Surviving for more than five minutes

Construction booms

The power cables that fire up the internet and telephones across the Middle East got cut during my first week here; all three cables, curling deep in the Mediterranean sea. I am stranded, like a mermaid, cut off from my old life.  No one  knows when we will be reconnected, always ‘inshallah’. 

I am on another planet, in another time.  A time traveller, going forward into the future.  Sometimes, I think I am in the Star Wars bar on Tatuine. 

Since I arrived my feet have barely touched the floor.  It’s all so intense.  The moment I arrived I was slung into ‘official processing’, thoroughly poked and prodded.  I bear pooling, indigo bruises. I have been blood typed, blood tested, X- rayed, measured, examined and every part of my hands and fingers digitally captured, tested for all sorts of diseases.  

Life in the desert is anarchic and chaotic.  People live for today, perhaps because there is a belief that tomorrow lies entirely in the hands of Allah.  This belief is manifest in everything, from the crazy driving, down the centre of road at hyperspeed, to the ‘throw it up and rip it down’ building work.  Nothing survives five minutes.  I wonder, will I?

Work at the Health Board, so far, has been surreal.  It is a verbal culture and I am overwhelmed by all the words.   Everyone talks so fast and so loudly, all the time.   It is all about conversation and lengthy, discursive meetings.   Nothing is written, there are no files, records, memos.  My poor ears…

The office layout, like a big Rubik’s cube, all the covered women, names I can’t quite grasp or remember, meeting dozens of people every day, and people speaking only Arabic, make it all the more dizzying. 

Life in the office is an exercise in patience.  There’s no such thing as privacy or hesitation about interruption.  I am constantly interrupted, every five minutes.  A typical day involves numerous attempts by the office boys to bring me tea, nuclear-hot cardamom coffee, then someone else comes to switch on the aircon, or a cleaner comes to hoover, another to empty the bin, then a man bustles in thrusts an Arabic document in front of me and demands I sign (twice).  All of this is interjected with Rashid and his tales of woe.  Every task he is asked to do is a major drama, although it’s mostly things like ordering files… and so it goes on…

My laptop is driving me insane, as it’s set up to Arabic, so the cursor is to the right all the time and it keeps springing Arabic text in when I’m not looking…

Bonding with my translator has been my first big success. She seems to be delighted to be working with me, to the extent that five minutes after our introduction she came and lit incense on my desk.  That was lovely, only incense lighting here is much more of a pyrotechnical event than you might expect.  The tablet is lit and it explodes into clouds of smoke, that in the UK would trigger an evacuation of the building. 

Finally, we are reconnected, but the national phone company, in response to a report on global spamming, which identifies this country as one of the worst culprits in the world, has now stopped all public sector email as some peculiar anti-spamming measure.  

It is uncomfortable world in many ways, with skeletal labourers hammering away on hellish construction sites, day and night in the heat.  But I am fascinated too – there’s something of the future here. Our European world looks dangerously fragile and outdated, when you see the ruthless pace and ambitions of the Middle East.   Being here has tilted the world for me.



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