I leave the Dubai Movenpick sports bar with Mississippi’s own Leigh Ziller, who has time to spare for making her 1am flight.
We are directed to the brand new Tram, which will take us to the Jumeirah Metro station, then on to luggage pickup at the hotel, and a ride to the airport.
As we turn right on the street with the Tram, the station is 100 meters away. Public transport is modern, beautiful and easily accessible in Dubai.
It’s 9:22pm Gulf Standard Time (GST).
There are three ways to get there. You could walk on the right sidewalk and jaywalk–severe penalties and very dangerous on this busy road. You could walk on the tiny divider separating traffic from the tram tracks. Even more dangerous. Or you could follow the Tram arrows and walk next to the tracks.
I had three Amstels over three hours, Leigh one or two more. OK, they were large beers, and the count is only a guess. Liquor in the Emirates is strictly confined to western-style hotels. Some emirates such as Sharjah are completely dry. As we approach the station, I encourage Leigh to walk faster as the tram is coming. Suddenly, a highly excited thirty-something man approaches us, accompanied by a young policeman.
“You can’t walk there,” he says in a huff. Laying down the law, he says, “That is dangerous. You can get hurt.”
I thank him for his safety instruction, and keep going. “Look at how wide this road is,” he says, pointing at the other side of the divider between train tracks and speeding traffic. “You could easily walk there. But you didn’t. You could have been hit by the train. That is against the rules.” The wide area of pavement actually narrows to a tiny strip halfway to the intersection, making it unsafe, in my view.
We have less than a minute to get on that tram. “Time to spare” for a flight can quickly become, “What time do you have?,” then, “I think we can still make it.”
He goes on and on about the rules and our transgression, and, poof, away the tram goes. Whatever. They come often and I’ll assure this neurotic fellow that we fully understand and will never do it again.
“THANK you SO much,” I say, “This is fully our fault, we are so very sorry, we love your country, and we surely will make not make the mistake again. Now, we really must go…”
“You can’t go,” the policeman says. The fellow is very young, and his demeanor is more senior retail clerk than police officer. His starched gray uniform is overlaid by a bright neon yellow vest. “I called my supervisor. He is coming.”
I ask his name. “Hamad.”
I ask when this supervisor may come. “Soon.”
Leigh speaks up. “You better just arrest us or let us go. Arrest us or let us go right now.” I ask her to allow me to talk to the police, as she is upset and is slurring her words. “I’m a southern girl. Southerners slur their words.”
It’s 9:55pm Gulf Standard Time (GST).
The supervisor does not appear to be in a hurry. We have been here half an hour. Hamad is now joined by another police officer, also young (early twenties?). “What’s your name?” I ask. “Ahmed,” he replies. “Have you ever been to the United States, Ahmed?”
“No,” he smiles. “But I want to go to Las Vegas.”
“Las Vegas??” I exclaim. “No, no, Ahmed, there is drinking there and a lot of sin. You want to go to San Francisco, or New York, the greatest city in the world.”
Ahmed beams, “OK. NO LAS VEGAS!” He waves his hands dismissively and laughs.
As each new policeman arrives, I methodically go through the story, repeat the injustices and, with increasing fervor, point out that Leigh has a flight to catch.
One at a time, they start out telling me that we broke the law, and one at a time, they listen carefully, then agree that we should be let go.
But they can’t let us go. Ahmed points to a security camera. “I would let you go, he would let you go, but we are being watched.”
“Do you smoke?” Hamad asks. “Would you like to smoke something interesting?” He is also young, with short, wavy, black hair, uniformed and thin. The three talk to each other and are on their phones throughout.
“ARE YOU TRYING TO SELL ME MARIJUANA NOW??” I ask, exasperated.
He laughs. “No, no. If I did that, possession is at least 6-7 years in prison. This is Iranian tobacco. You should try it. I gave it to a black American woman once, and she said, are you sure this isn’t marijuana?”
“No, but thanks for offering. I don’t smoke.” He lights up one for himself in an unusually-shaped, short metallic-looking cigarette holder.
I tell them about our visit to the Jumeirah mosque and the lecture on Islam’s protective attitude toward women, and I point at Leigh, who is looking suitably exhausted, numb and anxious. “For an innocent mistake by two visitors who LOVE YOUR COUNTRY, you are subjecting a woman to public humiliation and suffering?”
