THERE WAS A cement wall separating the compound from the desert.
The wall was three metres high. Purple wildflowers grew at its base, and would fall to the ground in heavy winds. During sandstorms, while the desert spluttered and sank from view, the lower part of the compound would remain protected, with only a small breeze and a scattering of flowers to show for the chaos beyond.
Rachel liked to stand on the roof of the communications department on windy days, watching the sand swirl from Qurayyat, past the LNG plant, hoping the Jalaani boys were safe. When the wildflowers began to drop she’d cover her face in her scarf and stand in the wind for as long as she could, feeling the sand coming at her from all sides, softly at first, then in painful, stinging waves, and she’d brace herself, unmoving, while the world outside fell away. They’ll be fine, she’d think, walking back down the stairs.
On most days she would just sit in her office, which she shared with a Tunisian named Aziz and a young Omani woman, Khadija. Her office was usually very quiet. If Rachel left the office for class, or a curry at the college cafeteria, Khadija would quickly leave as well. Aziz and Khadija were never alone together, and except for perfunctory good mornings and goodbyes, would never speak to each other. They both spoke to Rachel though, when they had something to say, and would sometimes speak to each other through Rachel, which Rachel had at first found annoying, but had soon added it to her growing list of cultural quirks that, though impractical, could be navigated with a small amount of patience and compromise. Rachel particularly liked Aziz, who would become more animated whenever Khadija left the room. He’d been there for eight years, had seen countless teachers come and go and, by virtue of perseverance, had been appointed level co-ordinator and quality assurance officer. Neither position, he regretted, granted him his own office.
‘My advice,’ Aziz said when Rachel had first arrived, ‘is to keep to yourself. Don’t get involved with other staff, and definitely don’t get involved with the students. It is an easy job, but it can be a difficult place.’
Rachel had received similar advice from other teachers. People were here to save money, not make friends. Rachel thought it strange. She was a social person, and with little else to do, she thought it natural to seek diversion in the company of others.
‘If you can last three months,’ said Aziz, ‘you’ll be fine.’
Despite everyone’s warnings and her lack of company, Rachel enjoyed her first few months. She rented a white Toyota and, other than during the daily sweeps of the bomb detectors under the chassis as she entered the compound, felt quite safe on the roads. On Fridays she would drive to nearby wadis where, out of the gaze of the world, she’d dive topless into the aquamarine water, feeling tiny fish nibbling on her feet, quietly proud of her private rebellion. She would stop at small villages and take photos of the goats, exchange salaams with the goatherds – always touched by the quaint simplicity of their lives. She would spend evenings in the women’s souk, running her fingers down Jordanian silks, bargaining with Pakistanis over the price of abayas, inhaling the frankincense that wafted from the tea shops.
On Saturdays she’d drive to the beach and sunbathe, ignoring the curious eyes of camping teenagers. Sometimes they’d approach, yelling words she couldn’t understand, grown less timid in number; one boy might come forward, shake her hand, maybe touch her elbow, before running hysterically back to his friends, who would offer high fives and thrusted pelvises. She’d then gaze out over the Arabian Sea, pretending to be lost in thought, or entranced by a passing dhou, until the boys would get bored and go back to their football game.
On Sunday mornings she’d drive slowly through the compound, ready to teach her first class of the week. One morning she was stopped in the women’s hallway by Abu Khadr, the dean, and asked to follow him into his office.
‘Rachel,’ he said, reclining behind his large, empty desk, ‘how is everything?’
Rachel replied that she was fine. She’d been enjoying her classes, and there were lots of places to explore.
‘Good, good,’ the dean said distractedly. ‘But other than that, is everything okay? No problems with the other staff?’
Strangely, this was not the first time she’d been asked this question. In his role as quality assurance officer, Aziz often asked her if everything was okay with the other teachers. And on her first day in her apartment, Sejad, the repairman, had warned her to keep her distance from the other people in the apartment block, who were all teachers at the college. She’d shrugged off the warnings, attributing them to the toll of paranoia that develops in such insular environments. Being too long alone, she knew, bred fear of others. Rachel told the dean she hadn’t experienced any problems.
‘Good, good,’ he said. ‘I suppose you know things haven’t exactly been smooth sailing these past few months.’
This, too, she’d heard before. The teachers walked the halls in a solemn daze, avoiding eye contact, as if having just learnt of a malignant tumour or a guilty verdict.
‘I’ve heard things have been a bit rough,’ Rachel said to the dean, immediately embarrassed by her poor choice of words, ‘but nobody has been good enough to offer any specifics.’ It was a strange habit she’d developed while at foreign universities, adjusting her tone mid-sentence to adapt to her audience – though she’d never quite get it right. It would always go too far, from backward bogan to pretentious snob, always missing the desired middle ground.
‘Well, we’re not really supposed to speak about the specifics, you see. Nothing was ever proven.’ The dean was looking over Rachel’s shoulder, at three girls passing softly in the hall, their faces hidden beneath their black niqabs. He would have liked to close the door, but of course that wasn’t allowed. ‘All I can say is that three of our best female teachers left in quick succession – teachers who’d been here for years, mind you – and that, at this point in the year, we can’t afford to lose another. So please, don’t hesitate to come to me should any problems arise.’
Rachel had heard about the small exodus. She’d taken the apartment of one of the women – an American named Becky – and, though she’d never met her, felt as if she’d come to know her a little through the small remnants of her life she’d left behind. Black hair in the bathtub, for example (Rachel’s hair was red); a postcard from Phuket on the fridge; the TV programmed to have the nature channels first, the sport channels last; some red Chanel lipstick in the bathroom that the cleaners had missed; Blu-Tack on the walls where pictures had once hung. On particularly quiet nights, Rachel would try to guess what pictures had been there and, by concocting an idea of Becky’s taste, would form an image of her character.
‘And your accommodation? It’s all okay?’ asked the dean, showing Rachel out.
‘Yeah it’s all right,’ answered Rachel. ‘Perfectly functional.’ She hadn’t meant this to sound sarcastic, but it had.
‘Oh, is there something you need? A new television perhaps? A sofa?’
What Rachel would have liked to ask for was simply some colour. A tapestry, maybe. An oil lamp. Some pictures or new curtains – all of the things that, she imagined, adorned the houses of the locals. Instead, the staff accommodation was furnished to an idea of Western tastes, which centred on whitewashed walls, sofas and cable TV. Rachel wanted a Persian rug and a shisha.
‘No, everything is fine, thanks,’ she said, and strolled back to her office. Khadija was there, preparing a lesson.
‘Everything okay?’ Khadija asked.
‘Fine,’ said Rachel, wishing people would stop asking her that.
‘I heard you were with the dean.’
‘How did you hear that?’
‘One of the Jalaani girls, she saw you.’
Those Jalaani girls, thought Rachel, nothing gets past them. ‘He was just asking how everything was going.’
‘Oh,’ said Khadija, turning back to her textbook.
THAT NIGHT, BACK at her apartment, Rachel walked aimlessly from room to room. It was far too big for one person, she thought. For the first time in her life she had a spare room, but for the first time in her life she had nobody to invite over to visit; no friends to drink wine and watch ’90s films with; no boyfriends to share her queen-size bed; no ex to come knocking at 2 am, pleading for a second chance. For the first time in her life, Rachel felt incredibly, incurably lonely. She switched on the TV and flicked between nature shows.
As she was going to sleep she heard Ben coming through the gate outside. His apartment was above hers, though she’d never run into him in the building and had only once spoken to him at school. He was the only other Australian, a little older than her, and very popular with the students. Sometimes, she’d hear him come home very late, and sometimes – judging by the absence of his car in the morning – he wouldn’t come home at all.
