"Laura was flying over Dubai, in an Emirates plane about to land, still wondering if she was not about taking that job. What was a thirty-three year-old girl, with a successful marketing career and a job working for a prestigious hotel chain, going to do in a country of men?
Perhaps the challenge was her starting her engine, what moves and makes her happy. This decision may have been hasty, beyond her abilities and against her beliefs – after all, the country had nothing to do with her culture. Laura was a believing Christian but religion didn't stop her from thinking freely and if she ever had to stop doing so, that would be the day she would stop believing in God. There, in Dubai, Religion and Law were one and it was a state already too involved in relationships to other Arab countries.
With her head resting against the plane’s window- as she had done since she was a child -, she lost nothing of the trip, even though the landscape was still all desert. Nothing was visible beyond sand, but she never looked away from the window, so she always reserved a seat near one. Her curiosity was something that always had tormented her. As a child, her grandparents had often had to get her out of trouble, especially when she climbed trees to examine the bird nest. Until she realized she couldn't try everything.
One day, she must have been about six years; she climbed an olive tree to take a peep at a goldfinch’s nest and stumbled upon a Montpellier snake eating the eggs, while the birds were making noise around the tree in an attempt to chase her away. She never climbed trees again. It was the biggest scare of her life, although the snake had been no more than fifty centimeters and was completely harmless – fact she was unaware of – it served as a lesson.
Growing up on a farm with freedom, surrounded by dogs, cats, chickens and sheep, had been the best thing that happened to her as a child, the wealth of nature available taught her to be in harmony with her surroundings. Laura now adapted well to any space, her sensitivity was so refined that she was able to spend hours admiring a trail of ants, trying to understand the meaning of their movements. The following moment, she laid on her back in the tall grass of the meadow and admired the clouds, trying to guess some animal figures in each one of them. She wasn't nostalgic but had good memories of childhood and for a moment she wished she could rewind time and go back.
As the first skyscraper of the city came into view her curiosity increases. Dubai was a mystery. She had visited countries on four continents, but it was her first trip to the Emirates. She would never have chosen to work in a country so distant and different from the European culture if she had had an alternative. Portugal was in a resounding economic downturn; unprecedented in its history and Spain – where she had been working lately – was going in the same direction. It was only a matter of time before she was let go because of a lack of funds. Despite being one of the best marketing professionals in her company, if there were dismissals it would be the employees with less seniority who would have to go and Laura was part of that group.
Everyone started organizing books and IPods, tightening theirs belt, praying and, for some, twisting hands. Others, relaxed, doing “oh” and “ah” during the plane’s approach.
From the look of the passengers, many were foreigners like her and most was tourists wanting to discover the eccentricities they had only seen in the media. Dubai is a much sought-after holiday destination, especially for the exoticism and luxury-tourism it offers to visitors. It was precisely in one of those luxury hotels, a brand new hotel that was about to be inaugurated, that she would work.
When Luísa – a childhood friend – had asked her if she would be interested in going to work in Dubai for an oil Sheik for a while, she had been skeptical and asked her friend if she was crazy because it didn't seem to be a good place for a woman. Luísa had been working there for two years as manager in a rural tourism farm lost in the ends of the Baixo Alentejo, a southern region in Portugal, where the Sheik used to take refuge in the summer months. From June to September the temperatures are around the forty-six degrees in Dubai – sometimes more – and millionaire families leave the country to visit cooler areas of the globe.
Luísa, with her ear always listening – a flaw that Laura often pointed her - had heard from the bosses that the Sheik needed a marketing manager with experience in the hotel business and would be recruiting. Of course, she had remembered Laura and had immediately given her a call, knowing that she liked adventure. Laura replied that she only had novels and fairy castles in head and should settle her feet on the ground. Dubai wasn’t part of her career plan, although she recognized that there would be a lot of work in the marketing department since Dubai was entirely dedicated to tourism.
