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Places: A Rumination On Cities

From Abu Dhabi to the East Coast, a temporary resident negotiates the urban spaces that built him.

By Deepak Unnikrishnan

Drunken Boat, an international online journal of the arts, is pleased to present Issue #16, an omnibus of folios that includes a special collaboration with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and Open City. This piece appeared in the folio on Asian American Urbanisms. Click here to read the issue in its entirety.

It’s late August 2001. Entering U.S. Airspace, landing in Newark, New Jersey. Mission: follow girlfriend; marry girlfriend. Ruse: Masquerade as student – father will pay for college then. Gruff officer at U.S. Customs inspects Indian passport, isn’t interested in the Emirati connection. Just in case, I have answers prepared: I am from Abu Dhabi; my parents are Indian; I have never lived in India; I am here to reap the benefits of American academia. The officer is the least bit interested. Student visa, he says, before letting me through with a polite “Welcome to the United States.” In two weeks, I will turn significant. Class mates will scrutinize the goatee; teachers will begin to ask pointed questions about my home, Abu Dhabi, which maps confirm is a stone’s throw away from al-Saud terrain. Restless, doped out of their minds, my Nigerian roommate and his American buddies will mine my brain to gain rudimentary access into the Arab psyche. We hold court at the Ramada Inn, where my roommate and I will reside until bungling Residence Life gets its act together. Ego is addictive, certainly for sophomores; I pretend to have answers. At the Ramada, Arabia’s Yoda I become, hosting impromptu Arab 101, sharing my worldview with newfound friends. My thoughts roam rudderless, our sessions infused with the kind of randomness I associate with pub banter:

I predict more violence. I divulge what kind of cars Emiratis like to drive, their love for the Chevrolet Caprice. I tell them how hot Abu Dhabi gets in the summer. I speak of Operation Desert Storm, led by Stormin Norman. I speak of expensive Russian hookers and Dubai’s club scene. I mention CIA-ISI collusion. I conjugate longer sentences to feel smarter, even changing my TV-influenced accent from time to time, sounding more Brit than most Brits. I don’t tell them the muezzin’s call for prayer takes me back home in a heartbeat, and that cool-looking hijabs sometimes turn me on.

But I am careful. Once, by accident, I almost let it slip 9/11-induced second-hand rage makes me queasy, like too much Red Bull. I say nothing. By November, my girlfriend dumps me for the last time; that night it snows, and in a fit of fury, I decide snow[1] is overrated. Over the next few days, I channel lovelorn Devdas, the fictional Bengali dipsomaniac, eat little and sprout a beard, but I can’t buy alcohol because I am not yet 21. So I go to this desi store on Cedar Lane run by a Malayalee man who is nice to me, and speaks to me in my parents’ tongue, reminding me of home. In rapid Malayalam, we conduct business. And back to my dorm I go, armed with spicy chicken curry, fresh parathas, and two videocassettes of a Malayalee icon, Mohanlal. Comfort food. I do however forget to buy beer. Two years on, as I walk by Cedar Lane, not far from Main Street, passing the very same store fronts, the desi store having changed owners, a recruiter in army fatigues calls out to me from a passing car: “Hey! Thought about joining the army?” Operation Iraqi Freedom is barely three months old. I remember being flattered, then thinking they needed a better-looking car.

