The Boatman's Invitation




David Palfreyman is a balding pedant with a fu manchu. I have no idea what he’s trying to say or why he won’t use complete sentences. Naturally, he’s a language teacher. 

“You said in the elevator. But it’s on.”

The first thing you learn is that there’s more than one way to say something. Regional, ethnic, cultural differences. “Correct English” is a slippery animal. Like they say, Those who can’t do must have taught David Palfreyman because he doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.

“My band’s playing The Bunker,” he says, miming a funky bass riff. “You should come.”

“I would, but I’m busy.”

“I didn’t say when we’re playing...?” Palfreyman looks confused, or so thoroughly constipated as to require immediate medical intervention. 

I hope the elevator comes soon. I can’t take much more of this. The colleague. The boss. The hangover. Are we all going to fit inside? That guy lives on the 2nd floor...why doesn’t he take the stairs? The students. The driving. The heat. Middle of September and it’s still 120 in the...well, there’s no shade in Dubai. 

“See the rugby last night?”

I twist my neck to a minimally acceptable angle, shake my head. Peter Davidson always pops up right when you think it’s safe. The elevator doors open, teachers ruck and scrum inside, I press 13. They believe in djinns here, the evil eye, the heeling power of leeches. Harry Potter is banned from local bookshops, along with Rushdie and Roth. But the apartment buildings have a 13th floor. They laugh at our primitive triskaidekaphobic ways.

Peter keeps asking about rugby. He knows I’m not interested, but his conversation is never tailored to fit the wide hips and droopy buttocks of his interlocutors. He sews the pants of dialogue with the rusty, small-eyed needle of egomania. 

It’s like a Japanese subway car in here. Crazy Sandy from English Lit is, it seems, grinding me from behind. She holds a purse between us, but a buckle, hook or some other tentacular object scratches portentously at my backside. I shift, with as much subtlety as the cramped space affords, to evade penetration. I can see deep inside the neck pores of the person in front of me. The humidity has opened those suckers up and filled them with sweat. Chiggers, scabies and dust mites are holding a 200-meter freestyle relay. I cheer for my home microorganism but grow nauseated by the sebaceous athletes, the lipide entertainment.

I close my eyes, drift off. Someone gets on after a few floors and says something about a violent attack. Israel, you guess. Or the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Whatever you’re supposed to call it. Voices grow shrill. The elevator dinnngs. I step off—or maybe out; Palfreyman doesn’t clarify.

Reaching for the doorknob, I hear Annie screeching on the other side. She answers the call of my key-jangle and footfalls. “Daddy’s home! Daddy! Daddy!” There’s no better sound, no more rapturous homecoming. 

Annie runs and leaps into my grasp. At 11 months, what she does with arms and lips is very close to hugging and kissing. Academia. Palfreyman. Davidson. Climate by Bunsen Burner. If Disneyland had a baby with one of the Kardashians, and that baby projectile-vomited, you’d get Dubai. But with Annie’s almost-kiss, her cousin-to-a-hug, the weight drops from my shoulders. 

I look for Maura. She’s not there.

She’s over by the TV. CNN. We never watch the news. She’s supposed to be standing behind Annie with a smile or, better yet, a gin.

“Oh, honey...” Maura doesn’t look at me when she speaks. Her hands do something her mother’s do. A bad sign.

“What? What is it?”

She points. She mutters. The World Trade Center is collapsing before my eyes. Newscasters point and mutter. They are well-coiffed but dumb. There are no words for this, not yet. It’s 9/11, but the phrase “9/11” has not yet been coined. 

We watch the news for seven hours. Maura tries to get in touch with her brother, who works next door to the Towers, but the lines are busy, inoperative, something. We are constantly wrongfooted by uncertainty. My brother works at the Pentagon. Dad calls to let me know he’s okay. We discuss the wisdom of squat buildings, of iceberg-like below-ground floors. It is easier to discuss architecture and structural integrity than to probe more intimate topics. We do not sift through the wreckage of our personal histories.

In the morning, policemen with automatic weapons lurk outside the building. 

Al-Qaeda is a new word on every lip. Bin Laden. The War On Terror. No one knows anything. Terrorist money might have been filtered through Emirati banks. The terrorists might have had Dubai connections.

Western expatriates. We cry and hug. We don’t always look or act like ourselves, which is generally a positive development. 

