Dubai Detour

by Neil M. Andrus as told to his father

With the economy in shambles, I felt lucky to get a job through a family friend. I was to be a project manager at an overseas construction site. I wouldn't have to wear a tool belt anymore. I'd get a salary, not an hourly wage, and Uncle Sam wouldn't use of penny of it to bail out loser corporations.

There was a downside. I'd be issued body armor and taught to be proficient with a Glock 9 mm.
At San Francisco International, the counter clerk for Emirates Air asked whether I wanted to check my rucksack all the way through to Baghdad. I asked how he was going to do that if my connecting flight was with another airline.

"No problem.

"It's Jupiter Airlines."

His face went as blank as mine had when I first received my economy class ticket. "I do not know this Jupiter." He turned the paper one way, then another. "But Emirates will get your bag there OK."

"No thanks," I said. "I'll pick it up in Dubai and check it through to Iraq myself."

We took off after midnight. We chased the sun for sixteen hours, never caught up and landed half way around the world in at 7:30 PM. The 777 Boeing had enough empty seating to allow for lying down, but even with a Xanax, I couldn't sleep.

It was raining hard. In spite of the early evening hour, Terminal 3 of Dubai International Airport felt like an empty Vegas casino: there were few people but acres of crystalline-bright flooring that sprouted at intervals with composite pillars, huge glass sculptures and real palm trees. Gigantic LED displays advertised Rolex and Lexus and Channel.

I followed passengers to baggage claim where I grabbed my rucksack from the carousal and strapped my smaller backpack to it. I moved on to customs, looking all the while for a smoking sign, but all writing was in Arabic squiggles. The few people out and about sounded like they were in
Team America speaking Derka-derka. I was the only one in line at customs. Smiling, the officer stamped my passport.

I thought I'd find my connecting flight better if I had some tar and nicotine first. Then I'd still have twelve hours to look for Jupiter. I moved toward the main entrance. To the left were a baggage scanner and a group of security guards in green jump suits. I asked the shortest guy, "Is there a smoking section around here?"

"Where are the drugs?"


"You can tell me. It's going to be OK."

"What are you talking about? I don't have any drugs. I'm just trying to have a cigarette."

"Better for you to tell me now."

"Look, I've got eight Xanax. They were prescribed by a doctor."

"What is this Xanax?"

"It's for anxiety. Under stress I sometimes break out in hives and can't sleep. This is just to get me through the initial adjustment period."

A unibrow formed across his forehead.

I patted my heart, "Anxiety," and thought, Camp Habbinyah was built by the British in 1938, taken over by the Americans during the Second Iraq War, and turned over to the 1st Iraqi Division, fine soldiers every one, or they damned well better be if our new President made good on his campaign promise to abandon the country. I had a job all right. Right in the middle of the f__ing Falluja Triangle.

Shorty took my passport and gave it to a taller and fatter guard. "You show me this Xanax."

I opened my toiletry bag and gave Shorty the plastic vial from Longs Drug Store. That's when I noticed Fat 'n Tall bee-linining across the concourse.

"Hey," I tried to keep my voice calm, "that's my passport. Where's he going with my passport?"

"It's OK. You'll be all right. You just have to fill out some paperwork here." He gestured to a doorway. "Come with me."

The doorway opened inward to a space the size of a closet. Another security guard nearly filled it. He gave me a cursory pat down. I had been told by my new boss that credit cards were useless where I was going; I should bring a thousand dollars in cash; and I'd have to try really hard to spend it before the year was out. If the one patting me down felt the wad of bills in my pocket, he didn't say anything.

"Please," Shorty said, "take off shirt."

As I was pulling up my T-shirt, he added, "And pants."

I could tell he was embarrassed. Overcome with relief, I volunteered, "Do you want me to strip down?"

"Please, sir, yes, sir."

I had heard a lot of Rap, and the brothers seemed to be speaking from experience, so I said, "Do you want me to bend over?"

The two guards flattened themselves against the walls, which I took for a green light. When I straightened, I could tell they were overjoyed they wouldn't have to extract a condom crammed with cocaine.

After I dressed, they escorted me to where Fat 'n' Tall had taken my passport, a much bigger space. Garage sale desk, green carpet, crappy blinds, paint chipping from the walls and a poster of the President of the United Arab Emirates framed in cheap plastic frame made me have second thoughts about Terminal 3's glitzy design elements.

Two men in white robes--Lawrence and Arabia--now took charge of the proceedings. Lawrence sat behind the desk learning how to work a computer. Arabia alternated between ordering coffee, exchanging chit-chat with uniformed guards who came in and out, and texting messages on his cell phone. Between them, Lawrence and Arabia had the English vocabulary of my three-year-old nephew.

"Is Mackay surname?"

"No, it's my middle name."

From that moment on, Mackay became my surname.

Lawrence typed one finger at a time, slowly, and laboriously read the results aloud. He got a lot of hand waving with Derka-derka that didn't sound like positive feedback. Meanwhile, Shorty took scrapings from the inside of my toiletry bag.

"You already got me for Xanax. What else do you think I have?"

He gave me a blank look.

"C'm'on, man."

He put my bag down.

About then, another guard took over the computer. Finally, I was handed a printout. Arabia told me to sign it.

"I can't read it."

"That's OK, that's OK. You sign."

Or what? Do a McGiver and take them all out with a letter opener, then disappear in a puff of duct tape?

