I was born, bred, studied, then studied some more, in London (or thereabouts). I didn’t have a full-time job until 2011, on completion of (most of) my postgraduate studies; and that first full-time job was in Beirut, Lebanon, at the AUB. Though I returned to London between 2013 and 2014, to complete yet one more, last round of postgraduate study, from 2014 to the present I have resided and worked in Dubai, at the American University in Dubai (AUD).
What all this means is that for over a decade, give or take, though a Londoner, growing up in a highly privileged setting, in a kind of mansion in Wimbledon, my working-life has been wholly in the Middle East. So that, the experience of being back in London, usually over the summer holidays, is a slightly estranged experience – though of course in some ways in continuity with my childhood and youth. For one thing I’ve a family of my own now; and a young, four-year-old daughter, the light of my life, who was also born in London in the summer of 2019. And what I think may prove an interesting or compelling way of demonstrating the different experience of London, for me as a kind of expat now, might be to describe that change through the lens of what I observed about my daughter’s experience. The highlights for her in London are or were the highlights for me, as I suppose they would be for any loving parent; but they also might be a nifty way of highlighting what London feels like when – if not wholly estranged – it is seen and lived anew.
The first image that occurs, recollecting now, is my daughter jumping in puddles, much like the ‘Peppa Pig’ character she loves so much. Yes, it wasn’t necessarily a clean-run experience, because my daughter, highly excited by the opportunity to actually jump in puddles, did have to then change her socks and shoes and some of her clothes – which can prove a task for any parent. However, one of her favorite cartoon characters aside, the image of her jumping in puddles with such newfound glee, did I suppose emphasize in a visceral way, how long it had been since I was truly, fully, in London. And even if it is a very ‘British’ thing to talk about the weather, it seems to me now like a kind of paradox, that the very thing that first occurs to me from a distance is the same thing landlocked Britishers also seem to be mildly obsessed with. Indeed, looking at and living London again, but through the eyes of one’s own child, makes one feel both more distant from one’s youth, and I suppose closer, from a different vantage point. It’s a very composite and layered kind of experience.
When asked to her face if she ‘liked’ London, my daughter answered in the same way that she had answered at a different, earlier time, about ‘Beirut;’ that she liked it because it was ‘so dirty.’ Living in so svelte a space as Dubai, where nearly every experience is bubbled-up, bubble-wrapped and built-up; where walking down an average street is far less cluttered and far less subject, on the face of things at least, to the impacts of contingency, meant that she noticed in both London and Beirut how the very different, messier topography was in a way, for her young take on things, salubrious. I enjoyed taking my daughter on planned visits to sites, such as the Aquarium, but the truer impression was not in specially targeted outings, but in the very press and pull and mess of daily, happenstance living. In fact, that just is the difference, as felt.
For us in Dubai, each outing as a small nuclear family is, and just has to be (due to the way things are built-up in Dubai, the geography and the resultant topography) choreographed in advance. This has benefits of course, and one should never underestimate how wonderfully suited to young families Dubai is. But what my daughter sensed, I must surmise, was the possibility of the adventures of the ‘everyday’ in London – which can seem to be somewhat foreclosed in Dubai. At least for us. And I must say that at a personal level, as soon as I land in London, catching a cab from the airport home, I feel a sense of relief at being ‘home.’ I have missed, you see, the ability to be surprised, even to be disappointed, in my day-to-day doings. There is something so health-giving about the sensed unpredictability of London life. And through the eyes of my own daughter, the eyes of a neophyte far from accustomed to London, I find myself understanding and experiencing once again the strange homeliness of London for me. Perhaps a little or a long-borne distance, in time and space, allows one to see all that one knew so well, anew, and thereby return the lived, the youth, back to its older life.
As for returning to London, after all the above, well, the more official exigencies of London life now seem to proscribe it for my young family and myself. Indeed, when searching for cognate jobs, as a lecturer in literature and/or creative writing, I notice more than ever now, how inimical life at a basic economic level would be in London. Even though I do not in any real sense work in the private sector in Dubai, where employees as much as employers can amass burly savings due to the slimness of taxation here, my job as an Associate Professor provides my family and I with a much better life, all-round. Though the net salaries for two similar jobs, in London as in Dubai, might be relatively close, in London, quite unlike Dubai, one is not blessed as well with all the benefits (of accommodation, health insurance and coverage and/or, say, financial coverage to a certain extent of one’s children’s education) one revels in here. So, to come full circle: yes, I have been away from London my whole working-life; and yes, I do miss it, the hurly-burly, the brouhaha of it; but in the most basic, real terms, as things stand being in Dubai, or at least, not in London at present, just works better for us.
Omar Sabbagh is a widely published poet, writer and critic. His latest books are, Cedar: Scenes from Lebanese Life (Northside House, 2023), and Y KNOTS: Short Fictions (Liquorice Fish Books, Oct. 2023). His next, forthcoming poetry collection, FOR ECHO will be published with Cinnamon Press in Spring 2024.