Suad Khatab Ali
Humanity is crooked even in the knowledge of its crookedness.
Obaid sat on the carpets and cushions of the majlis telling a story to his grandchildren. He was on the second
floor of a villa in Sarooj, Al Ain. It was a quiet neighborhood. While his mouth told the story, his mind was
remembering the old days, before oil, when a majlis would be outside in the open desert.
"Can we watch TV?" Saif asked, between handfuls of potato chips from a family-size bag.
"I'm bored." Suad planted her face on glum knuckles. After a few seconds, she grew tired of the pose, and reached for some Doritos from her own bag. "I don't like stories. TV, Baba? Please, please."
"It's the same, stories."
"No, it's not the same. Stories are boring. TV is fun."
"I will tell you a story and you will use your imagination to see all the people and what they're doing, okay? Just like TV."
"No it isn't."
Obaid hesitated. He wondered if the child, who had a disturbingly blank gaze, had an imagination. "When I was a boy, we lived in the desert. Halfway between Al Ain and Dubai. The Emirates was not a country yet, not rich, no big hotels filled with tourists. We had no electricity, no running water...."
A stern look from Obaid silenced Saif, but soon the grandfather would have no authority over the boy. He would be too old.
"The village had one car. We drank from a well. Camels and goats roamed freely...no one spoke English. We had Indian people, but they were merchants, not our servants. There were no Filipino housemaids." Obaid laughed. "No one had maids, cooks, cleaners, drivers.... Very simple and happy life."
Suad and Saif exchanged bemused glances. Grandfather was stupid, they understood.
"One day, my father called me to the majlis where he was smoking sheesha and drinking mint tea with the other men. He said to me...."
A creaking door called out to Suad; she ran off, shrieking. Saif got up and started walking toward his room, leaving a trail of chips behind.
A few minutes later, Obaid's daughter came up the stairs. She said something he couldn't hear above the electronic noise escaping from Saif's room.
"Your hearing's gotten bad."
"Hi, Sara." One of the TVs was screaming at him from the first floor. Sara's phone was making music. "How are you? Sit, sit."
She raced off, without a word of apology, to shout into her phone. Obaid was old enough to remember when people responded this quickly to call-to-prayer. A few minutes later, she returned. "Sorry. Had to take that."
Obaid looked at his daughter. Unlike her mother, she didn't cover her hair in public. This didn't bother him so much, though he was somewhat distracted by her thick make-up. Her eyebrows had been plucked thin with little swirls on the side, quotation marks around the pale dialogue of her eyes.
He nodded. Sara sat beside him, smiling.
"Meeting with my agent."
Obaid nodded again. She'd explained, several times in fact, what an agent was, but he still didn't understand. Sara wrote novels in English about the Emirates, but this seemed wrong. He'd told her many times that their story could only be told in Arabic, the language of the Qu'ran, and that they could only be told in person, not printed in books. When he said this, Sara would smile or look at him with pity. I don't live in the same country you did, father. That place doesn't exist anymore. She liked to say that she wrote books for bored European housewives who wanted to think they understood the Emirates. Stupid people, she would think but not say. They don't know a thing.
"What did this agent have to say?"
Sara laughed. "He's not a charlatan, father. He's very well-respected."
Obaid shrugged. "English?"
Obaid made an indecipherable grunt, which trailed off into a mumbled phrase she couldn't make out. When he was upset Obaid spoke in khaliji, the local dialect that Sara didn't understand. Obaid thought this was funny. She had a graduate degree but couldn't speak her own language; he was uneducated, yet he knew so much more.
"Anyway, Paul said the publisher wants to wait a few more months before bringing out my new book. The economy's still weak...there's a similar title that came out recently...a few other things."
"Oh no, it's not a problem." Sara smiled unconvincingly. "That's just the way it is." She smiled at her father and rubbed his shoulder, but he knew better. She was upset. Worried that her book wouldn't sell. Obaid knew that the last one hadn't done as well as everyone had expected. This Australian man wouldn't keep her around forever, not if she didn't bring in enough money.
