#4 The bouncers, arranged marriages and love in between

Dubai loves a drink. Or two. Or five. Even more so when they are free for girls on ladies’ night. But beware of making trouble once the alcohol hits: things that are completely prohibited and will lead you to an unpleasant encounter with a huge African Bouncer or two (and sometimes the embarrassing laser pointer just to single you out): fighting, making out – sometimes even dancing too close qualifies, my date got told off once for grabbing my ass as few too many times in a club. Once at Sandance, the notorious beach concert with 15,000 people on a sold out show, I was making out heavily with my date (a different one) and I kid you not, Big African Bouncer, a full head taller than my already tall self and upper arms twice the size of my thighs came out of nowhere, tapped me a few times on the shoulder and when I looked back at him he sternly reprimanded me: “not allowed!”. Ok, ok, I’ll keep my tongue in my mouth.

Their patience is commendable, really. A good French girlfriend of mine who grew up barefoot at the beach in the South of France could not handle heels. She would enter the club with her heels on and after half an hour and her second drink, take her shoes off, kick them under the nearest table and attempt to remain barefoot for the rest of the night. Bouncers would chase her around and ask her repeatedly to put her shoes back on. Frenchie was a playful drunk, she had that little flirty smirk on her face and her big blue eyes could fool anyone, she’d disappear into the crowd running away from them. Or she would agree to put her shoes back on then remove them as soon as they looked away. Frenchie got herself blacklisted from a few places due to annoying shoeless behavior.

Big Black Bouncer – I am not trying to stereotype, but there is an overwhelmingly high number of Nigerian and Kenyan guys two meters tall, 130 kilos of muscle who do a fine bouncer job in the city. They usually also look great in a suit and carry that convincing “don’t mess with me” look. I can count the number of times that a bouncer actually beat up a guy in the middle of a bar or club on one hand. If anything, everywhere I went always felt particularly safe because there was no playing around and the guys in the club always knew they did not stand a chance against Mr. Muscles scattered around the venue. The guys were easier to deal with from a bouncer’s perspective because they could always get a little physical with them and carry them out of the bar by the neck.

Drunk women on the other hand were a different job and some girls were a whole other league: I’ve seen girls passed out face down in the sand at 9PM at Barasti beach bar. A bouncer once threatened to call the police on two girls who were so drunk they would not stop bumping into people and were refusing to leave. A friend of mine who did not know them told the bouncer he did just to keep them out of trouble. If the police came, they would be locked up and charged with an offence “consuming alcohol”, which would definitely be a 5,000 dollars fine and if a tough judge ruled against them in court, they could get deported. My friend coincidentally lived around the corner from Barasti and managed to first convince the bouncer that there was no need to call anyone, he would take care of them and managed to get the girls in a cab back to his place, no small task. His plan was to let them pass out and sleep it off safely while he would go back to us at Barasti where we were waiting and continue his night. An hour went by as we waited for him, then two, then we stopped waiting for him. Apparently, the girls did pass out for a while but then woke up. One left, the other one stayed and was allegedly very, very grateful to my very sweet and very good looking friend for helping them out and insisted on compensating him for his trouble with a little dis and dat. Wink, wink. Obviously, he never made it back to the bar that night.

Just like alcohol, sex was a two-geared concept: you were not supposed to have it other than with your spouse, but if you were, better make sure not to leave any fingerprints at the murder scene. Pregnancies outside of wedlock resulted in deportation and if you needed an abortion, better pray you came from Europe or some place where you could jet off for a weekend and have it taken care of because it was not going to happen in Dubai. On the other hand, there were about twelve different types of condoms sold in every supermarket next to toothpaste and deodorant so it it not like sex was out of reach. It was  at the doctor’s when they asked point blank if you were sexually active, I never knew how to answer. It was an important question and I would not lie to my doctor, but on the other hand, answering yes could get you in trouble. It took me a long time to find a doctor I was confortable with because it happened that I needed my non existent husband to sign a consent form for a doctor to inspect my vagina. That was just the call to make the appointment. Once the shock passed,  my response was “ok thanks.” Click. Dial tone. Crossed out that number never to call it again.

