© 2022

Abu Dhabi: A Quotidian Querencia



I. Tercio de Varas  (the first round of Spanish Bullfighting)

There were no posters of any shows or musicians or franchises in the rooms I called my own. We had to be careful with the walls when we put up photos and paintings. If it was damaged, my Acha would have to pay for it to be repainted when we moved. After the first time we moved, I refused to stick my favourite glow stars with double-sided tape on the ceiling because what if we had a new ceiling again? White ink that I used to mask mistakes in my classwork doubled up as a quick cover-up tool to hide accidental spots of ink on the wall that came from the pen I shook too hard. My Amma arranged the suitcases to be at the most accessible place in our house. There was one drawer for our family’s Indian passports, the most essential part of our existence in Abu Dhabi, ready in a plastic packet that could be immediately picked up if we needed to urgently leave. I always lived with one foot out of the door, trained to move the moment I got the signal to leave–a bull about to be let out into the ring to face the torero (the bullfighter).

I never knew when the door would open, and the torero would step forward. I am the child of Indian migrants to the UAE, who are rendered “temporary residents” by law and who mostly have no access to citizenship. Despite these roadblocks, these “temporary residents” have now grown into generations of families that are part of the country’s history and development, making up around 90% of the UAE’s population. As we are not permanent residents/citizens, we will be forced to leave if we are laid off from the jobs that sponsor our visas, or from crises such as the pandemic which render us vulnerable in a world defined by borders. The anxiety of being “temporary” permeated my everyday life in Abu Dhabi, all twenty-three years of it.

II. Tercio de Banderillas  (the second round of Spanish Bullfighting)

My Acha, who migrated to the UAE in 1993 as an architect to provide for his family, was part of the construction teams that helped develop some of the iconic structures that represent Abu Dhabi, such as the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Gate Towers on Al Reem Island. He specialised in working on site and ensuring the blueprint designs could be materialised. When me, Acha and my Amma (mother) would walk or drive around the city, he would always point out the buildings he worked on. It became a tradition to yell “Acha!” whenever we passed by the ones he showed us. At home, blueprints from work and books on architecture were part of our bookshelf. There are photos of me as a toddler at construction sites, asleep in my Acha’s hands.

My Acha, among tens of thousands of labourers, engineers, technicians, accountants, architects, electricians and many more, gave their skills and years of their lives to build the city. If anything, Abu Dhabi’s buildings are full of life and memory–a testament that this city exists because of its expats. I am here because of that history. My Amma joined him in Abu Dhabi after their marriage in 1997. I was born a year after at Abu Dhabi’s Corniche Hospital on an early October morning and became one more baby that was born in that hospital (it’s a running joke with my friends that we were born on the same floor at some point).

However, it would be irresponsible to romanticise how they were built, even with my personal attachments to the city. When reports about the abuse of construction workers by companies came on the news, the guilt always hung heavy over us. The monthly occurrence of worrying about whether we had enough money for the increased rent would begin when Amma sat staring at the cross on our wall and Acha’s forehead creases increased for every second he looked at the accounts. The loans never end but we maintain the facade that we are okay, that we have the Gulf dream fed by the Gulf’s liquid gold: oil.

In a twisted way, my life as an Abu Dhabi kid is tied to the buildings. I am inherently part of the system and, although this may be a stretch, created because of it. The gentrification that is taking over Abu Dhabi’s older areas upsets me because my childhood spots were being erased in front of me. The irony is that the city’s need for new buildings, attractions and renovations is what sustains my father’s job and in turn, allows him to keep me and Amma with him in Abu Dhabi.

If my father was a tool used to build this product called Abu Dhabi, I was its accidental byproduct, along with the other gulf kids of my generation. While I have so much gratitude for the life I have because my parents chose Abu Dhabi (or vice versa), I am navigating my place amongst the grief of not belonging, and the guilt that comes from the awareness of the realities that made my home around me and financed my life.

