Search This Blog

Guest Post: Writing In a Concrete Jungle by Daniela Tully

Today we have Debut Author Daniela Tully stopping by with us. I hope you enjoy her piece.

Writing In a Concrete Jungle

I am German, my husband American, my daughter’s teacher Tanzanian, the assistant teacher Filipino, my students from Egypt, Jordan, West Bengal, India, Pakistan, Iran, Germany, Kuwait, Japan, China, Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, the security guards at university from Nepal and Bangladesh, the members at my boot camp from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Italy, France, Great Britain, USA, Singapore, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Argentina, Spain, Canada. Last week I threw a dinner party with ten people, and we were nine different nationalities in attendance.

What do we all have in common? We are expats in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, a country that is home to one of the world's highest percentages of immigrants. Of the almost ten million people who make up the population, more than 25% are Indian expats; that’s five percent more than the local population, the Emiratis, who only constitute 20 percent.

In contrast to the United States, where assimilation is desired, it is impossible here. The moment you lose your job – or at the outside limit, the moment you want to retire - you lose your country of residence, and will be sent “home”. But for some of the expats, who have spent years living here, the meaning of home has become blurry.  Even blurrier as they raise children in a third culture during their formative years, turning them into the so called TCK, Third Culture Kids, while the parents already feel like the TCA - Third Culture Adults - that their kids will eventually become one day.

What are the implications for your own national and cultural identity? Last week someone said, I had done something very German, in a totally neutral context, and I felt slightly offended?!? And yet, when someone praises a German car brand, I am filled with pride. Am I slowly losing my cultural identity?

When my literary agent introduced me to a group of fellow writers in Barcelona last year, she said: “This is Daniela, she is German, her husband is American, she writes in English, and lives in Dubai.” Puzzled looks followed as they processed the reasons for such a lengthy explanation.

What are those implications for the writing process in Dubai? Is it a challenge or a chance? Are you losing the insight into your own culture and hence a certain street cred to create a character of a nationality you know so well - of course, depending on the type of story you like to tell - or are you gaining insight into so many different cultures that it constantly expands your horizons, and hence your pool of ideas? Or is your own natural identity actually fortified as you step outside your patria and look at it from a distance, seeing the good and bad sides in a different light, now that you’ve had a chance to put it all into perspective, now that you’ve had a chance to appreciate things more, now that they are suddenly missing? And isn’t the insight you gain into other cultures so superficial in the end that it would be a massive mistake to give in to the illusion that you know them well enough to write about them?

I also realized something else, something other writers take for granted, and that I don’t: greenery. The lack of greenery and the color green is getting to me. The only thing green here is the tops of the palm trees – and even they look sickly, as they are wilting under the brutal desert sun. Every summer we try to escape the heat for a couple of weeks (there are only two seasons here: summer and hell), to Europe or the US. I write more in those two weeks than in over a month here. There is something innately calming and stimulating about the color green. I only wish it was sand that had this effect on me.

In this concrete jungle, with its many species of high rises that serve as an architect’s wet dream, with its expat bubbles like the Dubai Marina, its cosmopolitan air, its word class hotels, clubs and restaurants, all seems very liberal here, and people tend to forget that freedom of speech is non-existent. But at the end of the day, we live in a police state. Many get a rude wake-up call when they are fined and punished for cursing or swearing on social media. In a recent case, a customer had cursed out a car salesman for having sold him a faulty car, for a thousand dollars more than it was worth. But it was the client, and not the salesperson, who wound up penalized.

You become wary here, careful, subdued. It certainly does not only have an effect on the writing process, it has an effect on all art forms. Originally, I had come here to help foster the growing film industry, and produced two local feature films in the Emirates, over two years – but I soon realized that it was a nearly impossible task. Politics got in the way – and the reality. Any story that would have been of interest to an international market (one of the results that was demanded of me) was not of national interest, to put it mildly.

