There is a side to life in Dubai that can safely be compared to an ex-pat lifestyle "like something out of a Graham Greene novel"—there lies beneath the post-future, spiraling, art deco, chrome and glass towers, a deliciously wicked night life that teems with South Asian reprobates, Pakistani and Afghani heroin dealers; the hotel pubs overflow with prostitutes from the ex-Soviet bloc, China, Armenia, Thailand and some African countries though I'm not sure which ones. I've dabbled in this lifestyle, that is to say I've skimmed its surface and if I could write (well), I'd probably pay homage to (which is to say I'd rip off) Greene and bang out a novel about life as a shady, unredemptive ex-pat in turn-of-the-century Dubai.
The other side of life 'round here also resonates like Greene's portrayal of the other side of life, the family life, in ex-pat shithole postings, i.e. the back biting, the grudge holding and perk envying. I'm thinking in particular of Greene's "Heart of the Matter". In the novel's first act, Scobie, a British customs inspector during World War Two in Sierra Leone, is passed over for a promotion and loses out on a housing upgrade. This causes his wife to lose face at the social club and she literally swoons with depression before asking to be shipped off to South Africa so she doesn't have to face the gossipers. Perk monsters can be more savage than the savages lurking in the bush or those that dilly-dally in the alley behind the desolate, forgotten mosque.
When I complained to the housing manager about the sand that blows into our villa from the still-to-be-landscaped backyard, he offered a solution that sounded reasonable enough for me to say "Thanks" and offer a handshake. "Hose it down," he said. This sand doesn't turn to mud when wet. It becomes more like semi-dried concrete and the light feet of felines are not heavy enough to make a dent in the surface, so we wouldn't have to then be dealing with wet sand paw prints on the thin layer of marble veneer on our living room floor.
Wasting no time, we sped off to Ace hardware and bought a hose then took the hose out back to begin spraying down the yard.
Problem or Mooshkeela! (Life in the Arab world is rife with one Mooshkeela after another) No tap! It would seem that the head of housing, the man who approved the designs, would have known about this little flaw, and he probably did and he guessed correctly that I wouldn't waste my time returning to his office because I can anticipate his next response:
"Enshallah--if God wills it--we'll install taps soon." Life in the Arab world is also rife with this ubiquitous reply which assigns the blame for all human faults to God.
The Rose and I conferred. We conspired. We made a decision. This decision of ours, this pivotal plot point launched us into Act Two.
We took matters into our own hands. We called (and called and called and faxed and Emailed) the physical plant begging them to send a plumber to come fix the many leaks in the bathrooms and kitchen. The physical plant is obligated to do this. The plumber eventually came and then it was time for the Rose to don one of her peasant blouses that suggests a bit of the promised land, that is to say, a whisper of cleavage. (Hey--it was a similar blouse that had me asking her out on our first date--the Rose is no fool and I am so predictable).
After the plumber stopped the leakage both upstairs and down, the Rose asked in the Arabic language (and the cleavage asked in body language) if he could do anything to help us install a tap for the garden hose. Of course he could, for a little baksheesh of course, or a nominal fee equal to three or four bucks U.S.D. And done and done, one T-tap under the kitchen sink later, we were in business.
But it is all so surreptitious and insidious. We have pledged not to use the hose during daylight hours, not to use it to wash the car which would be in front of God and all and not to tell anyone that we have this one extra puny perk in our lives. If our neighbors find out that we have this one extra convenience that they lack, that they were cheated out of (it's the principle!) there would be an uproar. Either the poor plumber would have to visit a dozen more villas and install the same T-tap, or remove ours and/or quite possibly lose his job for accepting a tiny bribe.
Ok. Maybe it's not exactly the stuff of a Graham Greene novel. There are no lapsed Catholic gentlemen betraying their wives, playing with their souls as they dally with the wives of their best friends. There don't appear to be any secret police standing outside in the shadows noting our comings and goings. We do not belong to a network of spies who trade wives, girlfriends and state secrets over gin and tonics under the panting blades of a lazy ceiling fan on the veranda of an old Victorian-era hotel.
But then, as Azar Nafisi tells us in her book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, good fiction does not recreate our world. Good fiction creates its own world and that world only bears some passing, salient similarities to ours. In good fiction worlds, the similarities between these worlds and ours are then heightened and distorted for effect, for metaphor and to drive home their morality tales which are somehow linked to our world and our own lives.
So our secret garden hose may not be a bold comment on the ethical price we pay as expats as we in turn pay the price of holding up the white man's burden and are seduced into sliding into our own moral decay, but indirectly, I'd have to say it does have its parallels with the worlds of Greene (and Theroux and E. M. Forster for that matter). We've broken the covenant of the compound. Welcome to Act Three.
We have acquired something that others genuinely need--our neighbor three doors down for example has a daughter with asthma, a condition that is aggravated by the errant whipping sand.
The sand could be seen as the hoard of Boxers in rebellion. Our university compound is the Peking legations under siege. And our hose, which we could extend over the backyard walls to reach three doors down, is our secret bomb shelter, perhaps large enough to safely protect the neighbor's women and children, but we selfishly say nothing so like Greene's fallen Catholics, we may be in need of some major redemption--all for the want of wet sand.
Sometimes, gentlemen, a length hose is more than a hose.
Labels: Dubai, ex-pat, Graham Greene