Chaper 1: The Arrival

The shadows of the ominous-looking towers with blinking lights reflected off the tinted car window, as we zoomed soundlessly through the long, unwinding road. The streets were blissfully empty, I guess even cities that proclaim to never sleep, need a nod off every once in a while. I couldn’t fathom where in the world am I? What is this place? Large, colorful signs lighted the sides of the street with picture-perfect town houses and children running into the open arms of their receiving mock-parents, who are laughing with a mouth full of pearly, white teeth. Famous celebrities I never knew or heard of, with arms folded on their barrel-chests looked down at me, smirking, urging me to buy, lease, call, rent, subscribe or do something, anything, with terms and conditions applied. I felt small between those mountains of steel and concrete and unmoving cold, metal appendages of cranes. I felt powerless and awed.

‘Beautiful isn’t it?’ asked my cousin Issam.
‘It is actually quite breath-taking. I can’t believe I am in an Arab country.’ I said.

In the hearts and minds of the Arab youth, Dubai grew to become what New York represented to the new world, a beacon of hope and promise, a lighthouse to which lost ships divert their travels. Thousands of ships in the form of young Arabs streamed in from every corner from the ocean to the gulf, hoping to get a small bite of the mythical good life, even families from the wealthier neighboring gulf counties came to enjoy the relatively more liberal atmosphere. A Middle East version of the elusive city of El Dorado. But the youngsters didn’t come to Dubai to become the next scandalous Hollywood celebrity with devious sexual preferences, they came here to become jet-setting consultants, salesmen and real estate moguls with corporate tags strung around their necks, blackberry phones in their palms, thumbs scrolling over the trackball and laptop bags straddled around their shoulders in an International airport of this or that city.

‘This is all due to the wisdom of one man,’ announced my cousin with his elbow resting on the side arm of the car, pointing towards one of many lighted billboards of a serious-looking yet undeniably handsome absolute ruler of Dubai. No introductions were needed even for a person like me who has never ventured out of his claustrophobic hometown nor followed the news as religiously. Issam was puffing on the smoke of his second cigarette since I landed from my maiden flight from Amman. I secretly clutched the boarding pass in my pocket. That was the first plane I ever flew, and I would treasure that little, priceless slip of carton forever in a shoebox where other priceless mementos will be safe-kept throughout old age. The clean-cut flight attendant smiled at me when I handed him my passport before stepping to the inside of the plane. I had the unsettling feeling that something was profoundly wrong, that someone somewhere would yell out my name wherein dark, suited figures would hover on me out of nowhere and restrain me from setting boarding onto the aircraft. That single dividing step, between the metal tunnel floor and the red carpet of the plane, separated me from all that is gray and bleak and mundane to a colorful world full of endless possibilities. The attendant ruefully stretched his smile further, and said I don’t need your passport, let me see your boarding pass, to which I gave him the plane ticket. It seemed that I have exasperated what remained of his feigned friendliness that corporate customer service training brainwashed him to endure
‘The ticket, the stub’ he exclaimed gesturing with his two fingers, projectile droplets of spittle flying from his mouth.

‘Where would you like to go?’ asked Issam.
‘I don’t know. I’ve just landed and I don’t know any place except the name of a few major monuments.’ I said emphasizing the fact that I have just flown a plane. Soon I will be traveling all over the world, I thought. London, Paris, New York, Tokyo closing million-dollar deals. Wait and see. Shaking hands just like in those giant billboards, posing for photographs with multi-faceted characters worthy of a Benetton ad in glossy pages of prestigious business magazines. Me next to an Indian with a turban wrapped around his head next to an Arab with a bleached, white gown, and a wide-nosed African with a much more colorful attire and a European with clear blue eyes to complete the “We are the World” sonnet. I will go out to cocktail parties wearing impeccable tuxedos like James Bond and trail three gorgeous women on my elbows, a brunette, a blonde and a red-head after which we will go for a dip swimming pool of my villa with the lights shimmering on the surface of the temperature-controlled chilled water.

‘I’ll tell you what.’ said my cousin cutting off my reverie round the time I imagined myself laying in a large comfy bed wearing a perfumed, dry-cleaned robe flicking the channels of my 50 inch flat screen TV screen to check the latest financial updates from around the world whilst the three women crawl under the smooth sheets like purring felines.
‘We’ll wait till tomorrow. You look tired. We can have a shawerma sandwich and go to bed. Tomorrow we’ll start your touring.’

But I was anything but tired. My excitement has over-rid any other possible emotion and buried them deep within the dark, undiscovered realms of my soul. I wanted to stay up till the early morning just going up and down the road, waving my hands to every anonymous passerby and car.
‘Alright. But please anything but shawerma. I have been having a sandwich for the past three days and have vowed never to take another in my life.’ A vow that I realize I am incapable of keeping. Silence lulled between us for a while.

