Blog Piece: An Interview with Dr. Neha Vora on Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora (2013)

By E P Mohammed Swalih

E P Mohammed Swalih speaks to Dr. Neha Vora on her new book,  Impossible Citizens: Dubai’s Indian Diaspora(2013), published by Duke University Press. Neha Vora is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania, US. 

Mohammed Swalih: Thank you Neha for agreeing to our request for this interview. And congratulations to you for your superb new work. Let me straightway start the conversation by saying what prompted me to do this interview. You write in your introduction about your imageries of Dubai during your American childhood; in my part of the world, we, too, were brought up with the rich images of Dubai. In Kerala, where Dubai was always such a powerful symbolic presence after the so-called gulf boom, you can imagine that this is not surprising at all. The Osellas (Filippo and Caroline) have written fascinatingly about this presence. During our childhood, we too often heard people talking about somebody who is somewhere in the Middle East; that ‘oon Dubayeela’which in our local Malayalam dialect means, ‘he is in Dubai.’ Dubai lingered in our everyday conversations as a perpetual symbol of many things – of plenty, of aspirations, of expectations of a good life. One member or the other from our families worked in the Middle East – and as I said, it was all Dubai. Let me ask my first question: in general, what do you think about such an intimate transnational symbolism of our everydayness? I mean, we could always translate our relationship into economic terms, but as an ethnographer, I hope you could answer this in terms of cultural transmission and cultural translations.

Neha Vora: Dubai and other parts of diaspora hold symbolic value for people, not just economic. If we look at what is going on in Kerala and other parts of India, for example: certain styles of houses, mosques, dress, etc might cost the same as others, but why are people choosing particular ones that mark them and their families as part of Gulf migration circuits? The Osellas, as you mentioned, do a great job of discussing what this means in terms of being Muslim in particular, and the sense that “Saudi Islam” is somehow more authentic than existing South Asian forms. We can also see how gender roles and built environments are shifting through Gulf migration. This is what I mean by “consumer citizenship” – you mark your identity and belonging through material goods. This is of course connected to prosperity but it is not reducible to wealth. I remember one of my first interviewees in Dubai telling me that when he was growing up in Kerala, Carrefour plastic bags were considered status symbols. I mean what value really does a plastic bag have? I found this very telling in that it marks a type of cosmopolitanism and status for people in India that Dubai and the Gulf represent, which isn’t really so directly connected to money.

MS: Related to the first question, have you ever found yourself among the ABCD ( American Born Confused Desi)? Did that background trigger your interests in DBCD (Dubai Born Confused Desi), a concept which you talk about  in some detail,  in your book?

NV: ABCD is a common term used by South Asians in the US (and increasingly in India when referring to NRIs in the US) to refer to the second-generation. Yes, for sure, growing up here there was a sense of in-betweenness: parents are eager to hold on to “tradition” in a new country and, as ethnic minorities often faced with racism, children are eager to fit in at school and with white peers. This leads to tensions and sometimes a sense of identity crisis. When I was growing up there also was not a widely available discourse of what it meant to be brown or Asian-American. I think this has changed a lot, especially in places with large Asian immigrant communities and as my generation is having children. We have a vocabulary for discussing race and cultural difference that many post-1965 Indian immigrants to the US, like my parents, just did not have. So of course this has been central to my research interests. However, I did not want to project my own experiences onto South Asians in Dubai. In fact, I found that their experiences were sometimes very similar and sometimes very divergent, and often both at the same time.

MS: Your ethnography has mainly focused on the middle-class Indians in down-town Dubai. What are the ways in which your study contribute to the understanding of the lower class Indians who constitute the majority among Dubai diaspora?

NV: I often get asked why I didn’t study “migrant labor.” This question is in itself problematic when we talk about class and Indian migration to Dubai. First of all, lower class Indians are not just “labor” – i.e. they are not reducible to the work they do and in fact develop connections, politicizations, and intimacies within the spaces of the Gulf. I feel that to call certain people “migrant labor” and others “expats” or something else does two things: First, it erases the humanity of so-called “laborers” and second, it ignores the fact that almost all migrants to the Gulf are in fact there to perform some kind of labor. In addition, what I try to bring out in my book is how we are all complicit in the production and resistance to class dynamics in Dubai. Thus, it is often Indians and not Gulf Arabs who are exploiting their compatriots, and middle-classes are simultaneously developing class and race consciousness in relation to Indians in lower economic strata to them even as they are reproducing the idea that they are “middle-class” and thus distinct from those workers who constitute the category of “migrant laborer.”

MS: Talking about the citizenship and the liminality, which you refer in your book in quite distinct ways, I have a specific question about Malayalee diaspora in Dubai. Your ethnographic account of the South Asians often includes reference to Hindi, Urdu and Malayalam-speaking communities separately. Do you have anything to say about the distinctiveness of Malayalee communities in Dubai?

NV: Malayalee communities in Dubai are very interesting in that they span the range of classes and occupations, and they live within the neighborhoods of the city and in labor camps set at the outskirts of town. I think that “Maloos” (as my interlocutors often referred to themselves) often get pigeonholed as poorer and less educated than North Indians/Hindi-speakers, and then they try to perform against this model (especially, the middle-classes). There is definitely this sense in the Indian diaspora that the diaspora is Hindi-speaking, Hindu, middle-class. This is part of the hegemonic “imagined community” of India and is replicated in many ways by the diaspora. But at the same time, there are deep ties between South India (especially Kerala and the Malabar coast in general) that constitute some of the longest histories of engagement with Dubai. And Malayalees also make up some of the most elite Indians in Dubai as well.

