x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The many lives of expatriates

A former bomb disposal expert in the Sri Lankan army as a night watchman is just one of the surreal realities of life away from home.

The night watchman at my building is just the kind of man you'd want on the job. He knows the drill.

In his former life, he was a bomb disposal expert in the Sri Lankan army's demolition unit. His duties entailed defusing the car bombs, roadside explosives and IEDs deployed by the Tamil Tigers in the 30 - year civil war.

But now the war is over, and Maninder is a man at peace. He takes me proudly through his portfolio of memento mori: laminated US Embassy certificates attributing to his bravery; letters of praise from British army training units and visiting Canadian envoys; and most hauntingly, a picture of Maninder in his army days.

His was a crack paramilitary unit; not for him the khaki battle fatigues or regimental uniform of parade grounds. Here is Maninder in combat trousers and black string vest, emerging from a jungle thicket with solemn countenance and beneath it, a glimmer of wry amusement. And in his grasp at the ready, some kind of semi-automatic assault rifle. Don't mess.

He's a lucky man, he says, showing me group photos of his unit, lined up for the final push. He points out the men who wouldn't make it, including his commander, who died when a bomb he was defusing went off in his hands.

But coming home each night, my heart goes out to Maninder, sitting at his desk, staring into thin air through the small hours. His colleagues have my internet password and pass the long nights online, but not Maninder.

He has a wife and daughters he sees once a year back home. The pay's better, but he's deadly lonely.

Late one night, Maninder hands me the phone as I come in. His ex-comrade from the demolition unit is on the line, incongruously, wanting advice. I picture him sitting at a lonely reception desk in an identikit lobby across town.

Over Maninder's mobile, this unknown bomb-disposal expert tells me he's applied for a job as a security contractor in Baghdad. He hasn't heard yet, and as the weeks go by he frets at the lack of answer. I can only suggest he wait before badgering his prospective bosses any further. The answer feels inadequate, but I'm relieved it's turned out to be so simple - and secretly thrilled by the absurdity of it.

In my new incarnation here, I haven't found it easy adjusting to the social mores of a foreign city. I previously worked in Pakistan but, coming from London, it takes some getting used to.

Maninder's experience chimes with countless others driving taxis or manning hotel lobbies: doctors, engineers, university lecturers back home. But as an arts correspondent, I find a scene that's suddenly flourishing, with artists from all over the Middle East landing up, grateful of the freedoms denied them at home.

I hope Maninder gets some well-earned respite, and wonder whether, like his friend, he'll come to miss the adrenaline of conflict. A colleague told me that, holidaying back home, he found himself missing the cauldron of the Gulf. I find myself, eyes dilated pink with nostalgia, missing an England that was probably never there. Expat life does crazy things to your head.