The People of The UAE: Discover the story of 6 people living and working in the UAE

Hello UAE. And welcome to another edition of The People of The UAE curated by The Huntr’s contributing editor and photographer Zeashan Ashraf. Discover what life looks like for six very different people living and working in the UAE. Find out how they got here, what they love about it, where their fave places to eat are, their secret gems, their ambitions, the places they head to press ‘escape’ and so much more…


The People of The UAE: Discover the story of 6 people living and working in the UAE

Alexis Javero

23 Years Old, Filipino, @alexisjavero

“There’s almost always something new down the block, or alternatively, something old I haven’t been to before – and I love that a number of different places cater to different cultures, specifically, food establishments…”

Where are you from and how long have you been living in the UAE?

I’m from the Philippines, however, I was born and raised here, in Dubai. I’ve been here for a good, and long 23 years.

For 17 of those years, I grew up in one school from start to finish, from kindergarten to high school. It was comforting to have to return to the same, familiar environment for most of your life, and at the same time, it was sad to see friends who would leave to move to other schools, areas, or countries.   

As an only child, and at an early age, I was already beginning to see that Dubai was merely a stopover for most people. There’s an installation in Alserkal Avenue that summarises it quite well, by Mary Ellen Carroll, called The Circle Game. I resonate most with the one that says: ‘WHEN WILL YOU RETURN?’

And, simultaneously, I slowly came to identify more with the word “expatriate”. I went through the compulsory minor identity crisis most expatriates in Dubai do, and it gets better, of course. You learn to move on when you get older.

What does work look like for you? And how did you wind up in that career?

I work as a gallery assistant, in Carbon 12. I work at the front desk, so I mainly deal with inquiries about the current exhibition, or about the gallery. 

I’ve always been familiar with the area that is Alserkal Avenue – I started volunteering back in 2016/2017 as an Information Guide for Al Quoz Arts Festival, and I’ve consistently been around the Avenue for these past few years. I’ve also done a few internships here, and because I studied Fine Arts, for a particular course, our university would consistently take us for trips to Alserkal Avenue and other art areas on one day of the week.

What do you love about living in the UAE and what do you miss from your home?

Life in the UAE is a comfortable cycle you have to actively try to get yourself out of. It’s simple choreography to eat, go to work, come back home, sleep, and repeat. I do like that it’s simple, but of course, it’s easy to restrict yourself to just that. I’m still learning to detach myself from the constant, looming presence that is work, because then all my hours are spent on work, even outside of work.

The UAE, specifically to me, is still relatively new. I was confined to two places (home and school) for most of my life, so I like to think that I’m still exploring the country I was born in. Apart from the ever-increasing amount of new roads built solely for me to take 15-minute detours in, there’s almost always something new down the block, or alternatively, something old I haven’t been to before – and I love that a number of different places cater to different cultures, specifically, food establishments. 

As for the motherland, I haven’t been there in maybe 5 or 6 years now. I miss Philippine terrain. I miss my grandma’s house, the home-cooked food, and my family back there. I have nothing to remember about it because we had shipped all our photo albums back to the Philippines, so if anything, I just miss it even more.

What are you passionate about? What gets you excited?

Conceptual art. Fight me on this one, I wrote my thesis on it for a reason! Conceptual art is such a confusing, perplexing, mentally taxing thing to comprehend. Discussions about it amuse me even further. I like to think of it as a challenge: how do you portray a thought, and express it visually? The numerous channels of expression through the many branches in fine arts make for an even more complicated dilemma. 

I can go on, but I don’t want to write another thesis. In sum, it’s another system of expression I’m fond of. It’s a different experience as opposed to reading words on a paper or to experience the physical manifestation and palpable presence of something that, initially, wasn’t tangible. 

Tell us about your hobbies…

With both art (be it drawing, painting, or photography) and writing, these hobbies are both very interconnected. They’re both my preferred modes of expression, and I feel it’s essential to be in tune with the part of you that wants to communicate, as a means of making sure you’re only truly being felt and understood fully by the people around you. 

Art has always been a part of my life and started maybe in the most subtle way. My mum, when I was younger, would make all these drawings in pencil for me to colour in. An artist I talked to described the freedom and immediacy that comes with drawing, in the most uncomplicated way, which made perfect sense – he described it as similar to cracking eggs in a frying pan, and watching the whites of the egg form and cook. That was how it came to be, instantaneously. 

I like to write, to see how words can be explored further. I think of what I write as words exploring themselves and the things they mean and talk about. The idea that words and certain arrangements of words can maneuver across a broad spectrum of human emotions is already exciting enough as it is.

