And I, after three weeks in Sri Lanka, now stuck in Dubai for twelve hours, felt thin inside and out.

George Orwell (Eric Blair) wrote this novel in 1939, as Europe prepared for total war. Orwell had sat, as the story goes, in a dusty Moroccan villa outside Marrakech and written about his Edwardian boyhood in the luxuriant landscape of England’s Thames Valley.

The essay “Marrakech” begins with a memorable description: “As the corpse went past… the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.” Orwell, as I wrote last week, was acutely sensitive to smell. That day in the terminal, so was I. Yet through no fault of the guest workers, who had been dumped there as they were… in sweat, dirt, and minimal clothing, it would appear they had been transported directly from labor in Dubai’s relentless summer heat to the airport for a long wait.

That day in air conditioning, wearing a jacket , I read Coming Up for Air at the far end of the terminal. At one point, George Bowling asks, “What are the realities of modern life?” He answers that a chief one is the everlasting frantic struggle to sell things. And in modern airports, time can be passed in the world of shops and duty-free, where I wandered at some point to stretch my legs. Had I gone above or below? Images of the terminal are dim, but not the girl from Morocco.

I say “girl” because she looked so young. I’d stopped before a large circular table of Neutrogena products with “special” offers. I liked this company’s products but had no intention to buy them in Dubai. The young woman came from behind a counter nearby and smiled openly. She was neatly dressed, the same as other women in that section, and she wore make-up, as they do in cosmetic duty-free.

Youth and loveliness and innocence, a triad to make the aging and tired me want to weep.

Overcome in a way I could not have explained, I said I was a writer and would like to know why she was there, thinking she might be a guest worker like the man on the plane. I learned she was from Morocco, was nineteen, had studied English in school, then taken this job for two to three years to earn enough money for her parents to go to Mecca. Did I know what she meant by this? I told her I’d taught Malay Muslim students for three years and was familiar with the five pillars of Islam. This made her happy, she said, that I could understand why this work was so important to her. She worked, prayed, slept, saved all the money she earned, and should be able to return home to Marrakech in one more year and fulfill the dream of paying for her parents to go on the Haj. She said not one word about buying anything, though I felt the need to buy the Neutrogena “special” of multiple products to assuage guilt I did not want to feel. A young woman giving two or three years of her life to her parents. My 92-year-old mother had moved to Virginia two years earlier and it was more than taxing for both of us. She had ended up in the health center at Rappahannock Westminster Canterbury (RWC) when she heard I would be away in Sri Lanka for three weeks.

The young woman came back with my credit card and a slip of paper. Many people, she told me were rude. “You are so kind.” I did not say that my mother would not agree. She handed me the tiny piece of paper on which she had written the name of her parents and their address in Marrakech. “Please, you must visit my country and stay with my family.” I was used to “false” invitations from Malaysia and South America, something people did out of custom. This young woman had spoken from something genuine, I felt. She asked me to please come visit her again before my flight, which I did. Her long day of work and mine of waiting to depart.

At one point I needed a coffee badly. At a Starbuck’s, I watched a mother, clad from head to feet in black, two girls beside her, their heads also covered, and observed how adoring the mother was of her son in so many ways. The three sat at a table and the boy ran around, a wild child. He was younger than the girls, a boy allowed to do whatever mischief he wanted to do, and never once reprimanded, while his silent and dutiful sisters watched him. A boy as free as Orwell must have felt in his Thames Valley boyhood, which he described so vividly in Coming Up for Air.

The two scenes: of the young woman from Morocco, and the Muslim mother in the airport merge in my mind. Only later would I read about the camels outside of Dubai. That’s next week.

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again, among the seaweed.” These words belong to George Bowling, George Orwell’s protagonist in Coming Up for Air, the novel I had with me in the Dubai airport that July morning in 2008. What was the scene before my eyes? In every direction were “guest workers,” hundreds of men, sleeping on floors, spread over benches, wearing scant clothing, no obvious carry-on bags, litter everywhere, as if the terminal would be cleaned after the exodus of countless inert bodies. Where, not being a sea turtle, could I go to get air that I wanted to breathe?

With this disturbing sight before my eyes, I understood what my seat mate had mentioned earlier on the flight from Colombo to Dubai. This Sri Lankan in his late 30s worked as an ice sculptor for a hotel chain in Dubai: three straight months of work, then a month off to be with his family in Colombo. I could only say, “Michelangelo with ice?” and then asked how he learned to sculpt it.

It turned out his vocation at home was carving figures in wood for tourists. I told him about the large wooden Buddha I’d bought in 1989. He told me he made these and many other objects. He laughed and said, “No Buddha in ice in the UAE,” and described the birds and animals he created in Dubai from blocks of ice.

I liked his sense of humor, and when I told him about the teaching I’d been doing in Sri Lanka, he listened. He assumed I would be going to the airport hotel during my twelve-hour wait. I explained that I’d not been paid for my work and was flying on a free ticket, using miles. I said my husband had stayed at the airport hotel on lay-overs, but a company had paid the exorbitant cost for a short-term stay. The sculptor told me it might be worth the money and mentioned “guest workers.” “Isn’t that what you are?” “Yes and no,” he answered. He worked in air-conditioning, received meals in the hotel, had a tiny room he shared with another hotel employee. He said it was different for those who worked outside or for companies that were not international and lacked regulations for treatment of its workers.

After landing he and I wished each other well and parted.

