“Water – with magic,” yells a man with a thick Arabic accent.
Tiny cups of water are arranged near an assortment of coloured potions with labels reading “black widow”, “dragon blood” and “skele-grow”.
Passers-by help themselves to the resulting concoction – which appears to be a glorified orange juice. I grab two plastic cups of water and gulp them down quickly. I’m parched and can feel the heat generated by the few hundred bodies crammed inside the Virgin Megastore at Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates.
Outside, a makeshift doorway has been created, with “Platform 9¾” scrawled over the entrance. Signs reading “No Muggles” are pasted on the storefront windows.
It is 2am and the store is open late for the much-anticipated launch of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The book features the script of the new two-part play of the same name, which had its official premiere in London's West End on Saturday. Tickets are sold out until May next year.
Co-written by J K Rowling, it is a brand new story, set 19 years after the conclusion of the final novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It features a grown-up Harry, struggling to balance his life as a father-of-three and an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic.
Kalindi Bhatia, 26, arrived at 1.45am sharp, and is the first in line at the cash register, even though sales will not start until 3am, to coincide with the midnight launch in London. She works in marketing, and will have be up again at 8am, but says she could not miss the opportunity to get her hands on the new book immediately.
“It’ll probably just take me two days to read,” she says.
The Harry Potter movie theme music plays in the background, though it is hard to hear above the buzz of the excited crowd. Some of the young girls have lightning-shaped scars like Harry's on their foreheads, created with make-up pencils, while several young boys are wearing the wizard's signature round eyeglasses.
A woman wears a lavender wig, probably in honour of Nymphadora Tonks, a witch who died while defending Hogwarts.
A Professor Snape lookalike, has the character’s distinctive nose and severe black hairstyle, along with a touch of kohl around the eyes.
Black picnic tables are set up at the entrance of the store to mimic the Hogwarts Great Hall, while gold and black balloons are scattered along the floor. There’s even one foil balloon in the shape of the Snitch – the winged ball used in the wizarding sport of Quiddich.
Children await their turn for face and body painting. Ali Ahmed, 8, has Hedwig the owl drawn on his forearm, while his sister, Maryum, 14, asks for an illustration of the snitch. They are on holiday, visiting from Pakistan and are up way past their bedtime.
“I probably won’t sleep until 6am – it’s the latest I’ve slept in a while,” says Maryum.
Older Potter fans enter the store and walk straight to the back, lining up at the cashier’s desk. They’re not here for face paint or flavoured jelly beans – they just can’t wait to get their hands on the book.
Dubai-based fashion designer Mahsa Kazemi, 28, explains that she pre-ordered it in advance.
“I’m an ’80s kid, I had to come,” she says. “The true Harry Potter fans are the ones who read the books, not those who just watched the movies.”
By 2.30am, staff have to set up additional ribbon barriers so that the queue can accommodate more people.
As customers enter the store, their faces fall when they see the length of the queue.
“I told you we should have pre-ordered,” one teenaged boy says to his friend. Two lines form in front of the cash registers – one for those who pre-ordered the book, and one for those who did not.
When the clock is about to strike three, a woman dressed in Hogwarts robes bellows the 10-second countdown, and the crowd counts with her.
Then, the cash registers are finally open, the large boxes are ripped open, and the fans are finally able to get their hands on a prized copy of the hardcover book. The lines move quickly, and by 3.20am, the party is wrapping up.
As Maryum and Ali pay for their copy of the book, Ali reaches over the counter elatedly and grabs it from the cashier, before posing for a picture while holding a life-size photo frame reading “Have you seen this wizard?” Beaming, he still clutches the book in one hand.
The first Harry Potter novel was published in 1997, and the last, in 2007, before Ali was born. But the huge turnout – including bookworms who have been fans since day one and youngsters who discovered the boy wizard through the films – is a welcome reminder that magic can touch us at any age.
• Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is now available at Virgin Megastores in the UAE