Tag Archives: Dubai

Desert Contrasts

This is the story of how I wound up in a brothel in Dubai, a series that starts here.

After finishing my meal at the brothel … er, TGI Thursdays, I took a taxi back to the hotel.  I apologized to Toni for yelling at her.  She apologized for calling herself an American.  Wait.  That doesn’t sound right.  You know what I mean.

I told her about the brothel and we shook our heads, imagining the young women in our lives working as prostitutes—or the men in our lives hiring prostitutes.  We talked about the irony that Dubai arrests tourists for making out on the beach, but that under the gaze of the Sheikh you could drink, smoke, and fornicate if you knew how to find the place.  We talked about puritanism, patriarchy, and power dynamics.  We agreed that Dubai wasn’t much different from North America, in that appearance and reality were completely different, like when you read about a child molester and you could bet he would turn out to be a Christian pastor or a Boy Scout leader.  We discussed the socioeconomic conditions and gender imbalances that made sex work the lesser of terrible ways to survive in a tough world.

We had a lot in common after all.  We bonded.  We agreed we didn’t need to spend every moment together.

The next day I took a bus to the Mall of the Emirates.  There was a young woman sitting across from me dressed in jeans, a tight-fitting but long-sleeved T-shirt, and a baseball cap.  The woman sitting behind her wore a full burqa; even the eye opening was covered with black mesh.

The bus route took us out of the old town through the desert.  I could see trailers in the distance—what we would call manufactured or mobile homes in the US.

It’s difficult to build an edifice complex without cheap labor.  These trailers in Dubai were home to the Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and other migrant workers who were building skyscrapers and malls for the Sheikh.  I had read about how they were exploited and trapped out in the desert before I’d left Dublin.  The trailers certainly looked desolate.  I wondered how many brothers, fathers, or husbands of the TGI Thursdays women were also making a living in Dubai.

The mall was like any mall in Minnesota.  Not.  It had an indoor ski resort!  It had shops where you could buy every kind of burqa you desired, as long as it was black.


Like an idiot tourist I bought a three-foot-tall hookah pipe with lots of detachable, fragile parts which I then had to lug around with me on the bus, taxi, plane, and the bus in Dublin.  Having my arm in a sling didn’t help.  Take my advice, if you really want a hookah pipe, order it on Amazon.

Later that day I wandered around the old part of town near our hotel looking at store after store that sold gold.  Who bought this stuff?


Then I saw a beautiful tunic in a shop window and went in to try it on.  It was a bit big and the proprietor offered to tailor it for me on the spot.  He took the opportunity to fondle me and I thrust his hands away and he just laughed.  He did alter the tunic so I guess we both got what we wanted.  Below is what it looked like, modeled by a woman who actually looks good in it.


I bought some stamps at a kiosk so I could sent postcards.


I will give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they convey a message about zakat, or charity.

Toni and I went to a farewell banquet in the desert that night, complete with the obligatory camel ride and henna painting of our hands.  The next day, off we went back to Dublin.  Here’s a photo of the men’s and women’s mosques in the Dubai airport.


I started this series as a way of examining things that can go wrong while traveling.  In one week I will be in Rome.  If nothing goes “wrong” there like it did in Dubai, I’ll be disappointed!

TGI Thursdays

This is the story of how I accidentally wound up in a brothel in Dubai, part of a series that starts here.

The hostess at TGI Thursdays looked at me like I was an alien, then slowly led me to a table in the center of the restaurant and left me with a menu, which was all in English.

She had an African accent and I didn’t hear enough of it to ID which country, but I’m pretty sure her real name wasn’t the one on her nametag—“Hi!  My name is Emily.”

She was about six feet tall, string-bean thin, and wore stiletto heels and a barely-there mini skirt.  I vaguely wondered if she changed into more modest clothes to get to and from work, but I didn’t really give it much thought.

I was hungry by now, so I was happy when the waiter appeared almost immediately.  He too looked at me strangely.  Whatever!  What was wrong with these people?  I ordered a club sandwich and a beer, then settled back and looked around.

