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The literature debate tearing apart Paris: should Céline's racist pamphlets be published?

Louis-Ferdinand Céline was one of France’s greatest novelists – but plans to republish his anti-Semitic writing has dramatically divided Paris.

On a cold but sunny afternoon in late January I paid a visit to the Passage de Choiseul in the commercial heart of Paris. The passage is a covered arcade, one of many such places that were built across the Right Bank of Paris in the early part of the 19th century, and which were effectively the world’s first shopping malls. The Passage de Choiseul is also one of the most important and totemic sites in French literary history. It was the childhood home of the novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline, arguably the greatest French writer of the 20th century, who still regularly outranks Marcel Proust in readers’ surveys and sales. Most significantly for his admirers, the passage was immortalised by Céline in his two magnificent novels, Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Instalment Plan, published in the 1930s. In Céline’s day the place was poor and decrepit and “stank of dogs’ piss”. Nowadays it is expensive and chic. But there is no trace of its most famous literary inhabitant – an extremely unusual fact in France, a country that prides itself on its literature, and where even the meanest provincial town has at least one Avenue Victor Hugo or Lycée Baudelaire.

I bought some pens and a notebook in the upmarket stationery shop just opposite the entrance to number 67, where I knew Céline had lived, and asked the lady behind the counter why there was no trace of the great man. She said that she was often asked this question by Céline’s admirers, who came from all over the world to this place, and that she did not know why there was no commemorative plaque or any other sign that Céline had lived here. She then hesitated, looked around to check that we were alone, and said quietly: “There are many Jews here who control business. They don’t want anyone to remember him.”

There are very good reasons why so many Jews in France still hate Céline. Between 1937 and 1941 he published a series of pamphlets that are made up of the rawest anti-Semitism. In these pamphlets – which look like popular paperbacks, and amount to more than a thousand pages – Céline’s ideas are those common to many prewar French anti-Semites: he rails against Jewish-Bolshevik vermin, sees Jewish conspiracies everywhere, and praises Hitler. But you really have to read the texts up close to feel the full savagery. “A dead million stinking Yids was not worth the fingernail of a single Aryan,” he wrote in 1937. In the 1940s, he declared that the arrival of the Germans in France was a “necessary tonic”. Céline’s only regret by then was that the war had not been devastating enough. Long before the Nazi machinery began to construct the Final Solution, Céline called for the extermination of the Jewish race: “If you really want to get rid of the Jews,” he wrote, “then there are not 36,000 remedies: racism! That’s the only thing the Jews are afraid of: racism! And not a little bit with the fingertips but all the way. Totally, inexorably. Like complete Pasteur sterilisation.”

I first read these texts nearly 30 years ago, when I was writing an MPhil thesis on Céline at the University of Manchester. I found them shocking then, and all the more shocking on re-reading them now. My thesis supervisor, who was Jewish, said that he couldn’t read them without feeling sick. Though he admired Céline’s work, he said that these writings were pure evil.

Since Céline’s death in 1961, these texts have lingered in a semi-legal limbo. They were never banned but were also never reprinted, and so for a long time they were hard to find and expensive (as a student I bought pirate copies from a shady far-right bookshop on the rue Malebranche in the Latin Quarter). The internet has, of course, changed all that. The pamphlets are now only a few clicks away on the web, and you can even read the ratings on the Goodreads website or find them on Amazon. This easy, even banal, availability is, however, what makes it so hard for an outsider to understand the drama around Céline that has convulsed the French literary world in the past weeks, eventually leading to a dispute between the government and Céline’s publishers.

***

The story began quietly enough in early December, when far-right magazine L’Incorrect published a piece explaining that Céline’s widow had finally given permission to republish Céline’s anti-Semitic texts. The response to this was fairly muted, until it was announced in the mainstream media that the texts would be published by Gallimard, the most important publishing house in France, effectively placing Céline’s most violently anti-Jewish writings in the pantheon of great French literature.

