I look at myself in the mirror, sullen face staring back at me, wide, empty London smile fixed to my face, hiding the torment within.
What’s causing this? A meeting I have just had with my editor.
‘Gerhan’, he told me. ‘I want you to go to Bahdobian and write about how rubbish it is.’
‘I thought we loved it,’ I asked. ‘The last five features this paper ran said it was the best thing since sliced bread?’
‘Good point,’ said my editor. ‘The pendulum swings both ways, though. We decided it’s rubbish now.’
‘Fair enough, but why do I need to go? I already know everything there is to know about the place from my friend Germaine Greer – she spent four hours on the bus there only the other day.’
‘I know’, grunted my editor. ‘But we’ve got five days’ free at one of their best hotels, provided we give them a mention in the article you’ll write. File your piece before you leave, if you like – take the week as holiday.’
I’m still in shock. How can I, with my example-setting lifestyle, manage to survive five days in somewhere so awful as Bahdobian?
At home, I spend an hour looking for my passport, which I haven’t had to use since my last travel article. The mental scars of that particular piece still haunt me. Images of interviewing drunken tourists at four in the morning at nightclubs in Ibiza fill my mind. None of them seemed to care in the slightest that they were in a town that lacked an opera house, or that they were in a country that lets people fight bulls. And that used to be a dictatorship and had some kind of civil war a while ago. Or something. These people just wouldn’t talk to me. They simply carried on drinking Aftershock and vomiting.
I fly in on Bahdobian’s national airline. 150 years ago this country had no aeroplanes – camels were used for transport. Now they operate a fleet of carbon-belching planes, allowing people to flit from continent to continent in search of instant gratification. Whilst I feel this kind of travel is unethical, it is very useful for helping journalists such as myself to get to important destinations quickly. I refuse to watch “Top Gear” playing on the in-flight entertainment. The works of Lenin and Marx shall be my only companions on this journey. I settle into my first-class seat.
‘Are you a slave?’ I ask the smiling stewardess. Katy Framione from Essex looks at me blankly as she offers me a glass of a particularly cheeky Chablis, her wide, empty Bahdobian smile beaming up at me as she crouches, shamed, at my elbow.
The poor woman doesn’t even realise that she is an indentured worker, forced to slave her life away at 40,000 feet, never to return home. Behind her smile I read her mind – she knows, but cannot admit what she sees and feels. I pat her on the head encouragingly. I write down her innermost thoughts on my notepad as she backs slowly away from me. The look of fear on her face is thanks to me, I congratulate myself – I have opened her eyes.
As I fly into Bahdobian, the air provides me with a clear view of the city. It rises from the desert like a [insert turgid metaphor here please, sub editor]. I wish I had gotten off as lightly as my colleague Simon Jenkins, who managed to file his piece based simply on flying over the city. I, alas, must venture into its portals of doom.
.... ‘Are you a slave?’ I ask my taxi driver, a bearded man from Baziristan. He looks confused. ‘I work hard here, yes, but there is little for me back home and this is what I need to do to support my family.’
He pretends to be focusing on the road, but deep inside, I know what he really feels, but he cannot admit it. It’s Bahdobian’s fault there is no work for him back home. For him to say otherwise would be, he senses, a transgression too far.
.... Naturally, as a first class investigative reporter, my first destination is the hotel car park. It is here I see my first signs of the shocking truth that fills Bahdobian. A truth that no Essex expat may dare speak of.
Mohan repeats the same thing over and over – he is a driver for a local businessman and he is waiting for him to return from a lunch meeting. But I know what he is really trying to say, deep down. He cannot say it though – this, he senses, would be a transgression too far.
