NYU Abu Dhabi is one of the few university campuses in the world that is still operating. Many students and staff still remain on campus, while struggling to stay safe, retain a sense of community and safeguard both individual and community health. Both the editors of this magazine are part of this community. The following images document, subtly, the emotional and psychological impacts on young students whose lives have been interrupted by the looming virus, as the numbers of cases climb daily by the hundreds. NYUAD is also one of the most diverse campuses in the world; travel restrictions and other realities created by the pandemic, affect various students to different extents. What unites us is the common experience of uncertainty and that we are all somehow still in this space, together.
All images taken by the author.
You can find more photography, and a continuation of this series, here.
North of Terblijterweg, behind a hill by Discusworp, there is an island. A moat snakes around its outline; blotches of bright-green algae float on its murky water. In summer, white geese flock to the banks, nesting behind a screen of puzzlegrass and dull shrubbery. By midfall, they are gone, leaving behind a sea of feathers and dried excrement on the slope.
The island, small and bleak, is a host to two schools and three residential houses — each has three stories and a brick facade, a combination of gray and brown. From the top floor of the big school, through a window, one could see beyond the hill at the towering beige condominium, the fenced parking lot, the secluded dog paths shrouded with trees. Once in a while, children would bike across the road, heading downtown, with shiny orange plastic pads strapped to their wheels, rotating rapidly.
This place, this island, is where I used to live prior to college.
The town where it resides is called Maastricht, a three-hour train ride from Amsterdam, towards the south. I was there on a generous scholarship to pursue a high school diploma away from my home country Indonesia. My parents, both ordinary civil servants, had slipped a thin envelope containing a few hundred euros in my backpack before I boarded the plane. A note was scribbled on its face: Dine outside with your friends sometimes. The money, clutched in my hand at the airport, was all I had for my two years in Maastricht.
From the beginning, my relationship with the island was clear: it was my home. Still portraits of its paved yard, the dank corridor leading up to the gym, the revolving main door with black brush along the bottom edge — all of them are still vivid in my head, permanently lodged in my memories. The island was where I spent most of my time, working on problem sets and essays, laying on a patch of grass, lounging around with friends.
I knew, from day one, that I was going to pack a lifetime into the two years I spent on the island. I had countless first moments there: first snow, first cuddle, first time meeting people from countries I did not know existed. I learned tricks and shortcuts on the island, when to sneak out to another house, which classrooms were more likely to be haunted. I attended parties and witnessed Indians dancing to Pakistani music, Spaniards gorging on Mexican food, house parents arguing over girls and boys together. I dipped my fingers in numerous birthday offerings: cakes made of Oreos, layered margarita pizzas mounted on a baking tray, chicken curry and bean soup. By the time I had to leave for college, I was ready: I was proud of having fully “lived” on the island.
During my studies there, I rarely ventured into town. The only times I left the island were for my community service, grocery shopping, or when my friends asked me to tag along on their weekend excursions. I dined outside the island only seven times, three of which were thanks to conferences. I only remember two street names in the entire town and made a point to never learn Dutch despite the school’s obligatory courses. My mental map of Maastricht is a constellation of the only few spots I frequently visited: the retail area, a mosque very far away from the island, Jumbo, and a tiny English course center where I used to work. I never went to the bookstore inside the church, or the coffee shop with the chocolate fountain. I turned a blind eye to Dutch politics and would not know the answer if asked what life in a typical Dutch household in Maastricht is like. How they eat, what they find funny, which TV shows they watch.
At first, I was convinced that it was all because I liked living in a bubble, behind the border of my island. I felt a sense of belonging there. I was not a foreigner in a Dutch town anymore; I was a foreigner in a pool of foreigners, of fellow international students who, like me, were all in the process of adapting. The fact that the island felt detached from anything Dutch gave me the right to call it home.
