I was 10 years old when my dad built me a school bag. I say built because he made it from robust aluminium, pop-riveted into sections that, fully assembled, formed a box. As a final touch, he glued a green canvas skin over the metal. The contraption would have looked good strapped to the broad back of a Marine but, on me, it only added to the torment of being the child of a dedicated cheapskate who believed that the best way to keep your pennies in your wallet was to do it yourself.
Dad was terribly pleased with his effort, cobbled together with bits and pieces he had scrounged from his job at a government hospital workshop. "Perks," he would say, as he dumped bits of tin, stray nails and the occasional power tool on to the kitchen table. To Dad's eternal sorrow, I flatly refused to use The Box once I graduated to high school. By then it was battered and dented, and bits of aluminium showed through worn patches of canvas. So Dad had to spring for a real bag, made in a factory using machines, synthetic materials and sweat labour.
This example, and many, many more of Dad's efforts to save a buck at the expense of my dignity, drummed into me the idea that if there's a job that needs doing, I should do it myself. Even if the end result is a violation of all rules of aesthetics and I looked like such a dork that I ended up at my high school farewell dance with my sister. But, as a result of his training, I have spent years doing my own household repairs, wherever possible. And, although my wife will vigorously disagree, I think I have become rather good at it.
Since moving to Abu Dhabi, however, I've found myself tested to the extreme. In a city that is one vast construction site, DIY seems superfluous. There are more tradesmen, builders and engineers here than you can shake a stick at. Not to mention people who call themselves handymen. And yet, round up a random sample of those pasty-faced men wandering in flip flops and unflattering board shorts through Marina Mall on a Saturday, hand them a few bits of wood, and they could cobble together a space shuttle by lunchtime.
(Yes, I did say men. Because, for all the advances in gender equality, carrying the Y-chromosome has its burdens: when it comes down to it, we are still expected to squash spiders with bare feet and assemble an Ikea wall unit without reading the instructions.) My first local handyman experience came soon after moving into my apartment, in a building that, like so many others here, was about 15 minutes old. It smelled of fresh paint and labourers' lunch. And pretty much nothing worked as it should.
There were no curtain rails. In the kitchen, the space where the refrigerator would go was shaped to accommodate a pot plant. The air conditioner unit clanked and rumbled, and for some reason, would pipe the hard rock music the young English guy two floors below was so fond of, directly to my bedroom. This was a challenge. Usually, I would open my toolboxes, rummage through them for a while, then have a nap in the hope the problem would go away. But here, I had no toolbox. No tools. Not a stray Phillips-head or even a set of decent nail clippers. And with the building next door having a clear view into my bedroom, dozing was a communal experience. I desperately needed fabric between me and the outside world.
So I called a local curtain guy, a man named Abdul, whose business card I had found wedged in my door. I rang him up and he came to quote on draping my windows. It was a short conversation. Abdul was personable, efficient, armed with a 10-metre measuring tape, and wanted Dh1,750 to give my boudoir the privacy it deserved. Ushering him out I calculated how much newsprint I would need, taped four layers deep, to shield me from prying neighbours. But even as Abdul's protesting bleats vanished behind the closing door, I realised that I was not in Kansas any more - that I would have to get proper curtains.
Back home in South Africa this would not have been a problem, as I have a collection of electric impact and cordless drills, and drill bits forged from the finest Yankee steel, screwdrivers, measuring tape, hammers and everything else for the job. All I needed was a set of wall plugs. Only I had none of these. The Abu Dhabi branch of Ace Hardware in Al Mina has a good selection of hand tools, carrying brand names like Ryobi, Black & Decker and Bosch. I walked the aisles and fondled the gadgets, but could not help thinking that, for a one-off job, handing over Dh500 or more did not make a lot of sense.
I tried borrowing but I work in an industry of New Age Guys who believe that self-sufficiency means carrying your own tube of lip balm. I was offered a rotary hand drill, one of those things Ikea likes to foist on unsuspecting clients who mistakenly believe they can follow the instructions and assemble their purchases themselves. In despair, I considered renting from one of the tiny carpentry shops that sprinkle my neighbourhood, but even this drew a blank. A Pakistani tradesman, who looked as if he knew the value of a dirham, made a suggestion: "Go to Carrefour. Only Dh30 for drill."
And, by golly, he was right. There, in the hardware aisle, was an electric impact drill for 30 bucks. Now, I normally avoid chain-store and supermarket hardware, which is usually of poor quality. But I was so pleased that I grabbed the drill - a Sata, made in India - a set of bits, some 5mm Phillips-head screws and wall plugs. Curtains and rails I secured from - of course - Ikea. I believe the world is a better place thanks to a dour Scandinavian who has combined thrift with style and quality. Dad would have liked him.
I wrestled my purchases onto the bus and headed home. I had already taken the measurements with a Dh5 tape, bought at my local grocery. Its interpretation of centimetres was cavalier, even to the naked eye, but it met the sacred principle of "That Looks About Right", the DIY mantra. I needed approximation, not precision. The window was an impressive three-metre drop, by 1.5 metres wide. An immediate challenge was not having a ladder.
This I solved by balancing a chair on a small table. If I held the drill above my head I could just reach the top of the window frame. Outside the Cirque du Soleil this is not recommended but, luckily, this country is wonderfully free of health and safety bureaucrats. Still, it was especially precarious as I was forced to lean towards the window. All that stood between me and the inventory of Cruise Car Hire five floors below, was a pane of glass.
I climbed my tower and set to work. Luckily the wall was soft - worryingly so. The drill bit churned through the plaster mix and underlying breezeblock so fast I wondered if it would go right through to the other side. I would not like to be living in this structure for the long term; I give it one extraordinary act of nature and it will vanish in a heap of dust. The Sata soon started emitting colourful sparks from the side air vent. It occurred to me that, for the sake of saving a few dirhams, I risked becoming part of the Abu Dhabi Distrubution Company's power grid, and frying myself to oblivion.
The Sata also had difficulty in keeping the bit centred; it churned in an elliptical orbit, which would have been great for stirring a cake mix but not so good when I needed a perfectly round eight-millimetre hole. It soon became a 12mm-wide mess. The wall plugs fitted in loosely and jiggled around, which meant they were all but useless. I said a few words that roughly correspond with "oh dear", cautiously climbed off my tower and put down the now-smoking Sata. The smell of burnt plastic and dust tainted the air.
Time to get serious, I thought, and went in search of a solution. I found it at tiny hardware store just up from my apartment. It was filled with stuff - electric sanders, wrenches, spanners, cordless screwdrivers, and much more. A sort of grocery with gadgets. What I wanted was concrete. Good old-fashioned rock-gripping, Roman road concrete. That would fix the hole. Instead, I left with a bag of wall filler, as the sensible man behind the counter recommended. The final result, while not pretty, was functional. The plaster filler set firmly around the wall plugs. Once it had set I clambered for one last time up my tower and screwed the curtain brackets into place. The building may well fall down soon, but those curtain brackets will stay in place until Armageddon.
In the end my curtains cost Dh300, including the now-dead Sata drill, curtain rail and bracket, and other sundries. Dad would be so proud.