Today the kids were upstairs playing school. Sushi descended the stairs in full travel regalia: hat, sunglasses, high heels, backpack. "Where are you going, Teacher?" I asked. "Africa," she replied. "Oh yeah? Do you know anyone there?" I inquired. The six-year-old benignly rolled her eyes at me. "Um, yes. [S] from my class. And [J] our old housekeeper..."
[Come and visit Dubi]
For what must be the millionth time, I was struck with a pang of loss. How many children of Sushi's age have legitimate connections to several countries outside of her own? And what wouldn't I give to go back to Dubai and make more?
We are coming up on the one-year anniversary of our return to the United States. On July 1 of last year, we thought we had arrived here for a summer visit, not knowing at the time that our family would not be going back to the UAE in the fall. We had said hasty goodbyes to friends and the kids' classmates, not infusing the departure with extraordinary significance. We had driven mindlessly past the schools and the mosques and the shopping malls, not bothering to memorize the details or take note of the architecture. We had absent-mindedly closed the door to our magnificent three-story mansion, not taking the kids on one last lap of the playroom or the roofdeck or the grassy field in front of the house.
And then suddenly it was all gone.
One year later, our unexpected departure from Dubai evokes in me a visceral response not unlike my feelings surrounding the loss of my mother in 2007-- a surge of sadness, a sharp awareness of something taken away, and a knee-jerk repression of any further thoughts on the subject. It's not as profound a devastation as losing a parent, of course; but it still hurts.
You may be reading this with incredulity: surely I am being melodramatic if not downright maudlin about the whole thing. It was just a relocation after all. And perhaps I am suffering from some misplaced nostalgia which puts my Dubai memories under a fuzzy lens. But I think I speak for PopPop, too, when I say that both of us are missing Dubai more, instead of less, as time goes by.
Perhaps that's because little reminders of our time there abound: the wax paper in the kitchen drawer with the Arabic script on its box, the bathroom cabinet's stockpile of antibiotics purchased at the Dubai drugstore without a prescription, the Emirates luggage tags and Dubai immigration stickers wallpapering our suitcases (causing one of my bags to be seized by security after I accidentally left it in an airport gift shop; could have done without the quarantined area and the sniffer dogs that day). We are still frequently introduced to new people as "the ones who lived in Dubai," and our fantastically supportive rabbi can't seem to make it through a Friday night service without gesturing playfully to us and announcing to the congregation, "You can't get this in Abu Dhabi!"
So what is it that I miss so desperately? Well not the oppressive heat, of course... or the dusty unfinished roads rife with nausea-inducing speed bumps... or the often-futile search for familiar brands in the grocery stores... or the outrageously high prices on imports and child-related items... or my neurotic obsession with the fact that we were Jews in an Arab country... or the vague discomfort I continued to experience while walking side-by-side with fully-veiled, seemingly faceless Muslim women in the decadent shopping malls.
No, what I miss is vastly more "meta" than those day-to-day details. I miss the sense of *adventure* that infused our lives in Dubai. Meeting people of countless ethnicities and cultures and languages. Being forced out of our comfort zones and becoming more worldly, more tolerant, more compassionate as a result. Exposing our children to the GLOBE and not just the very narrow American take on it. Coming to understand opposing viewpoints on international conflict and the extent to which our respective media controls us all. And feeling so proud of us for getting out of our own way, abandoning our myriad misconceptions about what life in the UAE would be like, and allowing ourselves to fall in love with life abroad.
I especially miss the microcosm of the world that existed inside our Dubai house. I could not have been happier with PopPop living with us and yet having his own private apartment on the third floor. I loved the way that Alice, our devoted Filipino nanny, treated our children like her own; and I was moved by the passion with which the Z-Man, Daddy's Pakistani driver, wanted to protect us and educate us about his part of the world. Everything about that house now seems to me so precious-- right down to the barely-functional baby monitors and wholly inept handyman service and the squeaky wooden front door that swelled so much in the heat that it would not close without a fight.
It goes without saying, I hope, that I am also heartsick about not being able to see my Dubai friends anymore. Bonnie and Clyde, who were giving me an insider's perspective into Muslim issues. The German, who, despite our falling out over neighborly boundaries, continues to send me the occasional affectionate email. Makes-My-Own-Pillows, who had her fourth baby and was counting on me to be there for her happy occasion. Mommy-of-Screamer's-Soulmate, who had invited me to go into business with her this year. And especially The Australian, who has been going through her own personal challenges, and whom I so desperately want to hug.
