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The three faces of Christmas

Maryam Maruf
23 December 2004

There is a saying in Pakistan that the only place you will ever really feel at home is in the city where you were born. When I was nine years old I went back to Dubai, the city of my birth, for the first time. I got off the plane with my father and fifteen-year-old brother that December night, and walked down the metal staircase to the shuttle bus. The surge of warm air made our jeans stick to our legs. I remember the look on the visa man’s face when he saw our British passports; the exhausted-looking Afghani taxi drivers waiting patiently in the heat by their un-air conditioned cars; and a row of palm trees, all artificially planted in a straight line, stretching for miles along the Airport Road. But I remember, most of all, feeling strangely happy and at peace, and at home.

We had just spent fourteen hours flying from London with airport-only stops in Frankfurt and Muscat, and while my father got to sit in First Class, my brother and I sat in Economy in the middle aisle next to a sleeping man who smelt of horseradish sauce and burped in my ear all the way to Muscat. We had come from Warrington, a town in Cheshire, northwest England, where we were the only Pakistani family in our neighbourhood, and where it had been raining because it was still December. To go on this holiday, I had finished school, where I was the only Pakistani child, two weeks before anyone else.

Now I spent long days on Jumairah beach with my cousins; took trips to City 2000, in 1989 the biggest amusement park in the United Arab Emirates; ate ice creams at 39 Flavors, before it became Baskin Robbins; had endless rides on the dhow on the Dubai Creek; and watched all the American sitcoms - Who’s the Boss, Different Strokes and Family Ties - which they didn’t play on British television. At that moment everything that felt home to me was everything that was not English.

Five years later, a few days before my fourteenth birthday, I went back to the UAE, but this time to Abu Dhabi, the capital city, and the city where I wasn’t born. This time I was with my mother and we were going to live indefinitely with my father, who I hadn’t seen since he said goodbye to me and my brother at the boarding gate at Dubai airport. This time we were coming from Manchester, not Warrington, where we had left after my mother’s car had been set on fire and PISS OFF PAKIS sprayed in white paint on our front porch. This time, though I was happy to see my father again, I hadn’t wanted to leave England.

I had woken up one morning and realised I just had my first dream in English, and then I was thinking in English, and when I spoke, it was no longer in my Pakistani-American sitcom accent: I spoke like the other English kids I knew. Urdu gradually lost its importance, it became the language my mother used to ask me to get some milk from the corner shop, it became the language I had to talk with tiresome Aunties, who weren’t really my Aunties, who would come round on Eid, a previously important event which now became an occasion where my mother would wake up early to make biryani and we would have to entertain tiresome Aunties. And also by then, Michael J Fox had become just some American actor. It wasn’t the place where I was born, but I felt that England, at that moment, for those childish reasons and more, had become my home.

In mid-December, three months after my mother and I arrived in Abu Dhabi, and exactly five years after my brother, father and I left for Dubai via Frankfurt and Muscat, I was stood in the school playground with my four friends and realised with a shock that it was the day before Christmas Eve.

The school that I went to, for one year only, was called Al-Worood, and was on the outskirts of the city and near nothing but the desert. I hadn’t been looking forward to starting at a school where my uniform was an ankle-length grey smock; where the boys had classes on the first floor, and the girls on the third, and the only time we would get to see each other was in the car park or in assemblies where we would be standing in straight lines facing each other; and where the headmistress was a tyrannical old woman called Mrs Hayat, who wore royal blue blazers and who, at the start of spring term, would slap me across the face during assembly as she caught me chewing gum.

The school playground, where we also had assemblies, was a long courtyard with a border of rose bushes. I was sat on a bench in front of a rose bush with my friends Zaynab, an Iraqi girl with green eyes who had lived in New York for a year; Greta, a tall Armenian girl; Lizanne, who was new like me, a Canadian girl with small piggy blue eyes and long blonde plaited hair and would later be expelled for smoking in the carpark with the boys; and Mona, who like me was a Pakistani-Muslim, but unlike me, took her culture and religion seriously.

“It’s the day before Christmas Eve,” I said and looked around at the others. Zaynab and Mona shrugged their shoulders and continued talking about the new Maths teacher, Mr Jalal. Greta, who was born in Abu Dhabi, didn’t look that excited. She was a Christian, but she said her family didn’t really exchange gifts and that they just went to church for a bit, then turned towards Mona and Zaynab and voiced her opinion on Mr Jalal. But Lizanne, who was also interested in discussing Mr Jalal, looked at me like she knew what I meant.

“At least it’s on the weekend so we get the day off school”, I said, now just talking to Lizanne.

“Yeah. It makes me miss home”, she said in a bored voice. “You don’t really feel that it’s Christmas here. I want to see some snow. We don’t even have a tree, and I don’t think Dad can get a turkey. Spinneys is sold out.”

Spinneys was a supermarket in Khaldiya, a prosperous neighbourhood on the other side of town from us, where Lizanne lived, along with most of the North American, British, Australian and European people. Spinneys was the only place in Abu Dhabi where you could get HP baked beans, British newspapers, which included only The Times and the Daily Mail, and turkeys.

“Hey, listen,” Lizanne said to me, still in a bored voice. “What are you doing tomorrow? The British Club are having a special Christmas party-dinner-thing. D’you wanna come?”

“I’ll have to ask my dad, he doesn’t really get on with the guy who runs it, so I don’t know if he’d want me to go there.”

“Oooh”, said Lizanne, not sounding bored anymore, and her little blue eyes shining. “Did they fight? What happened? Did your dad write anything about it in his paper.”

“Dunno, it was a long time ago and not such a big deal really,” I was purposely vague, not wanting to give Lizanne any more gossip about my father, who was a Deputy Editor of a big English daily paper in the UAE, and had an argument at the British Club because they refused him entry to a show that he was supposed to be writing about because he didn’t have the right ticket.

“Okay”, Lizanne sounded a bit disappointed. “Ask tonight and let me know, I know the people sorting the party out so I can bring special guests. Oh, bring your brother as well, he’s over for the holidays right?”

In the end my brother and I went for the party but didn’t stay for the dinner as there was no room at the table, and Lizanne had forgotten to say that we were coming. Unsurprisingly I felt awkward at the British Club. It was like being in Warrington again, minus the spray paint and burnt cars. We were surrounded by a group of people asserting their Britishness and their right to be in one place over ours. Like Warrington, we knew we didn’t really belong there, which made us miss our home even more.

The next day was Friday, the last day of the weekend, and Christmas Day. My dad had received an invitation for a posh Christmas lunch at the Sheraton. We laughed and remembered the first time we ever celebrated Christmas in our council flat in Warrington. We had put up a plastic tree my mother had bought in the market and my father cooked a special curry of okra, shami kebabs and naan.

We went and had our lunch and then phoned my sister who was in Manchester, where it was raining and there was crap TV on. After that, we all went and sat on the beach.

Kashmir, 1986

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