Let me begin with a fact and a confession.
Fact: I am an Indian.
Confession: Like most other Indians, I did not (notice the past tense) have a very high opinion about Pakistanis. We love to hate them, everything about them. A cricket or hockey match between these two sides only amplifies this hatred.
You will, therefore, be surprised — just the way I was — when you find that it’s a totally different picture beyond the borders.
Cricket is not war
We have watched high-voltage India-Pakistan matches in the comfort of our living rooms or offices, surrounded by Indian supporters. But sitting alone with a bunch of Pakistani supporters may seem disturbing. You will probably not be able to cheer for your own team. Worse, you won’t be able to digest the Pakistanis celebrating an Indian wicket.
One evening — barely a few weeks after I had come to UAE — I stood outside a TV shop in old Dubai, watching an India-Pakistan match. It was the Asia Cup. Pakistan had started chasing India’s 245. Ahmed Shehzad and Mohammed Hafeez were on the crease, tearing apart the Indian bowling attack. I could only spot Pakistani men, in their trademark salwar-kameez, wherever I looked.
As I turned around and started to walked away, a Pakistani man yelled out: “Bhaijaan, abhi to match start hi hua hai.” Expecting spectator sledging, I quickened my pace. A few steps later the man caught up with me, and yelled at someone to do some “khatirdari”.
I wanted to run, when suddenly a little boy came out of nowhere with a restaurant menu. I watched the rest of the match with that Pakistani man and his friends, standing on the footpath, sipping juice, munching on samosas. They cheered their runs. I cheered their wickets.
When India lost and I decided to pay my share of the bill, they refused to accept any money.
Since then, every time India and Pakistan have played, whether against each other or with any other team, I have walked over to that footpath. Most of the time I have found the friendly folks from across the border waiting for me.
Here, cricket is just a sport. Here, Dhoni is as revered as Afridi. Here, Sachin is still God, whether you wear a green jersey or blue.
You can sit at the same table and eat from the same bowl
I am not exaggerating. Certain areas of Dubai, such as Baniyas Square, Naif Road and Old Souq are inhabited mostly by bachelors. Here it’s not uncommon to find four complete strangers to sit at the same table. You can have breakfast friends, lunch friends and dinner friends – people who only meet during meals.
In fact, it was almost by chance when I made my first dinner friend. The restaurant I frequented had only one seat vacant, on the same table where three other people were already eating. I sat at the table and placed my order. The waiter brought me an empty plate and a spoon. Then he promptly served me mutton curry and rice the other three gentlemen were having. They just looked at me, said “nosh farmaye” with a smile, and continued gnawing at the bones.
I don’t know how many minutes had passed before I shoved down the first spoonful of rice down my throat. The second and third helpings too were from the same bowl. The other three, meanwhile, ate the chapattis I had ordered, finished off half my salad and divided my sweet lassi into four equal parts. I was too shocked to react.
The bill? Only three dirhams extra from what it should have been. But I left feeling fuller.
Later, I learnt that this was quite the norm at bachelors-only restaurants. You can choose to place your separate order, or eat whatever is already on the table and pay accordingly.
Today I have 10-12 dinner friends, a small group in each restaurant. They have become generous now. They spare two chapattis every time I dine with them.
Tolerance to other religions
Twenty feet away from one of Dubai’s most-visited mosques stands Dubai’s only temple complex, which houses a Shiv Mandir, a Krishna Mandir, and a Gurudwara. A common lane leads to both these places of worship.
During Shivratri and Diwali, the entire temple complex is decorated. Serpentine queues of devotees often extend up to the entrance of the masjid. The muezzin’s call for prayer can be heard over the din of the firecrackers.
We Indians tend to have a strong opinion about everything – cricket, religion, income tax, political system, education system – you name it. Dubai is the perfect place to break those stereotypes. Here, you realise that there is world beyond India. There are opinions beyond your own. There are people who are diametrically opposite to you.
You learn to be tolerant. You learn to accept that you can be a minority tribe, a minority religion, yet live in peace. You see your biases shatter before your own eyes.