Facebook has eased some of the shock of the transition... I am FB friends with almost all of my Dubai gang, right down to the teachers and the babysitters... but it's not the same. Celebrating birthdays with an electronic card or getting important news via status update is a constant reminder that there are miles and miles and miles that separate you and the people you love.
Certainly there is a part of me that is happy to be home-- of course it is a relief to be reunited with my American friends and our old schools and be close to family again. Also, I'm not sure that I wouldn't have had an apoplectic fit if we HAD still been in the UAE this past year during the uprisings in Egypt and Libya... and when that American reporter was attacked amidst cries of "Jew! Jew!"... and when Bin Laden was killed. The Australian had even contacted me after the Bin Laden episode to say, "Be happy you're not here; the US Embassy has issued a warning for Americans." So yes, perhaps it was a good thing that we were sent home when we were, as I was always a tad paranoid while we were there.
But oh, my longing for Dubai is at times almost tangible. To walk through the colorful hallways of the American school... or to peer through the windows onto the ski slope at Mall of the Emirates, or admire the giant replica of the ship at Ibn Battuta Mall, or visit the world's largest fish tank at the Dubai Mall... to drop off the girls at ballet class and meet The Australian for our Saturday morning Starbucks... to go to the Marina and let the children frolic in the jumping fountains... to drive too fast down the desert-lined highway with my Adam Lambert CD defiantly playing through open windows... to pull up to the Clubhouse just in time to see PopPop emerging from the gym in his muscle shirt and Ray Bans... to hear the not-at-ALL-subtle "AHEM" of the Z-Man as he tried to get my attention away from my computer... to be greeted by Alice's never-too-friendly-but-always-sincere "Morning ma'm" in the kitchen as she was packing the kids' lunches... to have the girls stand at the bottom of the spiral staircase and ya-HOOOOOO up to PopPop to let him know they were home... to sit at the oversized dining room table and play "the letter game" over dinner... THESE are the memories that make my heart ache.
Ok, enough sentimental walking down memory lane. [pulling self together] What's been going on over the past nine months since I last wrote? Here are our updates... drumroll please!
DADDY - The biggest news: Daddy has a new job! That's right, he's no longer with the company for which we packed up and moved to the other side of the planet. I can't go into too much detail, because he still has dealings with the former group... but suffice it to say that he was offered a position with a company that has a less complicated infrastructure (recall that Daddy's original company was purchased in large part by a UAE-based company, hence our relocation to set up a Middle East presence) and a seemingly more stable trajectory. And while on the one hand I regret that Daddy left the old company before he could be fully rewarded for all the sacrifices he made, on the other hand Daddy seems utterly fulfilled and appreciated at his new job, and that is, at the end of the day, all anybody can really ask for. I continue to be absolutely blown away by Daddy's brilliance and professional accomplishments, and I am reveling in the fact that the industry at large is finally beginning to publicly acknowledge what I have known all along. Daddy for the win!!
POPPOP - PopPop and I have taken our departure from Dubai the hardest-- and I think PopPop would go back there in a *heartbeat* if he could. That said, he has been the ULTIMATE good sport, never complaining about the fact that he had JUST renewed the tenants' lease on his house when we found out we were staying here, and ALWAYS showing up with a smile to cover the slack during all of Daddy's many, many business trips of late. The purple worm didn't survive the trip home, but it has been replaced with other, better, PopPop magic: pulling jelly beans out of belly buttons, trailblazing alligator hunts in our back yard, and, most recently, coming up with new and interesting proposals for extracting loose baby teeth. He continues to be the patriarch of our clan and we all, rightfully, worship him. :)
[Shout-out to TESS for continuing to put a roof over PopPop's head! We love you and love having you in the mix!!!]
