Why would anyone miss something that has literally left their life strewn with crap? Why would anyone long for service that would make a blind brain surgeon look competent? Well, when you leave Dubai – you can never be sure what you’re going to miss…
Calling out a maintenance guy, be they electrician, plumber or gas-man, is rarely a pleasurable experience. Even in England, the visit of a tradesman usually involves a hairy-arsed bloke in dungarees whistling ominously at your boiler or u-bend, before turning towards you and contorting his lips and eyebrows in the universal tradesman facial expression for ‘this does not look good but it does look expensive’.
A few more heavy sighs are followed by a quote that makes you feel that they must be numerically illiterate because they have mistakenly added so many zeroes to the end of your bill. Regardless of the high-prices, most of the time, the job gets done; the equipment is sound; the person is qualified and certified and the only lasting displeasure is the newfound lightness of your wallet. They even have 24 hour emergency locksmiths, electricians and plumbers in some parts of England – making it easier than ever to get round the clock doom-whistling in your kitchen and utility room.
In Dubai things could not be more different. Calling a tradesman, usually from Emaar, Tooltime or Mplus, is the beginning of a piece of theatre so bizarre and abstract that even those who are performing and writing it do not understand it. You are not inviting a solitary expert into your home to assist you; you are inviting a situation that looks like a sub-continental Monty Python skit, sketched out by Salvador Dali on a particularly potent acid trip. You will not be opening your door to Doug Smith, who will proficiently, formulaically sort out your septic tank in a couple of hours; you will be opening the door to an infuriating comedy of what at times seems like carefully scripted incompetence.First of all, you start with the phone call. The automaton at the other end of the line will singularly fail to understand any of the problems that you are trying to explain to them and will ask you for your address more times than a stalker with short-term memory deficits. Not so much a language barrier as a communicative Great Wall.After 15 minutes of navigating the linguistic labyrinth that ends with them finally understanding the problem ‘blocked sink’ they then tell you ‘not to worry, our men work on immediate call-out from 10am-3pm round the clock and there is a maintenance technician working permanently in your building’.
Allow me briefly to peel away a couple of layers in this lasagne of contradictions and contrariness so that I can point out a couple of problems. Firstly, there is a man who works ‘round the clock’ for 5 hours a day; so MPlus either have the world’s worst clock, are following some form of Incan sun dial, or, most likely, they assume total ignorance and stupidity on the part of their customers (clue: it is the last one). Secondly. This chap is ‘permanently’ in my building despite the fact that we have already established that he is only working 5 hours a day. What then is he doing with the rest of the time? Undertaking a series of hilarious knock and runs? Posing as a home-owner in order to intercept the chicken korma that the couple at 2307 have just ordered? Standing in the bushes by the pool grunting lowly, pretending to jangle the keys in his pocket as he stares at the sunbathers? I want to know.This is before we even get to the linguistic hand-grenade that is the term ‘maintenance technician’. I mean, this is an undoubtedly impressive sounding title; it sounds like the job of a man who could do anything – absolutely anything. If it can be maintained, then he will maintain it, like an odd-job Superman. In reality, this title is the equivalent of calling somebody who is making you beans on toast a ‘sustenance alleviation specialist’, or calling those annoying guys who spray aftershave on you in nightclub toilets ‘facilitators of post-defecational fragrance administration’. It is a term that means nothing, exactly nothing; the mam about to arrive at your house is an expert at nothing. In England, if we were being kind, we would call them a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. IF we were being kind.
Anyway…I ask when the member of the 5 hour-round-the-clock permanent task force will be arriving at our flat, bearing in mind that they also operate on ‘immediate callout’. ‘Wednesday, between 10am and 3pm’ is the reply.
It is Saturday evening.
Even given the 5 hour days – this leaves the man (who only has to work at my block of flats remember) 20 hours of labour to get through his other jobs. Am I being led to believe that there are so many exploding AC units, so many toilets with turds stuck in the pipes, so many lights spewing forth sparks of electricity in my apartment block alone, that it will take 20 hours of service to get all of the problems fixed? Is Dubai’s maintenance scenario the equivalent of crime in Gotham, needing perpetual attention from wrench-wielding superheroes that run to the nearest apartment block when a giant toilet logo is shone upon the sky? Give me a break.Most of all, I wonder why the lady on the other end boasted about a service that she patently knew was both fallacious and of absolutely no use to me. The immediate callout service that doesn’t have any plumbers for 4 days – did she think I wouldn’t notice and would just be really impressed with the company’s schtick? And of course, what do these companies think that people are doing all day that their time is so dispensable? They delicately select the only time that their super-mega-maintenance-maestros are available to coincide with the only time when you are definitely not, the time when it is the most impossible to get away from work. There are only so many Jumeirah Janes in Dubai; the rest of us are out bloody working. However, these morsels are merely appetizers in this banquet of the bizarre and the main course was not due to be served until Wednesday between 10am-3pm.I waited at home, having had to move the date to the weekend so that we’d actually be in when help eventually arrived. We got a phone call at 10am from a man who was chewing on the English language and spitting it down the phone at me ‘I will be there at 11. 100% guarantee. Where you live?’ It takes another 15 minutes to explain the address that I told the woman on the phone 25 times and I am beginning to develop a newfound appreciation for Groundhog Day.Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but if someone calls you at ten in the morning and says that they will arrive at eleven, I think most of us would assume that the person meant 11 in the morning (especially if the working hours are 10am-3pm) – or am I a moron for not seeking clarification? Probably. As inevitably as night following day, nobody turns up at 11am and twelve hours later, after a plethora of phone calls and more promises than a cheating husband being given a second chance, there is a knock on the door at 23:01, exactly one minute after we’d given up and gone to bed. They had arrived.
