As I’ve often written here, I had an idyllic childhood. I am completely aware of how blessed I was to lead the kind of life Disney stories are based on, a modern equivalent of living in the Hundred Acre Wood. Unlike most other kids, I never wanted to grow-up and given a chance and a time travel machine, even today, I’d go right back to the 1980s-90s in a flash. Three aspects, in my limited opinion, probably contributed to this, as yet, unmatched state of affairs: my parent’s steadfast belief that childhood is short and should be worry free (as in adult responsibilities were not the concern of children), my brother (we adore/d each other, though we also had our separate lives) and being lucky enough to live in the beautiful city of Dubai.
Since leaving home for good at the age of 24 (when I got married) I have always had a nagging feeling of homesickness. No, that does not mean I mope around for days on end. In fact I’m a pretty happy person. The problem is when I have those rare ten minutes to myself at the end of a long day, the feeling of homesickness pops up and hits me unexpectedly. Initially, I just used to ignore it or distract myself and when it was very bad, I’d lock myself in the bathroom, cry my eyes out, freshen-up and get back to my life, taking care of everyone and everything. Now, I’ve found a new way to deal with it; I tell V stories about growing-up in Dubai with her namnam (my mom), thathu (my dad) and R (my brother). They make for great bed time stories for V, with places and people she can relate to (I occasionally throw in the values I supposedly possessed as a child). For the mommy (that’s me) , these sessions help relieve her childhood without bringing on a complete emotional breakdown.
Getting to the point, I decided to record the memories I talk to her about here, so that, she can come and read them again, if she ever wants to. Plus, when I’m old and grey, I can refresh my memory in preparation for telling my grandchildren stories (jumping a bit ahead of myself here).
Since V will be starting on her summer soon, we were discussing options and activities. That naturally brought us to our Dubai school summers in the scorching desert heat. Unlike a lot of families, my mom would never agree to go off on a long vacation with my dad just visiting us for a few weeks. Whatever we did we did as four and the same applied to our summer vacations. So this was our usual vacation format: a few weeks visiting both sides of the family, a week to ten days at some new foreign location (my parents believed that travel was the best form of education) and a month in our very own city of Dubai.
During the four odd weeks in Dubai, we were free to roam the streets in our area drinking fresh fruit juices at Jabal Al Noor (a very popular cafeteria and juice bar); swimming or playing at our sports club; hanging out at the ice ring, local snooker joint or cinema; sneaking around Karama for bargains or haunting Lamcy or Al Ghurair (the two oldest malls) and later City Center. The difference between a summer in Dubai and any other semi-developed city was that, as you went about your summer activities, you could sustain yourself with the juiciest of dates for free!
The date palm is the national tree of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E) and it’s grown every where. Road dividers or medians used to have lines of palm tress running down the center. So if you were waiting to cross the road, you could just pick a few of those ripe fruits and stuff your mouth, while sticking your hand out to ask cars to give you way on the zebra crossing. We used to take a short cut through Al Nasr Leisure land and pillage their date tress, which they never really reprimanded us for (sweet people). The government had only one rule with respect to all this eating of public property, you could eat your fill on the spot, even stuff your pockets with it, however, you were not allowed to cart it away in large containers of any sort. This seemed and still seems very fair and generous to me.
Dates eaten fresh and the packed ones differ so massively in taste, that initially, when I moved out of the U.A.E., I couldn’t look at a packed date (I still find it difficult to eat compressed, packed ones). The ripe ones off the tress are usually a dark pre-brown yellow with dark brown soft bits and literally are waiting to burst out of their skin. They are also massive in size, not just fat, but long and luscious. You just have to put a little bit of pressure at the base and the sweet fruit pops out of the crackly skin and straight into your mouth, bursting into an unbelievably sweet harmony of tender flesh and gooey juice. Of course,you had to search for the almost ripe ready to drop ones among the yellow partially ripened fruits (which were also pretty yummy, though a bit tougher).
As the city started growing and developing the number of date tress came down and I as a teenager, who was almost done with high school, didn’t really have the time to go around picking fruit off trees. In addition, the bunches of ripening dates were protected by muslin cloth bags once they started to reach the harvest stage and were not as accessible as before. Like all good things, I didn’t realise that I was not destined to live around these abundant tress my whole life or I would have eaten those dates everyday till I left Dubai.
Now when I go back I crave those sweet summer dates right off the tree, but the nearest I get is a bunch on the stem from Spinneys (our local supermarket), which to be fair are very good, though not exactly that crackly juicy fruit of my childhood. At other times, my dad orders a crate from a friend’s farm, which I fall on like a starving refugee and finish before anyone else can even think about asking me for a single piece to taste. Satiated I sit back and start telling my shocked (and slightly scared) child about the summers I used to eat this very fruit off the trees outside my home.
Maybe next year I’ll book myself into a farm in Al Ain during the date picking season. They may then just issue a nationwide ban on me the following year.
P.S. – V wants lots and lots of Dubai stories now that I have started. As I try to think up memories (is that phrase correct), let me know if there are any specific questions you have on growing up in Dubai. For my Dubai friends, let me know if there’s anything specific you remember and would like to see here.
P.P.S. – I lost the link for this picture. If anyone does find out where it’s from, please do let me know so that I can give credit where it’s due.