Fifty-two years ago this evening, starting at 6:00 p. m., and then every evening for subsequent weeks, Dubai residents were asked to stay at home. At that hour, 340 multilingual “enumerators” fanned out across Dubai, armed with flashlights, ballpoint pens, and thick books of questionnaires. They conducted the city’s first census. Before this date in 1968, any population count was little better than a wild guess.
In the weeks prior, the 1960 town plan had been used to divide up the city into color-coded districts and give each household a unique number. Every house, boat, hovel, hotel, and the hospital were numbered for the enumerators’ recordings. Never before had the city been brought to such spatial legibility.
Enumerators identified a household’s family head or heads and asked him questions, including about the families’ citizenship and employment, but they were instructed not to ask for identification papers. Residents defined for themselves how they should be identified: as visitor, immigrant, or national. Some with Dubai passports said they were foreigners; some without Dubai passports claimed citizenship. Residency was something the individual or the family head determined. That’s because life in Dubai was as fluid as the tide that both sustained Dubai Creek and threatened its productivity. Ebbs and flows characterized every aspect of Dubai.
Records show that the census was thorough and granular, run mostly by Bahrainis who processed the punch cards flown out of Sharjah. In agreeing