Ahmed looks guilty, and concerned. “Yes, Brian,” we are now on a first name basis, “I often stop people for speeding and when I see a woman in the car, I just let them go.”
“GREAT POLICY, Ahmed!” He asks for her flight ticket. I answer, “No one uses physical tickets anymore. She has a digital ticket. Hold that thought.” I ask Leigh for her flight information, and she fumbles in her purse and gives me the scribbled flight details. Policeman number three asks if we are thirsty, I say, sure we are, and off he goes for some drinks.
It’s 10:12pm Gulf Standard Time (GST).
The Tram station manager comes out. As he approaches us, Ahmed whispers, “He works for Oracle.” What? He is the manager and he has another job? He tries to walk past me but I step in his way. “I am told these fellows want to allow us to go, but you are insisting that we are fined.”
He offers a smug, self-satisfied smile. “I only wanted you to be safe. The train could hit you if you walk that way.”
I point out the sidewalk and the illogic in his suggestion that we walk this narrow strip. I insist there was inadequate signage. “Didn’t you see the signs?” he asks.
“Yes, there was a sign.” I pointed to a sign with an image of a tram and an arrow pointing to the station. “And we followed it.”
“I never told you to walk here,” he dissembles. “I told you to walk across the street.”
“Actually, no, you pointed to this side stretch of pavement here which narrows to a dangerously narrow one. And if we walked across the street, how would we get to the stop without jaywalking, which is dangerous and illegal?”
“I only care about your safety…”
“I am so pleased to hear that. Because my impression was that you wanted us punished and inconvenienced.” He insists that is not the case. I put my arm around him and say, “I am grateful that you are looking out for your customers, especially out of country visitors who are using your beautiful tram for the first time. We made a mistake. It is fully our error. I am sorry for it. We did our very best to follow the rules.” I look at the station’s large digital clock through the glass window. I ask him to intercede to let us go. He walks up to the policemen and huddles with them.
It’s 10:35pm Gulf Standard Time (GST).
“Can we go?” I ask. The waters arrive, bought at a local shop blocks away. We down them, along with some breath mints. Just in case.
“Ah, he’s here,” says Hamad, as a fourth officer shows up in a sturdy white police vehicle. Young. Gray uniform with yellow neon vest. He is determined to get to the bottom of things.
I go through the story again. Followed the signs. Did our best. Out of country visitors. Love your country. Arab hospitality, Islam’s courtesy to women. The flight. The absurdity of keeping us here for more than an hour. He listens carefully, but then says we broke the rules. Two young, nicely dressed local boys, early teens, walk across the tracks.
“STOP!!” I insist, startling them. “What did you just do?? Don’t you know that you can’t cross the tracks??”
The young one, perhaps 14, said they were just trying to get to the tram to catch the train. “EXACTLY,” I protest. I turn to Ahmed, who is laughing. “Arrest these people at once, Ahmed.”
The older boy intercedes, “We didn’t do anything wrong.” He looks at me, pleading his innocence, then Leigh, then the policeman.
“OK, I say,” and remove myself from their path. “You can go now. But, please, don’t do that again.”
“We won’t,” the older boy promises, as they hurry off.
Just then, a young couple hurriedly jaywalk to get to the station. Leigh had told me about an article in the UAE’s daily newspaper The National decrying an epidemic of jaywalking deaths. I ask the policemen why they are not being stopped and fined.
Hamad sighs. “We get it. We want to let you go. I told the station manager, ‘He is an old guy, imagine if it was your father.'”
The African security guard joins the party. I tell him our story. “You did nothing wrong. There is no way you could know.”
“See?” I ask.
And, then at a few minutes before 11pm, the Major arrives. He is a little older, in his mid-thirties, with a thick mustache, shorter and more muscular than his underlings. He crosses the street and asks me what happened. Same story, only now more insistent. “This woman,” Leigh is now squirming on the concrete slab, begging to pee, “has a plane to catch, and if she misses it, there could be thousands of dollars in expense. And she has five children waiting for her at home.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “We have to take you to the police station and you will have fines to pay.”
At this point I realize, whatever I think may be right, this is another country with another set of laws, and they have made their decision. And the outcome will be ugly. No matter what I say.
