“It must be strange here,” he said.
“It is so strange. But it’s so quiet that most of the time I love it. The utter lack of social responsibility. You have no familial responsibilities, no real friend responsibilities. I’m lucky to have one guest a month. It’s monastic, which is a relief.” – Dave Eggers, A Hologram For The King
When I first moved to the desert, I felt lost every day. It wasn’t the dearth of potable water that had me anxious, but the lack of clear signage that made me wonder what sort of hot sarcophagus my Toyota Corolla would make.
I had come to Dubai looking for the joy that wild adventures commonly foment. Instead, I found myself frequently staring out at long stretches of road that were slowly being reclaimed by the elements, unsure of what I was doing here or what I thought I’d find.
Nobody lives in the United Arab Emirates without the hope or expectation of something more than what they already have; more money, greater opportunities or even better sex. They yearn for lavish, dazzling things their forebears only dreamt of. A generation ago, ice cubes were a rarity in the Emirates.
Today, there exists a climate-controlled, North Pole-themed water park, not to mention the tallest building in the world. To fully appreciate the latter, one must stand at the foot of this giant silver spike, planted defiantly in the sand, and gaze upward more than half a mile into the sky.
Was this not a place where anything was possible? Why then did I often find the distance between desire and reality slowly expanding, as detached from one another as the stray hitchhiker stranded on a desert motorway, surrounded by kilometres of emptiness and a wide expanse of sand.
In the Middle East, you must barter for what you want. Today, as in ancient times, the region is an epicentre of trade: it used to be based on copper and pearls, but now it relies on oil. I had given up someone I loved and impatiently waited for the dividends to pay off. But during my time there I began to see beyond the designer nightclubs and fancy new housing, and realised I was not the only mislaid person caught in a one-way trade.
Of the 5,314,317 people who inhabit the United Arab Emirates, the overwhelming majority, eighty per cent, are foreigners. They come from every corner of the world: from Adelaide to Andalusia, from Bristol to Bangkok. Brits, Russians, Indians and Filipinos, all living and interacting but never breaching their designations.
They take care of other people’s children while their own grow up in their absence. They sleep in packed quarters at night while their hands toil during the day building grand houses. They forget their morals; participate in Bacchanalian fetes and visit sad, bargained women who are not their wives. All the while, their hosts try to safeguard their own existence as non-native values encroach upon theirs.
Al Aazlah (‘The Isolation’) is not meant, however, to be just another tale of rabid decadence and gilded abuse. It is about those moments that most eyes avoid seeing, despite the megawatt brightness that illuminates the surface level of Emirati life. It’s about the loneliness that so often accompanies our aspirations; the moments in which we think about where we came from while trying hard not to think about what we’ve let go of along the way.
Dave Eggers’ latest book, A Hologram For The King, is set in Saudi Arabia, in a giant expanse of desert bordering the UAE.