The Veil of Time

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Dubai, United Arab Emirates – September 2015

In Dubai, humid desert is not an oxymoron. Each intake of breath coats my lungs with a suffocating vapor. Like a sodden veil constricting my face. I now understand why he always used to take his vacations at this time of year.

My journey consists of a walk across the street from my hotel to the metro station. The entrance looms ahead. Tightly sealed cars with darkened windows pass by. The first tendrils of cool air emanate from within. Just a few more steps and I am enveloped. The train is packed full of workers. Every region of Asia is represented in their faces. They recoil when I enter, leaving a wide circle free around me. The penalty for harassing a tourist is harsh.

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After a few stops and a fifteen-minute walk through an air-conditioned passageway, I emerge at the largest mall in the world. I scuttle past the tacky jewelry, fast food, and cheap makeup. Familiar brands appear. The crowd, already modest in size, thins to a trickle. Soothing Arabic music wafts down the corridors. I slow my pace and exhale with relief. I am ill-at-ease in shopping malls. Squawking females. Whining kids. Blaring music that borders on sadistic. Was pop music always so obnoxious? All paths lead to the aquarium, however. Groups and individuals pause, take the obligatory selfie, and then move on. I turn away and enter the Cheesecake Factory restaurant. I did research before my visit. Oh, yes. If I have to spend my short time in Dubai in a mall, I’m going to luxuriate in American restaurant chain nostalgia.

The female server commences the hollow American customer service banter. “Hello. How are you? My name is _____ and I’ll be your server today. Where are you from? Oh, really? That’s nice.” Desperation in her smile. The workers surely can’t afford to eat here. I want to pat her hand gently and say, It’s okay, dear. I know you don’t give a crap. Just do your job and I’ll tip well. A couple sits down across the aisle. He is wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Everything but her eyes is obscured in black. She drops her hot pink Victoria’s Secret shopping bag against her chair. They lean towards each other deep in conversation, eyes soft. While I eat, I watch them with quick, furtive glances. I’ve never thought about the mundane mechanics of Arab female dress. She drapes her veil over her glass of lemonade and sips. I stifle my surprise when a plate of buffalo wings is set in front of her. She cuts them into small pieces, quickly lifts her veil, takes a bite, and then lets the veil fall as she chews. She catches my look and her eyes harden. I signal for my bill. A veggie burger, fries, lemonade, and a piece of white chocolate rasperry cheesecake comes to thirty euros.

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Away from the epicenter, I find myself nearly alone in gilded corridors. A melodic male voice wails from the sound system. Even in this immense cathedral of consumerism, prayers are broadcast at the designated times. Arabic men in long white robes and headdresses drink tea in ornate cafes. I scan their faces for familiar features. Once, long ago, I knew a man who is one of those responsible for Dubai’s transformation. We met via a mutual friend. I was nineteen years old. He was older than my father. He is like a king in his country, I was told. A country very few had ever heard of. In this place, marriages are arranged and only for the purpose of producing heirs. His wife lived in her own palace. Discretion was still necessary, however. No photos. We only met in public when there was no risk of discovery.

My family panicked when I told them that he had invited me to Cannes, France. Blondes fetch a huge price on the white slavery market. I kept their warnings at the back of my mind as I flew across the Atlantic. I would be vigilant. I had never imagined that I would be able to travel overseas. He was making my dreams come true.

My room at the Hotel Martinez overlooked the sea. I shared the room with a young woman from Italy, his friends’ daughter. His Indian secretary and a soft-spoken British gentleman, one of his dearest friends, were also in the entourage. Most of the tourists had already left for the season, so we had the beach and the fancy restaurants almost to ourselves. One evening, we went to a dinner show that featured a topless cabaret. I squirmed in my seat and looked down at my plate. Families were in attendance. Young boys wearing matching dinner jackets and ascots sat at the table next to us. They set down their forks and applauded at the appropriate times. After the show, they got up and danced with their grandmother. It was Europe. Boobs were no big deal. A young woman with an older man didn’t merit the slightest surprise.

