Dubai: 30 Years Ago

The city of dreams. A beacon of hope for countless migrants streaming in from all corners of the world. Streets bustling with energy, enterprise and expectation. 

The Hero of this Story:

A young man in his early twenties, experiencing a series of firsts. 

The first person in the family to leave his hometown. The first person in the family to fly on an aeroplane. The first person in the family to come to the ‘Gulf’.

His name is Ahmed. Picture a thin, lanky fellow, subsiding on khuboos and chicken gravy, limbs taut from working till evening every day.

He carries enough change for a call. A call that’s all mapped out in his mind, like a verbal date that he’s been preparing for. 

He wants to call his wife. It’s a long distance call. Expensive, precious and rare. A call that his wife of six months is waiting for at home in India.

throwback dubai old and new
Source: Ania Anic

"You don't know how lucky you are!"

“Damn this Internet connection!”, I cursed out loud.

The phone call with my girlfriend had dropped for the second time that evening. I turned around and realised my father was staring at me.

I was bracing for an angry lecture. A long talk about why I shouldn’t be wasting time on romantic relationships. Instead, my father was silent. 

It took me a moment to understand his expression. He wasn’t angry, or annoyed. He was nostalgic.

“When I was your age…”, he muttered, shaking his head as he entertained a light chuckle. 

“Kid, you don’t know how lucky you are!” 

So, over the course of the next one week, through extended anecdotes and leisurely walks down memory lane, I came to realize just how lucky me, or any of us, really are.

“You talk for hours and still don’t feel happy about it!”, my father scoffed, pointing at my phone, my humble accomplice. 

“We,” he said, referring to his dozen or so roommates of three decades ago, “we had just a few minutes. And they were the best minutes of the day!”

Then my father chuckled, and I wanted to know what could remain funny even thirty years later.

“These long-distance calls,” he quickly explained, “went through a phone operator.” My confusion reminded him of just how much of a ‘millennial’ I was. 

“You know, people who connect lines manually and put calls through?”

I got a vague idea. From movie scenes that showed portly women with huge headphones who pulled cables and plugged them in. 

I nodded my head.

Millennials love encryption...

My father’s smile remained as he continued. “So, there was this guy, who’d call back home to his wife. And they’d hardly spoken a word before getting married a few weeks earlier. As expected, he’s really shy and nervous.”

I sat down next to my father, trying to picture a young man cradling one of those large receivers, the ones with wide, bucket-like circular mouths.“

The fellow doesn’t know what to say. He asks her to say something. She is giggling, nervous and shy as well. No, you say something, she replies bashfully. They go back and forth for a little, bashful the way only newlywed couples can be. 

And finally…”His eyes wide with laughter, my father sputters. 

“The operator chimes in, ‘If neither of you is going to say anything, shall I?’”

“He was listening to the conversation?” I asked, thinking of how ‘encrypted’ my WhatsApp messages were.

“Of course! It’s middle of the week, slow night, not many calls at that hour. The operator fellow was getting bored!”

old school phone operator india
Source: Pinterest

Old School Voice Messages

For the longest time, my father didn’t know about WhatsApp’s voice messaging feature. 

I finally got around to showing him how easy it was. “Hold the button, say something, release!”

I stepped back triumphantly, anticipating his expression of wonder. Instead, he was amused. 

“How long are the messages generally?” he asked.

“Ten seconds, one minute, something like that,” I replied.

A moment later, I was curious. “Why? What’s the matter?”

He chuckled, for the second time in two days. I should have known he was going to take me for a walk down memory lane

“You haven’t heard true voice messaging, boy. This is nothing!”

Ahmed’s Hometown: 30 Years Ago

News has spread that Ahmed’s roommate has come back from Dubai for a short vacation. Which is why Ahmed’s house is filled with excitement. 

By the time the roommate drops by, most of the family members have gathered in the living room, beaming with excitement. As expected, they receive a package that Ahmed had sent for them.

Chocolates, small souvenirs…but for the benefit of this story, a cassette tape.

“You know what a cassette tape is, right?” My father sneered, and I was thankfully able to look offended.

The tape is played on a large device, one bigger than most of the modern computers. 

Everyone huddles around the tape, like fans awaiting the latest album of a legendary folk singer.

For the next hour or so, the voice of Ahmed is the only one that echoes through the house…

“You used to record cassette tapes?” I asked.

cassette dubai
Source: edmsauce

“You know what a cassette tape is, right?”

“How else could I talk to them?” He replied, as though I was being foolish. 

Not foolish, just ignorant I suppose. “There is so much to say about life here in Dubai. So many sights to describe, so many events to narrate. So we fellows would record them all on cassette tapes.”

“Cool. Like a podcast!”


“Never mind.”

The next time I held the WhatsApp voice record button, I felt silly. I thought of my father, taking his time to compose something that would today be considered several monologues put together. 

dubai then and now
Source: Pinterest

Here I was, slurring and muttering, words bordering on noises rather than descriptions and narrations. I thought of the time it took for that cassette tape to leave the dingy room in Dubai, and nestle itself in a large house in Kerala. And how for the listeners it was all worth the wait.

Suddenly, I wanted to know more about my father’s life. About how he did things when he was my age. 

Not because cassette tapes were the new “cool” or “retro” thing. Nor because I was trying to ditch technology and search for a simpler time. 

But because it felt like there was an ingredient in his life that’s become rare or replaced by an inferior alternative.

“Dad,” I said, making up my mind. “Tell me more. Tell me what it was like back then…”