The Arab world and India are two ancient, revered cultures, filled with warmth, color, and family at the core. Four Arab and Indian power brokers who have swapped one region for the other share their experiences of these parallel worlds.
Indian lawyer and founder of The Edit, based in Dubai
Being part of an entrepreneurial dynasty comes with opportunities and expectations — and if you’re a member of the enterprising Nazim family, living in the UAE, you achieve more than most. “My father moved alone to Dubai from India 50 years ago, when he was 20. He came from humble beginnings and had to support his mother and six siblings after his father’s passing. He couldn’t move too far away, and Dubai was a name that kept coming up — it seemed very evocative,” lawyer and entrepreneur Nazim begins. “Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum was such a visionary, he wanted to bring in people who had talent, who were ambitious and young, and who could help build the country alongside the Emiratis.” The young Mohammed Nazim got to work — but it was hard. “It was incredibly challenging for him,” his only daughter shares. “The heat… he wasn’t used to it. He also missed his family. He came here with no money and just a dream in his pocket; to create a life and make something for himself.” The UAE was welcoming, especially to Indians, and most people spoke Urdu, Arabic, and English, so communication was easy. The Nazim patriarch worked hard and made connections in the oil and gas field, from where his business empire supplying technical materials to the industry grew. “My mother moved here when my parents got married in 1979. She was 20 and at the time, there wasn’t much going on in Dubai, but it wasn’t a culture shock for her because she had lived in Kuwait almost her entire life.” Rumana Nazim remembers that the Trade Center was the tallest building in Dubai at that time. “We didn’t have many friends then; our outings were movies and picnics,” she shares. “I used to read a lot, but there weren’t any libraries or bookstores. An Indian couple eventually started a mobile library with books and magazines — I used to run to them every week in excitement!” Over the years, Rumana’s sister and other family members also moved to Dubai, and the Nazims built a close-knit community.
Nazim and her two older brothers all studied abroad but returned to Dubai; the pull of home too strong. “We have a large family here, I have about 50 cousins and a ton of uncles and aunts. Dubai is the kind of place where you end up feeling at home, you feel like you’re part of the culture and part of the people.” While Nazim doesn’t visit India as much these days, she still feels a strong kinship to her heritage. “When I go to India, I don’t feel like I necessarily belong there, I don’t speak the language well, and I find it a bit of a struggle to come to terms with the organized chaos, as my father calls it. But I love everything about my culture, I love how colorful everything is, the food, the weddings, the movies… The warmth and hospitality of Indians is so special. We bring people into our home – and this is something that is so similar to Emiratis, who are also very warm people.”
Straddling two cultures and being exposed to many more is a privilege, she feels, as it opens up your mind and horizons in ways that people in more homogenous countries might not be au fait with. “Dubai pushed us out of our comfort zone. We grew up in a melting pot of nationalities and we have understanding, tolerance, and respect for different cultures and religions. That experience is unparalleled.”
It wasn’t always an easy path to tread, and as a teenager Nazim sometimes struggled with reconciling her two identities. “I felt like I had to compartmentalize different aspects of myself; I had to maybe be more Indian or more conservative with certain aspects, and more independent with others. But studying in London helped me meld all aspects of my personality. Now, at 35, I am content with all the experiences that have molded me.”
One of these defining episodes was launching The Edit in May 2018. “I like interesting experiences when it comes to shopping; something that isn’t a traditional retail encounter,” she explains. “Since Dubai is so responsive to things that are new and innovative, I started developing the idea of having a concept store where I could bring together contemporary, eco-conscious labels. I had no idea how to go about it; I’m a lawyer, not an entrepreneur. It was intimidating but I had the support of my family and friends, and they pushed me to just go for it.” It’s yet another Nazim family feat nurtured by the UAE, and one that blends the two cultures in subtle, skilful ways. “Indians are resilient and hard workers, and Emiratis push the boundaries and have done things that no one ever thought possible,” Nazim shares. The response to The Edit and its range of eco-conscious fashion, beauty, and home brands has been “phenomenal,” and the entrepreneur is passionate about empowering women. “I’m proud to be in this city and I feel safe as a woman, as a person, to live here and to call Dubai my home.”
