Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World
“But there’s no bacon, Daniel. There’s no bacon.” Sarah grew frustrated, though she prided herself on never becoming frustrated.
“Sausage is fine.”
“But that’s just it, Daniel. There’s no sausage either. No bacon and no sausage, if you can believe that.”
“I can believe a great many things, Sarah.” Daniel set down the newspaper, gingerly, looking over his glasses at his wife. “Right now, I believe I’d like some breakfast.” He smiled himself into Nick Nolte.
Sarah raised her eyebrows, especially the left, and tightened her jaw. Daniel returned to the paper while Sarah continued to rummage through cupboards and drawers.
After thirty years, Daniel could measure his wife’s emotional temperature, to the degree, by something as vague as a fluttering eyebrow. He’d read somewhere that everyone raises one eyebrow just a bit more than the other. We’re either left- or right-browed, though he couldn’t remember what this was supposed to mean.
“There are no eggs in this house, Daniel. Do you hear this? I am now officially hunting for egg beaters. It’s nearly 7:00 and I haven’t seen as much as an English muffin.”
“In the army, we lived on evaporated food. Bring water to boil. Add contents of packet. Stir. All the meals said this.”
“We’re not in the army Daniel, and we’re not boiling our breakfast.”
“How ‘bout some coffee, dear?”
“Not on an empty stomach.”
“There’s cereal in the cupboard over the sink. With the crackers, peanut butter, macaroni and cheese. Boxed things.”
“Cereal is not a proper breakfast.” Sarah tied a tall kitchen garbage bag with a plastic fastener she’d brought from home, just in case. “Do something with this, dear.”
Daniel put down the newspaper with good-natured frustration and escorted the garbage through the back door, which opened into a common area shared by each of the villas. Wearing only pajamas and slippers, he felt underdressed. When they’d arrived last night, it was dark. He hadn’t noticed the other villas, which were huddled together like a small pack of wolves devouring a lesser mammal.
Daniel walked assertively toward a cluster of plastic bins. He couldn’t read the Arabic writing; it was all scimitars and bugaboo. He could make out the instructive icons, however, by positioning his glasses just so. He quickly realized that they were supposed to have separated the trash. With as much nuance as he could muster, he slipped the bag into a bin decorated with a flame eating away at three crossed logs.
Walking away, Daniel felt rather foolish. He hoped no one had witnessed his ecological indiscretion. His greatest fear was that something he’d done would reflect badly on his son. Mentally, he scrolled through the bag’s contents, at least those levels of trash with which he was familiar. No aerosol cans or plastics. This was a minor relief.
“What took you so long?” Sarah asked.
“Just admiring the desert. Beautiful sunrise.”
“Same one we get in Arizona over at my cousin Sheila’s.”
“Well, I imagine it’s more dramatic here.”
Sarah deployed a sound which, although seemingly obscure, was quite clear to her husband.
“Have you ever seen a kitchen like this, Daniel? Have you ever?”
“I suppose not.”
“No flour. There’s no flour, Daniel. There are five types of coffee, five, for some reason, and very expensive looking coffee. But no flour. The priorities…”
“Maybe they like coffee more than flour.”
Sarah wasn’t listening. “Can they even afford coffee like this? I don’t think they can, Daniel. I really don’t. I haven’t seen one coupon, Daniel, not one. Can you—? Well, I can’t.”
“How do you know they even use coupons over here? Maybe they don’t.”
Instead of answering, Sarah flattened her frilly, well pressed apron, making sure every line was perfect. Daniel, watching from an armchair, knew what this meant. Her insecurity had been awakened, like a cranky toddler from a nap.
“Do you think the child has coffee for breakfast?”
“Why don’t you ask her?”
“Very funny. I’m serious, Daniel. The child looks skinny. I don’t think they’re feeding it right.”
“Did you say something, Daniel?” Sarah was hidden behind the counter. Only the square knot of her apron sash could be seen jutting out from where Daniel sat in the living room. She appeared to be mucking about on the floor near the refrigerator. A natural multi-tasker, she was searching for food while also composing a brief for her son and his family. It wasn’t nagging. No, nothing like that. It was Sarah’s duty to coax them into a better, a more efficient and productive life.
“Her. You called Skye it. What are you doing, dear?”
“Getting rid of the water from the drip pan. It hasn’t been changed in ages. With a name like Skye, who knows if it’s a boy or a girl.”
“Keep your voice down, Sarah.”