If anyone noticed the long, soft looks we exchanged or where I slept at night, they didn’t show it. Except for the Italian, who clasped my hands in hers. I love that kind man so much. Be happy, Julie. And yet, shame gnawed at my insides when I imagined what others thought. I’d only had one serious boyfriend in my life: an alcoholic sociopath who stole from and cheated on me. I couldn’t possibly deserve all of this generosity. I was certainly being scandalous.

I have wandered into the luxury section. Louis Vuitton. Hermes. Gucci. Dior. The shops are vacant, except for salesmen in suits. They stand at the entrances. Backs straight. Hands folded. Sentinels of retail. I’ve never seen anything in these windows that would tempt me inside, even if I had the money.

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He invited me to Italy a few months later. Over the next two years, we met a couple more times in a small American city where he regularly flew his family for medical care. Each time, he was more distant. The soft glow in his eyes hardened to a shrewd glint. Big plans, was all he would tell me. I was also not the same. My style of dress was erratic. My skin had broken out in huge cysts. My fingernails were chewed to the quick. Something bad had happened in my life. Someone had stolen my spirit and I was spiraling into darkness. I could no longer fake the optimism that he required.

I never heard from him again.

What would I do if I crossed his path here, today? I could never approach him, of course. But I couldn’t just let him pass by without making my presence known. He probably wouldn’t recognize me, at first. A quarter of a century has passed. My hair is darker. My round cheeks have weathered away. There are lines around my eyes.

I would stare at him until I caught his gaze and the veil of time fell away. Thank you. For treating me well. For taking me out of my small world. I’m sorry I didn’t allow myself to enjoy it more. That is all. Farewell.

I peer through the doors to the pools where the fountains dance every thirty minutes. Sundown skyline silhouette. Three black-robed women materialize on the other side. I hold the door open. They glide through the portal. Sila Djinn from another dimension. Faces ensnared in black gossamer veils. A hand emerges. Blood red fingernails in polished ebony. The faint rasp of eyelash against spun silk. A cobwebby susurration, β€œThank you.”

I step through to the other side, into the heat’s embrace. People congregate at the artificial shore, phones and cameras ready. The Burj Khalifa pierces the evening sky. A glittering dagger.

If only we were able to conjure up those souls from the past that haunt us still. Weave a spell from all the words ever left unsaid.

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79 thoughts on “The Veil of Time

  1. I’ve already figured out that you have actually lived the life you’ve had so far – but it’s posts like this that make it all the more clear. Something struck me from this post, opulence and luxury in the shopping mall, combined with the likelihood that those working there would probably not be able to afford to eat there. Sipping a drink, or eating buffalo wings – while sitting next to a purchase from Victoria’s Secret – all behind a veil. Everything, behind a veil.

    How much of our world, our society, carries on behind screens and veils? I lived in a town once where going to church was seen as a duty – which of the 80 some-odd churches one went to was not important – just that one went to church to show penitence and ask forgiveness for the kinds of things that typically happened behind closed doors throughout the week. Veils. Entire governments and societies live as much of their existence as possible behind veils.

    How would our world be, I often wonder, if the veils could somehow, someday, simply vanish – and the people behind all those veils simply accept one another for who and what we are: humans. We live in a world that seems to be full of Wizards of Oz, all of various shapes and sizes, all proclaiming that we should not pay any attention to that man behind the curtain.

    Thank you for another very thought-provoking post πŸ™‚

  2. A fine post indeed, Julie. Such evocative writing. Dubai is such a strange place – like some interspace between consciousness and subconsciousness with too many shopping opportunities and few shoppers.

    • Thank you, Tish. Yes, Dubai is peculiar. At first, I was disappointed that it was too hot to do anything else besides wander around a mall and see the Burj Khalifa. Now I feel like I got a very good sense of the place, because this is what the new Dubai is all about: consumerism and over-the-top glitz.

      • The best bit of Dubai, I found, was underground i.e. the accidentally discovered museum of Dubai’s history, which is hidden under the fort. It was good to get of glimpse of what the place had once been like when it was only pearl fisheries and dhows without the ersatz desert bling.

