I recently spent three weeks in Dubai as an intern at a television station. This is the first part of an account of that time.
I spent my flight from Cairo to Dubai with a small child on my lap. She wore a tutu and a tiara and could not have been more than five years old. The flight was four hours, and she continually eluded her mother’s grasp to slither onto my lap, burbling away in Arabic. As my Arabic is probably at the standard of a five-year-old, we communicated very successfully. Both of us commented on the existence of the sky, on its very blueness, and urged each other to look at the planes. Her mother, a lady in niqab, exchanged rueful eyebrow gestures with me and rolled her eyes in sympathy every time her daughter once more approached my knees.
Dubai came upon me like a computer-generated image, a cartoon of a city, the fundamental absurdity of so much existing on so little. We circled around the tops of the towers and came into land. I had visions of swooping down to funnel between the buildings, to look out of the window at others behind glass. The city was on an aerial scale. It shone with a white heat. I got the metro into town and spent the journey in a haze of sweat and half-sleep. At Ibn Battuta I picked my way across a building site and fell into a cab.
At first I slept on a purple sofa. I bought a sack of oranges from the supermarket and ate them for breakfast and lunch. I didn’t know how much I could spend and got used to the faint pinch of hunger. Discovery Gardens was a huge parking lot surrounded by peach-coloured buildings which glowed in the evenings. After ten in the morning it was too hot to be outside. Children played football in between the apartment blocks and women in saris sat talking on benches.
On my first day at work I left two hours to get to the office. I arrived with an hour to spare and sat in a pile of sand on the edge of Media City and read a newspaper I had picked up on the flight. I was still brutally tired. I was wearing a blouse and high heels and a skirt that kept riding up slightly. I went into the office and the air conditioning slapped me around the face. Nick took me outside for a coffee and smoked his way steadily through a packet of Marlboros as he told me about his time in Saudi Arabia making films for the government. People greeted me in English and told me to watch what they were doing. I watched carefully as they typed and printed and pressed buttons. I watched carefully as they made coffee, the sickly Nescafe I was used to from Egypt and Syria, one spoonful of coffee, two of sugar, one of powdered milk, stirred until it turned the perfect beige.
I packed oranges in my work bag and learned the metro route from the flat to the office. I wore sunglasses and jeans and kept my head down. The Emirati policemen, at least four to each metro station, swaggered lazily along the platforms and leaned against the walls, playing games on their phones. I stopped hearing the announcements and unwittingly memorised the sequence of stations.
Every morning I went to the McDonalds in Media City and bought a cup of coffee for four dirhams. It came in a brown paper bag with two sticks of sugar, two cartons of milk, a paper napkin and a plastic stirrer. I would unpack this all on the concrete steps in the courtyard of Media City. I would drink the milk on its own then pour one stick of sugar into the coffee and stir it. I would save the napkin for lunchtime to wipe away the orange juice from my fingers. By the evening, the courtyard would be filled with nargileh smoke and the clack of tawleh boards coming from the Lebanese cafe on the corner.
The first time I went to Abu Dhabi I fell asleep in the car and woke up with hot and itchy eyes which balked at the sunlight reflecting off the glass buildings. Wodyan did her makeup expertly in the back of the car and shuffled through her stack of business cards with manicured fingers, deftly sorting and extracting the ones she needed. Naji was already in the bureau, filling the editing room with smoke. Wodyan showed me the live stream of her own house that she used to watch her nanny while she was at work. Naji and I argued over whether Hassan Nasrallah was a sayyid or a sheikh. He was from Achrafiye and not for the last time in Dubai I felt the brief tug of memory, of places passed through. This time it was sunlight on a wall full of bullet-holes, a picture of Baudelaire outside a cafe covered in bougainvillea, a bar filled with people with dark hair and leather jackets. Every time we went to Abu Dhabi I fell asleep and woke up feeling like a grumpy child.
I learned to create my own diversions. I arrived earlier than most people and stared at the scrolling list of wire reports on my computer screen. I cut and pasted and stitched together with the pieces of Arabic that serve as glue, the fa’s and inna’s and wa’s. I summarised and tried to give a sense of meaning. Day by day I watched the pieces of news expand. An initial report of violence gave way to places and names and numbers of dead. Then that was joined by reaction and condemnation, by detail and nuance, by background and analysis. I translated and memorised. I wrote a voice-over and laboriously added the vowelling, then practiced it in the toilet because I was too shy to speak fusha out loud.
Chris and Melissa took me to the creek. Melissa and I sneaked up to the top floor of a restaurant and looked out over the water. The abras went back and forth, the most fragile pieces of light. She told me about a plan to create a Venice-like system of canals, and the idea made perfect sense to me. Everything about Dubai began to make perfect sense to me. We walked through the souk and I bought falude from an Iranian man who tested me on my paltry Farsi and agreed when I told him that Shirazi falude was the best in Iran. We went through Deira to a falafel place where I ate with my hands and drank sweet tea from a mug with ‘QALB TAYYIB’ on it.
I went into Ibn Battuta mall once to pick up something mundane and never went back. That was the only time I went to a mall. When I left I felt as though perhaps I had missed something.
Wodyan, Naji, Mohin, Ali and I filmed interviews with grave, clean-shaven men in dishdashes who sat behind vast desks in dark, cool rooms. I shook hands and listened and tried not to make any sound. Wodyan’s hair was always flawless and her clothes were always straight. Only perhaps by the evening when we were driving back to Dubai would you catch the faintest hint of sweat when she moved. My hair stuck to my scalp and I hopped between patches of shade. My sunglasses were held together with a bit of wire and my bag had one strap missing. I had no business cards. Occasionally I did the re-asks with Wodyan, when she asked questions and nodded in reaction to imaginary responses. I was a mannequin in a leather armchair. I was younger than her and looked older.
I developed a fascination with one of the anchors. She was round in the careless, taut way of a Rubens painting and wore satin suits in purples and pinks which stretched tight when she walked, with a slight effort, clumsy on her black spike heels. Like all the anchors I saw them first on screen, in the control room or in the office on one of the televisions which all day flashed silently between CNBC, al-Jazeera, and al-Arabiyah. Then I would see them in the flesh as they came into the news room after a broadcast, sipping from water bottles and detaching wires from themselves, loosening their ties or taking off their stiff shoes, their faces shining. I saw her once eating lunch in the courtyard and avoided her eye, although her desk was very close to mine. There was something cartoonish about her, something that faintly intimidated me.
I went to a party with Chris and Melissa on the 26th floor of a building. The apartment was new and looked like a magazine spread. It had white leather furniture and a futuristic sound system and a balcony that looked far out into the city. The hosts were young and seemed to want for nothing. I drank fruit punch out of a paper cup and listened to people talk. Later we played a game, a debating game, and I was drunk or unfamiliar enough to win. Their dog matched the furniture and ran around the apartment as they made delicate little snacks out of avocado, prawns, basil, goat’s cheese. I think it was the first time I had ever introduced myself as a friend met on the internet.
Slowly, I learned how to edit video, a new kind of typing, and found a kind of pleasure in the neatness and exactitude required to cut and paste a clip just so, the trickery of sound and image, the basic manipulation of a story. It was laborious and I was very slow. I spent two days editing an interview that would take ‘Usama, my mentor, a couple of hours. I finished it and realised I had used the wrong sound file. I started again and this time it only took me a day. When I had finished ‘Usama congratulated me and gave me the interview on a memory stick.
I bought some sesame sweets to supplement my oranges. I ran up huge bills talking to people far away. At night, I sat outside on a bench in Discovery Gardens, watching the nocturnal dog-walkers ply back and forth.