A Whole New World: From Dubai to Austin

In this ORANGE installment, we have asked our writers who come from different parts of the world to tell us about their transition to Austin. First up is Dahlia Dandashi, from Dubai.

By Dahlia Dandashi

An oven.
I lived in an oven.
A place that heats up to 122 degrees during summer is where I lived for eight years before I moved to Austin. But for me, it’s home. A place that’s a 16-hour plane ride away is the place I call home.

Oh, and it’s not 122 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s actually 50 degrees Celsius. No one uses Fahrenheit.

Although the Texas heat keeps us warm, nothing compares to Dubai. Being told that it is “too hot to go outside” is not a joke; it’s something parents tell their children many, many times a year. It rains once a year, and when it does, people run around outside like idiots; nothing like Austin, where rain is a normality and constantly bipolar. Streets in Dubai flood and people take out little canoes to row in the middle of their neighborhood streets.

The shisha prices here still shock me; 15 to 20 dollars gets you a good shisha, but in Dubai, 15 to 20 dollars gets you two GREAT shish as made by Egyptian men in hats. Or Filipino men in hats. Whichever.

In Dubai, everything closes at 2 or 3 in the morning. The streets are flooded with people after a long night of clubbing, and hungry scavengers form long lines out of every restaurant door. The fact that most restaurants in Austin are closed at that time is still strange to me — I find it hard to believe that you can’t get food at 2 a.m. anywhere you’d like.

The money system is completely different, too; one dollar is the equivalent to 3.67 dirhams. So, walking around with one or two hundred dirhams in your pocket is totally ordinary. We would feel rich, even though we’re not.

The call of prayer from the mosques goes off to remind the city of the time, five times a day. Because Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates, a Muslim country, there’s a mosque on every corner. At first, it may come as a shock or as an annoyance, but as time goes on, you learn to appreciate it and go on about your day.

Like the U.S, the drinking age in Dubai is 21. However, unlike the U.S, you can’t just hop into a gas station to pick up your alcohol; instead, you must order it online, call a ‘secret guy’, go to Barracuda [a huge alcohol store], or head over to a bar. Despite this, everyone still goes out and has a great time. The nightlife in Dubai is famous for its luxury, extravagance and fun. Although there was no 6th street, we had tons of places to go out and have a good time.

Here in Texas, it’s more of a challenge to find someone not from the U.S, or even from the state of Texas. In Dubai, it’s a challenge to find someone from the same place you are from. My high school contained students and teachers from over 80 different countries, and ironically, the least of the population is actually from the UAE — the rest is expats, or international people coming to live in Dubai. The main language is English, despite what people may think, but road signs and shops are labeled in English and Arabic. FUNKY.

And tax? What is tax? In Dubai, there is no such thing. There is no tax. Period. Anytime I buy something here, I cringe.

Sundays off? No. Everyone had school and work on Sundays because weekends started on Thursday night. I still sometimes think a Monday is a Sunday morning where I have to wake up and get dressed in my school uniform.

No one can attend public school in Dubai, unless they are a UAE citizen. Otherwise, everyone goes to a private school, whether it’s an International, American or British system. For the most part, we all suffered some sort of school uniform. See below.


No one drives. We take cabs and the metro all the time. Because the driving age is 18, no one really has cars in high school. In Austin, people do take the bus, but public transport is not as available and common as back in Dubai. Cabs are cheap, easily accessible and completely normal.

Speaking of cars, the streets of Dubai are pretty comparable to an F1 racetrack. Bugatti, Rolls Royce, BMW and Mercedes filled the roads and parking lots of our schools because most people were getting picked up by their drivers (duh).

Not to mention, there is only one highway in Dubai. If you miss an exit, good luck. We don’t have a 290 or I35 on that side of the world. Sheikh Zayed Road is the only road. There aren’t really addresses either, so you have to give directions based on what’s around you or what the neighborhood/area is called. To get to my house, you just need to tell a cab driver Kharbash Tower by the Shangri – La Hotel. He knows where to go.

People with jet skis? Dirt bikes? 2 chefs? 3 maids? Boat parties? I KNOW THEM ALL.

As far as style goes, I was never used to “frattire” or the yoga-pants-big-shirt-boots look until I moved to Texas. It was as if I was a Martian that had to adjust to human life on Earth, going from dresses and heels on the weekends to … well, whatever I wanted, really.


Although I did transition from Dubai to Austin in a matter of months, the eight years I spent in the crazy, unique city are constantly with me. Dubai and Austin are nothing alike, but they both hold a special place in my heart for different reasons. Dubai is the place of my home and childhood, while Austin is the place for new life and artful experiences. I can now actually sit outside, whenever I want, without having to worry about frying like an egg on the sidewalk.

2 Responses to “A Whole New World: From Dubai to Austin”

  1. XX

    This is not an accurate depiction of life in Dubai. It is solely one person’s perspective. This writer is ignoring the perspective of a large population of inhabitants. For example, not all streets in Dubai look like a Formula 1 race track. In fact, if you go to neighborhoods like Satwa, Deira, Garhood, you probably won’t see cars as nice as Bugattis, Rolls Royces, etc. This comment is not to discount your experiences as a resident but it is important to keep in mind that there are several perspectives to every experience. This piece is rife with generalization, and it’s badly written.

