A Dip of the Toe into DUBAI — a much-needed wake-up call.

a short film

The Nudge on the Shoulder

My phone screen lit up in the dimmed-down cabin of the 12-hour flight departing from JFK to Dubai International Airport. We were about 5 hours in and I had slept pretty much the entire way. An email notification? Right now? I was irritated and drained — I had spent the last couple of days stripped of adequate sleep, packing all my belongings for my semester off as well as ensuring my storage was all set for when I returned in January. The trip from Plattsburgh to New York City had just set me further off the edge, with the bus stopping multiple times — including for a “random inspection” from border patrol. By the time I was headed to the airport I was utterly brain-fried that I settled for a whopping $80 to my UBER driver just to get myself to the airport in one healthy piece. I just wanted this flight and entire trip to be over so I could finally be home with my dad in Uganda and we could together prepare to fly in to Lebanon the following week to reunite with my mum.

The months and especially weeks prior to this day had been one hell of an emotional rollercoaster for me. At this point, I wasn’t even sure taking a semester off was the right choice for me. All I knew was I was literally surviving the days as they went by — doing whatever I could to make the time go by faster, even if it meant indulging in self-destructive ways. It was time to go home and get my shit together. I squinted at my phone screen through my half-asleep eyelids. Upon reading the first couple of lines, my heart dropped. Emirates was letting me know that I had been pushed to the flight to Entebbe tomorrow morning since the flight departing from JFK delayed and I would thus be just barely missing my connection in Dubai. Something similar happened to me earlier this year in January (see here for more on the 13-hour layover I had and what I got up to!), and with Emirates being ever so accommodating I was able to get a hotel for the night and even squeeze in a quick 2-hour trip around the city in the early morning. At the time I was over the moon at the opportunity and had a few days prior to the trip to prepare for the long connection. But this time, I was absolutely not feeling making this trip any longer than needed.

I took a deep breath and reminded myself: everything happens for a reason. With all the stress I had internalized in the past 8 months, I had began speaking with God every night before bed in the past week. I reassured myself that He knew what he was doing. Perhaps this was the nudge on the shoulder I had been praying for? Maybe I just needed a couple hours of extra sleep in a comfy hotel — I don’t HAVE to pull a Rana-move and tour the entire country just because I got a couple extra hours. Maybe I could just use this time to get a spa treatment at the hotel or something. I opened the email to get the details to send to my dad and let him know that he would need to pick me the following afternoon from Entebbe instead of tomorrow afternoon. Reading through the email it finally hit me — hold up, I have a FULL, free-of-charge 24-hours in Dubai?!

Immediately my mood perked up. My heart started to race with excitement at the thought of a whole day in Dubai — this time I might even be able to check out the dunes!! The beaches!! Abu Dhabi!! The mall!! Ooookay Rana — calm down, they might have just made an error. I mean, my flight was not THAT late I still had half an hour to catch my original flight to Entebbe. That was my internal negative anxiety voice. I had the habit of questioning everything good that came my way with disbelief that I actually deserved anything this special. Although I shortly after learned how to tame it and fight it with both love and kindness towards myself, at the time I had let it consume me.

I locked my phone and put it away. I’ll just deal with it when I get to Dubai. I had just spent the last hour watching an entire episode on the power of mindfulness and just letting go of past and future worries as a means to fully grasp and savor the present now. This was my first of many steps of learning to go with the flow. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep — if I was going to end up spending the next 24-hours in Dubai, I was going to need every wink I could get. I was awoken to the sound of the plane preparing for landing as the lights came back on and the cabin crew walked around reminding everybody to fasten their seatbelts. The plane landed, and we were ushered off the plane to the regular group of Emirates hosts holding up signs for specific passengers that were to be rushed to their connecting flights. To my surprise, I saw a sign with my next flight to Entebbe written on it in bold and a young man frantically yelling out “Entebbe! Entebbe! Departing now! Please follow me!!” I felt the familiar feeling of disappointment in my stomach. I guess I wasn’t going to run through the dunes after all. For some reason, this really got to me. I suppose because I had mentally pushed myself to let go of the idea that I didn’t deserve a free spontaneous trip, and had spent the rest of the flight taming my sense of excitement.

I slowly walked over to the man and explained to him the email I received while on the flight. “No worries madam — we can still get you on the flight right now! You do not need be moved to tomorrow’s flight anymore.” I nodded quietly, pulling out my phone to connect to the WiFi and let my dad know that I would be flying in as originally planned. As we walked towards the gate quickly, my phone kept giving me an error in connecting to the airport wifi. Are you serious? I was getting increasingly frustrated. My dad needed to know that I was coming! The Entebbe airport was a solid 2 hour drive from Kampala and it was a Saturday too — the traffic would be insane, and my dad needed to know whether to close his shop to come pick me up or not. By the time we got to the gate, the WiFi finally connected but my message was still sending.

“Madam?” the woman at the gate patiently asked, her hand extended for my boarding pass. I looked up from my phone at her, my face showing the stress. “Is everything okay?” I looked down at my phone. The message had sent. But what if my dad only saw the message an hour before I landed? What if he didn’t see the message at all? The flight to Entebbe was a lot shorter and my Dad needed to plan accordingly. I locked my phone and looked back at her.

“I can’t get on this flight.” I responded. I explained, for the third time by now, why I couldn’t just take off without my dad responding and confirming that he would be waiting at the airport for me. Deep inside — something told me I needed to get on tomorrow’s flight instead. The lady questioned me a little more before nodding, and picking up her phone to let them know I would not be boarding the flight.

“No problem Madam. Don’t stress it. I’ve moved you back to tomorrow’s flight,” she smiled reassuringly at me. She handed me my new boarding pass and a voucher for the hotel, before instructing me on how to get the the DubaiConnect desk for the visa. I smiled back a thank you, and headed in that direction — after grabbing a quick meal from McDonalds. I had no idea what the hell I would get up to in the next 24-hours but at this point all I needed was a pause button to regenerate my thoughts. It really felt like the last 8 months worth of stress and mental exhaustion were crashing on me. Something inside me just told me to focus on the now — the rest would just follow.

A Quick Lesson on True Spontaneity

Fast forward a quick 2 hours later and I was checking into the same hotel as my last trip. The visa process, just as last time, took no longer than an hour and this time they included two meal vouchers since I was staying there longer. I closed the hotel door behind me and sprawled across the bed. It was already 11 AM. My flight was tomorrow at 9:15 AM — meaning I had to get to the airport no later than 7 AM. My thoughts started racing again. What should I do for the next 20 hours? I pulled out my laptop and started searching for things to do in Dubai on a budget. After all, after that ridiculous UBER I only had a mere $115 left in my bank account. An endless list of options popped up on my screen. I felt overwhelmed so I began narrowing it down based on what was closest to me. I didn’t even know how the hell I was supposed to get around with no money, the UBERs here were at least $10 to any given location. I sighed. It sure was fun being broke. I shook my head — what is WRONG with me? I am in a hotel for 20 hours in such a beautiful country free of charge, and my inner negativity still found a way to complain.

After, once again, chastising myself for being so negative I finally narrowed it down. I could check out Al-Fahidi Historical District and the nearby Souks since they were in the same region, then maybe see if I could afford a quick visit to the dunes. I could even try use the Dubai Metro to get around since it was super cheap — and an experience! After all in all honesty, anybody that can survive New York’s subway can survive any form of underground public transport around the world. Time permitting, I may even try do something in the evening somewhere downtown. To my disappointment all of the online safari options were already fully booked and needed several days in advance to book. I leaned over to the hotel phone to call downstairs and check in with the tourist desk what they had to offer. It was through them that I was able to do a quick 2-hour drive around the city last time. To my delight they assured me that I would be able to check out Al-Fahidi Historical District before 3 PM, and then join them for their 5-hour safari in the dunes which would include a drive, a camel ride, and a final stop at a camp where dinner would be served with some bellydance performances — all for the flat price of $73. A little more pricey than the online options, but hey…I was willing to pay the price given the circumstances.

With that sorted, I quickly prepped myself for the day’s adventure and headed down to the lobby to pay for everything and grab a quick meal before I headed out to Al-Fahidi. After my meal, I went over to the tourist desk to double-check my Metro plan and ask for directions to the nearest Metro station. Conveniently, the Metro was right behind the hotel so as soon as I was ready — with my fanny pack holding all necessities for the day — I head on over.

Dubai Metro

As I walked over towards the entrance of the Metro, one thing stood out to me about it — it was so fancy and so damn clean! I was used to the scrubby subway in New York that smelled like piss half the time. After buying my two-way tickets for just $5 and triple-checking with the lady at the counter on when to switch lines for both the trip to Al-Fahidi and back, I was all set.