She heard Ben fumbling with his keys outside his door, muttering to himself. He eventually managed to get inside, and Rachel could hear him pacing back and forth above her. After a few minutes she heard a glass or a bottle smash to the floor, followed by the sound of the shower turning on. She lay in bed, listening to Ben having a shower, feeling at once both voyeuristic and strangely comforted. She fell asleep.
AT LUNCH THE next day she saw Ben sitting by himself in the cafeteria. Not wanting to eat another lunch alone, Rachel approached his table.
‘Mind if I join you?’ she asked.
‘It’s a free country,’ said Ben, shrugging his shoulders in imitation of a bored teenager.
Rachel smiled. ‘No it isn’t.’
‘You sure you want to sit here?’ he asked, tipping a chair out for her with his foot.
‘Why not? You expecting someone? I hear the girls in biotech are gagging for it.’ Rachel sat down, enjoying the casual flirtation permitted between fellow countrymen. But Ben didn’t smile.
‘Probably not a good idea,’ he said. ‘For you, I mean. People talk.’ Ben stood up. ‘Sorry,’ he said, before walking away. Rachel went back to her office.
‘I heard you had lunch with Ben,’ said Khadija, appearing as if from nowhere.
‘Umm, not really,’ said Rachel.
‘Best to avoid him,’ said Aziz, looking up from his desk. ‘Ben isn’t a good person.’
‘He’s not a good person,’ agreed Khadija.
Rachel felt besieged from both sides. ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘why not? Please, tell me what’s wrong with him.’
Aziz glanced at Khadija, who quickly glanced away. ‘Just keep your distance, that’s my advice,’ he said, busying himself with some papers.
THE NEXT TERM Rachel had a class made up almost entirely of Jalaani boys. The warnings she’d received about the other teachers paled in comparison to the warnings she’d received about the Jalaani boys.
Jalaan was an area about sixty kilometres from the college, at the foot of a rocky mountain in the desert. In the 1970s, when the Sultan had united the tribes, the people of Jalaan were somehow left out of the proceedings. Whether due to isolation, a reluctance to modernise or simple apathy (the latter being the teachers’ guess), the Jalaanis remained cut off from the world until 2010, when a highway was built, funded by the gas plant, connecting the desert villages with the coastal ports. Before that, there was no road in or out of Jalaan, no schools, jobs or industry. After the road was built young Jalaanis began to dribble into nearby towns – slowly at first, then in great waves as word got home of the pleasures of modernity. But it came at a price. In exchange for the evening football games on the beach, the cable TV, soft drink and air-conditioning, and the possibility of a job, even for the girls, the Jalaanis had to get an education.
According to the other teachers, they were impossible to teach, particularly the boys. They’d arrive late, without books or pens, and completely ignore (or were ignored by) the other students. The girls would sit together at the back, faces fully covered, heads down, not talking at all. The boys were rude and brash, the girls timid and withdrawn: that was the staffroom consensus. And none of them had any respect. There was even rumour that two boys had fled to fight in Syria. Rachel doubted it – they were just young. She’d taken an immediate liking to them, especially the boys. They had attitude, reminding her of the tough-guy swagger of black Americans on TV. But beneath that veneer, beneath their strict, almost aggressive fundamentalism, beneath their casually pursed lips and twinkling eyes when she handed them back a paper, she could see typical young men, insecure and sweet, trying to make an impression. If she had to admit it, though, she liked them mainly because nobody else did. The rest of the students despised the Jalaanis – they were backward desert dwellers, unfamiliar with mobile phones and Facebook, terrible drivers, followers of some archaic version of Islam. The city hadn’t accepted them, and so Rachel had. The boys, at least; the Jalaani girls, so quiet and vulnerable, still made her uncomfortable.
‘Miss, what’s a GM food?’ one of the boys asked one day. ‘Haram?’
This word came up often – too often, Rachel thought, for an applied science college. It meant forbidden. The Jalaanis would shout haram to everything – from music to birth control to bioengineering. At least they were curious, thought Rachel, though it was as if they wanted to know what things were just to prove them forbidden. Strangely, she kind of admired their steadfast refusal to accept many of the dictates of modern science, and was even flattered by their attempts to convert Rachel to their righteous path. They’d leave with little education, no skills and lacking the wasta of the other students – nobody would give them a job based on family ties alone.
‘It’s probably haram,’ said Rachel, after describing the process of genetic modification.
‘Then why do we need to know it?’
It was a good point, thought Rachel, who didn’t have an answer.
BACK AT HER office, Rachel told Aziz about how she’d been left with a class of only Jalaani boys.
‘What? That doesn’t sound right,’ he said, sensing the prospect of some quality assurance. ‘I should probably talk to the head of department.’
‘Don’t worry about it. It’s fine. I think they’re lovely. Misunderstood.’
‘See how you feel by week ten,’ said Aziz, shuffling into the hall on his way to the HOD’s office. The HOD was an Englishman who had, according to rumour, once been a Catholic priest but had left the clergy, converted to Islam and moved to the Middle East. He was notoriously disorganised and lazy, but managed to keep his job, people suspected, purely because of his commitment to his adopted faith. Rachel had only met him once, on her first day, and he had persisted in calling her Becky.
After ten minutes Aziz returned. ‘He said he doesn’t know who you are.’
‘You should have called me Becky.’
‘Why would I do that?’ asked Aziz.
‘He said he’d look into it, but that it happened from time to time.’ The initial enthusiasm for quality assurance had drained from Aziz’s voice. ‘He said they usually just gave Ben the Jalaanis.’
RACHEL SAW BEN in the cafeteria the next day, sitting by himself. She approached, not dissuaded from her last attempt at conversation.
‘So,’ she said, taking a seat at his table without it being offered, ‘how’s your class?’
Ben looked up from his plate of chicken biryani. ‘It’s okay. Yours?’
‘Kind of strange,’ said Rachel. ‘Nothing but Jalaani boys.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Ben didn’t seem surprised. More than anything, Rachel thought, he seemed uncomfortable, the way he poked at his rice, not making eye contact. ‘They tell you everything is haram?’ he said.
‘Yep,’ said Rachel. ‘But they’re not so bad.’
Ben looked up from his rice. ‘You sure about that?’
‘And if they get out of line I’ll just get all Michelle Pfeiffer on them.’
‘Dangerous Minds. Don’t worry.’
‘You’ll be right,’ said Ben, standing up from the table. ‘Good luck, don’t let them walk all over you. Don’t give them a chance.’ And he left Rachel sitting by herself.
THAT NIGHT, BACK at her apartment, while Rachel was watching a documentary about bonobo apes, she heard Ben come stumbling up the stairs. She’d been admiring the bonobo’s matriarchal society, the sexual independence of the females, and had been pushing away the unjust and unfavourable comparisons to her own adopted society. She’d had to continually remind herself that there were other issues – religious, geo-political, economic, historical – and that human civilisation was much more complex than a bunch of monkeys in Malaysia. But then she heard Ben coming up the stairs. With so much time alone, and few available men, Rachel was forced to admit that Ben – with his strong arms, surfer’s complexion and standoffish manner, and an aura of haram generated from the warnings of Aziz – was exactly the type of man she liked. Inspired by the bonobos, Rachel decided to go upstairs.
Ben let her in. He was shirtless, revealing a tribal tattoo on his chest – not terrible, Rachel thought, but not very nice either – and was wearing black jeans and holding a glass of red wine.
‘Drink?’ he said, spilling a little of his own in the gesture.