“Well, they’ve given it, her, some hippy name and they dress her like a boy. Who ever heard of a three year old girl wearing black and gray and blue clothing? I never have. Back in Ohio— You know, Daniel, I’ve never seen her in that party dress we sent.”
“You’ve never met Skye in person, Sarah. You’ve only seen photos.”
“Exactly. Most people would conspicuously dress the child up in the gift clothing, snap a photo, and send it off to the party in question.”
Daniel couldn’t help but laugh, even after being awake for nearly three hours without coffee. Sarah was quite serious, though. “That would be the proper thing to do,” he said.
“No bacon, no eggs, no flour.” Sarah added, by way of counterpoint, the banging of pans and dishes to her verbal litany. Waking people up in such an obvious way didn’t embarrass her. She was the guest. It was their duty to be up first.
“No sausage, no tomato juice, no oatmeal.”
“How ‘bout a nice ham steak?” Daniel asked, certain there’d be no such thing.
“Sorry, Dan. No ham steak.” Judy, halfway down the stairs, was wearing their son’s high school track sweatpants and a black, bleach-holed, paint-splattered t-shirt that read Lynbrook Elementary, Home of the Leprechauns. She almost choked on her coffee when she saw her mother-in-law rooting around in the kitchen. It wasn’t the old-fashioned apron, which Sarah must have brought with her, or the noise, or the advancement of foreign troops across the borderline of her kitchen, so much as the Sunday dress, fake pearls and heels. Judy hadn’t owned a pair of good shoes in years.
“You know, Sarah, Sunday’s not technically the weekend here. It’s like Tuesday. You don’t have to dress up.”
Sarah frowned, but said nothing. “Where’d you get the coffee, Judy?”
“I made it upstairs. Hot plate. I don’t like to wait until I come all the way down here.”
“Good thinking,” Daniel tapped the side of his head.
“Aren’t they dangerous?” Sarah asked.
“Are we still talking about ham steaks?”
“No, Judy. Hot plates.”
“Oh, not that I know of. But ham clogs the arteries, leads to colon cancer, heart attacks. It’s hell on the pig, too.”
“You’re still a vegetarian?” Sarah asked.
Daniel gave Judy a raised fist as if she were a recovering substance-abuser who’d survived another week alcohol- and drug-free.
“That can’t be good for Skye.”
“We’re not connected anymore. Since the operation.”
Daniel laughed out loud.
“You let her eat meat?”
“She makes her own decisions. Lately, she’s not so much a carnivore.”
For a few minutes, everyone retired to his own corner. Daniel kept turning the Gulf News over and over, quickly and excitedly, as though there was something he couldn’t find. Judy wondered if he was looking for Columbus weather reports, Ohio State football scores, The Family Circus cartoon.
Judy brewed coffee while Sarah watched anxiously. The older woman was afraid of the sleek, black coffee-maker, of the dark and pungent grounds.
“You guys are up early.”
“We’ve been up four hours,” Sarah said.
“It’s nighttime back home.” Daniel was pleased with his observation.
“Considering you only landed about nine hours ago, that’s amazing. Must be really jet-lagged.”
“No. We just like to get up at a proper hour.”
“4:00 am’s a proper hour? For trout fishing, maybe.”
Daniel chuckled from the living room.
“What do you eat for breakfast around here?”
“I don’t eat breakfast, Sarah. Just coffee until noon. Maybe Fruity Pebbles for lunch.”
“She prefers Cap’n Crunch. Really, I don’t know. Stephen makes her breakfast or she gets it herself. Tripe, I think. Maybe tuna noodle casserole?”
“Very funny,” Sarah said, trying to bring the conversation under control, “but nutrition is serious. You need to be very, very careful about what your daughter eats.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“Do you have to smoke in the car?” Sarah asked.
“Judy. You really shouldn’t smoke in front of your daughter.”
“Don’t worry, Grandma. I’ve seen worse.”
Judy coughed. Stephen looked out the window. Sarah was aghast. “What?”
“She’s just having you on, dear,” Daniel said.
“What have you seen, Skye?”
“Violence, war, disaster.” Skye thoughtfully sucked her thumb, head tilted. She leaned toward her mother, who was sitting in the passenger seat, and whispered, hands cupping Judy’s ears, carefully checking so that no one overheard. “And adult language.”
“You shouldn’t stand up in the car, dear.”
“It’s okay, Grandma. There’re no local reg, reg’lations.”
“Don’t you have a car seat, Judy?”
“No. We’ve thought about wrapping her in Styrofoam until she’s thirty-two, but it wouldn’t be eco-friendly.”