Entrance to the Metro

Another thing that I found really weird but was sort of grateful for at the time was that men and women had separate sections on the actual train. While on regular occasions I would have been strongly against the idea of segregation based on sex for something as basic as public transport, I was a little relieved that I didn’t have to stand in a train filled with all the men staring at me — a clear foreigner.

Something that I find really funny whenever I visit Dubai is that I stand out amongst the locals in that I look foreign, but yet as a native Arabic speaker I can fully understand what is being said. The train ride itself was super fast and not a single minute later than the expected time of arrival/departure that was displayed all over the station and train. Another cool thing — the trains operated on their own! That’s probably why they were so quick and efficient. Bottom line…shout out to Dubai for your Metro system! 🙂 Hopefully NYC can learn from you.

Women and Children ONLY

Al-Fahidi Historical District

I got off the Metro and the first thing I saw brought a smile to my face. It was a small corner-stop Lebanese restaurant — every little detail of it brought back waves of nostalgia of my summers in Lebanon, and the scrumptious smell of authentic Lebanese shawarmas and toum. The man standing outside saw me stop and savor the smell of the chicken wafting out of the open doors.

“Would you like to try our shawarmas, madam?” he asked with a heavy Lebanese accent. He smiled and pointed at the menu posted on the door. I smiled back shyly before responding in Arabic. It had been a while since I had conversed with anyone Lebanese in Arabic.

“I am Lebanese. Of course I will be trying your shawarmas. I have not had a real shawarma in over 3 years.” I replied, my broken Arabic making me cringe. I gotta work on it this break. He looked taken aback that I was Lebanese. “I want to go check out the Al-Fahidi Neighborhood first though. Do you know how I can get there from here?”

“Of course! We will be waiting for you. You ARE in Al-Fahidi! From this Metro stop onwards is all Al-Fahidi. Do you mean the museum and main tourist attractions?” he responded, relaxing a little now that he was speaking to me in Arabic. I looked around in confused — it looked just like the Dahye of Beirut! This surely wasn’t what I saw online when I tried to look up tourist attractions.

“I am looking for the older, more historical part of the area” I pulled out my phone to show him pictures. He scrolled through them briefly before nodding.

“Ah! Yes. Just go down the road, past the roundabout and you will find the Museum of Coffee. It is right next to the river crossing to the Souk. If you have any trouble just come right back here!”

As I walked down the street towards the Museum of Coffee where the man had directed me to go, I was in awe. While not “historical”-looking, this region of Al-Fahidi brought back so many fuzzy memories of my summers in the Dahye of Beirut — which directly translates to ‘the suburbs’, and is the name of several rural neighborhoods in the south of the city. This was definitely the less-glamorous side of Dubai, and I loved it. The region was lined with small stores of family-owned businesses and restaurants, manic driving and loud honking, and the occasional overwhelmed tourists looking around at the mildly chaotic scene.

Finally after a solid 15 minutes of speed walking around and taking photos, and dodging cars as I crossed the streets heading towards the museum, I finally arrived what finally looked like the “historical” district I had seen pictures of when I looked up the neighborhood at the hotel. My heart raced with excitement — there was something about old buildings and architecture with age that truly sparked my inner sense of curiosity. It made me want to close my eyes, and just for a moment…revisit the time when the buildings were bustling with families, daily markets and hosted the day-to-day life of the locals. What stories lay hidden in the brittle stones of this neigbourhood?

As I approached the neighborhood entrance, I noticed a young African lady sitting outside the restaurant with a hijab on. I smiled at her as she greeted me with a grin on her face.

“Hello! How are you?” I responded. “Is this the Al-Fahidi neighborhood?”

“Yes! This is the restaurant behind me, and then when you go through this alley you will find the rest of the neighborhood with all the museums,” she pointed at the alleyway in front of me. I could hear a tint of an Ugandan accent, which warmed my heart. I loved running into my people outside of Uganda. I asked her whether she was by any chance from Uganda, and her eyes lit up as she laughed. “Yes! How did you know?” I replied that I could always tell the beautiful accent of the Pearl of Africa from a mile away — it was my true home. As we conversed briefly on her experience with moving to the heat of Dubai and our shared yearning for the tropical weather and food in Uganda, a lady walked out of the restaurant and smiled welcomingly at me.

