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Journalist Asha Bhatia’s new book is on ‘Modern Dubai’

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Asha Bhatia is an Indian journalist, who has worked in Dubai for over three decades. She paints an interesting modern picture of life and times in Dubai in her recently published book “Life in the Twinkle of an Eye – Dubai: A Hundred Years in Ten.”

• Why did you choose Dubai as a subject for your book?

Dubai is somehow the second home for Indians - both for work and tourism. The number of Indians visiting Dubai has hit a new high in 2017. For the first time it crossed the 10-lakh mark in the last six months (January-June), up 21% over the same period last year.But there are very few places in the world as misunderstood as the region of Middle East. Century old stereotypes continue to plague their image. Hence, I felt a first-person account of my life in Dubai was needed to bring forward an interesting modern picture of life and times there.

• Who all inspired you to write the book?

Many local and expatriate residents of Dubai were asking me to write about how the megacity has changed and developed at a phenomenal pace over the last 35 years that I lived there. It has advanced in 10 years, what other cities would have taken a 100-years to accomplish. Life changed very rapidly, and the modifications had to be recorded for future generations to know where they came from – what were their roots. History would not record what it had been like to live in the desert, how the people adapted to the seven-star culture and how it endangered or changed their values.

It took me a little over two years to write ‘Life in the Twinkle of an Eye’ and my reference were my articles written in the Gulf News and other publications over a period of 30 years.

• What is it like to be an Indian in Dubai?

The Indians in Dubai are considered hardworking, trust worthy and family oriented people. Their main purpose for coming to work in Dubai is to earn well and give their families at home, especially the children, better education and opportunities in life. Indians are loyal to their companies and usually stay in the job for many years. The overall impression is that they can be relied upon.

Also, Indians are the largest expat group in Dubai and the UAE has had ties with India going back several centuries. Indian nationals fit into every strata of Dubai’s society, from laborers, skilled labor, maids, domestic help, doctors, nursing staff, teachers, accountants, lawyers, merchants, business owners, bankers and teachers – in short, the whole gamut of the working population. The lower echelons of society were not treated fairly,in the initial days of migration, but today a lot has changed – there are proper work contracts and the Indian Consulate is part of the whole permission exercise. A deposit is also given to cover the airfare back to India in case the individual has to be repatriated.

• How much a person’s perception will change about the Middle East after reading your book?

I think there is a lot of misconception about the Middle East the world over. People listen to here-say and form an opinion without finding out the real picture themselves. I hope the fact that the book tells the story of a young family who came to live in Dubai for what was to be a four-year assignment and then stayed back for over 35 years - their trials, tribulations, joys and sorrows will describe how normal their lives were.

A stranger who read the book recently told me that she had transited at Dubai Airport several times but never had the desire to stop over for a few days. “Your book is an eye opener and the next time I transit in Dubai I will stop over for a few days. There seems to be a lot to see and do there – reading Life in the Twinkle of and Eye has whet my appetite to visit this city,” she told me. I am sure the book will resonate with others in a similar way.

• What are the primary misconceptions people have about Middle East?

As per my experience:

a) Misconception - Local women are illiterate and confine themselves to their homes.

The local Dubai lady is educated, has business acumen and in most instances, runs and manages her own business unconnected to her husband or family.

b) Misconception - Women are not allowed to drive.

Women of all nationalities are permitted to drive in Dubai. Nationals from the USA, UK and European countries are given a UAE driving license instantly on presenting their country’s license. All other nationalities have to pass the UAE driving test which is quite stringent.

c) Misconception - Women have to wear the burqa and cannot go out unless accompanied by a male family member.

Today local women have total freedom. They go to restaurants, cinema, shopping malls, events with other women or on their own. This took a longtime coming, but over the period of 35 years, while I was in Dubai, it happened slowly but surely.

d) Misconception - The local police are very strict and if you are caught doing the wrong thing you are thrown into jail with no hope of help from a lawyer or your consulate.

The law in the UAE is very strict but not so restricting. If you live within the law you have nothing to fear, however should you step out of line the punishment could be harsh. It is important to remember that you are living in a police state and if you do not follow the rules you could get into trouble.

e) Misconception - Dubai is unsafe. Women hesitate to drive late at night.

When I first came to live in the UAE we never locked the door of our house or the doors of our cars. It was the closest I have seen of a crime free society especially where petty crime was concerned. Today as the population has grown and there are so many different nationalities you do lock your home and your car and lock your precious items at home. There is crime but lower compared to other cities.I have never had qualms of driving at night in Dubai – even if it is after midnight. Should you get stuck due to any reason there is always help at hand and the Police are very vigilant and will see that you reach home safely. Often if you pull up on the side of the road with a flat tyre morning, noon or night a local Dubai gentleman will stop and have no hesitation in changing the tyres for you.

My personal experience was favorable. I always dressed in a sari and was nine to one a Hindu. I received courteousness, polite and civil treatment where ever I went. I interacted with people from all walks of life, a mix of nationalities and cultural groups in my work and social life.  I felt no discrimination.

• What makes Dubai such an exciting place to stay?

The essence of Dubai is progress, modernization and a knack of taking every opportunity and as far as possible making it work. They ensure their workforce is efficient and of a very high standard. It is a city bubbling with life always ready to take on a challenge.Dubai is also a very tolerant country as long as you follow the law and live with its confines. There are temples, churches and gurdwaras. There is no restriction on people following their faith.

• Will your book be able to improve the image of the Middle East?

I think many people have pre-conceived notions of the Middle East and they should take the trouble to read more about the area or talk to people who have lived there. Dubai has had much more exposure but more is needed. The best way is for people to write about their experiences to educate others who have never visited.

• Can Indians learn anything from Dubai?

In Dubai, women might have been in purdah in the past, but they have always been treated kindly and with respect. If there is a long queue, women and children are always asked to go ahead. This applies in most spheres of public life. If India adopted this attitude it would be marvelous.

• Who are your favourite authors?

I would always love to read W. Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’ published in 1915, John le Carre’s ‘The Spy who came in from the Cold.’ The plot of this book is said to be assembled with more precision than a Swiss Watch. Siddhartha Mukherjee’s ‘The Gene.’ Spanning the globe and several centuries, this is the story of the quest to decipher the master-code that makes and defines humans, that governs our form and function.

Atul Gawande’s ‘Being Mortal’ is understanding his patients beyond their illnesses. Medicine has triumphed in modern times transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury and disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do runs counter to what it should. I would also go for Aravind Adiga’s ‘The White Tiger’ that tries to capture the unspoken voice of people from the impoverished areas of rural India.

However, the list is endless and changes all the time.

• Who are the most interesting characters in history you have interviewed as a journalist?

Tennis legend Bjorn Borg, Singer Tina Turner, Boxer Mohammad Ali, Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan, Indira Gandhi and her Cabinet and also Ronald Codrai.