“Guest worker” would have caught Orwell’s eye and ear. The word guest in my OED has seven definitions. The sixth is a parasitic organism. And guest-worker is Gastarbeiter in German and means temporary permission to work in another country, especially in Germany. To my ear ‘guest’ is a kind and welcome word, except for the sixth definition. And between being treated as a guest and a parasite are worlds apart. Or are they?

Roses in a Dubai Hotel Lobby (photo by Ilona Duncan)

George Orwell had a known medical condition, which is to have an overly acute sensitivity to smell. Perhaps that is why he was so good at adding the olfactory to his writing. “But to smell what is in front of one’s nose is a constant struggle,” he wrote. I, like Eric Blair (Orwell) am a descendent of those for whom soap is civilization. And that day in Dubai I sought distance from what I did not want to see or smell. I ended up going to the far end of the terminal, which seemed a much longer distance than a football field. There I found an empty chair and stayed in it for hours, broken only by occasional walks to see if the mass of guest workers had left the airport. What had the hundreds of guest workers in sleeveless tee-shirts, shorts, and sandals been doing before their day in the airport? What were the conditions in which they had lived?

I looked today at slick, shiny, green images of Dubai. There’s a mall where residents and tourists can ski and an air-conditioned soccer stadium. Who built it? Invisible workers like those I saw in the airport. I also learned about a 72 thousand square meter garden outside Dubai with 45 million flowers. Can that be? The website ends, “Take note…these flowers are planted in the desert.” Yes, and they plant and water themselves, I add, sarcastically.

Yet during that extended day in Dubai, I met a young woman, a guest worker from Morocco. Her story is for next week and relates to George Orwell in Marrakech.

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Updated: Sep 19

Today I found this quote on the back cover of George Orwell’s novel, Coming Up for Air. I had the book with me at Heathrow after a flight from Dubai, and I copied down these words from an advert in the London airport. Crazy is how I felt after a 12-hour layover in Dubai’s Terminal Three, following my flight from Colombo. After Dubai what awaited me? London, Toronto, Boston, Washington, D.C.

That summer of 2008, I’d gone to Sri Lanka to do some gratis teaching at the request of my daughter, who worked for a Sri Lankan NGO. Given that Bonnie back then had difficulty tolerating me for one day, three weeks together made as much sense as a lunatic’s dream. But at 65 (which I dream of being now), I’d begun to feel old, with a consciousness of aging as being only a little ahead of the grave or incinerator. Besides wanting to see Bonnie, who had been living in the U.K. before Sri Lanka, I also hoped to get my spirit back before further decay set in. And I knew I needed the right feeling inside to make this journey; and I had that feeling until Washington National the day of my departure.

American Airlines had installed computers for check-in, and the screen told me to see an agent. I soon learned that the computers were not programmed to issue baggage tags for anyone with a route of five airports: Boston, Toronto, London, Dubai, and Colombo. "Flying on miles in the 'One World Alliance' is such a joy! I ended up with a hand-written white tag, the old kind with a string to be tied on a suitcase. I am not prone to hysteria. But that morning I watched the agent copy my itinerary on the tag in poor handwriting. “I don’t know when I last did this,” he said. And I said, “You cannot secure the tag with that flimsy piece of string.” My husband kept telling me to calm down, which has the effect of enraging me. The agent agreed to tape the string and tag to my large bag. I could only be glad that a passenger was allowed a good-sized carry-on. And that suitcase for the overhead compartment contained my teaching materials for three weeks (hundreds of pages of photocopied material). I’d also packed ten or more George Orwell books in it because I was scheduled to teach a course on him at the local college shortly after I returned home. In the airport when I said good-bye to Mike, I had a moment when all I wanted to do was return to Mill Creek and stare at water, trees, and birds.

Yet Ceylon was calling. I’d fallen in love with the Emerald Isle in 7th grade geography and had dreamed of going there one day. Which Mike, the girls, and I did in August 1989, while living in Malaysia. But on the day of our arrival in Colombo that summer, a national strike began, which meant soldiers driving buses, shuttered doors at many sites, and ominous signs everywhere. I vowed then to return to Sri Lanka, especially to revisit Kandy. (By the way, my suitcase did not reach Colombo with me. It was not lost, just hadn’t made the flight at Heathrow. Two days later when the bag arrived, the taped tag was still there.)

George Bowling, Orwell’s comic hero in Coming Up for Air, says:

"…there’s some devil that drives us on ever lasting idiocies. There’s time for everything except the things worth doing. Think of something you really care about. Then add hour to hour and calculate the fraction of your life that you’ve spent in doing it.” Unlike this fictional character, I have spent my life teaching and still love it. I have no regrets about the three weeks of teaching in Sri Lanka or my time with Bonnie. But while there I felt a foreboding about the 12-hour wait in Dubai. I’d only been in transit there briefly before changing to a flight for Colombo. And not once in life had I waited 12 hours in an airport anywhere. I saved Coming Up for Air because it was first person narration and comic. Besides the novel I had a two-volume set on Orwell’s life to reread. I hoped to find a comfortable spot in the terminal where I could read, relax, and sleep.

This I knew was how Orwell had written the novel. After the Spanish Civil War & being shot & put on a ‘wanted list’, he and his wife, Eileen, went to Morocco for R & R. In a villa near Marrakesh, Orwell wrote Coming Up for Air about the past, of a luxuriant landscape in the Thames Valley, and the once stable Edwardian world of George Bowling’s boyhood.

What did I find in Dubai’s recently completed Terminal Three, which claims to have the largest floor space in the airport world? I witnessed an appalling spectacle of injustice, the kind of inhumane scene that Orwell would have sunk his pen in to write a memorable essay.

Next week: What I experienced in Dubai.

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