Hebah: Hey guys, it’s Hebah, and I have a quick announcement before we start the show today. As you may know, we are an independent podcast company. One of the (very) few in the Middle East. And this month, we launched on Patreon. Patreon is a website that basically makes it easy for you to financially support this show. Tiers start at $5 a month, and we have all kinds of rewards for our Patrons. And, everybody who signs up before December 1st will be entered into a drawing to win one of three photography prints shot by our managing producer, Alex Atack, who also happens to be an exceptionally talented photojournalist. You can find out more at patreon.com - that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com, slash, kerning cultures. If you like what you hear on this show, please help us keep it going by becoming a Patron. Okay, let’s start today’s episode.
Last month, we hosted a listening party in Dubai for one of our earlier episodes “Where The Heart Is”, which is a story about growing up in places different from where your parents were raised, and what that means in terms of where home is for you.
And even though we released that episode last spring, we hadn’t actually hosted a listening party in Dubai for it - and Dubai is exactly why we started researching that story in the first place. And then, a few weeks ago, our friends at Gulf Photo Plus were hosting a photography exhibition called No Place Like Home. It was too perfect of a complement for our episode – so, we gathered together, about 50 of us on a Wednesday night, at GPP’s warehouse in Alserkal Avenue. We dimmed the lights, played the episode, and, like we do at all our listening parties, after the episode finished, we talked about it.
Speaker 1: I remember a conversation I had with my Dad when I was in high school about like, okay, so you're going to go graduate and you're going to go study in the US for University. And then after that you're going to find work there and then you’re gonna, you know, sponsor us and like bring us over there and just like, and like to me that was a normal conversation. But then looking back now, it's like I'm in high school. I shouldn't have to be taking that responsibility as a kid, but that for me was a reality because both of my parents are Filipino – I grew up here, and to me and my family, like going back home to the Philippines isn't an option.
Hebah: As the mic got passed around, and more people shared their own stories, we realised how much impermanence people feel about where they reside today. And it’s not something that often gets talked about.
Razan: I feel like we started a support group or something, like like should we start one? We meet weekly? Like, hi I’m Razan, I don’t have a home.
Hebah: That’s KC’s co-founder, Razan Al Zayani. And she was kidding, but it’s hard, and confusing, sometimes to have spent most of your life in a place like the United Arab Emirates. Where, right now, over 80% of the population in the UAE is foreign. And for many of us, our passports don’t necessarily track to where we feel like we’re actually from.
Speaker 2: About a year and a half ago I got my US green card and I made my landing, and then I went back six months later and the guy was like welcome home, And it was really sincere. I felt more at home at that moment than I ever did in my country. So, it's sad but true.
Speaker 3: And what happens if your country is not recognized by other people? Like, for example, my country is recognized as a failed state and the only thing known about my country is pirates. So I say I’m from – and they’re like, oh, pirates? But that's not me. You know what I mean?
And that’s just it – so often, and certainly for us as the KC team and from what we’ve heard from you as our listeners, our passports are not always a representation of us, and the places we call home. And it’s like passports and visas, these bothersome inventions that, by the way, we managed to trace back to British invention, thanks guys... really mess a lot of things up for us. So, we asked ourselves: is there a place on this planet where the passport you carry doesn’t matter? The answer, is delightfully surprising. But before we get there, to contextualise this struggle of being from somewhere while having legal claim to someplace else, here are a few stories from the UAE.
Mohamed: So we are originally from India, our great grandfathers moved to Africa, or Tanzania, or East Africa, moved here in the 1800s to build railroads for the English. Dubai even in the 80s and 90s was very developed compared to Tanzania and so we would take back gifts and all the kids and our cousins would be excited by all the toys that we’d bring back for them and stuff. When we would come we would bring walkmans, at the time, it was exciting.
There’s always been – I always felt there has been mini booms in Dubai. So you had the first spate of construction in the mid 70s.
Archive: Dubai is one of the richest of the smaller sheikhdoms. It has plenty of oil, and it has a natural harbor.
Mohamed: And then in the 90s there was another little boom and then post 2000 there was, you know, the mega boom if you like.
