By William J. Furney
In Dubai this week, I encountered two men from Pakistan, one named Muhammad and the other Mohammad, both of them upper-end taxi drivers in an otherwise forlorn place that’s desperate to make its mark on the world. One loved the place; the other despised it and couldn’t wait to leave. One took me to my hotel on my arrival from Mumbai, India, and the other ferried me back to the airport for an early morning departure to London the following day. Both drove luxury Lexus sedans and, as it was the holy month of Ramadan, which had begun days earlier, both were fasting. I had ordered their services via Uber, and neither owned their vehicle as, they said, they were employed by a company to drive.
I had not been downtown in the glittery Emirati city before, although I had transited at the airport several times, en route to and from Southeast Asia and Europe. On my arrival this week, I wanted to see the Burj Khalifa: at 828 meters, it’s the current record-holder for the title of Tallest Building in the World. When Muhammad picked me up, straight away I informed him of my desire to see this towering architectural achievement, on the way to my hotel, and he took me directly there.
At with most things you see on TV, and especially large buildings, when you view them up close, in person, they’re usually disappointing. I can report that this is the case with Buckingham Palace in London and it’s also true of this soaring Arab building on the fringes of the desert, which from my vantage point near its base resembled something like a broken, serrated knife. You can stay in it, at the Armani Hotel Dubai, and despite the evident prestige, it’s not all that expensive — a couple of hundred dollars a night for one of the most elevated accommodation experiences possible. Hotels, unlike taxis and just about everything else in Dubai, are quite cheap, it turns out.
“The last time I had a Pakistani taxi driver was in Palm Springs last year,” I told Muhammad, “and I was surprised that someone would live so far away from home, in California, just to drive a taxi.” I told him that that driver had told me that he had recently been back to his home country, and the first thing he did when he got there was go to and vote for Imran Khan in the general election that saw the former cricket star and international playboy who married British heiress and journalist Jemima Goldsmith elected as prime minister of the troubled, nuclear-armed nation bordering rival and fellow nuclear power India. Muhammad was happy about this as he thought PM Khan was fantastic. I pretty much do too.
But Muhammad wasn’t so keen on living in Dubai, where as I later discovered, you can’t use WhatsApp to make a voice call. Apparently this is due to the government not wanting to financially weaken its two telecoms companies by letting people make free calls over the internet instead of paying companies in the emirate loads of cash for them. If true, it’s a bit of a dictatorial decision that certainly would not align with the city’s goal to become a global tourism destination — no matter how tall its skinny buildings are. Then again, Dubai is not the most tolerant of places, and you can be arrested for such seemingly banal things as kissing in public or denigrating someone on Facebook.
“I cannot afford to have a wife here,” Muhammad told me as we sped to my hotel after viewing the tallest human construction on the planet. He was 29 years old — of marrying age — and led a frugal existence that is barely an existence at all: living in a kind of boarding house paid for by the transport company and sleeping all day and working all night. At least it made fasting easier, he said.
Muhammad said he would return to Pakistan in October to get married, and would then go back to Dubai and leave the place for good by sometime next year.
Mohammad, at 5am the next morning, was much more upbeat. At 47, he’d been in Dubai for a decade and liked the place. He said it was only around two and a half hours’ flight to Pakistan, that there were lots of cheap flights available, and as someone who was not educated, this was a great job for him.
The downside, said Mohammad, was that in 10 years of working as a luxury driver in Dubai, he hadn’t managed to save any money and might never be able to save up enough to perform one of the other central requirements of Islam: going on the hajj in Mecca, where the fastest growing religion in the world originated. He agreed with me that’s it’s all a bit of a money racket now, and would cost him, he said, around $3,000. I said people in Indonesia typically pay around $10,000 go on the hajj, but that there’s always the cheaper option of embarking on the less-expensive, minor pilgrimage to Medina.
“How do you know so much about this?” Muhammad asked in his almost perfect English. Me being an obvious non-Muslim who was also white (albeit with a deep Goa tan). If only he knew I was atheist.
“I have many friends in Indonesia who are Muslim and it’s the world’s most populous Muslim country,” I said.
“Have you been to Mecca?” he asked. Which I thought a peculiar question, as surely he would know.
“Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter Mecca,” I told him. If you try and get in, they will ask if you’re Muslim, at the entry points on the roads, and if you don’t have a Muslim name, you’re turned away. It’s total discrimination, of course. Let’s say we have famous churches in Europe or the United States and big signs up saying “Muslims Not Allowed” and security personnel to check everyone and prevent persons of the Islamic faith from entering — you can be certain there would be a changing outrage.
And I added: “If you pretend to have a Muslim name — like Muhammad, for instance — the security guards will then ask you to recite passages from the Koran, to prove you are. So that’s not going to work.”
The reason Mohammad did not have any savings was because he sent almost everything he earned back to his family. I had already pressed him for some of his personal details, including his age, and I got the sense that he wasn’t married and had no children, as he just mentioned supporting his brothers and sisters, some of whom were too young to work and some — the women — who were not allowed to. It seemed cruel to ask if he was not married, as he was effectively slaving away here to support his siblings.
And so, as I left Mohammad and Dubai, I thought how often you arrive in a place that’s brimming with wealth but are looked after by people who have little to nothing and who struggle to survive, and the rest of us have the luxury of never having to worry about all that much.
- Title photograph by William J. Furney