Sunday, 21 July 2013

My favourite things in the UAE: a bittersweet blog

About four months ago I started photographing some of my favourite things in the Dubai, and neighbouring areas, where I’ve lived for the past eight years. I took snapshots of locally available food items, unique restaurants and cultural and social spaces that have become dear to me over the years and, in the end, have made this place feel like home. I planned to compile the photos into a blog, along with a short description of each of my choices, to give others a glimpse into some of the valuable little discoveries that have enlivened my daily experience living in the UAE.

I didn’t realise when I started the creative process that by the time I actually got around to putting this blog together, I would be less than 10 days away from leaving Dubai indefinitely. This project ended up being more for me than anyone else – a way of capturing some of the fleeting colours and flavours of my daily life that are easy to take for granted, but that I will miss dearly when I move away early next month.

The key reason it took me so long to write the blog, or any other for that matter, is that I’ve been channelling my energy and free time since late March into building my first-ever scrapbook. A dear colleague of mine left me with a book full of empty cardboard-coloured sheets before she moved to London in the spring, and suggested I make a scrapbook of my time in Dubai. An arts-and-crafts novice, I looked at the 60-odd blank pages with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and great enthusiasm. My mind started to whirl at random with the treasure chest of memories I could include in this book.

There were literally thousands of photos I’d taken over the years languishing in dormant files on my laptop and external hard drive, lost in an abyss of electronic memory, never to be printed or revisited. I immediately started sifting through the dozens of photo files to piece together a somewhat chronological tapestry of the past eight years. It was a daunting task. I must have visited the Digi Photo studio in Dubai Mall about 10 times and printed more than 250 photographs. Along with printed e-mails, letters, greeting cards and notes, business cards, tickets, logos, maps and other trinkets I’ve collected over the years, these pictures have since filled my Dubai scrapbook to the brim with a whirlwind of documented moments.

When I started my scrapbook in late March, I had no idea that within a month, I would also be planning a move to London to pursue a sudden opportunity within my company. The scrapbook I had started suddenly became much more meaningful and urgent. I endeavoured to complete it before I left, as a way of expressing gratitude and appreciation to the people, places and precious moments that have fundamentally moved me over the years. It’s now more than 90 percent complete, with just a couple of blank pages remaining to fill with those final moments that will round off this momentous chapter of my life.

Creating this book has been a labour of love that I’ve worked on quite obsessively in recent months, very often spending hours sitting with scissors, coloured paper, and double-sided tape as I diligently pieced together themed pages in a somewhat chronological order. As I flip through its pages now, my Dubai scrapbook provides an overview of the (four) jobs I’ve had since I moved to this city, the many colleagues I worked with, the business and leisure trips that I took, the precious friends I’ve made and the series of unforgettable experiences that will remain with me for years to come.

During the process of searching for material, I stumbled upon a letter I had written to God on my flight from Canada to Dubai in July 2005. I hadn’t seen that letter in almost eight years and I realised, quite miraculously, as I read the words that every wish and hope I had jotted down on that one-way trip, had since come true. That note is now tucked away in the front sleeve in my scrapbook, and serves as an unassuming introduction to the rich anthology of experiences that followed. I also dedicated a few pages to my late father, God bless his soul, who passed away three years ago, including a letter I wrote him after he passed away. His e-mails to me during my early years in Dubai, when he lived across the world in Vancouver, Canada, are dispersed throughout the book.

Now that my scrapbook project is near completion, and before I leave what has become a dear home for a new adventure in London, I thought I would finally take the time to share some of my favourite things in the UAE. I will hopefully have more time very soon to start writing about my evolving spiritual journey after a hiatus of many months. Sometimes along that journey it’s better to absorb and reflect than to emit.

15 of my favourite things in the UAE:

1) Marmum yogurt
I absolutely adore yogurt and one of my favourite things about Dubai is that it locally produces the best yogurt I have ever had. Hands down. I tried virtually every type of yogurt when I first moved to Dubai and Marmum was the clear winner very early on, boasting the perfect creamy consistency that I adore. It is especially good when combined with some honey and Muesli. I introduced Marmum yogurt to one of my closest friends a few years ago. Shortly afterward she admitted to buying giant tubs of the stuff and eating it like ice cream. I will definitely be missing that almost-daily dose of my favourite yogurt.

2) Modern Bakery
While we’re on the subject of food, I come to another of my favourite grocery-store picks. Living in the Middle East means that you will eat a good deal of pita bread and, after a process of trial and error, I always choose Modern Bakery variety brown and white pita loaves. The flavour is SO much better than all of the others, which tend to be too sweet an aftertaste for my palette. (The exception being the Carrefour bakery’s fresh, white pita bread, which is also amazingly good) A large brown Modern Bakery pita, heated on the stove top and eaten with the Al Marai variety of white cheese (in the blue package) and some black Syrian olives (from Union Coop) is a real treat.

3) Zabeel Park
Let’s take a (short) break from food and visit Zabeel Park. Long before the Dubai metro, this park in Bur Dubai offered one of the only bridges that enabled pedestrians to cross a busy Dubai highway. I often visited Zabeel for walks when I lived in Bur Dubai between 2005 and 2009, and enjoyed walking across the pedestrian bridge that connects to two sides of the park separated by the Sheikh Rashid highway. Since I hadn’t been to Zabeel in a few years, I went last week to capture a photo of the bridge, which proved to be an arduous task, particularly at 2 p.m. in mid-July. I admit it wasn’t as romantic as I remembered it. My sister and I were literally drenched in sweat and panting from (and cursing) the suffocating heat by the time we crossed it, and only managed to gather up enough energy for the return trip due to a miraculously cool breeze, some “accidental” walks into sprinklers, and a pretty tree with gorgeous white flowers.