Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Call me Lawrence..

lawrence of arabia remake otoole Roland Emmerich Developing Lawrence of Arabia Miniseries
Peter O'Toole, the most widely known image for T.E. Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia, my role model for our time in the Middle East.  Well you have to aim high..
I recently had the opportunity to experience flying out of our local airport using a regional low cost airline.  Nothing dramatic there, thousand of people do that every day. However it did provide an unexpected insight in to an aspect of life here.

Airport check in queues, often so long.  Why are the airlines not prepared for the number of passengers?  Do they not know how many tickets they sold or do they just think 'ah, no-one is going to turn up..'.  Or is it they know you have no choice?  You decide.. 

It's well documented that there are a lot of expatriates here, or expats as the shortened version goes. You often hear the figure of 80% when it comes to Dubai, that's right, 80% of the people that live there are expats.  Up here in the north it's considered that around 70% of the population are local and us strangers only make up the remaining 30%.  

But what or rather who do you think of as an expat? Pictures spring to mind of bloated land owners during the last days of the Raj, sipping a G & T before riding an elephant around the tea plantation to make sure the locals are putting in a full days work for their tuppence pay.  Or do you have a more up to date vision of the comfortably off businessman in Dubai, sipping G & T before touring the building sites where impoverished workers are putting the finishing touches to the latest additions to his portfolio of building investments, hang on, meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

They were probably caricatures that I used to have in mind, but not any more.  There is a huge expat community here who are not from the western Hemisphere or eastern Europe, they are from the Indian sub-continent, the Philippines and smaller countries like Nepal. They do a whole range of jobs including IT, teaching, construction, engineering, shop work, cleaning, you name it.  They are the crucial links that keep the place running and they are economic migrants, but then maybe we're all economic migrants in some respects?  The difference is that some of us could have stayed at home and still had a pretty comfortable life style, not a choice that everyone has.

Most of this cohort is male and they've left their families at home, normally for two year stints, in order to provide for them and often an extended collection of relatives.  Ironic isn't it, in order to support your family you have to move away from them?  For many from the ISC (Indian Sub Continent) there are fewer options. Work at home for them is sporadic and very poorly paid or non-existent and if they don't work, they don't eat let alone find a comfortable place to live.

So they look for work abroad, many working outdoors for long periods in the summer heat.  These men often travel en-masse sponsored by a single employer.  They share the same accommodation, eat together - it's cheaper that way, play cricket, send money home, repeat for two years.  When you see them out and about they don't have the demeanour of an under class, quite the contrary, they have the posture of quiet confidence, emitting the air of someone is getting on with a job and earning money which is making a real difference to people thousands of miles away.  This is not a single gender effort, there are countless women doing the same thing.

This is what I've observed since we moved here, but it was bought to front and centre by what I saw at the airport.  I hadn't realised it was a hub for men arriving from Bangladesh before they take connecting flights all over the region.  On my outward journey I saw a large group, some of whom were clearly excited about their journey, others more reflective but all with a palpable sense of expectation.

On the return it was a different story.  Most were pushing trolleys laden with their belongings and packages which contained everything they had accumulated over their working stay.  Unfortunately virtually everybody had more than the one item of hold baggage and they all looked heavier than 20kg.  This is partly what was causing the traffic jam at check in and therefore the huge queues that were building up behind us.  Every time one of the passengers arrived at the check in desk there ensued an animated discussion with the staff, which I can only guess was centred around the amazing amount of packages they were trying to force across the scales.  These contained, amongst other things, gifts for the loved ones at home;  sunglasses, mobile phones and perfume seemed to be popular.  'Forget gold, frankincense and myrrh, they're so anno domini.  Bring us Ray Bans, Samsung and Chanel, real or fake we don't care, no-one can tell the difference these days'..  Some were being turned away to re-pack their loads or get rid of some weighty items, which they were trying to give to their friends who were already loaded to the gunwales themselves thus moving the problem further down the queue rather than away from it altogether.