I’ve only recently taken up tarot reading, somewhere last October, and out of curiosity. I wouldn’t see it as a hobby, because I consider it as more of meditative practice, for guidance. I like to be in touch with my own intuition. The set of Major Arcana cards depicts the concept of ‘The Fool’s Journey’ – and it highlights a lot of life lessons through different archetypes, and explains transformations you undergo as a person living the human experience.

What are you working on at the moment?

The idea started as a small sapling after viewing the Sharjapan: The Poetics of Space exhibition, at the Sharjah Art Foundation’s studios in Al Hamriya. I had the thought of compiling my own little book of poetry, or texts. It’s not poetry per se, however, in some ways, I see how it can be considered as such. I thought it would be a sweet project to commemorate these texts by collating them, possibly even under different themes or different books. Everything is still on a file, but there’s been progress in the sense that I’ve been writing way more, especially when Dubai was on lockdown.

On that note, I’ve been working on a number of different artworks, which are made within a different conceptual framework, as opposed to my initial works made in university. It’s been a reflective period for me and my work, which has, in turn, become more intimate. To say a little bit about it: I focus on the boundlessness of emotional experiences, and to further refine and contain these intangible moments by exploring their physical expressions within the bounds of materiality. In interpreting abstract notions to a form of quantifiable, tangible material, I provide brief experiences with permanence and corporeality, and simultaneously, observe our relationship to what is felt and experienced, and how these are once again translated into an emotional event.

Where do you head when you want to press ‘escape’?

I like to visit Dubai Design District (d3), to lounge around the area and read, or for a walk along the Dubai Creek. 

Further down the body of water, there’s Marasi Drive. The Kana Cafe is always alive on whatever day of the week you decide to visit, and I go there to have a sage tea (specifically sage) and get some remaining work done. It’s not as quiet as d3 is, so there’s a nice buzz of conversation all around. It’s also cozy.

Where would we find you on a Friday morning?

Tucked in under a blanket, very happily asleep.

Do you have a secret hideout? A special little-known place that you love visiting and recommending to people? 

If I were to pick one place to visit one last time before I leave the UAE, I’d want to spend it at a beach, spending the day walking by the shore or swimming. It’d either be Khor Fakkan beach or even just Mamzar beach. Possibly even a place that’s super unique to Dubai – Global Village, perhaps? 

I also love QDs. It’s a restaurant by the Creek and boasts stunning views (yes, by the creek, again) at sunset. I usually gravitate towards places with outdoor seating with some form of live music, and it checks out for both. It immediately comes to mind if I wanted to relax with a friend of mine.

Another place that comes to mind is definitely Barbary Deli + Cocktail Club, which is in Barsha Heights. I love going here for drinks with friends, and I really enjoy the overall ambiance/mood, especially the vintage Parisian interior, and the 80s/90s song remixes.

Where are your favourite place(s) to eat in the UAE? 

I will be completely unapologetic about how I’m approaching this question because I’m torn between two food places in particular.

Uzb Avenue is a restaurant located in Barsha, and I’m all for the embroidered pillows. I highly recommend the Uzbek Plov and Beef Manti. Everything meaty, homey, and warm.

Speaking of homey, there’s also The Girl & The Goose, which is an underground dining experience. It takes place at Gigi’s home, and I’ve been invited to tag along once. It was exciting, not only in terms of conversing with new people and getting to share opinions on the menu. She has such a lovely home, everything is executed with finesse, and there’s great detail in the dishes served. I forget if it was a six or seven-course meal, but all of it is prepared by her, inspired, and influenced by her travels across the world.

What do you do when you get free time? Or when you want to treat yourself?

In previous circumstances (pre-pandemic), when I would get free time, I teetered in between being a homebody and spending all night out. I would get more sleep in on Fridays, but when I could, I tried to get out of the house, to avoid spending the day in a lethargic haze.

If I decided to kick it back at home, I would commit myself to either watching movies or exploring new music channels on Youtube to listen to. If not that: reading tarot, painting my nails, or catching up with a friend in another country – which isn’t too far from what I’ve been doing during this period, seeing as we’re all confined to our homes one way or another. 

Other than shamelessly window shopping, I think of a poke bowl as a way to treat myself. It’s really only the one true way to my heart…


The People of The UAE: Discover the story of 6 people living and working in the UAE

Nawar Al Qassimi

34 Years Old, Emirati, @nawaralq

“I love living in the UAE because of how unique each emirate is and the amazing natural landscapes we have here, you can go to the desert, the mountains, or a beach – all within an hour or less.”

Where are you from and how long have you been here?

I was born and raised in Sharjah, UAE and have lived here my whole life.

Can you tell us a bit about the work you do? How did you come about your current line of work?