The whole concept of being a single woman in her prime procreating years and not doing her duty of having babies didn’t make sense for a lot of people in this part of the world. Many of my Asian and Arab colleagues at work over the years asked me “so, when are you having kids?” and if unmarried by the age of 23, they started thinking there was something wrong with you. It took me a while to understand that marriage in the West means something different than marriage in the East: the entire concept of romantic marriage, where you fell in love, dated for a couple of years and then chose to get married for love was an entirely Western concept. I used to be downright scandalized when my colleagues were announcing that they were going back home to India for a month to get married and that they were finally going to meet their bride. Traditionally, Indian parents would pick a partner for their child, they had to be from a good family and be able to keep a household and give healthy children. In most cases, the bride and groom met on or a few days before the wedding. The kids would not have much say in the decision. And like clockwork, nine to twelve months after the wedding, bam, baby.

I gave the example of an Indian wedding, but the practice was common across the Middle and Far-East. I was downright heartbroken when a colleague once said he had to get married but the girl his family had chosen was too short for his liking, he always dreamt of a tall wife. He also did not find her very pretty. “Pray for me” he said. The look on his face was that of a soldier who was leaving for war. I had absolutely no idea what to tell him other than promising I would indeed say a prayer and I hoped that at least she’d be kind and funny. Some families were a bit more lenient and children would be allowed to disagree with their parents’ choice and choose a mate for themselves. Love was completely optional. You got married because this is what you did, you had a few kids and did your part to contribute to mankind. Over time, as I got used to the idea, I found out there were benefits. First of all, if you didn’t marry for love, you had no real reason to divorce: kids grew up in a traditional household with two parents. Furthermore, these marriages actually yielded children unlike unmarried couples in the West. Very few families seemed barren, few women seemed to have miscarriages and complicated pregnancies. Or maybe we just didn’t hear about it. In that same way, I was always amazed how, as common as peanut allergies and lactose intolerance was in the West, it was almost unheard of in Asia. Ultimately, in the West, the death of marriage meant the death of the traditional family. Obviously, things were changing in India and Asia in general but the generation of my work colleagues was the traditional one. Their kids and their kids more so, would probably feel entitled to make their own decisions, marry later or maybe even marry less.

As for me, I still want to marry for love. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, I’d much rather have a fabulous single life than a loveless marriage.

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#3 The Dubai Taxi: considerations from the backseat

Cabs are a institution in Dubai. There has to be about 4,000 Toyota Camrys around the city, some with 700,000km on their meter. You’ll meet every type of cab driver, most of them are Pakistani and Egyptian: the chatty type who wants to tell you all about his family back home in hopeful more tips, the silent type who will not speak at all – if you’re woman, it could be due to the culture, it took me a while to figure that one out – the kind who spends the entire ride on the phone no handset, the most common: the one who drives too fast and too close and finally, the worst: the one who won’t stop letting go of the gas pedal. That stuff will make you nauseous as fuck if you are hungover to begin with. There are also the ones who are on their second day and barely know where they are going and the ones who have been driving for twenty years and can navigate you around the unnumbered streets of Jumeirah like their own backyard.

Being a cab driver is a tough job. Rumor has it they work seven days a week. Shifts are twelve hours, from 4 to 4.  They have a daily mark in terms of revenue, once they hit it anything they make after that is for their own pocket. Some cab drivers would refuse a short trip at the end of their shift. I was always in luck when I lived in Oud Metha, my 3AM trips home from a night out were usually a long trip, perfect to end a shift, they would then grab food in Bur Dubai just around the corner, before dropping off their car at the dept and go home.

I cannot imagine sitting in a car for twelve hours, having to deal with people, especially drunk people. This usually would end up with the driver calling the cops and the drunk getting arrested. Drinking in the UAE is technically illegal. I say technically because it is a fine line: while Islam prohibits the consumption of mind altering substances, those substances are great for business. Dubai has earned itself a serious reputation for being a party place and there are no shortage of places to have a good time, bars where it is easy to spend 12 hours drinking, a good dozen of clubs that give out free alcohol to women on different nights of the week, getting trashed is part of the Dubai night life. Most of the drivers, being Muslim, do not drink hence do not really know how to handle someone under the influence. Some can get really offended: a couple of years ago, a story surfaced on the cover of “7 days”  a local newspaper, that an Englishwoman and an Irishman had been caught having sex in a cab, the Bangladeshi driver had called the cops and they had been caught in the act, “mid-romp” they called it. Pre-marital sex is another big no-no around here, the pair had allegedly met at a Friday brunch and was going home to finish what they had started. The girl got slammed in shame and although details emerged soon after that what had been reported in the papers was not exactly what had happened, the harm was done. The city was going to make an example of this incident: she got deported immediately and she would probably never set foot in the UAE again. I felt bad for her, she had a high-profile job in oil and gas recruitment, was making very good money and had been in Dubai for several years. I couldn’t believe they had actually gotten caught, you could get away with a lot in Dubai, especially if you were a Westerner with a good job. I ate up the dirt on the story, we all did, we talked about it for an entire week but I couldn’t help but wonder: what if the story was indeed blown out of proportion and she was set up, we would never know. What I found really unfair was that everyone suddenly pointed fingers at just her, while the guy was barely mentioned. I mean, to “romp” in a taxi, you need two people. Needless to say, since then, my hands are right where you can see them when I’m in a cab when a guy, I am not taking any risks.