This news was met with anger and incredulity from the French Jewish community. Two leading Jewish organisations immediately called on Gallimard to abandon the project. They were joined by the prestigious voice of Serge Klarsfeld, internationally famous for his work in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice and himself a Holocaust survivor. Klarsfeld described the texts as “still dangerous and still murderous”.

The French government was rattled. On 19 December, Antoine Gallimard, the distinguished president of Gallimard, and his editors, including the writer Pierre Assouline, were summoned to give an account of their actions to a government committee. The result was a stand-off during which Gallimard refused to agree that a “literary object” – Céline’s pamphlets – could be reduced to a mere historical footnote and placed in a museum. The government wanted reassurances that the edition would be published with an introduction and annotations signalling to the reader that this was all in the past. Antoine Gallimard did not want to comply. This was not Mein Kampf, he argued, but a work of great artistic value. There could be no question of such censorship. 

Most of all, however, the government was worried that Céline’s writings would encourage the “new anti-Semitism” rife among young Muslims in the banlieues on the edge of the city. The public faces of this anti-Semitism are the comedian Dieudonné and the writer Alain Soral, who have recently openly challenged French laws on Holocaust denial. Assouline, who was to write the preface and who is Jewish, fired back that no one in the banlieues read Céline anyway.

The government committee nervously conceded the point. On 7 January the French prime minister Édouard Philippe weighed in, backing Gallimard and stating that although “there were excellent reasons to hate [Céline], his central place in French literature cannot be denied”. Antoine Gallimard welcomed the statement, saying that “censorship is a way of blocking a clear view of ideologies and leads instead to morbid curiosity”.

Then a few days later, on 11 January, apparently without warning, Antoine Gallimard changed his mind and announced that the whole project of publishing Céline’s pamphlets had been called off. At first no explanation was given, but then Gallimard made a statement saying that he was ending the project because in his judgement the “methodological conditions and the question of memory do not come together in a way that makes this possible”. In other words, he was giving in to the government.

***

Louis-Ferdinand Céline became famous suddenly. His first novel, Journey to the End of the Night, was an immediate bestseller on its publication in 1932. This fact was all the more extraordinary because Céline seemed to have come out of nowhere; he belonged to no literary schools and was unknown to the leading intellectuals of the day. Until the publication of the novel he had been working as a doctor in the poorer parts of northern Paris, writing at night in a fever of adrenalin and exhaustion.

The book was a success partly because it was such a page-turner. It is the story of Bardamu, a Chaplinesque anti-hero whose “journey” spans the horrors of the First World War, colonial Africa, New York and Detroit, back to the squalor of the poorest parts of Paris. It is a great picaresque romp, funny, grotesque and frightening in equal measure, satirising the modern world and all its absurdity from war to colonialism to capitalism.

Its most obvious inspiration was Zola, but in fact nobody had ever written a book in French like this before. What really made an impact on Céline’s first readers was the style. The book is written in the first person and delivered in the fast, witty and nasal slang of working-class Paris, often known as le parler parigot. Its politics are a mix of virulent pacifism, anti-capitalism and anarchism. For this reason it was widely admired on the left, and praised by André Gide, Trotsky and Orwell among others. But most importantly for its first Parisian audience, it told the story of Céline’s class and generation in real time and at ground level in the native language of the city. In this sense, Journey to the End of the Night is as Parisian as the songs of Édith Piaf.

This might be well said of the pamphlets too. Interestingly, the first of these, Bagatelles pour un massacre (“Trifles for a massacre”), went on to sell roughly the same amount as Journey to the End of the Night and was seen as a sort of follow-up by Céline’s readership. In its original publicity, it was sold as “something to make you laugh in the trenches”, a comic guide to the coming apocalypse. There is a loose plot featuring the character Ferdinand, who also appears in the semi-autobiographical novel Death on the Instalment Plan. Alongside this, the Bagatelles and other texts contain a good deal of dream-like reflection, trickery and deliberate disorganisation – which is what makes them so literary, even “poetic”, in the mind of Céline’s admirers, many of them on the French left.

