MOISES SAMAN/MAGNUM
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The price of a life

In 2014, Islamic State fighters murdered thousands of Yazidis and kidnapped many others, mostly women and children. Their desperate relatives are now trying to buy them back.

1. Taken

On the morning of 3 August 2014, a 58-year-old chef known as Abu Majed faced the most agonising decision of his life. Earlier that summer, Islamic State (IS) fighters had overrun vast areas of northern Iraq. Now, they were closing in on the villages and towns that surround Mount Sinjar, a jagged ridge of rock that rises abruptly from the flatlands and extends for tens of kilometres towards the Syrian border. Abu Majed’s village, Khanasur, had few defences and would fall to the militants. How should he protect his family?

A popular, humorous man, Abu Majed learned to cook in Baghdad in the 1970s before returning to Khanasur to open his gazino, an outdoor restaurant where young people liked to gather for grilled meat, beer and whisky among trees strung with fairy lights. He had five children and was fiercely proud of all of them. They were at the top of their classes at school and his two eldest wanted to study medicine. To Abu Majed – who, like almost everyone else in Khanasur, had descended from a long line of subsistence farmers – these ambitions were remarkable.

Abu Majed’s restaurant had been a haven during many turbulent years in Iraq. He kept it open through the repressive reign of Saddam Hussein and during the violence that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the threat now posed by the jihadists was greater than anything that had come before – especially because the villagers of Khanasur are Yazidis, an isolated and marginalised religious minority that has lived for centuries in north-west Iraq.

Having heard reports of the jihadists’ brutality elsewhere, Abu Majed was certain that IS’s main target would be the Yazidi men. The best option was for his family to split. After sending his wife and four youngest children – then aged between eight and 15 – to shelter with another family in the village, he walked with his eldest son towards Mount Sinjar. Abu Majed was still on the ascent when his phone rang. On the screen, he saw his daughter’s number. “They’ve captured us,” she whispered.

Abu Majed decided to turn back to try to rescue them, accepting that it would probably be a suicide mission. When he and his son arrived the following day in Khanasur, it was deserted. Devastated and distraught, they returned to Mount Sinjar, joining tens of thousands of fellow Yazidis stranded on the summit with no food, clean water or protection from the fierce sun.

They were trapped. The mountain was surrounded by IS fighters who had rampaged through the nearby villages, slaughtering thousands of Yazidis and taking thousands more hostage. Sometimes they gave people the choice between converting to Islam and death; some converted and were murdered anyway.

A few days into the siege, Iraqi and then American, British and Australian military aircraft began dropping food parcels and water on to the mountain. Often they unloaded from a great height to avoid coming under fire from IS militants and the bottles would burst on impact, water seeping into the yellow dust. When the helicopters could fly low enough, dozens of people struggled to climb aboard so that they could be airlifted to safety – but few made it off the mountain that way. Abu Majed and his son saw old people and infants succumb to starvation. “People were saying, ‘We wish we would die here. Maybe they [IS] could just strike us with chemical weapons.’”

On 7 August, four days after Abu Majed fled to Mount Sinjar, the US launched an aerial campaign to break the siege. At the same time, Syrian Kurdish forces known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) forced a way through IS lines and opened up a humanitarian corridor a week later. On 14 August, a ragged column of people walked down the mountain and across the sun-bleached landscape into Syria. At great risk, Abu Majed and his son slipped back into Khanasur to salvage a few precious family photographs. Then they walked for 14 hours to the Syrian border. There, they hitched a lift in another family’s car to reach Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq.

In March, I met Abu Majed in Dohuk, a city of 350,000 people in the fertile mountains of western Kurdistan, where an uneasy peace prevails. At checkpoints evenly spaced along the city’s main tributaries, grim-faced soldiers scrutinise passing drivers with unsettling diligence. There is a feeling of claustrophobia: the memory of IS’s advance is still so recent and the front lines are close.