‘Love one,’ said Rachel. ‘It’s been three months. Where do you even get wine? Is it even allowed?’
‘Haram, of course. But there are places. Know the right people.’ Ben led her into his dining room, which was identical to her own, but had a lot more furniture. Unlike Rachel’s, Ben’s apartment actually looked like someone lived there. Rachel complimented him on a tapestry hanging from the wall.
‘From Istanbul,’ he said. ‘Stay here a while, you get shit from everywhere.’
‘Too long,’ said Ben. ‘Eight years come December. But I like it. I’ll do another eight, inshallah.’
Rachel drank her wine quickly and beckoned for another. Ben poured her a glass right to the top, doing the same for himself. Rachel didn’t recognise the label, but it looked and tasted expensive.
‘So, other than to drink my wine, to what do I owe the visit?’ He hadn’t put a shirt on and, to Rachel, seemed quite drunk. Not standoffish at all; now, he was meeting her gaze, a glimmer of playfulness in his bloodshot, brown eyes.
‘I was just hoping I could get some advice about the Jalaani boys,’ Rachel lied, ‘they’re becoming a bit of a handful.’ Whatever bond had existed a moment ago quickly disappeared. Ben looked away, then walked into his bedroom. He returned wearing a shirt.
‘I don’t want to hear about it,’ he said. ‘Let’s talk about something else.’
‘Okay,’ she said, ‘how about where you got this wine?’
‘Hmm, a good question. It doesn’t have an address. And it’s not the kind of place you should go alone.’ Ben stood up, his mood lightening quickly. ‘Finish your drink, I’ll show you.’
Rachel sat in the front seat of Ben’s Lexus, wondering what the punishment for drink driving was here. Deportation? An exorbitant bribe? The amputation of a limb? She wasn’t worried about an accident – there were very few cars on the new, wide roads – and besides, she’d driven drunk countless times herself in Australia, where the punishments, she thought, far outweighed the crime.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Ben, ‘I know the chief of police. A good bloke. Loves a drink himself.’
‘Oh I’m not worried,’ said Rachel, ‘but now I’m curious. How do you know the coppers?’
‘You’ll see. The cops run the bar.’ Ben parked the car outside a jewellery shop and they both got out. The streets were full of migrant workers – Indian, Pakistani, Bengali, Sri Lankan – all men, standing against shop windows, milling around street signs, texting on their phones. They stared as Rachel and Ben passed by, some of them offering polite nods, others just staring, shocked. Ben led Rachel down a dark, narrow alley behind an electronics store, until they came to a door, outside of which stood two old Omani men in dishdashas, who offered their salaams and opened
Inside, the bar was nothing like Rachel had expected. She was disappointed. She’d hoped for dim lighting, men sitting on rugs around shishas, maybe a one-toothed snake charmer, incense, maybe a resident cat, purring softly to the sound of a zither. Instead, she heard the hum of the bright, fluorescent lamps overhead; smelt the stench of old beer, cheap tobacco and about thirty men, who sat in parallel lines at plastic tables, facing a soccer game broadcast from a flat-screen TV on the wall.
‘Of all the gin joints in all the world…’
‘It’s the only bar in town,’ said Ben, taking a seat. ‘Can’t be picky.’ Soon a young woman in jeans and a tight shirt, which displayed ample cleavage, approached their table.
‘Evening Morocco,’ said Ben.
‘G’day Australia,’ said the Moroccan. ‘Tiger? And for your friend?’
‘Two Tigers,’ said Ben, and the Moroccan walked away, the eyes of half the bar following her. When she disappeared into another room, their eyes went to Rachel.
‘They don’t mind looking,’ said Rachel, smiling at an older man at a table nearby.
‘Oh I don’t mind. Not much different to Australia.’
‘They used to look at me, before you arrived.’ Ben smiled at Rachel, a touch of playfulness returning. ‘See that man over there? He’s the police chief. Not sure he does much policing though.’ Ben waved to an Omani man near the exit, who returned the gesture. ‘And that man, with the black headscarf, sitting with the others? He’s the head of the Al Balushi tribe, pretty powerful around here.’ Ben nodded his head towards the corner, and the man in the black keffiyeh replied by waving Ben over.
‘I should say hello,’ said Ben. ‘Sorry, back in a sec.’
Rachel sipped her beer and smoked a cigarette, feeling the eyes of everyone on her, and not really minding at all. She’d return their gaze and, unlike in Australia, they wouldn’t look away guiltily but would hold the stare until Rachel would be forced to look down, embarrassed. It wasn’t anything sexual, she thought. It’s a different culture, that’s all, where staring wasn’t considered rude or weird. In fact, to them, maybe it was her who was being rude by returning the gaze, or even just by being there. Rachel decided to ignore the men and pretend to watch the soccer. At that moment Ben came back.
‘They want to meet you,’ he said. ‘That okay?’
‘Sure,’ said Rachel, following Ben to the far corner, where four men in dishdashas sat drinking shots from a wine bottle. They each stood up as Rachel approached, putting their right arms to their chests and bowing slightly. Only one of them – Abdulla, the tribal leader who Ben had pointed to – spoke English, and so it was mostly he who spoke, while Rachel listened, feeling the eyes of the others on the flourish of her lips, the swell of her chest, the flicker of her hair in the fluoro light.
‘And how you like the Gulf?’ Abdulla asked, smiling politely. He was very good-looking, Rachel thought, for an older man, and had the air of someone in a position of power. Rachel liked those types of men – confident, articulate, charming: she enjoyed the challenge.
‘Yeah it’s heaps good,’ replied Rachel. ‘I mean, I like it a lot. Beautiful, and the people are so nice.’ Abdulla smiled to his friends, saying something in Arabic. They each smiled at Rachel.
‘They are glad you like them,’ he said. ‘Let’s drink!’ Abdulla poured out shots from the bottle and they all drank, slamming the glasses down on the plastic table. Soon the fluorescent lights were switched off and Rachel saw that a small stage had been assembled where the television had been, upon which a man was setting up a microphone above a keyboard. A strobe light flashed bright colours against the man, and behind him somebody had hung a red velvet curtain. The man began to play. Everyone became quiet at once as the eerie, high-pitched notes pinged off the cement walls of the bar. This was more like it, thought Rachel. Or was it? She’d come all this way just to end up in an Arabic version of a Lynch film…but as Ben said, you couldn’t be picky. Soon conversation resumed, only louder, competing now with the discordant wail of Middle Eastern pop music. Abdulla and his friends kept filling up glasses, touching one another, laughing. They were grown men, powerful men, but to Rachel they suddenly looked like boys, the way they egged each other on to drink, entwined limbs, held hands, kissed. She watched the dance floor fill up with men, swinging each other about.
‘Is it always like this?’ Rachel asked Ben.
‘Every night. It gets weird.’
‘Is it like a…a gay bar?’
‘Not really. I mean, they all have wives.’
‘But do they actually…’
Ben took Rachel’s hand and moved her toward the dance floor. Rachel didn’t mind that he hadn’t asked, but she was a little embarrassed when the other dancers moved away to make a place for them, clapping in time to the music.
‘You’re not in Brissy anymore darl,’ Ben said, swinging Rachel around. Soon she was grabbed on the shoulder by another man who, despite the music, initiated some kind of slow waltz. She could see Ben over her partner’s shoulder, laughing. And then another man cut in – this time in a police uniform, gun and all – and began a surreal imitation of a breakdance battle. Rachel laughed as, one by one, the men took it in turns to dance with her, each with a different style, and each growing progressively more adventurous. Their hands began to creep up her arms, or awkwardly patrol the small of her back, or, on one occasion, flicker against her breast. Really, it wasn’t that different to Brisbane after all.