“Madam, would you like to step into the restaurant for bite? We are having a special today with camel meat!” she pointed at the sign below me. I laughed and shook my head.

“No, thank you! I actually just came to quickly tour this neighborhood before my safari. I don’t have much time in Dubai — I’m only here for 1 day!” I replied. “I appreciate the offer though! I will most definitely come by to try your food next time I visit!”

“Only one day!? Then I must give you a quick tour of the neighborhood! You’ll most definitely get lost if you wander around on your own — it is a very large neighborhood with many art galleries and stores. My family owns this restaurant, so I am well acquainted with the maze,” she winked at me. I grinned sheepishly at her and thanked her profoundly for her kindness. As we walked around the neighborhood my heart literally dropped. I felt like I had stepped out of the fancy Dubai, into a Dubai I didn’t even know existed. I was so wrong to have the inaccurate perceptions that the only tourism that Dubai had to offer was one of glamorous hotels, skyscrapers and malls. This was like a flash of the past, with buildings so old that they were build from coral! Of course, it was clear that a renovation had been done to best preserve the conditions over time. As we walked around she told me the stories of the people who occupied this region, over a hundred years ago, living by the ocean and souks across the creek. All in all, the beauty of the architecture and lighting was just mind-blowing. It took us a full 20 minutes to walk around quickly, and even then we didn’t explore every nook and cranny.

Once we were done, I thanked her again and she smiled at me, wishing me the best with my endeavors. I let her know I would be going around one more time to explore more in-depth and take some photos to send to my mum before I left for the safari, and she said her goodbye.

“Do bring your mother with you to the restaurant the next time you are in town!” she laughed as she walked away, recalling my earlier promise to come back. It was always such a refreshing feeling to meet somebody and connect for just a brief time, not knowing when you will ever see them again.

Just to give a brief historical context of the architecture neighborhood: Al-Fahidi serves as a reflection of the traditional style of life that was prevalent in Dubai from the mid 19th century until the 1970s. The buildings were built from traditional building materials such as stone, gypsum, teak, sandal wood, fronds and palm wood, and are aligned side by side. These buildings are separated by alleys, pathways and public squares. This district played an important role in managing Dubai in its time, particularly in organizing its commercial relation overseas — this was due to its convenient location at Khor Dubai (Dubai Creek).

Today, the buildings are being used as a means of cultural conservation and artistic activities — both private and public. Sprawled with art exhibits, specialized museums, cultural and artistic societies, ateliers to cultural centers (such as the Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Cultural Understanding) as well as permanent art pieces, it is a neighborhood bursting with celebration of human creative expression and cultural diversity. Also adorned with aesthetically thought-out cafĂ©s, restaurants and motels that are overflowing with heritage, it makes it a perfect hub spot for tourists of all kinds.

I was utterly blown away by this visit — it would prove to serve as a perfect starter to my scrumptious meal of an unexpected dip of the toe into Dubai. During my exploration of the many art galleries, I ran into a friendly artist by the name of Michael R. Arnold. He gave me a beautiful hand-drawn map of the neighborhood and invited me to an exhibition later that evening where his art would be displayed at. I promised that I would, if I had time after my safari and before my flight departure. Upon hearing that I only had 24 hours in town, he scrambled around in his pockets to fish out a coin.

“Here is one Dirham. Use it to pay one of the boats crossing the creeks — it will take you to the gorgeous Souks. Absolutely bursting with color and culture, you would love it!” he smiled, pressing a coin into my palm.

It was interactions like these that truly made this experience what it was. After saying a goodbye to him, and assuring him that I would try my best to come see his art later that evening, I went about my adventure. I would say that my favorite collection was in a gallery exhibition that celebrated Arabic calligraphy. I had spent my entire childhood avoiding the hardship of learning how to write and read in the tough language, but being away from home in New York for college served as the driving factor to teach myself how to read and write in what I dub one of the most beautiful languages I have come across. Arabic characters are one of few that can truly be used to create harmonious art pieces, as is evident in all forms of Islamic artwork.

Glancing at the time, I freaked out. I only had 1 hour before the safari began! I had to be quick to make it back in time. I needed to grab a shawarma first too! I looked back one more time at the neighborhood and bid it farewell. Until next time, I said under my breath. I rushed back towards the shawarma store and was met by the friendly Lebanese man who welcomed me. He quickly wrapped up a chicken shawarma for me, and sat down to converse with me on how much he missed the lands of Lebanon as I ate. I breathed in with delight — this was a fire shawarma. Once I was done, I said my goodbye to him and wished him the best with everything.

