Tu enim Caesar civitatem dare potes hominibus, verbis non potes
Caesar, you can grant citizenship to men, but not to words.
— Marcus Pomponius Marcellus
Both my parents come from borderlands. My mother was born in Modane: a small sleepy French town in Haute-Savoie, now the final stop on the TGV before it heads through the Mont Blanc tunnel and spills into the Valle d’Aosta across the Italian frontier. After years of roaming from job to job, restoring churches and installing electrical lines, my grandfather found work clearing stretches of forest with dynamite to cut a path for the roads leading up to the tunnel. When the construction of the tunnel was completed in the mid-1960s, he moved his young family back to Venice. Although he never lived in Germany, nor expressed any desire to do so, my grandfather was very fond of his Teutonic neighbours. Unlike his compatriots, he did not view them as stern or overly fussy. He valued their determinacy, earnestness, and above all, their interiority. He considered Italians emotionally incontinent and found their flamboyancy neither charming nor amusing. There was Ghibelline blood in his veins. Had he been born during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, I’ve little doubt he would have taken up arms against the Papists. My father, on the other hand, was born in Bandar-e-Pahlavi, on the southern Iranian shore of the Caspian Sea, now known as Bandar-e-Anzali. His maternal great-grandparents were of Russian stock and had once owned vast holdings on the northern shore of the Caspian, where they had set up as sturgeon farmers. They had been lured to Iran in the late nineteenth century by the Qajar Shahs, who enticed by the profitability of caviar, paid them handsomely for their expertise. Before losing most of his property on the Russian side of the border to Stalin’s Red Armies in 1917, my great-grandfather had had the prescience to move his family and some of his valuables south. Definitively exiled to Iran, my great-grandfather continued to fly the white flag of the Romanovs from his rooftop. Every time a delegation of Iranian officials would pay him a call and politely request he lower the outdated flag, he would fire a few rounds of buckshot at them, eventually leading them to give up their quest. He was over 100 when he died, but still fond of the slim cigars he had smoked since the age of sixteen. The only memento of this Russian past is a handful of roubles bearing the portrait of Peter the Great. These roubles are still in my father’s possession, pressed between the pages of old volumes of Persian poetry.
My father was the only one of his siblings who elected to move to Europe instead of America. He had decided to study architecture and landed in Italy in 1963, first spending a year in Perugia, followed by one in Rome, finally settling in Venice. He quickly integrated, easily mastering the local dialect. Although very dark-skinned, he took so effortlessly to Italian customs and mannerisms that Venetians usually mistook him for a Sicilian. My father studied under Carlo Scarpa and roomed with Homayoun Ershadi, now one of Abbas Kiarostami’s favourite leading men. My father told me how Scarpa had once grown frustrated with Ershadi in class one day and snapped: ‘you’ll never make much of an architect, but as you’re not bad looking, why not try your luck as an actor?’ In between classes, my father attended left-wing demonstrations and took part in sit-ins at the Iranian consulate, activities that would later land him a few months in prison on his return to Iran. From what I have pieced together of my father’s stories, he and Ershadi had a good time. Back then, foreigners weren’t undesired, but exotic. As for my mother, she was six years old when her father relocated back to Venice, and had grown up speaking French. While her older sister worked on cruise ships that took her all over the Mediterranean, my mother instead worked in beach resorts on the Venetian littoral, coming into contact with various foreigners and developing a deep-seated interest in other cultures, particularly their books. My mother still cherishes fond memories of her literature teacher at secondary school, an Italian Jew who had survived the Nazi death camps and lived to impart her passion for words to an entire generation of people, many of whom later became partial to the ideas of the Lega Nord, a xenophobic separatist movement. When my parents met, my mother was twenty-seven, while my father was forty. I was born roughly a year after their relationship began, in 1985. My father insisted I was to be given an Italian name and baptised into the Catholic Church, although I have never to this day heard him speak of God with anything other than derision or contempt. His rationale was that it would facilitate my own integration. It did not.