Archive: A development firm based in Dubai, one of the United Arab Emirates, is building a project it calls The World.
Archive: The World is only the most extravagant of many extravagant projects underway in Dubai.
Mohamed: There was a marked increase in development. The place I live now, in Mankhool, behind Burjuman, is where I used to play on sand dunes, we would literally go and just roll ourselves down in sand dunes, and this is where I live now. You know, Dubai was much smaller then, the end of Dubai was where Sheikh Zayed Road is. If you were to go beyond that, it was like, god, it’s like a day trip, you know?
Liz: When I first went to Abu Dhabi – this I remember really well – the sky was always bright blue. And the sun shone, and it was clear as a bell. I didn’t really know many people, but it didn’t take me long to meet people. I mean it was not a difficult thing in those days to meet people – it was a very small village community, and you met people very easily. It evolved slowly to begin with. It was after the Gulf War that everything started to change. I think probably it changed when they got the first big shopping mall in Dubai, that was when you suddenly realised that things were changing.
Dylan: You know, the fact that I’m from Dubai, or I say I’m from Dubai, the fact that I’m from Dubai and have lived here pretty much my whole life, I feel like that’s a really important way for me to introduce myself as a person, but at the same time, one of the things that people first ask is so do you speak Arabic? You grew up in Dubai, do you speak Arabic? And i’m like uhhh, no. And that hurts me to say as well, you know. They probably don't care but for me, every time someone asks me that question, I know its coming every time someone asks me where I’m from, it’s something that i’m just like ah, I don’t want to have to admit the fact that I don’t. And for the same reasons, I don’t think it’s fair for me to consider myself Emirati or anything close.
Mohamed: I’m getting more and more conscious as I get older about what next? Where do I go? When do I go or, making a plan, and I really should do the responsible thing and think about these things, but you know it is home. But at the same time, you know, when I used to live in the States, people used to say, where are you from? I’d say I’m from Tanzania but I live in Dubai, you know, there was always that disclaimer. Because even though I was raised here and have lived here and I’ve got family here, I can’t bring myself to say that I’m from here or that this is home, you know? Because it isn’t and that’s something we have to be mindful of.
I guess I need to start thinking about it because this is really the only place I know as home, this is the only place I’ve really lived. I still haven’t today got a plan for, okay, in ten years I’m going to leave but I need to start thinking about it, we’ll need to leave at some point.
Anna: We moved when the first modern cinema opened. Ras Al Khaimah, at the time, was many years away from Carrefour or a mall. I really, for a long time I took it year by year. And enjoyed every year immensely and always stayed one or two more. And I always said okay, that’s it, but then I’d keep staying. But I think this realisation came to me more when I started to see friends move overseas and get passports in other countries. And I don't know if sad is the right word, but, for me, and for so many of my friends who grew up in Ras Al Khaimah, for us there’s no doubt that Ras Al Khaimah is home. When I’m back, and I see those mountains, my heart bubbles like shisha. Walahi, I swear. So I just, I sometimes can almost get goosebumps when I’m going back to RAK and I haven’t been there in a long time. I have a very physical connection. It’s like with a person, I don’t know. My relationship with RAK is like a person who you’re in love with. Sometimes I get very frustrated but this is my, this is my home.
Liz: I realised that the time was going to come when eventually they’re going to say to me; you can’t stay here anymore. It took me two years to actually finally do it. And it made me nervous because I didn’t have anywhere to come back to, you know, I didn’t have a home in England. I’m not going to get overly emotional about it, I mean yes, there were days, but… no, you just sort of laugh it off. It could have been very emotional if you want to make it that way, but I didn’t want to make it that way.
I do have a sense of loyalty to the UAE and, there’s a closeness. I mean you don’t live thirty years without a sense of belonging. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss certain things. I mean, I’m finding it quite difficult. But you can’t live like that forever.
Hebah: At the center of each of the short stories you just heard is some uncertainty around a visa or work permit. And while many people in the UAE who hold foreign passports, it’s by no means the only place in the world where this happens. So, as a challenge to ourselves, and back to our original question today, we wanted to find out if anywhere still exists in this world where visas just aren’t a thing. Was there a place in this world where the restrictions of visas don’t exist? Where you can show up, and walk straight across the border? And, well...
