Living among the locals

The long way home

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Dubai 2006

Dubai 2006

I first moved to Dubai in 2005. I’m originally from Egypt but by then I had been living in the GCC for almost 10 years.

Back then, Dubai Marina was just a couple of buildings, and Jumeirah Beach Residence was nothing but a sign in Sufouh pointing to a direction that no one knew anything about. The traffic light at Royal Mirage leading to Media City and the American University was where Dubai ended. I lived through the endless construction in Jumeirah and I was among the first to walk into Emirates Mall, or the Mall of the Emirates as newcomers call it.

I didn’t even notice that Dubai was undergoing a major transformation. Whether the change was too fast or I was too young to catch up, I will never know. But one day, I woke up and I found that Dubai had become a different place. A place where the metro will take me to many destinations around the city, as opposed to baking in the sun for an hour and a half or two before the bus showed up at Mina Road.

Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988

Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988?

Throughout, Dubai felt like home to me and to many others. Yes, there were a couple of hiccups that led us to existential questions, particularly around the financial crisis in 2010 and the dropping oil prices in 2015 that affected everyone in the Emirate, but even a natural hometown can give you moments of uncertainties, I guess. I wouldn’t know. I never had a hometown. Almost.

I did feel at home in the few years that I lived in Cairo when I was a kid. Those years were probably the closest I will ever get to feeling at home. Cairo is a living, breathing being that is constantly changing. It changes so much and so often that it sometimes feels like a stranger even to those who never left it. Because everyone is quickly changing to adjust to the city’s volatile nature, just a couple of years abroad make you different from others; you haven’t picked up on the new words that the youth are constantly inventing and you don’t even know the new prices to bargain at the market, making it easily distinguishable that you’ve been away.

Iran in 1990

Iran in 1990

This is just from a couple of years abroad. For me, I spent the majority of my life outside. Of the 32 years that I’ve so far lived, I only spent three of them in Cairo. I left in 1996, never returning, not even for short visits. Today, the only traces I have of those years are my memories and a photo that I once asked a friend to take of my street. Thus, my Egyptianness is in limbo, probably permanently.

This feeling of not belonging anywhere along with the two hiccups that I had back in Dubai drained me and I felt tired of the rat race and all the uncertainties. I had been traveling extensively in 2014 and wondered at every destination about how those locals felt at home. So, I went on a journey to find a home. Overnight, I found myself in Sri Lanka with nothing but a faint memory of a city with high-rise towers and six-lane highways.

Cairo

Cairo

For two years, I tried to live like the locals, desperately in search of a sense of belonging. I ate street food and celebrated the local festivals. I lived with my local boyfriend’s family and attended family functions with them. I got friendly with the neighbourhood dogs and became accustomed to the snake and the frog that mistook my room for a pond every wet season. I started practicing my Sinhalese scripts and memorized a few words. I also made a lot of effort to distinguish myself from the tourists, other than my foreigner friends who were based in Mirissa.

It wasn’t long, however, before I realised that I was not at home and that I did not quite live like the locals. Sometimes I got bored of rice and curry and went for pizza or sushi. I hardly noticed it when my local family had no running water or no electricity because my room was conveniently connected to the power generator and the water tank. And, even with the help of my growing library of Sri Lanka-related books, I certainly understood the place much less than they did.

My boyfriend and I openly discussed these things. While it helped that he and, to a certain extent, his family were the only ones who didn’t perceive me as “the different one”, or the “suddhi”, the white girl, I needed more than that to feel at home. The others understood that I’m not from evil Europe that once colonized them and that my country is a fellow developing nation, where residents complain from power cuts and a considerate portion of them lives under the poverty line.

Drinking coconut juice in Mirissa, Sri Lanka

Drinking coconut juice in Mirissa, Sri Lanka

But I was always different. Sri Lanka is an isolated island with no neighbors except for India from the North. The local ethnicities are almost indistinguishable from each other. I would even argue that the coming of colonisers contributed to this homogeny. The fact that their only interaction with the outside world was with people from faraway Europe who in many ways harmed the locals reinforced the idea that outsiders are extremely different, in appearance as well as in essence.

The Sinhalese language has numerous words for “you” depending on whether you’re talking to an elder, a monk, etc., but there is no special “you” for strangers, who don’t exist anywhere in the complex Sinhalese cosmological realms. The local vocabulary that describes “others” is very limited, with all outsiders belonging to the category of suddhi or suddha, white girl or white boy.

In Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka

My boyfriend understood all these things. He had been working in Sri Lanka’s tourism sector all his life. But the one thing that he couldn’t understand was this feeling that I had of not having a home. Coming from a place where being at home is all he ever knew, he told me, “Your passport is Egyptian and your culture is Egyptian. So Egypt is your home.” It was a simple formula to him, the only formula he knew.

Looking back now, I have a better appreciation of how the locals really live. Thinking about all this as my wobbly bus wildly hunks and swerves across the mountainous highways of Nepal, I look out my window, past the valleys, the hills and all the little villages in between, and I see things a lot more clearly. My quest to live like the locals initially started to find a home, but this has now changed.

I initially started writing this for my friend’s blog

Yasmin Helal

About Yasmin Helal

Having lived in the GCC, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, Yasmin is a journalist who enjoys writing travel and culture features.

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