“Safety’s nothing to joke about.”
Daniel, eager. “You could get one of those bubbles…?”
Judy turned to face Daniel, carelessly blowing the smoke in Stephen’s face. “Like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble?”
“That’s a great idea, Daniel.” Judy turned up the radio and bopped her head.
“What ever happened to that boy?”
“Yes?” Daniel leaned forward, hands gripping the headrest.
“That was John Travolta…? The famous actor? He made it big.”
“Good for him.” Daniel smiled, looking out the window at the desert moving by. Everything was in its proper place.
“Can you put that out, please?” Sarah was leaning into the front seat.
“One more puff.” Judy hastily inhaled three or four times in a concentrated, delicate-fingered way, as if smoking a joint. The pantomime wasn’t lost on Sarah, who was old but not that old. She read Cosmo and knew what a blow job was.
“Doesn’t the sun bother Skye?” Sarah didn’t ask Stephen specifically, but it’s clear to whom she’s directing the question.
“I was speaking to your father, dear.”
“She’s cool, Sarah.” Judy turned up the stereo. Beck was singing about the Devil’s Haircut, the Replacements about Red Wine.
“Sorry, what? I was trying to read the signs.”
“Don’t you have a sunshade for the car, for Skye?”
“Do we, honey?”
Judy didn’t answer. Instead, she ignited another cigarette. Sarah theatrically waved the not-yet-existent smoke away from her face. She wondered when her son had become so spineless. He’s completely dominated by this woman. What does he even see in her?
The drive to Dubai, Sharjah’s glitzier neighbor, seemed endless. Judy took another drag on her cigarette and flicked it expertly out the tiny slip of open window.
“I thought you were an environmentalist?” Sarah asked.
“I am. Just not a very good one.”
Daniel took his wife’s hands and caressed them.
A white, black-windowed Toyota Land Cruiser, the default vehicle for Emiratis, cut them off. It had approached from the center lane at 180 kph, crouched at their rear bumper for a half-second, then passed on the shoulder leaving inches to spare. Stephen weaved.
“Good show, Stephen.”
“Yeah! Bump, bump, bump. More, Daddy!”
“We’re not driving in the wadi now, Skye. We’re on the highway.” Judy rubbed her daughter’s belly and leaned back for a kiss.”
“Can we drive on the sand, Daddy? Bump, bump, bump. Please? Please?”
“Not with me in the car,” Sarah said.
“Can I come, Stephen?”
Judy held Daniel’s hand, reassuringly. Another black-windowed SUV nearly crushed them.
“What is wrong with these Arabs?”
“They’re not Arabs, necessarily. Emiratis come from a variety of ethnicities and national identities.”
“You sound like a guide book.”
“You sound like a Klan meeting,” Judy mumbled to herself.
The passengers were dead quiet now, stuck in traffic, bored with what had become daily trips from Sharjah, where Stephen taught at the American university, to Dubai, a more obvious tourist destination. At first, the cramped open-air souqs and camels grazing along the road had been astonishing. Now they just seemed filthy.
Dubai was the cultural and urban center of the UAE whereas Sharjah was more rustic and traditional. Judy wanted to poke around in the Blue Souq, help the in-laws buy a Persian rug, then eat at a greasy food stall or cafeteria, rubbing shoulders with sweaty workmen. The Iranian, Indian and Sri Lankan food was wonderful and cheap, but Sarah wanted Italian.
Before dinner, they made a side trip to the Dubai Museum, to check off “cultural site” from their list.
“The museum was wonderful, Judy. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Daniel.” She took his arm as they guided one another across the street. It had grown dark.
“You know, there’s a souq right here. Behind that mosque.” She pointed to a beautiful, massive, old building stained with soot. The group watched as Pakistani men kicked off their rubber sandals and entered. Outside, men washed their sandy feet from spigots stuck to the side of the mosque. You could see hundreds of people inside, balled up on the floor.
“Can we go in?” Daniel asked.
“No.” Sarah answered.
“Sorry, Daniel. Muslims only. Why don’t we walk through the linen souq, over there, and take an abraride across the khor?” Judy waited, but no one said a word. Maybe I should make the offer sound less ethnic, she thought. “A small wooden boat? Across the creek? Beautiful view of the city?”
“Our reservation is waiting.” Sarah was decisive, walking toward the car as if to persuade by virtue of inertia.
“We can cancel.”
Sarah stopped. The group was now leaning toward an Authentic Middle Eastern Adventure.