At work, an email assures us that the city of Dubai, the UAE, the University and its Administration fully support the United States and its citizens and will provide a safe environment for everyone. The Provost, Fadel al-Ameri, does not open a new email to address these issues. His message, subject line Re: Re: Re: Shawarma!, is appended to an intramural debate regarding the quality of wrap sandwiches in the cafeteria.

A second email from Fadel al-Ameri warns that professors are not to discuss the events of 11 September, directly or indirectly, in the classroom or amongst themselves. Those who transgress this edict “will be subject to immediate termination and deportation.” Yes, an edict! Issued by an Islamic council. With gold seal. Poorly xeroxed, scanned at a wonky angle. Subject line: Edict #46. 

The previous week, Edict #45 proclaimed that the University was “foregoing edict culture” in favor of “more bilateral and transparent institutional practices.”

A third email asserts that anyone who “feels unsafe in the current geopolitical environment vis-a-vis Said University” and wishes to annul his [sic] contract, may do so with the University’s full consent and support. And with only minimal financial penalties. Directions concerning repayment of one’s housing allocation, plane tickets, furniture allowance and orientation per diem are conveniently attached. Subject line: Mandate #1. 

Edict Culture has subsided. It is generally agreed that Mandate Culture is more warm and cuddly. 

An older woman from Ohio returns home. We shared a bus to work. Each morning she would ramble incessantly, to anyone within earshot, about what she’d done “since the last episode.” Not just that she had bacon for breakfast, but how many slices. How fatty or lean. If she felt bloated, later. When she might cook bacon again, or maybe oatmeal.  

Roosting on my office chair, after lunch, is a note from this woman. She bequeaths to me a book of poetry, written by Pope John Paul II, and an imitation Turkish carpet from Carrefour, the French K-mart. A shop, yes, as horrible as it sounds. (Soon, we’ll call it the Freedom K-mart, more horrible still.)

All I can think is: I hardly knew this woman; what is it about me that says The Pope’s Poetry & Le Crappy Rayon Rug?

Nothing gets done. We take long coffee breaks and huddle, whispering like coconspirators. Dr. Donny Love, from Food Science, wears a Texas flag dress shirt and carries a matching coffee mug. Two thoughts struggle for preeminence in every mind: Is that his real name? and, Why is he such an asshole? There’s a difference between patriotism and intentionally stirring up anti-American sentiments that could get you, and your colleagues, killed. There are truths even a PhD doesn’t know. If you can imagine that.

Dr. Love’s wife wears a breast augmentation beneath her Texas flag micro-bikini. Her make-up regimen falls somewhere between Paul Stanley (guitar and vocals for KISS) and Tammy Faye Bakker (evangelist, Christian singer and felon for GOD). Bikini-clad, she occupies the rooftop pool 12 hours a day. We’re not sure if she owns actual clothing. We hope that al-Qaeda agents do not see her. She would be a fitting target in her Texan get-up. An easy target with her Partonplasty. 

4:40 pm. I check email before going home. 27 messages with Lud in the subject line. My old friend has died.

After dinner Elizabeth comes to watch Annie. She’s a Filipina nurse who got tricked by an unscrupulous employment agency. Sorry, she was told at the airport. This position no longer available. But we have exciting opportunity in child-care. Now she works in the building’s baby-sitting room. At night, she’s as a maid, nanny, freelance car-washer. We feel bad for Elizabeth, but she should have known better. This is Dubai. Every employment agency is unscrupulous. I’m making good money, so we tip her well. 

Maura and I go to The Bunker. A Filipino cover band brays in the corner. Teachers drink heavily, brood, watch muted rugby on giant TVs. Every third woman is a professional. Dubai is like a drunk Bangkok, an Amsterdam gone completely off the rails. I’ve never seen so much prostitution. I expect vending machines next. Pop in three quarters and third-world sex organs tumble out. 

Of course, I’m a liberal humanist, open-minded, a good person. The same as my colleagues. But. But I wouldn’t want to raise a child here, a girl. She’s getting older. Heroin addiction and AIDS are rampant, but condom-use and clean needles are not. I flirt with sympathy for those hard-liners in nearby countries, the ones who would establish an Islamic State. When you look at the alternative—Actual Dubai—burqas and religious police verge on making sense.

Maura winces into her Pinot Grigio.

“Why’d you order wine?” I ask. “Here?”

“Bad choice, I know.”

“Stick to bottled beer. Everything else is questionable.”

