Tina was losing what little patience she had left. Her boss kept pushing back the date for her to fly across the Persian Gulf to Kish, in Iran, to renew her work visa. First it was to be December 18th. Then the 22nd. She was coming up on six months now, six long months tending bar in Dubai, living in a shared plaster house surrounded by bulldozed roads and newly made curbs. She caught herself barking at customers and occasionally tormenting the impatient men trying to order a drink, ignoring them until they were furious; Tina chided herself for succumbing to all the bartender habits that had disturbed her when she first arrived in the Emirates. Her few friends, other white South African workers like herself, were planning a Christmas party that promised to relieve the bleakness. They were all in their twenties, like her, recruited to serve the tourists flocking to the hotels rising in great numbers along the pristine beaches that rimmed the empty, sandy land.
Her friends began taunting her when December 22nd had passed. “Don’t worry, Tina, Saint Nick will come visit you in Iran,” they teased. “He even has the full beard, so they’ll be sure to let him in.”
At last she got the go-ahead, on Christmas Eve. The midday flight across the gulf took less than an hour; below the plane the endless, bland haze on the sea was pierced here and there by oil derricks.
Tina’s boss had told her to take a big shawl and head covering. “You should have no problem over there,” he’d said. “It’s a little permit factory and it works. You and the others go in, stay overnight, get new visas the next day, and leave. Just keep covered up.”
Tina was herded through the Kish airport along with the other workers, collected from a dozen countries, who had all funneled into the Emirates for the jobs and the cash. They outnumbered the Dubai locals by nine-to-one: maids, receptionists, cooks, janitors, waitresses, drivers. Not slaves by any means, but slaving for their families back home and their intertwined futures. Their work visas required them to exit the country every six months, so by the planeload they made the same periodic hop across the gulf to the closest Emirates consulate, in Kish, to apply for fresh working papers. Tina gave her passport to the visa fixer waiting in the arrivals hall, and then she was shuttled to a dormitory room to be shared with an Egyptian, an Indian, and a slender young Pakistani woman named Salima who had sat next to Tina on the plane.
“I can’t believe we have to be here over Christmas,” Tina said as the girls tossed their small travel bags onto the bunk beds. Two of her roommates looked up in surprise. “Then again,” she smiled sheepishly, “I suppose that might not matter much to you.”
“Is today Christmas?” asked Muminah, the young woman from Cairo, in lilting English.
“No, it’s tomorrow,” said Salima. “Tina told me on the airplane.”
“Yup, perfect timing.” Tina looked around the small room, lit by two fluorescent ceiling lights. The room was like a sealed box with only a single, tiny window. “Hey—I saw the beach from the van. Anybody for a walk?”
Only Salima was willing and the deskman watched her and Tina as the two of them left the building, mumbling to himself as their long over-dresses lifted slightly on the new concrete steps, exposing one ankle each.
There were only a few men on the streets, in leather jackets that seemed too heavy for the warm weather. And there was no one on the beach, a ribbon of platinum blonde cut at the near end by a rock jetty and at the other end by a forest of cranes and smokestacks, just silhouettes in the glare. Tina squatted to pick up a shiny, fist-sized shell embedded with swirls of amber, white, and red. She showed it to Salima, who took it in her hands and turned it over several times in silence.
“Tina,” she finally said, “you have found something very beautiful.” She handed it back and they continued walking.
“It’s so hot, Salima. Don’t you get tired of all this…all this stuff we have to slog around in?”
“It is normal. I grew up with it. I like it.”
They walked in a meandering path just above the line where the dry sand gave way to wet.
“I want to take off our shoes,” Tina said. “That’s the only way to walk on a beach.” She bent down suddenly, grabbing at Salima’s canvas sneakers.
“No! Stop that!” Salima was laughing but planted her feet firmly.
“Okay, but mine are coming off,” Tina said, peeling off her black flats. She skipped into the timid waves, wetting her skirts.
“Put them back on or I will leave. I like walking on the beach with you, but…”
Tina sauntered out of the water, put her hand on Salima’s shoulder, and hopped on one foot as she pulled the shoes back on.
“Do you have a boyfriend, Salima?”
“At home in Pakistan there are no boyfriends.”
“And in Dubai?”
Salima said nothing, then smiled and reached for the scarf that had slipped off Tina’s head onto her shoulders.
They heard a scream, an angry scream. A man outside a nearby rusty building ran a few paces toward them, his arms in the air, his gray-and-black tunic shaking.
“What’s he saying?”
“Your head was uncovered, Tina. Make sure it doesn’t slip again!”
Tina knotted the cloth tightly beneath her chin. The man continued shouting.
