Dubai Circa 1994
These days visitors swarm into Dubai. Many nationalities don’t need a visa to enter the United Arab Emirates and those that do can buy one at the airport. That wasn’t the way it used to be. In 1994 the UAE was still a closed country, insular, xenophobic and even slightly paranoid. There was not a single person in the country who did not have a documented reason to be there. Dubai was not a holiday destination. There were very few hotels and most of those that existed had been built out of the need to accommodate business travelers. Apart from nationals, nobody got into the country without a visa and there were just two kinds. One was a visit visa that could only be arranged by a hotel after a booking was made and was valid for exactly the number of nights booked.
The other kind of visa was a work visa. Back then there was no such thing as coming to Dubai to job hunt. If there was a position to be filled, the headhunting was done abroad, usually in England. After the candidate was selected, the company applied for a visa. The company was your “sponsor” and once you arrived in the UAE, the company was responsible for you. In a country where each and every person was accounted for, this responsibility was no small matter. Your behavior reflected on your employer. If you broke the law and ran away it was the company’s problem to find you. The newspapers were peppered with company notices seeking information on the whereabouts of employees who had “absconded”. Companies made a habit of holding passports and it was only a sense of honor and ethics that prevented employees from being turned into hostages.
Once you landed in Dubai it seemed that your profession, the one listed on your work visa, became an integral and unalterable part of your identity. Each person was employed to fill a particular need within the country and from the moment of arrival every worker, regardless of whether he was an engineer, a professor or a common laborer was permanently pigeonholed according to his job description. In Dubai you were what they said you were; there was no ambiguity. Dubai’s society was itself traditionally rigid and highly stratified and I think it was impossible for those who had grown up in such a culture to even conceive of the kind of professional shape-shifting that was the norm in North America.
In Dubai everyone had his place and everyone was expected to stay in it. People were promoted only very rarely. To move into another professional realm was unheard of. When a position in a company fell vacant, it was never filled from within the ranks. It seemed not to occur to those in charge that someone right under their noses might have developed the skills and gained enough experience to make them perfect for the job. Instead, a company would bring in someone entirely new, found through applications from abroad.
In some ways people were perceived as inanimate tools. “There’s a tool for every job,” as the saying goes. A wrench is not a screwdriver, should never be used to replace a screwdriver and will never become a screwdriver no matter how hard it tries. A little screwdriver never grows into a big one either. So it was with people in this system. And if Dubai was to operate as a well-oiled machine then everyone, every tool, every cog, needed to do the job it was imported to do.
Even the idea of people having hobbies that differed from their jobs was too mind boggling for bureaucracy to handle back then. It was too confusing. The architect, for example, who was discovered to be playing the drums with an amateur band at night, the freight manager who loved to paint and decided to hang his creations in his office. This kind of behavior was deemed highly undesirable. It set a bad example; it gave other employees the wrong idea. To the Dubai nationals in charge, each unnerving incident was like a scene from a bad horror movie in which seemingly simple, straightforward people showed the first perplexing signs that they might mutate. What if the mutations were contagious? Fear of the unknown was very great. Individuality was not encouraged. The ideal employee was a cardboard cutout, flat and one-dimensional.
Your job description also determined how you ranked in importance. The social structure of Dubai was like an iceberg: cold, hard, crystalline and brilliant from a distance yet with the bulk of its mass invisible beneath the surface of the water.
Glittering in the sun, on the peak of the iceberg was the ruling branch of the Maktoum family and poised on the razor-sharp tip was Sheikh Mohammed. Though the official Ruler of Dubai was his elder brother Sheikh Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, it was widely understood that Sheikh Mohammed for all practical purposes ran the country. Chronically ill, Sheikh Maktoum was rarely seen in public and even his photographs gave the impression of a shy and retiring personality, a marked contrast to the overpowering charisma of his brother. Nevertheless, protocol was meticulously maintained. Decrees were issued in the name of Sheikh Maktoum. When praise was due, it was Sheikh Maktoum who gave it. The achievements of Dubai were attributed to the wisdom of the Ruler, Sheikh Maktoum. The newspapers showed Sheikh Mohammed paying homage to his brother, receiving his instructions, following a pace behind, ever so subtly in the shadow of official greatness.
