Mourning the expat city state

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A year into life in Dubai, my American friend should be chafing. Local prohibitions include homosexuality and extramarital sex. A trace of marijuana in his bag or even his blood would invite arrest. If only to keep the Brits in, there is latitude, that sweet word for hypocrisy, but it is as random as the architecture.

To explain his air of liberation, then, his sense of ease, he cites culture, not law. What Dubai withholds in rights it also lacks in the informal pressures of “identity”. Membership of overlapping minorities does not define him in that unreflective city. There is no cause to discuss or even wonder “who he is” when transience is the rule. Seven thousand miles from head office, he is spared the daily test of right and wrong speech, good and bad thought, as invigilated by juniors. Some of the most precious things in life are proscribed in a Gulf monarchy. But the chance to forget oneself, to disappear in plain sight, is a freedom too.

The mystery is where to find it in future. The sun is setting, for now, on a certain kind of nomad’s idyll. In Hong Kong, reabsorption into China is the issue. In Singapore, it is the pandemic and a new commitment to the nation’s “core”. Even the United Arab Emirates, facing disease and domestic unemployment, has shooed out legion expats.

Mourners at the wake of the expat city state will be few, I know. The dreary safety, the vulgar cleanliness: it is a bohemian must to knock such places. But shallowness can be emancipating. These cities allow for a kind of freedom that more vaunted ones never can. Though the foreign-born make up a third or more of their populations, New York and London are infused with national culture. Berlin, Paris and Tokyo are yet more anchored. There are deep histories here to fit into or work around. The atmosphere is set by political values and aesthetic tastes as much as by the rude democracy of commerce.

None of these places can be the tabula rasa that a young entrepôt can. It is a trope that people write themselves anew in great cities but — I say this as a peddler of that idea — it is also a half-lie. More often, they are written on. Places that old and textured mark the individual, not the other way around.

It follows that Dubai and its kind are liberating precisely because of their sterility. The stress on business leaves the inner life unmolested. Even in Singapore, where relations and childhood memories should ground me, I feel weightless. A world in which these cities are the standard would drag. But a world without a sprinkling of them would deny a certain type of person the chance for reinvention.

It is a type I know. So much is said about the rift between the global class and the rest that schisms within the first tribe get lost. Of my peers, those who flocked to the city states as soon as they could were generally the first graduates in their families. Some brushed off taunts of “filth” (failed in London, try Hong Kong) as they went. They craved more expansive lives than they were born into but they felt no trace of irony or embarrassment about creature comforts. It was the second-generation middle-class who favoured grander cities or brushes with danger.

That distaste must account for the gap in artistic treatment. The most dramatised cities in the current age of globalisation also starred in the Victorian one. Some were bubbling with foreign merchants in the Middle Ages. What differentiates the past half-century or so is the arriviste likes of UAE and Singapore. Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog and Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians aside, though, the stories behind the windows of those icicle towers go untold.

In their pomp, these cities put me in the mind of the French Foreign Legion: the homing beacon to those keen to shed an identity, the blend of harshness and openness. Just as legionnaires don’t swear an oath to France, membership of the city implied no wider loyalties. If even these places succumb to the great turn inwards, the loss will be more than commercial.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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