She could see Ben sitting back at the table, talking to Abdulla. She tried to make her way over to him but was pulled back to the dance floor. The men were getting greedier, inching closer and closer, and soon Rachel began to feel uncomfortable. She gestured to Ben, hoping he might intervene, but he didn’t notice her. Finally the music stopped, the men gave Rachel a polite bow or a handshake, and everyone resumed their seats.
‘Well, they love you!’ Ben said when Rachel returned to the table. The bottle was nearly gone and Ben had begun to slur.
‘No thanks to you. You just left me there!’
‘You could handle it. Told you, harmless. You have to remember, these people do not often meet women.’ Just then Abdulla put his arm around Rachel’s shoulders.
‘Any problems,’ he said, ‘you come to me. I solve it.’
Ben smiled at Abdulla, then said to them both, ‘Abdulla is the officer of cultural relations, or some shit. He keeps everyone in check.’ A perceptible bitterness had come into Ben’s voice.
‘You just come to me. I solve it,’ Abdulla repeated to Rachel. He got up and walked away, returning a moment later with a paper bag, which he handed to Ben. ‘For you both,’ he said. ‘Enjoy your evening.’ Abdulla and his friends walked out, exchanging polite goodbyes with Rachel.
‘What’s up with you?’ she said to Ben.
‘Nothing. Let’s get going.’
‘Fine, but I’m driving.’
‘Whatever.’ Ben handed Rachel the car keys and they walked out. Back in the car, Ben drew a bottle of wine from the paper bag Abdulla had given him.
‘French, ’87,’ he said. ‘Not bad.’ He retrieved a corkscrew from the glove box and opened the bottle. ‘Last year, before you came, we used to have heaps of parties at my place. Sometimes we’d pile into the car, head out to the dunes…’ Ben took a swig from the bottle.
‘Yes?’ Rachel said.
‘Hence the corkscrew in the glovey.’
‘Oh.’ Rachel was concentrating on driving. While not as drunk as Ben, she was still struggling to see straight. It was dark, and the road was so straight and flat, with nothing to give it contrast, that Rachel was forced to blink often to keep her perspective. The streetlights didn’t help: they were the colour of sand. She was relieved when their apartment block came into view.
‘Up for a drink?’ said Ben, getting out of the car. ‘Still at least half left, and lots more inside.’
Rachel felt torn. She wanted a drink. God she wanted a drink. But Ben was beginning to annoy her. It was a shame. Just two hours ago she’d had such high hopes. But still, she wanted a drink. She followed him up the stairs to his apartment.
Ben went to the stereo while Rachel poured wine for them both. ‘Creedence okay?’ said Ben, fiddling with the speakers. He opened a blind to reveal a full moon rising over the silhouetted sand dunes to the east. Rachel stood with two glasses of wine, looking at the moon, wondering what the Jalaani boys were doing. She pictured them camped in the lee of a dune, around a blazing fire, staring up at the moon.
‘A bad moon rising,’ she said.
‘You know your Creedence?’
Ben sat down on the couch, tapping the seat next to him. Rachel decided to remain standing. She imagined the scene was romantic: good wine, a full moon, dim lighting, music; two people, single and straight, trapped in a room, a country, a life, together. But she wasn’t feeling it.
‘Why did he give you wine?’ she asked, lighting one of Ben’s cigarettes.
Ben hesitated, taking a large sip from his glass. ‘Part of his job, I suppose. Cultural liaison and shit. Does it all the time.’ Ben tapped the seat next to him with slightly more force. ‘Come, join me.’
Rachel sat down. She suspected he was lying, but couldn’t see why. He was drunk, horny – hell, so was she – but the way he avoided topics of conversation, his mood swings, had made Rachel suspicious. Part of her wanted to take control of the situation, to have sex with him – after all, he was still good-looking and available – but the other part of her saw a damaged man, straining to retain the illusion of power. Rachel had no desire to submit to someone who had already surrendered. He could submit to her, of course (Rachel was reminded of the bonobos), but she wouldn’t have found that attractive either.
‘What happened to Becky?’ Rachel asked, as Ben’s hand settled on her thigh.
Withdrawing his hand quickly he said, ‘Where’d that come from?’
‘Why did she leave?’
‘It’s a tough place for women, I suppose.’ Ben seemed to be trying to supress something, but also seemed resigned. ‘It can be a tough place for everyone.’ He stood up. ‘Look, if we’re not going to fuck, you should probably leave.’
The way he said it sent a shiver down Rachel’s spine. You should probably leave. It reminded Rachel of a movie she’d seen – The Incredible Hulk – where the Hulk warns away everyone he loves to protect them from his outbursts. He’d warned her of what he had the potential to become.
Lying in bed, listening to him pace back and forth above her, she imagined a caged gorilla, trapped, for everyone’s protection. She was glad she’d left.
SIX WEEKS LATER Rachel was sitting in her office, planning a lesson on microscopes. She had to teach the Jalaanis to use them, but couldn’t think of what to examine.
‘Try sand,’ suggested Aziz. ‘They’ll be comfortable with that at least.’
Rachel nodded tiredly. She was becoming sick of everyone’s dismissive attitude towards the Jalaanis. They needed nurturing, that was all. The curiosity was there, it just needed to be sparked. She saw the way their eyes lit up when she entered the room; she just wished they would make the leap from the desire for knowledge to the attainment of knowledge. It was as if, each day, her job began anew – yesterday’s lessons fallen like sand through a sieve, or painted over by higher principles. Like everything here, God always came into it. And she respected them for that, was awed by the commitment to faith that she could never share. Her passion for science and education, or anything for that matter, paled against their piety.
Her enthusiasm for teaching, though, was waning. None of the other teachers were helping. They’d all given up, or had never cared in the first place. She’d found out from Aziz that it wasn’t even supposed to be her class. The class had been assigned to Ben, who’d managed to somehow swap the schedules right under the HOD’s nose. Knowledge of the conceit only further enhanced her distrust of Ben, whom she hadn’t seen since the night in his apartment. If we’re not going to fuck, you should probably leave. She’d heard from another teacher that he’d been on a bender and had called in sick a couple of times. Rachel didn’t care. She just needed something to look at really, really closely. She decided to collect a few of the wildflowers from the compound wall. The veins might be interesting, and at least they were colourful – the Jalaanis could decide if they were haram.
THAT AFTERNOON SHE saw Ben sitting on the stairs outside the apartment block. He was conspicuously drunk, gripping a wine bottle, and Rachel was worried some locals might see him. Drinking in public, public drunkenness – she didn’t want to know the punishment for that.
‘Come on, get inside,’ she said, grabbing him on the arm. ‘People can see you.’
‘Doesn’t matter anymore,’ said Ben, following her into the building. ‘I’m done with this country. Finished. Just found out my contract has been terminated. Have to be out by Monday.’
‘What? What happened?’ Rachel was genuinely shocked. Despite his current state, Ben was a good teacher, and in this country it was as difficult to get fired as it was to be replaced. She led Ben into his own apartment.
‘The other teachers, I suppose. The dean. I don’t know. The Jalaani boys.’
Rachel had had enough. ‘What the fuck does everyone have against the Jalaani boys? The only person more despised than they are is you.’
Ben swigged from the bottle. ‘There’s a reason for that. You wanted to know about Becky? What happened to her? It doesn’t matter anymore. I suppose I can tell you.’