Abu Majed is short and bald, with a wide moustache and a narrow, drawn face. He cried several times as he told me his story when we met in an empty café, and each time he would stare down at his untouched tea until the tears stopped. Then he would quietly apologise. He lives alone in a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in the nearby town of Shariya and cooks for a battalion of Yazidi soldiers. The work is unpaid but it is a distraction from his sense of loss and loneliness. His eldest son, who fled with him to Mount Sinjar, is a boarder at a pharmacy college. The rest of his family are hostages.

Abu Majed last heard from his wife and three youngest children in October 2015, when they borrowed a smuggled phone from a fellow hostage for a few minutes – just long enough to tell him they were still alive and in Tal Afar, an IS-controlled city in north-west Iraq. He had not heard anything from his eldest daughter, Majida, since March 2015. Then, a few weeks before we met, he received a telephone call from a people smuggler.

 

2. The Yazidis

The United Nations estimates that at least 5,000 Yazidis were murdered in August 2014 and between 5,000 and 7,000 were taken hostage. In the months that followed, news began to spread – through hushed phone calls from hostages and the testimony of escapees – of IS’s systematic violence against its Yazidi prisoners. The men and older boys were separated from their relatives and usually killed. Women and children were kept in cramped and filthy conditions, in prisons and old school buildings, where they were deprived of food and water and forced to convert to Islam. Unmarried or younger women and girls were sold into sexual or domestic slavery or given as gifts to fighters. Boys, some as young as eight, were sent to training camps to become jihadists. This January, the UN estimated that 3,500 Yazidis were still in IS captivity.

The IS fighters who brutalise Yazidi boys in training camps or rape and humiliate female slaves have a brutal sense of religious righteousness. A pamphlet released by the group in 2014 instructs that: “It is permissible to buy, sell, or give as a gift female captives and slaves, for they are merely property, which can be disposed of as long as that doesn’t cause [the Muslim community] any harm or damage.” It specifies that it is “permissible” to have “intercourse with the female slave who hasn’t reached puberty”. Should a woman attempt to escape, she should be punished in a manner that “deters others from escaping”.

In March, the US joined the European Parliament in ruling that IS’s crimes against Yazidis constituted genocide. The Yazidis use the word ferman to refer to the atrocity (it is an Ottoman term meaning “royal decree”) and say that throughout their almost 7,000-year history, they have survived scores of attempts to wipe out their people. In 2007, they were the victims of the second most deadly terrorist attack in modern history – after 9/11 – when Sunni militants killed more than 500 people in simultaneous bomb attacks on two Yazidi villages near Sinjar. They describe the events of
August 2014 as the 73rd ferman.

There are perhaps half a million Yazidis, most of whom live in Iraq, though there are smaller communities in Armenia, Georgia, Germany, Russia and Syria. They have historically remained cut off from the rest of society. This is partly because of long-standing discrimination. Under Saddam Hussein, the Yazidis of Sinjar were banned from teaching their own language – Kurmanji, or Northern Kurdish – and in the 1970s, they were displaced from their ancestral farmlands and homes on the mountain and forced into “collective villages”. (Abu Majed’s village of Khanasur is one such settlement.)

Their isolation is also partly through choice. You can only become a Yazidi by birth and Yazidis cannot marry non-believers, or even outside their own caste or sect. They are discouraged from sharing their religious beliefs, which are largely transmitted orally, with outsiders.

One morning, I visited Lalish, the holiest site in the Yazidi religion, to which all followers must make a pilgrimage at least once in their lives. The shrines are built on a hillside, about 30 kilometres south-east of Dohuk. Visitors and pilgrims take off their shoes in the car park, because every stone in Lalish is sacred. There were a few families and young men with selfie sticks but before the ferman Lalish would have been much busier on a fine spring day. The grey stone shrines, with distinctive conical rooftops, are dedicated to Sheikh Adi and his companions. Sheikh Adi was an 11th-century prophet – or, perhaps, a god – who organised Yazidi society into castes: the laymen, called the murids, and their assigned spiritual guides, known as the sheikhs and pirs.