On the other hand, it was Sheikh Mohammed’s presence that was physically felt in Dubai. He was often seen driving through the streets alone in his white Land Rover. He didn’t need a driver or bodyguards. At times he drove slowly, looking thoughtfully at everything around him. At other times he materialized as if out of nowhere and was gone just as quickly. His unpredictable appearances left people with the eerie sense of being watched, of being under a constant, invisible surveillance. Everyone in Dubai had seen Sheikh Mohammed, the lowly street sweepers perhaps more than anybody else. They kept count too; these fleeting encounters were a point of pride for them.
How could you be sure you had seen Sheikh Mohammed? The first clue was the white Land Rover, though that alone was certainly not conclusive. Whatever Sheikh Mohammed did was slavishly copycatted. For years white Land Rovers abounded until one day Sheikh Mohammed switched to a Mercedes. Then overnight Land Rovers were passé. They magically disappeared and Mercedes were everywhere. The license plate was the key. There were only about five thousand vehicles in Dubai back then. License plates were numbered according to the rank of the owner. Anything less than 200 was a genuine status symbol. As for myself, I’m sorry to say that my license plate contained four digits. I was insulted to discover that there were tractors and road diggers with better license plates than mine. Sheikh Mohammed’s license plate was just one digit, easy to read and unmistakable: the number “1”.
Beneath Sheikh Mohammed and the ruling Maktoum family, next in the hierarchy of Dubai, was Sheikh Mohammed’s entourage. This group consisted of men who came from lesser branches of the Maktoum family, members of prominent merchant families or descendants of old noble families which had once been important back in the days of pearling. Some of these members of the entourage were moving their family businesses into new directions, venturing into banking, car dealerships, construction or supermarket chains, all areas that were needed for the development of Dubai. Some men, especially if they were Maktoum family members, were assigned government positions by Sheikh Mohammed and played crucial roles in the progress of the country. Others lived in hope of such an assignment. There were a few brilliant men and a few men who earned a place in the entourage on the strength of their personalities because they were fun to be around, because everybody liked them, because they made Sheikh Mohammed laugh. The entourage also had a fair amount of dead wood: men who possessed no gifts other than the ability to persevere as hangers-on, men who made a career out of clinging to Sheikh Mohammed’s coattails.
At any given moment the entourage ranged from thirty to fifty men strong. When Sheikh Mohammed appeared at the horse races, which were televised, the entourage always seemed to be present in full force. Everyone wanted to be on TV. As Sheikh Mohammed walked along he was the advancing tip of an arrowhead. Angled out behind him was a dense, undulating sea of flowing white dishdashas, his entourage pressing close behind his every step, the formation tightly packed as the men made every effort to be physically as close to him as possible. Those currently in favor walked at the front of the pack, claiming pride of place on either side of Sheikh Mohammed, almost shoulder to shoulder though never quite beside him, always a fraction of a pace behind.
When Sheikh Mohammed passed by, if you were not a member of the entourage you learned to back up rapidly or risk being knocked over by his wake. If you were unlucky enough to be standing near a wall you pressed yourself flat against it and held your breath while a dozen men stepped on your toes. Those men crowded near the back of the formation were the worst. Being most insecure with their places in the entourage, they would not dream of detouring from their path for the sake of a lesser mortal nor yield so much as an inch of position. Whenever I encountered the entourage at such excruciatingly close quarters I could virtually smell the venomous cologne of male ego, vanity, over weaning ambition, jealousy and envy that served as oxygen in the atmosphere of that world.
When I read history books that describe the court of Louis XIV of France I can easily imagine the snake pit of competition among the courtiers, the petty politics, the intrigue and backstabbing. Sheikh Mohammed’s entourage seemed much the same. Hatred inevitably focused on whoever it happened to be who was currently at the front of the formation, whoever was “in the sun”. I observed the same cycle over and over again. Men climbed to the heights and then fell from grace later to be seen trailing humiliated at the very back of the entourage. Some men disappeared altogether, cast out, banished to oblivion. Like Icarus, to fly too close to the sun was dangerous. You risked a fatal fall.
To me, this compulsion of grown men to trail Sheikh Mohammed the way besotted teen-aged girl groupies would follow a rock star was initially impossible to understand. It paid to remember that Dubai was not a democracy. In essence, it was a benevolent dictatorship. To get ahead in life it was necessary to curry favor with those in power. The future of your family depended upon it. Material gain was just one aspect. More important considerations were the marriage prospects of daughters and opportunities for sons. By hook or by crook, you had to claw your way up through the entourage and you were bound to make enemies on the way.