Luísa and Laura had been friends since childhood and had a solid and sincere friendship. But the answer was still no, mainly because once again Luísa was extrapolating the situation, anticipating herself and trampling others. It wasn't the first time Laura had ended up in an awkward situation because of one of her disastrous interventions. Apart from this inconvenient character trait, Luísa had always been an excellent friend and a good management professional. The vacancy was for a man and she wouldn't ask someone she didn’t know for a job, especially not a Sheik. Laura was a very pragmatic woman who doesn’t beg for jobs, every job she had gotten so far, she had gotten on merit alone.
A few days after the conversation with Luísa and having already forgotten the issue, Laura received a message through LinkedIn with the job offer from the same company.
Laura wondered if coincidences really existed or if was this only a portent of what was to come. She had a feeling – she always had feelings about situations – that something amazing was intended for her in this country. Laura was a little superstitious and would rather follow the Spanish proverb: I don't believe in witches, but they exist!
Last May she had received a prize in advertising for the publicity for a promotion in the hotel where she worked. She had updated her curriculum on the platform and it must have been this earned prize that granted her an invitation to integrate – or even better, head – that team. There could be no stranger coincidence. It's a small world as Grandma Theresa said, and Dubai was just a click away. She exchanged some emails with the CEO of the company and within a few days the details were set and the ticket purchased.
What was waiting for her in that immense city, where she would be completely alone?
The closer the day of her departure got, the more anxious she became. She often wondered if it wouldn't be wiser to quit, but if she's didn’t accept challenges now, later they might not arise and someday she would want to settle back home and start a family. A husband and kids were part of her plans. It was painful to grow up without a mother and father, despite having her grandmother Teresa had taken care of her since birth and the grandfather who had always played the role of father very well.
The plane continues to lose altitude and approach the airport.
Out there the sun was beginning to rise and it seemed she could see a slight oscillation of the atmosphere. Heat waves, said the British passengers sitting in line next to her. Distracted with the idea of having to withstand absurd temperatures, she sat, looking out the window, recalling having read that in this country they have air conditioning even in the bus stops, and train. Luxury Laura. Isn’t it what you like? Luxury? So enjoy it now.
Ohhh! The Burj Kalifa at the back! Passengers watched through the windows wanting to see the majesty of the buildings of Dubai. All buildings were very impressive and representative of the country - phallic symbols, Freud would say if he were alive. A very interesting architecture to look at, particularly in the light of psychoanalysis. Male virility and power represented by the size of the buildings. In the background the older kids play “my car is bigger than yours”, when in reality what they are measuring is penis size.
She traveled in business class and the initial enthusiasm she felt when she had first gotten on the, quickly faded when she realized that most of the passengers were fat men wearing white robes, with unfriendly faces and who, luckily, ignored her totally. The rest were certainly English businessmen, who lived between their countries of origin and the Emirate. Sixty per cent of Dubai's population is foreign. Almost every business is administered by citizens from almost every other country. At least she heard someone that she could understand, and got the feeling that she wasn't so alone.
Without any knowledge of Arab culture, she got all the books she could find about it and read them all in a few days, in addition to the research she did on the Internet, the content of which did not leave her more relaxed. Recently she had been very traumatized by the news that circulated in the press about the arrest of a 24-year Norwegian who accused the Arab chief of rape, after a business trip across the country. The young woman was sentenced to 16 months in jail and accused of ingesting alcohol, having sex outside of marriage and violating decency.
She had been inside the plane for six hours and after four in-flight movies, the anxiety that had accompanied her in recent weeks had doubled. After she had made the decision to accepted the challenge, there were nights when she didn't sleep. The case of the Norwegian woman didn't let her relax. She would also be working there and her boss would certainly be a man and Arab. She was wishing he was an old and ugly. When exaggerating, Laura wasn’t modest at all.
The plane was right next to the city about to land. It was 4: 30 a.m. and the sky showed only darkness. After all it wasn't sunrise, it was only the neons of the city. Very gently, the plane landed on the runway and after a few minutes it docked to a landing air bridge while the commander said farewell to passengers in Arabic and in English. She felt fountains of sweat running along her hair and slippery palms and was distributing some smiles to see if anyone talked to her, with the intent of calming down. All in vain. Her flight mates from Lisbon didn't pay her any attention and the British were in the last row, so she just listened to them since it was impossible to have any interaction with them.
After a few minutes the door opened and finally, as usual, business class first came out. Laura walked into the airport, walking through the hallway with the other passengers and already felt homesick. It was not usual to have these reactions as she had already worked abroad, but what was surprising was that, on top of the nostalgia, an unexpected sadness fell upon her and she felt as if she was walking to the gallows, her head gave orders to go ahead and her feet were not advancing. She had to proceed at all cost, even if only because at this point she couldn't turn back.
Once she got inside the airport she was surprised with the grandeur and luxury of it. It was perhaps one of the most beautiful she had been in. Marble, multicolored tiles and columns, many columns like an immense mosque surrounded her. She looked for a washroom to freshen up before standing in line at the immigration booth. Another surprise! The bathrooms had a very pleasant smell. The cleanliness was excellent thanks to Filipino immigrant who was on services and cleaned each and every time someone used the facilities
“Oh, Laura apparently you never left the country and went for airports! Damn girl, this trip is messing with your neurons.”
She left the washroom more composed than she had been going in. She felt fresh and completely surprised by the opulence and the exaggeration: even the toilet water was hot.
At this early morning hour the airport has little movement. Laura went to the queue of immigration with her passport in hand. The immigration service staff did not have friendly faces, she noted. A man and a woman dressed in contrasting colors – she in black and he in white - with very serious faces called the passengers one by one. Laura stepped up to the counter, showed her passport and after a brief look to verify that he photo of the identification document corresponded, the man gave it back without even a word.
“Oh God, where did I come to? This world is crazy! I'm going to the baggage claim to collect my Samsonite.”
Laura had instructions to look for a driver with her name written on a piece of cardboard so she headed for the exit. As soon as she crossed the huge glass door she felt the heat and it was only four thirty in the morning.
She looked at each and every card held by a man leaning against a car to see if any one of them had her name written on it and found him. There he was. Her driver. She felt safer.
Ms. Laura Mateus – Portugal.
She headed towards the man, who looked like he was perhaps in his thirties, who held it and was surprised when she looked at him. Strong, square face, with deep brown eyes, a lovely smile. He dressed like a businessman. “Are all drivers like this, or is this one especially handsome? What a curious country!”
Laura stretched out her hand and he squeezed it firmly saying in perfect English, while looking at her intensely.
“Welcome Miss Laura.”
With much professionalism and he courtesy gestured for her to give him the bag.
Laura did not hesitate and immediately handed him the huge Samsonite, which carried – literally – all her personal effects and clothing.
“But why have did I greet the driver with a handshake? He didn’t refused it...No one greets taxi drivers with a handshake. I'm such a dope.”
But, what she didn't let slip of her mind was the sensation the man had given her as soon as she had seen him. Charming and well-dressed, tall - but not overly - slightly brunet, dark brown eyes and a serious professional air. He looked more like a CEO than a taxi driver. He was certainly a driver with a lot of class. Blessed country! This way it was better. She was almost certainly going to travel by cab a lot – she thought while smiling slightly to herself.
He signed for her to follow him and headed to the car parked in front. As they passed, groups of men, talking loudly in Arabic, making a bluster, turn to her, causing Laura to be a little afraid and curious at the same time; their own curiosity was due to the fact that she accompanied by such a gorgeous man. She didn't know that and interpreted according to her perception of the Arab world and its relationship with women. When they arrived next to the car, she was surprised the vehicle’s doors opened by themselves when they approached. Everything here was so eccentric.
A grey Lexus for a cab! She noted, impressed. She had always had good cars, because, fortunately, her family was able to buy them, but their choices weren’t beyond the most known brands like Peugeot and Volkswagen, she would never dream of owning in a car like this. Damn! A Lexus is a Lexus!
“Do they really let taxi drivers drive these cars?” She asked herself while he put her bag in the trunk and opened her the back door like a perfect gentleman. Laura got in the car and sunk into the soft beige and brown leather, feeling like a princess inside a luxury carriage. The driver started the car, first driving gently and then faster as they exited the underground parking garage. Laura noticed his clothing. It looked like he was wearing an expensive suit, perhaps Armani, but she must have been mistaken. No matter how eccentric this country was, it would be too much for a driver to be wearing a suit costing hundreds of dollars. He sped up through the huge four-lane avenue on both sides, with large signs pointing to Abu Dhabi, another emirate, only a hundred fifty kilometers away along the coast to anyone who follows this direction. The sun began to rise on the horizon and gave the city an air of mystery. Their eyes met in the rearview mirror and he smiled. Laura returned the smile timidly and asked herself why is way reacting this way toward a simple driver. She had never been snobby or pretentious enough to belittle other professions, but this driver was weird.
Said had found her while scavenging LinkedIn, searching for candidates for the hotel’s marketing team and instantly became more fascinated by the photo of her face than by her résumé. Fortunately only he knew that, because it wouldn’t do for a pro like him to admit that his first choice was based on a photo that impressed him. The picture showed a beautiful woman; the serene face of an angel, and her expression hinted at a mystery ready to be solved - a mystery that could involve an Arab princess. Laura looked like an Arab princess, yet she was much prettier than the ones he knew.
Laura was a typical Alentejo woman, with Moorish origin, a product of the multiple mixed race marriages that took place about a thousand years ago, at the time when the Iberian Peninsula was inhabited by Moors as well as some Arabs. She was not the type of stereotypical beauty seen on the cover of magazine, the kind of women Said really didn't like. He hated women who looked more like shallow Barbie dolls and who could only think of adorning themselves. Laura had a slightly oval face and a well-outlined bone structure, completed by olive green eyes and full lips giving a frank and open smile showing a row of white and beautiful teeth. Her slightly way dark brown hair, rested on her shoulders. She indeed looked like an Arab princess. It was her face that held Said and from the photo he went on to analyze her résumé, hoping that it matched the desired profile. The icing on the cake – he was ecstatic after the reading it.
Laura was not only professionally competent, but she also was young, one of the requirements to fill the position. They were looking for people no older than thirty-five, because older workers tended to be demanding and give bring much complications to a company. A young person fitted better into a new place of work, at least that was his experience since he had started running companies nearly ten years ago. He sent her the email with the proposal and hoped she would respond positively.
Lost in his thoughts about the purpose of her being there, in the back seat of his car, he drove over 200 kilometers an hour without any sense of danger and, as the car was safe and soundproofed, Laura didn't even notice the speed at which Said was driving. She hated speed, as it brought back unpleasant moments of her childhood when she was in a car with her father during the few visits that he made after the death of her mother; she had felt terrified every time he asked if she wanted to go for a car ride. They approached a mirrored skyscraper and the car entered into the garage of the building indicating they had reached their destination. The hotel looked new and the gardens were still being completed and this early in the morning there were people working hoping to escape the unbearable heat that would come with the rising sun. Laura thought the 60-story building was indeed impressive, and the slightly open sail shape was an allusion to the sea. To make it glow even more, it was completely covered with mirrored glass, reflecting the other buildings around it, giving it a futuristic air.
“Luxurious, very luxurious.” thought Laura. He parked in a private space – the license plate of the car was painted on the wall - and opened the door for her, at the same time he looked intensely at her, as if he meant something. Laura felt a blush rising to her cheeks and gave thanks for having darker skin, because she felt herself flushing.
Despite the executive posture Laura had a sweet and gentle air, as if she was looking for something she was missing, some observers might even suggest she was looking for love. She had always been very intuitive and she could often understand what people were hiding.
“Too bad he is the driver,” She thought. And then she felt she was really being pretentious. Surely must he have a wife and kids? He was a little audacious man and, this first impression didn’t match what she had read about Arab men and how they relate to women.
“This isn't going very well. The most important thing at this point is that he doesn't say anything. I feel really dumb. Oh Laura, this doesn't sound like you!