In a courtyard, I met Sheikh Hussein, whose family has looked after Lalish for generations. He has a thick beard and was wearing a red-and-white keffiyeh knotted into a turban and a baggy khaki jacket with matching Kurdish pantaloon trousers. He chain-smoked slim cigarettes. He told me that he believed the ferman was a punishment from God, because Yazidis had grown distant from him. “What happened to Yazidis was because people don’t remember God, but now people remember God,” he said.

The Yazidi God, Melek Taus, takes the form of a peacock. Parallels between Melek Taus and Azazel, or Lucifer – the angel who, according to Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition, rebelled against God – have contributed to the belief that Yazidis are devil-
worshippers, a slur that has been used throughout history to justify their persecution. Yazidis do not worship the devil, although unlike Christians, Muslims or Jews, they do not believe that God is purely good. If God is omnipotent, they argue, surely he could defeat the devil? The Yazidi God can be angry and cruel.

 

3. The smugglers

When the chef Abu Majed was contacted by the people smuggler, he was initially suspicious. The smuggler was an Arab Muslim from the town of Sinjar, to the south of the mountain, and IS’s massacres have deepened many Yazidis’ mistrust of their Muslim neighbours. Yet his ethnicity and religion were advantageous: the smuggler could move across IS territory without attracting too much attention and could speak to jihadists in their own language, Arabic.

The smuggler told Abu Majed that his eldest daughter was being forced to work as a nurse in a hospital in Raqqa, the IS stronghold in Syria. He offered details that seemed to fit with the little information Abu Majed had gleaned from speaking to former hostages. The smuggler said that for $18,000 he could buy his daughter from IS and bring her home. Abu Majed has decided to trust him. He has no money but told me that when he receives confirmation from the smuggler that the deal with IS has been agreed, he will start “begging” for funds from his relatives, friends, NGOs – anyone who could help him.

With few other options, despairing Yazidis have resorted to dangerous and expensive ways of rescuing their loved ones from IS captivity. Some, such as Abu Majed, try to scrape together tens of thousands of dollars to pay middlemen – many of them Arab Muslims – who promise to buy slaves from IS fighters in order to liberate them. 

Others have placed their faith in another class of hostage smuggler – often fellow Yazidis – who say that they have devised elaborate schemes for rescuing slaves and sneaking them out of the jihadists’ territory. Their networks extend deep into IS-controlled Iraq and Syria but the operations are planned in Iraqi Kurdistan, where tens of thousands of Yazidis are sheltering in sprawling camps.

Sinjar district is nominally part of Iraq but many Kurds believe that it should be part of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish regional government (KRG) has sought to extend its influence over the area. In November 2014, the KRG set up its “Office of Kidnapped Affairs” in Dohuk to maintain records of missing people, to ensure that survivors receive assistance and to organise hostage rescues. One afternoon, I arrived at the pink villa where the office is based to meet its director, Hussein al-Qaidi, a Yazidi former NGO worker and meat trader.

Al-Qaidi told me that 2,426 Yazidi hostages have been liberated since August 2014, including 1,204 children and 895 women. He said that more than 1,000 of them had been rescued directly by the office, which runs a network of people smugglers able to work within IS territory. A few Yazidis had escaped without help and in the remainder of cases hostages’ families had independently paid a smuggler to bring their relatives home. In these instances, the Office of Kidnapped Affairs refunds the money.

Al-Qaidi would not detail how rescue missions are conducted, saying that this would threaten future operations. Most of the families I spoke to believed that they were making payments to IS to free their loved ones but al-Qaidi insisted that his office never deals with IS operatives directly. “If you believe this money strengthens Da’esh, it’s not true. It does not go to Da’esh fighters,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

Al-Qaidi said that the Yazidi hostage crisis had created a perverse trade and a group of “war businessmen” who were pushing up the price of smuggling missions. The KRG is the office’s sole funder and its finances are in a desperate state because of the low oil price, the cost of the war against IS and monetary disputes with the Iraqi government. KRG officials and front-line Kurdish fighters – the peshmerga, or “those who face death” – have not been paid for months. Three families I spoke to, who are internally displaced and yet had somehow raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay smugglers, said that they were still waiting for refunds from the office. The smugglers told me that, for months, no government repayments had been made.

When I asked al-Qaidi what he would do if his office could no longer afford rescues, he said that he had a “plan B”, which he could not divulge. He did say, however, that his office was about to make a big announcement. He was working on a rescue mission to save 19 Yazidi hostages and if I called the next day, he might tell me more.
The following afternoon, I visited a Yazidi couple who have become a crucial part of the smuggling chain and sometimes work as volunteers for al-Qaidi’s office. They live in an apartment in an upmarket gated complex in Dohuk. Khaleel al-Dakhi, 38, is a former lawyer, tall and slim with a cool, confident demeanour.

Moments after we met, he held up his smartphone to display the photograph of a beautiful young woman wearing a tight, red T-shirt, with long, fair hair that she had flicked over one shoulder. He waited for a moment, seemingly enjoying my confusion. Then he told me that she was a Yazidi sex slave who had been put on sale for $11,000.

The photo was sent to al-Dakhi by a Yazidi friend who was posing online as an IS fighter in order to buy and liberate hostages. The friend had obtained a password for an internet chat room through which Yazidi slaves are traded. He forwards information on to al-Dakhi, who keeps a record of where women are being held and by whom.

Al-Dakhi and his wife, Ameena Saeed Hasan, are from the same village as Abu Majed but were already living in Dohuk when IS invaded Khanasur. Hasan had worked as an MP in Iraq’s national parliament until just weeks before the Sinjar crisis. In late 2014, her phone rang incessantly as IS hostages called her to plead for help. At first, she focused on gathering information on where hostages were being kept and how they were being treated, which she passed on to the Iraqi government. Then, she realised, “The government didn’t do anything.”

Using Hasan’s political connections and al-Dakhi’s business ones, they were able to mobilise a network of sympathetic Arab Muslims living in IS-controlled parts of Iraq to help them carry out rescues. They, too, were reluctant to discuss their techniques in detail but said in general hostage smuggling works like this: first, the hostage will provide Hasan or al-Dakhi with precise details of their location and their captor’s routines; then, the couple will co-ordinate with their smuggling network to locate a nearby safe house to which the hostage can flee and from where a smuggler can collect them. The hostage will often be passed between several different smugglers, chosen for their ability to blend into the community, and kept in a number of safe houses until they can travel to the IS border. Al-Dakhi liaises with the peshmerga on the front-line checkpoints so that the escapees are allowed into Kurdistan.

He often drives to the border, or even into the militants’ territory, despite the danger. When the women first see him, they sometimes rip off their headscarves, or kneel to kiss the ground, or break into a run. “They’ve been through all these terrible situations. They have suffered so much and in those moments they can’t believe they’ve made it,” al-Dakhi told me.

He is adamant that no money goes to IS. “We don’t buy hostages, we steal them,” he said. He estimates that he and his wife have rescued over 100 women and children, but they say that it is becoming ever harder to carry out a successful mission. IS has split up many groups of hostages. Increasingly the women are on their own and do not have access to a phone. Smugglers are demanding higher payments because of the rising danger. Six smugglers in al-Dakhi’s network have been killed. On one occasion, an IS fighter pretended on the phone to be a young Yazidi boy and then murdered the smuggler sent to rescue him. Another time, a smuggler was killed by a militant who disguised himself as a female hostage by wearing a black niqab.

 

4. Freedom

I contacted the Office of Kidnapped Affairs several times to ask if the rescue of the 19 Yazidis had been successful and each time was asked to call back. Then, I chanced upon the man who brought the hostages home: Abdallah Sherim, a 41-year-old Yazidi who felt compelled to help with rescues after 56 members of his extended family were kidnapped. I met him near Dohuk, in his brightly painted house on a small hill that overlooks Khanke IDP camp, where rows of blue-and-white tarpaulin tents are pitched close together in the churned-up roadside mud.