The politics of the Bagatelles are an extension of Journey to the End of the Night. The author/narrator is still an anarchist who has no faith in Western civilisation, but this time it is because it is being corroded by the Jews, whose not-so-secret aim is the massacre of the entire French race. In some ways this is typical of French fascist thought and quite the opposite of the scientific rationalism espoused by the Nazis, who sought a “pure society” in the name of a natural order. Instead, Céline’s hatred of Jews is expressed in wild, hallucinatory riffs. It is emotional, irrational, crude and visceral. It is probably the closest thing you will ever read to how the many real, everyday anti-Semites talked in the streets of Paris in the 1930s.

For this reason alone, it is worth reading Céline’s pamphlets, if you have the stomach. If nothing else, they are an invaluable historical document. But what if these “evil” texts also possess literary merit and are not merely propaganda? How then do we read history?

These big questions have been part of the recent debate around Céline in the French media. But the real reason why Gallimard has suspended the Céline project was rather less philosophical: the company realised it was facing an insurmountable combination of public and political pressure.

For weeks, Antoine Gallimard himself received a barrage of threats and insults, which included being called a “Nazi whore”. The tipping point was possibly a private letter from the Israeli ambassador to France, Aliza Bin-Noun, asking him to call the project off. A diplomatic incident loomed when Bin-Noun angrily remarked in public that “anti-Semitism can never be excused just because it comes from a genius”. In the face of all this opposition, Gallimard and Assouline perhaps wearily accepted the project was simply not worth pursuing for now.

***

It first sight, this makes the controversy over Céline not really a censorship issue but more to do with context and timing. More precisely, it has exposed the fact that, far from being confined to the 20th century, anti-Semitism is still an open wound in French society. This is why Serge Klarsfeld said that to publish Céline in the current circumstances would be “an aggression against all the Jews of France”. Klarsfeld argued that because Céline’s literary talent, and therefore his power to persuade, are so much greater than that of Dieudonné or Alain Soral, he is still in the 21st century a truly threatening figure.

Klarsfeld has a point. It is true, for example, that for the past few years anti-Semitism has been thriving in France and that more Jews than ever are leaving for Israel. This has partly been driven by the rise in jihadi attacks, which are often aimed explicitly at Jews. Islamist violence has also been matched, however, by a recent surge of Jew-hatred in French alt-right or neo-Nazi circles, sometimes referred to as the Fachosphère.

Like its UK or American relations, this is a network of blogs, websites, bars and designer outlets where it is now cool to hold extreme right-wing views. To give just one example of how “hipster” anti-Semitism in Paris works: until recently, in a shop in northern Paris you could buy a polo shirt with Céline’s very recognisable face above a red and black logo (mimicking Kentucky Fried Chicken) with his initials: LFC. There is no need to say anything else; the image speaks for itself: this is Céline as the hip emblem of the parigot de souche, the “true white Parisian”. Other items for sale on the still-active website include a hoodie with an emblem of Joan of Arc with a Kalashnikov, and a bomber jacket with a white rat logo (the white rat is an insignia of the Parisian fascist, a code for white supremacy).

What this latest affaire reveals above all is that France is still having problems coming to terms with its past. One of the reasons for this is that in French intellectual and political circles, “culture” and “history” are too often treated as separate categories. The collision between Antoine Gallimard and the French government is a good demonstration of this opposition, with Gallimard insisting on the purity of Céline’s command of language, and the government anxious about Céline’s provocative status as cultural icon.

But, in truth, literature and history are often the same thing. This is why some books can be so hard to read, from the Marquis de Sade to Kafka or, indeed, Céline. To read literature in any other way is to distort our view of history.

Given the dangerous age we live in, it seems more important than ever that we should read not the “good” Céline against the “bad” Céline, but all of his work together – and why not in a Gallimard edition? – to catch his vicious, paranoid, self-pitying fury, and to understand how France went mad in the 1930s. 

