by Jillian Schedneck
The driver flirted with both of us. As soon as we climbed in the Dhow Khasab Tour’s van, Mohamed told Tori and I he was honored to transport such beautiful women to Musandam, the place he now called home. Tori was all “ooohs” and “ahhhs” at the snack box on each of our seats, the herd of goats crossing the road as we sped through Fujairah, even the security checkpoint as we crossed the border from the United Arab Emirates into Oman. Mohamed posed many questions. What were Tori’s impressions of Dubai? How did her students compare to those in the States? What had it been like living in Detroit? They howled together as she practiced the Arabian Gulf dialect for “more dates, please.” He complimented her intelligence, her wit, even her trim figure. Through the rearview mirror, Mohamed sent me smoldering stares, winks, and raised eyebrows.
I couldn’t figure out his strategy. Tori was forty-five and I was twenty-eight. She was small and dark-haired, wiry and pulsing with excitement. I was tall and light haired, pensive and quiet. Mohamed was perhaps thirty, perhaps forty, but then again maybe he was twenty-five or forty-five. After two years in the Gulf, I had learned that life in the Middle East ages people in ways I wasn’t used to growing up in America. Mohamed looked weathered, but I couldn’t decide if it was in a sexy way or not. I’d never experienced a look that seemed to express so much, even though I wasn’t sure what exactly he was trying to convey. When he dropped Tori and I off in front of the apartment complex where we’d be staying, he shook each of our hands with both of his and said he looked forward to driving us back to Dubai on Sunday afternoon.
When he drove away, Tori was the first to mention the flirting. “He wants to have a girlfriend in Dubai. He wants a place to stay, someone to pay for his meals. He was hoping for you but would settle for me.” She laughed, one of her diabolical cackles, then pointed at herself and me. “We have the freedom to fall in love.” I knew she meant white people, Westerners. “Not everyone does.” Tori was always revealing these kinds of truths to me, ones that made me crack open, and realize how narrow my perspective had been. Then she explained his expressive eyes. “In the culture he’s from, where men and women can’t talk openly, the eyes have to do a lot of work.”
Tori had been living in the Gulf for ten years. She was my favorite colleague at the university where we taught English literature, but I’d never traveled with her before. Her sense of wonder reminded me of my mom, who could marvel at a leaf, or a stone, if given the chance. This was both familiar and unnerving. But it was Tori’s incisiveness that won me over. I knew she was someone to learn from. I wanted to find out, up close, the effect of living in the Gulf for ten years, and if I should choose the same path for myself. After two years in Dubai, it would be easy for me to stay, but also easy to leave. I didn’t want my life to just pass me by while I wasn’t paying attention. But at the same time, life was cushy in the Gulf, especially for someone like me: white, educated, young. And perhaps there was more to learn. Lately, every moment, from a student’s odd comment suggesting I bleach the hair on my arms to the way the sun here sunk into the horizon with such abandon, was somehow part of the decision weighing up whether I should stay or go.
We dropped our bags in our apartment, and then heard a knock. A tall man entered and took a few steps inside. He wore a pristine white robe and a red-checkered headdress. His skin was darker than most Gulf Arabs I’d met, and he was the most handsome man I’d seen in a long while. He flashed us a big grin, his teeth as white as his robe. “I’m Saeed, your guide for the next two days.”
“That’s good,” Tori said. “Because I’m going wherever you are.”
We all laughed, and I wondered if Tori had gotten carried away, flirting with Mohamed, or if she was just a flirty person and I hadn’t realized it until now.
Saeed said he would wait outside until we were ready, and then he would take us on the first activity in our package tour: the mountain safari. When he was gone, Tori fished around in her small suitcase, pulled out a toiletry bag, and put on a dark shade of cherry lipstick. Then she rubbed some blush onto her cheeks, all without looking in a mirror. I retied my hair in a ponytail and adjusted my glasses.
Saeed ushered us into the four-wheel drive parked outside our apartment.
“We’re going to Jebel Harim. Do you know what that means in English?”
“The Mountain of Women!” Tori hollered from the back seat, with what I took to be a stress of her Detroit accent.
“Right on,” Saeed said.
We got out and walked the trails at the base of the mountain. Saeed pointed out what he purported to be a two hundred-million-year-old fossil. It just looked like a rock to me, but Tori didn’t question his facts, just “oohed” and “ahhed” as if on cue.
Back in the car, Saeed pointed to a tiny cave in the distant mountain I could barely see. He said an old man lived there, in the middle of the mountain, all by himself. He caught his own food, collected water, and never threw anything away. That was a life, a real life. Dubai was one of the busiest places I had known, and yet a few hours away someone could choose to live like this. Staying in the Gulf, I could always reach out and hold these contrasts.