Two teenagers came in. They were dressed in jeans, Ed Hurley T-shirts and Quicksilver baseball caps. They shook hands with everyone but me. They drank coffee. No one offered me coffee. They talked on their cell phones. I asked if I could make a phone call.


I asked if I could have a cigarette.


Later, the kids read what had been typed, and later still I was told to follow them.

We got into an unmarked white Jetta with darkly tined windows. We peeled rubber out of the airport lot. The streets were flooded. We made a lot of turns, raced past construction sites and tracts of barren land. We sloshed in and out of traffic, both kids yelling at other vehicles. They had Wha-wha music on the radio at full volume. My imagination went into overdrive. All my gear was in the trunk, and a thousand in cash was in my pocket. They were going to jack me.

A bus they cut off roared up beside them. The driver opened his sliding window, screaming. My boys screamed back, and motioned to the side of the road. The Jetta and the bus skidded to stops. My driver got out first, brandishing a badge. That was my first inkling he was Johnny Law. He boarded the bus and after a long harangue returned to the Jetta. He hadn't calmed down a bit.

Two crazy kid cops were going to take my money. They were going to kill me. They were going to dump my body someplace in the desert where, if my parents were lucky, in a year or two jackals would find the remains and the folks would have closure.

Instead, we wound up at the New Dubai Police Station. (I discovered later that it is close to the airport, but my boys were just your typical teenagers who liked to see what the family car could do.) When we got out of the Jetta, one handed me metal handcuffs and the other said, "You put on."

At the front desk, they turned me over to an older guy, a traditionalist in a robe, his lined face grizzled with whiskers. For men who sported beards in the United Arab Emirates, there were two basic styles. The interior decorator or satanic look--pin stripes down the jaw, a chin strip and tightly trimmed mustache. Or the wrap around it's-my-party-and-it-can-grow-where-it-wants-to.

I didn't see anyone in the police station wearing a uniform, but the guy in the robe looked like he could inflict serious pain on any man and the camel he road in on. Dirty Harry took my cuffs off and ordered me to pick up my bags so that we could store them in a closet.

We entered a hallway carpeted with women who smelled like strange food. Most were sleeping. Dirty Harry yelled at several curled in front of a doorway. They moved. He opened the door, and after I put my things in, he locked the door.

We went back to the front desk where I was told to sit down. Another robe was coming, and Dirty Hairy snapped two orders:

"On cuffs. Stand."

He and Mr. Big talked back and forth. Mr. Big left and came back. Without being told, I popped to my feet like a jack-in-the box. This pleased Dirty Hairy, and after the dignitary left for good, I didn't have to wear the cuffs. This made it easier to roller ink across each fingertip, then my palms, then the sides of my hands.

After sixteen prints, Dirty Harry took me to a heavily guarded medical lab. I turned over precious urine. We went back to the police department.

Dirty Harry passed me on to Mr. Curiosity, a twenty-ish cop who spoke broken English and insisted on knowing how much "policemens" in America made. He wrote 1,700 and pointed to himself.

I gave the name for the local currency. "Dirham?"

He nodded. "American like Wayatt Earp. Today. How much?"

Beat the heck out of me. I said, "3,000 per month."

"U.S. Dollar?"

I though about saying yes, but I didn't want him to get jealous and immigrate.

"Dirhams. But they have to pay for their own gas. And guns and uniforms and badges. Parking space too."

He nodded knowingly. America was not the land of milk and honey. It was all propaganda.

He added to the paperwork that had been following me around. He told me, "Everything OK, not long now," and led me to a cell in which three men placidly waited for it not to be much longer. They could work some English into the Dirka-dirka. They told me they were in for alcohol.

The UAE is a Moslem nation that prides herself on religious tolerance, and offers up her charms as a Mecca for high end tourists. A Switzerland of the Middle East, the boosters would say, but with no greenery or mountains, and summertime mean temperatures that would turn Heidi into one big skin cancer. Drinking is taboo for devout Moslems but allowed in most hotels, casinos and restaurants, and in a special area of the airport. Caught outside of those areas with alcohol or exhibiting the effects thereof, and you would be locked up with the notorious Xanax taker, Neil Mackay.

During my time with the drunks, I started to pray. My folks were regular church-goers and made sure I had a Christian upbringing. I spent my teens and twenties shrugging most of it off. At age thirty-five, I figured I was as devout as Bill Clinton. God being God, I was sure he could pull strings so that I could continue to have most of my life my way. I prayed that the Lord would allow me to catch my connecting flight to Iraq.

As if in answer, the two kids fetched me and took a high speed detour back to the airport. We slammed to a stop someplace near Terminal 2. Surely, Jupiter would depart from there or Terminal 1. It was 4 AM. I could catch the flight with time to spare.

"Yes, yes, no worry," I was assured, so I didn't worry too much that I was put in a long room with a two snoring men, a Pakistani and an Indian. I didn't worry until they awoke. They spoke good English. They didn't talk about who should have Kashmir. They talked about what awaited us at Central Jail.

Now I was scared. In American prison movies there's always a rape, and in research I once did in college, if you take into account the number of men raped in real prisons, a higher percentage of the U.S. male population is sexually molested than the percentage of females. I didn't want be a stat in an Arab lockup. I prayed in earnest:

"God, save me!"

To be continued (probably in a year or so)...