Andrew Hussey is the author of “The French Intifada: The Long War Between France and its Arabs” (Granta)

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry

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As one of Abu Dhabi’s unofficial citizens, when will I get to call my country home?

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. 

The United Arab Emirates tends to lure three types of Western scribblers to its shores. First off the plane are the well-heeled jingoists, many of whom hardly ever seem to leave Abu Dhabi or Dubai's airports and hotels. Despite the oppressive heat, these intrepid correspondents take to bashing “morally destitute” Emiratis with great gusto, pausing to wax lyrical on their hatred of that “scorched, soulless land of labour abuses” or to condemn the country's obsession with Vegas-style kitsch. Finally, their “patience frayed”, they find themselves “snapping” and take their leave, citing their dreadful experiences as further proof the West should dread the dark cloud of Arab oil money, or Islam, or both.

Next come the neoliberal Orientalists, who attempt true-to-life portraits of this sandy, oil-rich Eldorado, where life is good under the tax-free sky and red-lipped young women in abayas clutching Gucci bags stride confidently into university lecture theaters and government jobs. A litany of clichés invariably follows: dhow rides along the creek, camels, sheesha cafés, elusive Emiratis in blingy rides, indoor snow-skiing and cosmopolitan shoppers in gargantuan, Disneyesque malls – perhaps a wee glimpse of despotism here and there, yet not enough to spoil the happy picture.

Finally, there are the fly-by reporters, who prowl the gardens of the UAE's otherness for the inspiration they're unable to find back home in London and New York. Their takes on the UAE range from the chronically confused, such as denying the country's tight censorship, defending its sodomy laws, or comparing Dubai to “an unreliable Tinder date” – to the embarrassingly naïve, turning the UAE and its highly complex society into exotic curios. Adam Valen Levinson's The Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah: Fear and Love in the Modern Middle East, for instance, was deemed so problematic that a magazine which ran an excerpt was forced to issue an apology. For the latter writers, life in the Emirates is so “confusing and eclectic” that they are forced to wonder whether “such a nomadic population could ever settle down long enough to develop a culture”, as an article in the New Statesman recently put it, which depicted the UAE's foreign-born residents as hardly ever seeing the country as their home. I am glad to say the reality is altogether different.

*

Abu Dhabi is my home and it is where I come from, despite the utter illegality of my claim. After all, I am not a citizen of the United Arab Emirates, nor could I ever hope to be. Acquiring Emirati citizenship is almost impossible and besides, I don't even look the part: being white-skinned, whenever I speak Arabic my interlocutors assume that I'm Lebanese. As the son of an Iranian father and an Italian mother, and raised almost entirely in the UAE's capital during the 1990s and early 2000s, my statistical designation throughout my childhood was clear. I was a guest worker's dependent, alongside my mother and younger brother. Thus, although I come from Abu Dhabi, I am not Emirati.

Regardless, the island of Abu Dhabi is the only place I think of as home. It is where my parents' romance blossomed, where I was conceived and where I was reared. My father, a leftist forced to abandon Iran at the end of a barrel in 1979, had worked on and off in Abu Dhabi since 1980. As such, I have few memories of Venice, my birthplace, where my mother was obliged to go a couple of months prior to my birth, since unmarried pregnant women were required by UAE law to return to their countries of origin.

Abu Dhabi is where I spent my childhood and adolescence. I planted saplings in Mangrove National Park, just off the T-shaped island's eastern shore. I whiled away hours at the Cultural Foundation, then the city's only public library, next to Qasr Al-Hosn, the ruler's abandoned 18th century fort, where I devoured Abdel-Rahman Munif's Cities of Salt novels, which chronicle the rise of the Gulf's oil kingdoms. I slept feet away from the ruins of the Nestorian monastery on Sir Bani Yas island; and I visited the old pearling grounds of Abu Al-Abyad, which once provided locals with their only tradable commodity before oil. I grew to know the city and its people's language, culture and history well. However, like all the male children of guest workers, at age 18 I was forced to leave, and I have re-entered the country ever since as a tourist. Despite having spent close to two decades in the UAE, each return visit has been limited by the 30 day visa stamped on my passport on arrival. Notwithstanding, Abu Dhabi has shaped my outlook and sensibilities more than any other city I have lived in. Much as I have tried to deny it at various times in my life, I am an Abu Dhabian.