Have you ever walked into a situation and thought nothing of it until it was too late to get out of it?

All the other women in the bar were either African or Asian, and none appeared to be older than 20.  They were all dressed like “Emily”—in high heels, mini skirts, and low-cut blouses.  They were literally hanging on the arms of fat, middle aged white men, many of whom were talking loudly, so I could hear their Australian, English, and American accents.  North American, that is—I’m sure most of them were Canadian, ha, ha.  These were oil workers, no doubt, and I was in a brothel.

The girls (I’ll call them girls because many appeared to be 17 or 18 years old) tittered and cooed at everything the men said, as if the men were the most fascinating, funny, and appealing male specimens ever.

“Ooh, Keef, you so funny!” a girl laughed near my table.  Keith was 50-something, ruddy faced, rotund, and very drunk.  He sat tilted as though he was about to keel over.

As all this sunk in, one of the few Arab patrons approached my table.  He was like a human cliche of an Arab man: wearing a kaffiyeh, sporting a Saddam Hussein-style black mustache, and smoking a cigarette in a short gold holder.  He leered at me as he circled my table several times.

I had the urge to bleat like a lamb.  Then he aggressively pulled out the chair opposite me and asked, “May I join you?”

“No!” I exclaimed, perhaps a bit too loudly.

A giant Sudanese bouncer sidled up to me and the Arab guy slinked away.

“Do you know where you are?” the bouncer asked in a low voice.

“Yeh-yes…” I replied, feeling sheepish (in the embarrassed sense, not in the about-to-be groped-or-worse sense).

“I will stand next to you while you enjoy your meal,” the bouncer said.

What could I say but, “Thank you?”

My club sandwich and beer arrived.  They were like any club sandwich and beer you would get anywhere else in the world.  I ate, drank, and did what I commonly do when I am dining alone; I wrote in my journal.  In this case, I took detailed notes, which is how I can write this narrative years later.

It’s not a very remarkable story.  I’m sorry if you’re disappointed that something more dramatic didn’t happen.  It was an eye opener for me.  I had seen adolescent girls in Jamaica with the proverbial obese middle-aged German men stuffed into Speedos.  I had read about human trafficking and sex workers in my master’s program.

But this was how the business actually worked.  Supply and demand.  I figured the maze I had walked through to get to the entrance was a means of shielding passersby from what was going on inside, and also of signaling to people like me who just wanted a sandwich and a beer, “This is something you should think twice about!”   Obviously I was too dense to get it.

To be continued …

Ugly Americans

This is the story of how I accidentally wound up in a brothel in Dubai, part of a series that starts here.

The days ticked away in Dubai.  Toni and I went an excursion a day; the most memorable was a “desert safari.”  I have been on a real safari, and it involved living things.  This did not, and I can recommend that you skip it if you’re in Dubai unless you love roller coasters.  It involved careening up and down and sideways—sometimes at a 45 degree angle—in sand dunes.  I was sick to my stomach and stayed that way until our driver blew a tire and we got to wander around in the desert while he repaired it.

desert-safari desert-safari-2

A couple rushed up to me and introduced themselves as being from Iran.  They asked if I was American and then exclaimed, “We love America!  America people!”  This was heartwarming, and it happened to me again when I was hiking in the Jordanian desert last year.  Yes, many of our government’s policies are terrible, and it’s good to know that people get the difference between the US government and the American people.

After breathing in dust for hours, Toni and I decided to go see a movie.  She asked the cashier about something—was there a good restaurant nearby or something like that.

“No English,” he smiled at her.

She repeated her question, speaking slower and louder.  He shook his head to indicate he really didn’t speak English, and she went for a third try, louder and slower.  Standing next to her, I murmured under my breath, “This is embarrassing.  He doesn’t speak English.”

“Okay!” She laughed and said to him slowly and loudly, “I’m sorry—I’m American!”  Then she did an about face and walked quickly into the darkened theater.

I was shocked and furious.  “Since when are you American?”  I demanded.

