“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Dubai Terminal 2

I'm reading this book at the moment and it's a fascinating look into a journalist's lifestyle. In the very beginning, she is reflecting about travelling constantly and I thought this passage was particularly pertinent considering I was taking off from Terminal 2 in Dubai! Apologies because the excerpt is a bit long.

"Why do it?

I could tell you that it’s a search for truth. I could tell you that when I was a child I loved to read the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson and turn the sheets hanging on the washing like into doors on to faraway places. I could tell you that I felt suffocated by suburbia. I could tell you that I adored Hemmingway and wanted to run with the bulls in Spain, watch big game among the green hills of Africa (though not hunt it), drink mojitos in bars in old Havana and find love behind the lines. I could tell you that once you see others die and evils such as boys turned into killing machines with AK-47s, or families forced to bury stick-limbed girls because they could not afford HIV drugs, one’s own life becomes pretty insignificant.

I could tell you that there is nothing more thrilling than getting on a plane to somewhere you have never been, particularly with a name like Bujumbura or Cochabamba. That used to be true but these days endless security queues have spoiled the magic of airports.

Maybe the truth lies in Dubai Terminal 2. That’s where you go to catch planes to the bad places. The destination board reads Kabul, Baghdad, Mogadishu, and the airlines have names you’ve never even heard of like Chelyabinsk Airlines, Don Airlines, Kam Air, Ossetia, Mahan Air, and Samara Airlines. These are airlines so dodgy that they are not allowed to land at the proper airport. Many, like Arian Afghan Airlines or Reem Air of Kyrgyzstan, are on a list banning them from European airspace and describing them as ‘flying coffins’. Their planes are sold Tupolevs bought second or third hand from Aeroflot or Air India.

The name, Terminal 2, makes it sound as if it is attached to the main airport, but in fact it lies a half-hour’s taxi ride away. It seems in another country entirely to that gleaming glass temple to capitalism where Arabs in white dishdash and sunburnt passengers in shorts and miniskirts shop for Rolex watches and Fendi handbags and buy $100 lottery tickets to win a Jaguar X-type.

At Terminal 2 there is just one shop and people stock up on Mars Bars, tampons and biscuits, for they don’t know what will be available at the other end. Mostly, they are bounty hunters, Afghan moneychangers, aid workers, private security guards and journalists. Instead of smart shiny suitcases they have battered kitbags and rucksacks, black plastic crates of survival equipment, or, in the case of the Afghans large cloth bundles. The ones with briefcases are consultants, being paid thousands of dollars for something called ‘capacity building’, but they will get on a special United Nations plane. Sometimes there are dead bodies being flown back from comfortable exile to be buried in harsh homelands.

Most people have grimly resigned expressions, particularly if like me they are flying Ariana. For the airlines of Terminal 2 departure times mean nothing and it is common to turn up day after day before a plane finally arrives. Besides we all know that the Ariana pilots prefer staying in Dubai to piloting their ‘coffins’back to a destroyed country. We debate with those holding Kam tickets whether it’s safter to fly with an airline that has already crashed or one that always seems about to crash. Passengers that make a fuss and try to find non-existent airline representatives are exposed as newcomers.

Some might be committed do-gooders; others are only doing it for money. ‘George Bush has paid off thousands of mortgages,’ says a Scottish ex-para on his way to be a $1,000-a-day security consultant in Afghanistan after a long stint in Iraq.

But there are a few that have a look on their face that I recognize. It’s a sort of suburban restlessness. Not in a grass-is-always-greener kind of way: but a search for adventure.

Those are the people whose eyes light up when they see the name Kish appear on the destination board. Where is that? Kish Island in Iran, someone tells me. It sounds intriguing. I know I will try to go there. It will mean flying Kish Air which last crashed two years ago.

Biographers of Alexander the Great used the Greek word pothos to describe his endless yearning to be somewhere else, whether it was to cross the Danube, go to the oracle of Ammon, sail the ocean, see the Persian Gulf or untie the legendary knot at Gordium.

I liked that description. But then I read that the longing for something unattainable expressed by pothos could also signify a desire to die. For pothos is also the name for delphiniums, the flowers that Greeks traditionally placed on someone’s tomb.

I never set out to be brave or daring or intrepid or any of those labels often attached to the title, ‘war correspondent’. What I wanted to be is a storyteller. I have been lucky enough to live in countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Europe at a time of huge upheaval when the world was adjusting from the cold war to a whole new war of terrorist attacks and suicide bombs.

To me the real story in war is not the bang-bang but the lives of those trying to survive behind the lines.

-Excerpt from the Prologue pp3-5 of ‘Small Wars Permitting: Dispatches from Foreign Lands’ by Christina Lamb ©2008, Harper Press, Harper Collins, London.

Image from Terminal 2 Dubai checkout board.
Image from Sharjah Airport, December 2012, with similarly obscure destinations.