I was always interested in art as a young child and spent a lot of time visiting museums in Sharjah growing up, my first after school internship was at the Art Museum and after I graduated and began to look for jobs my immediate thought was “What museum or art space am I going to apply to?” 

I joined Sharjah Art Foundation (SAF) as an intern in the marketing team in 2010 just before the Sharjah Biennial (the biggest and longest-running cultural event in the UAE) opened thinking it would be a fun short-term project but the girl I was working with quit all of a sudden and I found myself jumping in the deep end! We were a really small team at that time. I remember calling friends from high school and college who were working in different sectors and trying to get good deals through their companies, I approached parents of friends to get their companies to fund us and asked my closest friends to intern with us. We ended up with a really great campaign and I remember getting my first paycheck and thinking, wait, what?! Does this mean I’m hired? I fell in love with my job from day one. 

I did communications, PR, and fundraising over the years and recently became Vice President last summer. It is such a rewarding job, and there is no better feeling than seeing the impact our work has done within our local community, and of course, working on really exciting projects with some of the world’s leading artists is a huge plus too. One of my proudest moments at SAF was when we opened the Rain Room, seeing it open to the public and how much joy it brought to people was such a touching experience.

What do you love about living in the UAE?

I love living in the UAE because of how unique each emirate is and the amazing natural landscapes we have here, you can go to the desert, the mountains, or a beach – all within an hour or less. Everything is so close. I really enjoy how diverse the community is and how much energy there is, there is so much potential because we are a young country with the youth making up the majority of the population, but we also have a very rich history as well. 

What are you passionate about? What gets you excited?

I’m passionate about people and places. I absolutely love getting to know people and really enjoy networking and connecting people to one another. I will strike up a conversation with anyone, I feel like I come off as a weirdo sometimes but I do enjoy connecting with others. I’m also really passionate about my hometown, I’m a Sharjah girl all the way and shamelessly promote my city wherever I go! I love sharing my Sharjah experience with people and being able to show them the city through my eyes, it is still quite a hidden gem and I find that there is so much that people don’t know about it.

What are you working on at the moment?

With my job, I’m always working on something. There are a lot of projects I’m working on currently but one that I’m very passionate about is a support project for young and independent UAE-based artists whose work has been affected by the Coronavirus. A lot of exhibitions and projects have been canceled so many independent, full-time artists are finding themselves out of work, unfortunately.

Tell us about your hobbies…

I love reading, I’m a huge bookworm and I’ve been reading ever since I was a young child. As a kid and during my teen years I was always holed up in my room with my nose buried in a book. I’ve really gotten into analog photography lately, I bought a vintage 70s Minolta last summer from the photographer Ammar Al Attar and I have been obsessed with it ever since! Photography has become a sort of an escape for me, I’ll spend hours walking around alone taking photographs. Shooting with film has really helped me slow down and observe the places I am in, it has become my escape and I find that my time with my camera brings me a lot of peace and solitude. You check out some of my photos on Instagram with the hashtag #nqonfilm.

I carry my camera with me almost everywhere I go, but I do try to take dedicated time out of my weekend to go and shoot, usually earlier in the day and I sometimes have to schedule it in my calendar. It’s so important for me to make sure that I get my ‘me-time’ and it really helps me switch off from work mode (which is 24/7 for me) because otherwise I burnout.

There are tons of photographers in the UAE, I’ve met a lot of really cool people by going on photo walks, its really great because if you’re shy you can just hang out with a group of people in total silence, and if you’re outgoing you get to meet really interesting people and find unique places and angles to shoot. Photowalks are wonderful because they are totally non-pretentious, everyone is welcome and you can just be yourself which is so refreshing in this day and age. I’ve hosted a few with my friends and taken people around to my favorite spots in Sharjah and it’s been such great fun.

Where do you head when you want to press ‘escape’?

Definitely the mountains, or the sea. I’m a nature girl by heart and I am at my happiest when I’m alone on a quiet beach or on a hike. My favourite places to escape are Mleiha and Wadi Shees/Shis, I can spend hours on a mountain or a pond and just observe nature.

Where would we find you on a Friday morning?

Fridays mornings are my sleep-in days where I recharge after a long week, but Saturday mornings are where its at. If the weather is great I’ll be hiking or going on a trek or walking around Sharjah taking photographs. Otherwise I’m usually in Ratios with friends having coffee.

Do you have a secret hideout? A special little-known place that you love visiting and recommending to people?

Wadi Shees is one of the most beautiful spots in the UAE, you don’t even need to have a 4X4 to access it, there are natural springs, a stunning lake and an old village on a mountain top that you can access by stone steps. I recommend it to everyone, but its also one of those places that I want to keep secret because it means so much to me.