‘Is this your car?’I said admiring the bluish fluorescent lighting of the various dials and gauges distributed around the dashboard. A necklace of blue evil eye beads hanging from the windshield mirror waved around as if it were possessed by an alien soul. I never knew Issam to be the one big on superstition.
‘No’, he chuckled. ‘I rented it to take you out’ he said
‘Of course not.’ He snorted ‘It’s my car I bought it a few months ago’
‘It’s a decent ride. What model is it?’
‘It’s a 2-door Audi A4 Coupe 2006 model. Full-options with an opening ceiling’ he said in a used-car salesman manner clicking the button to demonstrate the sun roof ceiling’s mechanism.
‘What’s that smell?’ I asked sniffing around.
‘What smell?’
‘The smell of a strong, feminine perfume.’ I said still sniffing.
‘Oh that!’ he chuckled. ‘It’s nothing’ he shrugged with a wily smile plastered on his face.

The roads grew narrower as we delved deep into the shadowy heart of the city. There’s a different face here; a slightly disfigured one with the ladies of the night on an prowl in bright-red lipstick and smoky eye shadow hovering over any car where lonesome men waited idly like predators ready to pounce on their yielding prey. West Asian workers roamed the streets wrapped in rags wearing dusty sandals in two’s or three’s. We wormed our way through obscure hotels, furnished apartments where I imagined the same ladies would later in the evening, haggle on a pre-agreed price for the night after which they would be laid down on starched sheets squirming under the humping weight of unsatisfied married men and lonesome travelers and inexperienced adolescents in tacky rooms, their grunts muffled by songs from MTV and VH1. Even the flickering lights had a different level of hues and buzzed with running electricity. The purple, turquoise and the bright light green, blinking on and off. Issam parked his car in a deserted, sand road.

‘This is where I live’ declared my cousin, pointing towards a dwarfish building populated with a ladies salon and a dingy supermarket. We took the elevator upwards to the 5th floor through a dimly-lit hallway where we stood at the door of flat inscribed with fake gold numerals 510.

The apartment was worthy of a tragic 15th century Russian novelist. The opening door creaked to reveal a swarm of cockroaches roaming freely as if a nuclear war was waged and the sole survivors were those ghastly creatures sharing everything with the tenants; the premises, the dishes, the rusty fridge from which no food seemed to be extracted. They scurried away into foreboding corners the moment the light was switched on and flickered to gradual life. I could hear the rustle of their legs on the ceramic tiled floor, sending shudders down my spine. The air was musty with the lingering smell of cigarette smoke, as evidently proven with the ashtrays brimming with cigarette butts scattered atop the coffee table, on the weathered couches, next to the TV set over the pale wooden stand. I could not fathom why anyone would subject themselves to living in such derogatory filth, especially that they were all professionals and earned fat cheques by the flip of each calendar month. But I wasn’t going to allow something as trivial as unnecessary luxuries dampen my surging spirits.

‘Tonight you’ll bunk up with me since Yaman and Ahmed are sleeping in the bedroom. Tomorrow you’ll move in to Ahmed’s room and Yaman will move here with me.’
‘Sounds fine.’ Not quite sure what he’s rallying about.
He yanked out a folded mattress from the inside of a cupboard and an accompanying blanket.
‘Have a good night. Tomorrow will be the first day of the rest of your life’ he said
I fell on my back, entranced into dreamless sleep with what I imagined to be an uncontainable smile plastered sheepishly on my face. I have finally made it.

The next morning I woke up to begin the proclaimed ‘rest of my life’ with the monotonous process of unpacking my sole, gigantic suitcase. Issam was nowhere to be found. I felt somewhat like a man marooned on a deserted island, with cannibals lurking in the depths of the jungle, salivating at the moment that I am to be hung from a pike stick. No sooner have the image of me slung on a roasting stick appeared than I heard the sound of a key turning in the keyhole. Issam entered through the door carrying a brown parcel that instantly filled the apartment with the welcomed smell of fresh patisserie. He placed the bag on the coffee table.

‘What are you doing up so early?’ he asked
‘I’m unpacking my stuff.’ Issam stood next to me, breathing over my neck.
‘What the hell is all this?’ he said tossing the books out of my suitcase all over the floor. ‘You won’t be needing any of those here.’
‘Hey, will you stop that?’ I said
‘Okay, okay, lighten up, no need to get so touchy’
Every now and then Issam would pause and glance at the cover of a certain book, possibly because it was thicker or lighter or more colorful than the rest, till his claws finally landed on one.
‘Men in the Sun, eh?’ he said, flipping the pages quickly as if skimming through it before entering an examination hall. ‘Yeah that’s a good book.’ I snatched my favorite book away from his hands, the worn copy with scribbles made in pencil and underlines that might or might not mean anything at all.
‘How do you know that book?’ I asked incredulous to the fact that my cousin could have ever read anything apart from a comic strip in a newspaper, that there might have been a brain under that thick skull of his.

