The Middle-Eastern sun is heavy and soporific, sapping my energy and draining any motivation I had to move. My Abu Dhabi guide-book lies open on the ground, lightly guarded by my dangling white arm, exposed to sunlight for the first time since October. It’s quarter to ten, but another half an hour and we’ll need to move indoors. Before we go in I’ll dip once more into the pool; refreshing my skin and cooling my body back to a functionable temperature.
Mum has already moved her lounger into the shade and squints to read her phone screen. Scrolling with her little finger she taps, slow and careful, to spell out a message to my younger brother, who has lived here now for six months.
‘Tom can meet us at three’ she says when she’s finished. ‘He’ll get a taxi here to the hotel and meet us in the lobby.’
‘Perfect. What’s the plan?’ I prop on my elbows to face her. ‘How hot is it by then?’
‘He’s suggested the Grand Mosque, because it’s mostly indoors or shaded. Apparently we should go once in the daytime and once at night to see it lit up - it’s only about ten minutes away. I think you and I have to wear a cover-up.’
‘Just shoulders and legs, or completely?’
‘I think you can wrap a loose scarf around your head, but let’s look it up.’
I pass her the guidebook and reach for my phone, shading the screen with a curtain of hair. I’ll tie it up when we go out, disguising the blonde as possible outside the sanctuary of the hotel.
My brother was right, I do feel safe here. The culture is respectful and quiet. Public places hold a sense of reserve, and everyone keeps themselves to themselves. None of the Medina market traders of Tunisia, groping to touch any whiteness or blondeness that passes them by. The shopping malls are decorated with a blend of Western clothing and traditional Emirate dress, and I browsed bikinis in Billabong yesterday next to a young woman in a full niqab. I wondered where she would wear hers, who she would be with, who she would be seen by.
Here at the hotel pool I wear a simple black two-piece, asking for no attention and gratefully receiving none. ‘It’s literally fine’ Tom said. ‘As long as you’re not being a complete idiot, you’re absolutely fine. It’s a super safe environment, way safer to walk around here than in London.’ The mantra he’s repeated to our mother ever since he moved away.
Scrolling through search results for ‘What to wear in Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque’ the headlines are littered with fashion advice and tourist stories, but one in particular catches my eye;
‘British cancer patient detained in Dubai for carrying anti-depressants.’
‘Father of three from Nottingham stopped by Emirate officials for carrying UK prescription drugs.’ The report is dotted with quotes from the family, and supported by workers from Detained in Dubai.
‘Mum, have you seen this?’
I pass her the phone and wait for a reaction. We both know that upstairs in my suitcase is a blister pack of Fluoxetine that I’ve taken for two years and did not even consider might be illegal to bring into the UAE. I reclaim my phone and search for FCO advice.
‘The UAE has a very strict, zero-tolerance anti-drugs policy and conducts thorough searches at its airports using highly sensitive equipment. Many legal prescription drugs are banned here and all medication must be authorised by UAE Ministry of Health.’
Fuck. Clearly too late to follow the official route, I suppose the best thing to do would be to throw the rest away before the flight home? But would they even check, if they didn’t on the way in? I need the rest for when I get back, unless I can get a doctor’s appointment the day we land.
‘It might be a misunderstanding’ says Mum. ‘I expect they’ll let him go.’
‘He’s been in a Dubai jail for four days without his medication or chance to contact his family. I’m not risking that!’
‘I think it’s very unlikely they’ll check your suitcase. Just don’t put them in your hand luggage, perhaps.’ She leans back on the lounger and continues with the guide book. ‘I’ll read up on it, don’t worry.’
‘If I was able to not worry, I wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place.’
She smiles sympathetically and I lie flat to look at the sky. How are you supposed to know about these things? I re-live my experience at airport security the day we landed.
‘Open your eyes,’ a solemn man in traditional white dress was telling me. ‘Please, open your eyes.’
The scanner doesn’t recognise my irises and I don’t understand how I can open my eyes in any other way. I’m tired from the seven hour flight, and irritable. Raising my eyebrows and stretching my face as much as possible, I’m aware that I look ridiculous, sarcastic and even, from some angles, aggressive. I wonder if they have all of this all on camera. Of course they do.