I was conceived in the United Arab Emirates, where my parents had gone to establish a branch of the architecture firm that employed them in Venice. When she discovered she was pregnant, my mother, eager to raise her child in Italy, asked my father to return to Europe. I was born in Venice some months later. It would be eight years before I saw the Emirates. In the early 1990s, my father accepted a job offer in Abu Dhabi and moved us out there not long after he had set himself up. I became fluent in English in a matter of months. The ease with which I mastered that language – and others – was neither peculiar nor singular. I saw many of my coevals adapt just as easily. I simply did so at an age which Cicero noted was optimal for such absorption. I thus became proficient in four, adding English, French and later Arabic to my repertoire. Keeping them in running order has been a daily task, sometimes a chore, like polishing your shoes. The country I began to acquaint myself with was an open construction site: cranes rising their necks out of pits as far as the eye could see. The Emirati desert was flat, and the wide highways that cut through it unfenced. Bewildered camels would often stop in the middle of those roads, interrupting their continuous chewing to stare at the honking cars. The roads were later fenced off and the camels disappeared. Most of the people who lived in Abu Dhabi were foreigners, and the majority of them from the Indian subcontinent. The Emiratis kept themselves apart from this macaronic miasma that oil wealth had ushered. I attended schools where I came into contact with Arabs, Europeans, North and South Americans, and Indians, and forged friendships with all of them, at least in so far as I could. Each community lived in its own bubble-like ghetto. Socialising in the United Arab Emirates was thus like hopping from one island of strangers to another; and sometimes you overstayed your welcome. My Emirati friends were few. Friendships with expatriate children were actively discouraged. The Emirati attitude was simultaneously one of generous compromise and apartheid. Their state, built and largely run by foreigners, is designed to cater only to them. So long as they can afford them, every other nationality can enjoy institutions of the same quality, but theirs belong to the private sector. Even then, the Emirates struck me as being almost as young as I was. It wasn’t far from the truth. After initial explorations began in the 1950s, it didn’t take long for those efforts to bear their black fruit, destroying a nomadic way of life that had persisted for centuries.
When Sheikh Shakhbut, who ruled Abu Dhabi from 1928 to 1966, was asked by the British political agent Charlie Lamb how he might like to employ the fabulous wealth now at his disposal, having been presented with a list of options, Shakhbut replied that he thought his country was beautiful just as it was. It didn’t take long for Shakhbut to be unseated in a bloodless coup staged by Zayed, his younger brother, whom the British favoured. By this time, Harold Wilson’s government had committed itself to withdrawing from its last protectorates east of Suez. Zayed shrewdly flexed his fiefdom’s economic muscles and stitched a network of alliances between the once-warring emirates, installing himself as head of a federal monarchy, in not too dissimilar a manner to the one that Bismark had employed a century earlier. The United Arab Emirates, as we now know it, officially came into being on 2 December 1971. Aware of his people’s inadequacies to face what would be required of them in the coming years, Zayed opened his doors to immigrants. Each nationality was allotted a caste and status. What the Hindus achieved over centuries, Zayed did almost instantaneously. He just followed the blueprints. Indians became construction workers, taxi drivers and servants; East Asians were assigned nursing, secretarial and retail. Europeans filled managerial posts while Emiratis were assigned ceremonial roles that hardly required their presence.
Emirati citizenship is granted by royal edict. Thus, while I consider the United Arab Emirates my home, I know I can never belong there. Foreigners cannot own property in the Emirates and mixed marriages between Emiratis and foreigners are frowned on. When he worked for the current king’s eldest son, my father met a Palestinian whose father had come to the Emirates in 1959 and set up a dairy farm in Ras al-Khaimah. His children had grown up there and had had families of their own. Three generations of that family and forty years later, the old man died, still a non-citizen. Once I turned eighteen, my father could no longer sponsor me under his visa and I was forced to leave. I have gone back twice in ten years. In order to secure a leave to remain, I would need to find gainful employment and therefore find myself unable to keep writing full-time. Shortly before my last visit, The New York Times broke a story which revealed that, in the manner of Medici princes, Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, was raising an army of mercenaries whom the royal family could rely on should their non-citizens choose to rebel. Many of these men, who were brought into the country under the guise of construction workers, have been routinely employed to suppress uprisings and protect oil and diamond interests in the so-called third world. Forced to acknowledge the country I spent such a large part of my life in would rather employ mercenaries than extend the warm hand of citizenship, I opt for homelessness.