Illustration by Tala Nassar
Inspired by Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land
I once heard that you are young but not innocent, small in size but mighty in your voices, far from home but still central.
I once glimpsed you from afar. Grey and lonely. Without any attachments to your surroundings, without many local ties. Not with its history. Nor with its people. But you are a part of its future. Its vision. You are a castle built out of dreams blended with sweats and blood.
Once we first met, you spoke at length about the dreams while mentioning little about the struggles. “It is what you made out of the experience,” they said.
You let me in, embraced me so that I could suffer. To suffer from the taste of pleasure. From the long distance relationships that I tried to sustain with a laptop you gave me. From the lives of my loved ones that became foreign the moment I stepped into your world. Pampered.
Everything is excessive with you. From the number of countries where people call home to the amount of free food from events. From the number of languages people speak to the number of annual prestigious awards that you won. Even the magnitude of my despair and hope can’t be contained in a 100 ml water bottle because there aren’t any of them.
This town witnessed me confused in the first year, intrepid in the second, trembling and fallen in the third.
I was alone in my room, praying so that I wouldn’t have to decide. So you sent a little bird to watch my despair from outside. Perhaps to laugh at why I took things too seriously. The next morning, I found dry bird excrements by my window.
At dawn, you show me your Abu Dhabi. The majestic view of Reem Island. Calm yet distanced.
At dusk, I breathe in the call to prayer while walking to my favorite barber shop, Happiness Gents, with a Foodlands shawarma in my hand.
Yet on our Happiness Island, I found none of these except the Sushi Counter, Studio XY and XX. So when I am gone, how long will it take before you totally forget Sama Tower? Or will it eventually come back to you?
Like anything that is most valuable when it is lost, I only appreciate you enough once I am away from you. But every time I left in the past four years, I knew I would return to this nest. On my way, I was equipped with the best insurance package, a world full of connections, booked flight tickets and the Middle Eastern brand that lets me talk about the desert with authority and affection.
This time, once I depart, I will yearn for you. In pain.
I accept it. I accept it all.
Let my heart tremble every time I think about this town.
Let the joy of misdirection, of globalization, of undefined relationships flourish.
Let the cats be born, be discussed, be caressed, and let them make fun of our people, our activists and their opponents.
Let us be mediocre once so that a slight bit of extraordinariness might arise.
I accept the constant battle to exhaust the extra meal swipes and dining dirhams. But I also accept the menu that never changes for months in D2. I accept the quiet weekend where study is the ritual. I accept this moment of stillness in the middle of life. To fall so that I could ask. So that I could, for once, think for myself. To doubt.
I accept the security cameras that exceed the number of students. The rules that segregate me from the dear freshmen, that hinder us from seeing a stupid side of ourselves a bit earlier.
I accept it all.
Because once I waited long enough, Seven Hotpot would eventually open with all-you-can-eat for 49 dirhams. Since then, my Thursday nights were no longer the same.
Eventually, to know you is simple — to understand that nothing is permanent. My friends, my lovers, my luxury, my travels, my meal plans, my ideologies, my moral compass, and you.
You are a lesson that I must learn and relearn, the people that I meet and re-meet, the experience that I live and relive.
I would say it is hard enough to write about this town, because it is much harder to admit any sincere emotion for it. Because I always feel unsure. Because I never dare to try making sense of it.
It has been all blurry as if I have never fully lived in it. NYU Abu Dhabi trained my mind, but I wonder if I left my heart along the process. One that embraces myself. My imperfections.
Yesterday, a bird came to see me by my window. It gamboled and turned its maroon neck briskly. Glanced at me once, then it flew. Without a word.
Today it visited again, but I was busy picking up what I might forget before I go.
This town. A pot of diversity. A charging station to regain energy after the battles out there.
The lights illuminate this town. Its grandness reaches cities. Its voice echoes across oceans.
This town, a myth or a visionary in process.
Nghiem Q. Huynh is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]