Unless, of course, I keep talking.
Islam. Women. Mosque, America. Tourism. Arab hospitality. Flight. Inconvenience. Best efforts. Humble apology. Already here almost two hours. Rude treatment by station manager. Your four police officers each believe we should be let go. The security manager says we did no wrong.
“I’m sorry,” he says meekly. “If the station manager insists, we have to fine you.”
“Are you saying that you, a Major in the police of the United Arab Emirates, do not have the authority to exercise your judgment over an incompetent and rude clerk at a train station??”
He looks at me. He looks at Leigh, who declares, “There is no way I will make it to my plane.” I say, angrily, “You will make your plane.”
The Major studies us and looks at his underlings and, asks, “Do you have your passports?”
“Yes,” I say, and offer mine, as Leigh retrieves hers.
He studies the stamps. “Where are you coming from?”
“Serbia,” I answer, suppressing my instinct to throttle him and scream, ‘WHAT THE FUCK DOES IT MATTER WHAT CITIES I HAVE BEEN TO??” I resist the urge to pitch him on “War: The Afterparty.”
“OK,” he says. “I will call the manager of the transport company.” I am amazed, but nod my head in a daze, as he walks across the street to talk on his phone. Why he needs to walk away is a mystery to me, but, as Very Bad Things may be imminent, my now agitated brain chooses to conserve its juice a few minutes longer.
Hamad looks at my picture in the passport. I say, “Just as attractive in person, don’t you think?” He laughs, and I add, “AND DON’T EVER CALL ME AN OLD MAN AGAIN. I am a young, attractive man, I am not old.”
He protests, “No, no, I don’t think you’re old, it’s just an expression, I was insisting that you be treated with respect.” By this time, we are on warm, intimate terms.
The Major returns. “He says, OK, but now I have to call the director.”
OF COURSE! A customer walks a few yards in the wrong area, no harm done, so let’s rouse the director of the national transport company out of bed on a Saturday night! Images of Robert DeNiro working on the cables in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” dance across the tracks.
The Major returns. He hands me back our passports. He begins a speech on how he would have to obey American laws in my country and that’s why….but I’m not listening as I realize he is letting us go and trying to put lipstick on a pig. I keep my mouth shut, resisting the impulse to argue his points, and say thankyouthankyouthankyou, can we go now?
I say goodbye to the remaining young policeman, and, grabbing Leigh’s hand, plunge into the moving traffic.
“You can’t jaywalk in front of the cops!” Leigh objects, reasonably. I walk us directly into oncoming traffic. “Please hurry, we have no time.”
I flag down a taxi. Tumbling in, I tell the Pakistani driver with the Major’s mustache, “We need to get to the airport but first she needs to pick up her bags.”
Leigh insists on stopping somewhere to pee and, drained, manic, focused, with a newfound sense of righteous authority, I insist we wait till the hotel or all will be lost. We get there and I run in and retrieve her bags while she demands the receptionist let her use the bathroom, then we dash to the airport.
On the way in, I use Leigh’s phone to check her in on the United web site.
We arrive at 12:10am, fifty-five minutes before an international flight to Washington Dulles. I fly through the airport with her suitcase while she runs behind with two bags.
I arrive at the counter first. The United attendant looks at me like I’m insane. “You’re too late. The security agent is gone. It’s less than an hour before flight time.”
Leigh arrives. “Five minutes too late,” I announce. “Well, we tried. And at least we’re not in jail.”
I look at the agent. He looks at Leigh. “Is there any way,” I ask. “Any way, anything…”
He looks around. “Can I see her passport?”
“Yes, yes, you can.” He takes it. “Are you checked in?” he asks as he hits some buttons. He hands her back her suitcase. “I can’t give you a boarding pass, you can get one at the gate, where you can check your bag. But you better hurry.”
We fly to the passport control line. I tell her my phone is dead but if she can’t get on, she can page me.
I turn around and wander through the terminal, laughing hysterically, A woman in a black hijab looks at me, frightened.
She misses the flight by one minute. But they put her on one at 2:15 via Zurich. She texts me about the Swiss men on her plane.
“Forget Dubai. I’m moving to Switzerland.”
I’m ready for Kabul.