x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The Air Bag: My driver - my friend - will be sorely missed

Mo Gannon recalls a friendship born on the road that has reached its final destination.

Friends come and go in this country. To live here is to accept that as a way of life. But of all the goodbyes, the hardest has been my driver Suleman, a mere slip of a man from Pakistan whose trousers hovered curiously just above the ankle.

There are many things I miss about my car-based companion of three years, who recently moved on to a better job. Most of the time he knew where he was going, and when he didn't, he'd honk at someone or call one of his friends. He was usually on time and obeyed the rules of the road. He was mild-mannered (although once he gestured at a man who cut us off, who then hauled Suleman out of the car, beating him in traffic while I screamed from the backseat). If I didn't have money for him, he'd trust waiting until I did. He didn't talk too much, like some drivers here, nor too little, and when he did it was usually insightful in some odd way.

More important than all of this, I learned a lot from Suleman. On our trips to Dubai from Abu Dhabi, we'd talk in broken Urdu/English/Arabic. He taught me basic Arabic words, and when I learned the Arabic alphabet, I'd read out signs along our route, with him either correcting me or beaming with delight.

Through him, I learned about a way of life far different than my own. In his early 20s, he is engaged to be married, and he could never understand why I was not. When I was 37, he would say "inshallah", but as I grew older, it became "big problem". Without a husband and children, "what is this life?" he would ask. "Don't you have a cousin you can marry?"

We discussed our different religious holidays. He told me about celebrating over big dinners back home, after which they would "make the bombs". (He meant fireworks.) I told him about Christmas and how it marks the birth of Jesus. ("Who is Jesus?" he asked, leaving me in disbelief. He must have done some research because the next day he informed me, "Your Jesus is my Issa.") The next Christmas, when I was visiting my family in Vancouver, I got a text from him: "mari cris mas," it read.

We also learned about one another's cultures. On his car stereo, he'd play Bollywood music and cricket matches, and when Canada lost to Pakistan this year, he called to inform me. I told him about ice hockey and introduced him to Elvis.

Suleman never tried to be my friend, but he came to know my life by driving me places. He remembered everyone who ever got in the car with me, including where they lived, and referred to them by their locations: Istaqlal, Karama, Manasir.

He called my Dubai friends the "Al Manara" family, because of the Sheikh Zayed exit they lived near. On one trip there, he was bemused when I climbed into the car with a rocking horse I'd bought for their daughter. He named it "Jamal", which means beautiful, and she calls it that now that she's learned to speak. He was just as bemused when the Al Manaras moved to Toronto and I muffled my tears in the backseat as we pulled away from their home for the final time. This year, Suleman finally met my mother, who'd heard so much about him before she came to visit. "She is like you only with white hair," he remarked shyly.

Then, as with so many relationships here, big or small, it came time for our goodbye. I'd like to say I'll see him again, but despite being one of my oldest acquaintances here, we are worlds apart. He was my driver, and I was his passenger. Without a car and a destination, our journey reached its inevitable end.