It doesn’t take me long to figure out that being an Indian in Dubai sucks. So does being an Egyptian. The fact that I'm a British Indian that looks like an Egyptian pretty much means I'm screwed.
I've been here for exactly three days and it took me about two and a half to figure all that out. It doesn’t take a genius though. All you have to do is walk through the glitzy malls and see the way people look at the sari-clad women with their greasy, plaited hair to realise that they're more or less considered to be second-class citizens. They're even served differently. I went into a shop in MOE yesterday and asked for help from the friendly assistant. She obliged me with a toothy smile and the customary sing-song 'thank you ma'am' at the end of our exchange. The Indian lady who sought her help after me got no 'thank you', no 'ma'am' and no smile. Coincidence? I doubt it. Why wasn't I treated the same way? Probably 'cause of my British accent and Westernised dress-sense. Although I never paid much attention to my accent before, it suddenly seems to be my passport into the judgmental world of respect.
Today I've decided to be a little more adventurous in my solitary excursions and I'm braving the beach completely alone. Shopping is usually a pleasurable experience but until I get my first salary (I start teaching English to speakers of other languages in a couple of days), I’m as broke as a joke so I have to find cheaper ways to amuse myself. Living next to the beach is still a novelty for me as the closest thing to a beach in London is Southend - which, with its dilapidated pier and Essex location, isn't quite as appealing as Jumeirah Beach Park. So, I’m quite happy to just sit on the warm sand in my white linen trousers and long sleeved pale blue cotton top and absorb the atmosphere. All around me, children are squealing in the azure waters, teenagers are posing sexily in brightly coloured bikinis and old Arab women are a stark contrast to them in their white headscarves and long skirts, preparing hefty chunks of meat on metal barbecue skewers. I'm not usually such a billy-no-mates but I haven’t exactly had enough time here to make friends yet. I know one girl out here – my best friend, Yasmine, has an older sister who lives here somewhere but I'm not meeting her until tomorrow. I don’t really know her very well and she's a few years older than me, but hey, beggars can't be choosers and right now, if a palm tree offers to hang out with me I'll probably throw my arms around it and invite it out for some shisha.
I lay out my beach towel, sit down cross legged on it, roll up my sleeves and take out my book but it's actually more interesting to people watch. I still can't get over the way Muslims out here are so different from back in the UK. Back home, being the gross minority, they're all so united and overtly Muslim, if you know what I mean. Islam is a huge part of their identity and because they face a lot of difficulties getting accepted into mainstream society, they have this defensive nature. Here, it's so much more relaxed and you see girls in Hijab doing stuff you rarely see back home – like smoking shisha, hanging out with guys or going to concerts. I'm not sure why that is, but I'm guessing it has something to do with Hijab being more of a cultural piece of clothing than a declaration of faith or a religious statement.
I never used to notice stuff like that until I actually started wearing Hijab, which wasn’t until… um, the day I boarded the plane to get here. In London, although there is a pretty diverse Muslim community, I never really felt like I was a good enough Muslim to be an ambassador of Islam – and trust me, in Hijab, you are. Everyone watches to see what you're doing and you get labeled 'that Muslim girl' rather than the Indian girl or the tall girl or any other part of your identity. When I was mulling over whether to move out here or not, I made a conscious decision to be a better Muslim if I did, and I guess this is my first step. After all the crap that happened, I felt like I had to do something to change but now, sitting here on the beach completely covered up and no chance of a tan, I'm wondering if I was a little too hasty in my decision.
Watching a group of girls and guys playing volleyball, I can't help but feel a slight twang of envy. Not because they're playing sports as I'm crap at all forms of physical exertion but because they're having such a great, social time while I'm sitting here alone, watching on like the outsider that I am.
“Hey, wanna join us?” a girl calls out, catching my gaze and probably noticing the desperation in my coffee brown eyes. She jogs up to me and I try not to ogle at her body in case she can see my stare through my cheap sunglasses and thinks I’m a lesbian or something. Her body is so golden, lean and toned that I make a spur of the moment decision to join the gym and start exercising.
“Okay,” I reply without realising, my mind still thinking of ways I can fix up my wobbly body and before I know it, I'm in the middle of this group of ten girls and guys, trying to play volleyball. I don’t hit the ball even once. It’s pretty hard to, when the moment it comes in my direction I either run the other way or hold up my hands to shield my face. The opposing side is too kind to exploit their enemy's weakest link and try hard not to let the ball come my way, so for the rest of the game I end up just standing around wishing I wore stronger sunblock and trying not to check out the hot guy opposite me. Which isn’t easy. He too has a golden body but instead of the usual coal coloured hair, his is a dark brown with tiny strands of honey. With his intense eyes and strong yet gentle hands, he is definitely bad news for me. So I make sure to prevent my tongue from hanging out or my saliva from dripping out of my open mouth and concentrate on the chubby, hairy guy at nine ‘o’ clock instead. Ugh. He really needs a wax.
