Trip Report: Chaos at Dubai Airport

I arrived in Dubai at 7:30 AM and had 3 hours to spare until my flight. My mom and sister were arriving in the next hour or so.

Dubai Airport

I plopped down on a seat across from the Safi Airways check-in counter and decided to rest from the long walk. While trying to get a wifi signal, I noticed a man who had been walking around and communicating unsuccessfully with different airport agents. I observed for a bit and didn’t like the dismissive way they spoke to him. By his clothing, I assumed he was Afghan. He wore a traditional peron tumban, vest, skull cap, and carried a duffel bag and a plastic bag containing his belongings.

I walked up as he was speaking to two different agents and asked if he spoke Dari or Pashto. He said Dari and then explained that he had been in Dubai for a week and was due to return to Kabul next week. He had been robbed, had no money, and resorted to sleeping at Deira Park. The man had been coming to the airport for three days in a row, unable to change his ticket due to a language barrier.

The agent nearby explained that he worked for Safi Airways and this man’s ticket was with Kam Air. He instructed us to go to Kam Air’s office nearby to get the ticket changed. However, Kam Air’s office didn’t open until 11 PM (that’s not a typo), and regardless, the man stated that the office workers did not understand Dari and were unable to help him. For an airport that gets this much traffic from Afghan travelers, they have a pretty crappy system for accommodating them.

Since we couldn’t wait until 11 PM, I walked over to the information desk where I explained the situation to an agent. At this point, she said the best we could do was get the man a translator, since I had to leave pretty soon. She directed me to an information desk nearby and told me to ask for a man named Abdul Karim. This man was supposedly fluent in Dari and could help us out.

At the second information desk, I was given the run-around. First, the agent put me on the phone with “Abdul Karim.” The man spoke very little Dari, but was fluent in Pashto. I explained the situation and he asked me to put him back on the phone with his colleague. The colleague spoke to him briefly, hung up, and told us “Abdul Karim” would be over in 15 minutes. 15 minutes later he told us to follow him and he walked us to the Kam Air office even though we told him it was closed. Surprise, we get there and it’s closed.

He walked us back to the desk and I asked him what was happening. He responded “Just wait here 20 more minutes and Abdul Karim will be here.” 20 minutes later, I asked him to please call Abdul Karim and incredibly, this guy says “Oh. Abdul Karim has a meeting. He’s not coming.” I’m a very even-tempered person, but I just about exploded. I demanded he put me on the phone with Abdul Karim immediately.

This approach ended up working in my favor. However, when I picked up the phone and began rattling off in Pashto, the guy on the other line started speaking Arabic and when I switched to English, he responded in an aggravated tone, “I don’t understand what you’re saying – I did not speak with you this morning!” By now I was ready to tear this guy a new one. And yes, I used some profanity, but I was getting closer to my departure time and this poor guy was nowhere close to getting home.

The agent wasn’t shaken by my outburst and remained as passive and lazy as ever. His colleague took my side and said, “This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing” and started yelling at him about why he was giving me the run-around. Sensing this agent was much more competent, I explained that I spoke to an Afghan man on the phone this morning, whom his colleague had introduced as “Abdul Karim.” All I wanted was for him to get that same man on the phone so he could help us get this issue resolved.

“Oh, you mean the Pakistani guy?” I was confused. “The guy you spoke with this morning was Mobul.” He quickly got him on the phone and I explained that my flight was in less than an hour and could he please come over and either get him a translator or help him change his ticket? He promised he’d be over soon.

A minute later a short Arab man in traditional garb came barging over. He crossed his arms, rudely nodded his head upwards and asked me, “What do you want?” I don’t think I’ve ever met an authority figure who was as big of an ass as this guy (and yes, I’m including the immigration officials at Kabul Airport). I told him “I don’t want anything from you. Your employee over here put me on the phone with you and said you spoke Pashto and could translate for us.”

At this, he turned his attention to the agent and gave him an earful, right in front of me. “What is wrong with you? You know, I just spoke to your supervisor and he had this complaint about you that you just do things and don’t pay attention to protocol.” I might have ripped into him earlier, but now he was really getting an earful.

At that moment, a security officer walked over with an amused smile on his face. I assumed it was Mobul. I apologized for making him come all the way over here and explained that I really had to get going and couldn’t leave unless the situation was taken care of. He asked for the man’s itinerary, picked up the phone, and two minutes later told us the ticket had been changed to 1 AM.

He wrote down the confirmation number and said to tell the man to come back to the information desk and ask for him if he encountered any problems. The officer spoke a bit of Dari and was happy to help. In typical Afghan fashion, he offered to bring us tea. I thought this was hilarious, since we were at an airport and not someone’s home. I thanked him again for all his help and we parted ways.

The man was very grateful and told me, “I have four daughter back home and you are my fifth.” He wrote down his name and phone number and invited my family to visit his home in Lesse Maryam once we got to Kabul. There was an ATM machine nearby and I wanted to get him cash so he could buy himself a meal. The machine was broken and all I had was $20, so I gave him that. He refused to take it, but after insisting, he took it reluctantly, thanked me again and told me to make sure I tell my family to call him once we arrived in Kabul.

With under 30 minutes to go before my flight departure, I rushed to the check-in counter. I told the agent my mom and sister were also traveling with me. Before I could ask if she had seen them, she jumped in with, “Yes, they are already at the gate!” My mom had checked in earlier. She had described me as “skinny with green eyes” and asked the agent to let me know they were at the gate. I didn’t know what was funnier – that my mom had provided this description or that the agent had successfully identified me based on it.

I rushed past security as quickly as possible. My mom spotted me on the moving walkway and waved me down. She was worried since I was supposed to arrive before them. She even got an airport employee to make an announcement in an effort to get a hold of me. I explained the whole situation to her and we were both relieved that I’d made it back in time.

When we arrived in Kabul, my family made several attempts to call the man just to check on him. None of the calls went through. I was worried that because his itinerary number hadn’t changed and he only had a printout of his old one, he encountered trouble when he tried to check in for his 1 AM flight. Hopefully that wasn’t the case, but I still feel guilty thinking about it.

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  1. That man was so lucky you were there to help him. Hope the good karma comes back to reward you.

    When I lived in Shanghai, China, I was at a subway station and a foreign couple approached me and asked if I spoke English (I’m Asian-American, so at first they thought I was Chinese). I said I did, and they asked for directions to a market. I ended up accompanying them to the market. They were from Istanbul, Turkey, a place I’ve wanted to visit for years. To thank me, they bought me coffee at Starbucks. The man gave me his business card and said I was welcome to contact him when I visited Istanbul. “You must come!” he said.

    • PointChaser

      That was very nice of you to walk them to the market – definitely more than I’ve seen anyone do when tourists ask for directions. And that man was right. Istanbul is an absolute “must.” I think it’s always interesting to meet with locals and have them give you their take on the city.

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