It is two a.m.
The main arrival terminal at Dubai is shaped like a pangolin, resting in a shallow sand grave. Steel white ribs brace its bleached skin tight providing shelter against the searing heat. It lies inert like a giant slug, too fat or lazy to move and ingests passengers delivered constantly on conveyor belts. It appears luminous in the early morning as we bank and land in this strange always wide awake city.
I join the immigration line which may have at least a thousand hopefuls, and quickly the segregation starts. Pale, whey-haired girls from the ‘stans’ totter on cheap heels wearing fake fur wraps, tight jeans and smudged make-up. Their skills of smiles and enticement will trap them, not their clients, into a long few years of dancing and uninteresting sexual favours. They will send money home to a child, living with a grandmother. Their first husbands will have drunk any hope from them and beaten their dreams away.
In a corner, officials herd the poor from South Asia who mostly illiterate look in wonder at this twenty first century gateway. They won’t see it again, their documents confiscated by unemotional employers. Soon the paper thin passports are stamped and they are excreted, blinking and stinking into Dubai to be devoured by foot-pads, smugglers, petty thieves, painted Chinese girls and suspicious merchants.
They are the new intake of the enslaved backbone of Dubai and now outside, sweating in thick Pashtoon clothes, they wait in silence for open backed pick-up trucks to take them to shared rooms and work camps. Their suitcases bound with blue nylon rope with their names and unidentifiable addresses pasted onto masking tape is their only identity.
Shifty-eyed scammers who proffer fake SIM cards now prey on them, fleecing them of a few grubby dirham notes with promises of free calls to Silakot, Islamabad and Karachi. They have a couple of minutes of tearful talk to cool green mountain villages and then followed by crackling signals the calls fail. With red confused eyes that hope for the best they punch numbers into shiny screens for calls that will not connect. They will have to learn fast and as they realise they are now alone their mood drops, their spirits for now breaking.
As a white tall man my sleeves are tugged by police hands to open counters and I am through. I can not bring myself to look back, at the stagnant mass who will have to wait their turn and I am invisible to them until I need their services for good roads, clean lobbies and prompt service.
‘Executive cab, Sir?’ and in accepting the offer of immediate escape allow myself to be channeled past a restless seething crowd of pale half-term holiday families who wait, shifting from one foot to another with hot, bored tired children in lines as they are told to hold on for other transports.
I open the taxi’s window and breath the free air. We join a moving belt of traffic, past the tennis stadium, shopping malls, neon-lit Indian shops, and auto stores. I avert my eyes from gazing at construction workers who on finishing their night shifts line up on pavements, all in yellow overalls like Guantanamo inmates to file onto buses, the windows of which are barred.
They will sleep on the plastic benches bumping their way to their camps and I will sleep in cotton sheets in marbled palaces.