Sherim used to work as a trader between Sinjar and Aleppo in Syria. When his terrified relatives began to call him from captivity, he contacted his former business associates, who helped him find Syrians he could trust to assist him in carrying out rescue missions. He claimed to have liberated more than 200 Yazidis, including 24 members of his family. He showed me photographs of two nephews he had smuggled home a year earlier. They had since been resettled in Germany and had sent him snaps in their new football kit.

As we spoke, one of his sons turned up the volume on the TV. It was showing Nuce Ezidixan, a Yazidi news hour that is broadcast daily. Just as I was about to ask him to turn the volume down, I saw on the screen al-Qaidi from the kidnapping office – and then Sherim. They were posing next to the 19 liberated hostages: five women and 14 children. Al-Qaidi did not mention on the television, as Sherim later did, that nine of the smugglers involved in the mission had been captured. Nor did he mention the $6,500 per person the rescue had cost, money the families had raised themselves.

One of the 19 hostages rescued by Sherim’s network and then paraded on Yazidi TV was the 25-year-old Jehan (she asked that I did not use her full name). She is tall and broad-shouldered, with a deep, hoarse voice, and was wearing a long, flowery dress and a threadbare brown headscarf. Her hands were tattooed with the words ya allah – “O, God” – over and over. Her name ran up her right forearm in crude Roman capitals and on that hand was also written, el-hurriya, in Arabic script: “freedom”. All the female hostages had inked that same word on to one another’s hands but when her friend had tattooed her arm, six or seven months earlier, Jehan could not imagine what it would feel like to be free.

I spoke to her in the Rwanga IDP camp in western Kurdistan, where she was staying with the uncle who had paid $6,500 for her release. The camp houses as many as 15,500 people in white prefabricated cabins. It was dusk and groups of women squatted outside their front doors, preparing piles of foraged leaves to cook with oil and serve with rice or bread for dinner.

Jehan’s family rose stiffly from the floor when I arrived. Three sides of their single-room cabin were lined with faded mattresses and a neat pile of blankets occupied one corner. It was becoming chilly and we huddled close to a small kerosene stove. Jehan said that since her release, three days earlier, she had been unable to sleep. She could not stop worrying about her four siblings and her mother, who were still missing and believed to be in IS hands.

They were from Kocho, a village that IS did not attack until 15 August 2014, a day after the siege on Mount Sinjar was broken. When the jihadists stormed Kocho, the men were separated from the women and then shot. The UN estimates that up to 700 men and boys were murdered that day. Jehan was taken with other women, girls and infants by bus to the city of Mosul, 150 kilometres away, where she was later sold into “marriage” to an 18-year-old Libyan fighter with ambitions to become a suicide bomber. They lived together in Raqqa for six or seven months. He forced her to say Islamic prayers and made her promise to teach them to her family. In his will, he granted her freedom. According to IS’s religious leaders, if a fighter liberates his slave, he is guaranteed a
place in heaven.

When her “husband” blew himself up on a suicide mission in Syria in mid-2015, Jehan was free to move wherever she wished within IS territory. Perhaps she could even have planned an escape but she did not know then if she had any family to go home to. Instead, she stayed with an aunt who was kept as a slave in the city of Tal Afar. She moved several times and spent her final months in IS hands living in a guest house in Raqqa. It was populated by would-be jihadi brides who had joined the extremist group from all over the world: the UK, the US, France, New Zealand, Turkey and Pakistan. The women could browse paper files resembling CVs, which listed fighters’ interests and achievements alongside their photographs, to find a husband. She says that her role in the guest house was simply to study the Quran.

Towards the end of 2015, international air strikes on Raqqa intensified, causing terror in the guest house. In February, the five Yazidi women staying there persuaded IS militants to transfer them, together with their 14 children, to a small village. There they were less closely monitored by the jihadists and one hostage succeeded in calling her husband. In turn, the husband called Sherim, the rescue co-ordinator in Dohuk, who engineered an escape plan.

