Perhaps because of my growing sense of the inefficiency of life lived on land and in air, of my growing sense that the accumulation of experience amounts, when all is said and done and pondered, simply to extra weight, so that one ends up dragging oneself around as if imprisoned in one of those Winnie the Pooh suits of explorers of the deep, I took up diving. As might be expected, this decision initially aggravated the problem of inefficiency. There was the bungling associated with a new endeavor, and there was the exhaustion brought on by over-watching the films of Jacques Cousteau. And yet, once I’d completed advanced scuba training and a Fish Identification Course and I began to dive properly and in fact at every opportunity, I learned that the undersea world may be nearly a pure substitute for the world from which one enters it. I cannot help pointing out that this substitution has the effect of limiting what might be termed the biographical import of life—the momentousness to which one’s every drawing of breath seems damned. To be, almost without metaphor, a fish in water: what liberation.
I loved to dive at Musandam. Without fail my buddy was Ollie Christakos, who is from Cootamundra, Australia. One morning, out by one of the islands, we followed a wall at a depth of forty feet. At the tip of the island were strong currents, and once we had passed through these I looked up and saw an immense moth, it seemed for a moment, hurrying in the open water above. It was a remarkable thing, and I turned to alert Ollie. He was preoccupied. He was pointing beneath us, farther down the wall, into green and purple abyssal water. I looked: there was nothing there. With very uncharacteristic agitation, Ollie kept pointing, and again I looked and saw nothing. On the speedboat, I told him about the eagle ray. He stated that he’d spotted something a lot better than an eagle ray and that very frankly he was a little bit disappointed I wasn’t able to verify it. Ollie said, “I saw the Man from Atlantis.”
This was how I first heard of Ted Wilson—as the Man from Atlantis. The nickname derived from the seventies TV drama of that name. It starred Patrick Duffy as the lone survivor from a ruined underwater civilization, who becomes involved in various adventures in which he puts to good use his inordinate aquatic powers. From my childhood I retained only this memory of Man from Atlantis: its amphibious hero propelled himself through the liquid element not with his arms, which remained at his sides, but by a forceful undulation of his trunk and legs. It was not suggested by anybody that Wilson was a superman. But it was said that Wilson spent more time below the surface of water than above, that he always went out alone, and that his preference was for dives, including night-time dives, way too risky for a solo diver. It was said that he wore a wet suit the coloring of which—olive green with faint swirls of pale green, dark green, and yellow—made him all but invisible in and around the reefs, where, of course, hide-and-seek is the mortal way of things. Among the more fanatical local divers an underwater sighting of Wilson was grounds for sending an e-mail to interested parties setting out all relevant details of the event, and some jester briefly put up a webpage with a chart on which corroborated sightings would be represented by a grinning emoticon and uncorroborated ones by an emoticon with an iffy expression. Whatever. People will do anything to keep busy. Who knows if the chart, which in my opinion constituted a hounding, had any factual basis: it is perhaps needless to bring up that the Man from Atlantis and his motives gave rise to a lot of speculation and mere opinion, and that accordingly it is difficult, especially in light of the other things that were said about him, to be confident about the actual rather than the fabulous extent of Wilson’s undersea life; but there seems no question he spent unusual amounts of time underwater.
I must be careful, here, to separate myself distinctly from the milling of this man, Wilson, by rumor. It’s one thing to offer intrusive conjecture about a person’s recreational activities, another thing to place a person into a machine for grinding by crushing. This happened to Ted Wilson. He was discussed into dust. That’s Dubai, I suppose—a country of buzz. Maybe the secrecy of the Ruler precludes any other state of affairs, and maybe not. There is no question that spreading everywhere in the emirate are opacities that, since we are on the subject, call to my mind submarine depths. And so the place makes gossips of us whether we like it or not, and makes us susceptible to gullibility and false shrewdness. I’m not sure there is a good way to counteract this; it may even be that there arrives a moment when the veteran of the never-ending struggle for solid facts perversely becomes greener than ever. Not long ago, I heard a story about a Tasmanian tiger for sale in Satwa and half-believed it.
Ted Wilson, it turned out, had an apartment in The Situation—the apartment building where I live. His place was on the twentieth floor, two above mine. Our interaction consisted of hellos in the elevator. Then, plunging or rising, we would study the Egyptian hieroglyphs inscribed on the stainless steel sides of the car. These encounters reduced almost to nothing my curiosity about him. Wilson was a man in his forties of average height and weight, with a mostly bald head. He had the kind of face that seems to me purely Anglo-Saxon, that is, drained of all color and features, and perhaps in reaction to this drainage he was, as I noticed, a man who fiddled at growing gray-blond goatees, beards, mustaches, sideburns. There was no sign of gills or webbed fingers.