“Canada is in North America,” she said patronizingly.

“So you’re American when you’re making a fool of yourself, but Canadian the rest of the time?”

“I don’t need to explain myself to you,” she said.  “They don’t understand things unless you make it very simple.  They’ve probably never heard of Canada.  But they have certainly heard of America,” she said pointedly.

We were the only patrons in the theater and it was a double header of Bollywood hits.  It was in Hindi with Arabic subtitles, but you didn’t need an English translation to follow what was going on.

If you’ve never seen a Bollywood movie, here’s a summary of how they go, from my limited perspective: There’s a five-minute scene where they set up the boy-girl story involving forbidden love, mistaken identities, controlling elders, and a mischief-making best friend or auntie.  Then dozens of people dressed in matching costumes leap into the frame and perform a riotous song and dance number, preferably in a field of wild flowers, on a beach, or in the middle of moving traffic.  This is repeated over and over with different costumes and settings until everyone lives happily ever after.

I sat through half an hour of it but I was so fuming mad that I decided to leave.  Toni gave me a withering glance as if to say, “You’re insulting their culture.”  I knew I had been harsh and would have to apologize later, even if she didn’t acknowledge her part in our verbal scuffle.

I hailed a taxi.  “Take me some place I can get a beer,” I requested.

And that’s how I ended up in a brothel.  Because surely, a woman traveling alone and drinks alcohol must be a whore, right?

The driver dropped me off in front of a place called TGI Thursday’s.  Thursday, in the Middle East, is their Friday.  It had what looked like a maze of tall screens leading to the entrance.  I hesitated, but the driver had wasted no time in disappearing, so in I went.  I zigged and zagged and then emerged into what did indeed look—at first glance—like a TGI Friday’s in the US, except for the gigantic portrait of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum hanging over the entryway.

To be continued ….

tgit maktoum

Finally, Dubai

This is the story of how I accidentally wound up in a brothel in Dubai, part of a series that starts here.

Toni was very serious.  She was a teetotaler.  She didn’t get my sense of humor.  She was divorced and her kids were out on their own, so she was seeking.  She had grown up somewhere in the boondocks of western Canada and was fascinated by eastern traditions like meditation.  I was an on-again-off-again meditator but she was seriously devoted and would go on to live in an ashram in India and become a follower of some swami rami someone or other.  Like most Canadians, she made a point of telling people she was Canadian so they wouldn’t mistake her for an American.  Since I had fled the US, in part, to escape the George W. Bush era, I couldn’t really blame her.

When we arrived at our hotel I realized why the package had been so cheap.  When most people think of Dubai, they probably picture phantasmagorical hotels like these:

dubai burjhotel-dubai

Our hotel was in the old part of town and was a concrete bunker something like this except the windows were slits:


I suppose all that concrete kept out the heat, and in retrospect we were staying in a more authentic part of town, if anything about Dubai can be called authentic.

The first thing I did was go to the bar and order a beer.  The two bartenders looked at each other sideways, clearly uncomfortable.  One disappeared, maybe to consult with a manager.  He came back and wordlessly opened a beer bottle, then wrapped it in a cloth napkin and slid it across the bar to me.  Message received: I was a whore and an alcoholic, possibly both.

Toni disapproved too, and after pointing out the maple leaf on her back pack to the bartenders, left to go to the room.  “I don’t drink alcohol,” she reminded me when I showed up with my beer wrapped in its shroud of shame.  “But if I did, I wouldn’t drink it here out of respect for their culture.”

“They sell beer here,” I said.  “So what you’re saying is that you respect their culture of treating women unequally.”

Toni harrumphed furiously and shot back, “I don’t know. I’m going to have some silent me time now.”

Our package included some free tours.  I had bought a beautiful scarf in the airport to drape around my head.  Not like a hijab, more like a glamorous, Audrey Hepburn-style nod to being in a Muslim country. I thought it advisable to leave my Star of David at home.

When I stepped outside, a wall of searing heat descended on me.  I started sweating profusely and the glamor wilted.

