A life lesson learned in Abu Dhabi: never take friendships for granted while living abroad

Without proper care and attention, the people we meet will fade away – to our regret

A visitor looks at the view of the city skyline from a breakwater in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Abu Dhabi sold $10 billion of bonds in a three-part deal in its first international offering in two years as it takes advantage of relatively low borrowing costs. Photographer: Christopher Pike/Bloomberg
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The quest of Nisha Ponthathil moved me. The National recently reported on how the Abu Dhabi resident was looking for her father's lost friend. It was a mission of gratitude.

Upon his arrival to the UAE capital from Kerala four decades ago, Ponthathil's father discovered he had been duped by his Mumbai recruitment agent. Stuck in an ill-suited job on a construction site in Ruwais, he met Lebanese businessman Izam Al Hussain, who turned his life around by giving him a better job in the city. Despite becoming fast friends, Ponthathil's father and Al Hussain lost touch over the following years. Now, with her father back home in India, Ponthathil wants to find Al Hussain and say thank you.

This story touched me for two reasons. The first was that it gave further proof – if we need any more – that acts of kindness can cause a ripple effect beyond what is anticipated. The second was that it is a typical UAE story.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, October 3, 2019, 2019.   STORY BRIEF: An Indian expat is trying to track down a Lebanese man who helped her father to get a job in Abu Dhabi in 1982. Her father is now back in India but she is trying to raise awareness from here. 
SUBJECT NAME: Nisha Ponthathil
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  NA
Reporter:  John Dennehy
Nisha Ponthathil is trying to track down a Lebanese man who helped her father to get a job in Abu Dhabi in 1981. Her father is pictured with the brother of the man who helped him. They do not have a photograph of the man they are trying to find. Victor Besa / The National 

One of the great things about living in Abu Dhabi, and the country in general, is the sheer number of interesting people we come across on a regular basis. Hailing from different countries, cultures and professional fields, it is that innate hunger to know and understand the other that results in the tight friendships that are a hallmark of life abroad. However, all that mass socialising can also result in a string of forgotten or broken bonds. It is really one of the few real regrets I have about my eight years living in Abu Dhabi.

While I am fortunate to call an almost too-big-to-count number of amazing people close friends, there is also a list of really wonderful people I have failed to keep in touch with. This is partly due to negligence, and occasionally down to life circumstances. Upon reflection, I find these excuses unsatisfactory. But such reflection did point me to the universal truth that time is a relative concept.

When we live in our homelands, we take time for granted. Our friendships back home often grow ­organically and there is always an implicit understanding – unless a major life upheaval occurs – that your friends are not going anywhere. Those same principles don't apply when living abroad. Friendships in a new city take effort to cultivate and nurture. Without those hard yards and time put into maintaining such bonds, people eventually disappear and fade.

A photo from a recent work trip to Beirut: professional commitments shouldn't get in the way of friendships. Courtesy Saeed Saeed
A photo from a recent work trip to Beirut: professional commitments shouldn't get in the way of friendships. Courtesy Saeed Saeed

On that score, I have lost touch with a bunch of people that I would love to keep in contact with. There is Younis, the Egyptian caretaker of my childhood home on Airport Road. When I first moved back to the UAE, we were both surprised to find each other and, for a few months, we caught up regularly. As I became all too consumed with my job and expanding my social circle, I rarely made those trips to the building any more. When I returned last month, the "new guy" told me that Younis had packed up and left two years prior. I don't know why I was surprised. Younis was in his early sixties and he did mention he wanted to go home and retire.

Knowing that he is suspicious of all things social media, there is at ­present no way of contacting him. But for the record, I do want to thank him for being a bit of a childhood hero of mine (he was the first person I saw climb a tree, when I was only seven years old) and a steadying presence when I returned to the UAE flush with anxiety.

Then there was another mate of mine, an Eritrean accountant called Akram. We both managed to consistently miss our appointments to meet up due to our professional and personal travels. We always kept telling each other "next time". I don't know when that will be, as Akram has moved to Canada and has started a family.

One friendship I was lucky enough to maintain, despite drifting apart for a couple of years, is with my fellow Aussie, Kate. We recently caught up in a cafe in Seef Mall. We were so glad that we finally made it happen and, to celebrate my recent birthday, she got me a small plant.

It is the first one I have owned and Kate gave me clear and precise instructions to keep it thriving. "Don't overwater it," she said. "Just keep an eye on it and water it when it needs it. All you need is a little consistency."

Somehow, I don't think she was only referring to the plant.