With its skyscraper canyon, sci-fi metro stations and eight-lane highway, Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road could hardly be further from Pakistan’s Tribal Areas if it were a place where the sky was green and people talked backwards and the meek had inherited the Earth.
Indeed, a cab fare from outside the Rolex Building, where I first pull over Rokhan’s Toyota taxi, to his farm on the border with Waziristan would not only cost slightly more than a few hours work for a fund manager in the nearby international financial centre – yes, really that much – but would also involve a tardis-like change in time and dimension, a turning inside-out of worlds and spaces.
Yet, there it is. For a few dirhams and half an hour of time, such a translation, a bilocatory experience, can be had for the taking – provided you get Rokhan’s battered orange and white cab when you stick your hand out into the ceaseless flow of the giant conveyor-belt highway.
He wears a weirdly paramilitary uniform for a cab driver – perhaps understandably, given the story that then emerges – and this khaki-clad son of Waziristan, Pakistan’s most violent and dangerous frontier province, first tells me how he now feels a bit safer these days, whenever he makes the trip back home.
“I’ve handed over my rocket launcher,” he says, “and the light machine gun, my revolver, the grenades…” he pauses for thought; “Oh yes, and the shot guns, the explosives, the mine and the bullets.”
He says this as we head out into the traffic, turning to shuffle back along Sheikh Zayed in the direction of the Palm Jumeirah. He tells me how he recently presented this NRA award-winning arsenal to the Pakistani army, back home in Latti, a few miles from the Waziri border and Afghanistan beyond.
He handed his weapons over “because now is safe”, he says, “ilhamdulilallah”, but perhaps more importantly, because “Army came my house and say you do bad, you no do good, we see anything, we kill you.”
That would do it, I surmise, and so, “Now is peace. Now is good,” Rokhan says, and, like many thousands of other Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Filipinos and Nepalese, he then left home and headed back to work, here, a thousand miles away, driving a cab in Dubai.
In this ‘now’ too, we’re also heading through sluggish traffic past the Dubai Mall, the giant SUVs in the other lanes nudging in and out around us. A slant of sun, far less fierce than the 50C it managed a few months ago, still lands a white-hot block through the cab’s dusty windows onto my be-suited legs, burning like a giant, malignant, interplanetary trouser press.
“It so bad before army,” he continues. “One time I go Waziristan and my tire broke and I have to stop. Then they come, local people, they come with gun and say, ‘Give me tax!”
“Yes! I say what tax? You just people, like me. You no government. I no give you tax. Why not I ask you tax? We same! You give me tax!”
He laughs at this memory, and by now we’ve passed the Business Bay metro station and are coming up to a line of glitzy car showrooms. Mercedes, VW, Hyundai, a giant billboard advertising Bentley-styled apartments, their roofs surreally quiffed in the shape of giant engine cowlings.
“But,” he adds, “then Taliban came and kill them all,” he says.
“Yes. Pakistani Taliban. They very bad.”
By now, we can see the giant sail of the Burj al Arab, the emirate’s iconic seven star hotel, shimmering on the washed-out horizon – the sky itself wilting in the endless heat. It stands far off, on the other side of a seemingly endless building site.
“Afghan Taliban, they not so bad. Afghan Taliban give you two chance. They say, ok, I smell alcohol on your breath, you did something bad, so now you have one chance left. You do again, we kill you.”
“Yes. They give two chance. But Pakistani Taliban, no. No two chance. They smell alcohol – they kill. You do wrong thing – they kill. Simple.”
“Wow,” I say, stunned by such a drastic application of zero tolerance policing. “And now the Pakistani Taliban are there, in Waziristan?”
A giant tank of an SUV with blacked out windows and Saudi plates rolls dangerously close on the offside, then veers away again.
“No. Now army come and kill them. Now safe. Now I give my LMG back. And bombs, you know, bomb you throw?”