My parents, for their part, wouldn't think of themselves as Abu Dhabians. Nevertheless, they were perfectly happy to spend their lives in the UAE, and absurd as it might seem, in their long decades there they hardly gave a thought to the inevitable prospect of one day being forced to leave. We weren't alone: approximately 86 per cent of the UAE's population is currently made up of foreigners. Although over the years I have grown used to seeing my hometown pointlessly praised, or derided, for having the world’s most expensive hotel, the world's largest theme park – and rather bizarrely for a majority Muslim country, the world's most expensively decorated Christmas tree – this is the record Abu Dhabi should be chiefly remembered for: the world's highest number of foreign-born inhabitants.


Families stroll down the Corniche

Since the late 1960s, the world's nationalities have spilled into the UAE, supplying it with nurses, doctors, teachers, lawyers, shopkeepers, service workers, entertainers and police forces. For certain Westerners, the UAE is a revolving-door country in which to spend a lucrative two or three years. We, though, defined ourselves as long-termers and hardly ever came into contact with such opportunists. My father, who speaks four languages including Arabic, was an architect employed by an Emirati prince. The masons, carpenters, electricians, drivers and foremen he worked with were almost entirely from South Asia and the Middle East. There were times when, despite my father's stories of his Emirati friends and my few Emirati classmates, I thought that I lived in Little India: a solid 60 per cent of that 86 per cent majority was – and remains – composed of people from the Indian subcontinent, mostly men employed in the construction and transportation industries.

Our Abu Dhabi wasn't as tall then: the island's neighborhoods were mostly capped at five or six stories and stubby palm trees still jutted out of the gardens of crumbling villas built in the wake of the 1970s oil boom. The polished steel and glass skyline that can be seen today was still being sketched on the drafting board. The famously heavy, humid air was always pregnant with two kinds of sounds: the call to prayer five times a day, and the drone of 24-hour construction sites. The sandstorms and sea-salt constantly lashed against the cheaply-built beige apartment blocks, which were studded with the loud but vital external AC units that rattled precariously on their sandy perches. Tagalog, Malayalam and Hindi tinkled constantly in my ear. I went to school with Arabs, South Asians and Africans, ate Afghan bread fresh from the downstairs bakery and was more familiar with Bollywood than Hollywood, perhaps owing to our living above a cinema that played double-bills of Hindi hits every night. Although there were a few Westerners, they largely kept themselves confined to their own residential enclaves, schools and beach clubs.

Our fellow long-term, informal Abu Dhabians exhibited no desire to leave, but also made no attempt to entrench themselves, either. Foreigners cannot own property in the Emirates, they can only lease it. Since naturalisation was deemed impossible anyway, the general understanding was that there was no point in doing anything about it. The longer the permanence in the UAE, the shorter the visits back to their real, supposed homes became. While first-generation immigrants remained somewhat more connected to their origins, their children were often horrified by the prospect of ever having to leave, even though they mostly knew this was inevitable.

The choice facing all male children at the age of 18 is this: find employment and thus secure a sponsor for your visa, or else attend one of the country's franchise Western universities. The first is a near impossibility, since businesses in the Emirates do not hire untrained adolescents, especially foreign ones. The second is exorbitantly expensive. (Unmarried daughters are allowed to remain in the family fold.) Knowing that that my parents could not afford to continue paying for my education in the Emirates, I applied to several institutions in the UK, where, thanks to a clerical error, I was offered a place at university at the lower “home” fee rate, then just slightly over a thousand pounds.