III. Tercio de Muerte (the third and final round of Spanish Bullfighting)

A querencia is a place the bull naturally wants to go to in the ring, a preferred locality... It is a place which develops in the course of the fight where the bull makes his home. It does not usually show at once, but develops in his brain as the fight goes on. In this place he feels that he has his back against the wall and in his querencia he is inestimably more dangerous and almost impossible to kill.
— Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

Hemingway wrote the above in his non-fiction book Death in the Afternoon after watching a bullfighting event in 1920s Spain. I have never watched a bullfight live, only through clips from the news, and Amma would tell me not to wear red around bulls because they did not like the colour red and that’s why they would run toward the bullfighter.

Why would a Malayalam-speaking girl from Abu Dhabi be so attached to a word in a language she does not speak?  When I first saw the word, it was the height of the pandemic. My Acha, the breadwinner, was forced into unpaid leave and many parts of the world were in lockdown. Life was bleak. On the bad days, my family would suggest contingency planning for moving back to India. The imminent departure from the home I knew became too close for comfort. Curious about the word’s origins, I found that Querencia is a metaphysical concept in Spanish that roughly translates to “home ground”, it refers to a spot in the ring where the bull feels safe to stake out and defend itself from the bullfighter.

Even in my circumstances, Abu Dhabi is a space I know intimately. I insist it is home, outside of legal papers and bordered belongings, and that I am from Abu Dhabi. On the internet, I see people lash out at those like me, saying I am entitled and don’t know my place because I openly claim space in the city by calling it my home, relentlessly gatekeeping it. The context in “Querencia'' suggests there is both violence and safety in what can be familiar and what is considered home, which makes sense to me. The perceived safety, strength and familiarity I found in Abu Dhabi, through running down the slopes of its underpasses, walking on its sidewalks with my parents and running across the zebra crossings squealing with my friends was much like a bull who was nurtured to only know the ring.

Did you know that the bulls meant to fight are bred for their aggression? The violence of my legal status dominated my life. Now, it feels like my family and I have been fighting all our lives against an invisible bullfighter, dodging the muelta (the red cloth) and the estoque de verdad (the sword) to be able to stay in Abu Dhabi. My paternal family made this existence their Querencia a long time ago. My Appapa, a tailor by trade, entered the ring by moving to Oman in the late 1970s to earn more money for his family, moving between places in the GCC for more than a decade after. When my Appapa returned penniless from Qatar in 1990 due to being betrayed by people he called friends, his son (my Acha) took his place in another profession in the same ring. The Torero has not changed. I am the third generation, born into the ring. Everyday, I was reminded that departure is my first inheritance. This fight was all I knew. It was what I was brought up with to survive.

As Hemingway describes above, there are days when it looks like the possibility of departure from Abu Dhabi is not in our periphery because there are moments it feels comforting, and we take pride in having withstood this transience so far. It was much later when I learned that bulls hating red is a myth, and that in fact it was the movement of the muelta cloth that taunted the animal. Our imminent departure haunts us. It taunts us like a Torero with the muelta. A year and a half into the pandemic, the memory of my Amma crying at the balcony of our home during June of 2020 begging me to find a way out of the UAE repeats itself like a running film reel, reminding me that my family is drained from the fight - and frankly, so am I.

Towards the end of the fight after the Torero has won, if the president of the bullfighting event pardons the bull and the ranch it belonged to is willing to take it back, the bull leaves alive. When I learned this, I wondered if the bull could ever adjust back to not being taunted, agitated at the flitter of cloth in the wind and threatened in the hands of humans who approached it? Did the mind of the bull ever leave its Querencia? I doubt it.

Here I am merely pacing the ring, studying why the ground I bleed upon is the only place I can call my own, our suffering made normal. If I ever leave for other lands, my mind will always be searching for Querencia, to put up a fight, make myself useful, to exist. That’s what Abu Dhabi has taught me.

Aathma Nirmala Dious is a Malayali writer, poet and multidisciplinary artist from Abu Dhabi. Much of her work deals with South Asian-Gulf migration narratives and personal history, with a focus on womanhood, family and memory. A recent graduate from NYU Abu Dhabi with a B.A in Literature and Creative Writing, she is currently writing a speculative fiction novel about Abu Dhabi.


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