Maastricht, the town itself, was just lurking in the background. Festivals were happening, Saturday flea markets were held, but I never went — though I basked in knowing that they happened so close to the island. Sometimes, when I did go to the city, I would look at a cathedral, with tourists coming out of its arched door, and think about how I had just sat there on the cold pew inside. I would observe people eating chicken basquaise at a French restaurant and suddenly feel that my stomach was full. I would walk into a shop, try on some clothes and shawls, but never really buy anything. My relationship with the town was often more imaginary than real, second-hand than direct.
I was reluctant to engage with Maastricht outside of the island; the experience of exploring the town felt repeatable to me, inconsequential, deferrable. Maastricht was still going to be there tomorrow. Vrijtkhof, the waffle shop, Meuse River — everything will remain intact in its place years from today. I can always return to the cathedral or the basquaise restaurant any time. I can always save enough money, book a flight, and land in Schiphol in case I desperately want to see Holland.
But the island — I was scared of missing its moments and of letting a second pass without my witnessing. There was always a trade-off in my mind: that the more time I spent in the city, either volunteering or buying packs of pasta, the less time I would have left with my friends. In my head, the island existed in a different time zone, its clock always rushing, minutes ahead. Like Maastricht, the island will still remain in its place years from now. But it was never about the space that I was attached to, that I occupied, but the time period. I did not simply live on the island. I lived on it in a specific time with specific people. If I did not get to know the islanders during my days on the island, then I had absolutely missed the chance to know who they were in 2014, 2016, or beyond. Then I have deprived myself the ability to say, in the event that I meet them one day in the future, that they have changed, or that some parts of them still remain the same: the garrulity, the precariousness, the accent, the obsession with certain songs.
My approach to being a part of community, to living in general, has always been about witnessing growth. I crave to see traces of time, of experience, on the faces of people that I encounter daily. If I did not have that ability, if it was not part of the deal, then I’d be sure to put minimum effort into integrating myself. I find it extremely difficult to live in a community where people just come and go, where relationships are transient, where the only things I know about people are their names and professions. This traffic — of people simply visiting, never truly around — frustrates me. It gives me the license to basically not care at all. To walk past people without the slightest intention to smile. To look at them and think that no matter how many times we have bumped into each other, we will still remain permanent strangers.
In Abu Dhabi, where I go to college now, this is the kind of community that I live with. The setting is almost the same: my college, like my high school in Maastricht, is also nestled on an island — Saadiyat Island. Itis also located quite far away from the city and the campus area is also reasonably secluded. Despite the similarities, I do not (or have not), however, feel the same anxiety that I did in high school. Abu Dhabi and Saadiyat Island do not exist in different time zones or as separate terrains. In the city or on campus, I feel equally anonymous, foreign and alone. The urgency and the desire to spend time with friends on Saadiyat Island, to belong, is often absent.
From the way my global college education is set up, everyone in my university is bound to move around. January term away, semester abroad, summer course in the US — all of these contribute to people never rooted simply in one place, on a single campus. One semester you may meet A, the next she might be gone in Buenos Aires. The semester after, she will be back in Abu Dhabi, but you will be away in Sydney. The next time you meet her, she will be graduating, with a job offer in hand, soon gone – you, entering your senior year.
On campus, where people have their majors and clubs and things to tend to, everyone seems to be shelved into their own private worlds. The friends I have made in college, most of them, are those I have taken classes or worked on a project with — almost exclusively so. I am certain that there are more people out there in my college community that would perhaps make good friends, but I have yet to meet them. In high school, if such people existed, I would have, in one way or another, found a way to talk to them, because meeting them was inevitable. But in college, where everyone coexists but revolves around different orbits, there is a higher chance that I may never see them at all.