I digressed from my subject: I have had the biggest culture shocks at the back of a cab. I was trying to find my way to a villa in Al Barsha during my second month here, it was a maze of small unnumbered streets and the driver was asking me questions about where I worked, where I was from and how long I had been in town. I answered politely, it was a Thursday night, start of the weekend and I was being polite. And then suddenly:

“So how much is your salary?”

I could not believe it. Was he asking me how I was making?

“I’m not going to tell you that.”

“Why not?”

“It’s none of your business.” Pause. It didn’t stop him.

“I have noticed that white people have much higher salaries. They get paid too much. It’s not fair, I work hard!”

I sat in silence. What do you say to that? Yes, it’s not fair. You drive a cab. I’m a receptionist, I make a peanut salary too. Conversation over.

Another night, I was leaving a beach club on the Palm island after a fun night, we were celebrating one of my friends’ birthday on a yacht in the afternoon and had marred at the club’s dock. It was late May and it was already hot, we were enjoying one of the last nights of the season outside before the big mighty summer. The DJ had played hip hop all night and I had danced till I sweat through my top. A friend walked me to a cab for me to go home, I was tired and drunk and said he was hitting up the after party to chase upon the tail he had been after all evening. I wished him luck and closed the door to the cab. After a few quiet minutes where I realized it was going to be half an hour drive from the very end of the east Crescent of Palm Jumeirah all the way back to Oud Metha. The driver looked at me in the back mirror and said:

“Ma’am, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Why do Europeans go home with strangers and have sex with people they don’t know?” I looked back at him in the mirror. Wha’? 

“Not everyone does that.” Why I didn’t end the conversation right then and there, I blame on the alcohol.

“And why people drink alcohol? Drinking is bad, it makes people stupid.” he continued in broken English. This isn’t happening.

“You’re right, it does.”

“So why people do it?”     

I had too many answers fighting in my head at that moment and I figured since we had a little time, now was the perfect time to educate a curious man about the Western culture.

“Look, drinking is part of our culture. It brings people together, so they have a good time. Sometimes, sex follows. That’s also just having a good time. Nobody’s getting hurt.”

“But you have to wait until you are married. It is not right!” I was amazed actually that anyone would have such radical views on casual sex.

“Well, in the West, taking a wife or a husband is like car shopping. You have to test drive a few before you decide which one you like best.” I think the metaphor was lost on him.

“Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No”. Where was he going with this?

“Have you had a boyfriend before?”

“Yes”

“So why you not marry him?” I took a deep breath. Why didn’t I marry him?

“It just didn’t work out.” That was code for ‘we were kids and I outgrew him’ but the details were irrelevant.

“You want to get married one day?”

“Not necessarily.”

“Why? You pretty girl, you need husband to take care of you.” My empowered single woman would have replied ‘not really, I’m taking much better care of myself than any guy has until now’ but it felt like I would be banging my head against a wall if I tried to explain. He seemed harmless, sounded like he genuinely wanted to understand. After I got out of the cab and as I walked into my building, I thought that as much as we all lived next to each other in this city everyday, maybe even getting a glimpse of each others’ lives, we were so close yet so far away. There was nothing I could ever explain to this man who would make him understand why Westerners did the things they did. But he knew they existed and he acknowledged them and let Westerners do the things they did, sometimes near him, maybe even at the back of his cab.
It was another late, late night where I took a cab home that slayed me and made me promise myself never to entertain a conversation with a cab driver again. No idea how the conversation started, but it got real nasty real quick. Before I knew it, he was telling me that he was Pakistani and he has a Filipina girlfriend. Ok, so far good for you. And then as he added he liked Asian women better than Pakistani ones, I had a feeling we were on a slippery slope. He explained she liked to do the lesbian, she had a girlfriend she liked to make out with and sometimes she let him watch them. I sat in silence at the back of the cab, absolutely shocked at the things I was hearing, not because people are nasty, I already knew that, but because what kind of idiot holds that kind of conference to a paying customer? Was it because I was Western and he assumed I’d be down with the topic? Was it because it was late and he could probably tell I’d been drinking, he expected me to give him input? Maybe he thought I was a hooker and could give him some pointers? What I should have done is tell him to shut up, because I could report him to his employer for harassment and inappropriate behavior and he could lose his job. In my advanced state of inebriety, I realized that as faded as I was, if I didn’t stop him it was probably because I wanted to hear the end of the story.

