Dubai: He came to Dubai with very clear instructions from home: “Stay with Indians.”
As luck would have it, 24-year-old Indian national Danish Syed ended up living with a roommate who was Pakistani.
Two years on, they are the best of friends.
“When I was in India, I never experienced meeting anyone from Pakistan. Initially, I was very skeptical because you believe what the society and media tell you.
"Since I have been in Dubai, I have made many Pakistani friends. Even though our friendship has been brief, we share our love for food, Bollywood and music,” Syed told Gulf News.
Unique opportunity in UAE
His isn’t the only story of borders evaporating between the two communities.
The UAE seems to be providing a unique opportunity for people from the neighbouring countries to truly live like neighbours.
Syed still remembers the first time he spoke with his roommate – after weeks of formal ‘hellos’ he asked for his help in a desperate situation.
“I had to get to a place urgently and did not have anyone to talk to. I told him about it, and he actually did not go to his office and instead made sure I got to the location.
"That’s when I thought these guys are good. It doesn’t matter where you are from, whether India or Pakistan. It’s just friendship that matters,” he added.
Today, not only has his own perspective on people across the border changed, his family also loves his roommate, Mohammad Haris, like a son.
“He has been with me through good and bad times. Last year, my brother came to Dubai for a trip and to him, Haris was like a brother as well. Among the three of us, we didn’t feel there was any distance, it was just brotherhood.”
Haris, an aspiring vlogger, decided to create a short film on how Indians and Pakistanis become the best of friends in a country far away from the political climate back home.
Haris shot his friends and himself — two Pakistanis and two Indians, living together, going on trips, eating out and enjoying life.
“There is just a twist at the end of the movie — the characters who were actually Indians were playing the role of Pakistanis and vice versa. I wanted to spread this message that we are not really very different and from the responses I am getting a lot of people relate to that story.”
Best of friends
For Abdul Basit Qureshi, a 40-year-old Pakistani marketing manager, this has always been the reality – having been born in the UAE, he grew up with friends who were from India, his best friend is Indian, too.
“Whenever I would travel to Pakistan, people there would be really surprised about the India-Pakistan connection in the UAE and the fact that we share so much in common. The fact that we celebrate Diwali and Eid together and have the same passion for Bollywood is news to them. When my cousins would come to the UAE, I would introduce them to my friends and they would be hesitant. The only time they had seen a Sikh was in a movie,” Qureshi told Gulf News.
Qureshi went on to marry an Indian as well. So was his marriage filled with challenges?
Not many, except the visa regulations, Qureshi said.
“My wife is from Kolkata, and I am from Karachi, so we have completely different cultures. She is well-embedded in the Muslim and Hindu culture, so I did get to learn some new things, but nothing was a shocker.”
Common culture, language
The reason, he said, was the commonalities in language and culture.
Food, too, is a strong bond, with Indian and Pakistani dishes being similar enough to be enjoyed by the other community yet distinct enough to hold their own in a friendly fight over whose cuisine is better.
“My family from Pakistan would be surprised to see many Indians at Pakistani restaurants and the other way around. There is no better place in the world than the UAE, where it brings both the countries’ food together and people can say: ‘let’s have a peace talk over the dinner table’," said Qureshi.
"Most of my friends are Indians and they are not bothered about how the politics is being played out back home, not everyone is happy with their own eco-system and their own government."
"They really wish that it could work out and honestly, I am baffled why we cannot yet sign peace treaties. I guess there are bigger agendas beyond my knowledge," he added.
"But then, I don’t see a reason why individuals or communities in other parts of the world can’t display the same camaraderie that you see in the UAE to show people back home – yes it can be done,” Qureshi explained.
Camaraderie in the UAE
The borders and differences blur even further for Farah Arbani, a 31-year-old relationship manager at a Dubai bank.
Born in the UAE to a Pakistani father and a mother from India, Arbani — a Pakistani national — studied at an Indian school.
“I was the only Pakistani in the class, so yes, history lessons could get a little awkward but if you ask me today, I know India’s history better than Pakistan’s. I can even today sing the entire Indian national anthem and I stand up for it out of respect.”
Her experience has taught her that the differences aren’t as pronounced in reality as in people’s minds but it is not a sentiment many share.
“I don’t see Pakistanis and Indians as two separate teams. It’s more like an extension of the same arm, in my mind. I understand other Pakistanis don’t share that sentiment, even my own brother who has studied in different schools doesn’t feel that way.”
But no matter how deep her connection with her Indian friends and family members might be, the realities of the political climate do affect her in the UAE as well.
“I haven’t been able to attend any of my best friends’ weddings because of visa issues. My brother had no such troubles being a part of his friends’ big days. That’s something that always remains in the back of my mind. Once a friend, always a friend. Why should borders stop that?”
A look back at Indo-Pak history
1947 The Partition
On the heels of independence from British rule, India was divided into three parts – India, Pakistan [then West Pakistan] and Bangladesh [then East Pakistan], leading to one of the biggest and bloodiest migration in human history, including a year-long conflict in Kashmir.
The 1965 war
The war led to both countries losing hundreds of tanks and thousands of soldiers and ended after the United Nations brokered a ceasefire agreement.
The 1971 war
A 13-day war between India and Pakistan, which led to the formation of Bangladesh [former East Pakistan].
The 1999 Kargil War
For two months, India and Pakistan fought a war along the line of control, largely in the Kargil district of Kashmir. The high-terrain conflict led to serious concerns within the international community, as both countries had developed nuclear capabilities. After Indian troops reclaimed a key post - Tiger Hill and the US pressured Pakistan, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered a withdrawal of forces from Kargil.