By Sara Naqwi
When I announced to my family and friends that we – my husband and I – are moving out of Dubai to Amsterdam, we were faced with disbelief. “Why would you want to leave Dubai?” “You do realize you will have to fill gas in your own car, even in winter?” “You’ll have to pay taxes!” “It is far more expensive, you will be paying twice as much for water and petrol!” and so on. The idea that a person can want more in life other than happiness that attaches itself to material wealth seemed inconceivable to my loved ones. The romantic in me wanted to quote one of my favorite authors, Gregory David Roberts, to explain the pressure of being surrounded with perfection: “The burden of happiness can only be relieved by the balm of suffering.” Instead of confusing them further with my obscure philosophy, I explained, “You see, I want to see new lands, feel four seasons with all their glory and glitches, run to catch a train, shovel snow off my car. Maybe learn a new language, and customs.” But my words fell on deaf ears. Anyone wanting to leave the Middle East to move to the West held outrageous notions, particularly because countless Europeans were now moving to places like the UAE and Oman. To be fair, the consternation my friends and family experienced was understandable.
Dubai and its sister city, Abu Dhabi, are fantastic places on earth; they have risen from the ground in a little over a decade to become one of the most exquisite and desirable places to visit and live in the world. The UAE promises only the best of everything, from housing, education and work, to shopping, art, food and sports. The sunny weather makes it beach season throughout the year; the glamorous exhibitions, film and literature festivals and parties attract celebrities, writers and politicians from all over the world. Dubai is also home to the tallest building in the world that lights up with dramatic pyrotechnics on national occasions, annually, which is visible all the way to its neighboring cities. You can go skiing, diving, ice-skating and sky-diving all in one day with ease. Essentially, once in Dubai, you never want to leave which is what turns the city into a perfect “bubble”.
Being the daughter of a poet and the wife of a traveler, the bubble, for me, began to wobble a little. My work relates to human rights of Muslim prisoners who have become political pawns in the US’s “war on terror”. As my campaigning, research and writing progressed, I began to crave an education to strengthen my legal arguments and increase my knowledge about endless questions I was accumulating. When we moved to Amsterdam and I began my hunt for postgraduate studies, I was thrilled to come across – and be accepted to – VU Amsterdam’s program of “International Crimes and Criminology” at the faculty of law. The program has pushed me to ask why international crimes happen, and how can we prevent them from occurring in the future. Moreover, it focuses on subjects I am passionate about: the law of armed conflicts; and international human rights. Suddenly, I found myself in an environment that I never before realized was ideal for me. I began to see my humanitarian work from a legal perspective, which is imperative in my line of work; and my colleagues were just as inspiring, as most of them had a background in law or journalism.
My husband and I found a house in a sweet little village, on an island, outside Amsterdam, that faces a farm where cows graze in the summer, and geese flock in winter. Like our family and friends back home who still cannot understand why we left the UAE, our Dutch friends cannot comprehend why we chose to live on an island, the charm factor notwithstanding, and not in vibrant Amsterdam instead. Instead of offering my usual token of philosophy, I simply smile and say, “We craved the countryside when we lived in the concrete jungle, Dubai.” It is difficult to explain the wonderful pitter patter sounds of the rain when I wake up before sunrise to get ready for university, and how instead of putting me in a foul mood – as it does to most Europeans who long for the sun – it brings a skip in my step as I walk to my car. Every morning, regardless of the season, the sun gently breaks through magenta, pink clouds and soft light cascades down in perfect rays upon the fields. In the fall, the cows and ducks prepare another lazy day of consuming and snoozing as the day swathes them. I find myself witnessing Rembrandt’s inspiration of light and atmosphere first hand, and I am in awe. When I drive out of the island, I sometimes catch twin rainbows in the rear-view mirror, sending me off with a graceful farewell, and I must admit, the sheer beauty of such a sight makes it difficult to concentrate on the road. How can I explain the gratitude I feel in the silence of such a brilliant morning as I drive away to the city, to my university, while I eagerly await to join an environment where learning produces such joy. What constitutes a good life? Little did I know that taking the unusual and less travelled road, which others may not always be au fait with, may be one of the most wonderfully frightening and significant steps one can take in life.
I highly recommend it.