"All the donuts have names that sound like prostitutes."
He's on the recumbent bicycle, reading mostly, a recent English novel,
with a smaller part of himself he's listening to a battered Walkman,
archaic cassette tape spooling into his ears. Wall-mounted TVs scream
the capacity of their modest speakers. BBC News. He looks up
but, as an American, cricket scores are a language he doesn't speak.
Occasionally, he is interested by the Esperanto of stock reports,
models, weather updates.
The cassette singer mumbles in a rye whiskey sludge. Broken umbrellas
dead birds. A nice image, he thinks, bookmarking with a finger. Other
images begin to swirl around his head. The older local women, wrapped
stiff black cloaks, like homeless draped in garbage bags.
He returns to the novel. Sweat rounds compromise the tensile strength
its thin paper, which might burst like a coffee filter if he's not
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
free of charge, and clean towels are provided, but he finds the area
and vaguely disconcerting. Indian men, well off and balding, work out
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.
Germans in sleek ergometric workout gear jerk violently at free
Shirtless Koreans grunt and sweat on the machines, while disapproving
Japanese squat-thrust in private. A sunburned Russian smokes,
swinging dumbbells. Tan, slight, a Frenchman casually cycles while
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
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
eyes and listens more exclusively to the music. And you take on the
of the ones who've slept there. He remembers another workout, another
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.
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
shape, except maybe the Teutonic overmen, and even they exude a whiff
desperation, of need, rather than betterment. He thinks of the 5-star
where he ate dinner last night: $150-a-head for pretentious lukewarm
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
pool, rises with the elevator to the 7th floor. Al Ghurair City.
mall, residence tower, spa, fine dining, multiplex cinema, mosque. As
well-manicured, as fastidiously landscaped, as any planned suburban
He compares the islands of mulch to those his father built; he
smell, the weight of a 25-pound bag over his shoulder, the commands to
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
doesn't activate. Swiftly, an unseen helper emerges, tries the card,
a maintenance supervisor. There are fulsome, fearful apologies; heads
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.
were sealed garbage bags and wooden crates, once, screaming with fish
and garlic, diapers and rotten fruit, coffee grounds and spoiled milk.
After a complaint, this never happened again, but there were hard eyes
the hallway, children averted from his path, angry silence. The
had been unnecessarily stern, he guessed. They preferred Americans to
Koreans. He feels some regret; still, they should know better than to
up a common area with their personal rubbish.
Approaching his apartment, he sees them, the Palestinians from next
The daughter is obese; bags of candy, bigger than her head, appear
surgically attached to her hands. The mother wears pale red lipstick,
not so much that it's noticeable. Her shailah is slipping. A tangle
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
she's having a bad hair day, he muses. Abaya as sweatpants: what you
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
sweater. He's reminded of the powdered sugar dusting last night's
mousse cake. The man twitches, touches his grease-smeared glasses.
Computer geek. He's reassured by this neighborly pair, by the
of their types.
His daughter, whose keen ears hear keys jangling outside, opens the
and jumps into the hallway.
"Hi, Layla!" His daughter, five, waves to the neighbor's girl, who
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
their part, regarding the invitation. They never evinced friendliness
the past, and don't now. They invite without smiles or warmth, almost
Drinks are not offered, nor is food. The children are led, by
into a back room. She can hear them crunching chips, hear soda tabs
It's such a disappointment. Not only because she's hungry, and
because she's always heard such great things about Arabic hospitality.
her first time in an Arabic home, there is no hospitality at all.
four other women, excluding the hostess. They are all Middle Eastern,
covered heads, party-dressed girls, nannies, and Arabic fluency. She
nothing but English and a blue-jeaned daughter.
"Asalaam alaykum," she says, when greeted at the front door.
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
Although the other women spoke to her in English, good English, while
being introduced, they speak in Arabic throughout the party. No one
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
g-strings or Judaism, democracy or skin-whitening creams?
After settling in, realizing that she's being snubbed, and telling
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
coffee table. Nor are there any of the appurtenances you might expect
Arabic majlis: floor cushions, low wooden tables, samovar and such.
was…everything? She knows the apartment layout; it's identical to her
There would be nowhere else to house the living room furniture. And
would they conceal it, anyway? No, no, she thought. This is it.
chairs, my god.
More peculiar even, more disturbing, are the walls, covered with
incompetent crayon drawings. Covered to child-arm-level, anyway.
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
At least the room is clean, tidy. Otherwise, she might think of the
rooms where militant extremist cells execute and videotape
What she does think of is her college boyfriend. Or rather, his
who slept in a dinghy corner on a thin floor mattress. There was no
no desk, nothing. The windows were covered with heavy curtains, or
black. Competitive drinking was followed by marathons of sleep;
finding his way across the dark room to the toilet, he used various
cups, which, over a period of months, collected by the dozens within
reach of his bed. Disgusting, she remembers, but this place is much
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
to herself. Eventually, she is allowed to leave.
She tells him about the party, later, after their daughter is put to
They drink wine on the balcony, complaining about the neighbors. They
overlook the city center, crowded with resort hotels, streetwalkers,
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
nationality elicit here. He accepts the proffered towel, signs the
logbook, looks at the clock. 9:58.
"Yes, two minute, Sir." Hillary, an ever-smiling Nepalese, is
he always is, in orange swimming trunks, black flip-flops, and white
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
a magnetic card key. "Just wait two minute, okay?"
He moves to the water fountain, takes a drink, checks the time, then
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,
The woman's exhortations gush forth in a waterfall of
undifferentiated sounds. He hears only Ahahoh!Wait…! but nonetheless
the gist. He doesn't see the woman, but knows she's Arabic, is without
veil or cloak, her shailah or abaya. He sees the clock on his
trot toward the door; from his angle, it reads 10:01. Ladies Hour is
Outside the door, he's impatience. If she hadn't screamed, I wouldn't
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
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
spotted at the gym. "Oh, I'm sorry. You know, it was 10:00, they gave
the card key..."
"Sorry." She ducks her head and plows forward.
He walks through the door. Inside, trim housewives from Korea and
in modest workout clothes, giggle into their hands. Silly Arabic
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
per minute, toward health, toward the correct rate for his age and
level. Fat burns, calories are used, muscles tense, sweat collects in
eyebrows, stains his shirt, oxygen plunges into debt, lactic acid
burning his quadriceps.
97, 99, 103. 108, 110, 113.
He listens to music, Tom Waits again. I'm lost in the window / I hide
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
trailed by a pained Hillary.
"Hello, Sir." Ropes of black muscle, desert-white teeth. "The woman,
is upset, Sir. What happens?"
"She yelled at me. She was very angry." Hillary mutters into Mr.
broad, v-shaped back.
He relents, the rpm slows to 70, 60, 50. "I waited until 10:00, came
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
The music still bores into his ear. And the steam comes out of the
like the whole goddamn town's ready to blow / and the bricks are all
with jailhouse tattoos / and everyone is behaving like dogs. He
volume. "Then they should know better. If they really don't want to
seen, then they should never uncover in public. They can't put
in a position where they're bound to be seen, then complain about
seeing them. Doesn't make sense. I mean, I wouldn't take off my pants
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
to building management."
He shrugs, accelerating.
Mr. Wilson decides that, in the future, card keys will not be
until 10:05, or maybe later. He stares at a spot on the far wall,
needs to be scrubbed. He will call a general staff meeting this
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
nominations. He concerns himself with deontological matters, with the
science of moral obligation. He knows that he is in the right, that
wrong. Hillary and Mr. Wilson do not care about this; they just don't
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
distant. There are Decency Laws, which Dubai does not have.
Meanwhile, he continues to exercise, happy with the way things are
happy with his life. He begins to write a weekly article about living
about the Emirates, the Middle East. He writes in a satirical vein,
position of experience and authority. In the evenings, he drinks with
wife; they laugh together, in disbelief, at all the foolish people.
©2005 by Andrew Madigan