Few things can be more humiliating than making your way into a public toilet only to find all the cubicles occupied. You can immediately tell, not by the locks on the doors, but by the small congregation of fellow journeymen in need, waiting their turn in tense silence by the sinks. In such situations — and such situations, I must say, have only ever happened to me in Abu Dhabi Mall and, more recently, at the Abu Dhabi Airport — the urinals will tend to be all free: an additional, frustrating irony, for, when you end up thus helpless and distressed, it is not a urinal that you are looking for. Normally I would just turn around and leave, thinking I would come back at a later time or find an alternartive venue. But then, realising the gravity of my situation — and believe me, I no longer even consider going to the bathroom in Abu Dhabi Mall unless the situation is very, very grave — I am forced to wait, against my will, cursing overcrowding and statistics under my breath.
In the ensuing experience, battling with my ever more terrible urge, I have on many occasions had the opportunity to meditate on the human condition while watching the unsavoury procedure of one man emerging, a wide smile of relief splitting his face in two, and another impatiently disappearing into the folds. Punctatued by the little South Indian cleaning man’s brief entry into each cubicle to quickly wipe the floor, spray air freshener and re-flush the toilet just in case, the cycle is endless. At some point, while he heads for the sink, the man who was just inside looks at the others, perhaps noticing the frangrant memento he has left behind or realising the pain to which he has subjected them, and an expression of intense embarrassment takes over his face. For their part the others will fidget or mumur, making way for that latest champion, almost cheering as they see yet another person just like them successfully concluding his wait, and a sort of shameful complicity spreads through the atmosphere. Against my will, I too am party to that atmosphere.
But it was not until this present long weekend, when I was disappointed to find the airport overcrowded on arriving there at eight in the morning, that it occurred to me that this predicament is very like the predicament of waiting in vain for a taxi on the streets of Abu Dhabi. It must be one of the side effects of speedy development: there are far many more people than you have counted on, and so far fewer taxis — and toilet cubicles — than needed. And looking on the bright side, I concluded, this gives you access to experiences you would never have dreamt of having, whether or not you deem them all that humiliating. Who would have thought I would ever be a member of that strange congress?
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