And ‘they’ is the operative word.
Because, despite the woman on the phone’s assertion that ‘there is a man always in the building’, it is never ‘a man’ who comes to fix anything, anywhere in Dubai; it is a troupe, a circus, an ensemble of discombobulated looking fellows who appear genuinely startled to be at your door, as if they were all Samuel Beckett in Quantum Leap suddenly propelled into an alternative reality and inhabiting strangers’ bodies. We once had five men come to rectify a domestic disaster. Five men. Five men came to our house to repair one hinge on a cupboard that we were unable to fix ourselves, purely because the part we needed was only stocked by the company who provided the maintenance.The men arrive to deal with a horrific sewage leak in our bathroom that has left a brown lake that is threatening to spill out into the bedroom. They are carrying an almighty bag with seemingly every tool, component and part that you could think of. Its depths and wonders are enchanting. It reminded me of the magic bag that Felix the Cat carried that despite being a normal looking bag could fit things like coat hangers, grandfather clocks and boats in it. The men, and the magic bag, approach the scene of the crime.The ensemble gathered around the faeces-strewn floor, stepping directly into the effluence and sending little brown undulations rippling across the floor. They stared at it, as if contemplating the Mona Lisa’s smile, for what felt like an almost endless expanse of time, whilst dipping and tilting their heads at neck-breakingly impossible angles like the nodding novelty dogs that people used to have in the back of their cars. The silence is pierced as the men stop looking at the bathroom floor and then look at one another. A heated argument takes place, in a language that I do not understand. It does not sound like an argument about a flooded bathroom; it sounds like the kind of argument you would have with someone who you have just found out has wiped their arse on your fiancée’s pristine white dress on the day of your wedding; the kind of argument you’d have with someone who’d taken your daughter on a date to a high-stakes poker match in The Bronx and wagered her virginity on the outcome of the final hand. It is primevally aggressive sounding.Once the bickering has stopped, the leader – the ringmaster of the travelling circus – starts to rummage through the bag. I see all sorts in there, seemingly every appliance know to man, or extra-terrestrial for that matter. I swear I saw a teleportation device from Season 2 of Buck Rodgers in a pocket by a screwdriver, and I’m pretty sure that Darth Vader’s lightsaber was sat snugly next to a set of Alan keys in there. They had everything. Everything except for the one thing that they needed to fix the leak, whatever it was. They could have reconstructed a broken satellite with their equipment, but not fix this. It was like a group of mountain climbers arriving for their ascent of Everest with a pocket photocopier and a uranium enrichment kit but no shoes or coats.The ringmaster’s reaction to this was to grin like somebody who was trying to get the corners of their mouth to knock the ears off of their head, as if they’d just delivered the punchline to a joke so funny that comedy from thereon in would be obsolete beside the epochal hilarity of their work of art. Behind him, the rest of the extended family of the Chuckle Brothers were swaying too and fro whilst nodding their heads and imitating the grin of the bad-news-breaker. Then off they went, all five of them, treading shit all over the flat and down the hallway leading to the elevators. My wife was sat on a chair holding her head in her hands, seemingly hoping that if she squeezed her temples hard enough that she’d look up and find out it had all been just a bad, highly pungent dream.Eventually, the men returned. My wife tried to get some reassurances from the crew that they would clean up their tracks before they left ‘No madam, that is a different problem’. Something in my usually lovely, calm wife broke then, and I don’t think she has ever been the same since. ‘PROBLEM – NO IT IS YOUR PROBLEM, NOT A DIFFERENT PROBLEM – YOUR PROBLEM THAT YOU MADE’. Her screaming echoed around the flat like the cries of anguish within an abattoir, and luckily pierced the ultra-supreme-magnificent-mega-maintenance men’s eardrums so painfully that she convinced them to clean up after themselves. A small victory (although they did have to leave the flat again because, as they said: ‘we don’t have anything to clean with madam’).The final stage of the operation was one that I am sure that every single person who has ever lived in Dubai has witnessed. There was one man doing the work, and the other four just watched, stood there doing I don’t know what. Why were they there? Why are they ever there? Why did I once see one man up a stepladder fixing a street lamp in Al-Ain and see another 7 men standing by watching as if they’d just walked into a cinema screening a particularly gripping, award-winning movie; they may as well have been eating popcorn? A seriously want to know why they are there. Are they the bodyguards of the man doing the work; standing at the ready in case my wife flips completely and tries to beat him with the rolling pin? Are they there to gain a sly insight into the riveting lives of others? Do they whisper little words of motivation to the chap with his arm up the u-bend ‘come on Ravi you show that clump of hair who’s boss’? It is, was, and forever shall remain, a mystery.Little arguments flare up and simmer down again like geysers of disgust intermittently erupting. Everyone seems to have an opinion of exactly the best way to use a plunger. Tensions seem high. And just as it looked like the men would snap, completely out of the blue, almost exactly one week after we had requested help, the problem was solved. There were glistening smiles and pats on the back all-round and I couldn’t help but feel that my wife, myself and the mighty-maintenance-technician team had come to the end of a journey, an opus, epic enough to make Frodo Baggins say ‘I don’t really fancy that much’.And now I miss it. A visit from a tradesman in Germany is a monotonously simple and dull affair. No story. No anecdote. No despair or euphoria on the rollercoaster of emotions. No unpredictability, variety. No waiting with delight to hear what my wife had been through because it was her turn to stay home and deal with MPlus. None of it. Whereas maintenance in Dubai had given us narrative, randomness, a technicolour tapestry of sublime and ridiculous experiences, Germany gives us only monochrome: a guy called Heinz who gets everything done efficiently in half an hour. If you ask me, that just isn’t living.