Toni made up and were picked up at the curb by a guy in a giant gas guzzling vehicle—the only kind allowed in Dubai, apparently.  He drove around and pointed out the sights.  It was mind boggling, as you would expect if you’ve seen photos of Dubai.  Then he took us to a “museum.”  I was excited to learn about the history and culture of the Emiratis.

The museum was gleaming and glitzy, with crystal chandeliers, marble floors, and sleek escalators that might have been designed by Lamborghini.  Strangely, the displays reminded me of shop windows in New York or London.  Wait.  They were shop windows. These weren’t historical artifacts or objects of art, they were items for sale.  All of them were labeled as originating in Iran or Egypt or other places that actually had cultural traditions, and nothing was going for less than $1,000.

Back at the hotel, I went to check my email at the computer kiosks in the lobby but Yahoo wouldn’t load.  What the hell?  I Googled “weather in Dubai” and a local site came up that claimed it was 85F.  That was weird.  I had checked Dubai weather in Dublin and had expected 110F today.

It didn’t take me as long as it had in Cuba the previous year to realize that the Internet was controlled by the government.  I was in for a six-day involuntary Internet sabbatical.

To be continued …

Having Some Good Craic Despite Being Cracked

This is part of a series about living in Dublin and accidentally eating a club sandwich in a brothel in Dubai.

I had moved to Dublin from Oxford, and after a rough landing I was settling in.  My flat felt safe.  I reckoned that, since the addict had broken in shortly before I moved in, odds were that the flat wouldn’t burgled again until long after I had moved on.  Magical thinking, I know.

Dublin did feel like a magical place, but not in a good way.  The flat was close to some old castle that was a stop on the Haunted Dublin! tour. I don’t believe in ghosts or paranormal anything but there was something dark about Dublin.

And Dublin was ugly.  I had moved from Oxford, city of dreaming spires:


To Dublin:


As usual I am exaggerating.  Oxford is beautiful but it is swarming wall-to-wall with crowds, like some science fiction movie about overpopulation.  Dublin has some lovely buildings, but unfortunately too many like the one above.  It too was heaving with crowds, tourists but also EU newcomers from Slovenia and asylum seekers from Nigeria.

I thought about how the English had subjugated the Irish, taxing them, viewing them as sub human, and doing nothing while a million Irish died during a succession of famines.  The architecture says everything about who was the conqueror and who was the conquered.

I didn’t have much in common with my new friend, Toni, except that we were in our 40s while everyone else in Dublin seemed younger, and we were both determined to take advantage of being “over the pond” to travel as much as possible.

The Sunday papers advertised great deals on travel packages.  “See Sunny Spain!  Only 400 € for 5 nights inclusive!”  Inclusive meant airfare, hotel, some meals, and drinks in a resort populated by English speakers who would never be made uncomfortable by having to speak Spanish.

Sunday morning.  I texted Toni.  “Wanna go to Dubai?”

“Tell me more,” she responded immediately.

“Only 500 € for five nites inc airfare & hotel,” I read from the ad in the Irish Times.

“Wow thats cheap lets go!” She was in.

But first I went to St. James Hospital to have my collar bone x-rayed.  I was no longer on the National Health System; in fact I was uninsured, so I would pay cash.

I walked down Vicar Street to Meath Street to Bellvue to Marrowbone Lane to Robert Street, on to Newport Street, to Pim Street, past the Guinness Storehouse, followed the curve of Grand Canal Place to Echlins Street and finally to James Street.

Total distance: 1.6 kilometers, or just under one mile.  That’s Dublin.  There may have been a direct route but now I knew I could stop at Guinness on the way back— and use my right arm to lift a pint.

The hospital reminded me of a Mexican bus station.  The waiting room was furnished with a motley assortment of worn plastic chairs, the windows and linoleum floor were grimy.

I paid up front; I think it was 80 €.  I was called in after the x-ray was developed, and the doctor said, “There’s been no progress. It’s still broken and you’ll have to keep it immobilized for another eight weeks, at least.”