Once, in a moment of weakness, a besieged member of the entourage who was struggling to preserve his position, told me how lucky I was. “It’s not the same for you foreigners,” he said. “If you lose your position your pride is hurt but you are free to go and find a job in another country. And who knows, the new job might be better than the old one. Sometimes to be fired is a blessing in disguise. But think what it means to us. Where would we go? Dubai is our country, our home, our tribe. If I am disgraced my whole family falls with me; the lives of my sons are ruined. We are stuck, and with no way out.”
I confess that I found his self-pity a little hard to swallow. I knew he lived in a mansion. I lived in a two bedroom apartment. He had been appointed CEO of a multi-million dollar organization. I was a junior veterinarian trying to pay off my student loans. I resented the implication that it was perfectly acceptable for me to roam the world selling my skills to the highest bidder but out of the question for him. I didn’t belong to a tribe of any significance, I had no notable lineage and my family had no importance. He, by contrast, was a Dubai national and the true reason he’d be stuck if he couldn’t fend off his backstabbing enemies was because his only chance of real prominence was here in Dubai. His CEO title had been handed to him on a silver platter because the CEO of a Dubai company had to be a Dubai national. All companies that set up shop in the UAE had to be at least fifty-one percent UAE owned. There was competition for the figurehead CEO spots but it was limited. In Dubai he could easily be the best man for the job. Where else in the world would that be true? He was as free as anyone else to leave but why would he? If the worst came to the worst then it was easier to languish in his palace here in Dubai than to face the cutthroat world outside.
The entourage represented just one small segment of Dubai’s national population. Though not quite so myopically self-centered, the entire national population did emanate an air of the same aloofness. Part of this aloofness originated from a genuine sense of superiority but a large part of it was the result of real unease. Dubai nationals were not so much preoccupied with their rank among each other as they were worried about their rank as a group within Dubai in general. They felt they were being swamped by the foreign workers who were invading their country in hordes. Of course none of these foreign workers would be in Dubai at all if the government hadn’t allowed it. They were needed. After all, no Dubai national wanted to drive a bulldozer all day, or deliver mail or spend hours entering the accounts for the shops. Besides, even if nationals did feel like stooping to that kind of menial work, the reality was that Dubai’s population was too small to provide the manpower for the steep upward curve of advancement that Sheikh Mohammed had in mind for the country. Nevertheless, the superiority of a national class that did not intend to get its hands dirty at all had its downside. In 1994 when I arrived, nationals comprised only thirty percent of the total population. They were already a minority in their own country. Over the years it got worse. Nationals shrank to twenty-five percent, then ten percent and eventually only five percent.
It was therefore only to be expected that they were obsessed with setting themselves apart from the hoi polloi. They needed to be clearly distinguished and the most obvious way of achieving this was through their appearance, through what they wore. Foreigners wore shirts and pants or flowered dresses or saris or salwar kameez but only Gulf Arabs wore floor length, snow white dishdashas or jet black abayas. It was a Western misconception that women longed to be liberated from their abayas. Perhaps it was true of women in Iran and Afghanistan where they had no choice but it certainly wasn’t true of women in Dubai who did. The abaya was a source of identity, a team uniform. Apart from the fact that abayas were traditional, that women felt comfortable in them and that they were the cornerstone of a thriving fashion industry, women truly felt naked without them. Though they shed them in the privacy of their own homes, Dubai women would no more dream of going out in public without their abayas than Western women would dream of going to the supermarket in their underwear. I know because they told me so. Anyway, no Dubai woman wanted to be mistaken for 'the help', meaning the rest of us. That was really the bottom line.
If the first aim was to be sure that foreigners recognized nationals when they saw them, then the second aim was to be sure that the foreigners showed due respect. Foreigners, all of them, should never forget their place. If there was a line at the post office and a national walked through the door, he automatically went to the front to be served first. If you were ever involved in a car accident with a national you could assume that no matter who was at fault it would be you who would shoulder the blame.
