It is morning in Dubai, and I have been up since 04:30. I watched the sun rise over a sliver of marina, the light hitting the deep turquoise of the water, the gleaming white of the yachts, and the glittering glass of the tall buildings on both sides. I’m on the 16th floor – out of about 30 – in a luxury apartment building that belongs to a friend in Kabul, and even from “down here” the views are spectacular.
I’m in Dubai for just over 24 hours to get my visa back to Afghanistan, and then I head to Baku, Azerbaijan for the UN’s Internet Governance Forum. I didn’t expect to like Dubai. Everything about this city is the antithesis of Kabul. I love history and culture and localization and even chaos, and Dubai is modernity, efficiency, globalization, and consumerism.
That Dubai is so close to Afghanistan – and to all of the other headline-making conflicts in Africa and the Middle East – is incredibly disorienting. A short 3.5 hour flight, and you leave the endless dust and fecal-matter-coated sky of Kabul; the burqas and the distinct discomfort of being a woman; the pockmarked roads and the ditches (I fell into another one on Saturday); the crashed cars from all over the world that get a second life in the streets of Afghanistan; and the constant presence of cheap weapons and the cheap men that wield them.
On the way to Kabul International Airport, I felt incredibly sad to be leaving. It was silly, since I’d be back in Afghanistan – Kandahar, to be exact – in a week. But I missed this strange place, and it did not help that I was leaving in the dark of night.
But the flight from Kabul to Dubai is always in the early morning, and so the leaving of Kabul is almost always done while the sky is still dark, the streets are empty, and your only companion is the haunting melody that floats over the mosque’s loudspeakers. That, and the armed men, though even they seem less threatening in the sleepy pre-dawn.
I regretted my last-minute decision to attend the conference in Baku. As great of an opportunity as the IGF will be, there are still so many places in Afghanistan to visit, so many people to meet, so many interviews to conduct. Besides, I had just started Dari lessons, and finally was beginning to pick up on conversations around me.
My first impression of Dubai was of the heat. I was wearing a black turtleneck sweater dress over black jeans (jeggings, to be precise), a black coat that skimmed my knees, and a blue floral headscarf that an ex-boyfriend’s mother had brought for me from Kashmir. Appropriate outfit for Kabul, not so much for muggy Dubai, where women from all over the world descended with their 4″ heels, designer bags, and tight, tight clothing. Is that cleavage, really? Her ass is hanging out of her jeans! How is this still the Middle East?
It was not until I “acclimatized” a little that I realized how much I actually missed all of this. That feeling came as I was walking through the food court of the Dubai Mall with a new friend from the Afghan Embassy, though it had been building as we drove through the new freeways past villas and skyscrapers and a remarkable amount of green space for a city that rose out of the desert.
“Do you want Pizza? KFC? Burgers?” He asked.
“I want something local,” I responded. “Is there a local fast food?”
He laughed. In a city where the population is almost 90% foreign, what could I expect? We settled on Iranian fast food that was not very fast at all. It tasted just like Afghanistan’s, though my kebab was of shrimp instead of lamb.
I feel guilty that after just a month in Afghanistan, I could want all of this. I thought I was tougher. I have always prided myself in my ability to adapt and to get off the beaten expat path. But sitting here now – in the most comfortable (and the largest!) bed I’ve slept in since leaving the U.S., in this apartment with its full wall of windows, in this city that is global in every sense of the word – part of thinks that I could get used to this.
But at the same time, I can’t shake this growing suspicion that I am just an outsider looking in, and that this world – this normal world – no longer belongs to me.