Michael Longley. Photo: Bobbie Hanvey
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Songs for dead children: the poetry of Northern Ireland’s Troubles

The winner of the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize on how poets have responded to the horrors of civil war  – and why the peace process is far from over.

In August 1969, Patrick Rooney, a nine-year-old boy, was struck by a tracer-bullet fired by the RUC as he lay in bed in the Divis Flats in the Falls Road district of Belfast. He was the first child to be killed during the Troubles. In helpless response I wrote “Kindertotenlieder” (“Songs for Dead Children”, its title borrowed from Mahler’s great song cycle:

There can be no songs for dead children
Near the crazy circle of explosions,
The splintering tangent of the ricochet,

No songs for the children who have become
My unrestricted tenants, fingerprints
Everywhere, teethmarks on this and that.

Patrick Rooney haunts me to this day. In my new collection, Angel Hill, I remember him in a short poem called “Dusty Bluebells”:

Patrick Rooney, aged nine, was killed
By a tracer-bullet where he slept.
Boys and girls in his class resumed
Their games soon after: In and out go
Dusty bluebells, Bangor boat’s away

The songs from the children’s street games reverberate down the decades and sound, in my imagination, for the children killed in Manchester in May this year. The deaths of children – always “innocent victims” – epitomise the shame of political violence.

Northern Ireland is not a place apart. Its civil war, which killed more than three and a half thousand people, belongs to the dark history of European conflict. In writing about the Troubles the poets of my generation took their bearings from Yeats and MacNeice, from the poems of Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis in the Second World War, from the Great War poets – Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg, Blunden, Gurney, Edward Thomas. We read Brecht, Célan, Apollinaire, Montale, Akhmatova, Rózewicz and reached back to Homer’s Iliad. But from the outset it has been (and still is) hugely difficult – impossible even – to find in poetry a voice, as Seamus Heaney put it, “adequate to our predicament”. In a poem called “Wounds” which I wrote in 1972 I ask the ghost of my father what he makes of it all: he had joined up as a boy-soldier in 1914 and fought in the Trenches. Here is the poem’s second section:

Now, with military honours of a kind,
With his badges, his medals like rainbows,
His spinning compass, I bury beside him
Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of
Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone.
A packet of Woodbines I throw in,
A lucifer, the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Paralysed as heavy guns put out
The night-light in a nursery for ever;
Also a bus-conductor’s uniform –
He collapsed beside his carpet-slippers
Without a murmur, shot through the head
By a shivering boy who wandered in
Before they could turn the television down
Or tidy away the supper dishes.
To the children, to a bewildered wife,
I think ‘Sorry Missus’ was what he said.

When the Bogside erupted in 1969 and West Belfast went up in flames, I was flabbergasted by the ferocity of it all. In the summer of 1969 Derek Mahon and I walked through the wreckage of the Falls Road. In a verse letter to him, I saw us as:

Two poetic conservatives
In the city of guns and long knives,
Our ears receiving then and there
The stereophonic nightmare
Of the Shankill and the Falls.

As I recalled in an interview I gave in 2003: “Part of me felt like an appalled outsider, another part – anti- Unionist, anti-establishment – felt exhilarated. The rest of me wanted to understand what I had hitherto ignored, the darkness and violence in my own community. From the beginning my poet-friends and I resisted the temptation to hitch a ride on yesterday’s headlines, to write the poem of the latest atrocity. We learned from each other how complex the situation was, how inadequate the political certainties – Green Ireland, Orange Ulster. We knew there was no point in versifying opinion and giving people what they wanted to hear.

We believed that poetry, the opposite of propaganda, should encourage people to think and feel for themselves: it should appeal to their "generous instinct", as MacNeice said in the violent 1930s. We hated what we came to call "Troubles trash". We believed that, even when generated by the best of intentions, bad poetry about the sufferings of fellow citizens would be an impertinence; as part of an agenda it would be a blasphemy. We disliked the notion that civic unrest might be good for poetry, and poetry a solace for the broken-hearted. We were none of us in the front line.

