Afghan Hound: Ascent into Chaos
|Dubai: Monday 16 February 2009
This is my third sortie into Kabul and my first with Ariana Afghan Airlines a.k.a. ‘ScaryAnna’ by its frequent flyers. I heard you don’t get air miles with Afghanistan’s national airline, but the rumour is you do get free psychological counselling after every third flight. I now know why…
Check-in is at Terminal Two. This is not the poor cousin of Dubai’s new Terminal 3 it’s the third son of its bastard uncle, twice removed. Where as superlatives abound at the Norman Foster designed ultra-swanky new airport with its 16 million square feet of Arabic over-indulgence, resplendent with glittering water and marble features and cavernous bejewelled cathedrals dedicated to mammon and boutiques that out-bling London’s Bond Street. T2 is a less glamorous proposition, boasting one McDonalds and a Duty Free Zone the size of a slightly above-average Seven/Eleven. There are a total of five departure gates. If T2 were a country it would be Djibouti. The departure board reads like a Neo Con hit list. Bush and son have bombed most of them. ‘Terminal 2 – Destination: Axis of Evil’ would be my honest rebranding suggestion.
There’s nothing really wrong with it. It’s modern, clean and functional. We are in the Emirates after all and Dubai is the new hub of the civilised world. Isn’t it? However civilised though there is a system of understated Middle Eastern apartheid in operation
To borrow from a Monty Python sketch; ‘Infidels to the left… terrorists to the right.’ All the men with beards, funny hats and dress shirts depart from Terminal 2. Everyone else it’s Terminals 1 & 3. It’s probably a sensible idea. A lot of nice people now visit Dubai (a holiday destination?) on a regular basis and they would, more than likely, be freaked out by the large number of Mullah Omar look-a-likes wandering round T2. Who on earth is going to buy a Frank Mueller watch or a Gucci handbag if you think the airport is full of hijacking, exploding terrorist types? On the flipside, most of the female ex-pats out here hardly adopt the level of tasteful dress code that is usually required in a ‘Muslim country’. So maybe this unspoken segregation might be beneficial and maybe even help to defuse this ‘Clash of Civilisations’ we hear so much about.
The irony of all this though is while Terminal Two may look like a Taliban convention, its second largest customer base is even weirder. I’ll give you some clues. They’re mainly Caucasian, cropped hair, bulging biceps, terrible taste in sunglasses, ridiculously large biceps, tattoos with eagles. Are we there yet? Lets just say Blackwater gives this place a lot of business. I might be pushing the stereotype thing here, but T2 is a venue almost completely populated with two sections of society who have diametrically opposing world-viewpoints and for one brief hour or 10 as we all mope about waiting to board a plane to Destination Kill or somewhere borderline hostile there’s a crazy sort of ‘WWI Christmas Day’ neutrality. There is no friendly football kick-about but we eat the same shit and browse with tedious boredom the same rubbish sweets and booze emporium.
For most of the ‘mercenaries’ here this is probably a new experience, the last time they were this close to a Kandahar bound Pashto or an Iraqi Sunni on his way to Baghdad they were probably unloading an M16 into his front door or directing a Hell-Fire missile onto his brothers wedding. But in T2 there are no IED’s or VBSD’s… the only hazards here are toilet related (more of that later).
Oooh! That’s my boarding call. Gate number five. Got to run… or maybe slowly walk the 20 yards.
Lucky me! I have been upgraded. Business Class. The only reason was my name wasn’t on the passenger list… but whose complaining? Business Class on Ariana has got to be better than Cattle Class. The last unfortunate I talked to who ventured aboard a ScaryAnna flight had a nasty interface with dripping poultry juice from the overhead cabin so I felt safe in the assured knowledge that Business might mean livestock free. Although there was no sign of animal life in the front aft, the plane did smell vaguely of offal. The animal noises were provided courtesy of the passenger next to me who was snoring loudly even before we set off. Nothing strange or interesting really other than the fact that he was wearing airline maintenance overalls.
Bit of a lumpy take off but nothing remarkable. Ten minutes into the flight a female member of the cabin crew roughly wakes my vibrating neighbour, not to quell the increasing level of his snoring. No, this seems somewhat more important. After a brief exchange in Dari he dashes up to the cockpit. Five minutes later the captain announces that we will be returning to Dubai and to shortly prepare for landing in a tone about as nonchalant as you could get… like maybe he forget to lock the back door or he left the cooker on. Suddenly all of the ScaryAnna jokes stop being quite so funny. But there’s no panic. No one’s praying, the cabin crew are smiling, albeit nervously. To be honest it’s all a bit ‘inshallah’, a sort Muslim ‘whatever’ only with god in it. So as promised we do a U turn and head back to Dubai. On landing we are chased by three fire engines, even though their lights are flashing it all looks a bit half-hearted. I guess it’s just procedure. However, some of the passengers are not as ‘inshallah’ as the rest and demand to leave the plane. There is a slight kerfuffle but calm eventually breaks out and resigned indignation settles into the few western passengers who stupidly booked with the nation’s non-favourite airline.
We all get off.
Back in Arrivals it’s pretty clear we are going nowhere soon. I think Ariana only have 12 planes in the fleet and I’m assuming, judging by our old banger, that half of them are in the repair shop and the other five might be delivering passengers (albeit late or returning them to whence they came) to some other God forsaken place in the region. That’s our God not theirs.
If Ariana were a country it would be Jamaica and ‘Soon come’ would be its motto. So what does one do in a terminal like this apart from fester and smolder? Remarkably there is free Wi-Fi. Unfortunately reception is only available inside McDonalds who have, for the delightful entertainment of their customers, placed three giant screens showing competing Arabic Tele-Novellas, all at distortion-level volume. There are very few real customers and I think most of them are eating as some form of boredom-alleviating light entertainment. That is until word gets out that passengers on our doomed flight are allowed a free drink and a burger. Within minutes McDonalds is awash with Afghans. I have seen this sort of ‘free-for-all’ no nonsense eating before at a wedding in Kabul. They devour food at an Olympic record rate. If Afghans were a type of insect, they would be the locust.
Come ‘call to prayer’ time the noise abusers at McDonalds decide to turn the cacophony up to 11. God knows where the sound comes from but when it does… you know its MC Prayer Time. If you’re not quite clear about the prayer message then a visit to the one toilet in the whole terminal will put you straight. It’s rammed to the gills with Muslim chaps performing their ablutions. The toilet stalls resemble a car wash. Water is everywhere. Toilet paper is non-existent and the only cleaning method is a hose with the water pressure so high it could strip lead paint off a Victorian lamppost. Having given myself an enema and some colonic irrigation (not quite sure of the difference really). I exit like John Wayne to find 50-plus Pashtuns waiting to wash their feet in the sink. Not something you’ll witness in Terminal 3 I’ll wager!
I vaguely question airport staff about our doomed flight and the mythical status of the departure board. Shoulders are shrugged. Eyes roll. Contradicting stories are told. I spend a week’s earnings (well a Phillipino remittance kid’s wage) in Costa Coffee and discuss the Dubai bubble bursting with the cheery yet disillusioned and vastly underpaid staff. Everyone talks of leaving here soon. Me too… I wish.
Twelve hours late my flight is finally re-called. Well it’s not actually announced it’s more like noticing the pronounced shuffle of a gaggle of people who look like they belong in Kandahar heading towards a gate. I join the queue and muse on the lesson learned; despite getting up at 3am and totally wasting a whole day in a really expensive, crap airport terminal you know what really strikes me? Nobody really gives a fuck. If this happened in Terminal 3, everyone would have been kicking off, threatening to sue, moaning and groaning about missed connections and work. Life and death stuff. In T2 most folk just shrug and sit and wait and see. How does the song go? “…Whatever will be, will be, the future’s not ours to see, que cera cera”. If Terminal 2 was a drug it would definitely be Valium.