Dozens of Emiratis sit at the bar in full regalia. Dishdasha, ghutra, agal, mirrored sunglasses, seven mobile phones. It’s illegal to serve alcohol to a Muslim, but no one would refuse an Emirati. Recently, a pregnant Canadian was beaten at a crowded Ikea café after refusing to give her seat to a young Emirati man. The man was identified but not arrested. Insufficient evidence.

“I’m worried about my brother.”

“He’ll be okay,” I say. “By tomorrow the phones should be working.”

“I hope so.” Maura pauses. “Inez came over today, with a casserole.”

“That’s nice.”

“She was so sweet.” Maura pauses. “People are pretending to be heroes at...the Towers...where they used to be. Saying they saved people.”

I perform a horrified grunt. “Lud saved people. Let them go first. And then he was killed.”

She makes a face instead of speaking. She presses my hand. Lud’s death has hit me hard. We weren’t very close, but that’s not always the way it works. 

“They invited us to dinner.”

“Who?” I ask.

“Inez and Khaled.”


“Tomorrow night.”

Maura gives me a look that’s really a question. Do I want to have dinner with an Egyptian woman who doesn’t speak English and her businessman husband we’ve never met?

I shrug. “Could be interesting.”

“So we’re not bringing wine, right?” I ask.

“No. Chocolate.”

“They probably drink.”

“Yeah, but if they don’t, if they’re devout Muslims and we bring alcohol, it’ll be like—”

“—like we shat on the dining room table.”

“Or worse,” Maura says.

“Worse?” I’ve been to bad dinner parties, but I’d hate to see “worse.”

Inez and Khaled live in the building. Annie plays with their daughter Sana’a. We take the elevator down. 

As we near the door, I realize it was a mistake. I don’t want to smalltalk these people for three hours. Not now, especially.

The door opens. I feign delight.

“Come, come.”

Khaled’s left arm is an usher. He has shiny clothes, rings of gold, a razor-thin and ostentatiously-manicured beard. He has a PhD in Back-slapping Studies with a concentration in Cologne & Hair Gel. His English is good. Inez stands back, mute, more servant than wife. She’s in western clothing. Not spurs-and-chaps western like Dr. Love, but pants and a shirt. She does not shake hands. 

We stand awkwardly in the foyer.

“Thanks for inviting us,” I say.

“We brought this.” Maura hands the chocolate to Inez.

Khaled observes the transfer, his corporate smile taking early retirement. His eyes search for another gift. Finding none, despair blossoms in his restless brown eyes.

We are seated. Inez is in the kitchen. No one speaks. Khaled sits at the head of the table, smiling with apparent optimism. He thinks his wife will soon carry a delicious roast conversation to the table. 

More silence. Sensing he must make conversation, Khaled turns his head thoughtfully and knits his brow empathically. Or vice-versa. “Inez tells me your have not heard from him, yes?”

“Yeah, still no word. He works in the Financial...near the World Trade Center.”

“This is bad.”

“I’m sure he’s fine.” I’m not a trained placater, but I need to steer the table toward more placid waters. The Choppy Seas of Dead Sibling are too rough for dinner with strangers. 

“He will be fine, inshallah.”

“Inshallah.” Inez carries a dish to the table. “Terrible terrible thing what they have made.”

We nod. 

Inez looks deeply moved. She opens her mouth, closes it, opens it again. “But you see, America can deserve this thing. You will see my meaning?”

Maura has cartoon-wide eyes. “Whaaat?

“What Inez means,” Khaled begins, pinching his right thumb and forefinger. “is that—” He cannot finish the thought.

“I was sorry. My English-speaking too much weak.”

I’m not sure the issue is primarily linguistic. Even Noam Chomsky would find it difficult. To be polite, you should wait at least three days before suggesting that family deserves to die.

“Inez was film editor in Egypt.”

“Monteur,” she adds. 

They smile weakly. Film editors work in images, we are meant to understand. Not words. 

“My. Brother. Might. Be. Dead.” Maura chokes on language. “I...”

I rub her forearm. Inez begins to cry. She hugs Maura, though from an unwieldy standing position. A good example of understatement would be to suggest that the atmosphere was “rather awkward.”

The table is crowded with small dishes and platters. Falafel, ful medames, grilled meat of unusual provenance (rabbit? possum?), anemic tomatoes, wilted lettuce. Khaled has a good idea. He sprints to the credenza for alcohol.

“I am sorry,” he says, returning with Marsala. “This is all we have at the moment. Dessert wine, but I hope is not too bad.”