Where are your favourite place(s) to eat in the UAE?

3Fils is hands down my favourite restaurant. I love the vibe, the food is amazing and the staff are wonderful – you really feel at home there. The ‘Otoro Foie Gras Nigiri’ is one of the best things I have eaten in my entire life and I always recommend it to people, I also love witnessing people’s expressions when they try it for the first time, it’s that good!


The People of The UAE: Discover the story of 6 people living and working in the UAE

Faaris Khalil

33 Years Old, British, @faariskhalil

“Dubai has introduced me to so many people with a similar bi-cultural upbringing, and this is something I’m very grateful for here.”

Where are you from and how long have you been here?

I’m from the UK. I’ve been living here for nearly eight years. I was approached while living in the UK by a company here and I accepted the job and that’s how I ended up moving out here. All I could think about was ‘what is the music scene here like?’ I couldn’t wait to meet people from other parts of the world and learn from each other.

What does work look like for you? And how did you wind up in that career?

I started off in sales, selling sponsorship for conferences and exhibitions, then I gradually phased into project management, again in exhibitions. I actually got into this line of work straight from uni. It was 2010 and finding work after the 2008 recession was not easy, so event sales is where I managed to land a job. Low and behold, ten years later I’m still in events and I love it more than ever. I love the chaos and I love sales, so thank you to the guy who offered me my first job.

How do you find your life here in the UAE? What are aspects of it you enjoy? And what makes you miss home?

For an Egyptian who grew up in the UK, Dubai has introduced me to so many people with a similar bi-cultural upbringing, and this is something I’m very grateful for here. The ability to easily visit countries like Oman for a weekend away is another great thing about living here. The talented musicians and artists in general here are another aspect that I like and I fully immersed myself in the music scene here writing for an online arts magazine as a music journalist. I’m happy when I’m involved in the creative scene but I must admit I miss the music scene back home too. I’m from a city where we live and breathe music and as much as Dubai accommodates alternative culture, it doesn’t compare to Bristol.

What are you passionate about? What gets you excited?

I love photography and street art, generally, anything that exerts creativity excites me, to be honest. Another thing I wasn’t expecting to be so solid was the skate scene here. With all the gnarly skate parks and insane skaters here I couldn’t help but buy a board and get back into skating. I consider skateboarding my high school sweetheart, and a reunion was overdue…

Tell us about your hobbies…

More recently I learned how to play the guitar. The live music scene here encouraged me to keep it up. Sadly, though the nightlife here didn’t inspire me to get back into DJing. I’m sure a lot of people, who are into alternative music, or good music in general, would agree that the clubs here don’t cater for us. I could be mistaken but the clubs I went to just didn’t do it for me. There are a lot of open mic nights and plenty of meet-up groups however that provide great platforms for musicians to play live music and express their talent in general. I guess what is lacked here is made up in other places so I’m not complaining overall. I don’t expect I would have got into playing the guitar and now playing in a band if it wasn’t for Dubai and the local live music culture.

What are you working on at the moment?

Actually I just started off in a band, a duo called Levels and we play instrumental music. We’re actually trying to get an EP recorded at the moment (so if there’s any good producers out there, please reach out!) I wasn’t expecting the pandemic this year to serve as an opportunity to
write so much music, so I guess I’m coming out of this whole thing with something tangible. It was hard to stay optimistic but it’s also easy to see the blessings around you if you stop and pay attention for a minute.

Where do you head when you want to press ‘escape’?

I’m a simple man, I love heading down to Kite Beach and just watching the people walk around. As much as it can be an escape it also reminds you of what life is about.

Where would we find you on a Friday morning?

Either at Kite Beach or at home.

Do you have a secret hideout? A little-known special place that you love visiting and recommending to people?

In all honesty I don’t have any. It may sound cliche but as long as you’re around the right people, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, the right company is all it takes.

Where are your favourite place(s) to eat in the UAE?

I’m a big pasta lover so I have to say Cheesecake Factory. There are a lot of foodie joints all around Dubai so it’s hard to single one out as my favourite, so purely for my love of pasta dishes I have to choose Cheesecake Factory. They also have decent portion sizes which a young growing boy like myself needs.

What do you do when you get free time? Or when you want to treat yourself?

I might go out and buy some records on pay day, but my main thing is travel. Again, nothing original about it, I mean who doesn’t love to travel, except I’m a traveler with a purpose. I follow great music so you can find me anywhere where my favourite artists are performing. I like sports too so I’ll keep an eye out for a big football match or UFC card that I can hit on my travels. Otherwise I’ll visit my friends and family abroad when I get a chance.