“Yes. I give them because now army kill Taliban and now safe my house and if army see you with LMG, rocket launcher, they kill you.”
So, all’s well that ends well, I muse, as we pick up speed towards the Mall of the Emirates – once the largest emporium of global retail brands in this sector of the galaxy, but now eclipsed by the Dubai Mall, just back up the road. That in turn is about to be eclipsed by the Mall of the World, also on this road… and so on and so on. I start to think about dinner. Fried haloumi and fresh tabouli salad looms large.
“You ingiliz?” he starts again.
“Yes, kind of,” I answer. I’m travelling on my Irish passport, but when I use it, I still feel about as fake as a be-shamrocked airport pub.
“Ingiliz. So many ingiliz here and everywhere. There is one man in my country, I see on TV, he ingiliz, he 70 years old!
“He teach all the big people in my country – the president, the general, all the big people he teach.”
“He could have big house and big car and money but he live in small old house, he marry there and have children and small, small house. They say why you live in this? He say, I prefer old house, small house!” he laughs. “I prefer, he say!”
“Well, the old ones are the best,” I say, lamely.
There’s not much ancient around here, though. The city is like a mirage that came to stay, a fata morgana in concrete and steel, with the oldest architectural residents on this street still in their 20s.
But now we’re approaching the Palm Jumeirah, as Rokhan continues on his theme of the ingiliz.
“You know what I ask all my friends?”
“I ask, where you want to go?”
“Well, you are a taxi driver,” I quip, rather lamely.
Outside, the highway flips up and curls with undeniable grandeur in a long and leisurely loop before heading out up the trunk of the Palm, the giant land-fill in the shape of the tree, a fossilized-at-birth arecaceae jutting out from the shore into the Gulf’s shallow waters. On its fronds hang heavy lumps of villa and hotel, dangling onto beaches that look like the emptied contents of a billion cement bags. In its dark, dark heart, perhaps where the dates should have been, lurks a massive fiscal black hole, left by Dubai’s 2009 financial meltdown.
“Sorry – you ask them where they want to go? You mean, what country?”
“Yes,” Rokhan replies. “And you know what they say?”
“All my friends – all of them – I ask where you want to go and they all answer: London. Every single one. They all say London. They all want to go to London.”
The image of a bunch of LMG and RPG-armed Waziris walking down Oxford Street suddenly springs to mind – and actually, it’s really not that difficult to imagine.
“I don’t know why they say that.” Rokhan shakes his head in puzzlement. “Why want to go be under ingiliz control again? After we fight and ingiliz go home. Why they want to leave Waziristan? Now is safe, now is peace, army kill you if you try something. Is very strange, yes?”
Yes, Rokhan, it is very strange – or maybe not remotely strange at all. If I were a Waziri, I would probably be climbing wire fences, dodging border guards and trying not to freeze to death or drown, or get left to starve, die of thirst, or suffocate by some evil trafficker, just so I could have some slim chance of getting out and going somewhere where safety isn’t just that you’ll get shot by the army if you try to do something bad.
Or maybe I’d be here, in Dubai, behind the wheel with some gobless prostate of an ingiliz sitting in the back, wondering when I was going to shut up and let me dream of fried haloumi.
All of it possible, in some other iteration of the multiverse, in some other intersection of time and space, but not here, not now, where the cab is finally halting and I’m fishing for the fare.
And then he’s gone, probably forever, out of my particular timeline and back into his, spiralling over the Al Sufouh Road, past the Dubai Pearl and Internet City, over tram lines and metro lines and road lines and all the way back, one day, to some split sharp morning in Waziristan, where Autumn has started and I see its ominous winds…For there is always home – that knot of timelines and stories, that place you always end up – even if no one else can understand why.
 From a poem by Shams ul Qayyum Wazir, a tribal leader in South Waziristan and father of Maria Toorpakay Wazir, who became one of Pakistan’s most successful squash players, although only after disguising herself as a boy.