One of the most annoying habits of nationals had to do with road manners. If you were driving along the highway and a national came up behind you he would flash his lights furiously until you pulled over and let him pass. All nationals drove at the speed of light. It didn’t make any difference how fast you drove because nationals inevitably drove faster. And it wasn’t simply a matter of speed. It was more a matter of who owned the road, who had the most right to it. That it would be simpler (and safer) for them to pull around you never occurred to them. You had the audacity to be driving on a road that had been built for them. What’s more, you had the audacity to be driving on it in front of them.
It didn’t pay to let these things get under your skin. Dubai was a different world and it had different rules, a different logic. Some learned that the hard way. An American we knew was on his way to work early one morning when a national drove up behind him flashing his lights. Instead of just pulling over and letting him pass, he gave the guy the finger. The national driver abruptly stopped flashing his lights. He followed the American to his office and then called the police. The police arrested the American after charging him with obscenity. They shaved his head and threw him in jail for three days. Needless to say, the incident made a huge impression on the rest of us. If it was intended to serve as a warning then it certainly worked. It sent the message loud and clear that nationals would not tolerate disrespect in their own country. And why should they?
The punishment was nothing more than a slap on the wrist really but for weeks the incident was the talk of the expatriate community: how outrageous and unfair it was to be put in jail for giving someone the finger. In America it was just business as usual to make obscene gestures at other drivers. Then again Americans didn’t seem to think that road rage and highway shootings were anything out of the ordinary either. That wasn’t the case here. The Arab culture was exceedingly polite and courteous. Even when they were jumping the queues at the post office, the nationals somehow found a way to demonstrate their superiority in the most gracious way possible. Though they might be seething with anger inside, nationals never showed it. You never saw people yelling at each other.
As far as those days in jail were concerned, that man was lucky he was American. If he had been Indian he might have been left there for a month. All foreigners were not considered equal. Westerners got off lightly because they were the cream of the crop. All in all there were only a few hundred of them present in Dubai and they all knew each other. There were some Germans, some Swiss, some French and the odd North American but by far the majority of Westerners were English.
Dubai had historical ties with England and it seemed to be England’s last colonial outpost or at least the English treated it that way. I often tried to imagine the British in India at the time of the Raj or the clubby decadence of the English in Kenya during the 1920’s and 30’s and guessed that the English in Dubai during the 1990’s were trying their hardest to channel the feeble dregs of that same spirit. They still had their smug self-assurance. They were still convinced that England was the greatest country in the world, that they were better than everyone else and that the English way, no matter how outdated or inflexible it might be, was the best. The English thought they were in Dubai to help get these Arabs on the right track. Occasionally they were right. Occasionally they even succeeded.
At least during the day the men didn’t have much time to waste embroidering delusions of grandeur. They were too busy working. They were professionals who came to Dubai attracted by salaries that were so much better than anything they could get in Britain. Once in Dubai they became engrossed in the challenges and frustrations of trying to make something logical out of random chaos. Maybe their staunch adherence to their inflexible English procedures was the only thing that kept them sane. In any case, the daily struggle humbled them. Their frequent outbursts of old fashioned bluster and pomposity were only smoke screens intended to hide their soft quixotic souls. Armed with clipboards and eternal unwarranted optimism, these men never gave up the impossible dream that one day people all over the world would live in harmony and do things just the way they ought to be done – the orderly English way.
The wives were a different story. Unencumbered by the demands of employment, they had plenty of free time to acquire over-inflated ideas of their own importance within their make-believe colonial empire. Longing for a little female companionship, I tried to make friends with these English wives. I wasn’t very successful; there were too many strikes against me. To begin with, I wasn’t English. Then there was the problem that I was employed directly by Sheikh Mohammed rather than through a government office or company. This upset the wives imagined perceptions of their husbands’ status. It was harder for them to put on airs around me. Lastly, they couldn’t understand why I was working in a place like Dubai. I didn’t need to. It made me something of a distasteful curiosity in their eyes. It wasn’t as though I didn’t have a husband. And my job wasn’t even in an office. It was so unnecessary and inappropriate for a Western woman to be seen all dusty and sweaty from exertion. Certain standards needed to be maintained.
Mind you, these were women who had previously led unremarkable lives in unremarkable houses in rather boring middle class suburbs of England. They had washed their own dishes and mopped their own floors. Now that they lived in Dubai they suddenly fancied themselves Queens of Sheba.