So far as I can recall, we never discussed these dilemmas. We had no plans to face up to the crisis as a group, or to speak to the outside world about it. We continued to write the poems that presented themselves, no doubt hoping that one day we might produce something ‘adequate’ about the Troubles. I find that I wrote in 1971: ‘Too many critics seem to expect a harvest of paintings, poems, plays and novels to drop from the twisted branches of civil discord. They fail to realise that the artist needs time in which the raw material of experience may settle to an imaginative depth, where it can be transformed into art.’

We took our time. Paul Muldoon observed that if you didn’t write about the Troubles you might be dismissed as an ostrich; if you did, you might be judged exploitative. Ciaran Carson said that his poems were not necessarily about the Troubles, but might be of them. Medbh McGuckian chose as the epigraph to her 1994 collection Captain Lavender what Picasso said in 1944: “I have not painted the war... but I have no doubt that the war is in... these paintings I have done.”

Introducing his indispensable anthology A Rage for Order: Poetry of the Northern Ireland Troubles Frank Ormsby wrote: “It is arguable that any poem by a Northern Irish writer since 1968, on whatever subject, could be termed a Troubles poem, in that it may, consciously or unconsciously, reflect the context in which it was written.”

A French writer once asked me: “Which side are the poets on?” But the true poets resisted demands to take sides. They listened to one another. In “The Hill Farm”, a beautiful lyric written before the recent Troubles, John Hewitt recalls standing outside a Catholic neighbour’s home in the Glens of Antrim, too shy to intrude as they say the rosary:

At each Hail Mary Full of Grace
I pictured every friendly face,
clenched in devotion of a kind
alien to my breed and mind,
easy as breathing, natural
as birds that fly, as leaves that fall;
yet with a sense that I still stood
far from that faith-based certitude,
here in the vast enclosing night,
outside its little ring of light.

Written during the Troubles, Seamus Heaney’s “The Other Side” responds tenderly to Hewitt’s poem and, reversing the situation, speaks from inside the house, from inside the Catholic community. Heaney evokes a Protestant neighbour standing outside their home as the evening prayers are being said. I shall quote the last ten lines:

But now I stand behind him
in the dark yard, in the moan of prayers.
He puts a hand in a pocket

or taps a little tune with the blackthorn
shyly, as if he were party to
lovemaking or a stranger’s weeping.

Should I slip away, I wonder,
or go up and touch his shoulder
and talk about the weather

or the price of grass-seed?

These two poems explore the cultural intricacies of life in Northern Ireland. In “The Boundary Commission” Paul Muldoon wittily carries the question of “sides”, of identity and allegiance, even further:

You remember that village where the border ran
Down the middle of the street,
With the butcher and baker in different states?

Today he remarked how a shower of rain

Had stopped so cleanly across Golightly’s lane
It might have been a wall of glass
That had toppled over. He stood there, for ages,
To wonder which side, if any, he should be on.

There are delicate balancing-acts in this conversation between poems. Perhaps such open-heartedness, reflecting “generous instinct” elsewhere in the society, suggests why – despite the terrible violence – Ulster never quite descended into the nightmarish mayhem of Bosnia’s civil war. Poetic conversations continue to this day. When the Good Friday Agreement was painstakingly achieved I felt it had – as it needed to have – an almost poetic complexity. To quote Heaney’s metaphor, the Agreement was about “the price of grass-seed”. In a poem of my own I called it “a fragment from some future unimagined sky”. You might say that today Northern Irish politics more often resemble bad prose. But the Peace Process is a process. It is far from over. It will take generations.