He pours, I sip. Cherry Robitussin, 1999. A good year. 

“You see, I cannot receive alcohol license. For obvious reasons.” 

In Dubai, non-Muslims may be issued something that looks like a passport. The cover reads: Just say not to drugs! License-holders are permitted to buy, from government-operated stores, a quantity of alcohol based on their salary. Laborers—earning as little as $150 a month for working 16-hour days, 6 days a week in the unrelenting heat—are not granted licenses. 

“I wished to provide nice wine with this meal.” Khaled pinches thumb and forefinger, again, eyeing me suggestively. “But sadly I could not. We have only this Marsala.” He gazes at the syrupy disappointment for several moments before turning suddenly, inexplicably jubilant. “Salud! Enjoy!”

It hits me. The dinner invitation was insincere. It was an attempt to engineer a scenario in which we escorted good wine into their home. A Boatman’s Invitation.

An Egyptian parable. Imagine a man at sea, sitting in his boat, enjoying a great feast. He sees a friend on shore, without a boat. “Come, join me!” he shouts. “Please! I will share my feast with you!” But the man has no boat, no means of getting out to sea. 

“Here,” says Khaled, “try this bread. We call it eish masri.”

We eat the dry, tasteless bread. 

“Very good, no?”

“It is,” I say, scrambling for compliment. “Like pita bread.”

“No, it is nothing like this.” Khaled seems angry.

Inez tsk-tsks with eyes, prune mouth and crossed arms.

“Ah, and this. You have never had this dish, I tell you. We call it koshari.”

We have. In Cairo. Last year. I keep this to myself. Rice, pasta, lentils, tomato sauce, fried onion, garlic, chick peas, hot spices. A taxi driver brought us to his cousin’s food stall. Giant servings for less than a dollar. 

“Great,” I say. “This is terrific, Inez.”

“Sukran.” She embarrassed-smiles at her plate.

“We had this in Cairo. Remember?” Maura asks me.

“Did we?” I squint, frown. 

“You loved it. Couldn’t stop talking about how great the koshari was. It was amazing.” Maura does not compliment Inez’s version. Payback, I guess. 

Silence creeps back into the room on calloused feet.

Khaled raises an index finger, having plotted a counterattack. “Ah, but you ate tourist koshari. Near tourist site. Pyramids, mummy, like this. Blekkt. No good. This—” He gazes down upon his wife’s bland dish. “—is the real thing.”

Maura appoints her eyebrows, and to a lesser extent a slim sigh, to rebut on her behalf.

I reach for the grilled meat, serving myself another filet of goat or raccoon.

My chewing seems too loud. I wish there was music. Even call-to-prayer would be a welcome distraction.

“Did you hear what happened yesterday?”

Heads shake. 

I continue. “At the Hard Rock Café? A young Emirati was shooting at it with a rifle. No one was hurt, but he damaged a few cars.”

No one is interested.

“The police brought him to Army Intelligence for interrogation. Thought he was a terrorist. Or some sort of anti-American protestor. I mean, the Hard Rock is pure Americana. And the one here, you’ve seen what it looks like, right?”

More shaking heads.

“It’s garish. Well, everything in Dubai is, but especially this place. The front doors sit between giant crossed guitars, three-stories tall. And on top of the building, for some reason, there’s a poorly-designed Empire State Building growing like a tumor from the building’s neck.”No response. 

“So they ‘question’ him all night. Why do you hate America? We love USA. We are friends. You are al-Qaeda? What is name of your cell? Turns out, he wasn’t a terrorist at all. He’d just failed out of the police academy, for the third time, and his grandfather died.”

I’m laughing now. By myself. 

Maura, eyes on her plate, is a less emotive Gioconda. Khaled and Inez squint at me, outraged. I’m the jerk? What about, America can deserve this thing? 

“Sorry, I’m not laughing at the man’s troubles. It’s just ironic. It seemed as if his...what he did was related to the World Trade Center attack...but it wasn’t. A terrible coincidence. Plus, there’s something funny about failing out of the police academy, three times, and of course there’s the movie franchise—”

“—Nothing is funny about this,” Khaled scolds. “This man wanted this job or he would not try to become policeman so many times.”

“Right...but that’s not really my—”

“—And his grandfather died. Terrible, terrible. This is most horrible thing that can happen to young man. You understand this?” Khaled taps the side of his head, to indicate the seat of understanding.