Despite not really moving much (apart from flapping my arms around when the ball came near me), I feel exhausted when the game slowly rolls to an end. The Goddess, who I find out has a ‘good name’, X, but I prefer to call her The Goddess, saunters up to me and invites me to meet the group in the evening for some dinner and shisha. My tiredness disappears instantly and I agree quickly before the offer is taken away, like a child who has just been told she can have ice-cream for breakfast.
I hail a taxi home and begin a long, slow beautifying regime, images of Goldenboy haunting me the entire time.
* * *
It takes me three hours to get ready. Three whole hours of showering, blow-drying (not that anyone can see my hair, but still, you never know, maybe there’ll be a hurricane and my hijab will be whipped off, exposing flat, unkempt hair underneath), exfoliating, facialising and countless outfit changes. I eventually decide to go with my favourite jeans that actually make my legs look slim and a pretty, cream colored dress over it adorned with hot pink beads. Together with a pink headscarf and light, subtle makeup, I look pretty good. My new tan suits me and with a little bit of MAC bronzer, I look radiant and healthy.
The taxi drops me off at Reem al Bawadi, a Lebanese restaurant I’ve never been to before and makes the eatieries in Edgware Road look bland in comparison. As I walk up the short steps, I feel my heart pounding against my ribcage. There are plants and leaves hanging from the walls and ceiling, old Middle Eastern ornaments in every corner, live Arabic music as well as the faint hum of voices and fragrant whisps of apple shisha wafting through the air. The atmosphere is so warm and reminiscent of sticky summers in Beirut, that I slowly begin to relax and feel at ease.
In the far left-hand corner, I spot the group and I navigate my way around tables, chairs and glass shishas, praying that I don’t knock one over, and approach the table. I feel slightly awkward as I mumble ‘hi’ in a timid voice but even that melts away as The Goddess jumps up, exclaims ‘Sugar, hi, how are you?’ in a loud, friendly voice and plants the customary kisses on my cheeks. I shake hands with everyone else (Hijabis here don’t seem to mind shaking hands with non-related guys which is fine by me) and sit down at the nearest available seat. After I plant my big behind on the chair, bumping into my neighbour and almost knocking over a tall glass of a crazy looking fruit cocktail kinda drink, I realise I'm sitting next to Goldenboy.
“Ahlan,” he says, smiling warmly. It’s the first time he’s spoken to me. He's wearing a black shirt with jeans, and he too has a beautiful tan that, against his shirt, looks simply delicious. His evening attire, along with the way he said 'Ahlan' in that accent, is all a bit too hot for me and I feel my face turning the same colour as my scarf. I've always had a thing for Arabs, with their sexy manliness and slightly dominating nature. My heart starts thudding again and I silently beg Allah not to let him hear it.
“Thanks,” I reply stupidly, not knowing how else to reply to the greeting. Ahlan means 'welcome' right? He is obviously confused by my answer.
“Keefik enti?” he tries again, frowning slightly. Not with condescendence, but with befuddlement.
“Um… ana la atakallam al ‘arabiya,” (I don’t speak Arabic) I answer sheepishly. In classical, Qur'anic Arabic. The Goddess, who overhears the awkward exchange, bursts into peals of laughter and explains something to the group in fast, incomprehensible Arabic and soon, they are all laughing.
‘Sorry,” Goldenboy says with a grin. “I thought you were Arab – you look Palestinian.”
“It’s okay,” I reply with a shrug, secretly feeling thrilled. For some reason, I don’t want him to know I’m Indian, and I don’t want him to think I’m Egyptian either. I just want to be me, Sugar, without all these extra labels.
We don’t say much else to each other throughout the evening, and although I’m glad to be with people other than my host family, it’s hard trying to have fun when everyone around you speaks a language you don’t understand, and never had any connection with outside the mosque. Sometimes, they look at my blank face and remember to translate jokes and anecdotes, and I force a laugh, losing a lot of the meaning and humour in translation.
That night, as I lie in my bed, the drum beats still ringing in my ears, I feel a sudden pang of longing for my friends back home. I miss Yasmine’s quirkiness, Stephanie's craziness and Ellen's wit. I miss the comfortable feeling of knowing exactly who I am, where I am, what my existence on this planet means. But it's all my fault that I had to leave everything I had ever known.
Beneath the ache and the disorientation though, there lies a dangerous tingle of excitement. I fall asleep thinking of Goldenboy’s beautiful, copper coloured eyes with the tiniest specks of amber. I fall asleep smiling.