‘It’s a famous book’ he shrugged. ‘Everybody knows it’ brushing me off.
‘Did you read it?’ I asked
‘No I haven’t, come now we’re going to be late’
‘Well, give it a read some time.’ I said shoving the book into his hand. ‘It will do you some good.’
‘Alright I promise I will.’ He said stealing the book back and flicking it onto his unmade mattress, where it safely landed with a brief flap of pages, as if the final pulse of life were escaping its pages. ‘Let’s have breakfast now. I brought zaatar and cheese manakish fresh from the bakery oven’ he said unwrapping the brown covering paper to reveal deliciously lined patisseries.
‘Yaman, Ahmed’ Issam yelled. ‘Come along. Breakfast is here. I want to introduce you to my cousin from back home.’ Yaman was the first to bolt out of the door. The first thing that caught your eye about him was his fiery red hair smoothly parted in the middle. It was over-gelled to the point where the trail of the teeth of the comb can be traced through. A sporadic growth of freckles dotted his nose and forehead, as if someone splattered a painting brush with brown spots on his face. I could imagine how badly he must have been teased as a child. Red-head, red-head, Yaman the red-head. The bedroom was also inhabited by a morose-looking, short man Ahmed. A trimmed beard covered his cheeks giving him an air of immediate religiousness. He moved his stout body with much more conservation and deliberateness than the others. Their room was decorated with a simple bookshelf filled with not-as-simple books about the Holy Qur’an and Hadith and Tafsir and stories about the Prophet peace be upon him and the Sahaba and the Prophet’s wives and children and Judgment Day courtesy of Ahmed I presumed. On the walls were gold-plated suras and posters of various supplications and gory images from the numerous Middle East conflicts and massacres, reminders of imminent, yet never realized, bouts of vengeance. In contrast, were Issam’s posters of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat and Victoria Secrets’ models, Ahmed’s room was devoid of any faces (a fact that made me prefer sleeping in his room over the many hollow eyes staring at me in Issam’s room)

‘How are things back home?’ asked Yaman, right after shaking hands with Ahmed. His face seemed to grow a deeper shade of scarlet with every uttered word, as if the exerted effort caused him to flush deeply ‘I surely do miss Amman.’ He said with a sigh
‘What’s there to miss?’ I asked incredulously
‘Are you kidding me? The sweet breeze, the summer nights on the balcony, the food, even the women. Everything is so industrialized and tasteless here. Everything is so rushed.’
‘I don’t agree with you’ Issam said. ‘I think this is the place to be for people like us.’
‘What do you exactly mean by “people like us”?’ asked Yaman
‘There is no need to hide from it or sugarcoat it; young, Arab, Muslim. It’s not a very good time to be who we are’
‘That’s true.’ Everyone seemed to agree for once
‘Aren’t we going to eat?’ asked Issam, as if offended. We all sat down on their sole, faded red couch that seemed to have rubbed cheeks with far too many butts over the years, opposite the ancient boxed TV set that didn’t seem to get a clear signal of anything.
‘I know what you mean.’ said Yaman, while everyone for once seemed distracted with the abundance of food ‘What I meant is, that everything looks nice and dandy here from the outside, but from the inside, only God knows what mess is going on’ said Yaman
‘This is the new land of opportunity. There is no better time to be here than now.’ said Issam through a mouth full of half-chewed pastries.

‘Does anyone want any tea?’ offered Yaman
‘Yes’ we all nodded in unison.
‘But don’t use any of Ahmed’s secondhand tea bags.’ Issam yelled. He turned to me ‘Ahmed likes to reuse his teabags. He thinks it’s good for the environment’ he snorted, covering his mouth so as not to spray us with his saliva mixed with dough.
‘I am here to save up as much as possible and go home live a comfortable life, buy myself a farm, water some trees, breed some animals’ said Ahmed. These are the first words that introduced me to Ahmed, and these are the words I would long remember him by. Issam didn’t seem to be too thrilled to hear more about Ahmed’s future intentions. Yaman brought in a tray of plastic cups swaying with the dark, auburn liquid.
‘I didn’t put any sugar because I don’t know how much you each take’

We each took a cup from the tray and filled it with our preferred number of sugar spoonfuls.
‘Anyway we’re going out tonight and taking Assem with us on his introductory outing.’ He said with a half-smile shining on his face, noisily sipping on his tea. He slapped Yaman on the shoulder, and squeezed a bit. Some things haven’t changed, remembering Issam’s overt displays of confidence coupled with affection and possible hints of supremacy over others. As children he would constantly have his hand straddled around my neck or laced at the hip, a gesture that never failed to irritate me and I countered by pushing his hand gently away. Ahmed seemed to feel that this conversation did not concern him anymore, slipped back into his room carrying an assortment of zaatar pastries for future consumption like a bear withdrawing to his cave for winter hibernation.

‘Are we now?’ Yaman said sneakily, grinning from ear to ear. I had no idea what they were talking about, but they used the tone of voice reserved for sexual innuendoes.
‘Yes. Life is about to change dramatically for you. You’ll see things you have never seen before.’ He said winking at me.


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Uouo Uo said...

thank you

سعودي اوتو

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