A Holding Pattern: Postcard from the Persian Gulf

Photo: Instagram antoniosaba_photography

Here in this Arab State, where the call to prayer sings out five times a day, swallows dip and furl across a crystal-clear infinity pool that overlooks the Persian Gulf. A lone tourist sits across from her where the horizon line merges pool blue into the blue of the open water. She leans into the wide empty stretch of water and sky still half shrouded by mid-morning mist while swallows fly around her, inviting her to fall soundless, invisible, into the vacant blue half-light between the Gulf, and the pool.

Next to her sit two more tourists; these are heavily tattooed and pierced, they glint in pieces as the sun moves across their somnolent bodies. Comfortable wearing little they lounge, legs spread. The locals walking by are covered from head to foot. All are happy participating in the illusion of a holiday at any European resort. Any would look the same, though perhaps not quite as self-consciously Mediterranean with as many staff from India and the Philippines serving so many fully covered Arabs next to so many nearly nude Europeans.

Built on terraces below the pool are the white Grecian style villas that house some of the resort’s visitors. Each villa has a small, individual pool that must be cleaned daily. Labour is cheap if you hire from outside the country, and according to some reports, nearly 90% of the population is imported to service the needs of the locals.

A few tall, interested Emirati men walk by the scantily clad women around the pool, their robes white and flowing, head-dresses correct, and spotless. They appear pleased that the hotel is pulling in so many visitors during this recession. Nearly naked tourists are money in the bank. Sting plays on the speakers, then Santana, and the poolside café selling cocktails seems to be doing a good business.

There is an unhappy couple in the pool; they are speaking accented English. The woman is not pleased with the man she’s with—and tells him that she thinks she should have come alone on her holiday. After a swim they smile; for them, the pool does not stretch into the Gulf.

The light is so bright that even under the shade of her wide, white umbrella she can barely see her laptop screen. Writing is difficult. She had thought it would be easier here. She watches the swallows chase each other up and down in the air—and wonders where all the terrorists are. Surely they are nearby, right here, or right near where she sits, lulled to near sleep in her soft, padded deck chair, shaded from the sun by that huge white umbrella, and fed on hamburgers with South Australian mustard handed to her in tiny jars by the smiling Filipino bartender.

She hasn’t yet been able to work out where all the potable water comes from. The place is planted with flowers that are not from the desert and seem to come primarily from England and the Mediterranean. Primroses next to palm trees that aren’t yet fully grown. Sand, desert, fig trees near glorious, fiery bougainvillea; a sculpture of leaping Orca in the middle of the freeway half-covered in red sand.

There is a breeze now, and “I’m winning” plays loud through the hotel speakers. She notices that she is now the only one in sight fully clothed and wonders if she would feel more comfortable wearing next to nothing—but she lives here now and as a transplanted local feels it’s important to obey the rules.

Someone told her recently that living here, working here, was like serving a prison sentence. Many came to pay bills back home, but after a short time it doesn’t seem worthwhile. They leave in droves before their contract is finished. In her housing complex of ten, nearly half are leaving before their term is finished and those are only the ones she knows about.

The only people she has contact with here are the people who wait on her. She knows no one else and teachers don’t interest her. The only thing that seems to matter to the local women is shopping and the interpretation of rule of law. Teaching anything seems an extraordinary act of courage and surely that was worth knowing about—but there seems to be no soil for anything to take root. No foundation, no basis for mutual understanding. It feels like a loss to watch people to continue to throw good effort after bad from the sidelines. But she is stuck here, writing by the pool, watching the swallows dip and chase, and full of hamburger.

I had a dream but it turned to dust blasts through the loudspeakers—and she reaches for more water. A swallow dips low this time, nearly touching the pool. It comes back for more and this time, the thin edge of its wing trails through the water. The pool is empty now but for swallows circling above. She begins to wonder what she’ll do for dinner and if she’ll ever be comfortable here, in this place.

There are new arrivals here by the pool now—a group of expensively dressed Indians and two very pale, tired looking people, probably from Germany. All appear exhausted, as if they’ve been forcibly expelled from their plane by a violent burst of recycled air. They look at the pool as if to wonder how soon they can dive in, or if it would make more sense to sleep first.

The mist is still heavy on the water where another swallow plunges, wings trailing. On leaving the pool with only tiny eddies remaining it disappears into the sky above the Gulf, the small black pinprick expressing its devotion between two nearly seamless, nearly equally blue, bodies of water.

L. Ashby is a writer in Australia, with recent work to be published in the KSP Anthology and the 2019 ACU Chapbook: Solace.

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