That made me no better than the nasty cab driver who talked openly to customers about his lesbian lover. I would never be that customer again.

#2 The medical and other invasions of your privacy

In order to have a job in Dubai, you need a visa. In order to get a visa, you need to pass a medical test. If you fail the test, no visa. No visa, no job.

What are they looking for? Unofficially, HIV, Hepatitis and pneumonia. Some people fail the test: they were swiftly escorted back to customs at the airport, the company representative would give the customs officer the employee’s paperwork and passport, one stamp on a piece of paper, the staff would get a wave goodbye be on the first flight back home, with an invitation never to return to the UAE.

Brutal? You bet. But a great way to control epidemics.

The visit itself was quite interesting and admittedly, a little demeaning. All newbies came accompanied by their company PRO – a public relations officer, “Mr. Fix-it”. PROs dealt with government bodies, embassy visits, visa applications and cancellations, police and court cases, in short, they made problems go away… the really good ones had more connections in the city than the Italian mob in Sicily. At the medical centre, the PRO would submit the employee (or employees if they managed to schedule visits at the same time) documentation, while the employees sat in a crowded section, waiting for their number to be called. In true Dubai fashion, if you paid more for the visit, you could apply for a VIP appointment, which meant skipping the line.

The test centre was like any other public service experience, worn down, a sweaty stench, a little chaotic but if you kept in line, just quietly standing close to your PRO and kept an ear out for when your number was called, it was fine. Once you were done, they stamped your paper and told you the results would be available in three days for the VIP medical, seven days for the regular one.

Once you got your three-year residency visa you could now live in Wonderland, but don’t think for a second that it made you belong there. The UAE’s population consists mainly of expats and it is particularly obvious in Dubai where 85% of the population is from somewhere else. So, understandingly, Emiratis are treated like a rare gem and the government takes good care of their people. The ratio of men to women is also interesting, some places it is 3:1, since Dubai has been a construction site for the past four decades, where hundreds of thousands of workers have been “imported” to help build this incredible place. The last step of being set up as a resident was the Emirates ID. This was a foolproof way to basically follow you wherever you went and keep track of anything you did: the ID is linked to your visa, which is sponsored by your company. So, they know where you work. To rent an apartment, the only document they need is your Emirates ID. So, they know where you live. You have to register your Emirates ID chip with your SIM card. So, they have your phone number and they can track your smartphone should they need to. To apply for the ID itself, they’d take a picture of your wide eyed self, an eye-scan and all your ten fingerprints. The ID even had the passport and nationality on it. In case of any problem, you could run, but you couldn’t hide, they’d find you.

Once upon a time, companies would keep your passport as an insurance that you were not “absconding” which meant, leaving the country without saying anything and never come back. It became illegal eventually but in companies with a large number of low-wages workforce such as construction or hotels, it was still a common practice to have some kind of leverage: absconding cases got fined and on top of that, there would be a freeze on issuance of new visas. In everyday life, you didn’t need your passport, only your Emirates ID but during the two years that my passport was held by the hotel, I always felt like a bit of a prisoner, like my freedom had been chipped. I was also afraid of the company mysteriously “losing” my passport and having my identity stolen. That stuff could happen, especially if you had a highly coveted European Union passport like mine. Imagine yourself suddenly unable to prove to your embassy who you really were, I read about it a couple of times in the local newspaper and after that, the fear settled somewhere deep in my gut.

When I finally got my passport back when I left the hotel after two years, the fear disappeared. My passport has been with me ever since, and if it wasn’t before, it definitely is my most treasured possession.