  2. ddjinn79

    Having been raised in Dubai, I can truly say that your experiences were those of someone living well above everyone else in the city. I’ve lived in Al Shaab, Deira, Al Garhoud, Karama and spent a good portion of my teen years hangin out in almost every corner of the city including Bur Dubai, Satwa and Jumeirah. Yes, not every street in Dubai is paved like a formula one track but the roads are pretty good. When Jebel Al Noor in Satwa opened up with their first location we used to hang out in the parking lot with Ferraris, Mercedes, etc. It wasn’t unusual for a Mercedes or a Ferrari to drive down Al Riqqa Street, roll down the window, hold out a wad of cash and ask an attractive Russian woman on the corner in Arabic, “How much?”

    The drinking age is 21 but where there’s a will there’s a way. For personal consumption, you need a government permit to buy alcohol. There are liquor stores where you can purchase alcohol with this permit. You can also drink at bars and clubs, find a guy to get it for you, ask friends and family to buy it for you at the Dubai Airport Duty Free when they visit, drive to Ajman (Police raids are common) or drive out to Ras Al Khaimah. Sharjah has a zero tolerance policy for liquor and so when we went to Ajman we had to make sure not to get caught in Sharjah.

    I do miss, kicking off the weekends on Thursday and attending a Catholic school made it better because we got Sundays off as well. Yes, that’s right, Sundays were off for us. In addition to being an alarm clock for the city’s inhabitants, the call to prayer was also a good reminder that we resided in a Muslim country. At one time I could recite the entire prayer. If you can’t beat em, join em!! It is primarily due to the influx of transient workers coming in from around the world that led to Dubai becoming as congested as it had which in turn prompted the construction of the Metro system. So at one time we all drove everywhere or took non-metered cabs. We still prefer to drive and have learnt to frequent places with ample parking.

    Shisha prices vary from place to place but if you go to a fancy place expect to pay higher prices. You can still get a really good shisha at a place where they don’t wear hats and not pay as much in say Karama. Once the clubs close at 3 a.m. people flood the streets to form what we call the “meat market.” The Cyclone Club was a great example of this. The spectacle usually consisted of a good bunch of female prostitutes working hard to negotiate a price and secure a fare for the night with the cops circling around like sharks. The undercover cops in Dubai were the worst and you learned pretty quickly how to dodge them especially if you were out drinking at the age of sixteen. I once witnessed two undercover policemen beat up an African woman right next to me at a bar for not having the right documentation (Pataka) on her.

    Dubai Shopping Festival also started up while I was still there. A greater retail farce the world has yet to see! All the shops that partake double their prices just before the festival and lower them during the festival giving shoppers the illusion that they’re getting a discount. While I was there, the Hardees was the only fast food joint open 24hrs and so we’d go there primarily after the clubs. Given that it was one of the few places open it’d be understandable for why there were long lines. I do miss not being able to go to my hangout spots at 4 a.m. The food in Dubai is absolutely phenomenal and nothing beats the kebabs at Damyati or the Shawarmas or the cheese sandwiches from Al Reef bakery.

    The primary language is and always has been, Arabic. English is widely spoken but Hindi/Urdu are equally prevalent due to the large Indian and Pakistani populations in the city. When I got my drivers license in Dubai, my father went through his entire office announcing that his son had just passed the hardest exam in the country!! It took my cousin who is 10 years older than me, 2 years to accomplish that. To this day, I think the only reason I passed at all was because I cursed in Arabic after making a mistake!! At the age of eighteen, the only way you could get a car (discounting the illegal methods of acquiring a vehicle) is if you: 1) had a full time job; 2) your family was well off and could afford to buy you a car or 3) if you won the Mashreq million!! The first option was usually the most probable because of the visa restrictions for male eighteen year old expats. After the age of eighteen you either had to find full time work, get sponsored by the hiring company or leave the country.

    Dubai is a gorgeous city and a lot has changed. While I was there, I watched the American hospital take away our favourite sand lot, the Palm Islands take away our favourite boozing spot on the beach, the heat shutting down all of the air conditioners across the city and Dune Bashing turning into a popular tourist activity. Dressing well in Dubai is of exceptionally high importance and not a place for slackers or the yoga pant wearing crowd. But with the ever growing numbers of western expats flooding the city, this too over time will change. That is of course until some mullah somewhere decides the attire is obscene and bans it!! On our last visit my wife and I could not hold hands in public but we were allowed to have her hold onto my arm. My wife still can’t understand why I navigate using landmarks. There, everyone goes by landmarks and not street names. This does not work very well for me in the States because all the buildings look the same!

    After all said and done, I loved growing up there and as an American citizen now I view the US as a phenomenal place for enhancing my life further. My wife and I make it back every two to three years to stock up on things we can’t find or are too expensive in the States and visit family and friends.


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