The People of The UAE: Discover the story of 6 people living and working in the UAE

MONICA CHINSAMI

28 Years Old, Australian, @monica_chinsami

“I love this place; it’s an amalgamation of old and new. I love the people most. Followed closely by the architecture, and general vibe of limitless potential.”

Where are you from, and how long have you been living here?

It’s a loaded question that I often spend 5 to 10 minutes answering. Cultural identity is exciting and important, and something I have had difficulty navigating. Let my spiel commence. I was born on the Fiji Islands in 1991. However, I am not a native Fijian. My great-great-grandparents migrated to Fiji from Kerala, India. So I have Fijian roots with Indian blood. My parents migrated to Melbourne, Australia, in 1992, when I was just one-year-old. So I can proudly call myself an Aussie, just as proudly as I want to say I am Fijian and Indian, and simply from the earth – unbound by just one cultural identity. I’ve been in the UAE for around 1.5 years now.

What does work look like for you? And how did you wind up in that career?

I work as a communications manager for an eCommerce group where my key responsibility is to connect with customers and prospects creatively. I like the challenge of eCommerce, and I love the technical nature of what it means to write for a conversion. Writing for a sale is not what you would expect, and I have learned an incredible amount in the past year. 

You can also find me teaching English to some really cool people in Dubai. Teaching affords me the opportunity to connect with phenomenal people from all corners of the world. I have had the privilege of learning with men and women from countries I have never heard of but now plan on traveling to. Empowering confidence and freedom through words is something I hold very close to my heart. 

I started my career as a journalist in Australia but quickly transitioned into marketing after I was offered a chance to enter the corporate world. It was daunting but exciting. While I never exposed myself to business subjects in school (I’m an art nerd), advertising, billboards, in particular, had always intrigued me. I frequently wondered what feeling the ad agency intended for the viewer. Equally, I was curious to know how much money brands actually made from advertising.  That was eight years ago, and while many things have changed and my skills have adapted, fundamentally, I’m just really interested in communication and how the way we interact plays such a big role in the outcomes of life: whether personal or business. The lens I currently apply to marketing is that it is psychological art that is driven largely by tech, and the success of the art is measured quantitatively. 

Challenge captivates me but ‘what I do’ will never be who I am. I hope challenge always follows me like a shadow on a sunny day, igniting new passions throughout my life…

What do you love about living in the UAE and what do you miss from your home?

I love this place; it’s an amalgamation of old and new. I love the people most. Followed closely by the architecture, and general vibe of limitless potential. It’s interesting seeing such a young city create a lifestyle benchmark that is hard to compare. My parents’ cooking is missed, as well as my family, friends, and handsome little nephews. But I don’t miss the material sense of home. Many people I have met, and where I live in the Marina, really make Dubai feel like home. I’m surprised by this.

What are you passionate about? What gets you excited?

I cannot compare the feeling of hearing someone’s story. Dubai is the best place to connect with people who are different. In a day, I often find myself lost in the steps of truly remarkable people. I get excited about making new friends. Learning new skills excites me, too. My current role has allowed me to challenge myself and refine the craft of marketing. Passions do extend further – like eating Cinnabon while reading a book.

Tell us about your hobbies…

My hobbies include swimming and writing. Being born in Fiji and having grown up in Australia, I have a connection to the ocean that I can’t put into words. As much as possible, I like to chill at the beach. And I write, for work and for myself. It’s a love-hate relationship that is wrapped in excitement, freedom, and insecurity. 

When I arrived in Dubai, I eagerly joined a writers group that I found on Meetup. However, I stopped going as it was quite far and the vibe just wasn’t for me. I am currently looking to connect with writers closer to home. All art intrigues me. I believe practicing and releasing art is the most selfless pursuit one can undertake. As a collective society, we take so much from artists, yet we rarely give. I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting friends who are artists – dancers, painters, illustrators, singers, chefs, athletes, salespeople – and look forward to moments of connection with them to get the creative energies flowing. Wholeheartedly, I believe anyone who creates something out of nothing is an artist. Alserkal Avenue has been one of the best places I have found to connect with like-minded people. It’s also such a cool place.

Eating can be a hobby too, right? I love eating…

Where do you head when you want to press ‘escape’?

Kite beach is my favourite beach, followed closely by Jumeirah 1 beach, which is quieter. I have also really enjoyed renting a car on weekends to travel out of Dubai to places like Ajman and Khor Fakkan. UAE sunrises over the Arabian sea are breathtaking.

Where would we find you on a Friday morning?

Friday mornings are usually reserved for sleep-ins followed by Masala Dosa at Saravana Bhavan in Dubai Marina. It’s also an excellent day for reading by the pool.

Do you have a secret hideout? A little-known special place that you love visiting and recommending to people?