Each morning after their children went off to the English curriculum school these wives filled their days with shopping and gossiping all the while complaining about the difficulties of living in a country that was so inferior to England. First, they gave orders to the Indian housemaids who cooked and cleaned and kept the tile floors of their villas sand free. Then they supervised the gardeners who trimmed the ubiquitous pink bougainvillea that cascaded over their walls. When all this was done, they went down to Bur Dubai to look through the latest bolts of silk and have clothes made by the tailors. For lunch they picked at shrimp cocktails and gossiped in the cafés on Jumeira Beach Road and for this they were labeled Jumeira Janes. By the afternoon they could often be found stretched out on lounge chairs by the pool at the Trade Center Club, middle-aged women in floral bathing suits turning themselves to leather in the desiccating sun. Bemused Indian serving boys dressed in Bermuda shorts and polo shirts brought them fruit juices. I never joined them. I was working.
At night the Jumeira Janes collected their husbands and went to the Hilton Hotel. The Hilton was attached to the Dubai World Trade Center and it had a bar that served alcohol. The entrance was carefully screened so that from the lobby it was impossible to see anything inside. At the door was a clearly lettered sign that said “No Muslims”. It was a little piece of heaven for the English, a hiding place, an Arab-free zone where for a few hours they could pretend that they ruled the world. They could forget they were in Dubai where they didn’t rule anything.
Nobody understood the English better than the Keralans who worked with them every day. Kerala is a state located on the southwest coast of India. Renowned for the high level of education among its populace and its extraordinarily high literacy rate compared to the rest of India, Kerala was the source of much of Dubai’s clerical staff. Thanks in part to its easy proximity to Dubai, Kerala had developed a virtual monopoly on the second tier office jobs. The Keralan men dressed Western style in black leather oxford shoes, cuffed trousers with belts and pressed white shirts. They were receptionists, secretaries and personal assistants to the English managers. The less qualified Keralans were drivers, tea boys, and gofers. They spoke fluent English and for many English was their first language. Some were Muslim, always an advantage in Dubai, but a surprising number were Christian. There were Christians in Kerala long before there were Christians in Europe. The Keralans were an odd phenomenon, Kerala being a kind of pocket of an Indian intellectual super race. They had nothing in common with any of the other migrant Asians in Dubai. In fact, they looked down their noses at them. To the Keralans the others were all country bumpkins, unsophisticated hicks.
The others, these thousands of less fortunate Asians inhabited the lowest echelon in Dubai. There were niche occupations that were the exception but most migrant workers at this level were men and most of the jobs they filled were unskilled. The overall population of Dubai had a hugely unbalanced male to female ratio, something like five to one and the imbalance was because men came to Dubai without their families and stayed for years living in dormitories. A worker had to earn above a certain level of salary before he could seek permission to bring his family to live in Dubai and for most it was out of the question. These were the men who filled the need for construction laborers, for street sweepers, garbage collectors, cleaners, gardeners, window washers, petrol station attendants and the myriad other unsung services that keep a city running. The men came from every poor country in the region and beyond: India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sudan, Yemen, the Philippines and Bangladesh. But by far the greatest number were from Pakistan.
From what I could gather, Pakistan was a country whose main export was its men. It seemed that the sole aim of any self-respecting Pakistani was to get out of Pakistan. For the Pakistanis their homeland was an endless abyss of frustration and broken dreams, a place where you could never get ahead no matter how hard you tried. Pakistan was a country rife with corruption where nothing ever worked and nothing ever got better. Men studied for a profession and after discovering that it was impossible to make a living from it, ended up in Dubai doing something entirely different.
For me it was an uncomfortable experience to pull into a service station and discover that the man pumping my petrol spoke fluent English and had studied physics at university. Now he thought himself lucky to be in Dubai earning six hundred Dirham a month. The UAE Dirham is pegged to the U.S. dollar at a rate of 3.68. Six hundred Dirham is $163 USD. How did this man end up here? What happened? “Life happened,” he explained with a resigned shrug. It was pointless to dwell on it. Life could be a long and depressing story. I heard many such stories over the years and they all had the same theme. I wondered at the accident of birth that had put me behind the wheel of a shiny air-conditioned SUV, my embarrassment disguised by my wrap-around sunglasses while this man, probably my equal in intelligence, washed my windshield and checked my oil in the blazing heat. It could so easily have been the other way around.