Rachel listened as Ben stumbled his way through a series of vague insinuations, self-justifications and contradictory occurrences. He told her how he’d had a party last year in his apartment. All of the other teachers had turned up and, towards the end of the night, so had a few of the students – a few boys from Jalaan.
‘The Jalaanis don’t go to parties!’ Rachel interrupted.
‘They weren’t invited. But these ones came. I was downstairs at the time, with Becky. Your apartment now. She wanted to fuck. I felt obliged.’
Ben looked at Rachel, a smirk creeping across his face, as if telling this story was turning him on. Rachel felt repelled.
‘So her and I are fooling around, you know how it is, and then three Jalaanis came in. You know them. They’re huge, all muscle and balls. They see us there, half naked. One of them hits me, pushes me against the wall. I was out maybe twenty minutes. When I wake up it’s just Becky there, sobbing on the floor, completely naked, blood coming out her lip.’
‘My God,’ said Rachel. ‘You’re making this up.’
Ben just smiled, his teeth stained red. ‘I’m about to call the police when Becky says, “No, no police”. I thought of the party still going upstairs, the illegal booze, the lump of hash, and I had to agree with her.’
‘You did nothing?’
‘What could I do? The deed was done. I called Abdulla, who you met, the fucking cultural liaison officer. He was here in minutes. He drove us to hospital. We sat in the waiting area together. “I’ll sort it out,” he said to me. We just had to keep our mouths shut. Becky was on the next plane home. Everyone thought I did it. I have no fucking time for your Jalaani mates.’
‘And now you get free wine, just for keeping your mouth shut?’
‘Pretty much. A lot of bloody good it did me, though. Kept the Jalaanis in town, that’s all Abdulla wanted. An American gang-raped? It would’ve been the end of the experiment. The highway finished. The Jalaanis gone back to their sand dunes and bonfires and FGM and camels. That’s what should’ve happened.’
Rachel simply couldn’t believe it. Ben had lied about other things, but would he lie about this? And he even dared to bring female circumcision into it. But a few things added up…
‘Believe what you want,’ said Ben, reclining on the couch. ‘I told you, this can be a difficult place.’ He closed his eyes. Rachel went down to her apartment, still holding a bag of shrivelled wildflowers in her hands. She stared at the vacant space where Becky’s pictures had once hung and jotted notes in her journal, until the sounds of the Morning Prayer rose through her window, signalling the approach of dawn.
THREE DAYS LATER, Ben was gone. Nobody talked about it, but Rachel felt a sense of relief settling in the staffroom. They were all paid well, holidays included. Ben’s presence, Rachel thought, had been an unwelcome intrusion on their easy lives, or an unwelcome reminder of their complicated ones. People began to smile at her in the hallways, and even her students seemed to have lightened up. They’d loved examining the flowers in the microscope, watching the veins grow larger, like rivers in flood, as they slowly zoomed in. Rachel needed a break though. She didn’t know what to think.
The next weekend she drove past the gas plant towards Qurayyat. She followed a sign to Wadi Shab, on the highway to Jalaan. She turned off onto a dirt track and camped the night alone under the shelter of a cliff face, tracing the moon with her eyes. In the morning, back on the highway heading home, the fanbelt blew. She knew how to replace it, but didn’t have a spare. Bloody rentals, she thought. Such a small thing – a fanbelt – but so necessary. For over an hour she stood in the hot desert sun, waiting for a car to pass. Eventually, she saw a Jeep approaching on the road from Jalaan. There were four men leaning out of the windows, their black headscarves flying in the wind. The driver offered her a lift, back in to town.
‘No broblem,’ said the driver. ‘We go that way anyway.’
BECKY HAD MARRIED at nineteen and was already divorced. She’d caught her husband in a bar in Phuket, making out with a person of transgender. After that, she just called them ladyboys. Becky knew how to hold a grudge, and she was proud of it. It was, she reasoned, part of what made her American. Americans get offended and react; the British get offended but say nothing; and the Australians offend people. After spending five years in South-East Asia, then three in the Middle East, nobody was yet to disprove her theory. She liked being American.
Upon finishing her degree in social science at a small college in South Carolina, Becky and her then husband had moved to Cambodia to work at an orphanage. Following that was a brief stint at a university in Vietnam, and then a year in Iraq. Becky was drawn by the remnants of war. After a holiday in Phuket, and walking into the wrong bar at the wrong time, she moved back to the Gulf alone.
Becky had two main goals at this point in her life: to finally pay off her crippling student debt, and to make the world a better place. The first just took patience, but the second was more complicated. It required a sort of ripple effect, beginning in her own body, then emanating through her apartment, her community, her town, country, planet and universe, expanding in concentric circles of increasing size but decreasing power. Her effect on the world was, she regretted, barely perceptible, so she focused instead on her apartment.
The first thing she did when she moved in was replace the curtains with a set of Jordanian silks she’d brought from Baghdad. She bought a rug from the souk, which vaguely matched the curtains, and removed all of the sticky tape left by the previous tenant from the walls. She put up a large poster of Angkor Wat and hung a black-and-white print of Marilyn Monroe, skirt flying over a subway grate, next to it. She bought two framed pieces of Arabic calligraphy from the gift market and hung them on either side of her lounge room window. She didn’t know what the letters meant, but at least they looked nice. Often, she thought, the aesthetics of culture had more value than the culture itself – and often they were synonymous.
Around her apartment she taped clippings of motivational quotes, mostly from the Dalai Lama and Confucius, which she’d collected over the years. In her bedroom was a large poster of Humphrey Bogart as Rick from Casablanca, with the quote I came here for the waters above his head, and I was misinformed below it. She had a vase shaped like a swan on one bedside table, and a copy of the Koran in English on the other. She’d stopped reading the Koran soon after she’d arrived, citing its awkward, repetitive style, but had kept it because it had a very ornate cover. Her fridge gripped a lifetime of postcards, and she had a welcome mat that said ‘welcome’. She was proud of her apartment, and much happier when she was inside it.
Other than for work, she would only leave her apartment to go shopping at the new mall, owned by the gas plant, which had been built on the northern edge of town. She hated all the stares she attracted when walking through the mall, but still refused to cover her arms. She liked her arms. Besides, the lingerie models who adorned the windows of the Zara and H&M stores were much more scantily clad. They couldn’t have it both ways – if you wanted to sell nice women’s clothing, you had to be prepared to see nice women wearing them. She would stick to the women’s escalators, but only because the men would refuse to move out of her way. Despite this, the mall was one the places where she felt she still had a vestige of power. This was her territory – it had a Pizza Hut and Starbucks – and they would play by her rules.
She’d long since given up any such claim to power in the classroom.
The students mistook Becky’s initial enthusiasm for a critique of their own. She was a passionate teacher, but the educational environment here was more nuanced and required a different pedagogy than the one she’d come armed with from her own college. In the West, passion was revered; here it was reserved for religion. She taught social science, and was constantly amazed at how little the students seemed to care about the inner workings of society and culture. Granted, it was mostly her society and culture – taught in English and following Harvard textbooks – but still, she’d expected more interest.
The main problem, she thought, was the maintenance of gender segregation in a mixed class. The men would sit on one side of the room, the women on the other; they had separate entrances to class, and separate hallways; the men and women would never speak. It was ridiculous, the lengths they went to in avoiding each other. Another teacher might have seen the fierce respect embodied in every effort at avoidance, but not Becky – a pragmatist, she saw only the difficulty it created in conducting group activities or pair work. Even the architecture was designed to segregate; in a place where sex was always hidden, gender was everywhere. So Becky spent most of her time in her apartment, blogging about culture, and taking trips to the mall. She’d watch nature shows at night, listening to Ben pacing the floor above her. She was friendly with a few of the teachers at school, mostly the women, but Ben was the only person she was interested in.