I want to take my friends to most places I have been in the UAE. So far standouts include Bur Dubai – I just love the vibe there, and the food. Al Seef via the boat taxi is gorgeous at night. A trip to Hatta and Khor Fakkan is a must. Kayaking the mangroves in Abu Dhabi was a fulfilling challenge. I am yet to visit the Louvre, but it is high on my agenda. Dubai Design District has provided some adventure to me, again there is a distinct vibe there. One day I let myself get lost traversing the galleries in DIFC, which was not what I expected in Dubai’s Finance hub. Alserkal Avenue would be my last essential pit stop. It’s unquestionable that this randomly positioned Avenue of inspiration and release is close to my heart for more reasons than one.  So far, I have been committed to trying new places and not continually revisiting the same ones. Maybe this year I’ll find a little nook that will blow me away. OK fine – my friends in Dubai will not forgive me if I do not give a notable mention to the Garden on 8 in Media City. I can be found there catching pre-weekend sun on quite a few Thursday evenings.

Where are your favourite place(s) to eat in the UAE?

The steak at Asado is unbelievable – nestled on a quiet platform not too far from the Burj Khalifa, it will not disappoint. Pad Thai at Madinat Jumeirah also stands out for me. The canal is just so romantic and picturesque. Lastly, a talented friend of mine works at Folly by Nick and Scott – also located in Madinat Jumeirah. The air-dried duck was amazing (paired with some Malbec), and if you walk onto the rooftop you can catch an impressive view of the Burj Al Arab.

What do you do when you get free time? Or when you want to treat yourself?

I sleep and catch up with friends here in Dubai and back home. As a treat, I love a night out dancing and watching live music. The standout place for live music for me (so far) in Dubai is Sole DXB. Dubai is full of treats, which is a blessing but also a challenge at times – because there’s just so much to do. 


The People of The UAE: Discover the story of 6 people living and working in the UAE

Poonam J

26 Years Old, Indian, @poonamcjr

“This is home to me. I enjoy the company of people I’ve met here over the years and the good memories we have made together. I also enjoy the convenience.”

Where are you from and how long have you been here?

I am from Rajasthan, India. I was born and raised in Sharjah, I have been here forever. My father got here years before bringing my mother and older siblings here as well. He was a labourer here, working hard to provide for people he loved. That is what brought him here. I came along many years later. 

What does work look like for you? And how did you wind up in that career?

I recently quit the work I had been doing for the last few years, which was marketing. It took more from me than it gave, I didn’t want to spend the rest of my 20s doing it. My first love has always been cooking and baking and these are the things I want to explore most of my days going forward. I am building my career in the culinary world, but I have to make sure it makes fiscal sense for my family.

What do you love about living in the UAE and what do you miss from your home?

I am grateful about being able to enjoy so many different cultures in one place which makes the place stand out for me. I’m thankful for knowing people from different countries and also for knowing people from different states within India. This opened me up to so many cuisines first and foremost because food tends to be a way for people to connect. Whether it was being introduced to new Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi dishes at school or gatherings with friends, Levantine foods my Arab friends and family friends have made us try, enjoying hotpots and authentic noodles from the Chongqing region of China with my Chinese friends, opening packages my dad’s friends get him from Sri-Lanka and Kerala with the best banana chips, it has all been so precious and something I wouldn’t have gotten to experience being in Rajasthan. I do miss a few things from our vacations there immensely though. The folk music, the dance, people wearing very vibrant traditional clothes. The weather is similar there because it is a desert after all, but the rains are incredible. I would let the rain just fall on me for hours, something I haven’t been able to do here. Yet.

What are you passionate about? What gets you excited?

I’ve always been passionate about baking and cooking. I got myself my first oven at 18 with money I had saved up. Before that I just did other types of cooking and decorated readymade cupcakes for fun. Since then I saved up to buy other kitchen tools – dehydrator, air-fryer, ice-cream machine, etc., and special ingredients over the years. I would spend all my time reading up on all kinds of aspects in cooking. I get excited about cooking for people, and it makes me happy when they’re excited about the food I make. I’ve been like this ever since I can remember. I took a huge pot of biryani to my school on my 17th birthday along with chocolates because my classmates liked the biryani. We had a mid-term exam that day and I hadn’t slept all night because I wanted to cook for my friends and also make individual packs for my teachers. It was so worth it to see people enjoy it. These moments of peace and enjoyment, watching people get excited over trying something new or something they like make me happy.

