An old mercedes is to the highways of the Gulf what a rented vélo is to a Paris bike lane, or what a rocky mountain oyster is to the diet of people who like to eat gonads. Driving cars is more Emirati than air conditioning, and Mercedes, especially the old ones, are the staple of a simpler era with smaller buildings and bigger Aviators. In the Arab World, models and shapes of the cars have nicknames — C Class in the late 90s were Abu Dama’, Father Tears, for their big headlights; S Class were Abu Ayun, Father Eyes, for a similar look. The ’92 model I found on Dubizzle — the UAE’s Craigslist — and bought with two friends was called just Shabah. Ghost.
For our first date, we took her out onto the docks, the only place in the city where there are no traffic cameras and no speed limits. Past a line of cargo ships and lit by the harbor is a straightaway made for test drives with just one rule: break before you crash into the breakwater and fly out into the water towards Iran. It didn’t make it much faster than 140 kph in the half kilometer-long track, but where every previous test drive felt wrong, she felt absolutely right. The dark gray, nearly black SA 320 had boxy wide hips and drove like a boat, and so earned its first nickname: HMS Matsuflex. (The latter, of course, is a character from VH1’s “Tool Academy” known for a) being a tool, and b) black spiky hair.
Somehow, it looked like we had found the one honest person selling a used car in the entire world. Sami from Syria promised to repair the damages and walk us through the long and tedious transfer process required by the Abu Dhabi traffic establishment. After two test drives and several trips to licensers and notaries and banks, it seemed like we might have even trusted each other. It was a fragile trust, layered upon the thousands of years of suspicion gathered and passed down from generation to generation of mankind, but it prevailed. It prevailed until the moment of truth, when we pulled in to the Inspection center of the Vehicles and Licensing Department to sign the papers that would wed us in holy automony till bad decisions would us part. And with a guilty tension palpable in the air, Sami flinched: “I need to show you something.”
The driver’s door didn’t lock. It couldn’t lock — and the other doors had to all be locked individually. It seemed like something we should have noticed earlier, but hell, we’d already come this far. Good thing there is no (street) crime in Abu Dhabi, and good thing we weren’t buying the Benz for its locks. Sure the sunroof wouldn’t open and the FM radio only went up to 88.5, but for my share of less than a grand, plus five dollars for flimsy aviators, I got my keys to the city — and out of it.
On the second day we sailed the HMS Matsuflex, still tacking out of the office parking lot, the steering wheel froze, the breaks went rigid, and the battery died. Sometimes you can’t depend on a nineteen year-old. But Sami came, and he drove to the industrial area outside Abu Dhabi, and he brought back a mechanic with him right to our car — as one does. He didn’t have any obligation to help us; it was our car now, and it was our battery/engine/AC/power problem to deal with. But he did. And still we were suspicious, even aggressive — his honesty reflected a guilt, a reluctance to dupe the buyers only three years older than the car for sale — what else wasn’t he telling us? He knew, and he looked angry for the first time in our weeks of dealings: “I just can’t believe it,” he said, listing the things he had done for us that no other lemon-seller would. “After all this, you still don’t trust me.”
What else could he tell us. The belt was replaced — that had been the problem — and everything came back to life. He had also brought us replacement locks, but that didn’t really matter anymore. We were to accept Black Chicory (another nickname) fully or not at all. And anyway, when we went to the locksmith to install the new locks, he told us (after taking the door apart) that they wouldn’t fit. And then he charged us nothing and let us keep the single greatest Michael Jackson cassette ever mixed.
Sami walked out of our lives and back to his, in all probability to go back to being the best engineer and the best father ever. I was sorry to have doubted him, and to continue to doubt him whenever anything went wrong (including, days later, the very genuine scare that Matsu was getting about one mile per gallon) — but some things are clearly too good to be true. And if they’re not, they are too good to be believed. Behind the wheel of the black behemoth, I didn’t quite feel like I was in my own life, just like Abu Dhabi doesn’t feel like home or the Gulf doesn’t feel like an ocean. I was borrowing moments from someone else’s day-to-day and from my own fantasy. Black Chicory was never absorbed into “regular” life, to the point where I could imagine what it would be like in the future or I could wake up and not wonder if it was real.
In the tinted glass and near-black body, the seats were all-black leather — a debatable choice what with indoor parking a luxury and summer temperatures rising to 120 degrees in the shade that doesn’t exist. But it wasn’t summer. It was February, and those kinds of problems were based in reality — something that at the helm of the HMS Matsuflex, none of us really believed in anymore.