I was shocked.  “But it’s been six weeks!”  I didn’t mention that I hadn’t exactly been resting and taking it easy, that I’d been climbing a ladder up to a top bunk at a hostel, then washing windows and scrubbing floors in my two-story flat.

“How old are you?” he asked.

“46?”  I expected him to say, “Wow! You look so much younger—I never would have guessed you’re even 40!”

Instead he said, “Well at your age, things take longer to heal.”

My age?

“If it doesn’t heal after eight more weeks, you’ll need surgery to screw in a plate to hold the two ends together.”

Surgery?  A plate? F— that!

There’s nothing like someone telling me I’m in a bad situation to make me come out swinging, to declare that things are great.

I was going to Dubai, and it was going to be a blast!

Incense and Sensibility

This post is part of a series about living in Dublin and winding up in a brothel in Dubai.

Eddie’s house was so tiny I expected a hobbit to jump out of a closet.  The floors were slanted, the stove looked like a toy, and the door hung crookedly off the bath so it wouldn’t be any trouble for him to keep an eye on me in there.  I hadn’t been attracted to Eddie in a dark smoky pub, and seeing him in daylight didn’t change anything.  He painted a picture of the house sharing arrangements.  “I go out every night, and when I come home in the early morning I blast me music and drink a few more pints.  It’s my house, so I’ll smoke in it.  If you’d like to cook for us, that’d fine with me.”

I observed myself doing mental gymnastics to convince myself this would all be fine.  I wanted out of the hostel.  The serenity and confidence I had banked in England was gone.  The fact that it was gone made me feel like a weakling.  I had become a female Woody Allen, worrying, analyzing, fearful, neurotic. I was so afraid of being ripped off that I hid my watch—a Movado—in a zipped pants pocket, then promptly forgot about it and threw the pants in the wash.  The watch had been given to me by a jerk boyfriend but was the one beautiful piece of jewelry I owned, and it came out in bits.  Stress does funny things to the mind.

I listened to meditations on my MP3 player: “Sense a soft shower of shimmering light …” said the soothing voice, as the woman in the bunk below me hacked a tubercular-sounding cough.  I attended meditations at the Sri Chinmoy Centre and went to Alanon. But I just couldn’t shake the anxiety.

Eddie kept saying things which indicated he knew sharing the house would be a disaster, such as “I’d probably end up hangin’ meself when yerself didn’t love me.”  Like many men in the British Isles, asking a woman out on a date was not in his playbook, and he wasn’t yet drunk enough to just grab me and snog me.  He must have sensed I would have reacted negatively to either approach.  We sat at his wobbly kitchen table and he slowly drew me a map of Dublin and advised where else I could look for flats, stalling for time.


I admired his engineer’s pencil sharpener, which he gave me and which makes a great eyeliner sharpener.

After two weeks I landed a room in a spacious maisonette.  It had a living area and kitchen on the first floor (in America, the second floor), and three bedrooms and a bath on the third.  I shared it with a French guy who was building a website to help football fans find pubs in real time to watch specific games.  He only emerged from his room when his girlfriend, a Canadian, came over.  The other flat mate was an English guy who worked for Google.  I only saw him once or twice, but several times a week I would come down to breakfast to find a young woman hanging about—someone he had slept with and was done with, but who wasn’t done with him.  “So what time does Paul usually get up?” they would ask.  Or, “How does Paul like his tea?”  I would grumble, “I dunno,” until they took the hint and left.

It took a while with my arm in a sling, but the flat was very nice once I scrubbed it from top to bottom and painted my room, which overlooked some sort of friary.


There was a methadone clinic on the other side; the flat had been burgled recently by an addict who kicked in the door.  There was a primary school on the other side of the flat, and Christchurch Cathedral was nearby, so I heard children playing and bells ringing throughout the day.

Things were looking up.  I met a Canadian woman at a travel agency who was game to go anywhere.  Because, once my anxiety ebbed away, it was time to travel.

To be continued …