Vanishing Act

Only two out of ten people die in Abu Dhabi, the rest
simply fail to have their visas renewed; they are bagged,
tagged and placed on the next available flight back to
wherever they came from.The one-way ticket experience
par excellence…Every edifice on this island is crafted by
these almost-nothings.Their solace in death, at least, is
to never again queue for whole days on end, to have their
fingertips inked and pressed by intolerant hands, their
blood screened for undesirable illnesses, their flesh seared
by a sun that wonders what the hell they are doing there.

Lead, Kindly Light

The school was an hour south of the city, in the middle
of nowhere, but the compound was walled and guarded.
Our headmaster was a retired policeman, and the windows
of the bus were criss-crossed with bars. Submission was
the order of the day: you have been given your place in the
world, and now you must earn it. We didn’t study much: our
books were outdated and censored. Rules, on the other
hand, were eminently negotiable. Everyone kept to their own,
just like in prison. Suspicions fluctuated with hormones. We
knew nothing of the country we lived in, save that our presence
was temporary. Our hosts were calm and indiffierent, almost
ghostlike. One day, when the subject of oil arose, an Emirati
classmate exclaimed: My grandfather rode a camel, my father
rode a camel, I will drive a Lamborghini, and my son will drive
what- ever he likes – but my grandson will ride a camel. The day
the USS Cole was bombed in Aden, a large Israeli flag was set on
fire in the playground. The white kids were nowhere to be seen …

The Return

I get stamped in like a tourist. It’s 7 a.m.and my father’s waiting for
me at arrivals. We drive along the impossibly wide highways, over
the bridge to the island of Abu Dhabi. Sixty years ago, there was
almost nothing here: a single mud-brick fort, where the ruler and
his family lived, a few brackish wells, an airstrip, and a handful of
huts. Now it accommodates one and a half million people from just
about everywhere on Earth and hosts a Formula 1 Grand Prix. My
father pulls up in a parking lot in the middle of Bateen, a residential neighbourhood. On entering the three-storey building where he
and my mother live, I spot a succession of bright red crosses spray
-painted on nearly every wall, door and hallway. It’s Passover at King
Herod’s. My father explains that an official from the Municipality
inspected the building last week and ordered all the partitions torn
down in accordance with new planning regulations. Most of the building
is held up by light interior walls that sound like ripe watermelons when
you rap your knuckles against them. The Municipality has given my
parents two days to knock down the walls, or they’ll cut off their gas, water
and electricity. Over the years, my family has acquired a breath-taking
proficiency in paring their lives down to the bare essentials. Living in the
United Arab Emirates is like assembling a Jenga tower, then nervously trying
to remove as many blocks as you can without the entire edifice collapsing
on you. Once the walls are gone, my parents will get a reprieve from the city
authorities, like the rest of their anxious fellow tenants: at which point the
game starts all over again.

Infidelity

The bin-man lifts the lid
on the hungry, scurvy cats,
and waves a weak hello
as he combs the trash for a snack.

I sit on the balcony semi-naked
and wave back. My cold,
Olympian brutality stirs
with my first cup of coffee

and I catch myself wishing
this town would burn to the ground.
The inevitable sun rises into view
and greases the palms with its light.

A removal van beeps into position.
The piano teacher, my mother’s rival,
is readying to move out. For months,
the two have waged a guerrilla war,

my mother flicking ash into her garden,
the other making clothes that slipped
off their pegs mysteriously disappear …
After three years in Florence, my mother

returned to her husband and suddenly
found herself the other woman,
displaced by my father’s fear of death,
a male disease that knows only one cure …

Now their conjugal life lies in limbo,
and I observe these once jovial people,
hermit crabs too poor for new shells,
become slowly infected with nihilism –

but how lasting is love anyway? As Churchill
once said to the King of Bahrain: ‘We try
never to desert our friends, that is unless
it’s in our interest … ’The sun reaches its peak

and a kitten climbs to the top of a small dune
in the half-empty parking lot and spends an hour
trying to defecate, but can’t. It hasn’t eaten enough.
I’ve seen too much. I shut my eyes and dive back

into the murky ocean of memory.

Subscribe to Five Dials. It's free.