Khawla, an aristocrat, is hired by the Ministry of Commerce in Dubai. Before she starts work, she makes a strange request. Because this is Dubai–where people drive around with white tigers in the passenger seat, and islands are built in the shape of Sheikh Mohammed’s poetry–anything is possible. The woman’s request is granted. Mahmoud, a poor Emriati in a country of obscene wealth, starts to fall in love with Khawla, despite his better judgment. This is a dangerous matter in the Emirates. Khawla’s Wall is a story of how money affects a people , a place, and its beliefs.
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The 1980s, Mahmoud
Somewhere in the desert outside of Dubai—the boy doesn’t know where, not exactly—Father tends to the camels, the goats, the date palms. The boy is very happy, but he doesn’t quite understand this either. He is at home with his family, which is the full extent of his comprehension. Soon he will go to school, to learn something about the world, and this will change everything. For now, though, the range of his experience is quite limited and rather simple.
The boy, let’s call him Mahmoud, runs up one dune, then down, then he runs up another. He can no longer hear Mother pounding the cardamom seeds. He calls out to no one and sings and laughs. He does not know how merciless the sun is, or that there are people who would consider it a punishment to live here. He does not know how much colder the world can be.
Soon he is fifty meters away from his mother, Aisha, who is making coffee at home in the traditional way. She is not worried about the boy, whose voice grows weaker until it dies completely.
Abdullah, the father, takes a break under the oldest of the palm trees lining the compound. He employs seven people, aside from his wife and a cousin. Sultan, the oldest worker, is out sick. He will die soon. Abdullah wonders where he will find a replacement. No one is interested in this kind of thing anymore. Hard work, in the desert. They all live in the city now. Even the government wants them out. He thinks of an official letter waiting for him inside, and the disturbing offer it brings. Money, a city house of concrete, steel and glass. He stares at three docile camels tethered to a stake. In a few years, though he does not know it yet, tourists will stare at the camels and take pictures. In twenty years, everything will be gone.
Mahmoud rolls down a sand bank, which is shifting in the evening winds. Like the boy, the dunes keep moving, without any obvious motive or purpose. As the sun sets, the desert resonates with contour and shadow. It reminds the boy of something, but he’s not sure what. His mind is not yet capable of developing analogies or sustaining them, at least not for very long. Despite what people say, children are practical creatures driven by routine and design. They play, but their games always contain a hidden agenda, an internal logic. Mahmoud rolls in the direction of home. This is not random; he is hungry.
On the way, a song begins to form itself in the boy’s mind. The song is driven by two motivations, two heartbeats¾rhyme and litany. Mahmoud tries to catalogue everything he sees. The sand, the sky, the birds, the camels, the workers, the trees. The smell of lavender and camel, the mournful cry of call-to-prayer. The falcons soaring peacefully overhead. The craggy outpourings of rock, like the faces of old men rising from the sand. The rough, brittle plant life for which he has no labels. He also names the things which are not seen but are certainly there, somewhere, or soon will be. The scorpions and lizards. The intransigent winds of shamal, which bring rain. Which tell Aisha to keep her son at home, inside. The oryx, which will pause for a moment on a distant hill, its eyes responding to a sound we cannot hear, before darting off abruptly.
Mahmoud lists everything, but he often forgets to rhyme, or cannot think of one. Oh well. Once home, he can forget about this minor failure, of which there are so many each day, because the primary goal is in sight. Food, home, family.
Aisha is nearly finished with the bread. She shapes it like pottery with her coarse hands. Mahmoud feels that he can already taste the warm thin bread, which he has eaten every day of his life. He smells his father’s sheesha pipe as well, with its thick plumes of aromatic smoke, but this is only an illusion. Abdullah is still asleep under the tree, dreaming of oceans.
Although the workers have gone home, and there are no neighbors here, Aisha continues to make Bedouin coffee, qahwa, in the old way. She continues to pound cardamom, and later the coffee beans, with a heavy wooden pestle. The sound is deafening up close. If they lived in the city or even a small village, this would be an invitation for neighbors to collect in their majlis. His people are well known for hospitality, but Mahmoud does not see this. He sees only that his own family is hospitable, drawing no wider assumptions from the fact. The large copper coffee pot, the dalla, is now ready. Mahmoud knows that it’s too hot to touch.
Mother must be inside now, preparing Father’s sheesha. The boy can nearly see her through the woven palm fronds of their barasti hut. The family sleeps in a house of soft rock, fifty yards away, but they still spend much of their time here, in the majlis tent or in the original wooden buildings. Soon father will smell the tobacco and make his way across the compound. Mahmoud knows this as surely as he knows anything.