The striking thing about him was his American accent. Few Americans move here, the usual explanation being that we must pay federal taxes on worldwide income and will benefit relatively little from the fiscal advantages the United Arab Emirates offers its denizens. This theory is, I think, only partly right. A further fraction of the answer must be that the typical American candidate for expatriation to the Gulf, who might without disparagement be described as the mediocre office worker, has little instinct for emigration. To put it another way, a person usually needs a special incentive to be here—or, perhaps more accurately, to not be elsewhere—and surely this is all the more true for the American who, rather than trying his luck in California or Texas or New York, chooses to come to this strange desert metropolis. Either way, fortune will play its expected role. I suppose I say all this from experience.
In early 2007, in a New York City cloakroom, I ran into a college friend, Edmond Batros. I hadn’t thought about Eddie in years, and of course it was difficult to equate without shock this thirty-seven-year-old with his counterpart in memory. Whereas in college he’d been a chubby Lebanese kid who seemed dumbstruck by a pint of beer and whom everyone felt a little sorry for, grown-up Eddie gave every sign—pink shirt unbuttoned to the breastbone, suntan, glimmering female companion, twenty-buck tip to the coat-check girl—of being a brazenly contented man of the world. If he hadn’t approached me and identified himself, I wouldn’t have known him. We hugged, and there was a to-do about the wonderful improbability of it all. Eddie was only briefly in town and we agreed to meet the next day for dinner at Asia de Cuba. It was there, by the supposedly holographic waterfall, that we reminisced about the year we lived in a Dublin house occupied by college students who had in common only that we were not Irish: aside from me and Eddie, there was a Belgian and an Englishman and a Greek. Eddie and I were not by any stretch great pals but we had as an adventitious link the French language: I spoke it because of my francophone Swiss mother, Eddie because he’d grown up in that multilingual Lebanese way, speaking fluent if slightly alien versions of French, English, and Arabic. In Ireland we’d mutter asides to each other in French and feel that this betokened something important. I had no idea his family was worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now he ordered one drink after another. Like a couple of old actuaries, we could not avoid surveying the various outcomes that long-lost friends or near-friends had met with. Eddie, with his Facebook account, was much more up to speed than I. From him I learned that one poor soul had had two autistic children, and that another had intentionally fallen into traffic from an overpass near Dublin airport. As he talked, I was confronted with a strangely painful idiosyncratic memory—how, during the rugby season, a vast, chaotic crowd periodically filled the street on which our house was situated and, seemingly by a miracle of arithmetic, went without residue into the stadium at the top of the road, a fateful mass subtraction that would make me think, with my youngster’s lavish melancholy, of our species’ brave collective merriness in the face of death. Out of the stadium came from time to time the famous Irish refrain
Obviously, I did not share this flashback with Eddie.
He removed a pair of sunglasses from his breast pocket and very ceremoniously put them on.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. The young Eddie had ridiculously worn these very shades at all times, even indoors. He was one of those guys for whom Top Gun was a big movie.
Eddie said, “Oh yes, I’m still rocking the Aviators.” He said, “Remember that standoff with the statistics professor?”
I remembered. This man had forbidden Eddie from wearing shades to his lectures. The interdiction had crushed Eddie. His shades were fitted with lenses for his myopia; having to wear regular spectacles would have destroyed him. I advised him, “He can fuck himself. You do your thing. It’s a free world.”
“He’s a total bastard. He’ll throw me out of the class.”
I said, “Let him! You want to wear shades, wear shades. What’s he saying—he gets to decide what you wear? Eddie, sometimes you’ve got to draw a line in the sand.”
Line in the sand? What was I talking about? What did I know about lines in the sand?
Young Eddie declared, “Je vous ai compris!” He persisted in wearing his sunglasses. The lecturer did nothing about it.
“That was a real lesson,” Eddie told me at Asia de Cuba. “Fight them on the beaches. Fight them on the landing grounds.” Removing the Ray-Bans—he preserved them as a talisman now, and had a collection of hundreds of tinted bifocals for day-to-day use; on his travels he personally hand-carried his shades in a customized photographer’s briefcase—Eddie told me that he’d taken over from his father the running of various Batros enterprises. In return I told him a little about my own situation. Either I was more revealing than I’d thought or Eddie Batros was now something of a psychologist, because soon afterward he wrote to me with a job offer. He stated that he’d wanted for some time to appoint a Batros family trustee (“to keep an eye on our holdings, trusts, investment portfolios, etc.”) but had not found a qualified person who both was ready to move to Dubai (where the Batros Group and indeed some Batros family members were nominally headquartered) and enjoyed, as such a person by definition had to, the family’s “limitless trust.” “Hoping against hope,” as he put it, he wondered if I might be open to considering the position. His e-mail asserted,
I know of no more honest man than you.
There was no reasonable basis for this statement, but I was moved by it—for a moment I wept a little, in fact. I wrote back expressing my interest. Eddie answered,
OK. You will have to meet Sandro then decide. He will get in touch with you soon.
Sandro was the older of the two Batros brothers. I’d never met him.
Right away I came up with a plan. The plan was to fly New York-[Dubai]. This is to say, I had no interest in Dubai qua Dubai. My interest was in getting out of New York. If Eddie’s job had been in Djibouti, the plan would have been to fly New York-[Djibouti].