“We don’t have to ride the abra. But we can walk along the creek. There’s some great Lebanese places down there.”
“Fodor’s is pretty clear about that type of—”
“—Fuck the guidebook!”
They froze. Trying to win them back, Judy nudged Daniel, “Smoke some sheesha?”
“A water pipe, like a Turkish hookah. Strictly legal.”
“Oh, yes. That sounds fun.”
“Come, Daniel.” Sarah took her husband by the arm.
Back in the car, finding their way through narrow alleys along the creek that would hopefully lead to the main road, Sarah and Daniel tried to take it all in.
“It sure is different than Ohio,” Daniel said. He was proud of Stephen and his family, pioneers in an exotic place. He saw men eating food deep-fried by the side of the road, others asleep in a vegetable cart. He felt a surprisingly strong urge to jump out of the car and lie down beside them. In a moment, the urge passed.
“Yes,” Sarah replied, derisively. The dark men from poor countries frightened her. Crowded together in food stalls, riding old bicycles, looking down from squalid balconies, holding hands on the street corner, whispering in alleyways. She closed her eyes.
“Do you ever plan to come home, Stephen?”
“To Ohio? I doubt it.” He swung the car onto Trade Center Road.
“You’re from Pennsylvania, Judy, right?”
“Well, Ohio would be perfect. You could see both families.”
“Yeah,” Judy said. “That’d be great.”
“You don’t—” Sarah hesitated. “—get along with your family?”
“As long as I live here I do.”
“Well, you can do your art just as well in Ohio, or even Pittsburgh, I imagine? Isn’t that right? Your sculptures.”
“Sure, I guess. But the thing is, we want to be here.”
“I can’t imagine why. I can’t see why you two don’t want to live in the US. Who wouldn’t want to live in America? Right, Daniel?”
Her husband made an ambiguous sound.
“We haven’t seen you in years, Stephen. Years.”
“Just eighteen months, Mom.”
“Well, still. We miss you. We do.” Sarah punctuated this string of staccato phrases with an awkward hand on her son’s shoulder. He flinched somewhat, then relaxed. The hand was withdrawn.
“What about Skye? She’ll be starting school soon.”
Stephen and Judy exchange brief glances.
“Yeah, next year. There’s a few international schools here, which is what we really want. We haven’t decided yet.” Judy paused. “But I might home-school.”
“Home-school? I didn’t know you had your teaching certificate?”
Judy was quiet.
“She’ll learn to sculpt, I imagine.” Sarah crossed her arms, momentarily pleased with herself.
“Reservation for five. Neumann.” Judy smiled thinly at the hostess.
“You used your maiden name?”
“I kept my maiden name.”
“Right this way. Mum, sir.”
They were seated in a dark corner of Il Rustico, the Italian restaurant at Rydges, an unremarkable four-star hotel.
“You should get that dark tint on your windows like those cars passing us on the highway. We have tinting on the Taurus back home.” Daniel looked over the wine list, lost in the alchemy of currency conversion. “Medium tint.” He smiled broadly at everyone, in turn. “I took it to Firestone.”
“Only locals can get tinted windows, Dad.”
“Is that right, Stephen? That doesn’t seem fair. You should do something about that. Can you talk to someone, a…representative?” Sarah spoke from behind her menu.
“The UAE’s a hereditary monarchy. No political discourse, no official discussion of social issues, no televised proceedings, no representation. Emiratis do what they want. The rest of us are just workers. Hallas.” Judy hoped to subdue her mother-in-law with a sprinkling of Arabic.
“But you make a good wage, right son?” his father asked.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t matter. Outsiders don’t count.”
“I still think it’s unfair,” Sarah pleaded, while asking the waitress for more bread with a wave of the empty basket. “How much do you make, Stephen?”
“Mom, we’re not discussing this.”
Judy rolled her eyes and swished the bourbon-soaked ice cubes at the bottom of her whiskey glass.
“I bet it’s a lot, though, huh boy?” Daniel winked at his son, who smiled back weakly.
“Would Mum care for some coffee, tea, dessert?” The waitress hovered behind Sarah, looking despondent.
“Tea. Thank you.”
“Tea, Mum. And?”
“And?” she repeated.
“No thank you.”
The waitress made her way around the cramped table, taking orders, smiling with great effort. Sarah wondered what she was thinking behind that small, closed mouth and why she wasn’t writing the orders down. If she gets anything wrong… Daniel, giddy with the foreignness of everything, was amazed by her wonderful English.
“Is she Chinese?” Daniel asked conspiratorially, leaning over to Judy, gripping her arm, after the waitress taxied off.
“She’s a Filipina, Daniel. Lot of them work as clerks, waitresses, whatever.”
“Why are there so many foreigners here?”
“Because the locals can afford them.”
“You know,” Daniel began, clearly still working out the theory in his head, “I hardly see any Arabs.”
“Or hear anyone speaking Arabic?” Judy finished the thought.
Daniel whipped off his glasses. “By god, that’s right. Why is that?”
“We’re interacting with waitresses and shoe salesmen and merchants. The locals are filthy rich from oil. They hire other people to work.”
“You hear Hindi, Swahili, Malayalam, Bengali, Urdu, Tagalog. You don’t need Arabic.”
“Fodor’s recommends a basic Arabic course,” Sarah offered, afraid of being outside the discussion for too long.
Slightly drunk, Judy toyed with her. “Fff-forget the guidebook, Sarah.”
“Biscuit, Mum?” the waitress asked, setting the coffee down.
“Why on earth…?”
Stephen cut her off. “Cookies, Mom.”
“Oh. Thank you, Dear.” She nodded to the waitress in an ambiguous manner, uneasily wandering from her comfort zone.
“Why do they say biscuit, Stephen?”
“The British ran the area first. Before the UAE became a country in ’71.”
“Well, not first. First, the people ran themselves. Then, they were subject to occupation, social and economic imperialism…”
Eyebrows hovered, coffee spoons meticulously rang. “That’s awful, Judy.” Daniel patted her hand.
In the parking lot after dinner, they enjoyed the fresh air. There was a sidewalk café a half-block from the hotel, next to a roundabout. The area seemed comfortable and not aggressively exotic or third-world. Sarah agreed to have another cup of tea, al fresco, which was the Ohio equivalent of an orgy.
They sat down on flimsy aluminum chairs. No one spoke. Next door, at a Lebanese restaurant, three waiters huddled by an unidentifiable piece of meat, slowly twisting on a silver pole. They were dark, thin and craggy, wearing black pants, white shirts, black bow ties. They had mustaches and slicked-back hair, characters from the distant past. Sarah waited impatiently for her own waiter, but said nothing. She was trying to be a good sport.
Eventually, the drinks came.
“What a wonderful night. Not too hot.” Daniel leaned back in his chair.
“It’s actually a bit cold now,” Sarah said. There was something she wanted to add, but didn’t. She bit her lip for the moment.
Judy sighed, smiling. She was someplace else. Stephen checked his watch.
Sarah had waited long enough. She couldn’t take it anymore. “Should she be wearing a sweater, Stephen? It’s chilly out.”
“She’s fine, Mom. Don’t worry so much, okay? You’re on vacation.”
“I have to worry, Stephen. That’s what a mother does.” Sarah rubbed her hands, as if applying moisturizer.
Skye was climbing in and out of her chair, nearly upsetting the table each time. The cups and saucers rattled. Sarah wished her son would so something. He didn’t seem to understand the first thing about parenting. There was an article from Redbook that she would cut out for him. She gripped the teacup close to her chest, asking the waitress, with a nod, for more biscuits.
The table was quiet. It was the nearest thing to peace they’ve known all day. Judy couldn’t imagine how she’d manage for three more weeks. She thought about a late night joint, lying in bed with headphones.
The adults watched Skye because there was nothing better to do. She was kicking small rocks into the street, singing a made-up song about palm trees and birds. Judy lit a cigarette and Stephen repeatedly, obsessively, stirred his black coffee.
Looking up, Sarah choked on her coffee, coughing it out onto her lavender dress, and upset the table. She could see Skye darting toward the hotel where a truck was swiftly backing out from an unseen driveway. She screamed, standing up.
Stephen jumped out of the seat as the child shrieked and moved three steps closer, oblivious.
Judy, half-asleep in the darkness, turned away from the others with her feet extended and crossed in front of her, a partial obstruction to pedestrians. She was half-drunk on bourbon, lost in thought, dreaming of another kind of life. She took a long drag and stubbed out her cigarette six or seven times in the hulking plastic ashtray. From the corner of her eye, she noticed her mother-in-law standing, beginning to scream.
Daniel remembered the rain, the tiny box, months of grieving. He hadn’t thought about his first child, not for years. Sarah wouldn’t allow the subject to be discussed.
“Skye!” His roar was startling. The girl looked around, smiled and waved. She was surprised at how energetic her grandpa had suddenly become, and she was still drawn toward the oncoming tires.