Ben was her nemesis. God she hated him. For a literature teacher, he didn’t know any of the writers she liked. Paulo Coelho? Arundhati Roy? Yann Martel? Toni Morrison? Haruki Murakami? No, no, no, maybe, no. She was proud of her gender and ethnically diverse tastes, and saw Ben’s ignorance of these writers as an abomination. What was he teaching these people, anyway? He’d counter with Shakespeare, Faulkner, Nabokov, Tolstoy, by which point she’d lose interest. More white men. Becky relished lines of divide, and you had to be firmly on one side or the other. Integration of gender was one thing, but integration of ideology was something else.
Also, Ben was Australian. Becky hated Australians. Her time in South-East Asia had shown them to be rude, racist, drunk, loud and uneducated. While she’d been delivering care packages to the children of Agent Orange victims, the Australian volunteers had been drinking fifty-cent beers at the bucket bars, bargaining over the price of Bintang singlets. Becky had told them how she felt, and was even more disgusted when they didn’t seem to care. Ben was no different – educated, maybe, but stereotypes were there for a reason, and Becky was no ‘cultural relativist’. This was 2016: cultural relativism was so last century.
But for all that, Becky would still lie awake at night, listening to Ben pacing above her. She imagined him drunk, wrestling with some kind of midlife crisis; maybe doing push-ups in front of a mirror, maybe masturbating to burka porn. But still, she listened. At the college he hadn’t paid her much attention, but was always surrounded by a flock of admiring students, mostly the girls. What they saw in him she didn’t know. Out here, she supposed, any man who wasn’t your husband or father or uncle or brother was a rarity, and the chance to flash your eyelashes, or subtly show a hint of sleeve through your abaya, was an opportunity not to be missed. There was so much pent-up sexual energy floating around, it had to be focused on something. And that something just happened to be Ben, through lack of other options. She supposed he was good looking, in that rough, rockmelon-skinned Australian way, but he was no Humphrey Bogart.
One evening, just as a sandstorm was settling down outside, Becky heard a loud crash coming from Ben’s apartment. Curious, she went upstairs and knocked on Ben’s door. The Rolling Stones were playing on the stereo and his apartment smelt like sweat and cigarettes. Ben was shirtless, and had blood coming from his forehead. Becky could see a trail of blood leading to the bathroom, where fragments of glass were scattered on the floor. ‘What the hell happened?’ she asked.
He told her he’d just headbutted the bathroom mirror. ‘Nothing to see here.’
He was such a cliché. What was he, like, fifteen? Becky asked if there was anything she could do to help. Did he want to talk about it? Ben just replied that it was some kind of Lacanian therapy he was working on, regression through the stages or some shit. He offered her a beer.
They talked about Lacan for all of ten seconds, then argued about the writers they liked, before finally talking about the other teachers at the college. After an hour or so of pleasant enough conversation, Becky went back downstairs, feeling a little tipsy. She went into her own bathroom and examined herself in the mirror. In two weeks she would turn thirty. Small wrinkles were beginning to form around her eyes, like dry creek beds leading to a wadi pool. Her lips were no longer full and soft, but were cracking from the relentless heat and wind; or maybe, she admitted, from the force of her air-conditioning. Her hair was still completely black, but she could sense that greys weren’t far off. She put on some red lipstick and some mascara around her eyes. Tomorrow, she would buy more make-up. It must be hard for men, she thought. Looking into a mirror and knowing there was nothing they could do. To shave or not to shave, that was the only question. She loved being able to control her own appearance, but felt that, as she aged, time would take ever-increasing command. She wasn’t looking forward to her birthday.
The next day, she went to the mall during her lunch break. There was a L’Oréal store she liked, but it was always very busy. She tried to time her shopping with the midday Call to Prayer, but had obviously just missed it. The shop was full of young women in full black abayas, hijabs and niqabs, applying make-up to the small amounts of skin they had available. Becky was envious of how well the colours stood out against their olive complexions; how well their lashes held the mascara; how regal their nails looked. They produced great effect despite a limited canvas, and the picture was enhanced by its sombre, black frame. The girls giggled and posed like teenagers at the mall back home, making Becky nostalgic for the world she’d left nearly ten years ago. Sorority parties. Tailgates. Getting all dressed up with some place to go. She collected what she needed, stood in line for thirty minutes, then drove back to college for her afternoon classes.
A few days later there was a malfunction with the security system at the college. The cameras had all turned off, and the bomb detectors were picking up bombs everywhere. Rather than switch off the system, the head of security, in consultation with the dean, decided to close the college for the rest of the week. There were wars in Yemen and Syria, protests in parts of Saudi and Bahrain – and even though there was little threat here, it was decided that this was not a time to become complacent. The teachers were told to go home, and to report back for duty the following Sunday.
They decided to celebrate. Thanks to faulty Chinese technology and the vague threat of war, they’d been given a long weekend. They went to the Plaza Hotel, where non-Muslims were allowed to drink overpriced Heinekens, so long as they also ordered food. After a few beers, sitting at long tables outside in the sun, the teachers became more open – friendly even – talking about problems with students, how much they missed home, other places they’d lived, problems with Islam. This was their one chance to vent all of the frustrations that had been brewing over time. The women were especially vocal. Only at the Plaza could they truly let their hair down – though even there they felt the judging gaze of the Pakistani waiters, and dreaded the drunken taxi ride home. Their experiences in the Gulf had made them appreciate the freedoms women had won in the West, but also wonder why they’d had to fight for them in the first place. Was there something innately comforting about division of gender? Some a priori truth that the modern woman was mistakenly subverting, in the name of cultural progression? Of course not, they agreed; but then, could they not freely condemn their hosts? The people who couldn’t trust themselves enough to allow unmarried men and women in the same room together, who pricked the clitorises of their daughters? They scoffed knowingly at Facebook feminism.
‘Free the nipple?’ one of them said. ‘I just want to free my elbow.’
As the waiters disappeared for the Evening Prayer, Ben decided to invite everyone back to his place to continue the party. To convince them to join in, Becky told them it was her birthday – they had to come.
Becky went into her apartment on the way to Ben’s. Her make-up had begun to run and she wanted to change clothes. Standing in front of her bathroom mirror, she washed her face. She dabbed some Maybelline liquid foundation on her cheeks with her index finger, careful to get a nice, even coverage. Over the top of that she brushed some of her new Revlon powder foundation to take away some of the shine, as her mother had taught her. Make-up was all about trust, her mum had said. The stronger the foundation, the more faith it instilled. She then used a charcoal liquid eyeliner on her outer eyelids, extending the line a little toward her ears. This created a ‘winged’ look, reminding her of Ingrid Bergman, and gave her eyes a hint of smoke. With her finger she dabbed a little of the eyeliner on her cheeks, another trick her mum had taught her, to accentuate her cheekbones. Putting on some red Chanel lipstick, she inspected the pterygium that had been growing in her left eye. It had appeared about ten years ago, when she’d moved to Cambodia, and had been growing slowly ever since. It didn’t affect her vision but she hated it, and after too long in the sun it sometimes became inflamed, moving toward her iris and becoming noticeable to others. It was inflamed now, but there was nothing she could do. Her doctor had refused to operate until her vision was threatened. She could have probably insisted but, self-consciously, didn’t want to appear self-conscious.
