A Foreign City Familiar to My Imagination

A Foreign City Familiar to My Imagination
Published On: 13-Apr-2021

I am reminded of the first time I traveled out of the country about sixteen years ago. I was working as a trainee for an accountancy program in a frm based in Islamabad. One January evening, while I was on holiday in my hometown, Dera Ismail Khan, I received a phone call from the office and was told that a fight ticket to Abu Dhabi was waiting for me. Even though I had been asked to get a passport made and provide its details a while ago, it wasn't quite certain that it would actually translate into my first ever foreign travel. And when the news came, I was least expecting it.


I had little time until my fight, so my preparation consisted of buying my first ever suit and a few ties, because I was to work in the Abu Dhabi branch of the frm for three months, and wearing suits to the office was the norm there. Always keen to make a different choice, I went for a lighter coloured beige suit instead of the standard black or grey.


I remember it was mid-afternoon when I arrived at Abu Dhabi airport, which was so much nicer than the one in Islamabad where I had embarked the fight. I recognised the airport because I had seen its photos in the family albums of my childhood friend, but more on that later. I found a man holding a card with my name waiting in the arrivals area. He led me to the taxi and our journey started towards the centre of the city.


The weather was quite pleasant unlike the bone-chilling cold of Islamabad. I looked at the smooth road, shiny cars, and date palms, along with occasional pictures of the founding father of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who had passed away just a few months ago, and of his son, the incumbent monarch. Rumour had it that his death had been kept secret for weeks in order to enable a smooth transition.


A few minutes later the skyline of downtown Abu Dhabi appeared. Sixteen years ago, it wasn't as full of skyscrapers as it is today, but I was awestruck by the countless number of tall buildings that appeared in clusters without an end in sight.


When I spoke to my colleague and friend, Nauman from Islamabad, a few weeks later, I told him Abu Dhabi looked so much more developed than any city in Pakistan. He asked me how many buildings the size of Saudi-Pak Tower (the tallest building in Islamabad at the time) were there in Abu Dhabi. I thought about it for a moment, caring not to underplay or exaggerate the number and then replied, "Perhaps a thousand". Nauman was wowed and seemed to agree for the first time that my amazement with the city I was visiting was justified.



It was serendipitous that the first foreign city I would travel to happened to be Abu Dhabi, for it occupied a primary place in my imagination of foreign destinations since I was fve. The first friend I made at school was Ali whose house was right next to the school. One day,instead of waiting for my father to pick me up at the school gate after the classes were over, I joined Ali to go to his house. My father kept looking for me until he found me an hour later after asking around. I started visiting Ali regularly. His mother would receive me warmly. Ali’s father used to work in Abu Dhabi and they used to spend their holidays with him every year.



Ali would show me photo albums from their previous holidays and from all the future ones in the years to come. Living in the dusty farfung town of Dera Ismail Khan, the sights of Abu Dhabi were always full of wonder for me. Their parks had colourful rides in the shapes of snakes and dinosaurs, their markets were full of shiny shops and their houses appeared to be very sophisticated. Abu Dhabi came to defne that image of modernity in the mind of a child from a poor and remote city that I was.


Fast forward twenty years from the first intro to the city, I found myself in Abu Dhabi. What's more interesting is, Ali's parents were in Abu Dhabi at the time, and I surprised them with my unannounced arrival! Ali's mother had always been very fond of me, and the next few months that I worked in Abu Dhabi, I had the best time with Ali’s parents pampering me when I would be free during the weekends and showing me around their city and the neighbouring emirates.


Now that I have travelled to a lot more countries than that child of five could have ever imagined, Abu Dhabi continues to hold a special place in my heart, not only for it being the first place outside Pakistan that I visited, but for what it represents - a foreign city too familiar to my consciousness

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