In the lobby of the Platinum Hotel, Muscat, there are two elevators.
Right now, the one on the right isn’t working, so the one on the left is crowded with passengers, and in amongst these very short-haul travellers – also expecting to be upwardly mobile any moment – stands myself, be-suited and sweating.
The others crammed into this tight, yet glittering space, all work at the hotel. Thus, they are not wearing jackets and ties, like me, nor carrying briefcases, nor wearing wholly-climate-inappropriate socks and clunky dress shoes. Instead, those off duty are in t-shirts, sweats and flip-flops, those on, in thin, silky-looking jackets and trousers. They have also not just come from a meeting with the Readiness Committee of the new airport free zone, either, and in consequence, they all look quite calm and relaxed.
As we stand stuffed together, awaiting departure, I notice that the sweat stains on my shirt have begun to join together into an aerial map of something resembling the Great Lakes, complete with salty waterways, rivuleting from my right nipple to my left breast pocket. Götterdämmerung, sweat gland style, has come in the transition from 35C street to icy, air conditioned lobby.
But now, it’s time for greetings.
“Hey, Ahmed!” the Indian hall porter says to the guy with a small child squeezed into the far right corner. “Late shift?”
“Yes!” the guy replies, smiling. I realise he is the Keralan receptionist I had earlier and completely unreasonably remonstrated with when the internet went down – and at this point too, I realise that even though we are pressed close enough together to smell each others’ lunch, none of the hotel staff is going to look me in the eye.
But now we’re off.
“Going Up!” sparks the cheery, somehow Filipina voice of the elevator. Then, “First floor reached!”
The doors swish open and there we suddenly see the black-robed, fully-veiled forms of two women, clutching at smartphones. On seeing us, they jolt backwards in a kind of shock. Their eyes, which seem to exert an inexorable pull on my gaze, also seem to be black – though darting and somewhat frightened-looking.
They are women and in the lift we are all men.
In the elevator too, all the cheery greetings and smiles seem suddenly dissolved in the heavy, fetid air.
We wait for the doors to close again, awkwardly and in silence.
The women too also wait, also silent, eyes now downcast.
Finally, the doors swish shut and the women vanish, much to everyone’s evident relief.
“Going Up!” chimes the Filipina elevator, and the conversation resumes.
“I’m glad to see you are still here,” the porter says to a fourth man, a slightly stooping Pakistani maintenance guy, who has charge of the floor buttons, his hand being closest to them amongst the press of bodies.
The Pakistani smiles back, slightly bashfully. “Ilhamdulil’allah,” he says. Everyone smiles. Ilhamdulil’allah.
At the second floor, the door opens to reveal a tall Omani guy in long white dishdasha and government-service turban. The maintenance man leaves, and the Omani gets in, pressing the button for the sixth floor – the rooftop pool and restaurant.
“A-salam walaikum,” he says.
“W’alaikum a-salam,” we all say back.
There is a quiet though now, as we pass through the higher levels. At these, the lift starts thinning out, each passenger departing for their anointed floor.
Indeed, only the Omani remains when my time to leave the sweat-box also finally comes.
“Fifth floor reached!” the Filipina elevator says.
The Omani and I nod to each other. The door opens. I leave, and then the door closes.