She was also worried about a noticeable loss of plumpness in her cheeks, as if the collagen were slowly draining away. She was only thirty, but already she felt she needed work done. This was not a kind place to women’s skin. After she’d finished, she stood back and studied her work. She was not viewing herself, she was imagining how others would view her, how Ben would see her. As much as she hated him, after the afternoon beers, the loneliness, the lack of other men…all of a sudden, Ben was becoming a viable option. She remembered Sharon Stone’s speech at the end of some ’90s film she used to watch with her girlfriends: I’m a sexually aggressive woman. Tonight, Becky would have the power.
Reasoning that it would only be the other Western teachers coming back to Ben’s, she put on a black miniskirt she’d bought in Bahrain and a sleeveless red top that showed a hint of cleavage. She examined herself again before walking up the stairs to Ben’s apartment.
The party was already in full swing as Becky entered. Her friends, Amy and Sara, were drinking red wine from coffee cups, standing in front of Ben’s tapestry. It was a nice tapestry, said Becky, and her friends agreed.
‘From Istanbul,’ said Ben, approaching from the kitchen. The four of them chatted about the various artefacts they’d collected from around the world. Becky tried to steer the conversation toward her favourite topic – culture – while Ben kept invoking literature. For the first time ever, they managed to reach a consensus. Ben was advocating for the fact that some writers were simply better than others, regardless of your cultural perspective. There was such a thing as good art. If you didn’t like Bach, the fault didn’t lie with Bach but in your own undeveloped tastes. Becky argued for the supremacy of aesthetics when assigning cultural value. You could say that one culture was better than another, based purely on the beauty it produced – though Becky wasn’t sure how to judge ‘beauty’. But Ben was. Shakespeare was beautiful, Murakami was not. Turkish tapestries were beautiful, wallpaper was not. She realised that, if you accepted Ben’s premise, and you accepted her own, then it was perfectly reasonable to do the unthinkable: to value one culture over another.
There was no moon, and very few street lights. Ben suggested they all go to the rooftop to look at the stars. The party moved upstairs, where they stood around, drinks in hand, playing music from Ben’s portable stereo. They were in full view of the street and the surrounding apartment blocks. Cars moved slowly along the road below, windows wound down. A few cars honked their horns, yelling things in Arabic. A black Jeep with Jalaani plates nearly came to a stop, but decided to keep going. None of the teachers seemed to care. This was their home too, they weren’t doing any harm. A Jamiroquai song came on the portable stereo and Becky gestured for Ben to dance with her. She drew him close, let him smell her perfume, padded her fingers down his arms.
‘My place?’ she whispered. The Jeep circled back again.
AS BEN FELL to the floor, blood gushing from above his eye, Becky felt the impact as if it had been her who’d been punched. She recognised one of the boys, Mahmoud, a former student of hers, and it was to him she looked for help. Their eyes met. His were black, the pupils large, and were darting from her to his friends. He shrugged his shoulders, as if there were nothing he could do. Things were set in motion, nobody – not her, him, or them – had the power to change the situation. That power was God’s alone, and He was yet to intervene. His shrug was a negation of responsibility; if anything, the shrug said, it was you who caused this. Your clothes. Your make-up. Your drunkenness. What happens now is out of our control. Becky crouched to the floor, staring at the picture of Rick from Casablanca, as the other two men began removing her top. She didn’t resist. She focused on Rick. I came here for the waters.
Furiously, she pushed away her tears. She didn’t want these men – these Jalaani boys – to see the power they had over her. If she was going to be raped, it was going to be her rape.
One of them shoved her head to the floor and spread her legs, while Becky looked at the framed Arabic writing on her wall and bit her lip, trying to transfer all sensation away from her vagina. He clumsily tried to penetrate her, while the others watched, touching themselves through their robes. But he couldn’t do it, couldn’t find his way inside her. He was strong, his cock was hard, but his movements were awkward and unpractised. Sensing an advantage, Becky clamped her legs closed and spat in his face. One of the others laughed and they began arguing in Arabic. Flustered and angry, brown cheeks burning, the man who’d tried to rape her punched her in the mouth, before turning on his friend. While the two of them scuffled, Becky looked at Marilyn, skirt waving in the breeze. Mahmoud approached and she wiped the blood from her mouth. She didn’t hate him. She pitied him. He’d been a terrible student, and was now a terrible man. A terrible Muslim. She opened her arms, welcoming him to her. His penis was visible through his dishdasha, long and flaccid. He did up his robe and glared at her angrily before gesturing to his friends that it was time to go. The three of them looked embarrassed, shocked, as they put on their sandals and left the apartment. Becky stared at Rick from Casablanca, her eyes filling with tears. I was misinformed.
Ben woke up just as the black Jeep was speeding off, back to Jalaan.
JALAAN HAD A highly fluctuating population of around thirty thousand people, spread out in the desert like sunspots viewed through a pinhole projector; sometimes bigger, sometimes smaller, sometimes invisible, but always there. The new highway linked the spots; mapmakers gave the disparate tribes a collective name. Jalaan. They wore the name with pride. They drove the road with zeal in both directions.
Virtually all of the men had government-subsidised black Jeeps. The chances of this being the same Jeep were slim, Rachel reasoned. And she would never really know what happened to Becky. All she had was the vague testimony of an Australian drunk, who’d been passed out at the time anyway, and Rachel’s own version of events, concocted from the remnants of a life left behind. A postcard from Phuket. Some expensive red lipstick. Spaces where pictures had once hung. She didn’t have enough to go on. If she got in the car, was she being an apologist for rapists? She hated that word, a perfectly nice verb turned into a noun so sinister. Was she victim-blaming? She had deduced a lot from a small tube of lipstick.
But if she didn’t get in the car, what was she then? Smart, some might say. But, really, she was stranded in the desert in 40-degree heat; she was just being practical. And though these boys didn’t look familiar, and were a little older than her students, she’d met enough Jalaanis to know that they were never as bad as others made out. She looked through the back window. The men in the car looked more nervous than she was. One of them scowled at her through the glass, his face dark, a small scar above his eye. He didn’t look like the type of person a woman would normally accept a lift from. But she was alone in the desert and she needed a fanbelt. She’d come this far. Wiping the sweat from her eyes, she decided to get in the Jeep.
The two men in the back seat were dressed from head to toe in black robes and wearing black headscarves. The Jalaanis dressed differently to the other locals; more sombre, in the fashion of the Bedouin. Both men seemed angry, but shuffled over to make room for her. There was a roll of toilet paper and a shovel on her seat, which one of the men quickly passed over into the boot. They seemed nervous and uncomfortable. They didn’t look at her or offer any greeting. Only the two up front – a little younger than the others – bothered to attempt conversation.
‘My name Salem,’ the driver said in broken English, turning around, eyes off the road. ‘This Yousef and Zakaria,’ he indicated the two men next to her, ‘and this Ibrahim,’ he said, nodding to the man in the passenger seat.
‘We Jalaan,’ said Ibrahim, pointing his eyes back in the direction from which they’d come. ‘Sorry, English very bad.’
Rachel introduced herself. Salem and Ibrahim turned around and smiled, but the two next to her said nothing. Salem said something to them in loud, harsh Arabic, and Yousef, sitting in the middle next to Rachel, raised his right hand, held his fingers close together, and made a gesture similar to one Rachel had seen Lleyton Hewitt make after winning a big point. Come on.
Yousef yelled at Salem. In a string of angry words, Rachel could make out only one word, repeated over and over again. She’d heard it many times before.
Salem looked apologetically at Rachel. ‘No broblem,’ he said. ‘They crazy.’