        • I actually was going to go to that museum and the women’s museum the following day, but I ended up having some digestive disturbances and had to spend most of the day in my room. Thank you, Cheesecake Factory. =:-O

  3. Julie , dear friend , You bring a sense of wonder so fearless and unbridled in your writing . I love how you took me back in time , how you end one paragraph with the word ” scandalous ” and begin the next with being back to the luxury section of the mall . Your magnificent spirit shines and is what I love most , even though at one time in your life it was stolen ….Julie , I continue to be deeply moved by your ” seeing ” , loving what you would say to the older ” man who is like a king ” if you were to cross paths , and your ending thoughts , well , they are just so lovely ….love , megxxx

  4. Yes, strong writing here. You create so much from so few lines: mood, history, personal revelations. And, you are just taking a short walk. I am in awe of your craft. πŸ‘Œ

  5. As tightly spun as ever – a fine read Julie. ‘Conjuring souls from the past’ – what I wouldn’t give.. Not that this would amount to much compared to the money invested in Dubai. Given untold riches and the power to build dreams, I can’t help feel Dubai is a disappointing outcome.

    • Thank you, Robin. Dubai is an odd place. I couldn’t help but feel that I was looking at the future: masses of worker drones providing for those wealthy few. The new god is conspicuous consumption, no matter what veil they try to cover it up with.

  6. Sorry, I thought, dear Julie, this time you didn’t have any possibility to add a comment but I came back and saw it! First of all, I have to admit that Dubai is one of the places I really don’t feel like going to and your touching story proved me right! I hate it when people ask me how I am, like in America, but are not interested in me! Furthermore the whole surrounding is so artificilal and “veiled” with these big luxurious shopping malls and other shows, which give me the creeps. I would much rather go to Montenegro!
    You are, however, lucky to have made this very special experience.:) I thank you very much for letting me be a lttle part of it.

    • Hi Martina – I would never have made an effort to go to Dubai, but it was a free stopover on a LONG trip back from Namibia, so I thought, “Why not?” After living overseas for almost 17 years, the American way of service annoys me, too. I very much appreciate the competence, of course, but the politeness goes too far. They want you to believe that they are your immediate friend, that they care. It is as artificial as those pretty lakes and islands in Dubai. They both go together well. Creepy is exactly how it felt. I wish I could have explored the very small old city when I was there, but it was just too hot. I’m very happy I stopped in Dubai, but I wouldn’t make an effort to go back.

      • The moment I read your post about Dubai, Julie, I knew (felt) that it was a stopover when you went to Namibia! About all this artificiality I think, however, that it is asked by the nowadays people, otherwise it couldn’t be sold in such big quantities!
        Have a nice Sunday and best regards Martina

  7. Hi Julie, First, let me apologize for the long lapse in my readership. A few things have precluded my regular visits this year, among them is not lack of interest in or loyalty to your work. I stumbled across this post in my email this morning. Among the dozens of posts of yours that I have read over the years, this stands as a favorite. You’ve sumptuously captured the irony of an affluent Arab country that holds up tradition like a flag of valor while gorging on western consumerism. On a personal note, there is an uncharacteristic but welcome aura of tenderness in the way that you describe yourself and your role in these experiences.
    Warm regards and I hope all is well with you,
    Vivian

    • Hi Viv – You totally don’t need to apologize. I miss your presence, of course, but I never expect people to read my blog religiously. I recall that you spent some time in this area, so you understand how it is. The man of whom I speak idolized the American way of life. He’d scold me anytime I criticized it. I can’t help but think that the Dubai of today is some sort of twisted interpretation, though the bling part definitely did not come from him personally.
      Warm wishes to you, too. I’m happy to know that you are okay.

  8. At first I wondered why you could possibly be in a mall in Dubai. Gradually, I understood. Urge, impulse and necessity can sometimes take us to places we would not normally go.