MS: The pre-oil cosmopolitanism of Dubai is one crucial feature of your book.  How do you contrast these two kinds of cosmopolitanism – one which was at the centre stage during the era before the oil and the one which emerged after the oil?

NV: I think that what I was trying to bring forth in my book is not so much that these are actually distinct forms of cosmopolitanism but rather how the UAE state produces them as such. Both actually co-exist in contemporary Dubai: the older mercantile and merchant networks of Indian Ocean trade, and the large scale migration that is linked to oil and post-oil development. However, state narratives tend to produce the idea that migration followed oil wealth and is thus a necessary and temporary evil of development, and in so doing they erase pre-oil Gulf cosmopolitanisms for more purified visions of national belonging.

MS: Permanent temporariness of Dubai Indian diaspora is the central theme in your book and that feature is what crucially makes them as‘impossible citizens’ over there. Does this feature also make Dubai’s Indian diaspora distinct from the other Indian diasporas – say for example, U.S Indian diaspora?

NV: It does on a crucial level in that Indians are so much more precarious in the Gulf: they can never really feel settled, and they are structurally and legally disadvantaged compared to Indians in many other parts of the world. Yet at the same time, at the level of everyday life, especially in Bur Dubai, Karama, and Deira, they are not that much different from Indians that live in ethnic enclaves elsewhere. And in fact, many claim that it is easier to live as an Indian in terms of language, religion, and culture in Dubai than in the West. This was the paradox that drove my study and the title of my book. One of my interlocutors, a young man who was born and raised in Dubai, said, “you belong and you don’t belong,” meaning you culturally feel like you belong in Dubai even as you legally are impossible. I would say the same of the US, but with the opposite meaning. “You belong” in that you are legally able to be American, but “you don’t belong” because of nativism and structural racism that marginalize you from the majority white culture no matter how many generations you have been there.

MS: This question again concerns your book’s engagement with the ideas of citizenship in Dubai. Could you explain briefly for our readers the concept of consumer citizenship which is peculiar to the Indian diaspora that you introduce in your work?

NV: I explained it above basically as a way that people perform identity and belonging through modes of consumption. Especially for middle-classes, in Dubai and in India, consumption (going to the movies, driving cars, buying designer items, eating fast food) has become a mark of cosmopolitanism, urban identity, class status, modernity, etc. I would not however say this is peculiar to the Indian diaspora at all. In fact in a city like Dubai where consumption is king, it marks daily life and ways of engaging with the city for all residents.

MS: An increasingly globalized world has created the previously unimaginable modes of belonging which you delineate through the course of your ethnography. How do you think about the future of such belonging in Dubai for the Indian diaspora?

NV: I think Gulf governments are increasingly realizing that something has got to give in the kafala system. There is too much of an international spotlight on its abuses, and the sheer demographics in cities like Dubai and Doha make it hard to sustain. We see many Gulf countries making moves to improve and centralize migration systems, but we also see lots of resistance to do anything to improve migrant conditions as well (I’m thinking in particular of recent coverage of Doha and the World Cup, and of the mass deportations of migrant workers in Saudi). I don’t think that some version of more official belonging, at least for wealthier residents, is that far away. Of course, as I explore in the book, longstanding merchant communities and people with connections have already found ways to make themselves more permanent. However, I also explore politicization by second-generation middle- and upper-class young people (and worker protests, though only briefly) in my book. How these will impact the kafala system and forms of belonging and the structure of labor in the Gulf has yet to be seen.

MS: Your account tell us how the newly arrived “White men” see Dubai as something similar to the old colonies- “the exotic” place  where their old colonial aspirations are easily achievable .  These kinds of observations often made in your book seem to draw from the post-colonial scholarship. Hence, this question. How will this ethnography contribute to the post-colonial scholarship?

NV: My work is very much impacted by postcolonial scholarship in that its main goal is to historicize and provincialize concepts that are coming out of Western European tradition and are treated as universals in scholarship, such as citizenship, democracy, politics, and belonging. Do I see some kind of colonial nostalgia among white people in Dubai? Absolutely I do. And many white people in the Gulf (as well as Gulf states and non-white residents too) participate in reproducing systems of white privilege that were instituted by the British and then in many ways extended through American oil and military interests. Ahmed Kanna, who has an excellent book, Dubai: The City as Corporation, discusses early on in the book how white privilege and luxury are tied together in Dubai tourism marketing. And he has some excellent new work on this topic as well. I have also started in my new project to explore the role of whiteness as a particular form of labor and expertise in the Gulf, especially in Qatar’s new knowledge economy projects.

MS: My final question, could you briefly tell us how does your book respond to the existing literature in Gulf Studies or how will it enrich the ongoing discussions in this terrain?

NV: I think the main contributions I wanted to make in this book, many of which I have outlined above, were to highlight the longer histories of engagement between Dubai and South Asia; to discuss how Indians, though legally temporary, are in many ways the quintessential citizens of Dubai and in that way belong quite a bit despite their “impossibility;” to provide a picture of Indian diaspora that is not derivative of or refracted through the experiences of Indians in the West; and to question the market-based ways that migration has been framed in Gulf scholarship. Economic need is not the only thing that keeps Indians coming to the Gulf, and to Dubai in particular. There are long-standing communities and intimate ties between South Asia and the Gulf region that keep this supposed “economic migration” in place, and those are not adequately represented in the scholarship as it is.

EPM Swalih is completing his Masters programme in Development at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. In Development, his scholarly interests tend to orient to the domain of anthropology of the state.  He recently finished his fieldwork for his project titled, Encounters between Kerala’s developmental state and its citizen: Towards an ethnography of Kudumbashree project in Kerala. Apart from this academic orientation, he is also active in various Malayalam media in different roles – as a freelance contributor, translator, and interviewer.

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