Adapting to life in Britain, I often reflected on how, despite causing me a great deal of pain, my illusion of permanence in the UAE had nevertheless been an incredible gift. Such an illusion was denied to millions of other informal Emiratis. Visitors to the cities of the Emirates over the past few decades will have all stumbled on the same inescapable sight: the striking preponderance of men, in particular the millions of South Asian labourers who spend their lives in the UAE entirely alone, denied the option to bring their families over. While many could afford to do so – at a stretch – they are systematically blocked by strict entry quotas based on their countries of origin, no matter how long they've lived and worked in that country.

In the early 1990s, visitors to Abu Dhabi's Corniche, the broad waterfront boulevard on the western shore of the island, would be struck by the sight of thousands of South Asian laborers in their distinctive blue overalls. Back then, the Corniche was one of those few places where Emiratis and foreigners, and the poor and the rich could mingle. On Thursday nights, labourers would pose in front of the Corniche's Volcano Fountain, an 80 foot water feature lit by bright crimson lights at night, making the drops look like lava.

There, they would snap photos of themselves to mail back to their families. The ideal stance involved leaning one elbow against the trunk of a palm, with the sputtering Volcano in the background. The rest of the week, the labourers were restricted to the construction sites and their accommodations in hangar-style shacks outside the city limits, on the mainland.

The Volcano, which grew into one of the city's most beloved landmarks, was demolished in 2004. It made way for a sleeker, broader Corniche, yet one that was ultimately far more exclusive. Today its beach pavilions and cafés are the bastion of the middle class, part of a trend that has seen the city grow more segregated. Although the UAE is a cacophony of cultures and nationalities, the government's unwritten policy is straightforward: one is welcome to live there so long as one silently subscribes to its system of apartheid by consent. While foreigners are free to mix, the UAE's informal hiring practices mean that jobs are allotted almost exclusively according to race: East Asians are employed in service industries and as maids, construction workers are South Asian, lower middle-class jobs go to Arabs and managerial positions are the near-exclusive preserve of Westerners, leaving the friendly, languid Emiratis perched alone on top. You are free to live here and make your money however long you can, the Welcome Sign should say, but never fool yourself into thinking you'll ever remain. The PS should also read: if you don't like it, leave.

Despite the terrible odds presented by this game of roulette, there is no short supply of willing gamblers. For better or worse, the UAE remains a beacon of potential prosperity. It is the promised land to the Subcontinent's poor, a safe haven for the Arab world's elites and a tacky oddity ripe for the plucking to the West's middle classes. Precisely because of that, most of the aforementioned would happily accept Emirati citizenship in a heartbeat, and therein lies the problem. Rather than open the floodgates, the answer, it seems, is to make the process a near impossibility, no matter how long one has lived there.


A group of Filipino men take a selfie 

Abu Dhabi has certainly grown larger, denser and richer in recent years. It has also become visibly unhappier. For expatriates, visa restrictions are increasingly tough. A new law making “good conduct certificates” mandatory to get work permits came into effect on 4 February 2018. Meanwhile, despite the UAE government making no distinction between short-term opportunist and those whose families have made the UAE their home for decades, generations of residents now feel both estranged and at home. Many Abu Dhabians ejected at eighteen do, after all, come back. As the Abu Dhabian writer Deepak Unnikrishnan recently explained, his unexpected return to his city in 2015 led to a “difficult” re-adjustment: “Mentally, it was as though I couldn’t return to the city I had left, as though someone had changed the locks to my home without telling me.”

It is fittingly ironic, then, that the UAE's government newest obsession just so happens to be happiness. In February 2016, the UAE became only the fourth country in the world after Bhutan, Ecuador and Venezuela to appoint a Minister of State for Happiness. Dubai's PR-savvy ruler – and self-styled poet – Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al-Maktoum even went so far as to pen a slim tome entitled Reflections on Happiness & Positivity (Explorer, 2017). In it, he wrote: “What makes us proud of our United Arab Emirates is not the height of our buildings, the breadth or our streets or the magnitude of our shopping malls, but rather the openness and tolerance of our nation.” It is nevertheless unfortunate to see that Al-Maktoum's openness and tolerance does not stretch to include the millions of expatriate men and women who built his principality in the first place.