When I woke the next morning, Tori wasn’t in the apartment. Half an hour later she turned up, having gone for a run. “I ran with goats!”
Her enthusiasm never tampered, even in the early hours.
An hour later, Saeed rapped on the door, and frowned when I answered it. He asked where Tori was, and I told him she was putting on makeup. He laughed and asked if I ever wore any. The more Saeed ‘teased’ me the less attractive he appeared. His eyes too small, his mouth too wide. I wished I could conjure back the handsome man from yesterday, but for me, he was gone. For Tori, however, he was just as delectable as ever, and when she appeared, she gushed and bubbled in his presence, telling him about her morning encounter with the goats. He hooted loudly, patting her on the back, which surprised me. I didn’t think an Omani man would touch a woman outside of his family. Emirati men wearing traditional robes certainly didn’t, or at least not when I was around.
Saeed clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “Are you ready to see some fjords?”
“Yes!” Tori hollered. Saeed looked her up and down approvingly, and we climbed into the four-wheel drive.
Today was the main attraction of the tour, the dhow cruise. I wanted to sail along the fjords and see dolphins, but most of all, I wanted to float in this stretch of Arabian Sea. When I had first arrived in Dubai, I would pay the exorbitant day rate at one of the fancy hotels with ocean property. I’d paddle in the Arabian Sea for an hour or so, drifting and peddling my feet, bobbing to and fro, thinking about how lucky I was to be here, in the Las Vegas of the Middle East. I’d ponder how crazy it was that I now lived in a city I’d barely heard of until I’d happened to see an international job posting for university lecturers, and the next thing I knew I’d arrived. That was privilege, Tori would say. And I agreed. Whether I stayed or not, being here was a privilege I didn’t want to take for granted.
At Khasab Port, there was a dhow boat decorated with bright, geometrically patterned carpets and cushions. It looked unreal, out of a movie, like a group of actors in old-timey Arab costumes might pop up and burst into song. There were about a dozen other people also waiting to board the dhow. I was surprised, picturing just us and Saeed again, but of course the tour company would try to fill up such a big boat with more tourists than just the two of us. The others were mainly my age, maybe a bit younger, European, tall and lean and without adornment. We all climbed up and arranged ourselves on the colorful cushions inside the dhow. Saeed offered everyone soda or water, and apples or bananas. He was different again among the group, quieter and deferential, and the others looked upon him with a kind of awe. When he handed Tori a bottle of water, I watched him touch her arm. I thought about how I’d gone to a place where a slight touch of an arm was a big deal, and how I wouldn’t have recognized the potential meaning and import of this simple act before I arrived.
“This beats teaching, eh?” Tori said, as she lay back, propped up on the backs of her elbows. She was right. Last semester had been tough. The university hadn’t scheduled a spring break. All my students were ill for some portion of the semester, and we all got aggravated with each other by the beginning of May. Tori worked harder than the rest of us in the English department, putting together a new course called Introduction to Western Civilization. The title alone was daunting. I taught the same courses I’d taught for three years already during graduate school, so I managed to coast.
In the evenings I spent my dirhams in some of the most beautiful bars I’d ever seen and dated whoever asked. I’d regale Tori and some of the others English lecturers with my trivial tales, and they would roll their eyes in pretend jealousy. Everyone was married except for Tori and me. Tori thought of marriage as entering into a contractual agreement to be owned by another, saw carrying a baby as a man colonizing her body. I’d never heard anyone speak this way, not even in my Women’s Studies classes. Around her, I always tried to guess her response, and I was always surprised.
“He’s married, you know.” Tori whispered to me.
“Saeed. He flirts with me, touches me because he doesn’t respect me showing my skin. He hates that I’m far more educated than him, but also loves that he can talk to me and I’ll have something intelligent to say, unlike his wife, who probably hasn’t had an education.” She shook her head. “Of course, he wouldn’t articulate this.” She put her hands behind her head. “The Gulf is fascinating.” She smugly gazed up at the ceiling of the dhow.
As the dhow slipped into the Khasab River most of us stood to watch the fjords pass by and scan the calm sea for dolphins. Tori remained lying down, and Saeed lay next to her, matching her pose, resting his hands on the back of his head in an exaggerated fashion, saying, “A beautiful woman next to me. This is the life!” I smiled at them and continued taking pictures of the fjords, which would never look as beautiful on my camera as they did just then.
