I find that the process of leaving feels similar to the process of settling. Our imminent departure re-invests the now familiar landscape and personnel of daily life with all the vivid detail it had in the early years; storing faces and places, stirring memories and inviting comparisons. We’ve been here almost thirteen years, and in a few weeks we’ll be gone. Coo!
When we first arrived here from England, everything was new, strange, and full of promise, and I soaked up all the details of my new environment. Riding through Karama, Satwa and Jumeirah with a tourist map open beside me, en route for the personal landmarks of Habibi’s office, Habibibaba’s school, the British Council, Magrudy’s, Jumeirah Beach and Creekside Park, I took in the grid layout of compounds and apartment buildings, punctuated by pastel-toned villas plonked on sandy lots like shopping bags dumped on a kitchen floor; I squinted at street signs, perplexed by the incomprehensible numbering system, and intrigued by the complexities of names like ‘Al Ittihad Street’, ‘Al Wasl Road’ and ‘Khaled bin Al Waleed Street’. What did ittihad and wasl mean? Who was Khaled bin Al Waleed? What a sense of achievement came from getting my mouth around these, and being understood! Then there was the next level, learning the ‘real’ names, all based on landmarks or a concentration of activity: Irani Hospital Road, Bank Street, the plant souk, computer souk, Bidet Roundabout, Budgie Roundabout, Defence Roundabout, Satwa Racetrack etc. One day, to my surprise, the straggling web of one-way streets resolved itself into a mental map of a familiar town that was quite lot smaller than it had first appeared – the way a film always seems much shorter, the second time you watch it.
Since then, of course, the town has expanded into a city, and outgrown pet-names. Ramada Roundabout has become a crossroads, Abela Supermarket, whose memory lingered as Old Abela Supermarket through a couple of incarnations – Habitat & a Natural Health Supermarket – conjures up a time and atmosphere, rather than a T junction on Al Wasl Road, and as for Defence Roundabout, notable for its distinctive cruciform, and a definite military……. absence….., that’s Intersection 2!
We’ve also seen the closure of the small private cab companies and one-man operations, and the development of a centrally controlled, metered taxi network employing thousands of men to work twelve-hour shifts. I’m a big fan of road-worthy, air-conditioned vehicles, and most of the drivers are nice guys, but you don’t get the best out of a driver who’s underpaid, tired and stressed. I used to sit in the front seat because I like an unobstructed view and I like to chat, but these days, it’s more like riding shotgun. Unfavourite experiences on a 10-12 lane highway at 120 km/ph: tailgating; ‘precision’ overtaking, mobile phone use; the driver with one hand on the wheel and the other supporting his eyelids; having the radio on really loud to keep him awake.
Ah, I remember the olden days.
Taxis were safer back then, when they couldn’t get out of second gear without the engine falling out. I remember acetate silk roses, velour dashboard covers and gilded plastic tissue box covers offsetting the general grime of the interiors. Wind-down air-conditioning. Concave seating. Maroon vinyl and transparent plastic. Grey sheepskin on the back sill. The family photos tucked behind the sunshade. I remember conversations with men who’d been here for years, about home, family, and other taxi drivers (‘Too many Irani’ confides the Afghan; ‘Too many Afghani.’ the Iranian grins.). I remember the richly textured olfactory adventure of hot rubber, hot oil, ancient vinyl, carbon monoxide, mildew, My Shaldan in Citron, Rose or Strawberry, and the accumulation of years one man’s sweat, cigarettes and lunchbreaks. Vive la nostalgie…….