We expats, no matter whether it’s the American expat making between five to ten times more than what they would back at home (alas not my husband ☺), or the Nepalese construction worker with a salary of 300 USD a month - we all are here for one reason, and one reason alone: and that’s not the greenery. The money earned here is tax free for most nationalities. And there starts the last hurdle I’d like to mention.

As this is the main reason for being here, for the 80 percent of residents in this country, the status is more transparent. You can judge other Western expat “packages” by the style of their accommodation (studio, one-, two- or three-bedroom apartments, townhouse villa), the area they live, the car they drive, the field they work in. From that you can conclude roughly how much their annual salary is, and what their bonuses are. As artistic and intellectual achievements are rare, everyone is mainly measured by the financial achievement. And when the comparison falls short on your side, you might feel small, stressed, an underachiever. Yes, we all know people can dazzle and take on huge credits – but the reality here also is that once you are in debt, once a check bounces, you can end up right there with the man who cursed a car salesman on Whatsapp, or the woman who had been raped but charged with adultery as her attacker was married: in prison.

Even now as I write this, a little voice in my head says: tricky. You shouldn’t talk about this side of Dubai. But I am not using profanities, or spreading false information (which carries the same punishment as using profanities). I am reflecting on a concrete jungle that also provides many with a much better life style than they would ever have at home, one that provides many expats from Africa and the Asian subcontinent with a way out of their social status – as a life here, albeit one lived thousands of kilometers away from their wives and children, pays for a better education for their off-spring (which is also their retirement plan, as the family structures outside the West still largely entail taking care of your parents at old age, in your home).

No place on earth is perfect, no city all good or all bad. There are many things I love about living here – one of them is being surrounded by the over two hundred different nationalities that reside in this city. I learn something every single day, and not a single day is like the other, thanks to the ethnic and cultural riches of this country.  I am a foodie. You can try a different cuisine literally every single day of the year – India alone offers hundreds of different sub-cuisines.

For myself, writing from here is a challenge that I am currently cracking – and loving to crack. In Hotel on Shadow Lake, when I described the deep, mysterious forest around the Montgomery Resort, and the faceless man haunting it, I looked at a concrete jungle – and dreamt of smelling the forest around me. Still, judging from readers’ reactions, I obviously still managed to paint a convincing scenario.

As I write this, again, I am staring at the concrete jungle in front of me. I am constantly surrounded by construction noise. This runs nearly 24/7, aside from Friday, which is their ‘Sunday’, a day of prayer and rest. The construction will never stop, as long as there is money. As a friend of mine said, when he came to visit for the first time: “They are addicted to building!” The jungle must grow, never to be deforested. And this is fascinating, too: the vision they had only decades ago, what they have turned this barren patch of sand into, in only a handful of years, really.

So my next novel is set here, in Dubai. A Rear Window-type thriller, set in the heart of this city. It will give a realistic portrayal, but mostly of us, the expats. I don’t know the 20 percent of nationals well enough to write about them – but rest assured, the other 80 percent deliver enough material for an entertaining novel.




“What a surprising debut! Tully offers the reader an epic story and emotional intimacy, with rich characters plunged into a mysterious thriller that spans continents and generations. I couldn't put it down.”

Uli Edel, Director of Last Exit to Brooklyn and Body of Evidence 

“Daniela Tully has written a captivating romantic thriller that spans decades, continents, generations and a world war. It's a story of love, tragedy and intrigue that vividly illustrates the unyielding grip that the past holds in shaping the future...and the enduring power of love.”
Lee Goldberg, #1 New York Timesbestselling author and the writer/producer of Diagnosis MurderMartial Law and Missing

“A fascinating tale of what it felt like to be a woman under the Third Reich and of one family's long hidden secrets.”
Elisabeth Gifford, author of The Sea House

“An engaging and beautifully told story of love and the strength of family ties which will captivate and entrance all readers.”
Claire Allan, author of Poppy Shakespeare

No comments