On the island in Maastricht, because the place was small, everyone was conditioned to interact with one another, although it was not the interaction that made me feel less like a permanent stranger to the islanders. Rather, it was the sheer habit of seeing them around, of having them near. Above all, it was the fact that we shared the same reality. We all knew each other. We knew all the house parents. We all attended the same conferences, the same holi festival, the same prom. We could agree on which teacher was the funniest or which was better at teaching geography. We could talk about the same subject or an event on the island for hours. In college, because things are changing so quickly, there is a sense that other students and I do not always live the same, full reality and instead only share fragments of it. It is not necessarily a bad thing; it just is what it is.
In high school, even in such a place where social exchanges were seemingly contained, we did not, of course, all get along. The community was not perfect. It was simply what I was, and still am, more accustomed to. On my last day on the island, I wept for everyone, including people I only shared perfunctory chatters with in the library. The mere knowledge that they were going to be absent from my life, that I had lost the chance, just the chance, to talk to them and laugh with them and celebrate their birthdays, tore me apart.
In my journal, as a writing exercise, I often write pages after pages of just pure description of the island: the rich soil behind Kurt Hahn building, the square plasterboard ceiling of the school, the gray rooftop carpeted with pebbles (the one that was going to be turned into a garden, but never was). And in my description, there is rarely any mention of the islanders. I keep them from occupying the places I describe because I like the idea of them being by my side, out of sight but present, taking in the view at the exact same time that I did, experiencing the island together, looking at how the moat turned from clear to seaweed-green, trying to shoo away the aggressive geese.
I see the description in my journal as my secret love letter to the islanders. I have shared some bits here and hope, beyond anything else, that it would remind any of them, who happen to find their way into this piece, of the home that they once shared with me: the home nestled on an island in the south of Netherlands. Home of bygone time, lodged in the two years that we will never be able to repeat, even if we return to the island and live the way we once lived. And if somehow, it reminds them of me sitting by their side, laughing with them, out of sight but forever present, then I shall be grateful.
Because I, too, remember you.
This piece is part of our Invisible Cities series. Artwork by Nop Briex, “Views on Maastricht”
Well, actually, it was just two weeks ago. Somehow, all ‘intense’ life experiences only seem to happen in the random moments. You’ll come home from school one day and realize that your mother has wrinkles. She has wrinkles and the sun is setting and you are getting older but she is getting old and we are all ageing all the time. This kind of ageing Olay face cream can’t fix — but what can face cream fix anyway? Or you’ll be making toast at 4pm on some blind Tuesday, and that’s it — you’re in love. You discover, first-hand, that all the love songs and poems had to have come from somewhere and maybe it’s this feeling of half-soaring, half-falling inside your chest that won’t go away. Even when you’re making goddamn toast on a goddamn Tuesday.
It’s still a Tuesday at home, when the plane lands in the blue fog of Abu Dhabi. Half-soaring, half-falling. The lights and buildings are seemingly sparser than in Dubai, which is where everyone lands on their way to somewhere else. People back home always thought and probably still think I am coming to Dubai. It’s all they know of this region — Dubai, the lone, glittery pearl in a swath of sand. Flash. Glitter. Bang.
I don’t bother telling them that they’re wrong. “It’s Abu Dhabi, not Dubai,” I say a dozen times. Like hitting the edge of the bullseye, but not quite. Not quite.
I walk down the aisle of the plane. Cabin trolleys, sticky hands, little children, neck pillows. How ordinary, how mundane. I have made the most radical change in my life and all I can think about is the shade of purple on a neck pillow.
I’m sure I’m going to write about this, maybe not tonight but sometime. It’s my great adventure, my new beginning; I keep murmuring ‘this is it’. Cloying, clichéd words on starting over, on clean slates and finding success. I expect the rest of me to follow suit, to fill out these words with colour and feeling, to intensify this blank newness into vivid novelty. But I feel nothing. Half-soaring, half-falling. It’s as if my heart decided not to come along with me; it closed its eyes and, when I wasn’t looking, crawled into my old bedcovers in Botswana, refusing to uproot itself.
I walk out of the plane, someone’s purple neck pillow in the corner of my eye. I have uprooted myself.