[Lady answers in Norwegian]
Alex: Hi there, is this the governor of Svalbard’s office?
Hebah: Alex Atack may have found your next passport-agnostic destination. Oh, be sure to pack layers.
Alex: Svalbard is an island 900 kilometers north of Norway. It’s small - only around two and a half thousand people live there, but it’s the one place in the world you can live and work without any kind of visa or work permit. It’s so small, in fact, that you can just call their government office up - their number is on their website - and apparently they’re happy to chat. When I called them this week, and they put me through to this guy.
Terje: My name is Terje Carsem.
Alex: He’s the communications officer there.
Terje: The right person concerning visas is not at the office until Friday, but you can try your questions on me and I might be able to answer you.
Alex: Sure, do you have time?
Alex: So, Svalbard’s deal is, that they basically have no regulation on entry or work visas. If you can get there, you can stay and work, no questions asked.
Terje: That’s right. That’s the theory, but climatic conditions are very special.
Alex: You have to keep in mind that’s it’s not exactly the most liveable place in the world.
Terje: Just right now, it’s dark 24 hours a day, for 2 months. we have cold weather, windy weather, it’s an arctic climate. You get used to it, but it’s rather special. I usually say that Svalbard looks like Norway just after the last ice age. The polar bears are somewhere out there. All year round when you’re outside the settlement you have to carry protection against polar bears, and when it’s dark, they’re not so easy to spot. So, this is the land of the polar bears. The human beings are visitors, so we have to behave.
Alex: All of this goes back to the Versailles negotiations at the end of WW1.
Archive: The most northerly outpost of civilisation, situated midway between Norway and the North Pole.
Alex: Norway were given control over Svalbard, which had previously just this brutally remote island that was used a base for whaling and research, but not a lot else. And then, during the second world war…
Archive: The rich coal mines were being expolited by the Germans. And it’s radio station afforded the Nazis valuable metreological information.
Alex: It became a German meteorological outpost. But when the war ended, Norway took it back, and the rules put in place during the Svalbard Treaty, they stayed the same. But, Svalbard isn’t subject to the same welfare laws as Norway and, actually there is no welfare state at all.
Terje: It’s working. It’s all about working.
Alex: Nothing would stop you living on Svalbard your entire life, but no matter how long you live there, you can’t become a Norwegian citizen.
Terje: You can come here if you are rich, and you can rent or live in a hotel and live here on your own money, that’s okay. But most people who live here are working.
Alex: So, okay, Svalbard isn’t actually a reasonable place to live for most people. But, visas - or entry papers - whatever you want to call them, they’ve only been around for roughly the last 100 years. And I do think that if there’s any take away from this story, it’s to consider just how much our world has changed during that time, that that this tiny, brutally remote island in the Arctic is the only place on Earth where you can live without any kind of visa.
Alex: Have you lived there your whole life?
Terje: I’ve lived here 20 years. For me it’s – I feel at home here, but the average time of staying here is 5 years maybe. So I’ll stay here for some years, then I’ll retire. Then I’ll return to the Norwegian mainland.
Alex: Wow. Well thank you so much again, and I really appreciate you taking the time.
Terje: Okay. Bye bye.
Alex: Nice speaking to you.
Hebah: This episode was produced by Alex Atack with Dana Ballout and myself, Hebah Fisher. Sound design by Alex Atack. The short stories you heard about growing up in the UAE were the stories of Mohamed Somji, Liz Eschauzier, Anna Zacarias and Dylan Fitzgerald.
Thank you to everybody who came to our listening event at GPP last month – we’ll be hosting more in the future, around the world, and you can follow us on Facebook or Instagram to keep updated on where our next one will be. We’d love to see you there.
Lastly, a shoutout to all of our new Patrons who are supporting us on Patreon: Abdulla, Abdulrahman, Anna, Bella, Farah, Jeff, Mehdi, Michael, Osman, and Ramzi. You are helping us tell these stories.
Thanks for listening. Until next time.