One day at noon, an Arab woman knocked on the door of the house – as they had been told by Sherim to expect – and drove the 19 hostages to the village of Tal Hamis. They spent a week hiding there, before a sheep farmer collected them and took them to his tent, where they stayed for one night. Another Arab smuggler walked them towards the town of Kobane, which has been under Syrian Kurdish control since January 2015, following a fierce four-month battle with IS. The smuggler instructed the women and children  to follow his footsteps exactly to avoid stepping on landmines.

In Kobane, a Kurdish smuggler met them and drove them to a Yazidi shrine in Sinjar, almost 500 kilometres away. There they met Sherim, who accompanied them for the final drive to Dohuk.  Jehan has since been questioned by Kurdish government agents and received medical check-ups but no other support, she says.

Hussein, the uncle who paid for her release, was one of the hundreds of men from Kocho rounded up for execution. He was shot three times, once in the back and twice in the leg and then lay, still as a corpse, among the dead bodies of his friends and neighbours until he could escape. He has been living in Rwanga for over a year and he is heavily in debt. Before he paid for Jehan’s release, he had already spent $20,000 buying back his wife. One of Jehan’s sisters recently managed to call him: she is being held as a slave in the Iraqi city of Fallujah but no one can afford the cost of her release. Another of Jehan’s uncles, named Salem, told me that he had spent $70,000 to buy back his relatives. The family raised the money by borrowing from displaced families in Rwanga and now some of their debtors are asking when they will be paid back. “We’re dead with our eyes open,” Salem said.

On a stormy morning, I travelled from Dohuk to Sinjar. Beyond the main checkpoint out of Kurdistan, there were few cars. We followed a potholed road that runs along the Syrian border. We passed Arab and Yazidi villages flattened in the fight against IS, grey houses whose concrete roofs had sometimes shattered into great, heavy plates and other times had curved and distorted to resemble folds of cloth. The driver listened to a new Yazidi radio station that played prayers, traditional love songs and poetry. “This time, it was a real ferman,” the voice on the radio said, speaking over the militaristic music. “The volcano of hunger came to our mountain . . .” The IS front line has now been pushed back to the south of Mount Sinjar. As they departed, IS left behind booby traps to kill or maim the first Yazidis to return to their abandoned homes or search for their relatives’ remains.

Some Yazidis feel that they can never go back  to their former houses, in villages of ghosts. Many have left for Europe, some illegally and others through special programmes: Germany has resettled around 1,000 Yazidis. Many people in IDP camps told me that they could never feel safe in Iraq again, each repeating the same story. They said that hours before IS invaded, the peshmerga stationed in the area, who were affiliated with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, repeatedly promised that civilians would be protected and told them not to leave their homes. But the peshmerga unexpectedly retreated, taking their weapons with them. Before the Yazidis were attacked, they were betrayed. And long before that final betrayal, they were neglected and sidelined by Iraq’s Muslim majority.

There are other Yazidis who say they will never leave their homes, their shrines and the mountain that protected them during the darkest days of the ferman. The mayor of Snune, the largest town north of the mountain, told me that of the 23,000 families that lived in Sinjar Province in 2014, around 5,000 have come back. They have little to return to: few areas have running water, or electricity, or functioning schools and health clinics. Most are surviving on food handouts from NGOs, Iraq’s government or Kurdish fighters from Turkey.

Finally we reached Khanasur, the home village of the chef Abu Majed. Other than the checkpoint, guarded by two teenage female Yazidi fighters, the once bustling main street was empty. The shops, beauty salons and cafés were boarded up, the shutters spray-painted with the names of peshmerga battalions from Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey and Syria. At the edge of the village, beyond an abandoned football pitch, we found Abu Majed’s restaurant. The rain had stopped and the cloud had lifted to reveal the long, rugged form of Mount Sinjar.

By peering over the high concrete wall, I could see the roof of the simple bungalow in which Abu Majed and his wife and five children once lived, as well as the tops of the trees in the restaurant garden, which were still strung with unlit fairy lights. A goatherd approached from the nearby scrubland, shaking her head. “Poor Abu Majed,” she said.

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in New York. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad

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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 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad