Whenever I travel I like to read things about the place. I don’t mean travel guides or lists of 10 things you should do. I mean writing written by writers that gives a taste of the place, an evocation, an angle. Not many writers have written about Dubai, since Dubai is younger than most writers, but I did find an essay by George Saunders.
George was a guest at the Burj Al Arab, then the tallest hotel in the world but nowadays only fourth, two of the other three also being in Dubai. The Burj is still the most famous, though. It’s the one you see in every shot of Dubai, the one shaped like a yacht in full sail, with a helipad where Roger Federer and Andre Agassi once played tennis in an advert.
George felt a little self-conscious at the sheer luxury of the place, the crazy-Bond-villain opulence. He noticed that honeymooning couples from India and Pakistan and the Middle East who couldn’t afford to stay there would pay $50 to be allowed to roam the vast vaulted atrium and take pictures of themselves in front of the 24-carat gold pillars and Carrara marble inlays and spittoons made of emerald and adamantium.
As an act of solidarity with the global oppressed, he befriended one such couple and invited them to get their money’s worth by going up to see his suite and enjoy the views and eat some of his complimentary nibbles. He had to sneak them up past the staff, because the Burj has very strict rules about non-residents treading its plush upstairs carpets and breathing its fine expensive air.
I was staying in the Burj Al Arab with a film crew when I read this, and it made me feel guilty that I wasn’t feeling as guilty as George. As well as winning the Booker Prize last year, George Saunders is a famously nice man. Everyone likes George. Everyone was happy for him when he won. Why can’t I be more like George? I should try to be George.
I spent the afternoon lurking around the lobby, looking for honeymooners. Maybe the Burj isn’t as trendy as when George wrote that piece, because I had a lean time of it. Everyone was breezing through to the elevators; no one seemed to be taking snaps or posing in front of a concierge or doing that elaborately casual stroll that I do when I feel out of place and I’m trying to look like I belong.
Finally, I saw a couple that might fit the bill. They had backpacks and looked sweaty and were taking pictures of each other using actual cameras, not phones. George never described how he made the first contact with his honeymooners. I sidled closer and smiled at the woman. Nice hotel, I said. She agreed it was a nice hotel.
‘Would you like to come up to my room and see a bit more of it?’ I asked, and even as I said it I realised that unless she was a George Saunders fan I might have to provide a little more context.
‘What?!’ said her husband, looming closer.
‘Oh, no,’ I assured him, ‘of course you’re invited as well. The three of us.’
This didn’t seem to help.
‘No!’ I said. ‘Please don’t call security.’
George Saunders, as well as being compassionate, is an ingenious wordsmith and very inventive, so I’m sure he would have managed to convince hotel security that he wasn’t trying to lure two strangers upstairs for a ménage à trois, and I’m sure he could have done so without confessing that he was instead conspiring to break the hotel’s strict rules about taking non-residents up for sightseeing. I guess that’s why George Saunders has won the Booker and I, at the date of writing, have not.
Getaway, March 2018