Tell us about your hobbies…

I enjoy cooking, a little poetry, following Bob Ross’s painting tutorials, doing improv with my friends (my friend and I usually ask those around us for a scenario and we try to act a little, we suck), makeup, dancing alone or with close friends. I’ve recently also started enjoying organising spaces. That came from just the idea of decluttering, watching Queer Eye, and Marie Kondo. I organise my emails, my wardrobe, my pantry, any time I feel like I am coming out of a rut but still don’t feel like I can do more. It is like a slow reset button, but it is also fun. Something precious I’ve learned recently is that I don’t have to be good at hobbies. I grew up in an environment where everything was constantly criticized, and something I am learning to do is to get rid of the idea that I have to be good at things. I just have to enjoy them. Hobbies need to be an outlet for escape and not everything has to be all about being the best or making money from something.

What are you currently working on?

I am trying to get back to food blogging. I sort of stopped everything I loved abruptly when I needed a break to just heal myself. It delayed a lot in my life but I am trying to take a step back, make peace with the time wasted, and do the things I wanted to do now. I am going to be looking for opportunities to cook for a living and also work on a food blog. I want the blog to encapsulate my approach to cooking, to different cuisines, to nostalgia involving flavour, and to veganism. I am working on getting a food-related business off the ground whether through markets like Arte, Ripe Market or something else in the near future.

Where do you head when you want to press ‘escape’?

I love Kite Beach at night – in fact I always keep a beach bag on me and I usually just lay down alone and and look at the sky when it is dark, just to listen to the ocean waves. It is weirdly relaxing. I am no good at meditation but this comes close. I also like the very end of Mamzar Lake in Sharjah where all the tiny boats and bridges are. You can just walk on the ledge and sit there. There is also the Green Belt Ladies Park – I don’t go there regularly but it’s a must-visit when I desperately need a breather. I like walking around the park, using the swing, and sitting near the tiny fountain there. Finally, I love to visit the grocery store – they feel like home to me. 

Where would we find you on a Friday morning?

Going out for some fresh air, with my mask on.

Do you have a secret hideout? A special little-known place that you love visiting and recommending to people? 

When my friends visit UAE for short periods of time, I like to take them to a few of my favourite spots. One of them is The Courtyard Playhouse, it is always refreshing. Anyone I’ve taken there has loved it. Plus there a number of tea spots in Sharjah that my friends and I love to visit (I get a Sulaimani tea with mint and they get Karak). The teapot-shaped Al-Breej near Qasba is a particular favourite. A little further down the road there’s another gem. I am not going to name it but if you can find it, enjoy. You have to drive past the food trucks and it’s on the right hand side. That place is dope for conversations that are deep. I’ve only taken close friends there.

Where are your favourite place(s) to eat in the UAE?

I have to say Wagamama. I didn’t eat out for the first four-ish months since the lockdown and when I finally did, it was Wagamama. My friends and I love the place. We go there for the Katsu. They get the Chicken Katsu, I get the Yasai Katsu. I also like their bao buns but the portions are decent so one dish will suffice.

What do you do when you get free time? Or when you want to treat yourself?

I try and make plans with my friends (virtually and in-person). Everything is changing really fast and I am trying to seize the moments I can. Don’t wait to treat yourself. Hope you do something every day, absolutely anything, that makes life feel like it is worth it, even if it is catching up on a show.


The People of The UAE: Discover the story of 6 people living and working in the UAE

Yulia Piskuliyska

24 Years Old, Bulgarian, @yulia.piskuliyska

“Dubai is built, and runs, on the chunks of time people choose to dedicate to it – be it a year or a decade, we live and leave, but some part of us stays behind. And this shapes the city as well, and that’s what makes it more authentic than some make it out to be.”

Where are you from and how long have you been here?

I’m from Sofia, Bulgaria, and have been in Dubai for four months. I was in Abu Dhabi for four years prior to moving to Dubai.

What does work look like for you? And how did you wind up in that career?

I work at the front desk at Gulf Photo Plus (GPP) – Dubai’s center for all things photography. I mean it when I say all things – we do so much. A variety of community programming as well as photography and video workshops, and photo walks. I ended up at GPP because someone I used to work for at NYU put me in touch with them thinking it might be a good match, and she was right – there is no place I’d rather be.

What do you love about living in the UAE and what do you miss from your home?

I’ve been living a suitcase-sized life for the past few years, so it’s good to finally settle in one place. I don’t miss the snow back home, but I do miss my family. A number of my university friends are still here, though, and I’ve made a lot of new friends since starting at GPP. One thing I do miss about home is the food, so I make sure to visit 21 Grams – a Balkan Bistro on Jumeirah Beach Road. The food is spot-on, and the people who work there are wonderful.

What are you passionate about? What gets you excited?