Mohan is clearly living in his Rolls Royce in this car park. Maxed-out, in debt, he has nowhere else to go. No choice but to spend his days sleeping in the car with the AC on. Afraid to go home, he is destined to spend his life here, in a Rolls Royce, in a hotel car park. His story isn’t unique. Across Bahdobian, maxed-out expats sleep in their cars, not thinking to sell them or to live somewhere more practical than a hotel car park, not possessing even one friend with a couch to spare in their hour of need. Sleeping in their Rolls Royce is their only option. I can read it in Mohan’s eyes.
But it’s not only sleeping in cars. The desert, 40 years ago nothing but tumbleweed, lions and tigers, now resembles a refugee camp, as expat middle managers huddle, with nothing but a Rolls Royce, Range Rover (HSE or Vogue) for shelter, nestled amongst the dunes, with nowhere to go.
.... That evening, I set off for my first bout of real research. Although I already know what I am going to write, I feel I should pay some lip service to journalistic standards.
....The following morning, I wake up around midday when the car’s owner rudely turfs me out of the backseat. ‘Are you a slave?’ I ask him. He shouts at me, not realising I am on his side.
.... I visit a local shopping mall. Shopping malls are everywhere here. Glittering domes of consumerism, rising out of the desert like the cacti which filled the area just 20 years ago.... I approach a 17-year-old girl wearing a miniskirt, walking through the mall. She walks briskly away from me. ‘Are you a slave?’ I cry out, but still she walks away. To talk to me, she senses, would be a transgression too far.
I corner her, finally, between an ice cream shop and a fast food joint. I lower my head, overcome with disgust that people in this country might want to eat fast food, or ice cream.
I know what this young girl thinks, as I can read her mind, but before I can ask her again, I feel a firm grip on my shoulder. The authorities have clearly caught up with me – it took longer than I thought, but the secret police were bound to be on my tail.
The secret policeman is disguised as a security guard and speaks only rudimentary, broken English. ‘Good afternoon, Sir,’ he mumbles, in halting, disjointed sentences. ‘Would you please be so kind as leave this young lady be? You seem distressed. May I recommend that you proceed forthwith to your hotel, where a cold refreshment and a lie-down might serve to revive your spirits?’ I struggle to interpret his attempts to communicate, but, finally understanding, I agree that a quick lie-down might be a good idea.
He leads me, brutally, to the taxi rank. I sense he would like to cuff me, but he holds back, aware of my vaunted status as an international newspaper columnist, standing a little ahead of me, smiling encouragingly. As I climb into my cab, I see the girl looking at me from across the marble floor of this temple of consumerism. She is talking to a friend. ‘Weirdo, freak’ are the words I can read on her lips. I smile at her in agreement. She is clearly referring to the disguised secret policeman who has treated me in such a degrading manner. She wishes to speak to me, I can tell, but is afraid to. That, she senses, would be a transgression too far.
My time in Bahdobian over, I forego a normal cab back to the airport and choose to take hotel transport to the airport. I ask for a bicycle, but am met with blank looks. Clearly, environmental sensibilities have not made much of a mark here. The concierge points out that a bike may be unpractical, given my three suitcases. I give in and grudgingly accept a lift in the hotel Bentley. To my surprise it is being driven by Mohan. I congratulate him. He has clearly stolen the car and is hoping to escape this hell-hole. He tries to deny this, telling me, in halting English, that he has a new job driving for the hotel. I smile knowingly, understanding what he is really saying. He is telling me that he has given up on life and has agreed to become a slave. To admit that openly would be, he senses, a transgression too far.
.... Finally reaching my pied-à-terre, I collapse onto my sofa. Looking around, I am pleased to see that the cleaner’s been while I was away. Everything is spic and span, my underpants ironed, bedclothes neatly made. That nice plumber form Poland has also popped around and fixed my blocked toilet. I write cheques to pay them their monthly wages. Should I give them a little extra, considering the great job they do? Maybe pay them the same amount I am paid for writing my in-depth reportage?
I decide not to do so.
That, I sense, might be a transgression too far.
Full version: http://arabcomment.com/2009/yet-anot...shing-article/