“Tell me what he’s saying.”
“I think he is saying bad things. About you. He is very religious. Let’s go back.”
They turned around quickly and trudged in the sand toward the jetty, then turned up the path to the dormitory. The barracks, thought Tina. Muminah and Fadma, the young woman from India, were still in the room, one reading, the other listening to music through her earphones. Dinner was early, downstairs. Back in the room Salima, Muminah, and Fadma prayed, and then the lights went out. Beneath the sheets Tina removed her clothes, down to her underwear.
Tina was the last to awake in the morning. As she pulled the pillow over her face to block the light hovering just above her in the upper bunk, she heard giggles. She rolled to peer over the edge of the mattress and saw her three companions seated on stools around the small table, in the center of which was a tiny cake with a large red candle. The lit candle was too big for the cake and threatened to topple over.
“Happy Christmas, Tina,” said Salima, then all three said, “Happy Christmas.”
“Oooh…thank you!” Tina sat up abruptly and the sheet fell from her shoulders, revealing her bra. The three looked at each other, then again at Tina. Their embarrassment broke into laughter. Tina laughed too.
“Just a minute.” Tina jumped down from the bed, holding her wad of clothes, and put them on.
“Girls, girls. Thank you. Merry Christmas.” She leaned over to kiss each one on the cheek.
“Tina, sing us the songs,” said Fadma.
“Yes, Tina, the Christmas songs,” Muminah and Salima chimed in.
“Ah, I can’t sing.” The eyes around her said please.
“Oh, what the hell. Okay, ‘Jingle Bells.’” She sang “Jingle Bells” and gradually coaxed the others to sing along with her. Tina picked her keys out of her purse and rattled them like bells to the tune. Their voices all grew to full volume. Tina danced while imitating a sleigh driver. She tried to pull the others up to dance but they resisted, still singing verse after repeated verse. Tina finished off the song with a full-throated crescendo that ended with all four applauding.
“Tina, what about…a song about the Jesus baby,” said Salima, glancing at Muminah and Fadma.
“I’m not so good on the religious stuff,” said Tina. “I’ve only been to church a few times. Christmas is for fun and family, and today you are my family.”
But the expectant eyes were on her again. She started to sing “Silent Night” but soon stumbled, searching for the words after “all is calm, all is bright.”
“Okay, okay, ‘White Christmas,’” Tina said. She brought the others into the song, fluttering her fingers in the air like falling snowflakes.
When it was over she said, “Now, sisters, it’s time for you to sing. Sing me any song.”
The other girls grimaced but Tina saw Salima look sideways, biting her lip.
“Salima! Sing. Sing!” Tina pounded the table. The two other girls rapped their fingers lightly.
“Yes, Salima. Sing for us.” Fadma started pounding the table too.
There was a long pause. Salima looked up at the ceiling. The first tone was high-pitched and piercing, but her voice soon dipped and careened between half-tones, then rose and fell in cycles, her lips stretched wide as if smiling. Her voice was pure and reverberated between the stark walls, obliterating the blankness of the room.
Tina had tears in her eyes when Salima finished.
“What is it about?” she asked.
“It’s from home. A boy is in love with a girl. He wants to touch her long, black hair. He thinks it is beautiful. And he thinks she is beautiful.”
The four young women spent the day walking together in the dusty lanes near the dormitory, occasionally venturing into shops, speaking quietly among themselves. They caught the inspecting stares of men, the young ones wearing smart western jackets, the older ones in full-length tunics.
The women were standing among fabrics hanging from a store awning when Salima touched Tina’s back and whispered, “That’s him.” Tina turned around.
“The man who was yelling at you. On the beach.” Salima slowly nudged aside a woolen drape so the two of them could see across the lane. He was picking up something wrapped in paper at a food stall and turned his head toward them as he wedged it into his mouth. Salima quickly let the drape fall to cover them.
“Let’s stay here for a while until he goes away,” said Salima.
“Stay here in our little prison, sure. No. I want to walk.”
“Tina.” Salima grabbed her hand and pulled hard.
“Okay. For you, Salima.” The four women remained hiding behind the curtains of cloth for sale. Salima pinched Tina twice on the elbow when Tina’s voice rose above a whisper. At last Salima said, “Let’s look again, then we’ll go.” When they stepped out into the open lane, the sun was low and blinding; they walked directly toward it, four abreast, close together.
“It’s such a pretty day, such a lovely Christmas day. Let’s walk down to the beach.” Tina took Fadma’s and Muminah’s hands and started to skip, tugging without success. Only Salima agreed to go with her. “All right, Tina, just for a little bit. But keep your shoes on.” They parted from the others in front of the dormitory.
