Around the World in Dar-ul-Buteen
By Shama Mir
I landed on Arab soil at the age of 13. The Dubai culture was quite different from what it is today. With a lot more job opportunities, better prospects for securing your future and policies that emerged it as a welfare state.
My father had arrived in Dubai on deputation as the Project Manager representing PIA, to lend his expertise in the Engineering Department in the launch of the National Airline of Dubai. We were accommodated in an apartment in Deira, in a thriving and busy locality. Dar-ul-Buteen building holds many memories of those golden growing years.
The first few days were incredible. I could walk alone to the neighbourhood grocery and buy chocolates and delicious snacks and this pretty much educated me about the shiny currency. We were still on the summer break and it was impossible to spend the entire day inside the apartment. Coming from Pakistan, anybody could relate to the initial suffocation and sound deficiency!
“Why don’t you go down and play in the building quadrangle? Make some friends.” The solution was sensible and so I and my brothers went down every evening to play table tennis and watch the children roller blade and display their skate boarding skills. I looked around for any familiar faces. Familiar language? Dresses? Anything that would help me identify with myself.
I was given the freedom to choose my friends but none of them had anything in common with me. They looked different, dressed up in a manner that I could never imagine dressing up myself and while some accompanied their families to the church every Sunday, others carried the aroma of Sandalwood and Pooja sweets.
How could I play with them? I was a Muslim. I had only been taught about my religion and could only showcase my morals and values. They obviously would differ on them. It stopped me from approaching any one. That’s when I realized that my education had not at all prepared me for this cultural shock.
I often returned home bored carrying the stress about the conflict in my mind. That’s when the first Diwali came. We were in the elevator and my parents were busy discussing the menu for an upcoming party that we had planned over the weekend. The elevator stopped at the 3rd floor. The Kapoor family walked in, all dressed in glittery ghagras. Their daughter Ekta was my age and I often saw her chatting with her friends in the building car park area. “It’s a wonderful occasion to dress up! Wishing you and your Mrs. a very happy Diwali!” My father extended his hand for a shake which was reciprocated with the same warmth and enthusiasm. I watched quietly. I wondered if he had felt the compulsion to do that or did he really find no harm in the interaction.
“I know Ekta,” I revealed to my parents, wanting to judge their stance on the burning issue. “She looks like a nice girl. The father is working for a Multi-National company.” My father was telling my mum. “That’s the same company as Mr. Masood right?” asked my mum. The Masood family was one of the few Pakistani families in the building. “Yes, that’s right. They have two daughters as well. Shama you should visit them sometimes.” The event eased the rigidity of the mind a bit and I was relieved with the thought of atleast being able to say hello.
Halloween was celebrated and children would walk up to our door asking for candies or chocolates. The festivals were many and reflected the true spirit of sharing and happiness.
Fluffy was an adorable white Drawing Room dog that roamed around the building with his 7 year old master! He was a Srilankan boy who was often seem on his skateboard, zooming around the corners. He had a sweet looking older sister whose smile was hard to dissolve. She was younger than me but her polite and friendly manner attracted me to speak to her. She was fun-loving and quite a tomboy. I admired her for the confidence and amongst all the children and communities in that building, I found her the most charming.
“The children of Dar-ul-Buteen are going to put up a programme next week for the tenants just for fun,” my mother informed me. “Are you participating as well?” she asked me. I told her I’ll speak to the children and then decide. I ran to my Srilankan friend who was thrilled with the news. “I know! We can enact Madonna!” I screamed with excitement. “But we’ll have to dress up differently,” was my immediate response. “What do you mean?” she asked me surprised. “Well, you can depict her bad girl image, you know like what she was wearing in her “Like a virgin” video. That was her look before “True Blue” came. I can showcase the more covered look.” I had said this with all innocence and honesty believing that it was the most convenient arrangement. “Why would you want me to look bad?” she responded with anger. “Because I can’t wear those clothes myself. You wear skirts and sleeveless shirts. So, what’s the problem?” The argument was becoming louder. “The problem is that I don’t want to carry that image either. Why do you think it would be okay with my parents?” I was too confused and left the argument in a sour mood.
There was less time and I couldn’t afford to delay the decision. So, to come to some compromise, I decided to go to her apartment. The door was opened by her brother. “Akka, it’s your friend.” She invited me in. The living room had a lively look and her grandpa sat on the rocking chair wearing his traditional dress. He smiled at me and just then her mum emerged from the kitchen with grandpa’s lunch tray. She greeted me loudly and happily and placed the tray carefully on his lap. She adjusted his blanket lovingly and called for the dad to come and meet me. Her dada was a tall and funny man. He cracked jokes that made us all laugh for hours. They treated me like a special guest and offered me sweets that I accepted with a little thought. “Don’t worry Shama. These aren’t made from pork or use of any alcohol. We understand.”
I ate them immediately a little ashamed at having my thoughts being read. She came from a real family. A family that believed in the goodness of people and was aware of their traditions and beliefs. The programme was celebrated with great enthusiasm and was called, “Around the World in Dar-ul-Buteen”! It was a celebration of the various communities that resided in that building and the process was eye opening.
These were just small examples depicting just how limited the thought process remains till we engage it in trying to broaden our horizons on matters of human diversity and existence. I was able to spend time with my friends in homes that carried the statues of Jesus, Buddha or Ram. I learnt that it was important to respect other religions to receive the same understanding in return. My family allowed me to gather all these experiences to be able to frame a better opinion.
Communication helped me erase preconceived notions about other communities and cultures around the world. It opened my eyes to the significant changes that need to be introduced within our Educational Programmes to create more tolerance and awareness amongst our children. Patriotism need not be a by-product of hatred and differences.
It’s important to inculcate the need to acknowledge what is different with the same fire and passion that recognizes what remains similar and holds the key to our peaceful co-existence.