Emirati citizenship grants one instant access to a host of socio-economic privileges unavailable to the UAE's foreign-born inhabitants, and is granted solely by royal edict. The rationale for such exclusivity is simple. Citizens enjoy lavish benefits, including a college fund, free health care, a guaranteed job in government, and access to a government Marriage Fund. Open up citizenship, and the less than a million existing Emiratis would be politically overwhelmed overnight. While a provision exists in Emirati law which allows expatriates to apply for UAE citizenship after a 20 year period, it is almost never put to use. UAE society is thus bitterly divided. The expats resent the Emiratis' privileges, while Emiratis quietly worry about losing the reins of their own country. Mixed marriages between Emiratis and foreigners are actively discouraged, with Emirati women forbidden from marrying foreign men altogether.

Meanwhile, informal Emiratis have been there for decades longer than the actual country has existed. One of my father's oldest friends during his early years in Abu Dhabi was an engineer. He was both a third-generation expat Emirati and a Palestinian. His grandfather had left his village in Galilee in 1949 and had wound up in the northern emirate of Ras Al-Khaimah, where he had started a chicken farm. By my early teenage years, this Emirati Palestinian clan counted over twenty individuals, who occupied various posts in both private businesses and government enterprises. Their story mirrored that of many Palestinians after the Nakba, who alongside the Lebanese, Egyptians, Iranians, Indians and Pakistanis, played a vital role in the building of the modern Gulf petrocracies. Unfortunately, the supply of willing workers long appeared inexhaustible. Each new conflagration in Israel-Palestine prompted a new flight of migration, and so the Palestinian immigrants in the Gulf were largely treated as expendable. While the UAE's government has always made a public show of its sizable contributions to Palestinian charities, it has never extended the warm hand of citizenship or long-term residency, which is precisely what the overwhelming majority of expat Emirati Palestinians both want and deserve.

A pragmatic solution to the woes of expatriate Abu Dhabians remains as distant now as it was when my family first moved to the UAE. However, their cause – and the overall issue of an individual's right to place – is nevertheless a global cause for concern. In his Reflections on Happiness & Positivity, Sheikh Mohammed claims to have taken cues from Aristotle, Ibn Khaldun and the US's Founding Fathers to reach his conclusion that “tolerance is no catchphrase, but a quality we must cherish and practice” since “the government's job is to achieve happiness”. For the moment, however, the UAE's interpretation of happiness excludes almost 90 per cent of its people.

Whether the UAE survives as a functional state may well largely depend on its ability to retain and absorb its long-term expatriates. It is time for the country to attempt what Benedict Anderson called a “sophisticated and serious blending of the emancipatory possibilities of both nationalism and internationalism”. The UAE is no paradise for migrant workers, but meanwhile those nomads and their children have developed a culture the rest of the world should finally begin to contend with. Last year, the UAE Pavilion at the Venice Biennale featured non-Emirati residents, such as Vikram Divecha and Lantian Xie. Deepak Unnikrishnan's novel Temporary People (Restless Books, 2017), which explored Abu Dhabi's hidden nuances through a sequence of interlinked stories tinged with magical realism, was recently published to highly-deserved acclaim. Dubai has even become home to exiled artists like Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian.

For all that the Western world likes to caricature the UAE, the question of citizenship is not one confined to the expatriates of Abu Dhabi. Los Angeles, the city where I currently reside, is presently home to thousands of “Dreamers”, beneficiaries of the Obama-era legislation that protected the children of people who entered the US illegally, many of whom now face a very uncertain future. As for me, the familiar sight of pump jacks and foreign migrants outside my window keeps my memories of home – and hopes for a better future there – alive. Impractical or not, Abu Dhabi is my home, and I don't need a passport to prove it.

 

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new age of rivalry