In contrast to how things turned out in later years, in the 1990’s most Pakistanis felt like the man who pumped my petrol – they felt lucky to be in Dubai. Far from being viewed as an exploiter, Dubai was seen as assisting Pakistan economically by employing so many of its citizens and thus providing a form of international aid. For Pakistanis, Dubai was in fact their destination of choice, a far better place to work than Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. In Saudi they were slaves; they had no rights and nobody cared whether they lived or died. In Dubai at least workers were paid what they were promised. Conditions were humane and Dubai itself was a relatively tolerant and relaxed place to live compared with other Gulf states.
If Dubai had a reputation for fairness then it was due to Sheikh Mohammed because he kept an eye on what was happening in his country and because he cared. Everybody had glimpsed him cruising around Dubai at one time or another. There was a sense of connection. When things went wrong, when workers felt they had been dealt with unfairly they said among themselves, “If only Sheikh Mohammed knew about it. He would make things right.” The amazing thing was that if the problem was a serious one, somehow or other it reached Sheikh Mohammed’s ears and he did make things right. At the end of the day Dubai was still a small country. It still had the human touch.
My arrival in 1994 happened to coincide with the Pakistani equivalent of a gold rush. Sheikh Mohammed had decided to make Dubai a center for top class horse racing. Stables were being built and horses were being shipped into the country. Men were needed to care for those horses and that created a whole new avenue in the job market. The first batch of grooms was found through a recruiting drive at the Karachi racetrack. There was no need for recruiting again after that. Word spread like wildfire and soon the racing office in Dubai was deluged with letters from men desperate to get jobs as grooms. The chance to work in Sheikh Mohammed’s stables represented the opportunity of a lifetime. First there was the enormous salary, close to a thousand Dirham a month ($272 USD) which seemed like a fortune. Then there were all the extra benefits and perks. Everything was provided: accommodation, air-conditioned and only two to four men per room, meals, uniforms, boots and a whole day off every two weeks. After two years on the job each groom was entitled to two months of paid vacation and a round trip air ticket to Pakistan.
It wasn’t surprising that men would say and do almost anything in the hope of landing the job. Those who were lucky enough to have already been picked campaigned relentlessly on behalf of brothers, cousins or nephews. Each man would claim that his brother/cousin/nephew was an even better groom than he was, that this relative had worked with horses all his life, that he spoke excellent English and that he was the strongest, hardest working, most honest and reliable man he knew. Needless to say, the men who arrived in Dubai thanks to the efforts of a relative rarely lived up to their superhero résumés. There were men who spoke excellent English – because they had studied to be lawyers – but knew nothing about horses. There were men who were eager and hard working – but knew nothing about horses. Then there were men who thought they knew everything about horses because they had worked for a brick maker and used to be in charge of loading the bricks onto the donkeys. Some of these men, even the lawyers, against all odds, learned amazingly fast, coached movement by movement, minute by minute through the urgent whisperings of their relative working alongside them. Others had to be sent home, often not before they had already been kicked or bitten.
Even for the best grooms, the job turned out to be more challenging than anticipated. The horses in Dubai were not the underfed, parasite ridden hat racks that were the unfortunate norm at the ramshackle Karachi racetrack. Much to their shock, the men found themselves confronted with creatures that bore more resemblance to fire breathing dragons than to any horse they had ever known. These high-strung Thoroughbreds were ready to explode out of their skins. Their jet engines were fueled with the kind of scientifically formulated equine feed that would have sent a rocket into space. Each of these athletes was worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars. Some were worth more, much, much more. Being a groom wasn’t a job for the stupid, the slow or the faint-hearted. Horses were dangerous. It wasn’t enough to love them; a groom needed to also understand them, anticipate them and have the patience to deal with them.
The grooms were the ones who had the tough job of restraining their tempestuous charges when the vets needed to treat them. In the beginning I worried that the men would have trouble following directions issued by a woman especially when that woman looked as young as I did. My experiences of the fragile male ego in America primed me to expect the worst. The Pakistani grooms were from a very traditional Muslim society. It occurred to me that they probably had not been brought up with a great deal of respect for women. How could they not resent me if I was supposed to be the one in charge? Surely every fiber in their bodies would rebel at the sound of my voice. Contrary to my expectations, I never received anything but courtesy and cooperation. Of course there were several good reasons for this, the knowledge that disrespect could cost them their jobs by no means the least of these. But it was more than that. The men accepted this upside down world with a sort of resigned fatalism. What was, was. There was no use questioning it or even wasting time thinking about it because it was out of their control and there was nothing they could do about it. I suspect that those men had already experienced such real unfairness in life that I was the least of their problems, too small an annoyance to be bothered about.