Rachel was wearing loose cotton pants and a white blouse with sleeves that went down to her wrists. Her hair was mostly covered by her scarf, but she could feel long red strands blowing free down her forehead from the open window. Yousef had moved as far away from her as possible, yet seemed to want to go further – to hug up next to Zakaria, or to get out of the car all together. Salem said something to the men in the back, his tone softened now. Ashra daqayiq, Rachel heard. Ten minutes. But Yousef and Zakaria weren’t placated. They grew angrier, their voices rising with the sand dunes outside. Rachel tried to ignore them, to stop herself from shaking. She watched the dunes roll past like waves.
She imagined she was standing on the headland at Lennox Head, on her way back to Brisbane, looking south over Flat Rock and Shelly Beach, spotting bull sharks in the riffles of the waves, feeling the cool, salty wind blow against her tanned skin, ready to pile back into the Combi. But outside her window was nothing but slowly undulating sand, as far as the horizon in every direction. No trees. No rivers. No telegraph poles or churches. In town, thought Rachel, there was a mosque on every corner. She loved the way the Call to Prayer would issue from the minarets, rising sharply to meet God; how when you stood at a certain point between two mosques, you would hear the prayers from each coalescing above you; the way the decorative domes – entirely aesthetic, Rachel knew – resembled upside-down fish bowls, shimmering golden in the sun. It was a trimmed back, reserved kind of beauty, but it was beautiful all the same. But out here there were no mosques, just sun and sand and tar and silence. Beautiful only in its severity. Without God, Rachel thought, this was a very difficult place.
They hit a small pothole and Rachel felt something crash into the back of her head. It was a tentpole, come loose from the camping equipment in the back. Yousef picked it up off the floor.
‘Sorry,’ said Salem from the front. ‘You okay?’
Rachel put her finger behind her ear and it came back bloody.
‘I’m okay,’ she lied. Rachel could see Yousef’s hands wrapped around the
tentpole, his eyes black and darting. He yelled again at Salem, clutching the tentpole like a sword. He pounded the roof with his fist. Salem slowed the car down and pulled over to the side of the road. The men all got out of the car hurriedly. They were deciding something, but Rachel didn’t know what. To rape her? Is this what it had really been like in Becky’s apartment? Anger, confusion, so much pent up energy, oscillating between sex and violence? Salem gestured for Rachel to stay where she was. Far ahead, Rachel could see smoke rising from the gas plant. She watched the men arguing on the hot tar. She’d never been so afraid in her life, yet she wasn’t sure exactly what she was afraid of. She’d often been in situations she couldn’t understand – she was attracted by exactly those kind of situations, that’s why she travelled – but this one was different. The strangeness was affected by something else; coloured over with broad brushstrokes, it was affected by what happened to Becky.
Rachel told herself that there may have been plenty of different ways to view what had happened, but really there was only one: what happened to Becky was a terrible thing, and there was nothing ‘cultural’ about it. If culture was aesthetics, then what happened to Becky was grotesque, while if culture was religion and gender rules, then it contradicted both. Either way, Rachel was alone in a car in the desert, but she shouldn’t be afraid. The differences within cultures were often greater than the differences between them. They were arguing, that was all. She squinted her eyes against the sand blowing in from outside. She wouldn’t be afraid.
THE MEN HAD walked off the road into the sand dunes, and seemed to have calmed a little. Salem was holding Yousef’s neck, almost hugging him, speaking loudly into his ear, while the other two were sitting together sharing a cigarette. Rachel looked behind her at the camping gear in the back. It looked brand new. The tent itself was still in its original Camp World box.
Rachel was disappointed. She liked to imagine them under the stars, sipping karak atop a camel hide, tracing the positions of the planets with their fingers in the sand, calculating their trajectory. Science was so much easier, she thought. She wondered if the whole modern hang-up with ‘culture’ might be a bad thing. What happened to Becky was a manifestation of the darker side of our animal nature, and if culture had any place at all, it was to prevent it from happening again.
The men returned to the car. Rachel wrapped her scarf tightly around her head and shoulders, feeling it stick to the blood on her neck. This time, Salem and Ibrahim got in the back with Rachel, while Yousef drove, Zakaria in the passenger seat. They seemed to have reached some kind of compromise. Rachel remembered the way Khadija and Aziz would never be in the same room alone together, but would speak to each other through Rachel. It had been annoying, but they’d found a way. Four men alone with an unmarried woman in a car – this was most definitely haram but, in the aid of a stranger in distress, perhaps God could forgive them this small transgression. Yousef drove fast and angrily, not turning around once; but still, he drove. Rachel felt a pang of guilt. She was an invited guest in an Islamic country. In her own country, Arab kids were dying on islands tourists didn’t visit and where the beaches were probably shit. In her country, there was no compromise.
As the gas plant whizzed past on her right, Rachel noticed the new mall up ahead, glimmering in the sun like a perverse mirage, offering fast food and discount televisions. She was surprised at the sense of relief she felt at the sight of the mall. She hated shopping malls. Salem pulled a receipt out of his pocket, gesturing to the camping equipment in the back.
‘No good,’ he said to Rachel. ‘We take back.’ They turned into the vast, deserted car park, passing a mechanic at the entrance, and parked next to a sign that said ‘welcome shoppers’, with a picture of the Sultan, wearing a red turban and smiling, underneath. Each of them climbed out of the car.
‘We take back tent,’ said Salem, opening the boot. ‘Then get car thing.’ He made the motion of a whizzing fanbelt with his hands. ‘Then drive you back car. Okay?’
‘Shukran,’ said Rachel. ‘Cheers.’ Careful to keep her distance from the four men, each laden with brand new, possibly faulty camping equipment, Rachel followed them into the icily air-conditioned mall. At the front there was a large sign, in Arabic and English, explaining the mall’s rules. There was nothing about pets, theft, skateboards or smoking; it was all about gender and dress. In Saudi, Rachel knew, there were entirely separate malls for men and women, or at least times of day when men weren’t allowed. Here, though, one of the more liberal of the Islamic countries, they were experimenting with mixed malls, and once you started an experiment there was no going back. It had to work, and so the rules were clearly explained and the escalators clearly labelled. In the mall, there was no ambiguity, and that only added to the strangeness.
Rachel stood on the women’s escalator, watching the men from Jalaan ascending on the other side of the mall. They looked so unusual here, even in their own country. Tents were awkward to carry at the best of times, but here the men looked ridiculous, entirely anomalous to their surroundings. Their headscarves danced in the air-conditioning; their robes caught in the gaps between the escalator stairs. Behind them loomed the shiny facades of jewellery stores and menswear shops, Starbucks and Borders. Again, Rachel was overcome by the familiar sense of absolute strangeness, as if she were in a kind of modern re-creation of the sublime, where escalators replaced stairs to heaven and air-con replaced the wind.
Just then the lights went out and the air-con switched off. The escalators stopped moving. The power was out. She looked across at the Jalaanis, standing frozen on the stairs, facing upwards, Salem and Yousef sharing the burden of the camping equipment. Yousef was two stairs below Salem, one knee bent down, his shoulder supporting the bottom of the tent. Together, they reminded Rachel of a stained glass window she’d seen as a child, back when she used to go to church. She’d forgotten most of the stories of the Bible, most of the prayers, but that one piece of glass had remained etched in her memory. It had depicted Jesus and Simon of Cyrene on the way to the crucifixion. Jesus had fallen in the dirt, the cross too heavy, and Simon had been compelled to help him. Looking at the Jalaanis, stranded on an escalator on the way to Camp World, a receipt hidden in the folds of Salem’s robe, Rachel couldn’t help but smile. She closed her enyes, waiting to see what would happen next. The beauty, she knew, was in the strangeness, and sometimes best beheld in the dark.