Panel event with Sudha Murty and Alexander McCall-Smith
Letters To Old Friends
How are you? I hope things are going well for you these days. I don’t hear from you much anymore, but I often think of you, remembering our time together in a sort of rose-tinted glasses kind of a way; the sort of wistful thoughts you might have for a long-lost lover… but with more construction work and bad driving.
When we first met, it was such an adventure; I was thirty-one, newlywed, and so excited to spend time with you. You weren’t as much of a celebrity back then – it was kind of nice, to be hanging out with you before you hit the big time. I remember arriving at the airport and driving through the city, the skeletons of your newly built high rises growing tall either side of the manic, glittering freeway; the magical, foreign (as it was to me then) sound of the call to prayer reverberating all around; the luxurious warmth of the April evening that, little did I realise, would soon give way to the unbearable heat of the summer.
Ah… that first summer. I remember how desperate we were to make a home, with no real idea of how to start. You weren’t easy on me. I didn’t have a job, or any friends, and the ones I did make disappeared off to spend their summers elsewhere almost the moment I met them. I had no idea… when people said you were hot… I didn’t realise they’d be talking stomach sweating, sunglasses fogging, feet scorching hot. I thought they meant like Italy. I spent weeks – months – tucked away in my apartment waiting for respite, but you were relentless. In August, on my birthday, I went shopping for the millionth time and cried into a chocolate éclair in the Mall of the Emirates with only you for company. I tried to tell myself things would get better but if I’m honest, I absolutely hated you; I resented that you’d got me to come to you under false pretences, that it wasn’t the life you’d promised me. You and my husband, of course 😉
For a long time, I wondered if I’d ever be truly comfortable with you. I wanted to be your friend and tried to make the best of things but there were a lot of moments when I just wanted to give up and go home. It’s heart-breaking when I think back on how miserable I was. I blamed a lot of my problems on you – from the death of my career to the death of my father. Which wasn’t fair, and I owe you an apology for that. It wasn’t you; it was me.
The years passed and I went from newly wed to new mother. I felt I knew you a little better by then; we’d spent enough time together for me to know all your annoying habits, like when you changed all the names of your roads overnight or that time you decided to prank me with a camel spider under my dining room table. You were a bit of a practical joker back then, although, for the record, the army of cockroaches you put under my sink while I was eight months’ pregnant was NOT FUNNY. Nor was the boiled locust I accidently served up with dinner one night. I learned to wash my vegetables thoroughly after that, I can tell you.
Despite all the hardships you threw my way, I began to love you. Other people – people who didn’t know you like I did, would say mean things sometimes, and I’d tell them to get to know you better before making judgements. I felt the same way about myself a lot of the time – I knew what it was like for people to see a loud, confident individual on the outside and assume that was all there was. But we both know, there’s hidden depths to you and to me, that are right there for the taking if you stop to get to know us. I stopped being worried about showing my vulnerable side. I met people who would become my family, dear friends who I miss so very much, who I would travel the world for and do anything to be with them again. I discovered a new career that I loved – writing – and a community of creative people who I could finally be myself with. I laughed so very hard, for so very much of my time, and was truly happy. You did that for me. We did it together.
When I had to leave you after nine years of knowing you, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but London is not anywhere near as fun as you, or as pretty, and I’m not sure I’ll ever love her the way I love you. I’m so glad to be seeing you again, even though it’s not the same as it was. I look at you differently now, just as you look at me differently too. It makes me sad, that we’ve lost the intimacy we once had… but there’ll always be the connection. You are extraordinary, frustrating, inspiring and unique; and while we might not be close in the way we once were, I want you to know that your friendship was life-altering in a way that no one else will ever be. You transformed me, from someone who was closed off to change, to someone who could look past the obvious and see what else was there, make a leap, and embrace it no matter where I landed. You are home, and for this, I am eternally grateful.
Emirates Festival of Literature, February 2023
The brief was to write a letter to an ‘old friend’. Having lived there for nearly10 years between 2006 and 2015, I chose to write to Dubai. Here’s the transcript of my letter.
It was really emotional to deliver and very special to have the opportunity to write and read it.