Illustration by Molly Crabapple
Donald Trump's hair should not be.
It sits on his head like a soufflé, both airy and solid, as improbable as any building to which he’s given his name. In Dubai, I get to inspect Trump from all angles. His hair is otherworldly, but his face is more easily dissected. It’s tangerine, save two pale circles around his eyes.
Ivanka looks perfect, however. Even when her mouth is a moue of hate.
I am sitting two scant yards from Trump père et fille at a media briefing for the Trump International Golf Course, which is being built by the Emirati firm DAMAC Properties in conjunction with Donald Trump Townhouses and Villas. Trump has promised it will be the greatest golf course in the world.
Ivanka is angry because I asked a real question. In Dubai, this can land you in jail.
This May, I researched labor issues in the United Arab Emirates with a local journalist. To avoid being deported, he goes by the pseudonym Tom Blake. We interviewed construction workers building museums on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island. In the richest city in the world, the workers we spoke to were little more than indentured servants. For between $150 and $300 a month, they worked 13 hours a day, six days a week. Their bosses kept their passports. They landed in the UAE owing more than a year's salary to recruiters back home. They could be deported for striking.
In Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, and Nepal, they had families dependent on their wages. However brutal it was, the Gulf dream was their one shot out of poverty. They could not fuck this up.
The UAE is not uniquely guilty. Migrants throughout the world, in the US as well as the UAE, do the worst work and suffer the worst state violence. While my research focused on Abu Dhabi, poor conditions are typical throughout the Gulf. Thousands of workers could die building the World Cup stadia in Qatar. Figurative blood stains the gleaming steel of Earth's tallest building, Dubai's Burj Khalifa.
The day before Trump's press conference, Tom interviewed workers building the luxury villas bearing Trump's name. They told him they made less than $200 a month.
These workers would never bask in the air conditioning with me in the AKOYA by DAMAC Sales Center. Like so many of Dubai's interiors, the sales center is as cold and shining as top-shelf gin. TVs play ads for Trump's villas. On screen, white women plunge into swimming pools. Their hair billows in vast bedrooms. These villas are dreams for the world's winners. Like the construction workers who built them, they are placeless. They could be anywhere. Capital is context free.
“Who are you here for?” one of the publicists asks me.
The publicist asks how I know about the event. I say I heard about it from a friend.
“Behave yourself,” he smiles. “Don't embarrass them.”
The waitresses here are gorgeous Eastern Europeans. They smile hard. So happy. I used to work as a promo model. I remember the faux joy I'd put on for clients who delighted in being difficult to please.
Feeling out of place, I stare at scale models of Trump's development, complete with miniature Ferraris and blue resin lagoons.
Westerners misrepresent Dubai as tacky. This is wounded pride. Dubai is Versailles, not Vegas. It is frozen money. At night, when even the palms twinkle, the city has a heart-soaring grandeur. It looks like the sound of Daisy Buchanan’s voice.
Dubai's skyscrapers are our era's pyramids. Slaves built the original pyramids, but tourists visit just the same.
At this type of party, I always tell myself I won't eat the food. Journalists are either shills or situational sociopaths. When you cover the powerful, they serve great canapés. The powerful can seem so nice. Your lizard brain tells you to be nice back. But to be nice is to sell out those workers sweating it out for $200 a month.
I swipe a flute of orange juice.
Trump enters with Ivanka and DAMAC CEO Hussain Sajwani. Cameramen bash into one another to film them. Trump is little more than a moving statue to be sucked into their devices. He gives a practiced thumbs up.
On stage, Trump praises his Dubai. He is effusive—and sincere. Trump is one sort of Westerner who loves the UAE. They find here a throwback to colonialism's heyday. No matter how much you've shat the bed at home, here your whiteness will get you a job, money, servants from the Global South. Help is so affordable when migrant workers make $200 a month. In police states, there is little crime.
“The world has so many problems and so many failures, and you come here and it’s so beautiful,” Trump says. “Why can't we have that in New York?”
Trump does not mention that, like Dubai, New York is morphing into the no-place of multi-national capitalism. He does not mention that this is partially his fault.
The floor opens to questions.
I stand up.
“Mr. Trump,” I ask, “the workers who build your villas make less than $200 a month. Are you satisfied?"
The room gasps, then goes silent. The security tenses towards me. In two hours I am scheduled to interview Ahmed Mansoor, who spent eight months in jail for signing a pro-democracy petition. I think about Nick McGeehan, a researcher from Human Rights Watch who was deported a few months ago for investigating the same migrant issues I am.
I think about the web of professional coercion that keeps journalists in the US from asking real questions at press conferences. I wonder if the rules in Dubai are the same.
Trump says nothing.
“That's not an appropriate question,” the publicist barks.
When the next journalist says, “Dubai is synonymous with the big, bold, and beautiful,” the room un-tenses. “Is that where your affinity comes from?” the journalist asks.
“I think Dubai has a tremendous future,” Trump replies.
The security guards are still staring a hole into me when we file out. “Nice question,” says one reporter from the National. A state-owned newspaper, the National was Abu Dhabi's attempt to bring the best of British-style journalism over to the Gulf. In many ways they were successful, especially in luring talented reporters and editors to Abu Dhabi. But laws against insulting the government are too strict. With honesty off the table, no Pulitzers will be forthcoming.
“Why didn't you ask him something like that?” I asked.
“It’s just not done here. You don't do it because you know you won't get an answer.”
Implied: I live here. I might suffer consequences. You're leaving in a few days. It thrills the soul to confront powerful bastards, but does that alone change anything? The whole Gulf is built on exploitation. Local journalists must be canny and patient, applauding small improvements as they come.
A waitress offers macaroons. You shouldn't eat these treats any more than you should eat fairy food. If you eat them, you might get your loyalties so mixed up that one day you're sitting at a press conference asking Donald Trump about “the highest levels of luxury” like you believe it.
If you get too comfy in rich-people land, in New York or Dubai, you might stay here and belong to them.
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