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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

“How to be a sea turtle, get to the surface, fill my lungs with a great gulp before sinking down

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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