The Arab Fall

Photo: J. Winters

Halloween 2010, Dubai. It’s 1130pm and I’m driving a black Land Rover Defender 110 slowly through endless construction under a stuffy black sky. The pace of building was slowed by the crash, and so everything that was under construction, still is. There are freeways under construction, malls under construction, shimmering towers under construction. In between them, the skin of the restless desert shows through the thin facade of civilization. The sand swirls right up and over the marble paths at the doors of the towers. Lower middle class British girls who work in finance stagger out of the towers in skimpy costumes and cheap heels. They are headed to parties that will be like Jersey Shore populated by the dross of a dead British Empire. I’m wearing a silly costume as well, but mine’s serious. It’s the costume of an American war profiteer. The costume of someone who trafficks in the supply and support of America’s blind efforts to exterminate an unknown threat.

I weave the Defender through the chic Souk al Bahar neighborhood where I keep a small flat, and turn off on a dusty construction access road. Everything in this glam city feels tawdry to me. Everything except the patches of raw desert between the gleaming buildings, and the sea beyond. The Pakistani gate guard pulls up the metal barrier, to let me pass. He knows me because I have run down this dusty road every morning at 4am for the last year. Every morning when I’m in town, anyway. I keep houses in Yemen and Afghanistan, and I’m on an international flight twice a week, so i don’t really live anywhere. As I drive slowly down the road, there is only a little cloud of lime dust in my wake. Despite what the map says, there is a truck access causeway from the back of my neighborhood that drops me on a sand embankment overlooking the freeway. I wait for traffic to clear, and then I roll silently down the dune and up onto the road, northbound. I switch on the lights and accelerate. The turbo diesel purrs eagerly toward the Omani border.

Somewhere on that grim floodlit road through the desert, I recalled that I first came to Dubai on a surf trip. I hadn’t gone to Arabia looking for bad guys. I had gone there to explore the remote coast and find Khareef swells rolling in from the South Indian Ocean. How I got to the top of a Yemeni-based company that tags and tracks humans for monitoring by the US Government was kind of an accident. An accident of needing to pay the bills. A lousy accident that had me speeding through a stuffy Arabian night, sweat dripping off my sleazy silver cufflinks as I gassed up in some roadhouse town 50km outside Dubai. I wanted out. I had come for the luxury of adventure and proximity to unknown coastlines. I had succumbed to the banalities of commercial warfare.

Halloween, 2011. Los Angeles. I’m out. I’m broke. I’m back in the lineup.

–J. Winters