    The first time I went to Turkey in the mid-1980s was not because wanted to; I went in search of old kilims and rugs to take back to London and sell. Only on the third occasion did I go because I really wanted. Still in search of kilims and rugs I’d fallen in love with the country, and its intriguing foreign ways. Having experienced the generosity of its people, and enjoyed their hospitality, I thirsted for more. The long history of that part of the world fascinated me. That urge to took me over most of Eastern Anatolia, at a time a guerrilla war between Turkish security forces and Kurdish separatists had just begun. It didn’t effect me, apart from the random stop and searches for Kurdish fighters on buses, and a raid on a nightclub in Malatya one early morning. The all-male pavilions where female dancers performed were filled with Kurdish tribesmen down from the mountains with pockets of cash. Not normally places Westerners went, the visits were part of business. My carpet dealer host thought it was what I would want. In a way he was right, but not the way he thought.

    My search led me to places beyond the tourist tracks, as the carpet business meant going to places and engaging with people tourists very rarely come into contact with. In turn that led me to a very short career in travel journalism. As my aim was to stop people travelling, and get them to stay at home, I didn’t last beyond a few articles in The Independent

    I can’t see myself going to Dubai, but your short tale brought it alive for me, and it was travel books that first got spending my summers hitchhiking all over Europe as a student.

    Thanks for that, travel journalism could do with writers like you, but you wouldn’t bring in enough advertising revenues, and that’s all that counts these days.

    • Hi Bryan – Necessity is right: it was 47C with a heat index of 52C. It was the first time I’ve ever been scared of the heat. I tried walking around the Creek to take a water taxi, but it was madness. I was the only person outside. The Dubai Mall is actually the most pleasant and beautiful mall I’ve ever been in. Like a mini city. Plus the Burj Khalifa (tallest building in the world) is just outside. I actually felt like I got a good feel about Dubai there, since this is what the modern city is all about: spending money.

      Your time in Turkey sounds fascinating. You tried to stop people from traveling? That’s an interesting twist for a travel journalist. Did you do it to boost tourism in the UK? Or were there other motives?

      Thank you so much for the compliment about my writing. I think travel writing (about place more than tourism) has the potential to be effective and bring in revenues, but the tourism industry would have to realize that and learn how to work with it. Personal travelogues have always inspired me to visit places so much more than travel guides or magazines. I think of it as indirect marketing. πŸ™‚

      • Discourage, would probably be more accurate than stop, I suppose. The more I travelled the more I began to dislike most tourists and mass tourism. Far from travelling to foreign shores to absorb the indigenous culture they appeared as islands of their own culture trying their hardest stamp their presence on the places they visited. For my own selfish reasons I wanted them to stay at home in their comfy armchairs by their cosy fires. To my mind, they would be far better of enjoying the travels of others through books or going to somewhere more like home. The constant complaints, and comparisons with how much better things were at home, had me running away from all nervous bright pink people sporting the skimpy shorts and T-shirts that were sometimes seen as offensive to local sensibilities in Eastern Anatolia. I avoided contact with people from Europe, the US and the Antipodes as much as I could, dreading running into them in particularly remote areas. Assuming I was as joyful to see them as they were to see me, they would behave as though they might had they discovered David Livingstone, I presume.

        • Oh, that is brilliant. Like getting married, having kids, buying a house, I think some people travel because of societal pressure, not because they have the desire to. What will the neighbors think if they don’t travel during vacation time? There’s nothing wrong with staying home. Travel isn’t for everyone. We’re all different. Now, if only people would stop harassing me about not having kids. πŸ˜‰

    • I very much feel that you said something especially important about Julie, who is writing and giving us readers so much of her experience free of charge. I thank her very much!
      About your trip to Turkey, Bryan, I just would like to add that it often happens when travelling that we end with completely other people or other places than we had in mind. I made that experience when travelling by public bus to Izmir.

  9. I was in Dubai shortly after you, and before I went I’d realised people either love it or despise it. I wasn’t in either camp – I quite liked it, but probably wouldn’t go again. Our hotel was next to that mall you mention, and a visit to the Cheesecake Factory was on our list, but could we find it? Could we heck!