#1: The oven door

I landed in Dubai on September 4th, 2011 around 2AM from Amsterdam. It was my first flight with the local air carrier, Emirates airline so I landed in their own dedicated terminal at Dubai International Airport. I had been told so many things about Dubai, among others that the airport was gigantic, but due to the late hour I barely took notice. I followed the crowd to passport control and the lines were interminable. I was never good at picking the fastest line neither at the airport nor at the supermarket, so I just stood at the back of one,  clutching my passport and my employment paperwork tightly. I looked around and found that people looked like they were from everywhere, so many different nationalities and very few Western looking ones like me. I had visited about twelve different airports in eight different countries in Southeast Asia in the past seven months including places where few foreigners ever came to visit such as Taiwan and Myanmar but this here, somehow, looked much scarier. Passport control consisted of rows and rows of cubicle isles with men inside of each dressed in the local Emirati immaculate white dress with their perfectly ironed scarves sitting on their head. They all looked incredibly stern while they checked the incomers identification. Their black eyes and perfectly groomed facial hair did nothing to soften their faces. I was actually quite nervous. After a good twenty minutes in line I finally made it to the counter. I timidly bid the man hello and without glancing at me, he took the passport and the paperwork and after a moment of silence barked: “eye scan” and tossed the papers back at me.

“I’m sorry?” I replied. I was clueless. He nodded in the left direction indicating somewhere I presumably had to go.

“Where?” I asked, turning around to see what he was pointing at. I did not even know what question to ask.

“Eye scan. Over there.” he motioned again with a brush of the hand, seemingly annoyed. I turned around and saw a good fifty meters away some door with a very large sign on top which spell out “employment visa”.

“So I go over there first?” Mumbled response. I was about to walk away but turned back to him and asked: “When I’m done, do I have to queue again?” The prospect of spending another twenty minutes in line was less than appealing, I was exhausted and there was a driver waiting for me outside to take me to the hotel, I hated making him wait. The man never spoke again and on my way I was to get my eyes scanned or whatever this place did.

Living in the Schengen zone all my life where people barely checked your passport at the airport had not prepared me for this, I didn’t fully grasp how people needed a visa to go someplace to work. I discovered along the line that I was one of the lucky ones who arrived to Dubai already hired, on a company paid one-way ticket and get put up with paid-for accommodation. This job would be my first real job out of college, I felt like life was happening the right way, I had been hired before I even received my diploma: nothing could get me down. Except the guy at passport control, he was scary.

I finally got my eyes scanned and my paper stamped, that took about five minutes. I walked back to the passport control line and decided there was no way I was standing in line again, all I could think of was how much I wanted to go to bed. I waved discreetly to the guy behind the counter who had held my paperwork in his hands earlier and with a dismissive look, he waved me through. Somehow, it felt like someone may arrest me at any moment for stepping outside the line. My friend Vivica had told me back at school eight or nine months ago that she had been to Dubai quite a few times, the beaches were beautiful and it was always hot. Ok, I knew that, Dubai was in the desert after all. I also knew it was home to the only seven stars hotel in the world, Burj Al Arab and the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa. I knew it was in a country named the United Arab Emirates, that there were seven Emirates and that the capital was actually Abu Dhabi, although Dubai was the popular city and centre of well, everything. I hadn’t really bothered finding out much, I figured since I would live there for at least two years I would discover things in due time. I had a feeling I was going to like it, if only for the permanent sunshine. If my life in Europe had taught me one thing, it was that I hated the cold and I hated the rain.

My suitcase was usually the last one on the belt, I picked it up and  and finally made it outside, found my driver who was holding up a sign and we were off. The hotel where I’d start to work was just ten minutes drive from the airport, I caught a glimpse if the glimmering Burj Khalifa in the dead of the night but everywhere was just extremely dark. I checked in to the hotel where I would stay for a little while until my accommodation was ready and found a welcome letter on the desk stating I was going to have breakfast tomorrow at the restaurant with the head of Human Resources at 7:15AM. I checked my watch: it was after 3AM. And tomorrow was Sunday. Why could this meeting not wait until the beginning of the week on Monday? I picked clothes to wear the next day, took a quick shower and went to bed.

