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Contraband: a meaty, short (true) story

Just act natural, I tell myself. Act natural! I straighten my back and run my fingers through my then long, dark hair, tugging on my t-shirt on the way down. My skin is dry from the canned air and my clothes smell of the distinct mildewy scent that only India can leave, clinging on to fabric until a good wash. I scan the large receiving hall, clutching the form I filled on the airplane in my sweaty palms. Phew, being one of the first to leave the aircraft helps me beat the traffic. 

Salam-ailaikum”, the customs agent says, rotely. He’s laid back in his chair, dressed in a crisp white dishdasha and a sparkling gutrah, neatly ironed and folded over an agal - the national dress of the United Arab Emirates, which goes from day to night effortlessly, particularly so because it is also the uniform at every government agency. His oudh hits me first. The intoxicating, musky smell of traditional Arabian perfume. Perfume is a religion in the Middle East. The West’s penchant for “scent-free” workplaces would not fly. In fact, we scoffed at it, just as I scoff at it now. Sometimes, I find myself bothered by a scent my nose picks up at an office or restaurant and wonder if I am going soft after all my years away from the Middle East. Nay, I decide. It is simply the low quality of the scent in question. In Dubai, status is dictated not only on cars and clothes but on one's signature scent and oudh is the pinnacle. The king of perfumes, undiluted, unfiltered, pure oil from the agarwood trees of Southeast Asia, 50mls can go into the $1000s. Ironically, despite its reputation for the luxurious, oudh’s inviting scent is due entirely to the uninviting - mold. It is only when agarwood trees are amidst the throes of war with the parasite, P.Parasitica, that it produces its signature resin. 

Li-madha unt huna?" he says, looking disinterested and snatching my customs form from my outstretched hand. Why am I here, he asks. I am snapped out of my daydream, having been lost in the scent of his oudh. I had learned from a young age that the UAE takes care of its own and with that kind of government backing, residents too, need to show the utmost respect to Emirati officials, even if they are boredly manning the counter at the Water Authority. “I live here”, I answer. He already knows that. My passport very clearly displays my visa, because even though I was born in the country, I still had no right to live there without one. “I live here”, I have to say. Not “I’m from here.” because that too, is not true. He raises his chin, looking down at me from his sharp, elongated nose, a look those of us from the Middle East are all too familiar with and stamps my passport - yet another reminder that this land is simply borrowed, mine for a time until they tell me to leave it - and gestures with his head toward the now open gate by his station. “Shukran jazeera”, I reply. His responding grunt serves as a sort of Aloha - bye to me, hello to the next entrant.

Customs cleared, I quickened my step into Baggage Claim, as though shaving 5 milliseconds off my mission would somehow save me from the penalty that awaited me if I got caught. “You won’t get caught”, they said. “Just walk through”. In other words, act natural. Sound advice for a teenager who has no concept of what that means. 

“If you get caught, just play dumb”, they said. “Yea, just say you didn’t know. You’re a kid, you didn’t know!”. Well, which is it then, I ask myself. Is it that I’m a kid or that I didn’t know? Why would one need so many excuses if they weren’t doing anything wrong? A rivulet of sweat races down my back. Lost in thought, I’m standing in front of the large screen displaying the carousel numbers of arrived flights. Trying to orient myself in the large hall, I glimpse a German Shepard, more brown than the black they are usually known for sitting alert by the double doors at the hall’s West corner with its police officer partner, dressed to the teeth in the traditional green police uniform by its side. Both scanning the bustling Baggage Hall in one of the world’s busiest airports. “Relax”, I command myself. “They aren’t looking for you. They are looking for real criminals”, I say, as I walk briskly toward the hall’s East side, not a dog nor cop in sight. 

Luggage trickles on to carousel 19, Air India Flight 9870 from Mumbai, Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport. I thank myself for darting off the plane, being one of those people, the people I despise, just this once. Casually perusing the carousel, I nudge my way closer to its mouth, where a bored porter is probably using an extra heavy hand with the luggage marked “fragile”, feeding it on to the belt. Almost there, I think. Almost there. 

The seconds feel like hours and each bag that rolls on to the belt raises and then drops my hopes, when finally, I spot what could only be the suitcase. A beat up old plastic suitcase indicative of the early Oughts when it was bought. Made of hard plastic, it retained the old 60s and 70s style of suitcase with its clamshell look and keyed lock. It had wheels but no way to be pulled effectively, so as kids, we often straddled it and used our pedal power to push it through the airport. It clunked on to the carousel with the sound of all the 30 kilos I was allowed to pack into it. Grabbing it by its meaty handle, I attempted to yank it off the carousel, but failed. Moving with it now, I tried again and finally noticed its clanky castors stuck on the edge of the belt. Giving it my all a third time, it came free and onto the floor. “Phew”, I exhaled. Just then I saw a foot next to mine, and a hand on the bag’s corner. A policeman stood next to me, having helped me pull the bag from the conveyor. “Shukran, shukran!”, I say nervously, smiling widely. Too widely. His dog is just steps away now, mere inches from the bag. He nods sternly and walks away, completely unaware. 

With him out of sight, I mimic my nine year old self, sitting down hard on the upright suitcase, which had held my weight and more for so many years. Despite all the noise in the hall, all I can hear is my heart. I can’t believe the dog didn’t detect the scent! There it lay, so close, albeit covered in plastic bags and coffee grounds and sealed, air tight in a ghee tin. I wonder if the cartels know about this trick, I say, chuckling to myself. Just then, my phone buzzes. “Where are you?”, a message reads. “I’m in short term parking B, Terminal 2”. “Heading out now”, I text back, as I awkwardly drag the suitcase, with wheels but that which cannot be wheeled, out through the baggage hall and into the 42 degree fall heat. 

At home, my bags are torn into sooner than I can shower and scrub the mingling of sweats and smells from my body and clothes. People will be by that evening for the goods. By eleven o’clock, there is a house full. Music blares and the beer and whiskey flows freely, leading up to the grand event, at twelve midnight and not a moment sooner. When the goods are brought out, the room is awash is “oohs” and “ahhs” and a cheers even breaks out. “All this for some Goan chorizo?”, I shout, to no one, as I am drowned out by the music. “It is just a sausage!”, I yell, again, to myself, as I sandwich my head between the pillow and mattress, desperately trying to get some sleep.

Goan "choris" sausage drying in the sun. Photo by Sean Xavier (Whetstone Magazine)

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