But getting noticed would become more common. In Milan (2002), at the airport’s transit lounge, I am randomly pulled out by an officer. He is polite, gives me the once-over, while vigilant colleagues stand behind me. Nationality? Indian, I say. But you are going to the Emirates – you live there? Lived, I respond, my parents still do. He bears an uncanny resemblance to the Michelin man. The questions come quick. I stutter, so he asks me to sit in a chair, but first I must remove all suspicious bulges and metals from my person, items which are placed in a plastic bin I am to rest on my lap. I am not frisked[2], but put on display. As passengers file by, many peek into my plastic bin with the sort of trepidation meriting poltergeists. The bin’s contents scream of the banal. Fellow passengers see a belt badly in need of replacement, a bloated leather wallet, my fake Reeboks, an Indian passport, keys, coins, and pieces of tissue. My backpack, its mouth open like a crocodile, sits at my feet. Everyone, including me, pretend all is well. I am one of the last people to board the aircraft, but being stereotyped because of skin tone, race, or name isn’t new to me – Abu Dhabi had prepared me well – so I shrug it off. When the plane lands, I am nevertheless delighted I am finally home, among friends. Relaxed, I saunter up to Customs like Top Cat, putting the “k” in cool. Behind the yellow line, an Emirati official, doing the rounds says. Peechay, peechay, he yells in Hindi. I turn around, glancing at reedy men with heavy briefcases, twitching nervously, tracing back a few steps. For a few, it is clearly their first time in an airport. The official behind the counter, a handsome young fellow, is probably my age, give or take a few years. I want him to greet me like an old friend. He gets down to business immediately: Visiting? I nod. Why? My parents live here, I used to… – he doesn’t let me finish. Welcome to UAE! he says, as he hands me my passport and stamped tourist papers. I am now legal. My mother plants a kiss on my forehead as soon as she spots me in the Arrivals lounge. In the cab ride home, she wonders – What would you like to eat? My first meal of the night involves tucking into Lebanese fare – comfort food. Rice and sambar can wait.

I behave differently in Abu Dhabi. My posture is straighter, my muscles tighter. When I speak English, I use my accent to pretend that I am a foreigner so I can intimidate people who try to intimidate me with Arabic. I am trying to compensate for being a wuss as a kid, of being weary of not challenging anyone, especially Arab kids who used to pick on us, so what I often do is act like I have an American or British passport to get my way. But the ploy doesn’t always work – you get found out. The specifics are simple: Back home, I am an Indian on Emirati soil, the child of retired guest workers now sponsored by their daughter, a guest worker herself. In India, I am a coveted product, an H-1B holder, an NRI (Non Resident Indian). In New York, where I presently live, I don’t need to be anybody, but at JFK, I am Arab; in Bay Ridge, I am undoubtedly Indian; in bars, I am whatever you want me to be. But even in New York, a city blooming with hyphenated identities, the Abu Dhabi-ian does not exist, because few people know what an Abu Dhabi-an is supposed to be, including myself.

New York City swallows its inhabitants, like a whale ingesting plankton. Your senses remain on high alert, expecting to be charged head-on by the unimaginable: Say, hypothetically, a stinky wild boar coated in sparkles. Thrilling, you bet, but scary, too. My shelf life in this city is expiring because I am tiring. My office used to be in Chelsea, near the Whole Foods on W 25th Street, not far from the piers, where I would sometimes go to be near the water. Two weeks after I start work, my first full-time gig outside of college, I make friends with The Egyptian, a street cart vendor whose real name is Muhammad. He is the only Muhammad I know in this city whose other name is not Moe. The Halal Guy, my co-workers call him. His lamb is delicious; he has actual tahini, proper white sauce, not mayo pretending to do what it clearly cannot. We make small talk. Abu Dhabi? is all he says to me. Abu Dhabi, I nod. You came from Jersey ? he quizzes. I smile. I have been to Patterson, I add. Ah, you must miss Arabic, he says in Arabic, without missing a beat. I am sorry, I say, in Arabic, I don’t speak it. Muhammad looks at me, turns towards the sizzling meat. A lot of money in Abu Dhabi, he says genially while the onions caramelize. Not for everyone, I correct him, thinking of my parents. Then we say little. The quiet buys both of us time; he is trying to figure me out, but he lets me pretend I am Arab while I wait for my food. I pay him four dollars for the trouble. Shukran, habibi, I offer in appeasement. Afwan, Brother, is his response. I feel like I cheat when I mumble something in Arabic. With Malayalam, my fluency is limiting, but it doesn’t bother me as much. I studied Arabic for as long as I studied English, sixteen years, but I barely speak it. My excuse is strange, I suppose. I didn’t have anyone to practice with, and back home, my friends and I didn’t mix around much with any of the Arab kids. We weren’t sure how, so we kept to ourselves[3]. People think it’s mighty strange that Hindi or English is enough to get by in the Emirates, but it’s also mighty strange for South Asians to outnumber Arabs in an Arab country. Still, I seek Arabic out. I need to hear it, so you could say when I walk by food carts, I pay extra attention.

In the Big Apple, I fake toughness. I need to. I used to smile at people, I think, but now I am too busy walking like a maniac to bother. I pretend I am Voltron, one giant piece fused out of other smaller pieces; a mechanical beast sporting a giant mask. But Voltron is sophistication. My beast isn’t high-tech but low-tech. My beast has more in common with the musicians of Bremen: Rooster, Cat, Dog, & Donkey. Like the famed quartet, different layers of me stand on top of each other, every single day, breaking my back, but letting me cope, helping me tackle the where-from queries I get every now and again. The most common – That accent, I can’t place it. The facade ends when I am seated in a train – only when I take the 2 train home is my body allowed to slump, un-hide, de-hide – or as I am walking by myself, happily anonymous in a city hosting millions. It is then Rooster, Cat, Dog & Donkey are all allowed their much needed rest and sit or walk by my side. It is one of those moments when the boy from Abu Dhabi is unconcerned about the Indian, the New Yorker, or the mongrel that perpetual migrants often end up becoming. It is a moment of calm. I don’t have to look over my shoulder and pretend to be Indian in Bay Ridge’s Arab quarter or profuse to be Arab in Queens’ Jackson Heights. I can simply just be.

Sometimes, once a week, to recuperate from work, I walk home to Brooklyn from 37th Street and 9th Avenue, in Hells Kitchen, where my office is now based. The area is very close to the end of the High Line, which I walk across, unless the park rangers have closed it for the night. But these walks home are almost always at night; often, quite late: one or two in the morning. My pace is rarely languid. My feet move like hamsters on speed. Still, I have learned to take in the smells, even pausing sometimes to look at people, and if hunger beckons, I stop by a food cart to grab some grub – usually on W 4th Street, where this Bangladeshi vendor’s chickpea sandwich blows my mind. But I prefer these walks best in the winter, when the chill coils around bone like vine, pushing folks to seek warmth and booze indoors. But there are benefits. The colder it gets, the later it gets, the less crowded The Brooklyn Bridge, which I must cross to get home to Brooklyn Heights, where I live with my lover. Without tourist and aggressive bikers, walking over the near empty bridge feels like walking on the back of a whale suspended by ropes in the middle of the sky. When there is a bit of mist in the air, the American flag, which flies at the bridge’s midpoint, doesn’t feel as imposing.

Behind our building, a few blocks farther out, is Atlantic Avenue. I get my Arab fix there. I walk by the Syrian bakery for bread, fill up on za’atar, but my favorite haunt has a terrible name, Oriental Pastry and Grocery. Maybe not terrible, just utilitarian. Almost directly opposite Sahadi’s, a Brooklyn landmark, order is unimportant here. Sacks of grain and spices crowd the floor; handmade soaps, oils, and frankincense are piled near the entrance, alongside raisins, the Syrian ones simply magnificent, and nuts. At the back is the kitchen where fresh pastry is baked, Arabic spoken. I come here to smell the goods, to inhale dry spices, to be reminded of the old souks I spent my childhood in, torn down recently to make way for progress. I also have a soft spot for the owner, whose name I have been too shy to ask, his mannerisms reminiscent of a few mustachioed grocers I knew back home. Home, that’s why I come here. But sometimes home, or a person’s identity, is extracted out of the most simple of exchanges. At a pick-up soccer game one night near the East River, I was introduced to Ziad. Salaam, Ziad, I said, offering my hand. After exchanging pleasantries, he wondered where my accent was from. As I started giving him my normal spiel, he stopped me. No, not your English, your Arabic, you said my name right. I wasn’t sure how to respond, but for a change, I felt Cat, Rooster, Dog & Donkey relax. It’s complicated, I say.


[1] Before the year ends, I will see snow piled up so high by bulldozers that it feels like I am walking past white hills. On one such hill, a patriot manages to stick in the American flag.

[2] Years later, in Frankfurt, a uniformed security guard will frisk me. He will put his hands on my ass and his fingers venture too far into my wonderland.

[3] Yet somehow, post university, I found myself living with Saudi ESL students in Jersey, teaching them English. I ended up being talked about with interest, like Knut, so much so that when friends of theirs would come visit, they wouldn’t leave until they had spoken to and met with the infamous Dee-bagh (the emphasis should be on the “b”).