The next morning, my head barely screwed on, I went to the restaurant and met my head of Human Resources, a Filipino lady of a certain age. She had a petite, athletic frame, glasses and shiny long black hair. She was probably much older than she looked. She explained everyone was just back from Eid long weekend and they were all excited to finally meet me. I had no idea what long weekend she was referring to or what Eid was but as I stepped into the morning management meeting with ten pairs of eyes staring at me, I realized that the work week in Dubai starts on a Sunday. Huh. A note on that would have been nice. I should have had an extra cup of coffee at breakfast just to perk me up. Since my return from Thailand I had had no time to rest: I had wandered about Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam for three weeks, then flown from Hanoi to Bangkok, spent the night in the Thai capital and caught a flight back to Amsterdam via Istanbul the next day. The morning after that, I had my final interview at school where my teacher shook my hand at the end of my presentation and said “congratulations, you have graduated”. That same afternoon I Skyped with my dad to tell him I was back in Europe and finally done after four years of university and he said congratulations then added in the same breath that my mum had been diagnosed with leukemia and she was given six to eight months to live. Two days later, I packed my bags again and was off to Dubai, just as planned. My emotional state by the time I started my job in Dubai was that of a pressure cooker someone would have forgotten on the stove. Information was being thrown at me from all ends: HR procedures, my training plan for the next two years, had I gotten a SIM card yet didn’t even have a phone. I had been phone-less for seven months in Southeast Asia, because who was I supposed to call there? I stayed at the hotel for two nights and then I was transferred to my staff accommodation, a little well-maintained studio on the first floor of a large compound barely ten minutes’ walk from the hotel. I was going to live there alone, which seemed quite normal to me, but I understood soon that staying alone was a privilege that only middle management and up was enjoying. The area, Oud Metha, had its exotic charm and I immediately took to it, I was one of very few unmarried white females living in the area among Pakistani, Indian, Filipino and Egyptian families. I had just spent the better part of the year being a ‘farang’ (that’s Thai for foreigner) so being different made no difference to me. One of the oldest malls of Dubai, Lamcy Plaza was within walking distance, with a wealth a small shops and restaurants around the corner. The compound had a beautiful pool and lots of space around it and for some reason I was often the only one there on the weekend. It surprised me because it was a really nice and quiet place and why did people not enjoy their time outside? The area was located at the very end of Sheikh Zayed Road, in old Dubai and access to the city’s main highway was easy, that is, if you had a car. The metro was a good fifteen minutes’ walk from the apartment, which was a bit of a pain when I was in heels, but it was so darn cheap to cross the city for just over adollar (4 dirhams) that I just got used to getting blisters on my feet, I could not afford to take a cab every time I had to go all the way to JLT for 60 dirhams, I did not earn enough for that.
On day three, I was given my uniform and it dawned on me that I had not left the hotel since I arrived, there had been no occasion for it. These two days had been so busy with meeting people and staff, all my meals were taken inside and in the evening I would just collapse in my bed. On day three, dressed in my new custom made black pant suit and white tee-shirt – also knows as the hotel uniform – we were off to my medical examination to get my resident visa process started. The driver came to fetch me and we walked through the staff entrance. He opened the door for me on this September 7th at lunchtime, the air gushed into the hallway like a hurricane, the heat of the Dubai gripped me at the throat and the sunshine blinded me: it was like someone just opened the door to an oven set on high. I don’t know why I hadn’t registered earlier just how hot it was. I remembered getting off the plane and noticing that indeed, the air was much milder than in Amsterdam. The people at the airport entrance and the driver had had a slightly shiny forehead but I again did not really connect the dots. September here was the end of summer, not the beginning of fall: it was more than 40 degrees celsius during the day and the air was gruesomely humid, especially at dawn and dusk. I would routinely sweat through my tee-shirt on the ten minutes walk from my apartment to work. The sun was cooking the city like a juicy roast.

I wanted sun and warm weather, I had been served. 

Prologue: Tikki Pukka Pukkas are deadly cocktails

“Hold ma’am” I heard the little Asian sounding voice in my back. I braced myself. Warm. Pull. Muffled expression of discomfort. Wait. Oh, it could have been worse.

“You ok ma’am?”

“Yes, thank you.” I mumbled. The left side of my face was squished against the treatment bed and both my hands were holding open my butts cheeks for easier access. You would think getting your asshole waxed is terribly painful. While I can think of more pleasant things, I really initially had expected it to be much worse.

