x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Cast from the Garden

Is there life after the Ramee Garden? The hotel apartment as a mirror to the UAE.

From the hotel apartment, you confront the frustrations of a society that is home enough, but will never feel like home - a society that is seemingly modelled on the hotel apartment.
From the hotel apartment, you confront the frustrations of a society that is home enough, but will never feel like home - a society that is seemingly modelled on the hotel apartment.

With the laundry dangling behind his back, the podgy bell boy slid in. He was fast and noiseless, his arms so laden above his bald head you could barely make out the raven's wing of hair bobbing in its wake. I had barely closed the door when he finished arranging the laundry in the cupboard. Then, turning dramatically, he placed the flat of his hand on his heart: "This last time, Sir?" Blinking at the badge on his chest - Ramee Garden Hotel Apartments, it said: RG for short - I had to stifle my tears as I realised that, yes, this was the last load of laundry my favourite RG employee would bring in. My term at the hotel apartment, that Emirati speciality, was coming to an end.

So I reclined and recalled my first impressions on moving in there, directly on arrival in Abu Dhabi. Aside from the seemingly seedy all-male gatherings on the pavements outside, the seemingly idle staff populating a very sparsely furnished reception area and the seemingly shoddy aspect of the establishment as whole, the most striking thing was the emptiness. An emptiness compounded by awareness of yourself and others actually living there: in the kitchenette there was a cooker, a flat-screen TV, a bedside lamp. But I had not chosen them and I could not replace or supplement them because I knew I would not be staying for very long.

Still, bidding the bell boy farewell, now, I was truly sorry to be going. Unlike a hotel room, the hotel apartment is a place you grow attached to - however negative your first impressions. Not just because you end up staying there for so much longer (nearly four months, in my case): something about the way you occupy the space strikes a near perfect balance. You use the cooker, but only to make Turkish coffee, for which the small purchase of a coffee pot has proven necessary. But you neither enjoy nor really care about enjoying the privilege.

Unlike an apartment, the hotel apartment does not bog you down with responsibilities; enough of you is there to make it yours - your clothes, your food, your books and DVDs, your bathroom implements - but there is none of the daily upkeep, the self-enclosure, the long-term investment or the sense of belonging associated with your own place. The hotel apartment is a makeshift home, with a surrogate, changeable family of occasionally-helpful staff to go with it. Like an apartment building, it has neither lobby nor room service. But unlike it, it involves appliances you do not have to pay for, a contactable reception that will send up a bell boy every time you ring, regardless of what you ask for, and a sloppy cleaning service (on demand). It combines the best or worst of both worlds, speaking eloquently to those genes responsible for being on the move, en route, a tireless traveller - or Bedu.

In this way hotel apartments tell a profound truth about the Emirates: that it is essentially a country of nomads. Yet the white-collar Bedu they house - far from the all but extinct local camel herders - are the bourgeois equivalent of migrant labour, requiring shower, satellite TV and many modern life necessities the hotel apartment does not always or adequately provide. In hotel apartments there lives a variously disgruntled range of wage slaves seeking oil-opened opportunities, however unrelated their line of work to oil.

On these bare floors, behind doors with broken handles, in bathrooms where the dirty towels were removed never to be replaced, up and down talking lifts - "Sorry to keep you waiting", "Going down" - and in conversation with characterful locals (in as much as anyone here is local), people live out the first - sometimes only - few months of their stay. It is here that they discover the language (or lack thereof), the weather, the contents of the corner shops and the attitudes of their keepers. It is here that they develop a cartography of their daily life: the main road, the taxi rank, the office and, further afield, the sea. From the hotel apartment, and in it, they confront the frustrations of a society that is home enough, but will never feel like home - a society that is seemingly modelled on the hotel apartment.

Even when you have moved into a flat, even when you have brought over your family or - a far less frequent occurrence, this - started a family, so long as you are in the Emirates the hotel apartment shadow will hang over you. I have my own living space now, but I do not feel more settled. If anything, the tension between having a home and remaining, to all intents and purposes, under hotel apartment conditions, has generated a sense of confusion. That confusion is two-fold.

On the one hand, I already miss my RG bell boy, the sense of community generated by things breaking down and Maintenance being summoned to fix them, the random encounters on the way in and out, and conversations, notably about The National, with reception staff. I miss the always changing noises that would trickle in from the adjoining room at the weirdest hours: food for all kinds of fantastical scenarios about similarly displaced people living in hotel apartments, the toing and froing between rooms, Indian voices announcing a visitor downstairs. But on the other hand, with a flat to my name, with furniture I chose and TV channels I personally subscribed to, I am being tricked into believing that I really do live in the Emirates.

I would happily give in to the trick - except it undermines the one thing I have come to value about living here: that sense of being indefinitely in transit. This is why I was sorry to leave RG: that state of transience, the wonderfully liberating lack of commitment you experience under hotel-apartment conditions is no longer embodied by my living space. It is this that sets the Gulf apart, though: it draws in people from all over the world. They are here to work and so forced to stay here, but they feel no genuine attachment to the place. Their relationship with the surroundings, other people, the landscape is rather like mine to my RG kitchenette cooker. And living thus, they become nomads of the future: a globalised workforce constantly hopping about to wherever their professional responsibilities post them, and likely forced to stay in some kind of hotel apartment.

Roots have been planted in the Emirates, but being emphatically foreign, however old they grow, they remain the roots of a nomad: flexible, shallow and incapable of spreading. Homes are but the portable tents of a mind seeking greener pastures - forever. And no matter how much people complain of this, especially Arabs, there is a high value in it. People speak of the insecurity induced by having no citizenship, by dependence on an employment contract and inability, in any genuine sense, to settle down. Certainly few people like to stay in a hotel apartment for too long, whether they are citizens or not.

But there is something it means to be in the Emirates - as a non-citizen, on a contract, knowing that, sooner or later, you will (be made to) leave - and that thing, whatever else it does to you, can invest life with an excitement more abiding and deeper than that of a mere stint abroad, or a journey. People should appreciate their stay in a real hotel apartment both because it prepares them for long-term life in this country and because, predicament or blessing, it remains the most articulate metaphor for being in the Gulf.