Sophie CookeSo I have finally got a website, ten years after everyone else: huge thanks to Cat Dean. I’m going to post things from my travels here; small observations from around the world. I’ll start with a piece from my recent trip to the United Arab Emirates for the Sharjah International Book Fair.Sharjah is the ‘Emirate of Culture’. Unlike neighbouring Dubai with its booze and bare-shouldered bling, Sharjah is a dry state with a modest dress code and an official emphasis on family values. Here, the Sultan has invested in a collection of world-class museums and art galleries. There is a Poetry Library and a Calligraphy Museum. There are whole areas of the city dedicated to arts or heritage. There is the Sharjah Art Museum itself, where I walked up and down the vast galleries, enjoyed the video installations and the oil paintings, and wondered, not for the first time, where all the people were. In every gallery and museum it had been the same: echoing empty spaces; no-one there but the curators.Sharjah is not short of people. It has over a million inhabitants, the vast majority of whom live in the city itself. But three quarters of them are not Emirati: they came here from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Singapore and the Philippines in order to find work. Many live in Sharjah (where rent is lower) and commute across the border every day to go to their low-grade jobs in Dubai. Some work in Sharjah’s Industrial Zones. Some work in its hotels and other services. Some work for the workers. As non-citizens, they have no rights. Their right to remain here is dependent on their job. If they lose their job, they must leave the country.

If the museums and galleries had been silent and empty, there was life enough to make up for it along Al Arouba Street. The marble expanses were replaced by side-roads of sand and crowded high-rise apartment blocks whose windows all looked into one another. The sidewalks seethed with people: men in white shirts and trousers; here and there a woman in a sari. Posters advertised ‘bed spaces’ for ‘bachelors’ or ‘single women’. Three lots of laundry would hang outside a single window. The curry houses brimmed over with humanity – but it was a very particular segment of humanity. There were no old people here, and few children. It was a city of youth, of people both old enough and young enough to usefully work.

The young woman who hennaed my arms in a beauty parlour came from India. As we chatted, it transpired that she had a husband and three children back at home: the youngest was two. ‘You must miss them,’ I said. She smiled, and shrugged. I asked how often she saw them. ‘Every two years,’ she said. ‘I go home for two weeks, every two years.’ She smiled again, and squeezed the tube of dye. I watched the pattern taking shape: the flowers and leaves. After a while, she said, ‘Maybe my husband will come here soon. I hope he can find a job here too.’ I said that would be great, and supposed out loud that then they would be able to bring their children here. Her cheeks filled with the breath of a laugh that didn’t quite find its way out. She shook her head. ‘Oh no, darling,’ she said. ‘Why?’ I asked her. When she didn’t answer, I asked again, ‘Why can’t you bring your children here?’ ‘Too expensive,’ she said. ‘We can’t afford the room.’ She looked at me and smiled again, and turned my arm around.