Suresh and Aisha Miranda
Indian directors of Decorlab Group, based in Dubai
“Life is beautiful in Dubai,” declares Suresh Miranda. The Mumbai-born entrepreneur and business leader surveys his life in the Emirates with satisfaction: as managing director of Decorlab Group, working with his wife Aisha, he has created a haven of contentment and prosperity for his family. Growing up in Mumbai in the Seventies and Eighties as the youngest child by nine years gave him a sense of independence, and the young Suresh left his parental home at 17 to study in Goa – “my wonder years,” he calls them. It was then that Dubai came beckoning. “After graduation I had to find my future,” he recalls. “My sister who was living in Dubai invited me to visit. I soon landed, and never left. My move here was an ‘unplanned’ plan.” He soon found a job selling luxury fragrances, but his entrepreneurial spirit was stirring. “It was my first and last job,” he quips. “I came into Dubai as a bachelor, in my early twenties. I arrived with little and so I had nothing to lose.” He built his own distribution enterprise in India for luxury beauty brands like Dior, Hermès, and Givenchy and, a decade later, acquired a joinery and interior manufacturing facility, which has evolved into the multinational Decorlab Group today. The company has partnered with prestigious hospitality and retail clients, such as the Four Seasons, Hyatt, Emaar, De Grisogono, and Moët & Chandon across the region and India.
Aisha, too, swapped the pulsating heart of Mumbai for Dubai in the Nineties, working in the luxury management sector before launching her own company to create private label brands for the retail and travel sector. With a background in interior design, it was a natural evolution that she would join Decorab Group with Suresh, as executive director. “The UAE welcomes all nationalities, religions, and cultures, which fits perfectly with our family values and reflects our home in Dubai,” she shares. “We start and end our day with a medley of Hindu, Muslim, and Christian prayers and my little Rayaan, who shares his birthday with the Father of the Nation, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, still has no clue that these offerings are from different religions,” she says of their youngest son. All holy days are also observed and honored. “We observe Roza during Ramadan and celebrate Eid, visit the temple in Bur Dubai for Diwali, bring the Ganapati idol home each year for Ganesh Chaturthi, attend Mass at St Francis of Assisi or St Mary’s Catholic Church for Easter and Christmas… the same as we were brought up in India. Suresh jests that we should add Chinese New Year as well, since many of our business associates are from China.” Vibrant multiculturalism is not the only thing Suresh still fosters from her days in Mumbai. Even after a full day’s work, she cooks an elaborate family meal, just like her grandmother used to do, with ingredients picked up from the Deira fruit and vegetable market. “The deep-rooted family values and pride of togetherness is infectious,” she says of her adopted home country.
The Mirandas have set down indelible roots in Dubai, with Suresh calling it a “seamless transition,” thanks to having close friends from every sphere, mirroring their lives in Mumbai. heir daughter, Jannat, is running her own digital media and marketing enterprise called J.Mode, while Rayaan is at the American School of Dubai. And while Suresh travels back often, it’s unlikely they will ever move back permanently. “We have family here, our friends. But I will never forget where I come from. Our hearts are in Dubai, but we are blessed to have India as our second home.” For Aisha, the opportunities and respect afforded women in the region is a point of pride, also reflected in her daughter’s life and opportunities. “Over the years, when I used to introduce myself at global conferences, most people wondered how, as an Indian woman, I traveled alone around the Middle East. Today, there’s a complete shift in the narrative, thanks to the trust, open-mindedness, and forward-thinking attitude of the rulers, who have ensured that women are represented and heard,” she says.
Even though the family has been settled in UAE for decades, they still marvel at all the country has to offer – for Suresh, it’s the architectural wonders like the Burj Khalifa and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, while Aisha appreciates the natural beauty. “We love our staycations and have spent beautiful moments on the beaches of Khorfakkan, in the wadis of Ras Al Khaimah, the desert of Al Ain, and our favorite, Saadiyat Island,” Aisha shares. Suresh concurs, “We are living the dream.”
