Library of Dreams, The National, February, 2009
Just a few short weeks ago, a scene much like the opening of Kafka’s The Trial marked the beginning of the end of my year-long life in Abu Dhabi: Someone must have been telling lies about Youssef R, for without having done anything wrong he was divested of his belongings one fine evening. His Tamil cleaner, who should have been there to oversee the procedure, failed to appear. That was totally unexpected. R was lounging about with two American friends, watching Barack Obama’s inauguration on TV, when two men, having mysteriously arrived at his apartment, found their way straight into the room without knocking or ringing the door bell, which was out of order anyway.
It took R a long time to remember that he had left his door ajar on purpose and even longer to realise that the two men were not so much uninvited as unannounced. They had come for a purpose of which he was in fact aware – to purchase, at the absurdly low price of Dh600, the complete contents of R’s apartment. Ignoring his friends, who did not seem to be in the least interested or surprised by this strange turn of events, R got up and greeted the men respectfully, asking them, with Abu Dhabi-style courtesy, where they were from…
I recall this from the room where I grew up, in an apartment on the western side of the Nile in Cairo – a space I have not stably occupied for a year. And glancing through the window at the large, perpetually half-dead juniper tree that fed my childhood nightmares so many aeons ago, I marvel that only yesterday I was still trudging down Old Airport Road, casually ordering coffee at the Wahda Mall, looking out of the taxi window on the way from Khalidiya to the Beach Rotana – not fully registering the fact that I was doing those things for the last time. Today Abu Dhabi might as well be the moon.
(As far as it resembles nowhere else in the world in its combination of interlocking identities, the essential youth of its institutions, and its location in a tentative human future, the city really is a kind of moon: a heavenly body inhabited by early settlers seeking a better, quieter life.) Back in Cairo, the last year (particularly the month separating inauguration night from the present moment) feels like a long, complicated reverie. In all probability it will haunt me till the end of my life, flashing through my thoughts and dreams with periodic intensity, more so than other places I have been. I have only recently begun to realise why this is. My departure had to be relatively final, and it had to be homebound, for me to finally see Abu Dhabi not just as an adopted hometown – a place you might appreciate for the standard of living it affords you, or dislike for lack of edge – but as a literary experiment.
Not simply, as might be understood from the term, a place to inspire literature: what I mean is that Abu Dhabi is itself literature on the grandest lived scale. Consciously and unconsciously – perhaps more often unconsciously – people write new lives in Abu Dhabi, author previously untested versions of themselves. And Abu Dhabi, that silent dramatist, creates epics of itself and of its people. In this sense, nowhere else I know will ever serve as the setting for so many scenes, scenarios and sagas: fantastical, magically realistic, existential, surreal, even sci-fi.
I believe I will have dreams about Abu Dhabi, and in those dreams the city will replay and overlap with other literatures of the world. Brave New World seems a likely candidate, but so does RK Narayan’s delightfully humane fictional South Indian town, Malgudi. Dream-altered versions of One Hundred Years of Solitude, of VS Naipaul’s picaroon biographies, of the bafflingly moral-less, unexpectedly multicultural stories in One Thousand and One Nights, and psychological thrillers of illicit or unrequited love, à la Flaubert, all come to mind. These books will be superimposed on Abu Dhabi (the sale of my furniture will be relived as a Kafka story); and in turn Abu Dhabi, like all great literature, will weave its sounds, sights, textures, flavours, characters, plots and perspectives into various far-flung corners of my memory where books live. In this sense, no matter how much I forget it, Abu Dhabi will always be there.
Perhaps the central aspect of my dream literature of Abu Dhabi will be the journeys there and back, the constant toing and froing on which the young metropolis thrives. When I first came to Abu Dhabi, it felt like a giant terminus – itself constantly metamorphosing – at which people arrive, stay for a little or long while, and then leave: a port of call to the power of infinity. Whatever else you might say about it, Abu Dhabi offers that unique zest that comes about only when no one is ever entirely settled, and everyone seems to be stopping on the way to somewhere else.
I was 32 then, strapped in my seat as the huge Etihad airbus plunged through dense cloud to Cairo airport. (So begins my dream mash-up of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood with memories of my departure.) Once the plane was on the ground, soft music began to flow from the ceiling speakers: the seraphic voice of Fairuz singing of love in the winter. This particular tune has never failed to send a shudder through me, but this time it hit me harder than ever. I bent forward, my face in my hands to keep my skull from splitting open. Eventually I straightened up and looked out of the window at the clouds hanging over the tarmac, thinking of all I had lost now that I was back: times gone forever, friends left behind, feelings that I would never have again and, perhaps most of all, the sense that I was living in an airport, a giant airport where nothing could ever stay still.