I have two answers for this actually…

Ever since I watched Cutie and the Boxer by Zachary Heinzerling in 2015, I’ve reserved most of my heart for documentary film and photography. It’s a precarious passion to have because it has to be a slow burner. In this line of work, you may spend months or years working on a single project. I’m trying to be more persistent and patient, and at the same time not lose interest in things I’m pursuing – to not lose sight of the general idea and motivation behind them.

And, for a more straightforward answer about what gets me excited: simply put, is light. I think that’s how it is with most photographers, but I still feel funny when I can’t stop thinking about the way the sun hit a stop sign once, or how someone passed through a patch of light in the evening. I pretty much lose my mind at every sunset. Even the smallest, most insignificant object is fascinating to me at 5pm. I have at least 20 almost identical photos of my water bottle at work from a few afternoons back.

Tell us about your hobbies…

I think I spend most of my ‘free’ time working on things I don’t get to work on at GPP, so I’ve always had a hard time classifying the stuff I do as ‘hobbies’. That’s the other thing about documentary work – it often can’t be the breadwinning source. That’s fine with me, but I guess the only thing keeping it from being a hobby is my refusal to label it as such. As far as purely conventional hobbies go, I guess weightlifting comes closest. I do it because it’s a fairly straightforward process. As someone who tends to overthink and overwork themselves, I find peace of mind when I get to do something that is to be done in a specific way and requires less thinking but more concentration and mindful presence.

What are you currently working on?

While I technically moved to Dubai for a different reason, I am pretty sure that my current project was what really drew me back to the UAE. Red Line Stories is a documentation of my encounters with people on the Dubai Metro. In its essence, it’s fairly straightforward: I talk to people on the metro and then I take their photo. Sometimes I get off on my stop, and sometimes I keep on riding with them just to talk to them some more. Sometimes someone catches my eye because of the colour of their hat, or the way they walk up the escalator – sometimes I make a point out of just talking to the first person I see at the stop.

I started this project because I had heard the myth of Dubai being perceived as somehow ‘artificial’ one too many times to not question it. It all began when the subject of my last documentary (Practical Dreams) – a long-term expat in the UAE – said in relation to this allegation, “I don’t think I’ve lived an artificial life in the UAE.” And he’s right – he hasn’t. People’s lives here are very much real, and I think there is a lot of contemporary history in the making, through an accumulation of these stories from the red line. It’s true that most people here don’t stay too long, but I for one can’t say that staying here for five or ten years is just a transit, and therefore somewhat less real. I don’t even think this is the case just for individuals, with respect to their own lives. Dubai is built, and runs, on the chunks of time people choose to dedicate to it – be it a year or a decade, we live and leave, but some part of us stays behind. And this shapes the city as well, and that’s what makes it more authentic than some make it out to be. 

Where do you head when you want to press ‘escape’?

As it goes with me, my places of escape also happen to be places where I enjoy taking photos, so here are two of my favourites. I am a big fan of the water, so I like to hang out at different parts of the Creekside, especially near Al Ghubaiba station. I try to stay away from the tourist side of it and instead explore the smaller streets and shops. Another favorite of mine is the bridge in Business Bay with the violet lights. It’s really beautiful at night and the water from the fountains creates a sort of mist in the air, which makes everything a bit more enigmatic. 

Where would we find you on a Friday morning?

Dare I repeat myself, but – riding the Red Line! In the rare moments when I’m not on the metro, I like to sit at a cafe and edit my photos, or do work for H-LAB, which is a Japanese NGO promoting liberal arts education, for which I am the director of marketing and PR.

Do you have a secret hideout? A special little-known place that you love visiting and recommending to people? 

There is a brilliant thrift store in Abu Dhabi, opposite the Crown Plaza. It takes hours of going through a lot of random stuff, but you can sometimes find a gem. An estimated 80% of compliments I’ve received about my outfits, I can credit to that store. It’s definitely more of an experience than just a visit – I took my family there when they visited, and it wasn’t their cup of tea. But if you’re tired of malls and into sitting on a small stool for an hour looking for a catch – this might just be the place for you…

Where are your favourite place(s) to eat in the UAE?

Hanoi in JLT – their tofu bun bowl is just the right mix of healthy and satisfying, along with the steamed spinach. The ambiance, the food, and the service are all brilliant.

What do you do when you get free time? Or want to treat yourself?

I walk. Seriously. With all I’ve said about riding the red line, sometimes I get off a stop earlier, just to get in a bit of walking. I used to walk a lot more back in Europe, and the way my usual schedule here is set up doesn’t allow me to walk aimlessly a lot. I also walk because I enjoy street photography, and so I get to combine getting my daily steps in with stealing a few shots from the streets. 


Photography and interviews by Zeashan Ashraf exclusively for The Huntr