A journey inside the melodically challenged world of Dubai's would-be karaoke stars. From nine to five they work in offices in tall towers. They wear ironed shirts and belts that match their shoes. They answer telephone calls professionally and arrive five minutes early for meetings. You couldn't pick them out in a crowd. But at night, their office clothes disappear, replaced with ill-fitting jeans, plaid shirts and sometimes, costumes. On Friday nights, they travel in packs to places such as Rock Bottom in the Dubai Regent Palace Hotel, where the lights are low and the music is loud.
They are Dubai's karaoke diehards and they are here to rock. The DJ sitting on the stage announces the next performer, Pete, who will sing Aerosmith's I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing. Everyone here knows this red-faced, slender man, and everyone is heckling him: "Oh here we go!" someone yells. "I'm going to kill it," Pete says back to the crowd. But in the middle of his performance, the DJ stops the music to let him know he will not receive a prize for tonight's efforts: the DJ told Pete not to try to hit the high notes and he did anyway.
Laughs erupt, but Pete is unfazed. He closes his eyes and continues to belt it out. People in the audience sing along loudly, laughing and hugging each other. When the song finally ends, the crowd claps and screams and rushes to the stage. A stalky man called Haitham has appointed himself my guide to the night, to make sure I know what's really going on here. Haitham is 41 and works at a computer company during the day. He has been singing since he was 13, he tells me, and for him karaoke is just practice for the vocals he does with his band.
"I sing hard rock. You know, like Queen," he tells me. "I'm not serious at work. All I do there is gain weight. But when I'm on stage, that's when I come alive. I have charisma. I don't belong to anybody. I'll tell you when I'm about to sing. You can move up to the front so you can see me." But before Haitham is up, we have Ash, who wears army shorts, a white tank top, flip-flops and a cowboy hat stolen from one of the waitresses. Ash sings a Robbie Williams song, dangerously off key. Mid-performance the security guard walks past the stage and glances over at Ash, who gives the man a dirty look. "I hate you, too," he says, laughs, and continues the song. "This guy's an idiot," Haitham tells me.
Finally the DJ announces that Haitham is up, performing U2's One. He climbs up on stage, grabs the microphone and pulls it right up to his mouth. He sings on key, and the crowd loves it, half of them singing along at the top of their lungs into air-mikes. When his five minutes is up, Haitham leaves the stage to vigorous applause, sits back down and gives me the lowdown on the next singer. "This guy is good but he's sleazy," Haitham explains, leaning in close so no one hears him. "He wants to be young again."
A bulldog of a man wearing tight leather zebra-print pants and a matching waistcoat - open, exposing a tanned barrel chest - may have been the highlight of the evening (competition was fierce). Upon realising I was writing about the event, he refused to answer any questions and instead repeatedly mumbled the same sentence featuring the words "sue you". "I'd leave him alone," a passer-by advised. "We all know each other here and, uh… I wouldn't say he's the nicest."
Next up was a middle-aged man doing Brown Eyed Girl with an undeniable Essex accent. People danced, laughed, sang along; no one seemed to care or even notice that the singer couldn't sing. Next week, they'll do it all again. * Jessica Hume