Lebanese co-founder of Ecru based in Jaipur, India
The moment Nur Kaoukji touched down in Jaipur in eastern Rajasthan for a two-week internship, she knew she had found her heart’s home. It was 2006, and the Lebanese designer had only gone to India because she couldn’t get to Beirut, due to the Israeli attacks. “A friend of my mother said, ‘Why don’t you go to Jaipur? I know a jeweler there; he’d be happy to have you.’” The jeweler was Munnu Kasliwal, owner of the Gem Palace and scion of a family that had created the maharaja’s crown jewels since the 18th century. “I landed at 5am in the middle of monsoon season – and I never wanted to leave,” Kaoukji recalls. During the car ride from the airport, she couldn’t take her eyes off the road, drinking in the heady experience of love at first sight. “I did everything so I could finish my dissertation in India, and not go back to the London College of Fashion.” In the 16 years since her revelatory arrival, Kaoukji has not only made a place to stay – she also launched a global lifestyle brand, studied Jaipur’s traditional craftsmanship, designed the boutique guesthouse 28 Kothi, and found love, marrying her French-Italian husband, interior architect Livio Delesgues, in 2018. “I didn’t need to ‘settle in’ – I moved, and I considered it home.”
In Jaipur, the designer has cultivated the same sense of community that her parents nurtured in their household in Kuwait, where they had migrated to in the 1980s. “I was born and raised there,” Kaoukji says. “I didn’t grow up with cousins or extended family, but I had a huge sense of community among my parents’ friends, both Kuwaiti and non-Kuwaiti, and I had a typical Arab childhood: hospitable, warm, joking, loving.” Her father, Oussama El Kaoukji,ran an advertising agency while her mother, Salam Kaoukji, is chief curator of The al-Sabah Collection of Islamic art. She traveled to India often, returning with storybooks and sandalwood curios that tickled her young daughter’s curiosity even then. Today, Kaoukji’s circle is driven by this same marveling, artistic spirit inherited from her parents, and she made friends “in the blink of an eye.” “It happened organically,” she shares. “I was so happy to be here and so interested in all that India offered – to be around the artisans, to learn from the richness of the culture, which was so close to my own, it didn’t feel alien at all. It felt more alien when I was living in London. But here, I very soon had a tight community, a family, like the one we had in Kuwait.”
In 2013, Kaoukji launched the lifestyle brand Ecru with her childhood friends Noor Al Sabah and Hussah Al Tamimi, as a delightful amalgamation of their Levantine background and the ancient craftsmanship of India. They are currently working on “a lot of surprises” for the brand’s 10-year anniversary, with its offerings of decor, clothing, and homeware. While Ecru is based in Kuwait and Jaipur, Kaoukji herself hasn’t been back to the Gulf country since the pandemic, but she used to travel there twice a year and still considers it her second home. She won’t be moving back soon, though – India has ingrained itself on her soul. “Kuwait will always be my home – my mother is there; my company is there. But being Lebanese, and with a French-Italian husband, it’s already complicated! Home is where my people are – so Lebanon is my home, Kuwait is my home, India is my home. And now France and Italy, because of my husband.”
Kaoukji and Delesgues’ colorful apartment includes vibrant soupçons of India – from antique chairs to vintage tapestries sourced in Jodhpur and Jaipur – while also bringing in Middle Eastern touches, like kilims from Kuwait and lithographs from her gallerist aunt, Lucia Topalian. The light-filled, high-ceilinged space is a canvas for Kaoukji’s constant discoveries about her adopted country. “The thing I love the most about living in India is that I’m constantly learning,” she says. “I’m never quenched. I learn new crafts all the time, people surprise me, the food surprises me. The history of the country is so rich. The more I travel, the more I love it.” She also hasn’t experienced what she would qualify as challenges, instead choosing to take a sanguine approach to resettling. “I can’t say that there’s anything hard for me about living in a different country, because I grew up in a country that’s not my own. Although Kuwait feels like home, we are not Kuwaiti – there’s a difference. You’re born constantly an expat.”
