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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

“I’m fat but thin inside,” says George Bowling in Orwell’s comic novel, Coming Up for Air.

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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