Kay Henry was also a student in that (now famous) cnf workshop during the winter Vermont College of Fine Arts residency (see my introduction to Melissa Matthewson’s essay yesterday) in January. Both Kay and Melissa responded to the writing prompt: think of lists as a device, as a structure, and read Leonard Michaels’s story “In the Fifties” as a prompt. My co-leader, Patrick Madden, and I were both interested in nudging students away from narrative and into a focus on form. As Viktor Shklovsky, the great Russian Formalist, said, art is a device; literary writing is content filtered through a set of structures. Proto-writers tend to have one structure firmly and somewhat unconsciously (to them it appears intuitive) fixed in their minds. It’s fun and enlightening to try a different form; sometimes the effect is like a lightning bolt.
Kay Henry’s essay, “In Dubai,” hews, in tone and sentence structure, to the Michaels’ model. She throws in a nice list in the third sentence (suddenly we’re in the land of detail piled upon detail). She eschews narrative connectors and simply presents a series of quick mini-stories. The stories are about people, the surprise and warmth of contact. In a brief space, she describes the human relationships that give the lie to the stereotypes and the racist assumptions that litter public debate.
In Dubai we belonged to the 85%. Only 15% of the population was Emirati. The rest came from South Asia, mostly; also the Philippines, and a few from other Gulf countries, Europe, and Australia. Not many were Americans. The high-end malls were peopled by shoppers in saris, kurtas, robes, jeans, full burkas, business suits, tank tops, sundresses, shorts, sweatsuits, and, at the indoor ski slope, parkas. Once on the beach near the sail-like Burj al Arab hotel, I walked by a woman in a full black abaya, complete with face veil, standing in conversation with a blond woman in a string bikini. The blond was smiling. The veiled woman pointed to something in the water. The blond shaded her eyes to look and nodded her head.
My husband Nas speaks fluent Arabic, but most people on the street and in shops did not. More spoke Hindi than English. Still, we figured out how to rent a house, set up utilities and phone service, and pick up mail at the Post Office.
Zayed University gave us a furniture allowance. We frequented sales in the homes of departing expats and bought heavy armoires and a chest of drawers carved with camels and painted gold. We felt like newlyweds.
At first my students all looked alike in their nearly-identical black robes. I tried to identify them by handbags and jewelry, but they all had several handbags and a lot of jewelry. After six months, I knew them all, and could recognize even the veiled ones, even across the courtyard.
I bought liquor at a government shop behind a blank storefront, browsing the dark aisles with my cart and, at the register, presenting my state-issued liquor permit to the Filipina check-out girl. I was allowed 40 litres a month.
I walked the dog in the early morning as the muezzins sounded the first calls to prayer. Workers in white kurtas rode their bicycles to the mosques, gliding by soundlessly, half asleep. Sometimes thick fog covered the desert.
One student invited me to a family wedding. The women and men celebrated in separate rooms, and the band was on a stage in the middle, hidden by curtains so the performers couldn’t see the women. The women took off their abayas and danced in their jeweled dresses. A young woman in a tight beaded gown, hair in an up-do and make-up thick and precise, came toward me and kissed me three times on my right cheek. I didn’t know her. Then I did: it was my student, dressed for a party, not for school.
The founder of the country, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, died during Ramadan. His citizens mourned, truly mourned. The government shut down for three weeks. Not many months later, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, died in Australia of a heart attack. Once again, the people were in deep mourning. “This is new to us,” an Australian colleague told a local woman in our office. “We hate our leaders.” George W. Bush was in his second term as President.
We got time off for all the Muslim holidays: the Prophet’s birthday, the Prophet’s ascension, National Day, the Eid holiday following Ramadan, and 8 weeks off in the summer. At Christmas, hotels erected lavish trees and choirs sang carols from the balconies. We worked on Christmas Day.
Nas negotiated with purveyors in the gold souk, noting the posted market price per gram, weighing his possible purchases on the jeweler’s scale, and rarely paying more than 5% above the cost of the metal no matter how ornate the workmanship. Sometimes this required repeated visits. He bought me earrings and necklaces and a new wedding band early in our stay, before the price of gold rose nearly 20-fold, so high that even the wealthy locals were complaining. We became friends with a jeweler in the Sharjah souk, 11 miles away. Altaf would load his briefcase with gold and diamonds and come to Dubai once a week to inspect his workshop, walking through the crowded lanes of the old city as if he carried a sack of cabbages instead of a fortune in jewels. The streets were safe then.
We hired a maid and a gardener. We didn’t need either, and we didn’t pay them very much. Our maid, Mala, taught me to cook fiery Sri Lankan dahl into which she would crumble handfuls of dried chilis. Our gardener spread a vile-smelling paste on the ground between the bougainvillea plants. “Municipality fertilizer,” he said. Raw sewage, I thought.
I fell in love for a while with a date farmer whose fringed dark eyes regarded me frankly from beneath his keffiyeh. I found milkweed on his farm and he told me the butterflies liked it. The milkweed made me homesick and I fell in love with the man who understood why. We never touched, not even when he brought me a parting gift of dates.
On the day my husband and I left Dubai I took a book about dogs to the 12-year-old Emirati boy who lived down the street. He was afraid of dogs until he met ours. I handed the book to the family’s maid, the same one who fed the boy platefuls of fat white macaroni in the late afternoon. Often when I walked by, he would put down his plate and come to pet the dog, careful to extend his hand first as I had taught him.
We arrived in New York and drove in a rented van across the country to Missouri. The second night, while passing through Ohio, we saw a camel silhouetted against the setting sun. We really did, both of us. For weeks after our return, the headlines warned of Dubai Ports World and their bid to take over the management of six U.S. shipping hubs, previously run by the British. Debate raged over whether our national security would be compromised. The Emirates had become an enemy. People said to me, “You got home just in time” and “Wasn’t it awful being a woman over there?” And especially, “You must be so happy to be back where it’s safe.” On television, members of Congress detailed the horrors of what would happen if “the Arabs” took over our ports. In my living room, friends admired my gold jewelry, but asked no questions about my students.
Kay Henry studied French and English literature in college and then embarked on a long, left-brained career in executive education. She recently retired as Associate Dean at Washington University’s Olin Business School. Her profession enabled her to travel widely, and she has lived and worked in France, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Kay and her husband Nas divide their time between Missouri and Spain. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Such a vivid essay! I could see hear touch taste smell your world in Dubai. You chose such telling incidents — not recognizing your made-up student at the wedding, learning to distinguish among all the women students identically dressed. The ending’s perfect, or perfectly sad at least, with no one asking about your experience, just telling you what they expected. . . Thanks! Cynthia