Now mother is sitting in the majlis with its soft red cushions and low wooden table. The steaming bread is beside her. The sheesha is ready, coughing smoke like a car with a broken radiator. The coffee has cooled somewhat; the brass shaker of rosewater is nearby. Father, as though having received a telegram, is walking across the yard. Mahmoud grins at his father’s hobbling bow-legged trot. He sits next to his mother and stares up at her face, which is partially concealed behind a burqa, the gold-colored mask worn by older women. He does not understand that foreigners are scared by the burqa, or find it primitive, or laugh at it. He does not know that, in other parts of the Muslim world, burqa refers to something slightly different. He knows only that it is made from leather and decorated with sheep’s wool rope. Mahmoud thinks the burqa looks like a falcon’s beak and wonders if this was intended.
Mother seems oblivious to his presence, but she is not. She sees everything that he does. No mask, no shailah, no darkness will ever make her eyes lose sight of Mahmoud. The boy can never tell what she is thinking. Her face is not painted with lipstick or make-up, and her features do not contort into frowns, laughter or an ironic smirk. Aisha has no time to wear this many faces. She is busy with work and prayer and keeping watch over her son.
Father sits down. Mother serves him. Mahmoud feels the security of a ritual that he has always known, that he assumes will never change, that he could not imagine people living without. If someone told him that there were people who did things differently, even here in his own country, it would have sounded like a fairy tale. He has not seen such people with his own eyes, cannot record them in one of his songs, and therefore cannot believe such a thing. If you told him, the boy would have laughed.
“We couldn’t pay much, of course.”
“No, I didn’t expect so.” Mahmoud hung his head, if only slightly. He did expect some consideration.
“It’s not as if you need the money.”
The manager let each of his phrases hang in the air, for just a moment, until it dropped like a raw pearl into a soggy wicker basket.
“Well, I do need the money. Sir. I am not from a wealthy family.” He smiled with effort, finding it increasingly difficult to maintain eye contact. Looking for work was one of the many humiliations of the human condition. Your life, and its relative value, was open to such critical and unkind judgment.
Mahmoud looked at a large clock mounted on the wall. It was an anonymous object that could have been found in any office anywhere in the world. It was not anywhere, though. It was here. The walls needed fresh paint. There was trash under the desk. Small plastic cups with shriveled teabags lined the manager’s desk, instead of family photos. Mahmoud found himself in a grubby room in a shabby building, home to an important government ministry in one of the most affluent societies the world had ever known. These were tensions he could not fathom, ironies that stabbed him between the eyes.
The manager stared absentmindedly at a small stain on the wall. “I see.” For the first time, he smiled. Mahmoud could not be certain what this smile signified. Pleasure to hold so much power, especially over a fellow national? Foreknowledge that the applicant’s need would, in no way, improve upon the modest salary? Suspicion that Mahmoud had come from money but, like so many in Dubai, had squandered his inheritance?
“In any case, there are no positions open—” The manager paused reflectively for a half-beat. “—in management.”
Mahmoud felt that the man was mocking him. Instead of commenting he nodded unambitiously, staring at a nearly empty bookcase.
“So the issue of salary is not, I am afraid, negotiable.”
“As you like, sir.” Mahmoud focused on the man’s large gold wristwatch, which shone with a disconcerting brightness. There was a black ledger open in front of the manager. The pages were almost entirely empty of notes, reminders, appointments.
“As you like.” He repeated this for no good reason, perhaps because he was nervous. This was an expression his people used with great frequency and little thought, until it had become almost meaningless. Mahmoud spoke, but he wasn’t listening to the words he used. His phrases were mechanical. He had trained himself to accept such things. Rather than lash out, attack, he retreated into himself. He became small and quiet, staring at his white sandals. They wouldn’t last much longer, he noticed. They made strange noises when he walked. The soles were uneven, the leather disfigured. He was reminded of his mother and the lines that age had cut into her face.
The manager considered his applicant. He looked at Mahmoud through a veil of fingers, which were silently drumming against one another, hands triangulated, right fingers striking the left.
“Maybe one day, inshallah, there will be an opening in management.”
“Inshallah,” Mahmoud repeated, “inshallah.”
Saying this, Mahmoud felt a smile steal upon him. Perhaps your position
will become available one day. Things change quickly here, according to God’s will. Or maybe God has nothing to do with it: maybe it’s strictly a human concern. Who could know? It seemed blasphemous even to guess. Mahmoud stopped smiling. He could not be sure whether the manager, who seemed to understand him so well, was listening to these very thoughts.
Mahmoud Abdullah Yusouf Alraqbani was applying for a position in the Ministry of Commerce, which had the reputation for being one of the most progressive government departments in the United Arab Emirates. He was certain they could appreciate a young man like himself. Hard-working, well educated, good computer skills, impeccable English.
