“Miss. Please bring your bag over here,” says the customs agent.
Those are not the words you want to hear. Ever. Even if you know there’s nothing of a suspicious nature in your bag. There’s still that brief moment when you start to wonder…Is there something? Could a kilo of heroin have hopped into my suitcase?
“Miss, please. Your bag,” she says again. I take my suitcase off the x-ray scanner and roll it over to the special inspection counter. Is it the bottle of vodka I just purchased from duty free? This is a dry Muslim country. Although, since I did buy it in the airport, it does kind of feel like entrapment. The shifty sales clerk encouraged me to take more.
“Oh, miss. Just one bottle?” he’d taunted.
It’s not like booze is hard to come by in Dubai. Even during Ramadan they serve alcohol, albeit secretly, at night, with a guard keeping vigilant watch on the door. Dubai is the most liberal of the Emirates. I have this theory that Sheikh Mohammed once visited Vegas and thought, Yeah. I can build this in the desert too. I sincerely doubt one measly bottle of passion fruit vodka will be a problem.
It’s not. Rummaging through my bag, she cruises right past the vodka. That’s a relief. I wait patiently, and then I wait some more. She’s taking an unusually long time for such a small suitcase. It appears as if she’s actively searching for something in particular. Is it the heroin? Oh, great, back to that.
“Is there something you’re looking for?” I ask tentatively. She pauses. Then whispers, “Toys.”
Toys? I don’t have any toys, and so what if I do. Is this a country with no children? Seeing my confusion, she tries again. This time she looks directly at me, willing me to understand.
“Toys.” Her eyes grow big, conveying more than her words can. Her left eyebrow arches. Then it hits me — oh, those kind of toys. I remember packing yesterday, opening my sock drawer, and catching sight of the item in question. I chucked it in as an afterthought.
She seems relieved we’re finally on the same page. That makes one of us. I’m feeling far from relief, more like mortified terror. At least I was fortunate enough to get the lady agent. Then I realize it was planned that way. They’d both watched my bag go through the x-ray, and when they spotted my vibrating companion, I became her domain.
I fish out the culprit and surreptitiously hand it over. She slips it in a brown paper sack. I try to make light of the situation to mask my embarrassment.
“So, you must see this a lot, huh?”
“Not really,” she responds.
That’s not comforting. Am I to believe I’m the only person to ever bring a vibrator into the Middle East? This is going to be one of those situations I later confide about to my friends while they stare at me dumbfounded. “Of course you can’t bring a vibrator there,” they’ll say knowingly, like I’m some kind of naïve pervert. It’s not like this information was listed in my guidebook.
“Come with me, Miss,” orders the agent. Uh-oh.
“Is this is a problem?” A tiny note of fear cracks in my voice. I compose myself and try to play it cool. “I mean, is it really that big a deal?”
“Pornography is illegal in the UAE,” she says, casting her judgment on me as a woman of ill repute.
Whoa. Suddenly, I’m a pornographer — a lascivious porn peddler infiltrating a country of high moral standards with my whore-wares. This information really ought to be included in a guidebook.
We begin the long trek from the special inspection counter to the special room for sex fiends. It takes forever. Not because it’s all that far, maybe 100 feet, but because we’re clocking Emirati speed. Shway shway is the term used. It means, s-l-o-w-l-y. Just speaking the words conjures an accurate image. Emirati women glide through a room as if time were irrelevant, just a silly invention so people could wear designer watches. Their long black abayas float around them as they sashay from side to side: shway shway. I can’t help but feel bad for Adul, the driver sent to fetch me. He’ll be waiting a while.
I sit on a cold metal chair as I await my verdict. My customs agent is across the counter whispering with two other abaya-clad ladies. If you were imagining a country of modest, humble women, subjugated to long black identity-concealing frocks, you’d be wrong. Women are women wherever you are, and while practices vary from culture to culture, this constant remains true: Girls like to feel pretty.
The three women across from me wear abayas embroidered with silk thread and embellished with sparkling jewels. Their delicate silk chiffon headscarves drape elegantly around their faces. Intricate swirling, curving henna patterns dance across their hands. Then there are their eyes. Arab women know how to give a smoldering glance, all the while feigning an aura of innocence. So much is said in the subtext of those thick, smoky, kohl-lined eyes accentuated with jewel-toned shadow.
I’ve always found it easier to hang out with guys, yet it’s the acceptance of girl groups I really crave. I like wearing an abaya. Not only are they surprisingly light and airy, but when you have one on you instantly feel part of a sisterhood. You’re granted admission into the shway shway club. Plus, it’s the perfect thing to wear after a huge Arab feast, a magic bulging belly-be-gone sort of garment.
My attention is brought back to the immediate situation when one of the ladies enters something into a computer. You never want to be in the computer system. I was once deported from Korea, and every time thereafter, when I applied for a visa, my name would appear with a fat nasty black mark. Now in the UAE, I will be known as a porn trafficker. A scarlet ‘P’ forever seared on my record. I can’t imagine this is going to go over well with the school that hired me.
“Miss, come here,” says the one at the computer. They intimidate me, like mean girls in high school. I walk my wanton self to the counter with my head down.
“You must sign this,” she passes me an official document. It’s a form releasing my property to be destroyed. A pang of sadness shoots through me. We’d had some good times together. It seems so extreme.
“Can’t you just keep it in a holding cell?” I try.
“No,” she answers.
I nod, accepting my fate, but I still don’t want to sign the form. “So, I suppose I have a record now?” They don’t seem to understand what I’m so concerned about.
“No. Just sign the paper and you go.”
“But is there something in the computer that says I bring stuff into the country?” I lower my voice, “You know…’toys.’”
The three girls look at each other. Their composure still cool and aloof, but are those tiny smiles creeping on their faces? Then I see it. They are smiling, not outright, but their eyes are smiling. Maybe they hadn’t been judging me. Maybe it is a sisterhood thing. Even in a Muslim country where a woman’s sexuality is kept hidden away, there’s still an unspoken understanding.
“Miss, it is no problem. No record,” my original customs agent assures me.
I let out a huge sigh of relief, and sign the document. I watch longingly as one of the ladies picks up the brown paper sack to deliver it to its final resting place. I imagine a burning inferno in the back. Goodbye, friend.
She pats the bag. “We’ll take care of this.”
Am I imagining things, or did she just wink? I look at her, my eyes full of questions, hers full of secrets, as she turns and leaves the room. Well, whatever becomes of my previous travel companion, the secret is safe with me. That’s what being part of a sisterhood is all about.
We say our goodbyes and I’m free to go. I take my time in full slow-blown shway shway mode as I exit the airport under a sign that reads: Welcome to Dubai.
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Sarah Katin has been a television host in Korea, professor in Japan, treehouse dweller in Laos, house painter in New Orleans, sangria swiller in Spain, dragon hunter in Indonesia, and fishmonger in Australia. Her travel essays have appeared in The Best Women’s Travel Writing series, Leave the Lipstick Take the Iguana, as well as online and print magazines. When she’s not somewhere else, you can find her hard at work on her latest screenplay in her L.A. office (the cushy chair by the window at Starbucks) or in Costa Rica bathing baby sloths. You just never can tell about these things.