We chat to Syrians living in Dubai in our latest snapshot of life as an expat in our lovely emirates
Hisham Sanawi, 30
‘I moved to Dubai two and half years ago from the States. It was tough being in the West. If you were to look at me you would never guess that I’m Syrian, even though a lot of Syrians have fair skin and light eyes. It kind of makes you undercover in the West, so while you’re never treated negatively because of the way you look, you still hear a lot of comments. I was in New York during 9/11, and there was definitely a big backlash against Arabs and me at that time. I guess I just wanted to be closer to my culture and roots, and I was losing touch living in the States. In Dubai, I’m able to reconcile my Arab heritage, but still have the things I enjoyed in the West.
I’m the manager at Ayyam Gallery, which specialises in Syrian art, so I go back to Syria every two months. Now that I get to go back, I’m more proud than ever to be Syrian. In New York, Ramadan was such an individual struggle – fasting by yourself, no community. I used to just grab McDonalds to break fast. Out here, I actually look forward to Ramadan.
My favourite places to get Syrian food (which is really the same as Lebanese) are Al Nafoorah and Karam Beirut in Mall of the Emirates. Also, in the gallery, I give away Ghraoui chocolates, which come from Syria, and they just opened a store here as well. For a hangout, I really enjoy this shisha place, Zyara.
Of course, Dubai is very different to Syria. In many ways, it’s the opposite to Damascus, which is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, and Dubai’s kind of the newest. Before I settled here, I visited a lot, and every time I came I was amazed to see how it had changed and kept growing. I was really drawn here because it was a city that was being created, and I felt excited about being a part of the generation that was helping to build the city. New York was built 100 years before I ever got there, and nothing I did was ever going to change that city. Here, I felt I could be a part of things.’
Sima Barazi Haroun, 34
‘My family left Damascus in 1982. My dad wanted me and my sisters to go to American universities, so we went to the US for a better education. My parents are still back in Damascus, and I visit them every year. My husband and I used to live in Beirut, but he got a job offer in Dubai eight years ago, so we moved again. Once I got here, I set up my own shop, Boom & Mellow, in the Mall of the Emirates. It’s an accessory shop. I buy things from all over the world: handbags, jewellery and all sorts.
I can’t say Dubai doesn’t have a culture; it has its own, but it doesn’t have the history and that old city charm that Damascus and Beirut both do. There is also such a mix of people here. You don’t get that in Syria or Lebanon. I think it’s a valid place in the Middle East for people like me to live, who aren’t specifically Middle Eastern, but aren’t 100 per cent Western either. It’s a really good balance.
While I’m Syrian, I consider myself international, if that makes any sense. I’m from all over the world: the Arab world and other foreign countries as well. While I have a lot of Syrian friends, I also have friends from a lot of other backgrounds. When we go out, we don’t really seek out Syrian food. My favourite hangouts have good atmosphere: Zuma and Sho Cho are my favourites.’
Soudkai Atassi, 31
‘I was 13 when I first came to Dubai. It was 1990 and the city was tiny – the only building on Sheikh Zayed Road was the Trade Centre. I didn’t like it here at first. Syria felt like more of a community than Dubai – a lot of us lived close to each other so we could meet in the street to play soccer. But when I came here, the friends I made lived in Sharjah, Ajman, Deira and places like that, and we didn’t know any of our neighbours. But slowly I got used to it. It was much more multicultural than Syria: none of my friends were Syrian any more, they were British, Lebanese, Palestinian, Jordanian and Indian.
There is a Syrian community here, but I don’t really deal with it much, perhaps because I keep leaving and coming back so often. I think it’s interesting because a lot of communities in Dubai don’t mingle much with each other: the Arabs stay together, the Indians stay together and the Europeans stay together. I don’t think Dubai encourages or discourages this, though – I think that it depends on the sort of person you are. If you pursue the multicultural aspect of it, you’ll find it and be rewarded for it, but a lot of people don’t, and I think that’s the wrong way to do it. Syria obviously isn’t as economically developed as Dubai, but there’s more to it historically: there are Roman ruins and Islamic ruins.
But you have to pick a starting point for any city and it just happens that the starting point for Damascus was many, many years before Dubai. So Dubai is building its history now, whereas in Damascus it’s already built. I wonder whether, decades from now, we’ll look back at some of the developments here as being part of history.’
Syria can lay claim to a rich and ancient past. It traces its roots as far back as the Eblan civilisation, founded around 3,000BC. Later it was a rich Roman province, with at least three emperors hailing from the territory, then at the centre of the Islamic empire.
More recently, it was part of the Ottoman Empire, until 1920 when the country came under French mandate, before becoming independent in ’46.
After independence, Syria was subject to a period of political instability and, in 1958, unified with Egypt and became known as the United Arab Republic; unification lasted less than three years.
Since 1970, Syria has been ruled first by Hafiz al-Asad and, since his death in 2000, by his son, Bashar al-Asad. Syrian troops patrolled the streets of Lebanon from 1976, but withdrew in 2005.