    • I also thought Dubai was okay, but nowhere I’d make the effort to visit again. I only went there because it was a free stopover on my way back home from Namibia.It helped to break up the very long voyage.

      To make you feel better, I had to spend almost the entire next day in my room, in close proximity to the bathroom, as a result of my visit to the Cheesecake Factory.

  10. That’s an awful lot of glitz built upon the shifting sands of consumerism, with cheesecake et al thrown in for good measure. A brilliant tour through this mecca Julie of your now and then.

  11. Another fine read. We all have our own veils. Strangely, I’ve never stopped to wonder how women in veils eat/drink. It’s an interesting dilemma, particularly if one eats as messily as I do. πŸ™‚

    What if? Something we all ponder, but perhaps shouldn’t.

    • I’d never thought about it either – eating with something covering my face. I’m also not the tidiest eater. I’d have to have a few spare veils in my purse. πŸ˜‰

  12. Julie, I love the way your writing intermingles the past and present– how they are entangled and the threads of what has been linger, but have softened. It is always interesting to reflect on relationships through the lens of time, and see how much they gave us, even if we didn’t fully comprehend it at the time. I also love the way you closed, with the tide of photo-hungry people coming in to flood around the edges of your memory and sweep it away…

    Michael

    • Many thanks, Michael. With age, I’ve realized that it takes maturity to grasp all of the nuances we missed in past relationships, friendships, or even the briefest of interactions.

  13. A wonderful post and great dialogue. What struck me most was the kindness your received. To me, kindness is the greatest gift to give and receive. Always a joy to stop by…

  14. I was totally absorbed by your words, Julie… drinking and eating always behind the veil…kinda makes me feel not at ease. Then while reading, I realized that people have masks, or veil, also without wearing it. I didn’t expect a personal tournament of your tail. There are so many nuances in this relationship, maybe you catch them only after years. Love it. Cris

  15. Just such a beautifully written post – wonderful mix of travel insight, thought and personal history. Dubai never sounds like my kind of place but I would definitely take the opportunity for a stopover if there was one, out of curiosity as much as anything.

    • Thanks, Alex. It’s hard to turn down a free stopover, no matter where it is. Except maybe Addis Ababa. I was considering taking Ethiopian Airlines to South Africa/Namibia, but when I looked into what AA is like, I quickly booked that Emirates ticket via Dubai.

  16. It is as if i have slipped into a mysterious world with this post ~ evocative narration, and it is always a bit of an edgy feeling of what is seen/desired, especially all the luxury brands in Dubai as well as just the lifestyle itself. You bring this all to life in such an amazing way with your words (and photos). Beautifully written Julie.

  17. I have always wondered how one ate, drank, or used napkins while wearing a hijab and now you have helped answer the question. A very moving and beautifully written piece, Julie. You cover so much in such short order.

  18. This post stayed with me for a number of reasons. On a surface level, I made a stopover in Abu Dhabi once on my way to Nepal and had similarly ambivalent feelings about it. (I do think Dubai takes the glitz to a whole other level, though!) More than that, I loved the interweaving of the former relationship into the more current story. Travel itself can bring on a sense of vulnerability, so when it’s compounded by a personal connection, especially one of such imbalance, it takes on an unforgettable power.

    • Thank you so much. You’re so right about the personal connection magnifying what would have otherwise been a pretty banal experience – walking through a mall.

  19. Dubai is an extraordinary placeβ€”completely over-the-topβ€”that should credit its existence to the availability of air conditioning. Thanks for taking me back there so I don’t have to stop again. Abu Dhabi is much more normal.
    P.S. We lived in Syria and Lebanon in the late 1970s and early 1980s, through much of the Lebanese Civil War. Beirut was the madhouse and Damascus was the normal. How things change.

    • How things change, indeed. With the way things are going, who knows what the Emirates will be like in ten years. Sometimes the places that seem the most invincible are the ones that fall the hardest.

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