With her community in Jaipur and her creative pursuits as creative director of Ecru, Kaoukji has come full circle from her happy childhood in Kuwait – seamlessly transplanting a life of joy, friendship, and inquisitiveness to the Pink City.
Kuwaiti-Indian designer based in Delhi and Jaipur
Straddling two ancient civilizations is not a balancing act for Tahir Sultan – it’s in his blood. With a Kuwaiti father and Indian mother, the designer and entrepreneur comfortably slips between cultures. Yet Sultan’s dual identity was forged as much in love as in war: forced to flee Kuwait upon the Iraqi invasion in 1990, the family retreated to his mother’s homeland. “My parents had bought a property in India,” he shares. “My mother had a support system there. No one knew how long the invasion would last, but we had to go to school. And so we moved.”
Sultan wouldn’t stay in India for long, though, and his journey back to what he now calls home – Jaipur and Delhi – took turns through Europe and the UK. He completed his final school year in Florence, where he immersed himself in his studies of the Renaissance and modern European history. From there, London beckoned, but he couldn’t find his feet, until his friend and mentor Zaha Hadid suggested over dinner one night that he follow in his father’s footsteps and apply to the Architectural Association School of Architecture. “When I met her next and told her I got in, she was shocked!” he fondly remembers. “She said she hadn’t realized I was so talented. But I hated it there and wanted to move to Central Saint Martins to study fashion instead. My parents thought I was mad, because it’s a notoriously difficult school to get into.” Sultan moved back to Kuwait, only to be disillusioned by the fashion industry – or lack thereof. “It was eye-opening. There was no fashion industry in the Gulf. I didn’t know what to do to gain any real experience.” He moved again – this time to India. It’s there that the world of style finally opened its arms to Sultan, who found a job working with choreographers who designed and ran fashion shows. He also met scouts from Central Saint Martins and started the arduous application process. He got in, and upon finishing, interned with Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. When Sultan went back to Kuwait when his father passed away, he realized that his artistic passions ran further than just fashion – and that perhaps India could nurture these pursuits.
“I’m blessed to come from a super creative family,” he says, with his architect father, ceramicist mother, and gallerist and women’s rights activist aunt all fostering his talents. “I grew up going to museums and galleries, visiting ancient ruins, and exploring cultural and historic monuments all over the world. My family was all about culture, education, exposure, and initiating social change by inspiring people – which is something that has become part and parcel of who I am.”
While he has lived in India on and off for the past 10 years, the pandemic forced him to make a more permanent home. “I have always been drawn to the culture, the history, the craft, and the vibrancy of the country. It’s so diverse and so rich in its aesthetics, be it jewelry, textiles, sculptures, tribal art, or contemporary art. The colors, the ancient architecture, and the diverse food is all mind-blowing,” he shares. Speaking the language proficiently enough and having lots of friends made it easy for Sultan to settle in, and he loves the life he has created for himself. “It’s creative and exciting and I get to work in food, fashion, and interiors for homes, stores, and hotels. I make sculptures as well as creating high-end curated experiences that revolve around food and design.” His mother also lives in Delhi now, and he splits his time between there and Jaipur. “I am lucky to have cultivated a lot of close friends over the decades. I’m definitely not going to say it was seamless as I had to traverse a new set of obstacles during the pandemic – fashion, art, and philanthropy went out the window, so I decided to start catering – but life is always going to present you with challenges. It is your attitude and how you choose to overcome them that speaks volumes.”
Living in India is rewarding, energizing, and exciting, with the ability to explore, create, learn, educate, and help instigate social change making it all worthwhile, Sultan says. “The country has played an important part in helping me realize my potential and who I want to be.” Would he ever move back to Kuwait? The answer comes quickly and definitively: no. “I have not been back since the pandemic,” he says. “I live in Rajasthan so the sand and heat make me feel quite at home! The invasion taught me that you cannot become too attached to places and things. Home lives inside of you.”
Photography: Keir Harris, Prachi Sharma, Björn Wallander
Makeup: Laloge UAE
Originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia