When living in a country, the United Arab Emirates, which has no ‘habeas corpus’ – or due process of law – or constitutional rights – a visit to the local police station is not an occasion for the blithe spirit. Nerves may justifiably start to jangle while the visitor is still some distance away. The situation isn’t helped by the fact the police are everywhere – perhaps 50 percent or more of the entire Arab population of Dubai –where we live – is connected in one way or another with either the police or the army. In other words, the public is outnumbered and the ‘other side’ has guns and they do not have to recite any ‘Mirandas’ when making an arrest. Whatever else our feelings may be toward the police, we, at the very least, develop a desire to avoid contact.
In this regard, it helps to know some of the finer legal points. A person can be arrested and jailed (for some considerable length of time, I might add) for swearing in public (swearing involves taking God’s name in vain) and if one thinks the God he curses in North America is not the one the Arabs worship, he must think again. They are one and the same. Only the names are different.
As well, a person can go to jail for drinking a bottle of water in public during Ramadan. ‘In public’ may include driving in the car and being seen by someone. There is an edge to living in Dubai that most people would never experience in North America – unless, of course, they are a person of color living in a less-than-genteel urban area. But, I digress.
The trip to the police station is to renew my temporary driver’s license. I plan my visit for early in the morning so as to avoid the inevitable bureaucratic crunch. People are, in the UAE, typically not processed as fast as they appear at the processing centres Lineups are long and typically ill-tempered.
The Police, I discover, live very well. The premises are first-rate, top-notch, swarming with gardeners and handymen working to keep the grounds beautiful. There are no sandy desert wastes in this compound. Trees, and grass, and flowers abound. It is a disarmingly benign environment – until one remembers where one is. We live in a quasi police state and I am in the middle of their, uh, lair. Heads up and keep your head down, I tell myself with no sense of contradiction.
This is how the system works in UAE. All power resides with the sheikh. Power and rights across the land emanate from him and are enjoyed by others only through his sufferance and blessing. The sheikh giveth and the sheikh taketh away. Literally. The police exist to help him maintain peace and order. Their power – if that be the term – is derived from whatever the Sheikh says they have. It is a long and honored Arab tradition. Suffice it to say, the UAE is a VERY peaceful and law-abiding nation, the only crime of widespread incidence being the irrational, impulsive, and incessant honking of horns.
I park my car – out of sight of the licensing wing lest they find some reason to lift my license while I, on the other hand, remain determined to drive – and walk around to the ‘green’ wing. The ‘green’ wing is a large, bright and open room with wickets set about the perimeter. The wickets have signs overhead reading ‘Data Entry’, ‘Temporary Permits’, ‘Licensing’, and ‘Cashier’ (this wicket is enclosed in (bulletproof?) glass to ensure, one assumes rather ludicrously, no robbers have easy access to the day’s receipts),. In the centre of the room, plastic chairs are placed around potted trees. More plastic chairs are lined up near the various wickets. An information booth guards the entrance.
Like the dupe I am, I approach the information desk and ask where to go to get a temporary license. If I have observed one thing in Dubai, it is that people manning information booths behave in like fashion. The booths might more accurately be called ‘Pointer’ booths. Part of this is due, of course, to the language problem but one senses it is not the only reason. In any case, the answer to any question is never verbal. The man, without looking at me, points into the room.
‘In there?’ I persist.
He double points. Still no words. I know when I am beaten. I follow his hand signal and hope more information is forthcoming. I locate a display case with various application forms. One of them reads ‘Application for Temporary License’. I am in luck. Of a sort. Looking about, I seek some place to fill out the form. I look in vain. But I DO notice a great many officers of the law milling about behind the wickets. There are dozens of policemen in finely-tailored, precision-ironed uniforms. On their heads perch natty berets while yards of colorful lanyards hang from their epaulets. These policemen are a very impressive-looking group. Unfortunately, for me, they also remind me of many foreign police forces portrayed in the movies – movies that equated such uniforms with a savagery and sadism unknown in North America. In spite of myself, I tremble slightly. I think: There is nothing stopping these policemen from making the Hollywood stereotype come true!
I fill out the form by setting it on my lap. When I finally complete the questions that make sense (leaving the ones that don’t (such as, When is your Anniversary Date – Birth Date already having been asked ) to others), I approach a “Data Entry’ wicket, for no other reason than it seems, by default, the logical place to go. The phrase, ‘data entry’ means absolutely nothing to me, but perhaps I will be enlightened.
The policeman sitting at the wicket is talking to his associate at the next wicket. They ignore me. I stand, shifting from foot to foot, re-reading my application form as if to convey the notion I appreciated being given the time to review such an important document. Quickly, however, my ruse wears thin, and I simply stand, staring at the walls.
My policeman, still not looking at me, eventually extends a hand to receive the application. Carefully, gently, I place it in his hand. Now, he looks up, with his policeman’s eyes, as if scouring his brain to recall the most recent ‘Ten Most Wanted’ photographs. I shift my weight again. I cough quietly.
‘Driver’s license’ he mutters. I extract my Canadian driver’s license. He looks at it and at me. Then he hands back the license and the application.
‘You need eye test and consulate proof.’
‘I need what?’ I momentarily forget my place. My voice is much too loud. Do I WANT to be incarcerated?
‘Eye test. Eye test. Proof driver’s license. Proof real. Get from consulate.’ He looks away, unprepared to take this already interminable conversation any further. Now I really forget myself. A deep-seated need to return surly with surly, boils over in me.
“You mean I hafta come BACK HERE?”
The policeman stares balefully at me. It is my considered opinion that only policemen possess this stare. It is a stare that says, ‘I’d love nothing more right now than to take you into the holding cell and beat you mercilessly about the ribs with a rubber hose.’ I step backward, spin on my heel and walk quickly toward the door, my step easing with every footfall, my mind slowing returning me to the reality of where I am. I move faster, but more quietly. In the parking lot, I look behind to see if anyone is following. The image of a brusque arrest and rough ferrying to the hoosegow, won’t go away even as I start the car. But nothing happens.
I return the next week with, what I hope are, the necessary documents. I supplement them with addition photographs, knowing the local fondness for documenting everything with a snapshot while at the same time insisting the applicant bring his or her own photographs. If nothing else, it is always a good reason for sending someone away without completing the intended task.
I approach the same wicket. The chair is occupied by a different policeman. HE, too, is talking to his associate at the next desk. Again, I am made to wait and my behavior this time is no different. I am completely shameless and without creative resources for such situations.
Finally, the policeman concludes his conversation and turns to face me. Dumbly, I thrust the documents forward. Wordlessly, he takes them. He leafs through the documents without reading. If this is the point at which the decision is made as to whether I get a license or no, I have to say it is not an exhaustive examination. It is quite possible he merely counted the pieces of paper and found them to tally with the prescribed number. I wonder if I had simply cut five pieces of paper from the telephone book and handed them to him. Again, not wasting any words, he points toward the cashier and hands back my documents – now stapled together.
I smile and nod and walk to the cashier’s wicket. One hurdle crossed, I think. But one can never be too optimistic. The system is skilled at leading one on, making one think the task has been accomplished, only to have someone, at the proverbial eleventh hour, announce that you have forgotten something and must return at another time. I smile at the cashier. He smiles in return and holds out his hand for the sheaf of documents.
“Twenty dirhams, please.”
Now, in spite of myself, I smile broadly. Not only was this man polite, he was letting me off without the usual government gouge. Believe me, the UAE could teach North America something about user fees. But then, the UAE has no income taxes.
It is now his turn to point. He points to a wicket set beneath a sign reading ‘Temporary Licenses’. Gingerly, I shuffle over, quite sure I am about to be accosted and told I missed a wicket. But my fears are unfounded and I line up behind two Indian gentlemen. The police seat at this wicket is unoccupied.
We wait. Policemen enter and sit at the wicket next to ours. No one is seeking theirservices, we’re the only three people waiting at this side of the room. Nonetheless, they are not there to serve us. Our wait continues.
Suddenly, a large man dressed a dish-dash swishes into the chair and glowers at everyone in sight. An older policeman approaches him and says something in Arabic. An argument ensues. Soon, three or four policemen are into it. It could be about football, but I have no way of telling. Voices rise. There is anger. Listening to the argument, conducted in Arabic, I cannot help but be impressed. Most North Americans, arguing or not, cannot put a coherent sentence together. Our points are made with sound bites and expletives. These policemen sound like master debaters, the words rolling off their tongues in a rapid-fire, almost lyrical cadence. I want to cheer but, not knowing the issue being argued, am unable to choose sides. This does not prevent my imagination from seeing the situation get out of hand and three hapless license applicants thrown into jail for no other reason than being fence-sitters in an important argument. We three look away, the only prudent thing we can think to do.
The argument persists unabated for almost ten minutes. How, we think, can this man be expected to see to our driving license needs when he is almost apoplectic over something we know nothing about? What is to become of us if we are somehow dragged into this imbroglio? I resist a real temptation to run for my life. Would they shoot me down for needlessly interrupting the license application process? We continue to look away, pretending we have other matters to capture our attention, which we don’t.
Finally, the older policeman, perhaps tired of baiting the man at our wicket, walks away. Our man, glowering now worse than ever, turns to face the three of us. We look at the ceiling. Suppose he simply shoots us? Would that make him feel better? I plan, should the need arise, to offer up one or both of the Indians. Perhaps they are doing likewise. Rolling his head from side to side, as in disbelief, our wicket policeman (I thinkhe is a policeman – his uniform, I conclude, is at the cleaners this day) finally turns his attention to us. He points. At me. He waggles his finger to have me come forward. I’d forgotten this about Dubai officialdom. If ten Indians are lined up ahead of one white, the white will always be called first. I make no excuses for this. It’s just the way things are. I hand him my papers. He, like the first man, glances but casually at them and then places them into a tray. He points to a chair. I sit down. He begins to mutter to the policemen beside him, eager, we suppose, to resume the argument without the aggravation of the old policeman. His colleagues nod but do not otherwise respond.
I believe I am near to getting a license. But it is not at all clear. The documents in the tray have disappeared into back rooms and I am without any sort of guide. For all I know, the whole file has been submitted to Interpol. I wait. Not as long as the Indians, but I wait.
After perhaps fifteen minutes, he growls at me. I know it is me he is growling at because he is pointing at me. I approach. He points to the tray. There sits my license. Gingerly, I pick it up. I look at him and raise my eyebrows. Is this it?
At this point, I come near to giggling, so great is my relief.. Flashing the biggest smile this side of a toothpaste ad, he announces. ‘You can go now.’ Were there ever sweeter-sounding words? Did Shakespeare ever write anything so ear-pleasing? I smile stupidly and stare at the license. Surely, I am not to be let off this easily? They can’t have finished with me?
I was – and they were. I walk out into the fresh desert air with a new appreciation for freedom. I now have my driver’s license. My euphoria ends only when I am reminded I must return within three months to get a permanent license. Bummer. 
Robert Alan Davidson