The first thing I feel is a wall of heat. It is so oppressive, so forbidding, so totally and completely hot and alien, that for a flash-second, I think of running back into the plane and cowering amongst the economy seats. The air hostess behind me is all red lipstick and white teeth and clean, bright future. My glasses fog up and I cannot see. I have a strange urge to laugh and cry all at once. Opaque vision now. I’m walking into my future, my new life, blind blind blind.
Waiting for me are bedsheets so invitingly white, they put the clinically pretty window-view to shame. I sit down, in my new bedroom, my luggage at my feet like a bomb crater, the bookshelves gasping for something, anything, but emptiness. This is it. Yes, I have made it. This is the dream. There is no music, no fanfare, but only the hum of the air-conditioning. ‘This is it’, it says to me.
On the way to campus, my mother had spoken in Hindi to the taxi driver. She had asked him if he’s happy here and I know she did not ask for him but for me. It suddenly strikes me that I will have to learn how to miss my mother. Any day, I would rather take calculus.
Instead, I think about my friends. Their letters are as white as my pillowcase. Hasty farewells, hasty ink.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again.”
There is a tumbleweed in my throat, gathering hurt by the second. It tumbles and I crumple. I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again. How lonely this is. I didn’t think it would be this lonely. Final hugs in the departure lounge. Seeing my father cry for only the second time in my life. Carrying luggage that is too heavy because I packed too many novels and too many clothes and now I think I packed too much of my memory too.
“Vamika, you’re such a good writer — what are you doing writing about sandwiches and quiches?”
This is a valid question. Why am I not using my slightly-above-average literary prowess to discuss heftier dilemmas, like campus issues or feminism or, even … politics? Why waste time ruminating on the price of a pasta dish? It all seems so frivolous, impractical, useless.
The prolific food writer M. F. K. Fisher is often asked similar questions: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and about love, the way others do? She says that these questioners ask accusingly, but she has a ready answer: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it … and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied … and it is all one.”
In freshman year, I somewhat dubiously enrolled in the First Year Writing Seminar class called Street Food with Professor Deepak Unnikrishnan. Most people think this class just entails weekly jaunts around Abu Dhabi, scarfing down shawarmas and karak and Chips Oman sandwiches and then writing cute little reviews about them.
This is true — partially. My class journal is filled with snapshots of tea ceremony workshops, food truck burgers and bowls of Emirati luqaimat, complete with tweet-size captions describing the various tastes I’ve encountered during these past few weeks. Our assignments are like bold, commanding treasure hunts — Find the best and cheapest cup of coffee in the city. Where does one go for good Uzbek food? Or Armenian cuisine? Dig out an Emirati folktale about food.
To be perfectly honest, during the first couple of weeks of the semester, I had no idea what I was doing — or learning. Look! I found the best karak in the city! Now what? Isn’t this supposed to be an intensive writing class? Aren’t we supposed to emerge, like butterflies fresh out of the cocoon, as great architects of arguments, armed with intense theses and an even more intense knowledge of grammar? I was having trouble fathoming how visiting food trucks, for example, would transform me into a refined academic writer.
I kept my concerns largely to myself because our professor always seemed to have this mysterious little smile on his face implying that he knew way more than he — and the syllabus — let on. A common refrain within our class was that it’s not really about the food. We somehow needed to think beyond the plate.
But as we discussed essays about lobsters and experienced such adventures as getting completely lost trying to find an Egyptian restaurant in the city — the free knafeh ultimately made it worth it — my classmates and I still looked uneasily at each other as we walked in at 9 a.m. for class, unsure of what exactly we had gotten ourselves into.