"The economy..." Obaid smiled, drifting off to the past. The economy was responsible for all the changes here. He remembered growing up on a farm. Picking dates, tending camels, watering the palms. Long, hard work every day. Even on Fridays his father would make them work a few hours. Women, children, grandparents. Everyone worked hard. They were independent and strong. He thought of his last trip into town, several months ago. They'd gone to the new French grocery store to buy overpriced foreign goods that weren't very fresh. Had everyone gone mad? The way people drove their cars scared him. Not the westerners, but his own people. The westerners may come from countries that like to bully people, he thought, but they drive like old women going to market, so careful and slow. Not the Emiratis, though. They drove twice the speed limit and got right on your bumper, honking and flashing their lights. People were so impatient now, so angry. If you didn't get out of their way, they'd scream and curse, make rude hand gestures. Traffic accidents were the leading cause of death, and everyone knew it was their own fault. So what was their excuse? Oh, it's just God's will. Obaid knew better than this. You couldn't blame God for your own sins. It just didn't work that way. The reckless driving had persuaded Obaid to stay at home. And the insolent children running around the store bumping into people. The bright lights, the long lines.... But the worst thing was the man who made his tiny Indonesian nanny carry a new television all the way from the store to the parking lot. He didn't even help her with the car door. And another man had made an Indian stock boy carry his things even though he only had one bag with a bar of soap in it. Was he really that lazy? Obaid wondered. Or does he simply want to make the Indian do extra work because he has the power to do so? Sara is right, he sometimes admitted to himself. I live in a different country now. These are not my people.
"Where are you, father?"
"Hm? Oh, sorry." Obaid smiled.
"Dreaming about the past again?"
"No, not at all. I'm thinking about right now."
"What's for dinner?"
"I'm going out with some friends. New Italian place."
Obaid looked disappointed. "We haven't eaten together in...."
"I know, I know." She paused. "Sorry. You can come...?"
"As you like." Sara was relieved.
Since his wife had died three years ago, Obaid didn't get to eat the foods he grew up with. The maid was from Jakarta. She couldn't cook the local food, and she couldn't cook anything very well. Her value seemed to lie in the fact that she did work that Sara didn't want to do herself.
"You could eat with the kids?"
Obaid shook his head. They ate frozen meats and French fries in front of the TV. It was too depressing. Strange, he thought, to live in a big house with so many people and always be alone. He wondered if foreign people were having the same problem, if their countries were also becoming unrecognizable.
"Look, I've gotta get ready." Sara kissed him on the head. "We'll have dinner together tomorrow, all of us."
Sara went to her bedroom, followed be a ringing phone. Obaid remembered being in a shopping mall once and seeing four young Emiratis gathered around a table at Starbucks. They wore sunglasses even though it was dark inside and they weren't speaking to each other. Instead, they stared at half-eaten baked goods wrapped in cellophane, mumbling into expensive phones.
Family was supposed to be the most important thing. Emiratis were always telling themselves this, and telling others. That's why three generations lived in the same house. Of course, it had never been entirely true. When you have three wives who live in different cities and you only get to spend two days with each of them, and each wife hates the others, family is not greatly valued. Obaid wasn't blaming his people, though. He blamed himself.
Obaid remembered a gentle and hard-working people. He remembered pride in a job well done. When he looked around, though, all he saw was boredom and anger. His people weren't happy anymore, and they weren't even his people. They were raised by MTV and oil revenues, weekends in Dubai and posters of David Beckham. They walkedno, they floatedwith a regal air, but this was merely a facade. Beneath the surface, they were seething with rage. Obaid suspected this was because, somewhere inside, they knew that the money was killing them, that having servants do everything for you was no privilege. But he didn't blame them. Obaid blamed himself because, when he looked into the eyes of his bored and bloated grandchildren, he felt nothing, nothing at all.