“Miss, 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? Am I an unwitting mule for some greasy drug lord who’s set me up as the decoy?
“Miss. Your bag,” she says again.
I watch way too much Locked up Abroad. This is just a routine random check. They do them all the time. 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? It is a Muslim country after all. Although, since I did buy it in the airport, it kind of feels like entrapment. The shifty sales clerk had even 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. It gives drinking a seedy illicit feel, thrilling in a 1920s Prohibition kind of way. Dubai is the most liberal of the Emirates. I have this theory that Sheik Mohammed visited Vegas and thought, yeah. I can build this in the desert too. I 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. 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. “Toys.” Her left eyebrow arches as if to say, come on, you know what I’m talking about. Then it hits me, and I suddenly do. Those kind of toys. I remember packing yesterday, opening my sock drawer, and catching sight of the item in question. I’d be going to Dubai for a month and thought it might come in handy, so I chucked it in my bag.
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.
“You must see this a lot, huh?”
“Not really,” she responds deadpan.
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 that I later confide about to my friends while they stare at me dumbfounded. “Of course you can’t bring a vibrator there!” They’ll chastise knowingly like I’m some kind of naïve sex addict. Did I miss the memo? It’s not like this information was listed in my guidebook.
“Come with me, miss,” orders the agent.
“Is this is a problem?” My voice cracks. I compose myself and try to play it cool. “I mean, is it really that big a deal?”
“Pornography is illegal in the U.A.E.,” 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 a hundred feet, but because we’re clocking Emirati speed. Shway shway is what they call it. It means s-l-o-w-l-y. Emirati women glide through a room as if time were just an invention so people could buy expensive 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 Ahmed, 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 about me 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 the 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 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 look, all the while feigning an aura of innocence. So much is said in the subtext of those thick smoky kohl-lined eyes, and right now their eyes are fixated on me, the bad girl, the outsider.
Here’s another truth: girls can be cliquey bitches. It’s unfortunate too, because it’s the acceptance of girl groups that I always crave. It’s one of the reasons I like wearing an abaya here. 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.
One of them punches something into the computer. You never want to be in the computer system. Now in the U.A.E., I will forever be known as a trafficker of pornography. A scarlet ‘P’ seared on my record. I can’t imagine this is going to go over well with the school that hired me.
“Miss, come here,” orders 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.
“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.
The three girls exchange amused glances. Their composure is still aloof, but something’s changed.
“No,” she answers.
Then I see it. They’re smiling, not outright, but their eyes are smiling. They get it. Even in a Muslim country where a woman’s sexuality is kept hidden, us ladies still have an unspoken understanding.
I watch as one of them picks up the brown paper sack to deliver my vibrator to its final resting place. I imagine a burning inferno in the back. Goodbye, friend.
“We’ll take good care of this,” she says patting the bag.
Did she just wink? I look at her. My eyes full of questions, hers full of secrets as she turns and shway shways out of the room and out of my life. Well, whatever becomes of my previous travel companion the secret is safe with me. After all, that’s what being part of a sisterhood is all about.
A version of this story was first published here: