Monday, March 1, 2010

THE BOOK: chapter 1


(qu'ran reference still to be inserted)

Our story began with a jail, and ended with the threat of one. I am being melodramatic of course. Red mountains in the morning, generosity beyond means of reciprocity, corruption, banishment, imprisonment, and the same old Arabic love song playing in the background. There is always the call to prayer when I think of Oman, scented like frankincense and coloured like aging silver, and I hear it in my dreams, foreign words haunting, chiding, and echoing the desires of any soul that longs for rest and peace, a warning and a mercy for those that would heed the call. This is Oman as I have known her.

She is probably a different country to you, since you are her child. She treats her children differently, like any Gulf National country. You, as her child, have more opportunities and privileges than I, her guest, maintain. But I have had more freedoms, since I may choose to leave her and anything about her I do not like, and the same of my own native soil. You must follow her customs, while I just must not talk too loudly about what she, as the hostess, sweeps obviously under the rug while I am in her home.

It is a beautiful home, a beautiful white villa I remember, and little children, kissing my hand. A good man who passed from boyhood to manhood without me seeing the slip waits at her border, torn between what is right (which is what he wants) and what is available. I am torn in three directions, and I always have to leave Oman early. Otherwise, I would in desperation become her maid, in order to stay. Do not think for a moment I wouldn't. I love Oman, I love her children, but a guest cannot stay forever.

But back to the jail. You have to be wondering about that? What kind of woman am I, to always be winding up carried away by the police? I promise my circumstances have very little to do with my character, but you can judge for yourself.

Two randomly Muslim women had sat reading a Vampire/Demon versus Angel novel on the marble stoop of a middle-of-nowhere Omani police station outpost while feeding a wiry bin cat stale nachos. One of them dyslexic (that would have to be my sultry and soulful friend Audrey) and one of them obnoxiously high on caffeine energy drinks (that would have to have been a stubbornly idealistic me), they continued to read aloud together out of having nothing else very much to do. Completely ignoring the Omani police officers in various array of uniform that occasionally loitered in a confused manner around the parked jeeps before the girls in order to listen to these seemingly Arab-arrayed women speak perfectly enunciated American-English (bad grammar et al), the girls (us of course) had paused to assess our travels thus far.

"Well, you can't say you've ever truly seen a country until you've seen its hospitals and jails," I ascribed my travel philosophy to our previous adventures.

My friend Audrey laughed and then put her face in her hands, and then peered up out at me through her fingers, and shook her head. "All I wanted to do on this trip was see one big Mosque."

"And now you would settle for a decent toilet?"

I had to give up on reading. The pages' letters were spinning in my head, melting together into one big blur. I shoved the book off the Audrey who shakily took on where I left off, with us still hating the character Simon, and changing his name (whenever we could remember to) to something less than polite. Eventually I had to use the bathroom too. Three cans of Red Bull can do that to you.

"We'll find the bathroom without Khalil," I insisted optimistically. "Khalil," I corrected myself. The first syllable of his name was foreign to my throat, and took a couple of tries. Stress and lack of sleep actually make me more of a go-getter. The irony is, the rest of the time I am far too lazy. And Audrey, who is usually more of the planner, was nigh dead almost from a case of food-poisoning she had suffered shortly before the almost-surprise arrival of Khalil [Khalil] in Abu Dhabi to brisk us off to "safe-and-sound" relaxed Oman. Or she might have been drugged. We'll never know for sure.

But since the sun had come up, and we'd arrived at this place, we hadn't seen Khalil, who we'd originally assumed might've been changing into his work uniform. We had since given up on that possibility, as neither have of us had ever known a man to take over forty-five minutes to change. Not even an Arab one who owns twenty bottles of cologne and over one hundred pairs of shoes.

And Khalil wasn't that kind of Arab.

I know, because I have experience with both kinds. Not nearly enough to have stopped what was about to happen to us, mind you, but enough to know we were women being kept in the dark by an Arab guy. This in my experience, was typical.

"Come on," my caffienated limbs shook as I jumped up, swinging my arms with a hyper edge to my demands. "I get to practice my Arabic."

Audrey lumbered on in beside me as I skipped up to the desk, black skirts and the panels of my abaya dancing with me.

"Aslaam alaykom," I greeted the Omani officer at the desk, overriding his reply of "wa alaykom e salaam" with the rest of my sentence. "Afwan, wain hammam?" Which, is actually a horrible sentence, in case you hadn't guessed, a form of Arabic garnered from reading Arabic for Dummies, and listening to an Emirati two year-old tantrum-ing.

Afwan, my reading informs me, can be used in place of 'excuse me' but it also means 'you are welcome'. This might be true. It remains unconfirmed. 'Wain' was screamed by the two-year old when he wanted his mama. 'Wain mama!!!!' So I take it, it means 'where' in HORRIBLE Arabic. And 'hammam' is 'bathroom', which I remember from a free Arabic class we were given by Egyptian ladies from a Canadian Mosque.

The police men (plural) answered us in words we did not have any comprehension of, but good old fashioned pointing, lead us to a hallway where there were signs of a bathroom. It consisted of a locking door, and two toilets, neither equipped with toilet paper. Both had water sprays for rinsing off urine (an Islamic practice) but one of the sprays was missing a nozzle so it was more like a running hose (that was too short). I lucked out with the nozzle one. Audrey sort of shreaked at her awesome fortunes of the day.

There was no soap at the sink, and there was a hole in the floor where we could watch fun things pass us by. Open plumbing concept: fail.

Yes, every travel diary must detail toilets. You don't like it, try and write your own adventure story without making even a single mention, I dare you.

We returned to our marble stoop to be asked questions about where we were from in Arabic. We could only respond, "Shway Arabi. Englezi. From Canada. Canadian."

'Shway' is an Arabic word that means 'a little' that I learned from a Morrocan pop song. Little Arabic. English. We just smiled wide smiles and hoped they get it. Very confusing to them were these two white ladies swathed in black Arab robes, wearing crystal-and-lace-trimmed headscarves, who spoke absolutely no form of conversational Arabic. Were we Muslim they wondered?

We pulled out our copy of Arabic for Dummies from Khalil's cousin's 4x4. I stuck with that for about four minutes until I remembered I didn't have the attention span for reading anymore, and I returned it to its stow in the pop-open trunk. Audrey dug out a pack of playing cards.

Khalil returned.

"Where have you been?" he asks us. As if he had been looking for us, which I kinda figure hadn't been the case. We had gotten out of the 4x4 to take pictures of a Mosque across the way through a barbed wire fence over an hour ago, and this pink flowery thing that was the only green thing (even though it was pink) growing out of the red sand. And when I'd gotten close to that I realized it had been planted, and had lost all enthusiasm for the endeavor. I've always wanted to see a desert rose, and never have.

He didn't actually sound worried, Khalil, like he couldn't have been wondering for that long, or that he knew, the first person he asked there would have been able to point out our whereabouts. It wasn't as if he weren't aware that we were all being more than a little 'watched' and that there was nowhere but miles of desert for us to go forth out into.

He might have been worried about that with me. Khalil had enough knowledge of 'us crazy Canadians' to assume I'd ponder an attempt to cross a spit of sand strung out on Red Bull. But he knew Audrey wouldn't have made it beyond the asphalt. He gave me a weary look of requiring no actual answer.

"We found the bathroom. Using Arabic, a whole complete sentence of Arabic!" I informed him proudly. I was still elated by this belated accomplishment.

Khalil took the time to offer me a genuine smile. He had also been using very long complete sentences in English. Three years ago, his English was still better than my Arabic (and I could only say 'thank-you' then) and three years ago I had struggled to get the full meaning out of everything he had said, when he had given me a quick ride back up to my step-father's house during his patrol one hot afternoon.

"So what are we doing here?"

Khalil grinned sheepishly. "Do you want to meet Mohammed?"

Audrey and I turned to face one another and mouth perfectly in-sync with the other, "Mohammed?"

Flashback to our room in Emirates. We are sitting by a gift cellphone waiting for Mohammed to ring us. Khalil is nowhere in the picture, except that Khalil is Mohammed's cousin, and he was the one who had arranged for Mohammed to be our driver. It is five O'clock, the time this Mohammed fellow was supposed to have been in Abu Dhabi. A bag of Mumtaz brand rice hangs on the wall. I had taken down the bag of khubz (Arabic flat bread) that had hung on the wall opposing already. Three short days ago we had gone from living in a suite with a maid to living in a shared apartment, with at least sixteen other people and only one bathroom, having to hang our groceries on the wall to route the brown beetle/maybe-cockroach infestation. And we had thought it was paradise.

Our suitcases (we had not packed light, I came with a ball gown and my own linens) had lined the area before the door, and it was with great sadness, and some finality that I took the bag of Mumta zdown, placing it in a brown paper bag with other grocery items. Our American-friend of less than a week, here in the Gulf on a fellowship to study Arab women poets, said she would wait with us a little bit longer, since of course, Arabs are always late.