On the beach Tina noticed for the first time the milk cartons, plastic bags, and spent motor oil containers strewn in patches across the sand.
“Tell me more about the boy in Dubai. I met a guy there from Bulgaria. His eyes are so dark and I love his skin. He’s a wild dancer. Tell me, Salima.”
“Mmm. Tina. It’s too private.”
The two women did not walk as far up the beach as they had the day before. They talked about their families, their brothers and sisters, and slowly made their way back.
On the steps of the dormitory, Tina sat down. It was dusk.
“I can’t go back to that little room yet.”
“But Tina, there is nothing to do out here. And they take us to the airport in an hour or two anyway. You can relax when we’re back in Dubai tonight.”
“Just a little while. I’ll come up soon.”
Tina sat wondering if there would be any Christmas party stragglers left by the time she got back to Dubai. Surely by now they were all ripped on vodka and tequila. She stood up and walked in a slow circuit around the squat dormitory building, stepping over animal droppings in the narrow alleyway of packed dirt. How had she ended up in a place like this? she wondered. How had she, living in a hilly green heaven on earth at the far end of Africa, where she had good friends, gotten so off-track that she ended up not only alone in a desert city on the other side of the world, but in this putrid alley tripping over dung on Christmas Day? It disgusted her. She became nauseated and hurried down the long alley toward the front door. But as she turned the next-to-last corner, a sudden force crushed her shoulder into the wall of the dormitory building, ripping the neck seam of her dress and dragging the scarf off her head. Before she could shout, the rough wool was on her mouth, digging into her lips and skin. One of his arms was behind her neck; the elbow of the other arm was jammed into her face. He pressed her against the wall and wrenched her head to bring her whole body down, releasing her mouth for an instant. She screamed and then felt the blow to her ear. He was on top of her, pressing all the breath out of her. She could see only the edge of the wall against the violet sky. Tina thought she was drowning, drowning in sand. His beard was like sand, suffocating her.
She pounded on him and her pounding did nothing. Breathe, breathe. She tried to kick but her legs would not move under his weight; or was it because she had no air? She frantically stabbed her right hand into the pocket that held the shell from the beach. She felt one of his hands clawing at her pubis, ripping the underwear. The wall-edged patch of sky was fading now as her vision scattered into arcs of short-lived light. Time seemed to be taking forever. In half-consciousness she felt her hand on the shell. She clenched it and swung it to his face, so hard that it tore open his cheek, cracked, and continued its trajectory into her own forehead. The broken edge of the shell remained in his flesh. He grabbed the hand that had hit him, leaving her mouth free, but there was no air with which to scream.
Yet there was a scream. And more screams. The man jerked his head up and leapt to his feet. Salima and Fadma and Muminah were at the far end of the lane with the dormitory deskman. Soon there were others. The man was holding his hand to his face; he shouted and pointed his finger at Tina, panting on the ground. A policeman ran up to them both; behind him was the visa fixer.
“He says you offered yourself to him,” said the visa man. Tina could not speak; she was still gasping. The policeman glared at her. He seemed to know the man in the gray-and-black robe, whom Tina now at last could see. Salima ran to her, knelt, and held her by the shoulders.
“If she offered herself, why is there blood coming from his face!” yelled Salima, pointing at the man’s head. The visa fixer translated and pointed also. The policeman grabbed the man’s wrist and pulled his hand away from his cheekbone, uncovering the deep gash that now was bleeding freely. The policeman shouted at him, then the two argued fiercely, the policeman holding the other man’s forearm as he tried to twist free.
The visa fixer pulled Salima and Tina up from the ground.
“We have to go. Come. Now!”
From the van as they drove away, the four girls could see the policeman and the man in the gray-and-black tunic still shouting at each other as the onlookers were slipping off to both ends of the darkening street. Tina shivered and leaned against Salima, who held her hand and whispered, “We heard you through the window.”
On the plane, when they were gliding high over the gulf, Salima placed another tissue against the trickle of blood on Tina’s forehead where it had been cut by the shell. “I think you will have a scar here. I am sorry, Tina. Very sorry.”
Tina felt her row of three joined seats shaking slightly and leaned forward to look at Fadma in the seat next to Salima. Fadma’s chin was on her chest, and she was crying, crying so much that tears ran in rivulets down to the tip of her nose, where they formed quickly falling drops.
Salima put her mouth to Tina’s ear and whispered. “Fadma…Fadma, last year…”
Tina released her seatbelt and reached across Salima to grasp Fadma’s cold and shaking hands. Tina’s lips trembled and her head tumbled, sobbing, into Salima’s lap.
* * *
First published in Whistling Shade Literary Journal