We stopped at Telegraph Island, the location of a British repeater station, an unfriendly reminder of the British Empire. We could go on to the island to see the ruins of the station and the living quarters of the operators. Most dived off the boat and into the sea, but I carefully descended the wooden ladder. Saeed was above me, goading me to take off my glasses and just jump in. Tori of course did just that while Saeed watched appreciatively. Tori said she was going to explore Telegraph Island to no one in particular. I bobbed in my usual way, kicking along on my back, gazing at the bright blue sky, wondering if I should stay in Dubai or if I should go, if I would end up like Tori and if that was something I wanted.
I climbed onto Telegraph Island, lightly stepping on hot sand interspersed with patches of grass, my toes wet and clumped with dirt. Next to the old living quarters, I spotted two entangled shadows. I shouldn’t have been shocked by what I saw, but I was so shaken that I gasped loudly, embarrassingly. I’d seen Tori and Saeed kissing and I was the one who felt ashamed.
Tori barely ate her traditional Omani lunch of lamb and hummus, pickled vegetables and pita bread. We stopped once more to swim next to another island, but this time I didn’t explore it, and I didn’t want to know if Tori and Saeed did either.
By late afternoon we were back at Khasab Port, and Saeed drove us home. I wondered if Tori would invite him in, if I should offer to spend the evening somewhere else, and where I should go. But he let us out of the truck, wished us a pleasant evening and sped away. Tori and I ate a buffet dinner at the Tulip Hotel next door. Again, she only picked at her food.
“I thought you said he was married.” I said, biting into a hard slice of tomato.
“He says he’s not, but I’m sure he is.”
“Then why did you kiss him?”
Tori shrugged. “I wanted to be fascinating.”
“He doesn’t respect you.”
She raised her eyebrows, gave me a resigned smirk. “I know.”
Mohamed picked us up early the next morning. Tori gave him a polite greeting, then took a seat in back and closed her eyes. I’d never seen her like this and didn’t know how to make up for her lack of gusto. But I didn’t have to. Mohamed filled the time, telling me about his escape from Libya after the chaos and violence of the Arab Spring, and his peaceful but mundane existence in Musandam. I told him that his life was difficult for me to imagine. I’d left my home in the United States on a lark, just to experience something new. He smiled and said the reasons we arrived here didn’t matter; we were connected. He didn’t seem to mind my lack of animation, my reserved nature, my glasses. Perhaps Mohamed wanted a western girlfriend in Dubai. Perhaps he only wanted a place to stay, someone to pay for his meals, but when he asked for my number, I hesitated, and then gave it to him.
Mohamed and I texted back and forth for a few weeks and began to plan his visit. Hours before he was due to arrive, he told me he was bringing Saeed, and could I call Tori to come along? I wasn’t sure what to make of this new plan, but Tori was free and interested, saying she’d love a night out with “our boys from Musandam.” We went on a double date to Trader Vic’s at the Madinat Jumeriah. A belly dancer swanned around the tables, requisitely curvy and heavily made up. The men clapped but didn’t stare. At the end of the meal, Tori and I split the bill, feeling tipsy and satisfied and duped all at once. We laughed, then cackled, pushing cash onto the table, pretending it meant little to us.
Mohamed slept in my apartment, and Saeed with Tori. I never asked what happened between them, but Mohamed just fell asleep next to me. He left early the next morning, only saying goodbye because I happened to open my eyes and catch his form rising and dressing. That was the last time I saw my boy from Musandam, and Tori hers. Something had shifted that night, in that moment we had laughed, making light of paying for dinner, that was, looking back, irreversible.
Tori thought their abandonment was predictable, and fascinating. They had gotten what they wanted: smart women to buy them dinner, and then they realized that wasn’t what they had wanted after all. They wanted wives who admired them, who their families approved of. They wanted us, but hated wanting us, hated us. I thought she was right, but I still wasn’t fascinated. I was hurt, but my world wasn’t shattered.
Tori and I still spent time together after that, but not as often. I was less and less charmed by her take on the Gulf; her voice had diluted, so that it was just one among many that complained and marveled at this place us expats had found ourselves in. She had been right about our boys from Musandam, and I hadn’t wanted her to be. But I had gotten what I wanted out of our trip to Oman. I decided to leave Dubai for another expat teaching contract next year. I knew it would be another surprising and frustrating experience, but at least it would take me a few more years to understand exactly how. Perhaps it would even be fascinating.
Jillian Schedneck is the author of the travel memoir Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights. Her work has been published in Brevity, The Lifted Brow and Redivider, among others. Jillian lives in Canberra, Australia with her family, and teaches academic writing at the Australian National University.