Mohammed had texted me then to say that there was a problem at the border. We assumed traffic, since traffic in Emirates could be bad.

Audrey remarked that the place just wasn't the same without the Mumtaz (which was a long standing joke between us three girls, this having once been our American friend's room).

For this tale, we shall call our American friend by her alias, Pippin. Audrey was Merry, and I was Samwise. Our other friend who was not then with us in the shared apartment, Frodo. Having come here on a fellowship to study poetry, a joke had begun with Frodo, since we were all all big Lord of the Rings buffs, that we were on a fellowship too. A Fellowship of the Ring. It began as a fellowship based on a like-language and common culture but had became a more haunting metaphor. Which I don't want to detail here, or I'll be repeating it three times in my story. But that is how our American friend ended up with a Hobbit's name.

Pippin agreed with Merry/Audrey about the lonliness of the room without the Mumtaz, so I decided to hang something else on that hook. A pair of pink panties that had belonged to Pippin. Just to make the girls giggle. Soberly I reminded Pippin to please take them down before giving the keys back to the Muslim landlord and his wife.

What an impression that would make, those knickers hanging there.

Audrey was starving, and her being hypoglycemic, we decided to run out for a bite then, Pippin wanting to pay for everything since she now wasn't paying rent of any kind. I wasn't really hungry but it was getting later and later, so I got a piece of fruit and an energy drink (one with more caffeine in it than a Red Bull).

Audrey ate a full meal at this Indian burger joint. I didn't want Pippin to cover me anything else, since she'd already in a way, provided a cellphone, friendship, new work contacts, and provided her safe-haven-of-an-already-paid-for-room when we'd had nowhere to live. So I stuck with my mere drink.

It was the mercy of Allah, to be sure, for her to be kind, and me to be stubborn.

The men at the burger joint Merry/Audrey had visited kept asking her where she lived and insisting on delivering her food. We declined at the last moment.

After feeding us, Pippin bid us adieu, with plans to meet each other again in a few short weeks, on Halloween, with candy, and cat's whiskers painted onto her cheeks. She had to be home before the maids went to bed.

At eleven O'clock I gave Mohammed another call, and when he didn't answer I phoned my Mum. Who I've always been on-and-off with a bit. Because she's one of those people who can be on-and-off. She'd arranged for Khalil to arrange for his cousin. I hadn't kept in touch with Khalil since I had lived in my father's house, and I had had my own apartment for three years back in my city. Khalil had phoned me three times that I had ever been awake for when I lived with my Dad, and I had only ever phoned him once, since I had moved out. I had never even thought of him being the one to help me in this instance. That was all my mother.

She informed us on the phone with a smirk in her voice that the reason that Mohammed was late, was that the plan was all along for Khalil to come and get me.

My heart skipped a beat, and I was just listening with ringing ears, the same sentence repeated over and over. Khalil is coming. Like I was some idiot girl, because this has never been me. Uh-oh, is my other response.

The reason that Mohammed had been late was that he was waiting for Khalil get off work so that as soon as he did we could come along.

So Khalil was coming. Khalil who had my pictures, and Khalil whose pictures I had. Khalil whose pictures I looked at when I was sad, because his smile made me happy.

I was supposed to act surprised she said. Well I was surprised.

I got off the phone. "Khalil is coming," I repeated to Audrey helplessly. "Khalil is coming," I whined.

Since she had never seen me a nervous wreck she took utter delight in it. Oh how emotional instability grows old on one.

I had already told Audrey all about Khalil when I had known him, when my Mom had told us it was indeed Khalil who had arranged for our ride. She had to know, since Audrey also knew my husband.

I stalked/circled the room madly, trying to come up with a plan, some way to describe this to my Saudi husband. I beat my head against the wall and whined "anyone but Khalil!" Then corrected myself. "Khalil."

I myself never look at men, and don't speak to them, out of religious convictions (not because I think I am less than them in anyway or find them "scary"). But a friend from my past? Now this is something different you see.

Audrey of course, thought my temporary caffeine-induced breakdown was hilarious, so she decided to film it. I am hardly a boy-crazy girl, and my husband is hardly the most jealous Arab man who ever lived (else why would I be travelling by myself?), but this situation was a difficult one for more than what was then readily apparent.

By then I had determined my only solution was to pray, but my face was very hot, so I tried to get my abaya on but it had been turned inside out. I struggled for some odd minutes while Audrey focussed her little camera phone on me mercilessly, until I gave up and told her, "fix my abaya!" handing it off to her to unravel. When she had fixed it, I shrugged it on, and said, "I am going to pray."