A Safari on The Dunes

By the time I arrived to the hotel again, I was sweating and out of breath. But I made it! I walked over to the tourism tent that was stationed in the lobby and informed them that I had paid beforehand for the safari. The lady smiled and nodded.

“Please have a seat, madam. We are waiting on three more participants and will be heading out shortly,” she pointed at the sofas in the lobby where a young lady in her late-20s and middle-aged man were sitting patiently. I walked over and nodded at them to greet them, and sat beside them. I quickly shot my parents a text letting them know I would be headed out on a safari so wouldn’t have access to wifi. Around 10 minutes later, the lady came back and informed us that we would be departing now for the safari, however the three individuals we were waiting on were not able to make it so it would just be us three. That was no problem for me — my inner mildly socially anxious self sighed in relief. Three less people to be shy around!

We headed to the Jeep waiting for us and were greeted by a man wearing the traditional “dishdasha” that is worn by men in Dubai — an ankle-length, loose-fitting garment made of white cotton. He smiled and welcomed us, briefly explaining what the plan for the day was. We were to drive through the dunes, before stopping at a campsite for some food, performances and a camel ride! I was beyond hyped. As we started driving towards the dunes, I did what I do best when I am shy around strangers — I force friendly conversation by asking them to tell me more about themselves and what brought them to Dubai. The woman sitting beside me smiled fondly before introducing herself as Brazilian, by the name of Clayne, and that she was headed back home from a few weeks traveling to take a break from working as a Pediatrician when her connecting flight got delayed.

“Hold on, you’re a doctor?!” I responded with excitement, making a mental note of how meaningful it was that God brought me to this very moment of spending an unexpected day on a safari in Dubai with a gorgeous doctor, just when I was in the midst of a personal crisis in regards to my ambition. She laughed and nodded. I went on to explain my excitement — that I was studying pre-medicine and it was an honor to be able to spend the day with a doctor. I turned and looked forward at the man who was sitting at the front, also smiling as he overheard our conversation. “And what about you sir? What’s your story?”

“I actually am also a doctor! I am called Mahdi, I’m originally from Iran but I am an anesthesiologist in Australia. A pleasure to meet you both!” I gaped in awe. Two doctors. I was spending the rest of my day in Dubai…with TWO doctors. From two completely different parts of the world. God truly is great. The rest of the car ride we had beautiful conversations that I truly will never forget — a small reminder of God that what is meant to be, will be…with faith in His plan.

Before reaching the spot to drive around the dunes, we stopped for a bit to try out quad-biking on the dunes ourselves. The rush of the warm sunset wind on my face brought back childhood memories of when I used to quad-bike with friends on the weekends in Uganda. A much-needed rush of adrenaline with a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind view of the sun sinking slowly into the horizon. The drive itself on the dunes was another marvelous experience, with the Jeep dipping to a near-tip at the top of each dune. We were able to step outside and even sat down to briefly meditate in the midst of the rush, an experience that would later serve as inspiration to my journey to embedding meditation into my day-to-day schedule. We ended the day on a relaxing note, having shisha, getting some henna done, and a light dinner as we watched fire-eaters, bellydancers and other performances light up the desert sky. Before we said a goodbye to the now-dark desert in the evening, we took a quick ride on some camels — a rather bumpy experience but definitely worth it.

Wrapping It Up…

By the time we got back to the hotel lobby, I was exhausted. Not the “done with this” kind of exhausted though; the kinda that you know you spent all your energy of the day wisely, and are excited to hit the sack to see what tomorrow would bring you type of exhausted. I was hooked. I knew at that very moment that this was the only kind of exhausted I would ever let my body, mind and spirit experience for as long as I lived. After months of pushing through each day like it was a grueling attempt to survive the hours, only to numb myself with unhealthy habits whenever I had the free time to do so, this was a break — a breath of fresh air.

I turned around and wished my two new friends the best of luck, and that it was such a pleasure to be able to experience this with them. I sheepishly let them know that I would forever hold our conversations to heart, primarily because they came from two individuals I look up to and frankly because of the timing at which I encountered them.

“I’ll see you at a future conference, Doctor!” Mahdi smiled back at me, reaching out to shake my hand.

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