Just to be clear, I never asked for this. I came here for a bikini wax, because living in Dubai, city of perpetual sunshine, perpetual bikini waxes ensue. I did not know that waxing “the back” as the beauty therapists modestly called it – was now part of the package but eh, why not. By the time one got used to paying to lay legs wide open twice a month in front of a stranger, considerations about one’s asshole went a little bit out the window.

The Filipino beauty therapist finished, applied oil on my raw skin with a tissue, removed her surgical gloves, uttered a jolly pre-recorded sounding “thank you Ma’am” and exited the room. I put my clothes back on with a wince, why was I wearing tight pants again on waxing day, would I never learn? – put a 10 dirham note on the bed for tip and walked out. Twenty minutes in and out, she had been wonderfully efficient. I went to the beauty salon twice a month in the city but only somewhere the services I needed were available at a discount. Before Dubai, I did all my waxing, nails, scrubbing, facials and plucking at home, there was no way I could afford any of that. Going to the hairdresser was a treat. But Dubai was different: I represented my city, I wanted to play the part. Out of towners looked up to us residents. I couldn’t blame them, some Arabs were breathtakingly beautiful with their strong features and some kind of mystique around them especially if they wore traditional dress. But even as a European, I stepped up my game when I came to live in the big city and as a result now looked way too sophisticated when I went to visit my Dad in Smalltown, where I grew up. Once you had lived in Dubai long enough, you could tell right away the difference between tourists and residents.  I once walked into a popular bar – Trader Vic’s at Souk Madinat – to meet some friends, late on a Tuesday after having celebrated the birthday of a beautiful German-Iranian princess, so I was dressed up. She wasn’t actually a princess but she was tiny with long silky brown hair, very particular about her looks and always dressed to the nines so she reminded me of one. I joined my friends at the table, ordered a gin and tonic and soon after noticed the table next to us were giving us odd looks. One of the girls looked at me and asked me if I lived here.

“I do.” I replied and smiled. Dubaians are notoriously friendly.

“You’re so glamorous” she replied. Her and her friends were looking a little provincial next to us but I supposed I was a little overdressed for the place, especially on a Tuesday.

“We’re from Jordan. It’s our first time in Dubai.” She continued.

“I’ve been to Jordan.” I replied. “It’s a beautiful country. And the people were so welcoming.” It is true, it was an amazing trip to a country with such a rich history but so misunderstood. Telling people good things about where they are from was always a way to win them over. One of the guys from the group looked at my friend’s watch:

“Is that a Rolex Daytona?” All eyes motioned to his wrist. “I used to sell them.”

“Yes, it is. Limited edition.” My friend had never worked a day in his life. He was from one of those families that had somehow always had money but no one ever seemed to work. His life was spent in fancy bars and clubs and he always told me to come along. He was fun company but not someone you wanted to bare your soul to. Him and the Jordanian out of towner chit-chatted about watches and I, slightly uninterested, looked over to my friend’s date. I had never seen her before, by the looks of things my friend and his wingman had picked up two girls in the bar before this one, bragged about their Arab money, batted the long eyelashes of their piercing black eyes, poured six Tikki Pukka Pukka cocktails into them and were going to try and score later. By how those two girls were hanging on them, it wasn’t going to be too hard to make their panties drop. She also looked like an out of towner, she was overdressed for the heat of September, her outfit was too tight on her frame and her mouth pouty with too much red lipgloss. It was a shame, she was a pretty girl. Apparently, she was German. She moved over next to me on the bench, too close for my taste. Among other things, she confided she wanted to move here and become an actress, she explained in English with a solid German accent, twirling her long brown hair around her finger, and her eyes were very unfocused, did I think she had a chance? She asked me and genuinely seemed to be serious. I took a sip of my gin and tonic and looked her up and down. The part she didn’t know was that culture and celebrities here were mostly from the Arab World, Egyptian actresses and Lebanese singers that the average westerner had never heard about were revered. There were no movies made here, no TV shows featuring westerners. If you wanted to act, you took it up as a hobby but it was practically impossible to make a living from it.

“No, I don’t.” Awkward pause. I figured the honest truth would do her a favour. The guys had probably pumped her brain full with beautiful dreams of fame and money that grew like dates on the palm trees outside. When they were ripe, you just shook the tree and they fell to the ground by the hundreds. But contrary to belief, everyone had to grind to succeed and Dubai would eat weak personalities alive, right after she blinded them by blowing  desert dust in their eyes.

Not everyone belongs in Dubai, honey.