In August 1994 it was rumoured that there might be an IRA ceasefire. At the time I was reading the passage in the Iliad where the old king Priam bravely visits the mighty Greek general Achilles to beg for the body of Hector whom Achilles has killed in combat. Priam in his fragility awakens in Achilles memories of his own father and rekindles the gentler emotions he has had to suppress in order to be a general. The Iliad is probably our greatest poem about war and death; and this episode is, for me, its soul. I wanted to compress its two hundred lines into a compact lyric and thereby make my own minuscule contribution to the Peace Process. I sent the resulting sonnet to the Irish Times. The then literary editor John Banville published “Ceasefire” on the Saturday of the week in which the IRA declared their ceasefire. Here is the poem:

Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.

Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.

When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:

‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’

In my imagination I gave Priam the face of Gordon Wilson, the Enniskillen draper who was injured in the 1987 Enniskillen Remembrance Day IRA bomb blast. Trapped under the rubble, he had clasped the hand of his daughter Marie until she lost consciousness. With his arm in a sling, Gordon Wilson appeared on television a few days later and said he forgave his daughter’s killers: he had prayed for them. Many people in the town and through out Ulster were not ready to share these forgiving sentiments. After “Ceasefire” was published I was shopping on the Lisburn Road when an acquaintance approached me. “I admired your Achilles poem,” he said. “But I’m not ready for it. My son was recently the victim of a vicious paramilitary punishment beating, and may never fully recover.” This made me question “Ceasefire”, its redemptive symmetries. I wrote a sort of lopsided corollary called “All of These People”. Its eleven lines rehearse earlier elegies:

Who was it who suggested that the opposite of war
Is not so much peace as civilisation? He knew
Our assassinated Catholic greengrocer who died
At Christmas in the arms of our Methodist minister,
And our ice-cream man whose continuing requiem
Is the twenty-one flavours children have by heart.
Our cobbler mends shoes for everybody; our butcher
Blends into his best sausages leeks, barley, honey;
Our corner shop sells everything from bread to kindling.
Who can bring peace to people who are not civilised?
All of these people, alive or dead, are civilised.

“Civilisation”, “civilised”. Earlier I called the Northern Irish conflict “civil war” – a term others might contest. “Civil war” is a kind of oxymoron, since it combines an idea of community with an idea of its fracture. It throws into question, to quote Derek Mahon’s poem “Afterlives”, “what is meant by home”. Northern Ireland has only a million and a half inhabitants. So those who died in the Troubles are always in some sense intimately known, even across the divisions.

In 1999 four writers – David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton – compiled an extraordinary dossier of everybody who had been killed up to that date. This unbearably sad book is called Lost Lives. Reading over poems by myself and others, I realise that “lost lives” have always been at the centre of what we write: that the dominant genre of Troubles poetry is elegy – protest elegy, perhaps. To refer back to “All of These People”: “Our assassinated Catholic greengrocer” – I note I use the pronoun “our” – was Jim Gibson, murdered at Christmas by UDA gunmen who entered his shop on the Stranmillis Road and shot him because, I presume, he was a Catholic prospering in a predominantly Protestant area. My friend Sydney Callaghan, the Methodist minister in the poem, happened to be nearby, and was able to administer the Catholic Last Rites. Here is the second part of my elegy for Jim Gibson:

Astrologers or three wise men
Who may shortly be setting out
For a small house up the Shankill
Or the Falls, should pause on their way
To buy gifts at Jim Gibson’s shop,
Dates and chestnuts and tangerines.

The first poem in the “Wreaths” triptych, “The Civil Servant”, should really be called “The Magistrate”. My friend Martin McBirney was a magistrate and well-known literary figure. As a barrister he had appeared in unpopular cases involving civil rights issues. The IRA shot Martin as he sat down to breakfast, at almost the same time on the same morning as Judge Rory Conaghan (a Catholic) was shot dead. Both men were liberals, a good advertisement for the law. The IRA claimed they had been killed for “collaborating with the British war machine”. I disguised Martin McBirney as “a civil servant” because I didn’t want to intrude on the family’s grief.