SUSHI - Now a whopping 6 years old and headed into first grade in the fall. Sushi has been completely kicking ASS at her fancy private school (at which kindergarten was hardly child's play-- they covered topics ranging from Ella Fitzgerald to mathematical fractions). Straight A's both semesters-- and she even stole the show at a recent dance recital. She is both a completely mature kid (she loves nothing more than sitting at the grown-up table and participating in adult conversations) and a completely immature kid (she still throws temper tantrums when she gets tired, which aggravates me TO NO END). She has started writing her first "book" (about a child who wakes up as the President of the United States) and we are excited to see how Daddy's and my nerdy DNA will continue to propel her academic career.
SCREAMER - Now four-and-a-half. Taught herself to read. This is not a joke. With Sushi, we watched the educational videos, we sounded out the words.... With Screamer, one day she just picked up a book and started reading to us. This is both a blessing-- what smarts! what initiative!-- and a curse-- for now we have been guilted into also signing her up for the very expensive private school so that she can have a stimulating and challenging year. Screamer has additionally been excelling at gymnastics-- never before has a kid been born into such a gymnast's physique-- and we are constantly being told by the coaches that she was made for this sport. Sadly she has outgrown of a lot of the ditziness that made her our little wood nymph, oftentimes surprising us with feistiness when duking it out with her sisters; but she can play school by *herself* for hours, talking sweetly and nurturingly to her stuffed animal students. (That is, until she tosses them violently into the time out corner-- you'd think that she was breaking up a knife fight by the way they get disciplined.)
BABY - Was 6 months old when we first landed in Dubai. Is now 3 and has an opinion on everything. Was the youngest in the family to give up her pacifiers (2 and a half as compared to Screamer at nearly 4) and has an independence and fearlessness that I attribute in part to our overseas experience. She is a silly, happy kid who loves to play school with her sisters and wash ANYTHING with a spray bottle and get her nails painted. And oh-- I guess she's not a baby anymore. :)
HARRY - The old cat survived the 24-hour trip-- twice!-- and is presently napping in the sun. He sends his regards.
BABYCAT - Our adopted Dubai kitten was able to do what our Filipino housekeeper was not-- become a United States resident. Surprisingly, we were not required to quarantine either feline when we returned to the country, despite the fact that Babycat had been rescued from an abandoned construction site in the UAE, and we only needed to show (and I use that term loosely, since the airport employee could not have cared less) a certificate of health from our Dubai vet. Go figure. Babycat has adjusted quickly to American life and the other neighborhood cats have finally stopped making fun of her accent. (ba-dum-bump)
Z-MAN - Here's where the updates take a turn for the worse, as our departure has not been easy for the lovely people who lived with us at the house. The gentle giant Z-Man went back to Pakistan for his (arranged) marriage over the summer (the good news!) but has returned to the UAE to become something of a lost soul (the bad news). He has not secured permanent employment, doing odd jobs for Daddy's old company, and mostly seems to be just moping around Abu Dhabi missing *us*. He calls from a voice-over-internet phone occasionally, and goes on and on in the saddest way about how he should be happy as a newlywed but is not... how he thinks of us and the kids all the time... and how he just wants God to grace us with a happy life. I wish we could bring him here, if only for a visit... but YOU try to get an American visa for a hulking 30-something Pakistani man in this day and age. Sad face.
[Side note: PopPop and Z-Man are Facebook friends. Pause for a moment to appreciate the absurdity of that fact. Gotta hand it to Mark Zuckerberg for truly making the world a very, very small place.]
ALICE - Another imperfect ending. The Australian was able to find Alice a family in Abu Dhabi to work for... but apparently the schedule is unforgiving, the family might be leaving, and she has not made many friends in her new neighborhood. Most sobering of all is the fact that she apparently keeps a photo of us by her bed (*us*-- but not her own children) and says things to the other housemaids along the lines of, "This family will come back for me." We DID explore this possibility when we first returned to the US-- not because we needed a live-in nanny here but because we couldn't bear to leave her behind-- but again, a visa is a virtual impossibility. The only way we could bring a Filipino housekeeper into the country is if we could prove that WE would only be in the USA on a temporary basis before being assigned elsewhere... and even then, she could only stay for a year. I exchange text messages with Alice very occasionally-- usually on the subject of American Idol, which is huge in the Philippines-- and while she is predictably terse she also never fails to say she misses the children.