I waited for a eureka moment, and thankfully, yes, the epiphany actually came. It was 3:30 a.m. — a common time for epiphanies, I think — and I was watching my Korean friend cook ramen for me in a student lounge. He started explaining to me the different ways in which ramen can be cooked, what this means in Korean society and why they use certain ingredients for their dishes. Apparently, almost any meal you can think of can be sold in an instant format because many Koreans live such a hectic and busy lifestyle that ease and convenience of food is not just a cheap bonus but a requirement. As I listened to him speak, slurping up spicy soup and sticky rice in front of the Al Reem skyline, I got it. The weeks of wacky adventures that had been my Street Food class suddenly made sense, as if an unfocused picture had finally cleared.
Almost every week, I used to write an AD Secrets article for The Gazelle, our university publication, covering a relatively unknown café or restaurant in Abu Dhabi. The task was interesting, undoubtedly. But as the weeks passed, I found myself approaching these reviews in rather an insipid, formulaic manner. I caught myself asking and answering the same kinds of questions, lackluster things like: is there WiFi? How cheap is the tea? Should this décor be described as minimalist or urban chic? But in the end, how does that all matter? I am writing it all down but ultimately saying nothing. About the food or the city. And that’s not why I started this weekly column at all. I wanted to get more NYU Abu Dhabi students into the city, to experience walking on the streets and lingering over late-night conversations in dingy diners with completely non-dingy food, to study in quirky café spots and listen to the symphony of languages surrounding them and yes, to even get lost trying to find Egyptian eateries only to discover that you can actually get free knafeh in this city. And also, with a little bit of smartness, sassiness and healthy panic, you learn that you can navigate Abu Dhabi much better than you ever thought, could or did.
While doing research for an assignment for my Street Food class, I stumbled upon an old Gazelle article titled The Magic of the Chips Oman Sandwich. Reading it, I was filled with a mixture of delight and envy. Delight, because it was stupendously well-written; creative, candid and spilling knowledge like the ideal Chips Oman oozes cheese. Envy because I realized that as a piece of food writing, it achieved things that weeks of my AD Secrets articles failed to. Things like evoking emotion, colours, smell, sights, sounds and taste — a complete sensory experience just through a description of what is essentially just a greasy sandwich. And of course, it was saying something vivid and lucid, even if small, about this weird, beautiful city we live in.
In its description, the Street Food class markets itself as a course that explores the city of Abu Dhabi and the larger realms of history, immigration, race and politics, through the lens of the food you find in its restaurants, shops and cafeterias. In other words, food is just the seed; our experience of what’s cooked and eaten in this city eventually flowers into greater observations and conclusions on what it means to be and reside within Abu Dhabi, to interact with its various diasporas and their diverse narratives and histories. I now find myself pondering over what lies behind my plate of biryani or shawarma or porottas or hotpot. What are the languages I am hearing in a typical cafeteria? Or an upmarket café? What does it mean to go to an Indian restaurant and be served by Filipinos? Is Chinese or Pakistani cuisine actually cooked by natives of these countries? If not, what does this say or raise questions about in terms of ethnic authenticity and identity? I am suddenly thinking of ideas and asking questions that had never crossed my mind before; the experience feels akin to colouring outside the lines or doing something as radical as eating chips with ice-cream. Such thoughts and enquiries illuminate far more than the taste of a certain dish; they shed light on the socio-political tapestry of those spaces of Abu Dhabi in which that dish is served.
Okay, so maybe that all sounds a bit like a platitude or a paraphrased version of the course description. If it helps, I like to think this quote by the American author Sarah Vowell sums up what I’m trying to say:
“Just the other day, I was in my neighborhood Starbucks, waiting for the post office to open. I was enjoying a chocolatey cafe mocha when it occurred to me that to drink a mocha is to gulp down the entire history of the New World. From the Spanish exportation of Aztec cacao, and the Dutch invention of the chemical process for making cocoa, on down to the capitalist empire of Hershey, PA, and the lifestyle marketing of Seattle’s Starbucks, the modern mocha is a bittersweet concoction of imperialism, genocide, invention and consumerism served with whipped cream on top.”
In other words, it’s not really about the food, friends.