Scenes from a Lifetime Ago

In 2007, I moved to the United Arab Emirates for my first full time job out of college. I was working at a publisher that specialized in trade magazines. I worked mainly on travel titles, as a deputy editor and also staff photographer. It was a pretty good life (tax-free, high salaries, lots of adventure).

It was not a long term place for me to be in because, well, I’m queer. My long term partner at the time lived in London: it was reasonably easy to go see her, and we also fancied meeting ‘in the middle’ (Istanbul was a fave).

It was an incredibly lonely time. While I met some lovely people, Dubai and I didn’t quite get along. I had some wonderful memories of the people and places I got to see, and it was a launch pad for me to go to all of the other places in that region that I adore. I got to see places like Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, pretty much because they were there, and I could get there for a hundred bucks or less (Middle Eastern budget airlines were my best friends).

It was a weird time. When I got there, Dubai (and many global economies) were booming. A few months later, once we got into 2008, it became a ghost town in some parts. Some of those countries I visited regularly soon plunged into civil war and other turmoil. I hope that I can visit Syria and Yemen again one day in better times. It’s awful what’s happened to those societies and countries. Truly the most remarkable countries I’ve been to in so many ways.

I had a reasonably charmed life as a privileged Dubai expat with a powerful passport who got to travel anywhere on the weekends (which were Friday and Saturday!). It was just as easy to get to Europe as it was to get to South Asia, and also to the countries in the region, and I rode that wave for the whole time I was there. Outside of my day job as a staff photographer, I was also writing and taking photos for an assortment of travel magazines and newspapers in India, Singapore, Thailand and the Middle East. When the financial crisis came all of that work dried up, which is also partly why I stopped working in the field.

Still, I got to see so much and do so much, all at the age of 22.

a digital photograph of a time lapse scene of Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai with lots of construction and lights

I lived and worked in one of the newer parts of Dubai near Media City that were still under active construction. It was a weird time. There was no train then, and sometimes literally no roads to cycle on. In hindsight, I should have lived in the old city, which I much preferred for culture and food and people. That part of Dubai was, at that time, very alienating if you were not the right type of expat.

a digital photograph of a night sky in a desert

I tagged along on a camping trip to Oman one weekend with a bunch of architects. It was beautiful, but I don’t know if I’ll recommend peeing in the desert for women (it steams your butt)

a digital photograph of a few camels in the desert

I LOVE CAMELS. Always have, always will.

a digital black and white photograph of some South Asian workers waiting to board a bus in Dubai

Dubai, like Singapore, is a cleaned city: cleaned by other people. Also built by other people. The reliance of these city states on foreign labor, especially from South Asia, and the propensity to severely mistreat them with poor labor practices and living conditions, is appalling. Being there opened my eyes to similar practices back home in Singapore and Malaysia. Later, I would work in migrant worker advocacy in those countries.

I am glad I did what I did at the time, but that’s probably not a life choice I would make again. In my 30s, I am less accepting of living in environments where I cannot be openly gay, or be able to advocate politically in that space. However, that experience showed me a slice of the world that I deeply love, and also helped to imbue a certain amount of cultural understanding about some of the challenges in that region. When you know a place beyond the politics, and have met, dined with, and lived with the people, it’s hard to see them as just passive figures in newspaper reports.

All photos taken on Canon 350D. Or 50D? One of those.

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Adrianna Tan @skinnylatte
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