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Andrew Madigan

The Shailah

"All the donuts have names that sound like prostitutes."
                                                  --Tom Waits

He's on the recumbent bicycle, reading mostly, a recent English novel, but with a smaller part of himself he's listening to a battered Walkman, the archaic cassette tape spooling into his ears. Wall-mounted TVs scream above the capacity of their modest speakers. BBC News. He looks up periodically, but, as an American, cricket scores are a language he doesn't speak. Occasionally, he is interested by the Esperanto of stock reports, lingerie models, weather updates.

The cassette singer mumbles in a rye whiskey sludge. Broken umbrellas like dead birds. A nice image, he thinks, bookmarking with a finger. Other images begin to swirl around his head. The older local women, wrapped in stiff black cloaks, like homeless draped in garbage bags.

He returns to the novel. Sweat rounds compromise the tensile strength of its thin paper, which might burst like a coffee filter if he's not careful. He drops the book to the gym floor, carefully.

Still new to Dubai, after a matter of weeks, he's intrigued by the community theater of his building's exercise room. It's convenient and free of charge, and clean towels are provided, but he finds the area strange and vaguely disconcerting. Indian men, well off and balding, work out in long pants, golf shirts and bare feet. Enthusiastic locals swing like children from equipment they don't know how to use. There are pungent Pakistanis, rangy South Africans, Syrians with muscular beards. Hulking Germans in sleek ergometric workout gear jerk violently at free weights. Shirtless Koreans grunt and sweat on the machines, while disapproving Japanese squat-thrust in private. A sunburned Russian smokes, lethargically swinging dumbbells. Tan, slight, a Frenchman casually cycles while reading a drab-covered novel, working off richly-sauced meats. Several husky Lebanese housewives, covered in gold jewelry and expensive velour tracksuits, shout into mobile phones; they detest exercise but must stay one step ahead of their underfed jeans.

He grasps two metal sensors, which register his heartbeat and rate of caloric burning. He is satisfied with the results. Tired, he closes his eyes and listens more exclusively to the music. And you take on the dreams of the ones who've slept there. He remembers another workout, another year, another country. Brooklyn, New York. In the YMCA locker room, a naked Chinese man approached. He used a transparent shower cap to cover his genitals, which seemed a bit like swatting flies with a toothpick. "I forgot to get a towel," the man said, still dripping from a shower. "Can you go outside and get one for me?"

Reading, listening, watching, talking, smoking, scowling, hoping to be noticed. Exercises in fatuity, emptiness, imposture. No one's getting in shape, except maybe the Teutonic overmen, and even they exude a whiff of desperation, of need, rather than betterment. He thinks of the 5-star hotel where he ate dinner last night: $150-a-head for pretentious lukewarm pasta, which an underpaid Filipina whisked away before he was finished.

He walks through Al-Naadi, the health and recreation center, crosses a courtyard of date palms and imported grass, passes the Olympic-size swimming pool, rises with the elevator to the 7th floor. Al Ghurair City. Shopping mall, residence tower, spa, fine dining, multiplex cinema, mosque. As well-manicured, as fastidiously landscaped, as any planned suburban community. He compares the islands of mulch to those his father built; he remembers the smell, the weight of a 25-pound bag over his shoulder, the commands to rake and border, the tranquility of tending one's corner of the cul-de-sac.

He swipes a security card at the locked double doors, but the green light doesn't activate. Swiftly, an unseen helper emerges, tries the card, radios a maintenance supervisor. There are fulsome, fearful apologies; heads bob in the Indian style. Minutes later, he is let through, with Here you go sir and So sorry to inconvenience.

Thankfully, there's no trash curbed outside his neighbors' doors. There were sealed garbage bags and wooden crates, once, screaming with fish heads and garlic, diapers and rotten fruit, coffee grounds and spoiled milk. After a complaint, this never happened again, but there were hard eyes in the hallway, children averted from his path, angry silence. The management had been unnecessarily stern, he guessed. They preferred Americans to Koreans. He feels some regret; still, they should know better than to stink up a common area with their personal rubbish.

Approaching his apartment, he sees them, the Palestinians from next door. The daughter is obese; bags of candy, bigger than her head, appear surgically attached to her hands. The mother wears pale red lipstick, but not so much that it's noticeable. Her shailah is slipping. A tangle of uncombed hair. Her abaya is open as well, revealing what appear to be wrinkled pajamas. She doesn't always dress in the Emirati style; only when she's having a bad hair day, he muses. Abaya as sweatpants: what you dress in when you don't have time to get dressed. The father, who teaches computer science, is a mushy oaf with a pattern of dandruff on his black sweater. He's reminded of the powdered sugar dusting last night's chocolate mousse cake. The man twitches, touches his grease-smeared glasses. Computer geek. He's reassured by this neighborly pair, by the familiarity of their types.