The third poem in the triptych, “The Linen Workers”, is about the Kingsmills massacre. In January 1976 ten workmen were taking their usual route home from the textile factory at Glenanne when their bus was stopped. The gun men asked each of them his religion. One man, a Catholic, was told to run away up the road. The other ten were lined up and machine-gunned. A policeman said the road was “an indescribable scene of carnage”. That scene was viewed on television screens around the world. By pure chance I met in a Belfast pub the following day the English cameraman who had filmed the bloody aftermath. I asked him how he managed in such a nightmare. He replied: “I take out my light-meter, and I focus the lens.” His stark honesty might provide a template for writers and artists.

After Bloody Sunday, Seamus Heaney and I drove to Newry to join the outlawed protest march. The roads and byways had been blocked by police and army. It took us an age to reach Newry and our fellow protesters. We had plenty of time to talk. If we were stopped by paramilitaries and asked our religion, what would we reply? We agreed we would sink or swim by what we were – in our eyes not so much Catholic and Protestant as honest and brave. In “The Linen Workers” I again enlist my father’s ghost. Here are the last two stanzas:

When they massacred the ten linen workers
There fell on the road beside them spectacles,
Wallets, small change, and a set of dentures:
Blood, food particles, the bread, the wine.

Before I can bury my father once again
I must polish the spectacles, balance them
Upon his nose, fill his pockets with money
And into his dead mouth slip the set of teeth.

“Each neighbourly murder” – Seamus Heaney’s devastating phrase – destroys family, poisons the futures of the bereaved, overwhelms small communities. On the Lisburn Road (where I live) the IRA murdered John Larmour who worked in his brother’s ice-cream shop. I had been botanising in the Burren in County Clare, and had written into my notebook all the wild flowers I could identify in one day. On my return to Belfast I learned of the murder from my younger daughter Sarah who had bought with her pocket money some flowers to lay on the pavement outside the shop. I arranged the beautiful flower-names from my note book into an aural wreath to place beside her bouquet. “The Ice-Cream Man” is addressed to Sarah:

Rum and raisin, vanilla, butterscotch, walnut, peach:
You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before
They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road
And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.
I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren
I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,
Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,
Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,
Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.

I want that catalogue to go on for ever, like a prayer. When the poem was published, I received a heart breaking letter thanking me and pointing out that there were, coincidentally, twenty-one ice-cream flavours in the shop and twenty-one flower-names. The letter was signed “Rosetta Larmour, the Ice-cream Man’s Mother”.

Several poems with their roots in the Troubles happen to be masterworks. I would name, for example, Derek Mahon’s “A Disused Shed in County Wexford” Seamus Heaney’s “Casualty”, Paul Muldoon’s “Gathering Mushrooms”, Medbh McGuckian’s “Drawing Ballerinas”, Ciaran Carson’s “Dresden”. Colette Bryce, Frank Ormsby, Tom Paulin, Sinead Morrissey, Leontia Flynn, Peter McDonald, Gerald Dawe, Nick Laird have all extended our imaginative estate in troubled times. From across the Border, Paul Durcan has paid by far the closest and most pained attention to Northern Ireland’s turmoil. And Alan Gillis has written a miracle poem called “Progress”. It goes back over the nightmare ground I have been trying to cover in this lecture:

They say that for years Belfast was backwards
And it’s great now to see some progress.
So I guess we can look forward to taking boxes
From the earth. I guess that ambulances
Will leave the dying back amidst the rubble
To be explosively healed. Given time,
One hundred thousand particles of glass
Will create impossible patterns in the air
Before coalescing into the clarity
Of a window. Through which a reassembled head
Will look out and admire the shy young man
Taking his bomb from the building and driving home.

This is an edited version of Michael Longley’s PEN Pinter Prize Lecture 2017, privately printed by Faber and Faber. Michael Longley has recently published a new poetry collection Angel Hill (Jonathan Cape) and a selection of prose, Sidelines (Enitharmon Press).The PEN Pinter Prize was judged by Antonia Fraser, Maureen Freely, Tom Gatti, Don Paterson and Polly Stenham.

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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.