Congratulations to Edward Barnfield for winning the My City, My Home: Short Story Contest with his story, City on Fire.
Edward Barnfield (@edbarnfield) is a writer and analyst living in the Middle East. He is currently working on his first novel, “The Crocodile Tube”.
City on Fire
Marwen loves the pool-side Tiki Bar on top of the Mannequin Hotel. It’s an April evening, 26 degrees, but he still wants to sit under a plastic palapa. I’ve folded my jacket and tie on the back of a chair and he’s changed into a garish shirt and pink shorts. I’m always struck by the density of his leg hair in these moments, like black stockings.
During the day, I look out on this pool from the office next door. You can see little kids learning to swim and oblivious German tourists basting on the sun loungers. I run a reasonably successful design agency, work with bright and brilliant colleagues, but I would swap places with the pool people in a heartbeat if I could.
“You sit in these meetings and they say, ‘Everybody lives in little districts now, everything has to be on the doorstep’,” says Marwen, who is practicing his pitch on me. “Nobody is going to need to travel for anything, and who wants to? Who wants to sit in terrible traffic? Who wants the hassle of all these foreigners?”
He is drinking something that smells of tulips from a glass shaped like an Easter Island Moai. I am guessing it is not his first of the day.
“That’s their business model. If a little Greek taverna is successful, stick one everywhere. If people want coffee shops, clone them. What I’m saying is, if everybody is thinking small, local, practical, we need to go in the opposite direction. Build something so spectacular they have to come and see it. Go back to the foundations that made this city something.”
Marwen was one of the first people I met in Dubai, the loudest voice in a room full of extroverts. He started out in real estate, selling ever more spectacular villas to out-of-town visitors. He was there when the number of brokerages swelled to more than 3,000 and survived the crash that culled the herd, jumping from office to office before his pay cheques could bounce. He moonlighted by flipping golf club memberships and running a video company that made short films of people’s exotic pets.
These days, he’s working in the family office of a construction patriarch, running errands, booking flights and trying to excite the old man about the next big thing.
A smiling Filipino in fake banana trunk trousers shuffles by to see if we want a refill. I shake my head; Marwen doesn’t.
“I don’t know,” I say, flapping the paper umbrella from my empty glass. “There’s an awful lot of under-populated real estate out there. Maybe it’s smart to be cautious.”
He scoffs. “Caution is for Europe. Caution is for small town America and the suburbs. Give those guys caution – they enjoy being bored.”
He has – and I will never admit this to him – a point. Before the crash, they used to launch something impossible every day. There was the world’s tallest tower and all the artificial islands, but then there was also an underwater hotel and a shopping mall shaped like a falcon. An Indian developer wanted to build a giant snow dome, complete with little igloo chalets. I was at the press conference for one of the monster developments of 2008. They unveiled the model, which had a fun-fair, a race track, and more than 30 novelty hotels, and people just howled. It looked like the floor of a child’s bedroom.
That’s all gone in 2019. The infrastructure remains, and the mega-projects survived, but most of the other developments seem like dreams or half-remembered jokes. Nobody cares which towers made money and which took down their companies – they just wander around the base in awe. People are more cautious now, sensible. You used to walk into a new bar and start looking for the hidden cameras. Now, it feels designed for real people, by someone who knows what a bar should look like.
I know the ask is coming. “What do you need?” I say.
“I just need some initial sketches, something that sells the mood of what I’m planning. I want something bold to bypass his advisors. The old man has to show interest before I can get an architect to work on it. If it goes through, it could lead to big things for you guys.”
Free work, he means. At some point, the world tipped, and everybody felt it was acceptable to demand free work from strangers. It used to be just lower-end creatives who suffered – you’d never ask a sculptor to do your profile for the exposure – but now it’s endemic. I bet there’s a Marwen out there right now asking someone to unblock his sink, on the grounds it will open new opportunities later on.
I’m about to tell him where to shove it when the waiter returns, not just with drinks (including the one I didn’t order), but also with a demand for company-mandated conversation. Were we staying in the hotel, was this our first time at The Tiki Takeover? I’m polite, non-committal, but Marwen gets downright rude. He’s eager to sell me on the concept and this guy is getting in the way. You can tell a lot about people by the way they speak to hospitality staff.
“Dude, WTF? I’m trying to talk here.” He glares at the poor guy until he retreats to an acceptable distance, turns back to me. “So, this is my big idea. I’m driving home a few weeks ago, and traffic is stretched way back on Sheikh Zayed Road, all the way to Jebel Ali, moving slow as concrete. Takes me 50 minutes to get to Media City.”
My pool is turned over to a party crowd at night. There’s a group of thick shoulders and pony tails, smoking cigars in the shallow end and drinking whiskey from plastic glasses. Opposite are a trio of impossibly pale women, squeezed into bikinis and laughing loudly. The segregation is entirely self-imposed, and I wonder if they will start to mingle once the booze kicks in.
“When I finally get to my turn, I see what’s causing the commotion,” he continues. “A white van has gone into the back of a Nissan Sunny, made it concertina. There’s glass on the floor, and some poor dazed driver having his head looked at by the medics, but that’s it. They’re not blocking the road, there’s no blood. People are slowing down to gawk and that’s causing the jam.”
“So, people like to look at car crashes.”
“People will go out of their way to ogle if it’s spectacular enough,” he says. Pauses. “OK. Here goes. Back in 2008, we had the hotel up in the clouds, we had the snow hotel, we had the underwater hotel. What did we miss?”
I shrug, he smiles.
“Fire. I want to build a hotel that’s permanently on fire. Huge flames screeching up the sides of the building. When you check in, there’s alarms and people jumping out the windows. Up on the roof, there’s a pool, but it’s being blasted by fire hoses. The restaurants all have a conflagration theme – big charcoal pits for the steaks and seafood. And we call it, Hotel Inferno.”
He leans back in his chair, expecting a Eureka moment.
“It’s all fake, obviously. Smoke machines, flame cannons and the like,” he adds
I’m struggling for a response that isn’t hollow laughter when he raises a hand. “Hold that thought, I’m going for a piss.”
I look out over the horizon, thinking of the thousands of practicalities that will strangle his idea at birth. Government approval, the cost of the engineering, investors’ repulsion. Not to mention, who wants to stay in a burning hotel?
But maybe... there’s a lot of glass and black metal in the cityscape at night. A single bright flame would be reflected in all of them. You would see it for miles around.
Marwen could be at the beginning of something big or could be blowing the last of his credibility on a burning blueprint. This could be one of those nights that changes my life, the pivot that moves me to a whole new level. Or it could be another flight of fantasy that goes nowhere, drains from my dwindling reserves of time and enthusiasm.
The waiter comes back to collect the empties. Aside from the swimming party, we’re the only people here now.
“Sorry about my friend,” I say, trying to look appropriately sympathetic. “It’s just... he’s thought of a concept.”
Nobody really knows whether an idea is going to work or not. At a certain point, you can’t tell a tower that’s under construction from one that’s being demolished. Wires rust, building waste aggregates, and they all look like ghosts until you put the windows in.
I flip a cocktail napkin and start to sketch.
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