His daughter, whose keen ears hear keys jangling outside, opens the door and jumps into the hallway.

"Hi, Daddy!"

"Hi, buddy."

"Hi, Layla!" His daughter, five, waves to the neighbor's girl, who stares into her school lunchbox. She is two years older.

He smiles at the family, cautiously, says something.

"It's Layla's birthday today. Would you like to come to her party?"


"Have your wife bring her around at 4:00?"

"Okay, thanks..." The neighbors disappear inside. He detects some duress on their part, regarding the invitation. They never evinced friendliness in the past, and don't now. They invite without smiles or warmth, almost as a threat.

Drinks are not offered, nor is food. The children are led, by nannies, into a back room. She can hear them crunching chips, hear soda tabs pop. It's such a disappointment. Not only because she's hungry, and thirsty, but because she's always heard such great things about Arabic hospitality. Now, her first time in an Arabic home, there is no hospitality at all. There are four other women, excluding the hostess. They are all Middle Eastern, with covered heads, party-dressed girls, nannies, and Arabic fluency. She has nothing but English and a blue-jeaned daughter.

"Asalaam alaykum," she says, when greeted at the front door. "Sukran." Hello, thank you. That's it, her Arabic, exhausted so quickly, like finishing your popcorn during the previews.

For the next two hours, she smiles, nods, tries to follow the conversation.

Although the other women spoke to her in English, good English, while being introduced, they speak in Arabic throughout the party. No one makes the slightest effort to include her, and she has no idea why. Has she stepped across some unseen protocol? Has she spoken of alcohol or pork, g-strings or Judaism, democracy or skin-whitening creams?

After settling in, realizing that she's being snubbed, and telling herself that her husband owes her, big time, she looks around the living room. They're sitting on metal folding chairs, the sort you might expect at a barbeque or PTA meeting. There is no couch, no easy chair, no love seat or coffee table. Nor are there any of the appurtenances you might expect in an Arabic majlis: floor cushions, low wooden tables, samovar and such. Where was…everything? She knows the apartment layout; it's identical to her own. There would be nowhere else to house the living room furniture. And why would they conceal it, anyway? No, no, she thought. This is it. Folding chairs, my god.

More peculiar even, more disturbing, are the walls, covered with incompetent crayon drawings. Covered to child-arm-level, anyway. Rainbows; geometric patterns; random, anomalous letters and numbers; mutant farm animals; large, too-close, jagged suns. A modernity of ugliness, of challenges to her aesthetic expectations. What the hell's going on here? At least the room is clean, tidy. Otherwise, she might think of the spare rooms where militant extremist cells execute and videotape representative westerners.

What she does think of is her college boyfriend. Or rather, his roommate, who slept in a dinghy corner on a thin floor mattress. There was no chair, no desk, nothing. The windows were covered with heavy curtains, or painted black. Competitive drinking was followed by marathons of sleep; instead of finding his way across the dark room to the toilet, he used various jars and cups, which, over a period of months, collected by the dozens within arms reach of his bed. Disgusting, she remembers, but this place is much worse. That other room, with its jaundiced mugs of piss, was childish and grotesque, but this place is supposed to be a home; it is horrifying, denuded, obfuscatory. It is a room of nothing; it is nothing.

The women dress like Jewish housewives from New Jersey, but she keeps this to herself. Eventually, she is allowed to leave.

She tells him about the party, later, after their daughter is put to bed. They drink wine on the balcony, complaining about the neighbors. They overlook the city center, crowded with resort hotels, streetwalkers, jewelry stores, the hovels of foreign labor. It's dark; Dubai sleeps with a thousand nightlights on.

"Morning, Sir. Towel?"

"Yeah, thanks. How's it going?"

"Okay, Sir. Thank you."

He nods, smile in neutral, inured to the thousand thank-yous his race and nationality elicit here. He accepts the proffered towel, signs the Al-Naadi logbook, looks at the clock. 9:58.

"Yes, two minute, Sir." Hillary, an ever-smiling Nepalese, is dressed, as he always is, in orange swimming trunks, black flip-flops, and white golf shirt embroidered with the green and blue Al Ghurair logo.