Laura had dressed in a way that didn’t show too much of her body – She was following recommendations and didn’t want to risk shocking anybody. The dark blue pantsuit with a white shirt looked sober. It was perfect for a future marketing director. She had put her hair up in a bun and secured it with combs decorated with imitation stones and in her ears she wore costume jewelry - earrings with a faux ruby pendant. Laura had loved earrings ever since she was a girl. In Alentejo, where she had spent most of her childhood with her maternal grandparents, it was customary to decorate yards of homes with flower pots and fuchsias – known as princess earrings - were her grandmother's favorite. At Quinta das Flores there were dozens of vases of fuchsia of various colors and, when she was a child her grandmother used to hang flower buds in her hears and say to her:
“These are princess earrings. Go look in the mirror, honey. You look beautiful!” before kissing her cheeks noisily.
Fuchsias became her favorite flower and in the spring when the red, pink, purple and white buttons flourished, the farm looked like Paradise. To Laura it was her refuge, her safe haven, and the place where she grew up and the earrings had become part of her life because of a simple joke full of love from her grandmother.
He signaled for her to move forward towards the elevator and Laura followed him quietly. Only the heels of her shoes echoed on the marble floor. He pressed the tenth floor button. The ascent took only a few seconds then the elevator doors opened. The man moved to let her go first and Laura realized she was in the presence of an educated man. “A top-class driver” She thought.
The hall was luxurious. The polished black marble floor and looked like a mirror and the decor consisted of pieces of antique furniture, mixed perfectly with the modern architecture. He took the keycard, put it in the slot and the door opened. Laura entered and gasped at the simple, yet tasteful décor: a French credenza and two Louis XV chairs were the only decorative pieces of the huge lobby. He put the suitcase down on the floor and looked at her intensely – making her legs tremble - and said in almost flawless English:
“Miss Laura, this will be your home while you are with the company. If you need anything, including food, you only have to ask. Next to the phone you’ll find a few instructions” And then pointed to a wooden table with metal inlays – on how to order the services that the company offers to its directors. You can always go out to eat, but I don't advise you do that. We are in Ramadan and other than the fact that eating in public is forbidden between sunrise and sunset, you won't find any restaurants open. You have today to rest and recover from jetlag. They are expecting you in the boardroom of the hotel tomorrow at nine o'clock. Rest.” He said in a paused and very pleasant voice, similar to the voice of a radio announcer.
She responded a little clumsily due to the effect the man had on her:
“Thanks. Tell your boss that I will be there tomorrow. I hope I can talk to him so we can negotiate the details of the position.”
Said gave a cunning smile and nodded, leaving immediately. Laura was embarrassed by his reaction; it was as if she had said something wrong - but it was too late, what was done was done. Today, especially today, she didn’t recognize herself in her reactions.
Said felt confused as he left the apartment. What had led him to protect himself and not to reveal who he was? He was aware that she had mistaken him for a driver but he hadn’t cleared up the misconception. He wasn’t in the habit of leaving without clarifying things, but that girl had something that made him have unexpected reactions. He would have the opportunity to clear up the misunderstanding the next day. He wasn't sure what to think and began to have doubts about his decision of hiring her. It wasn't her professional credentials that he put into question, but the absurd reactions he was having. He was hoping he wouldn't regret it, after all would have to justify himself to the Sheik if things went wrong. Maybe when the rest of the team he had hired arrived he would manage to avoid her and focus on other jobs.
“God!” She should have slept more than twelve hours. She had always been very sensitive to changes in schedules and felt completely dizzy, but she had commitments to fulfill, namely some scheduled appointments.
After the driver had left her in the apartment, she’d gone on to explore the suite they had set her up in. A large living room decorated in a mixture of modern styling with the combination of pieces of antique furniture in shades of peach for the sofa and curtains, a bedroom with a double bed, a closet and a private bathroom all decorated in shades of very light plum and, and finally an office equipped with state of the art technology. She felt like an Arab princess in a crystal palace. With all the excitement of arriving and the ambiance of the apartment she went to bed once the sun was high and, despite being very tired it took her a long time to fall asleep, especially after having called home. Grandma Theresa’s questions made her lose sleep.
