The British press seem to be continuing to bash Gulf states at every opportunity. Here’s a piece from The Sunday Observator’s bumptious columnist Gerhan Hankins, covering his visit to the nearby state of Bahdobian.
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.
Bahdobian takes it’s name from the ancient Arabic for ant, the ‘dob’. This is an undisputed fact. As we fly in I see people on the streets below. They look like ants from up here. Later, sitting on my hotel balcony, I see an ant. The symbolism overwhelms me.
As we land at the airport, skyscrapers surround us. Every window, every free piece of space on every building, absolutely everywhere is taken up with pictures of a Sheikh. Sheikh [insert name here – subs, please make sure you spell it right] is the absolute ruler of Bahdobian. Just 35 years ago he lived in a desert. Now he has made of the desert a city. But of this city, a desert shall once again rise. I predict.
I enter the airport, its ceiling hung with more images of the Sheikh. Looking more closely, however, I realise that there’s one small image of the Sheikh and that the rest of the pictures are actually adverts with people wearing local dress. I remind myself to get some new glasses. It’s so hard when they all look the same.
‘Passport please,’ asks the smiling Bahdobian at the desk, clothed in cool, crisp white robes, his beard neatly trimmed. 70 years ago these people dressed in sackcloth. Tradition, it seems, counts for nothing here. He is drinking a Coke, I notice. I shudder.
‘I know your game,’ I snap back. ‘You just want to imprison me here forever, forcing me to write press releases for a living, paying me a pittance and never allowing me to return home.’
He looks at me blankly, but I read his true thoughts – he agrees with everything I say, but he cannot admit so in public. This, he senses, would be a transgression too far. ‘May I have your passport please, sir,’ he asks again, hiding his shame behind a face filled with mild confusion.
I know we’ve connected, sensed his guilt. I hand my passport over. He stamps it and wishes me a pleasant stay in Bahdobian.
As I buy four litres of vodka at Duty Free I wonder how I will manage to get through the next few days in this oppressive atmosphere.
60 years ago this place was desert, filled with nothing but Red Indians and cowboys. And tumbleweed too I expect, like in the Clint Eastwood films. Now, as I drive to my exclusive hotel, there is nothing but 18 lane motorways. Everywhere. Even the side streets have at least 10 lanes. Every car I pass is a gas guzzling 4×4, not a bicycle in sight. I weep silently.
‘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.
He asks me if I can help him to get to Britain. I shake my head in disbelief. How naive he is. I only have a three bedroom flat in Islington. How could I manage with him staying there for weeks on end?
I check into my hotel, a gorgeous understated place well worth staying at – apparently its minibreaks are great value and come highly recommended. You can book your stay there via my newspaper’s website.
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.
I head to the only place I will get objective, honest, in-depth feedback on what it’s like to live here. I resolve to visit a local pub hosting a long lunch for a visiting rugby team from the UK.
I arrive just before closing time. People, I am astonished to note, have been drinking. In a pub!
I talk to two old ladies, just the sort of people you would expect to find in a pub aimed at the under-30’s. They too have been drinking. Drinking beer, I notice. Hiding my disgust, I order a cheeky glass of rosé and engage in conversation.
‘It’s great here,’ says Aliciana Frackmouter. She works at a local school for disabled children. ‘After a hard day at work I had nothing that would really help me relax when I was back in England. Here I relax by going to the market and buying maids to lock in my basement. Everyone does. It’s the British expat way.’
There is a common echo I hear in every one of the imaginary conversations I have with myself during my visit. Everyone has staff. Even maids have maids. Fifty years ago, there was nothing here but desert, roamed by dinosaurs. Now the desert is filled with runaway maids, sleeping under maxed-out expats’ Range Rovers, with no one to look after them but slightly more junior maids.
I leave the pub, my head spinning from one too many glasses of Jacob’s Creek – there is no quality wine available here, sadly. Feeling tired and emotional after the day’s onslaught of awfulness, I forego a night in my comfortable hotel and, in solidarity with the maxed-out expats, climb into a nearby car in the car park. I will sleep here tonight, shoulder to shoulder with the millions of others. Going back to my hotel, would be, I sense, a transgression too far.
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.
As I approach this brand new building, I am struck by something so few others seem to have noticed – it’s new. This new city is filled with new buildings. There is not a single Anglo-Saxon era church, no Roman remains, no Georgian terraces. Nothing built here over the last twenty years is older than twenty years. How can British people sink so low as to live here?
Once inside, I wander, dazed, from dress shop to dress shop. I am a man and don’t wear dresses. With each salesperson’s pitch, my spirits sag further. Why are they trying to sell me dresses?
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.
At the airport, I take my last chance to speak to an expat of the horrors they experience. I signal to a cleaner, beckoning to him from where I sit on the toilet, pleading with him to join me. He hangs back, hesitant. He speaks no English at all, but I know what he’s saying. He’s trying to create a poetic metaphor about mirages, deserts, oases and that sort of thing, but can’t quite find the words.
‘Do you feel this place is like a mirage?’ I ask him. ‘A brittle rose of the desert, apparently whole, yet so delicate, crumbling when touched, yet so perfect to behold, as if buried in time, but ready to shrivel like a date in the midday sun?’.
‘Yes, sir’, he answers. I congratulate myself on pinpointing his thoughts so accurately.
My flight back is uneventful. I sit, drained, in First Class. The habits of expats have rubbed off on me, leaving me no choice but to numb myself with cheap liqour. Sharon from Manchester feeds me glass after glass of Moët. I look into her face, frozen as it is in an empty Bahdobian smile. I sense a feeling of utter revulsion coming from her as she looks at me. I know what she is thinking about – the desperate awfulness of the sweltering desert city we have left behind.
‘Another glass, sir?’ she asks. I know what she’s really saying though. She turns her heard away from me, shamed that she has chosen to live anywhere other than London.
I whisk through Heathrow’s VIP fast track. All around me I see pictures of the Sheikh. They are everywhere. Or am I getting confused with advertising boards again? Who knows? Bahdobian has left me dazed.
I pick up a copy of the paper on the way through. MY BAHDOBIAN HELL, the headline screams, my name and photo just below. Once again I’m filled with joy at seeing my face and name in print. The article I filed before leaving on holiday has been printed. Wikipedia and a quick phone call with Germaine were all I needed – she went on the Big Bus tour when she was over, after all. With contacts like these, my visit was superfluous. I had the material I needed to print straightaway, but five days’ paid for holiday is five days’ paid for holiday!
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.
The original version of this piece is here.