As I wasn't in a rush - I couldn't go anywhere after all - I was just an interested observer in all this, all be it one that stood out like a sore thumb.  Apart from a dozen or so Emiratis trying to get on to the flight there was me and then the entire working male population of Dakar, although that may be an exaggeration.  It was one of my fairly regular Lawrence of Arabia moments where I definitely am not blending in with my surroundings no matter how hard I try.  Just as well I wasn't rushing, because the second reason behind the painfully long check in process was becoming apparent.  Whilst there was a semblance of a queue in the lead up to the desks, it disintegrated in to a melee at the head.  Other than the amount of luggage quandary, this was also partly due to people's enthusiasm to check in with their friends, particularly when their mate had made it to the front and they were still #32 in the other line. However the handling agent's staff were made of stern stuff and promptly sent them away, but place #32 had now been taken by someone else so they had to go to the back of the line again, consternation ensued.

When driving in England I was always surprised by the ill manners of the Company Representative, often in an Audi, who would skip down a line of cars who patiently queuing for roadworks or whatever, then try and cut in with an air of innocence that didn't quite whitewash what was clearly part of a premeditated 'I'm more important than you' endeavour.  I often mused as to what would happen if people did the same thing in a supermarket queue?  You know, walk down the side of it then edge in without making eye contact.  Now I know what happens, they get told to go away.  But with my co-travellers at the airport it wasn't bad manners, it was just the way they rolled.  There was no 'my journey is more important than yours' attitude, it was just 'ooh you've left a centimetre between you and the person in front, that's just enough space for me and my luggage'..

Then again, how many other nationalities are as obsessed with a queue as the British? Have you ever been in the line for a ski lift in France or Italy or at a bus stop in Holland? It's all elbows and survival of the fittest rather than 'after you madam'.  I'm sure some Brits would rather miss the train than throw themselves in to a wall of humanity and squeeze in to such close proximity with strangers.

Since when have Polaroid made TV's anyway?  Is it actually a television or just an enormous camera where the photos come out immediately on A3 paper, imagine the disappointment..
I say 'some' because I've just seen footage from the black Friday events in the UK.  I've never seen such a collective lack of dignity or decorum, all for a cut price big TV to watch the EastEnders Christmas special on, really??  How do people allow themselves to be slavishly influenced by big store marketing and the desire for pointless upgrading of something that I'm sure they already have?  Then to top it all, you have some of the customers filming their escapades on Go Pro's or mobile phones.  I'd like to see Go Pro use that in their marketing.  Normally their posters have surfers catching a perfect ride through the blue-green tube of a huge wave.  If instead it was a bloke in a puffa jacket falling as he leaps over four stumbling, avarice motivated sale seekers to get to a pile of boxed up electrical goods I'm not sure they would be so cool?

At least the men I was observing in the airport had a good excuse for their behaviour, it's just the way it is where they're from.  What are your excuses Black Friday shoppers or I guess you don't need one, perhaps it's just your view of society these days?  As Blur once commented 'Modern Life is Rubbish', I'd rather hoped that we still followed Sting's advice ' an Englishman should walk and never run', obviously not.

Maybe that's one reason why I like living in the Emirates?  In government offices ladies don't need to queue, that's just for men, women can go straight to the front of the line and if they need to wait they do so in their own, more comfortable area.  How civilised. If you want a big TV, a man from the shop will carry it out to the car for you, no need for any Kung Fu.  If it costs £20 more so what, it's not a deal breaker and your stress levels remain at Antarctic rather than volcanic, a heart attack would definitely be more expensive.

Chill out people, 'tis the season to be jolly, you don't need a new kitchen to cook a turkey (a food you don't eat any of the other 364 days of a year..), you will be able to buy a cheap sofa in January, the Vicar of Dibley looks the same on a 42" screen than it does on a 50" whopper.  This doesn't have to be 'the best Christmas ever' it can just be a really nice Christmas, much the same as last year and probably similar to the next one.

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