There was another very important factor that allowed the grooms to hold onto their self-respect even when being bossed around by the likes of me. It was the certain knowledge that although they might be minnows in Dubai, every groom was a big fish back home in Pakistan. This was the point where the mass of Dubai’s hierarchical iceberg disappeared from view. The effects of Dubai’s influence and the structure of its social pyramid were manifested beyond Dubai’s borders, continuing in the home countries of its foreign workers. Having no expenses, no rent to pay, no meals to buy and no tax on income, the grooms saved virtually all of their salaries and sent the money home to their families. Though two hundred and seventy dollars a month would barely pay the phone bill in America, in Pakistan that amount supported huge extended families. It built homes, bought cars, paid dowries, purchased land and started small businesses. In Pakistan each groom was a man of substance in his little community.
Sometimes they showed me their photographs. Very casually, like it was no big deal, they would pull out wallets and flip through images that were more key to their identity than any passport. Showing me their photos was a subtle way of letting me know that in their own way they amounted to something, that in a different part of the world, they were much more important than I was.
Once every two weeks, when their day off rolled around, the grooms ditched their uniforms, dressed up in lemon yellow salwar kameez and strolled out the gates of the stables. They went to the highway and waited for one of the clapped-out communal taxis that trawled the roads to come along. When one stopped, the men squeezed themselves into a vehicle already so packed with workers that it should have been a clown car. Then, with a puff of black smoke coughed from an exhaust pipe that almost dragged the ground, the car rattled off into the city. That was the great thing about Dubai; there were shops, restaurants and businesses that catered to every level of society.
For Indians, a favorite place to relax was the barber shop. Jumeira Janes had their hair highlighted in a marble floored salon with aromatherapy and meditation music included for six hundred Dirham. For ten Dirham ($2.72 USD), Indians could have the deluxe package at one of the many barber shops not far from Al Diyafah Street. The deluxe package for them included earsplitting Bollywood music and a head massage during which the customer was slapped around so that he looked like a ragdoll being worked over.
After such relaxing treatment a person might be in the mood for a bite to eat. Here again, Dubai had dining establishments to suit every nationality and every pocket. If you weren’t too fussy there was a tent at the camel market. Two Dirham (55 cents) bought you a place in a big circle of dusty, taciturn men crowded around a communal platter of rice and goat meat. You sat on the ground and ate hand to mouth, plunging your fingers into the rice and groping for a stringy hunk of meat. Women were not especially welcome. My presence put the regulars off their food.
A better option was Ravi’s, a popular Indian restaurant in the heart of Dubai. It was always packed. If you could get in, you at least got a plastic chair and a tiny table pushed tight to a wall. Roast chicken with naan bread and vegetables cost seven Dirham ($1.90 USD).
For the privileged, the lucky, the rich and the famous the best place to eat in all of Dubai at that time was the revolving restaurant at the top of the Hyatt Hotel. The Hyatt was on the Deira side of the Dubai Creek, the opposite side of the city from the Trade Center. For a night out it was far easier for us to eat at the Hilton and usually we did. But the windows of the Hyatt’s restaurant gave the diner a slowly moving panorama of the Gulf, its shimmering waters dotted with the lantern lights of wooden dhows on their way to Iran or India. It was an unforgettable sight. What’s more, the restaurant served lobster fresh from the fish market that happened to be located only a stone’s throw away from the hotel. It was expensive: two hundred and fifty Dirham, sixty-eight American dollars, but it was for all you cared to eat.
I knew that most people in Dubai would never get the chance to experience that wonderful revolving restaurant. I was one of the lucky ones. Perhaps that was the most remarkable thing about Dubai: mixing with people from so many countries made me realize that I couldn’t take all the credit for my luck in life. Where you happened to be born counted for so much. You might be born in Dubai with a silver spoon in your mouth but there was a much greater chance you might be born in someplace like Bangladesh with no spoon at all. At the end of the day, I was just grateful that I had been born somewhere in between.