I’m six years old and travelling in a tiny white car with my dad. He has the accelerator pressed firmly to the floor and, because he is a 6ft 3in Dubai Exiles number eight and the car is at least 20 per cent smaller than his actual body mass, my face is squashed flat against the passenger window. Together we shoot through mile after mile of empty desert, with only the waves from the Arabian Gulf crashing alongside us to break the silence.
Suddenly our house looms up through the heat haze and, with one deft movement, Dad swings the little Italian car off the road, up the dirt track to the front door and rushes inside to turn on the TV. Then he dives into the kitchen, clatters around and emerges triumphantly with two heaving plates of sausage, egg, black pudding, toast, beans and mushrooms. Mum would kill him if she could witness this scene of coronary destruction, but she’s not here yet. We have less than three minutes.
I take my plate and sit cross-legged on the floor. Dad leans over me and turns up the television and there, in glorious black and white, is my mum. ‘Good evening,’ she says, ‘this is the Six O’Clock News’. She can’t see us, but I still wave, Dad raises a sausage and another night at the end of a deserted Jumeirah Beach in 1978 passes peacefully for the Brown family. Last week, Dad took me back to that house. It still stands, timber bleached white by 30 years of sun, and the garden, planted so lovingly by my mother back in the ’70s, still grows. But that’s all I recognise. Dubai has swallowed up the empty desert: the old road is now a four-lane beast, and the beach on which I played as a boy is now called the Burj Al Arab.
I feel like a stranger in a country that I once knew only as home. I grew up here. My brother was born here. My dad built the dry dock (not by himself of course, but he was there) and my mum read the news on the telly. But Dubai has few landmarks from those bygone days. Chicago Beach is now a huge hotel, the Exiles rugby stadium has been demolished and the Sheraton Dubai Creek, once a landmark on the horizon, now creaks under the weight of the modern skyline.
That’s not to say I don’t like the new Dubai – truth be told, the adult me loves the place – it’s just that I can’t find my references points. After being back for five weeks I know Dubai is everything I’d hoped: confident, bold and ambitious. I just wish I could find Magrudy’s. I know it’s here somewhere, in Jumeirah, just off the beach…