We were moving to Al Ain, where I’d taken a job teaching for a university in the United Arab Emirates.
We only had two kids back then, Annie, 9, and Kate, 5. Having endured many transatlantic flights, they were prepared and relaxed: books, puzzles, toys, movies. The 13-hour leg from D.C. to Doha was a breeze. My wife, Maura, and I plugged into the seat-back Personal Entertainment Devices, clinked plastic cups of red wine and relaxed into the voyage.
Quick transfer in Doha. Short hop to Dubai. Although no one had slept more than a fitful hour, we were upbeat, energized, happy. We had a 90-minute drive to Al Ain ahead of us, but the kids were chill. Our marathon of travel, which might otherwise have been excruciating, was uneventful.
As we passed through customs, I saw a man holding a homemade sign that said Anju Maddrigun. That was me, apparently, but I couldn’t confirm this because the man spoke no English and I spoke no Arabic. We hopped inside his black-windowed van. What could go wrong? He dropped us off at the Hilton, not an unmarked location in the desert, so everything seemed fine. While waiting for the kids to unstrap themselves, however, I dropped three pounds. The temperature was 125 degrees. My sweat was sweating. My sweat’s sweat was chugging Gatorade.
We checked in. The university, which had promised a two-bedroom suite, had booked a single room for us.
“That can’t be right,” I said.
The hotel clerk gave me an uneasy smile. “Sorry, sir. This is correct.”
“There are four of us, but only one bed.”
“You could share the bed, sir.”
“No,” I answered. “We could not.”
Annie slept on a rollaway cot. Little Kate curled up on the love seat. We had them remove an end table and a bulky chair to create more space. Kate inspected the bidet and tried to drink from it. The room was vaguely workable. We slept well.
In the morning I searched for a message from the university, the English Department, the Council of Tiny Bedrooms. Nothing. No binder from human resources, no orientation manual, not even a brief note welcoming me aboard.
We did, however, have mail.
A few weeks before, we’d shipped ahead 19 boxes of household goods. They arrived early. The Hilton didn’t have storage facilities so we stacked the boxes in our cramped room. Our bunker. Kate had fun, hiding behind a fortress of boxes. Maura and I used a number of words to describe the situation. Fun was not one of them.
The next morning I breathed a slender sigh of relief. Or would have, if there were any space for exhalation. Orientation was beginning. They would hand over the keys to our four-bedroom luxury villa, as dictated by my contract.
“Because of global economic crisis,” the housing director began, “you will not be leaving hotel today.” He — we’ll call him Fandel el-Emeri — paused, briefly. “You will stay here for three, or maybe four, months. Who can be sure?”
He shrugged, turned and started walking away, but then returned to the microphone. “Oh yes, one more thing. There are no villas. You will live in apartment.”
Fandel had a long scar running down the side of his cheek, as if it wanted to escape from his face. You couldn’t blame it. For the next few days we’d hear the phrase global economic crisis many times, always as an excuse for something horrible the university was about to do.
We lived in the Hilton for 18 weeks. The space was tight. There was tension. Words were exchanged. (But not those sweet words you hear about.) We did laundry in the bathroom sink; we hung it to dry from the balcony. We negotiated the occupation of 20 square feet of bathroom space as if it were a demilitarized zone or disputed territory. School lunches were made from the tiny, not-very-cold mini-bar fridge that turned peanut butter into a liquid. The fridge also housed a team of expensive, but tiny, psychologists. Maybe that’s why they’re called shrinks. We unscrewed their heads and talked about our problems.
After a few weeks we became Hotel People. We entertained friends at the pool or in the lobby cafe — there was no room in our inaptly named room. We got to know Big & Tasty, the two-piece band that performed nightly at Paco’s, downstairs. We could sometimes hear them when we were trying to sleep, but you can’t tell the neighbors to keep it down when they’re the house band. We knew the buffet rotation by heart: Wednesday was pasta night, Friday was Chinese Feast. The man who cleaned our room knew that Kate had a hard time reaching the sink, so one day he brought her a wooden stool. The hotel waitresses became our babysitters. The concierge reminded me to stretch before a run — he knew about my bad hamstring.
We eventually came to love hotel life. Free Internet and satellite TV. Free meals in Flavours, the hotel buffet. Taxis at our doorstep. Free toilet paper, shampoo and maid service. Two bars in the lobby. Three restaurants. The university finally relented, paying for laundry service. I could’ve had my socks dry-cleaned, starched and ironed every day, if I wanted. There was a swimming pool with a steep, winding slide and a swim-up bar. Tennis courts. Playground. Gym. I worked out nearly every day and would’ve had a sculpted Olympian body if it weren’t for the buffet grazing area.
Kate picked up Arabic with astonishing speed. She could speak, read and write within a few weeks, though her neutral American accent transformed — rather disturbingly — into an almost indecipherable South African brogue. Many of the teachers at her international school were from Cape Town or Durban. The head waiter at Flavours was a lovely man, Girish. When the buffet looked grim, he brought Annie and Kate ice cream sundaes and lasagna from the Italian restaurant. The hotel threw Maura a party on her birthday. Champagne, cake, decorations, presents, a card signed by the staff. They treated her better than I did.
A few people furtively moved out of the hotel. They bribed Fandel. We discovered that the global economic crisis had not affected Al Ain, that there were plenty of villas in town, reasonably priced, but without a kickback Fandel wouldn’t sign off on the lease. Meanwhile, at work, I had no telephone, no office, no textbooks. For a workspace, the department chair assigned me to an empty utility closet. The ceiling tiles were brown, soggy or missing. Tangled electrical wires hung from the ceiling like vines; I worried that they’d grab me one day and pull me up into the darkness.
On the bright side, we never had to cook, clean, or buy anything. My salary was good and we saved money. Aside from work, I rarely left the hotel. Life was great, and horrible.
It was finally time to move out, into a luxury two-bedroom apartment that was brand-new and already falling apart. Fandel called me into his office. I began examining the paperwork.
“No need for this,” he said.
Fandel grew angry. His facial scar seemed to pulsate and glow red.
The lease was long and intricate. There was a space for my name. The other signatory lines had already been filled:
Fandel el-Emeri Housing Director
Fandel el-Emeri Landlord
Fandel el-Emeri Property Developer
Fandel el-Emeri University Financial Oversight Officer
Ah. Fandel had kept us prisoner for 18 weeks because he wanted us to move into his property, which was still under construction. As housing director he awarded the real estate contracts to himself, for each of the 200 new hires, except for those who left a bundle of cash on his desk. It seemed unlikely that the financial oversight officer would investigate his misconduct.
Despite the ordeals, we enjoyed the Hilton. The hotel and its staff were friendly and kind. Without having to cook, clean or do laundry, we had more free time, and of course there’s nowhere to hide in a tiny single room. We were forced to spend extra time together, which, in these days of electronic isolation, doesn’t always happen. We swam, played soccer, hiked in the desert. The hotel brought us closer together, even as it nearly drove us apart.
Madigan is a freelance writer based in Virginia.
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