Still, it had been a difficult struggle. His family had no money and no wasta—pull, influence, coercive power. If it had, Mahmoud thought, everything would be different. There would be no conflict at all, no degrading requests for work, no sarcastic inferences from sneering employers. As he’d walked past the ministry employees on his way to the manager’s office, he could feel their laughing eyes and twitching lips. Here, everyone knew who you were and what family you came from, even if you had never met. In an instant, it was clear who had wasta and who did not. How many times had he met a woman’s eye and felt that instantaneous jab, that look which said: admire my beauty if you want, but you will never have me; you cannot afford me.
The manager reached for his glasses, one of several pairs he kept around the office. Like the others, these were steel-rimmed, angular, modern and expensive. He picked up Mahmoud’s CV, cleared his throat, and inspected the document. It was written in a careful, grammatical English that avoided flourish and overstatement. The young man expressed himself with clarity and precision.
“You were educated in Britain?”
It would have been better, Mahmoud quickly realized, if he had.
“I attended Dubai Men’s College. BA in Economics. I also have an MA in Information Systems from Melbourne Technical College.”
“Did you attend—?”
“—No, sir. I completed the degree on-line.”
The manager was silent for several moments. “Well, this all looks very good, Mahmoud.”
There was something in his manner that belied the phrase very good. The manager removed his glasses, carefully returned them to an unseen pocket of his dishdasha, which was, as always, impeccably pressed, and considered the applicant again.
“Are you willing to work your way up? From the bottom?”
“Well, near the bottom.” The manager, Mr. Hanif, smiled broadly at his burgeoning apercu. “We can’t have you sweeping the floors, can we?”
Mahmoud forced a smile and even a small, consumptive laugh. He was meant to understand that only Pakistanis and Indians, or someone of that ilk, were supposed to labor. Nationals were a different breed.
Mr. Hanif focused on the young man to see his response, to see if he understood the way things worked.
On his first day at work, Mahmoud walked briskly, even more so than usual, toward the front doors of the ministry. He found it difficult to subdue the smile, the jittery left foot, the twitching neck muscles. He was beginning to sweat profusely, a problem that seemed to affect no one else. He approached a revolving door, pushed through, and entered a waiting area. Mahmoud closed his eyes and spoke to himself. Calm down, collect yourself, breathe. He wasn’t sure what to do next.
“Hello? Mr. Mahmoud?”
“Yes?” He turned. A young Bengali stood with her hands folded and her head at an angle, as though looking around a corner.
“I’m Preity, Mr. Hanif’s administrative assistant. So nice to meet you.”
“Yes, nice to.” Mahmoud stopped short, tongue-tied. His heart beat erratically, a fist pounding a wooden table.
She was attractive, with thick shiny black hair and almond eyes, but Mahmoud had nearly trained himself not to notice. He had no time to daydream about dates he would never go on, marriages that could not be arranged, or foreign women who could not be introduced to his mother. Mahmoud was here to work, to save money, to advance.
“We are so glad to have you with us,” Preity said. “Mr. Hanif is very excited.”
“Let me show you where you’ll be sitting.”
“I’ll be doing more than just sitting.”
“Oh, okay, very nice.” Preity smiled, but Mahmoud could tell that he’d confused her. Stop making jokes, he told himself. You have many good qualities, but a sense of humor is not one of them.
She led him through the vestibule, down a small corridor, and into a large square room. Against one wall, a row of orange vinyl seats was bolted to the floor. Mahmoud was reminded of the Metro, Dubai’s new subway system. It had cost several billion dirhams, but no one used it. Nonetheless, everyone admired its modernity, its electronic gravitas, its comforting mechanical hum. They liked the way they could see their faces reflected in its glossy metallic surface.
There were a few overhead lights¾dim, cloudy, florescent¾but the ministry was for the most part veiled in darkness. The center of the room was unoccupied, but there were modest cubicles arranged around the perimeter. Along the walls, Mahmoud could see a number of doors, which appeared to be closed. He checked his watch. 9:06.
Walking toward one of the cubicles, Preity shouted back to Mahmoud without turning her head. “I’ll get the lights. Cleaning crew must have left already.”
“What time do people get started here? I was told 9:00.”
“Depends. 9:30, 9:45.” Preity made wavering gestures with her right hand. “Here you go.”
Mahmoud looked over the modular cubicle wall. Preity was standing beside a workstation of blonde wood. In the upper right-hand corner of the desk, a gray plastic cup held three sharpened pencils.
“What do you think, Mr. Mahmoud?”
“Nice, nice. Wonderful, thank you.” He came around the corner, stood next to his new chair. There were metal shelves surrounding the interior of the workspace, but they were empty. The chair and cubicle walls were upholstered in a thick, rough fabric. The pattern was a childlike swirl of blues, grays and maroon. “Where do I start? Is Mr. Hanif here?”
