I loved that green scarf my eldest boy had wrapped around his waist in that photograph. It was soft to touch, the creases fell out of it, and it matched nearly everything in my wardrobe. I took it with me whenever I left the house and it nearly always ended up wrapped around one of the boys.
At the time this photograph was taken we had been living in Abu Dhabi for ten months, and those ten months included the extended three month summer break that I spent travelling through Spain and then living in Edinburgh for a month where I staged my first (what would come to be my only) solo show.
We were spending the weekend in Sharjah, the small emirate that borders the other side of Dubai and is about 150 kilometres from Abu Dhabi. At the time, it had a lot more cheap accommodation and schooling than was available in Abu Dhabi and many people on low incomes would commute. Every day. They probably still do, but I’m not sure about details like that anymore.
By this time, we had found a place to live and while the lads and I were in Spain, the mister had moved out of our temporary apartment and into our new compound apartment. We had passed the first anniversary of my dad’s death, my grandfather was more settled in his new accommodation. In the shadow of the GFC and a company merger, the mister’s employment was not unstable but was more complex than we had thought it would be when he accepted the job offer over a year before.
I was also facing something entirely unexpected: I was not loving living in a different country and culture to my own. This messed with my mind because until now I had thought that I loved travel, that I wanted to live anywhere, everywhere allthewhere. For more than twenty years nearly every decision that I’d made had been on the understanding that I wanted always to be seeing new places. On our backpacking trips I had listened to everyone else’s stories of living in Singapore, Hong Kong, the Middle East and I had thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ You understand, don’t you, that when I say ‘thought’ I mean ‘believed’. I mean that this was who I thought I was. A person who wants to be in new and different places. Even if it had sometimes frightened me or made me feel uneasy, the opportunity to think beyond myself had always energised me.
This was not my experience in my first year of being in Abu Dhabi. During that time I was filled with such intense and debilitating feelings of dislocation that it was impossible to focus or concentrate on anything much more than the immediate task at hand. More deeply, whether I was conscious of it or not this was having a profound impact on my sense of identity and self.
On the weekend that this photograph was taken, I was taking practical steps to grapple with this mismatch in my expectations of myself and the reality of my feelings. I was organising trips like this thinking that it would help me to root myself more firmly in the place. That’s what I’d always done previously when I felt out of place and dislocated – I’d thrown myself fully into that space.
It didn’t work. I did not enjoy my weekend in Sharjah even for one second. The emirate of Sharjah is dry (that is, without alcohol), but the Russians we shared the lift with as we went down to the lobby of our hotel were clearly drinking something more than water. Sitting by the pool for an hour I felt like I was a character in a road trip movie only I was the only one who hadn’t taken three days of drugs to get there. The weather had not cooled and I hadn’t adjusted to the constant heat of the desert. I couldn’t get my head around the museums’ hours and so we were mostly wandering around between closed museums and empty markets. And I didn’t once feel that spark of excitement and discovery that I do at new museums and art galleries.
Of course, this was a temporary unhappiness. Soon enough, time would soften the sharp edges of my grief. I would make peace with the many changes to my identity – the changes that had been forced on me and the changes that I had made. I would stand steadily again even if the ground under my feet were sand.
But on the day I took this photograph I didn’t know any of that.