He sighs. "Ladies" Hour.

"Here you are, Sir." Hillary reaches across the sign-in desk, handing him a magnetic card key. "Just wait two minute, okay?"

"Sure. Thanks."

He moves to the water fountain, takes a drink, checks the time, then heads for the exercise room. He swipes the card, is green-lighted in.

"Ah, ah, oh! Wait outside for a minute, please, will you? Thank you, oh!"

The woman's exhortations gush forth in a waterfall of undifferentiated sounds. He hears only Ahahoh!Wait…! but nonetheless gets the gist. He doesn't see the woman, but knows she's Arabic, is without her veil or cloak, her shailah or abaya. He sees the clock on his frustrated trot toward the door; from his angle, it reads 10:01. Ladies Hour is over.

Outside the door, he's impatience. If she hadn't screamed, I wouldn't have even known she was there. She could've covered herself before I saw anything. Hell, I didn't see anything. Making a big deal about it just draws more attention, like she wants me to see her. Typical.

The door opens. It's his neighbor.

"I'm so sorry. Excuse me."

He‘s taken by surprise. His neighbor: so clearly westernized, never before spotted at the gym. "Oh, I'm sorry. You know, it was 10:00, they gave me the card key..."

"Sorry." She ducks her head and plows forward.

He walks through the door. Inside, trim housewives from Korea and Japan, in modest workout clothes, giggle into their hands. Silly Arabic woman, they seem to be saying.

He shakes his head, smirks, steps onto the recumbent bike. He's up to Level 8, for 1 hour. He pedals quickly, pushing his heart toward 120 beats per minute, toward health, toward the correct rate for his age and fitness level. Fat burns, calories are used, muscles tense, sweat collects in his eyebrows, stains his shirt, oxygen plunges into debt, lactic acid pools, burning his quadriceps.

97, 99, 103. 108, 110, 113.

He listens to music, Tom Waits again. I'm lost in the window / I hide in the stairway / I hang in the curtain / I sleep in your hat.

The door pops open. It's Mr. Wilson from the Sudan, Al Naadi supervisor, trailed by a pained Hillary.

"Hello, Sir." Ropes of black muscle, desert-white teeth. "The woman, she is upset, Sir. What happens?"

"She yelled at me. She was very angry." Hillary mutters into Mr. Wilson's broad, v-shaped back.

He relents, the rpm slows to 70, 60, 50. "I waited until 10:00, came in. Then I hear this yelling. She freaked out."

"Should not come in, Sir."

"It was 10:00..."

"She's Arabic woman, Sir."

The Asian women cup their mouths, trying to catch fireflies of laughter.

The music still bores into his ear. And the steam comes out of the grill / like the whole goddamn town's ready to blow / and the bricks are all scarred with jailhouse tattoos / and everyone is behaving like dogs. He adjusts the volume. "Then they should know better. If they really don't want to be seen, then they should never uncover in public. They can't put themselves in a position where they're bound to be seen, then complain about someone seeing them. Doesn't make sense. I mean, I wouldn't take off my pants in here, just hoping no one walked in. You know? She needs to take responsibility for her actions. It's bullshit."

Hillary and Mr. Wilson trade eyes, shake heads, clench jaws. This is no good. The Al-Naadi supervisor speaks. "She was very upset, Sir. Will go to building management."

He shrugs, accelerating.

Mr. Wilson decides that, in the future, card keys will not be distributed until 10:05, or maybe later. He stares at a spot on the far wall, which needs to be scrubbed. He will call a general staff meeting this afternoon.

The Al Ghurair employees are quietly vigilant, fearful of the woman's anger. He is not. He composes arguments in his head, one eye on the Oscar nominations. He concerns himself with deontological matters, with the science of moral obligation. He knows that he is in the right, that she is wrong. Hillary and Mr. Wilson do not care about this; they just don't want trouble. After a few moments, they return to their posts.

A few weeks later, the neighbors move to Sharjah, an adjacent Emirate, which is only minutes north but which is, they think, morally and culturally distant. There are Decency Laws, which Dubai does not have.

Meanwhile, he continues to exercise, happy with the way things are going, happy with his life. He begins to write a weekly article about living here, about the Emirates, the Middle East. He writes in a satirical vein, from a position of experience and authority. In the evenings, he drinks with his wife; they laugh together, in disbelief, at all the foolish people.

©2005 by Andrew Madigan

Andrew Madigan lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and children.

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