JULIA - Ah yes, the housekeeper of the notoriously short-lived employment who ultimately accused us of firing her because she is black (good times). After we let her go because of visa problems and whatnot, we urged her to return to Nigeria and regroup. She refused and assured us that God would provide. And I guess He did, since, according to The Australian, she works for a family in Abu Dhabi now. The Australian (who also moved to Abu Dhabi) sometimes bumps in to her but avoids it if at all possible. And who could blame her. Awkwaaard.
ALICE'S SISTER-IN-LAW (ASIL) - Yikes, maybe the most dramatic story of all. Recall that ASIL had been sent to Dubai by her family when her husband (Alice's brother) lost his job. Her English was almost non-existent and she had no experience with housekeeping, so we asked her to stay with us so that Alice could show her the ropes. Well, after we left Dubai, The Australian-- bless her!-- opened up her heart and her home to ASIL so that she wouldn't be fed to the wolves of the general marketplace... only to have ASIL first brillo-pad The Australian's car in an attempt to clean it (removing much of the paint), THEN mistake Tylenol for children's treats, and THEN have something of a *nervous breakdown* and quietly demand that The Australian's husband buy her a plane ticket back to the Philippines. I still don't understand what happened to ASIL-- though her epic hysteria in the driveway when PopPop and I were saying goodbye *should* have been a red flag of instability-- but I thank The Australians for sending her back home (at quite a cost, all in) and hope that her own family could give her the peace of mind she couldn't find with borrowed ones.
Finally, ME - I'm fine. I'm good. I'm less overwhelmed than I've been in years, I suppose-- what with all three kids out of toddlerhood and in the same summer camp and on the same schedule. For the next two months I will have more extended periods of unstructured alone time than I have possibly *ever* had-- which leaves me no excuse not to do things like finish this blog and unpack the remaining Dubai boxes (Daddy bought us a GLORIOUS new home that I ADORE!!) and organize the garage and start to formulate a plan for one day going back to work. I can't help but worry about what's next-- it causes me stress that Daddy's new company is based out of California and it's only a matter of time before we're asked to move again-- but I am trying VERY hard to live in the present, and appreciate this present chapter of calm. Lord knows life can change in the blink of an eye, and these quiet, predictable days are NOT to be taken for granted. So while I absolutely, positively miss the subtle *thrill* of waking up every day in the Middle East-- whether I was in the mall or at the school or even in my own home flanked by our Filipino housekeeper and our Pakistani driver, I was always in a state of heightened awareness-- I must also concede that there is a very distinct comfort in having been returned home safe and sound.
One last heartbreak for Daddy, PopPop and me is how LITTLE the children remember of our time in Dubai, even though it ended for them barely a year ago. Understandably, Baby remembers nothing of it... but astonishingly, Screamer remembers almost as much. When asked, Screamer can't recall the name of her best friend there OR our live-in housekeeper (!!!), which for PopPop and me is like a stab to the heart. THANKFULLY, the clever, memory-like-an-elephant Sushi is our saving grace on this front: she has many vivid memories of Dubai, still includes Z-Man and Alice when listing her family members, and often asks when we can go back and visit.
Speaking of which, for a kindergarten project a few months ago, Sushi was required to design a travel brochure. During the school day and without any input at ALL from us, Sushi created this:
(Editorial note: These are construction workers.)
[You can ride the airplane.]
(Editorial note: We did NOT make her fly on FedEx.)
[Burge Kulifa is one of the tallest buildings in the world.]
[Dubi its so cool you can see all of the bildings and dirt.]
(Ed. Note: that's her drawing of the iconic Burj Al-Arab, also seen in the photo of Screamer and Supernanny at the top of this post. Not bad, huh?)
It brings me great comfort to know that, for at least *one* of our children, Dubai will be a permanent fixture in her psychological landscape just like it will be for us adults. At first I didn't want to go there... but just as Daddy predicted would happen, then I didn't want to leave.
That chapter of our lives may be over, but this story has no end. Thank you for coming along for the ride.
Post Script. I never did make a close female Muslim friend in Dubai; was never privy to that suspenseful moment when a veiled woman, far from the prying eyes of unmarried men, removes her headscarf to reveal her precious hair underneath. For this I will always be sorry. But thanks to a terrific book, I did feel like I'd been allowed a glimpse of the unseeable. I highly recommend Dr. Quanta A. Ahmed's "In The Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom" for anyone interested in women's issues in the Middle East.
And with that, dear friends, I bid you farewell and much love.