Illustration by Sidra Dahhan

Growing up in Dubai as a Temporary Local

Will this country become nothing more than a dream, a fading memory? Will it still be a part of me? How will I allow myself to remember this city and this country in relation to where I have belonged?

Dec 12, 2022

On UAE National Day, I marveled as glittering fireworks exploded in the sky. A barrage of color and lights blinded me as red, white and green enveloped the inky night sky. One spark flickered after another, each desperately trying to leave its mark. But just as suddenly as they appeared, they fizzled away, leaving nothing more than a midnight sky and a memory of what once was.
I grew up in Dubai, having moved here as a child in 2005. I have dressed up for multiple UAE National Days, I have colored numerous flags with red, white and green crayons, and I have stood for countless national anthems, mouthing the lyrics wordlessly. This particular Dec. 2, however, I came to a realization that this may potentially have been my final National Day as a resident in the UAE.
I always knew that my days in the country were numbered. I was an expat here, nothing else. I am Syrian and I am American, but I am definitely not Emirati. I grew up comfortable with my identity because I always recognized that, when people asked where I came from, they were asking about my family background and about my nationality. It was never a question of where I grew up. That part was just an asterisk, it was a throwaway line to include if someone wanted the “long answer” of who I was.
I never did mind this while living here, as I came from a family of migrants. I have grandparents who crossed oceans, a mother crossed back over, before crossing again once more to the place of her childhood with my father, who at that point regarded it a foreign land. It is just how it is, people move, places are temporary. Instead, it is people — family — who embody the concept of home.
In a multicultural city like Dubai where people are from everywhere and nowhere all at once, I have lived by this mantra as something sacred. I am content with where I say I am from. However, this has meant that I have lived on an imagined geographical identity, derived from the memories of family who surround me rather than the identity of the place I see, of the space I inhabit. In addition, as a consequence of this forced detachment of the land of my school years, I have internalized my non-presence here.
Even when I am physically here, engaging with the nation, participating in society, I am not here. Not in my mind, anyway. I am living in the past, in memories of a place I did not grow up in, and in the future, in the place I think I will live after here. I have never truly lived in this space, this space that I regarded to be a brief transition. However, how brief of a transition can it be if it is where most of my memories take place?
I can easily justify a connection to the UAE when I am physically present here even if it does not factor into where I say I am from. I do not feel the need to explain when I say I live here, as opposed to me saying that here is part of my identity. But if, and when I leave, and I no longer live here, will the country become a firework in the sky? Will it waft away? Will it become nothing more than a dream, a fading memory? Will it still be a part of me?
Being a soon-to-be graduate, as I spend what could potentially be my last few months here, I have to make a decision and consider where the country stands in terms of how it has shaped my identity. In what state of mind will I make my final memories? How will I allow myself to remember this city and this country in relation to where I have belonged? I have to decide whether I will continue to live in a self imposed detachment from this space as a guest, or whether I will embrace this space as a part of me, as part of my formative years.
Sidra Dahhan is Features Editor. Email her at
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