"Dear, don't take any risks. If they treat you bad come back immediately. Your place is here. You can come home anytime..."
Grandmother Teresa was one of those people – just like many of her friends - who thought she was crazy to leave her job in Spain to go to a foreign country. Maybe she was, but she had always liked challenges and taking a brand new project had motivated her to embrace that proposal. She would have the opportunity to do all the marketing of the hotel. The act of creation was what fascinated her most. After the project was conceived she gladly delivered it to computer programmers, only following up to check on the progress of the work.
Laura slept most of the day and part of the night of the following day. Her emotional distress had finally made her crash. It wasn't easy to be over a thousand kilometers away from home, all alone. She was on her own. She had no one else to turn to if something happened to her.
Despite being the middle of Ramadan – the Muslim religious holiday – she wasn’t left to starve. She had read in a blog that in Dubai you can be arrested for eating in public during the fasting hours, even if you are a foreigner.
She had breakfast brought in by a maid – even though the hotel was still not opened to the public, all workers were already at their posts - and dressed with in Chanel style skirt suit in shades of green– her friends said that green brought out the color of her eyes - completing the ensemble with classic high-heeled black shoes. In her ears she put emerald earrings - an early inheritance from her grandmother – Laura always made sure to have jewelry to complete her outfit. She put on sheer pink lipstick and went off into the hall. It was time to go up to the 40th floor and face the boss. The Sheik was expecting her for the first meeting, or rather, she would wait for him.
She got in the elevator and pressed the button. It took only a few seconds to get to the lobby of floor reserved for the administrative offices. An Arab woman, very young and beautiful, dressed in a black abaya and a silk chador, elegantly placed to cover the hair, smiled at her and said in English with an accent.
“Mr. Said will receive you. Can you wait please?” – before disappearing behind a huge massive wooden door of what must have been the office of Hassam Karim: the Sheik who owned several of the city’s hotels in addition to multiple oil wells.
Laura thought that she had not heard the name very well, or that she was mistaken, but it seemed to her that the name the young women had said was not that of the hotel’s owner.
The worst part was about to come – the meeting - and she prayed quietly for the Sheik not to be like those airport employee with their contempt for women.
The door opened and the secretary came out, smiling.
“You may go in. Mr. Said will see you.” As she stepped aside to let Laura go through.
Said! Strange. Where does she knew that name from?
She went in and the secretary closed the door behind her. She looked around and was astonished with the immensity of the skyscrapers she saw through the huge windows. Skyscrapers of various sizes as far as the eye could see. Laura looked around and the huge room seemed empty. The minimalistic decor, which you could even call manly in style, was pleasant. Since she didn’t see the Sheik she thought that he had not yet arrived. She headed to a chair, sat down and waited, and while waiting imagined herself an Arab princess.
How long would she have to wait? She put her Cavalinho briefcase on the floor and prepared to be bored. In this aspect the Spanish were fantastic: punctual and practical, and had the Siesta, a very useful habit, which allowed you to rest after lunch and return to work refreshed. There was no better tonic.
“Imagine you're in another world.”
“It's a beautiful view isn't it?” Asked a familiar voice from one side of the empty desk. Was she dreaming?
“Good morning Miss Laura.” He greeted her, rising from the executive chair facing the glass wall.
She almost jumped up from her seat! The voice was not strange at all, but where was the man? She turned in the direction of the voice and...
“Today is the day I die!”
“The driver ... you scared me!” She complained completely embarrassed.
The man headed in her direction and took her hand taking it to his lips to kiss her fingertips. Laura felt really awkward and removed her hand almost instantly hid behind her back.
“The man must be kidding me! What insolence. When Mister Hassam arrives I'm going to let him know about the driver's insolence. It is better to grasp the nettle.”
From the top of his six-feet, he looked at her intensely making her look away out of shame and said:
“Allow me to introduce myself, since I didn't yesterday. Said Karimi, CEO of the company.”