If the museums and galleries had been silent and empty, there was life enough to make up for it along Al Arouba Street. The marble expanses were replaced by side-roads of sand and crowded high-rise apartment blocks whose windows all looked into one another. The sidewalks seethed with people: men in white shirts and trousers; here and there a woman in a sari. Posters advertised ‘bed spaces’ for ‘bachelors’ or ‘single women’. Three lots of laundry would hang outside a single window. The curry houses brimmed over with humanity – but it was a very particular segment of humanity. There were no old people here, and few children. It was a city of youth, of people both old enough and young enough to usefully work.
The young woman who hennaed my arms in a beauty parlour came from India. As we chatted, it transpired that she had a husband and three children back at home: the youngest was two. ‘You must miss them,’ I said. She smiled, and shrugged. I asked how often she saw them. ‘Every two years,’ she said. ‘I go home for two weeks, every two years.’ She smiled again, and squeezed the tube of dye. I watched the pattern taking shape: the flowers and leaves. After a while, she said, ‘Maybe my husband will come here soon. I hope he can find a job here too.’ I said that would be great, and supposed out loud that then they would be able to bring their children here. Her cheeks filled with the breath of a laugh that didn’t quite find its way out. She shook her head. ‘Oh no, darling,’ she said. ‘Why?’ I asked her. When she didn’t answer, I asked again, ‘Why can’t you bring your children here?’ ‘Too expensive,’ she said. ‘We can’t afford the room.’ She looked at me and smiled again, and turned my arm around.