A Night in the Desert

(This was written in 1991, before Dubai became what it is today, and before 9/11)

The gun was cocked, I felt the click of the revolver’s mechanism through my skull. It was a feeling impossible to imagine until you find your own brain separated by only a thin wall of bone from a poised bullet, that at any moment can erupt through your very existence. The man stood over me in the dark, shouting in Arabic, spiting his words down at me as a flashlight danced about my now sweating face. You often hear that when you are about to die, your life flashes before your eyes. Well mine didn’t. What did happen though, is time seemed to slow down. And I felt this euphoric rush of calm as if opiates had seeped through my body from the feet-up.

At the movies, when someone is about to be executed, or they are walked into a field with a spade, and are told to kneel-down, I hear this voice in my head saying, “Run! Kick him! Escape before it’s too late! There’s nothing to lose, if you’re going to die – you may as well attempt to escape, eh?” But in reality, away from the bravado of a viewer, you freeze. Time slows down – but then, so do you. You stare up at your fate and accept death or cling to a notion that if you behave and do as you’re told – it’ll be okay, they may still let you go.

 

They wore no uniforms, just traditional muslim dress, one pointed a machine gun at my host who stood scared against the wall, the other leveled his at my chest – as if the pistol at my temple was not enough to pacify me. I closed my eyes and reached behind my head for my British passport. “This would either kill me or save me”, I thought.

My ending up in the middle of the desert, in a shack, with a gun to my head, when just hours before I had arrived back at the safety of my hotel, was the result of an innocent enough turn of events. I still occasionally re-walk my steps through these events in my mind. It seemed as if it was certain as soon as I stepped off the plane. It all unfolded so naturally. But now suddenly I was alone, in the desert and facing death.

I had been working as a Montessori teacher in Sweden for a year now. I was just about to finish my training. I needed to write three reports on three different Montessori schools, evaluating their programmes. When I was given the opportunity to fly to Dubai and visit a school there, it seemed like a great treat – an opportunity to see another country – the flight and hotel would be paid for. Apart from writing the report, my only obligation was to drive Olga Norqvist (my employer) to Stockholm airport and see that she reached her destination, an old friend of hers in Dubai.

Olga Nordvist was about 50-years old, a rounded Swede with large glasses and a nervous disposition. She looked like the type of woman that as child – would already have appeared to be an old maid. What became clear as the journey progressed, was that she was disturbed, very disturbed. Her father and estranged husband had died earlier that year and she was heading for a mental breakdown. This trip was supposed to be a new beginning for her. With no friends in Sweden after living a paranoid, lonely existence, she had decided to look-up an old school friend who was now living just outside of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

The trouble started as soon as we landed. Her eyes darted around suspecting every Arab of wanting to ravage her, or loot her belongings. She would nervously watch each twist of a doorknob with horror. Each phone call would make her jump. She was heading for a complete mental break-down and I didn’t want to get in the way. It was a relief to see her off on the final leg of her journey and be left alone in the hotel.

I spent the next day observing and taking notes in the Montessori school before exploring the city on foot. Wandering around the streets on the way back to the hotel cars would slow down and children would point at me. We were on the first tourist flights to Dubai and I must have looked out of place on the streets, a young Englishman in Bermuda shorts, in a dark red Lacoste, wearing Ray Ban Wayfarers to protect my eyes from the fine sand that a warm breeze blew into everyone’s faces. The Gulf War had finished months before, oil fields south of Kuwait could be seen still burning across the gulf, and the air was thick and oppressive.

The international community lived in village compounds, locked communities with their own supermarkets. There was a strange duality where a westerner can buy a drink at an international hotel, but a local could be arrested for possessing the same. Outside of the international hotels, the whole world would stop for prayers as loud hailers wailed across the city. I was the only Westerner walking around, on foot, lost and alone, with time to kill. When I got back to the hotel, I was shocked to find Olga in reception. She immediately started waving her arms about and complaining that the Arab in the corner was giving her funny looks. Suggestive looks. She was mad, starting to sound racist and I didn’t want any part of it.

I went up to my room with her as she explained how she had fallen out with her old friend as soon as she arrived at her house. Apparently this friend was neglecting a horse and they argued about animal welfare. Something Olga claimed to feel very strongly about. I suspected that her friend merely saw that she was a looney and wanted to get rid of her as much as I had the day before. But this turn of events was too much. It was starting to get dark by the time I insisted that she took my room, made my excuses, and slipped out of the hotel entrance with my suitcase, leaving her madness behind me as I walked into the warm evening breeze.

The night before I had met a few Americans in the hotel bar, they were in another hotel a few blocks away. I hailed a cab and was picked up by a kind looking, mustached Pakistani, one of the many guest workers that drive cabs, clean and work all kinds of unskilled jobs to send money home. With no rights – these workers would keep their noses clean and were good people. I felt I could trust any of them, the harsh punishments that would await the guilty prevented them from being anything but humble. He drove me to the American hotel but warned me that it was full, he waited while I went to check at reception. It was indeed full! The only rooms left were so expensive there was no way I could afford them, even on my credit card.

A few tours around the city provided the same story – too expensive or full. Also I hadn’t considered how weak my finances were. It was dark and I had no where to go but back to the madness of Olga’s paranoid racism. The driver looked at me and introduced himself as Rashid. He could barely speak English, but said, “You – me – no problem! You – me – sleep, s’okay.” His long eyelashes smiled and he seemed quite kind. I left home age-15 and having developed street smart early on, I had become quite intuitive to danger and there was none here. This man was tired and was just about to finish work – he was showing me a kindness that is as much a part of his culture – as it is suspicious to ours.

The car bumped through the rocky desert. The headlights picking up flickers of insects and dust as the beams fell into the empty distance. We were no longer on a road and were getting farther away from anything that resembled civilization. On the plane I had been reading Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley stories. Perhaps that had influenced my reaction to Olga, suddenly it seemed like I was caught-up in a Hitchcock movie, events spiraling out of control. Where is this man taking me? Now I too was becoming paranoid!

We arrived at a small concrete compound with a rusted iron door. An internal shack was split into three, a toilet, a washroom, and a bunker in which we would sleep. Rashid was unconscious as soon as we lay down. He had offered to find me some black-market beer on the way. I had thanked him but refused. I was tired too and unable to rid my mind of Olga’s madness. I felt cut-off, wanted to phone a friend and tell them my story. This was a desert village, no electricity, no phones, not even a road.

 

My mind started wandering and I imagined how he could easily dispose of my body by burning it in that oil drum in the courtyard, Ripley style. No-one knew I was here. I would simply disappear. My suitcase suddenly seemed so stupid and out of place. A Samsonite standing on a desert floor, in a bunker lit only by shafts of moonlight from a few thin windows. If it wasn’t a full moon, it was close. Then I heard shuffles, and whispers coming from outside. My money belt was under my head, containing my passport and what little cash I had. A loud noise made my heart leap into my throat and skip a beat. A violent clang of twisted metal as the doors to the compound were broken open. Followed by urgent voices. I heard the doors to the washroom kicked-in. Then our room burst open and three men with guns stood silhouetted in the doorway. One pointed a torch at Rashid’s sleeping body.

They pulled him out of bed and pushed him up against the wall as they shouted at him. Two of the men had machine guns, and one (obviously the leader) held a pistol in one hand and a crop in the other which he used to whip Rashid who pointed quickly my way. Their attention and the torchlight immediately fell on me. Until then I had been temporarily concealed behind the shadow of the door.

The leader stood over me spitting in Arabic, shouting and demanding some answer. He pushed his gun to my head and pulled back the trigger. As I reached for my passport time had slowed down. I had accepted death. I knew that he would perhaps think I was pulling a weapon, that maybe his shouts meant, “Keep still, keep your hands still!” I drew my passport out carefully from behind my head. He was so agitated, it felt as if the trigger could slip at any moment as he held the gun to my forehead. He grabbed my passport, they shone the torch at it, then withdrew and gave it back politely. They slapped Rashid, reprimanded him him one final time and left.

“What.. what..”, I said. “Who, were they?” Although I didn’t understand at the time, I later understood them to be maybe Saudi religious police, or at least the leader was. Apparently the village I was in was on the border between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Someone must have seen me arrive from the shadows and decided I needed investigating. A strange westerner visiting in the night would not have been usual. I guess they just wanted to know what was going on. I was glad I didn’t agree to the offer of black-market beer – that would not have helped.

But at that moment, as I lay, knowing that I was so far from home, no road, no phone, no electricity nor running water. Just a cold hard desert floor and a gun to my head. I had let go, and it was okay.

The effects of some natural opiate rushing through my veins, preparing me for the inevitable – I accepted my death, I wasn’t even scared, it just was. I think I left something behind on that desert floor. Like a scared part of me jumped out of my body just before I would die. I no longer felt at all nervious or worried about anything.

The next day, on the way to the airport we passed huge glittering tower blocks. Like something straight out of Manhattan – planted firmly in the empty desert. A scrawny dog wandered along the dusty track leading up to the entrance. The fine sand in the wind had lightly sand-blasted my glasses, I took them off and polished them and wiped them on my shirt. Rashid smiled with his eyes. It was good to be alive.

 

 

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