I left the room and in the bathroom splashed cold water on my face, peering at myself in the mirror. Then I washed myself how a Muslim is supposed to wash before they pray, face three times, arms three times, and feet three times. And I prayed.

I returned to the room to find a feverish Audrey. "I'm going to lie down," she said. "I don't feel very good." So she laid down in the sheer silver film of sari-like sheet blanket of the bed, and I turned up the air-conditioning with a little remote. Audrey had been sick most of the twenty-two days we had been in Abu Dhabi from an allergy to the sulphates in the water. In Canada the legal limit for Sulphates is 12% but apparently in Abu Dhabi the legal limit is 98.6%. So having been poisoned for the last three weeks, I thought little of Audrey being a bit tired. She'd already lost nigh thirty pounds. Besides, she looked good, even if a little pale. No one considered that she was dizzy, which is not a normal "food poisoning" side effect. Which is why we now all agree "drugged". Plus, she couldn't move.

I sent a text to Mohammed (not sure whether it had been him or Khalil texting me all this time but someone was spelling most of the words correct and someone else was making little sense). Mohammed said he was still at the border. Still at the border?! I had texted back.

On my way, a text read forty minutes later.

Can you phone me just before you turn onto Hamdan street so I can wake Audrey up with time for her to put on her hijab? I texted Mohammed's number.

Ten minutes later I received a text from Mohammed. Actually I am not coming to get you. Khalil is.

I didn't react. I just swore I was to kill my mother.

This is his phone number... Mohammed wrote, supplying the number.

'Great!' I do remember thinking. 'Something even harder to explain to Faisal.' My husband's name is Faisal. Two Muslim women shouldn't be alone with unrelated men in a car anyway... but now we weren't even driving with the cousin.

I'd already sent Faisal a text from Pippin's phone at ten'Oclock saying that we'd already arrived in Muscat, so he wouldn't be worried that our ride had never showed.

Have a safe journey then, I wished, texting Mohammed, thinking we would probably never meet him then. Which was somewhat of a disappointment, because his spoken voice on the phone had sounded like "Mufasa" from "Lion King" [to Audrey, not yours truly]. Audrey thought it was kinda sexy.

We had been very goofy the last few days in the apartment. Goofy enough that I was randomly bursting into song and Audrey was actually stating her feelings about things.

I don't remember exactly what Mohammed wrote back in reply to my last, but it left the impression that he wouldn't exactly be waiting to meet us in some middle of nowhere Omani border jail.

"What?!" Audrey and I croaked, back at the police station on the border. "Mohammed didn't have a car?"

Khalil cocked his head to one side slightly, still grinning sheepishly. "Mohammed got arrested at the border."

"Arrested?!" Audrey and I exclaim in passionate unison. "What for?!"

This man, you see, had been entrusted with the care of the reputations and personages of two Muslim women (and my mother's own daughter), so we had to know, what we might have been exposed to, had it not been for Khalil. Khalil. Khalil looked away, and then looked back with the most minute traces of a smile.

"I don't know. Mohammed will have to tell you." He grinned. "Do you want to meet Mohammed?"

Khalil never tells me things. I figured that out two and half years before, and should have figured on it holding true still.

A sheepish looking Mohammed greeted us, as if he were the host of some obscure party, from a blue sofa in the jail office. He was still texting up a storm from a little silver cellphone. In plain clothes (not a romantic white dishdasha that I could tease Audrey about) he was a little shorter than I expected from his voice, and from Khalil being so much taller than I am. Khalil was just sitting there grinning, and randomly bursting into laughter, and the police Captain or (I don't know what he was really) motioned from his desk that Audrey and I be seated on the the blue couch adjacent the boys' couch.

We played with a kleenex box which had random tourist-y images of Oman plastered on it, pointing out what I had already seen of Oman from a previous trip, and inquired into what Audrey was interested in seeing.

The police Captain (or what have you) invited us to come diving where he was from. It wasn't a creepy invitation, and came from a genuine concern that our first sight as tourists in Oman had thus far been a jail.

The boys and the Captain (that's what I'm calling him) talked obnoxiously in Arabic obviously about us, every now and then smiling kindly in our direction, while Audrey and I tried to make a house out of her playing cards. Then I blew over Audrey's house because I was annoyed at my lack of skill at the same task and her great success, so we played "Cheat".

Through-out the hour long conversation we kept asking for English and what had happened to Mohammed to make him get arrested (this was very interesting to us you see, since our lives had at one time been entrusted to his good character and care).

[more to be added---still in progress]

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