Abu Dhabi corniche
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Abu Dhabi corniche
Last updated: May 29, 2015

My intellectual exile in the Gulf

Banner Icon "My exile here is an intellectual one and I look for other intellectually exiled people in the hope that our collective exile can become our nationality," writes Nisreen Bajis in a thought-provoking short essay.

Nationalism is an assertion of belonging in and to a place, a people, a heritage. It affirms the home created by a community of language, culture and customs; and by doing, it fends off exile, fights to prevent its ravages. – Edward Said 

Somewhere between the sandy beaches of Perth, Western Australia and the sandy beaches of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, lies a restless half Arab half Australian heart… suspended between melancholy and sandstorms. Exile flourishes in isolation. My move to the Gulf was voluntary in theory, but practically it was laced with escapism. A self-proclaimed road to resilience, control, financial security and maybe even love. The result however, has been exile. 

There is nothing particularly unique about the experiences described here, what is unique is how abundant and temporal they are.  Sentiments of achievement, estrangement, excitement, anxiety and longing are shared by most who have decided to change their lifestyle and have an adventure in the Arabian Gulf. A Palestinian by descent, Arabic is my first language but I too am a foreigner here; an expat. The definition of expat is simply someone who leaves their own country to take up residency in another country. This move is completely voluntary and there is no forced expulsion or longing to stay in the place of origin. The definition is mostly on point, but reality suggests that even if we are just escaping the grey skies of London or the isolation of Australia or the economic and political turmoil of North Africa we are all still escaping something and perhaps running towards exile.

"My move to the Gulf was voluntary in theory, but practically it was laced with escapism."

Exile, as described by Edward Said in his book of the same name, is a condition of terminal loss, one that has been transformed into a potent ever-enriching motif of modern culture. What was once a condition used to describe the state of dissidents, pushed to seek asylum in more forgiving lands; or refugees separated from their homes by forces much greater than themselves, has now become a self-induced state of asylum. By chasing success, the modern man and woman have driven themselves into a perpetual state of loneliness and isolation. 

This isolation is rendered particularly true right here in the Gulf and more specifically in cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Surrounded by so much concrete and so many people, they chase insatiable dreams, they see the concrete, but they do not necessarily see the people, or maybe they see them but they are at a loss when it comes to making real connections.

The idea is to keep consuming, not count and to never stop. They consume people in the same way they consume food and drink. With each week a different brunch and with that brunch a new set of people. They are too wrapped up in their own exile to notice that of others. 

Physical exile can be shared, but the exile of the mind is much harder to render equal. It is the modern yet recycled condition of a generation obsessed with mobility, yet living mostly stagnant lives, or in an enduringly stagnant state of mind. Fear of mediocrity has made them banal. Chasing things, rather than ideas, chasing sporadic bursts of fun and living in a state of semi fear that they might be missing out on something (or someone more) fun.

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The Gulf is a hub for the world, a true melting pot of people from every walk of life. A medley of the traditional and the ultra-modern, the conservative and the wild. Everything seems to be a paradox here, but mostly well reconciled. There’s a sense that you’re on the cusp of greatness but also on the cusp of a great demise. You can do anything and everything as long as you are not too public about it. It’s better to blog about beauty, fashion and places to go out, than discuss anything remotely metaphysical or even spiritual.  In fact people always shun away from you when you do, it seems to challenge their state of exile and perhaps reminds them of their great escape. People usually don’t want to be reminded. I rarely see people eat at a restaurant without first taking a selfie, or instagram-ing a picture of their food. They are more concerned with how many likes they get on social media than with whether they are enjoying their meal or the company they are keeping.

My exile here is an intellectual one and I look for other intellectually exiled people in the hope that our collective exile can become our nationality. That our wandering minds can be our identity, our restless souls our national anthem and our longing to be become our history.

With that, I have set myself a difficult task but one I am taking seriously. In the end and with all the disruption in the world, we have no choice but to make ourselves our home and other people our country. If we can do that, then our exile can be shared and by sharing we half our pain and double our joy.

Nisreen Bajis
Nisreen is a legal consultant based in Abu Dhabi.
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