“No, he will not be in yet. Shall I get you some papers?”
“Yes, of course. I want to get started straightaway. I’ll take whatever you have, Preity.”
“Excellent. Give me a few moments, yes?”
The desktop was cloistered under a scrim of dust, blemished with ink spots and pencil markings. Mahmoud wiped the counter with his hand, then worked at the more intractable stains with his right thumb and a discrete application of saliva.
He was pleased to find a copy of the morning paper, Al-Khaleej, lying across his keyboard. He checked the desk drawers. Bits of trash, meaningless slips of paper. While he was reading the headlines, Preity dropped off a slim manila folder with a green edge. His name had been meticulously typed onto a white sticker.
“This is all I could put together, sorry. These are some of our most recent projects and reports, like this. When Mr. Hanif is arriving, he will tell you exactly what you should be doing.”
“Okay, thanks for your help.”
“Welcome.” Preity smiled and walked off quickly.
Mahmoud was reassured by her efficiency and helpfulness. Still, he was somewhat discomfited by his position, which was nebulous. He was aware of “emiratization,” which ensured that, when qualified nationals applied for work in the government sector, positions were often created, even when they were unnecessary. Mahmoud was reluctant to consider the possibility that he hadn’t actually earned his place. That he didn’t have a real job.
He opened the folder and began reading. There were four documents inside. The first, UAE Commerce Ministry and You, was a shiny tri-fold brochure. The text was written in Arabic and English. Both versions were equally unsound. Despite the crippled spelling and malignant grammar, the printing was exquisite. 100-pound matte paper, crisp colors, high-resolution photography. The Gulf was a strange place, Mahmoud knew. Everyone spoke English, but no one spoke it very well. Foreigners laughed at them because of this. What they didn’t understand, though, was how badly his people spoke Arabic, their mother tongue.
The second item was a memo, cc’d to Preity, from Mr. Hanif to the Minister’s assistant deputy. Mahmoud skimmed the document, but none of the issues seemed relevant to him. The final papers were sample contracts between potential business owners and the UAE government, with instructions outlining the relevant laws, the role of the ministry, the rights of foreign investors, and the responsibilities of business owners.
After a few minutes, a young man brought Mahmoud a cup of Arabic coffee. He could smell the cardamom even before he heard the rattling metal cart. He accepted the drink, though he didn’t like the idea of hot coffee in a plastic cup. A quick sniff told him it was instant, without saffron or ginger. Mahmoud shook his head.
The coffee man was still there, staring awkwardly at Mahmoud. Did I drift off? Did he ask me something?
“Oh, sorry. What did-?”
“Would like dates, sir? Sultanas? Water?”
“No, no thanks. Not now.”
“Very good, sir.” The man tilted his head, smiled and rattled away.
He was reminded of his father, who always took dates with afternoon tea. All the old men did. It was an ancient Bedouin tradition. Mahmoud had forgotten, or perhaps didn’t know, that tea was not Arabic. It was a Chinese innovation that the English and Portuguese had brought to Arabia, and which they now embraced as their own. He looked at a poster taped to the wall across the room. An old wrinkled man wearing a leather gauntlet squinted into the desert sun while a falcon circled overhead. That was one world, he thought, but there is another.
Mahmoud closed his eyes. The smell and warmth of the drink drifted across his face. The cardamom had been processed, pre-ground and packaged. He could tell the difference immediately.
Not long after this, another man passed by with zatar bread, croissants, water, coffee. The office was slowly coming to life as 10:00 threatened. Mahmoud could see, through his wide cubicle entrance, ministry employees filing into the building. He smiled or nodded as people walked by, but few took notice.
Soon, the chatter of phones, keystrokes and laughter filled the room. He saw men shake hands and touch noses. Women, in clouds of pungent oud, drifted by in dark sunglasses and Dior abayas. No one stopped at his desk or spoke to him. It is a large office, he reasoned. There is nothing to worry about. New employees must be hired all the time. I’ll get to know everyone, eventually.
Azzan sounded, call-to-prayer. Before prayer, the body must be purified, so Mahmoud went to the bathroom to wash his hands, face, arms and feet. When he returned to his desk, he reached into his leather attaché, which his mother had practically forced him to buy, for a small prayer rug. It had been folded neatly into identical quarters. He arranged the rug on the worn carpeting of his workspace and knelt down. The room grew slightly more quiet as several other bodies dropped to the ground. Most continued working, however. Mahmoud tried to concentrate on worship, but he could hear metal filing cabinets slam shut, ring tones explode, computers hum, sandals clack on the slick marble floor, the shouting of whispers. He closed his eyes tightly and spoke to God.