, and contacts with organizations funded by American aid – so I am a member of the most privileged class of all.
I am going to be used, but I choose the place and the time and the means by which I am used.
I don’t have to be a citizen to belong here. My only citizenship requirement is that I am needed and wanted, no matter where I am from.