The receptionist’s cubicle is surrounded by men tearing away at their tawouk sandwiches, it’s hard to tell who is in charge, or if there is anyone in charge at all.
I approach the guy who isn’t eating,
“Where do I go to pay the Mecanique?”
“Where’s your car registration paper? The lines go by numbers now. I need to see it to tell you where to go.”
I give him the laminated document.
“Go to the last window on the left. You have all your papers?”
I nodded and climbed the couple of steps towards the entrance.
There were three guys in uniform, not exactly in charge, rather in conversation. There was no hall, just a room with a low ceiling. The paint must have been white some decades ago, but now it was smeared with God-knows-what-people-bring-to-the-Nef3a-for-lunch. There was a bundle of people inside, some waiting in front of windows and the ones behind them hoping to be next. Their clothes looked shabby and worn out and the few dusty bulbs were doing them no favour. The majority were men, and their dark hair and skin only helped to dim the place even further. It felt a little bit like a cave.
The smell of smoke pervaded the air. It was that stench of forgotten ashtrays and unswept floors and cheap tobacco and smoke particles nesting in hair. There was no escaping it, within five minutes, my clothes gave up my perfume and adopted Marlboro in its place.
Behind the windows, I could see the tops of heads of the staff. They were balding men, the rest of their hair graying, and behind them were metal shelves caving in from stacks of folders. The folders were torn and frayed at the edges, factory-coloured blues, greens and pinks that ought to be holding information from the Dark Ages. A donkey or a wooden carriage wouldn’t seem out of place in this world.
“What hole did I fall in?”, I thought.
I went to the far left window and waited. The man behind didn’t pay attention to me, which was weird because I looked like the cleanest face there. I saw that he had a computer, nothing fancy, but a machine that would spare me a place in one of the soft, split-edge faded folders. A cord of smoke was dancing somewhere in front of the screen, his waiting-to-be-seized cigarette, not a burning keyboard. I was wrong. He picked up his pack of Winston’s and lit another one. The cord was still dancing, happy that for the next few minutes they will be two.
He gestured to me to hand him my papers. Shlick, shlack, staple, pa2 pa2,
He then handed me a square piece of paper.
“3aleyki malyoun w miten w khamsa w tis3een. Dfa3iyoun 3a sandouk w rj3e.”
The numbers weren’t lying: 1,295,000 with my name under.
“Manik def3a mecanique. Alfen w tis3. Alfen w 3ashra.”
Ha! He thinks he can trick me because I look like the cleanest thing here! My eyes still large in shock, I go outside. I call Lumiere.
“Is this a logical sum? One million?”
Apparently it was. Apparently I wasn’t smarter than a fifth grader. Fuck my life.
With the fresh wad of liras in my hand, I went back in. In my absence, a line had formed in front of the cashier’s window all across the room and I had to place myself at the end, on the opposite wall. Naturally, people chose to cross to the other side between me and the guy in front, because nobody was going to excuse themselves, or break the line of sweat, smoke and testosterone lining up to leave this place a few hundred thousand liras lighter.
In Dubai, they always let the women skip the line, it’s a given. For a second, I expected someone to spare me the painful wait, to say tfadale and just step behind me. From the moment I had walked in I was expecting a special treatment because I looked like I didn’t belong to this world, but I had forgotten that this was a world I had chosen to ignore and on which I had turned my back. Why should they even notice me? I looked like a thing to push over, a thing to walk on, because I had no idea that this is the world for most people here. A world of waiting, of aggressive gestures, of stench, of faded colours, of lost causes, of lost hopes, of tawouk breakfasts, lunches and dinners, a world of push and shove if you ever want to get anywhere.
And then, not without the residue of vanity, I felt proud to be down here, to not have run away, to do the necessary, to face the ugly…
…but it was a questionable pride. In less than half an hour or so, I was back in my cushioned world of tfadale and tikram 3younik and the prospect of waiting in line was an entire year away.
I really have no idea.
I really have no idea.