If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Abu Dhabi as you feel/see it?
I have dark skin and my father’s hair. Abu Dhabi won’t let me forget either. Sometimes, my mood is somber because I am game for a fight. If people look away, I stare at or through them. If they look closer, I return the gaze. Other times it is easy to lose someone like me in the city. I could be anyone and no one. And because it is the place of my boyhood, so much is familiar. The sky, the sea. What heat does to cats, people, and buildings. The racism is clear and frank here. Ambition too. But the pace has quickened. I have also entered middle age. My body is expected to slow down. Back when my parents were my age, I’d hear stories about people who stayed a few years, then a decade, another. They aged without knowing they aged. Then they left. Nowadays the hustle is different. The men and women I know, with children of their own, they trust nothing. They will not stay, they plot departure. We, they say, are not loyal like our parents. They, like me, are looking for cities that permit you to age in peace, irrespective of occupation. They want places where the sweeper counts as much as the teacher. Do such places/cities exist? Perhaps we are high, but sometimes we need to be, in order to hope. If there is one constant about this place, it is this, that the people on the move (here) all rely on a different set of lies to proceed with their truth(s).
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
Last year, when the flight bans went into effect across the Gulf states, and the pandemic became legitimately politicized after countries (and vaccines) were put on various lists, arranged and ranked by color and politics, I started asking people I knew, essential workers and others on the frontline (particularly delivery men, security guards, and taxi drivers) whether they were thinking of going home to see their loved ones. And many of them chose not to because they didn’t want to lose their jobs, which their companies wouldn’t guarantee if they couldn’t make it back.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
The value of pidgin, derided by purists and linguists as a nothing-language. Let me be clear. Without pidgin—English pidgin, Arabic pidgin, so-so pidgin—the city stops. Exile the intellectuals, especially those the city imports (like me). Nothing will happen. The city will continue to run. Remove pidgin and low-income labor for a week. Then find a bench in a park and take notes while pigeons peck bugs. Believe me, nothing will run. Little will be same-same, this-that. And that’s what’s fascinating to me, that so many of us pretend that we are worth more because we make more.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
Read the writers who left: Yasin Kakande, Andre Naffis-Sahely, Noor Naga. Read the scholar who left: Yasser Elsheshtawy. Another who arrived: Laure Assaf. The journalists: Nick Leech, Anna Zacharias. Then look for those (especially the young writers) who make work here: Augustine Paredis, Aathma Nirmala Dious, Bhoomika Ghaghada. And there are others, plenty more, with their own little projects. Read the past, researchers like Murtaza Vali and Ahmad Makia. Read lampposts that advertise bed spaces, spot menus in Bangla. But it is such an odd word, here. It is supposed to situate a place, isn’t it? Even when you say it out loud—here—it sounds so final. But for those accustomed to and unnerved by transience, the here is a precarious/vulnerable state. So, when I think about the here, inevitably, I think about the everywhere too. Because some of us, like Mona Kareem, Benyamin, Mia Alvar, we belong to the same tribe, if such a word must be used. The tribe of the here and the everywhere. Although, admittedly, not all of us have the privilege of movement, which permits you to dream wider and longer, in my opinion.
Is there a place here you return to often?
Cafeterias. I am curious about them. In some of them I hear the language of home. Honestly though, I just hit them up for the food. One of the few places I don’t have to pretend I am good enough to be there, where you don’t have to be somebody.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
I can name two. The podcast Kerning Cultures. What they do is dope. I don’t care if they have Dubai roots. Then the inside of taxicabs: in the playlists of those who drive, as well as the stories about near and dear ones their minds harbor. All you have to do is ask and they’ll tell you tales. Hmm. One more? Postscript is young, what I would call a literary outpost, filled with the right kind of daring. Full disclosure: I am familiar with the work of some of the contributors and the founding members.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
At the airport, if I could, I would open everyone’s suitcase. Whether they are coming or going, I’d like to know what they are hoping for. What they’ve packed. Then I’d ask them, gently, Tell me about your things. Suitcases reveal everything.
Where does passion live here?
Park benches. Bars. Cafeterias. Near water, people seated by water. Passion is also (arguably) present in the art of speculation, a trade most of us moonlight in. That a couple more years and everything will be sorted, that our worlds will change. Because dreams need time, right?
What is the title of one of your works about Abu Dhabi and what inspired it exactly?
I finished “Gulf Return,” which opens Temporary People, in under three hours. Circa 2012, I read a piece in The Guardian about labor rights and felt helpless and lost and mad. But I also had an assignment to complete, because the writer Deb Olin Unferth had tasked us to write a story about lists, or something like that. At two-something in the morning, Chicago time, I sat down to write what eventually became a story of a man who turns into a plane. I don’t think I’ve ever thanked Deb for her prompt.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Abu Dhabi does an outside exist?”
My parents came to Abu Dhabi from Kerala. After forty-something years, they returned to Kerala. In a sleepy town in Kerala, where three dogs lounge by the portico of my parents’ house, Abu Dhabi exists. Thousands of kilometers away, near Hamdan Street, where I live, Kerala exists. And believe you me, as long as there’s breath in me, I will be my family’s archive, the loudmouth who won’t stop talking, because that’s my inheritance, stories, knowledge that is mine, what cannot be taken from me.
Deepak Unnikrishnan is a writer from Abu Dhabi. His book Temporary People, a work of fiction about Gulf narratives steeped in Malayalee and South Asian lingo, won the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, the Hindu Prize, and the Moore Prize.
© 2022 Deepak Unnikrishnan. All rights reserved.