Death is indeed most horrible thing, but tonight is a close second.

“His grandfather has dead,” Inez adds.

“Yes, yes, I see.” I pause. “Khaled, would you like me to buy alcohol for you some time?”

“Yes, thank you. This would be great.” He responds with the acute sarcasm of a native speaker. “You are too kind.” The sarcasm is so heavy it nearly capsizes the wooden boat of his boatman’s invitation. 

“I read something funny—well, sad actually—in the paper today.”

We look at Maura. I hope she can rescue us from this grim evening. 

“There’s an article in The Gulf Snooze—”

She pauses for laughter that doesn’t come.

“—about frivolous divorce. A woman was divorced because she phoned her husband while he was watching TV. Another woman used too much salt in a kabob...anyway, the writer’s advice was, whenever a husband notices ‘bizarre behavior’ from his wife, the first step is to stop sleeping with her. If that doesn’t work, he should whip her gently until she understands the situation. Those were his exact words.”

Khaled wipes his mouth with a napkin. “Yes, this is correct behavior. Frivolous divorce is no good.” 

“Right,” Maura says, “but that...what do you think, Inez?”

“Yes, a good husband does not whip too much hard.” She offers Khaled a romantic smile. 

Maura deflates. She wants to believe modern truisms such as People Are All The Same, but it isn’t always easy. 

Rescue, rescue, rescue. Should I fake a heart attack? Pretend to choke on my food. I stare down a shank of...beaver? chipmunk? I might not have to pretend.

I think of Lud. I’m so proud of him. I want to protect Annie the way he protected his colleagues. He sacrificed his life for theirs. I’m not sure I’d do the same thing. I want to protect Maura. Get her out of this place. Take her back home. It’s not worth all the money they pay me. I want to save my family, but no, they’re the ones who will rescue me.

Someone is speaking. Khaled, I think. There’s a laugh. The wives lean close, share a few words. I drift away. I eat but taste nothing. I’m deep under the waves, coming up for air. I realize something. Dubai itself is a boatman’s invitation.  

They lure you with a bloated tax-free salary, a chic apartment. It seems like paradise, but it’s not. You will never swim out to the boat or share the feast. The Emirati government pays you well, but you spend it on lavish meals in five-star hotels, served by workers who are little more than slaves. You criticize the government but not yourself. You enjoy having a woman scrub the floor for a few pennies. The values we proclaim mean nothing. The only value is, Do Whatever You Can Get Away With. It requires a special kind of intelligence to see what is so obvious and true. Too bad you didn’t see it sooner.

Khaled is holding a yellowed photograph of an old man. He looks familiar. A silent film actor? He has the Howdy Doody jaw of the elderly, lined and sagging. 

“This is my great-grandfather,” Khaled tells me. “My father’s father’s father.”

“Really?” He looks European. Pale-blue eyes, light skin. Old age bleaches us out, makes our eyes go milky and indistinct until the ethnic bar codes no longer scans. 

“Yes, we were very close.”

“That’s nice.”

“Do you have a photo?” he asks.

“Of my paternal great-grandfather? On me? No.” I laugh, thinly.

“Why not?”

“I don’t even know what he looks like. My grandfather died before I was born.”

“This is no good.”

“We have long generations in my family. My grandfather was born 77 years before me, so...” 

It’s difficult not to cry. Am I thinking about Lud, Annie, the grandfathers and great-grandfathers I never knew?

“He lived with us. Mother, father, three sisters, my brother and I. Two bedrooms.”

“Two?” I do the math, again and again, but the numbers don’t add up. Khaled must be keeping a second set of books.

I think of Mom’s father. I knew him, but not very well. He lived in Newark, where Mom was from, but she never took us there. She would visit alone and infrequently. As I understood things, Newark was filthy and violent. Dad would say the city looked like lightning struck a shithouse.

I take a large piece of Egyptian bread, break it in two, sop up the ful. The bread is nice. So warm and fresh. I must have had a bad piece, before. I look at Maura. She’s also eating with more appetite. She reaches for the last piece of bread.

“I will make more.” Inez rushes off to the kitchen.

“No, no, please.”

Khaled raises a hand. “It will take only a few minutes. It is nothing.”

It would be more polite to decline, to say no, don’t bother, to say it two or three times before reluctantly accepting, but we say nothing.

I call out loudly. “Thanks, Inez.”

Khaled begins telling a story about his family. They were poor. They often screamed at one another and occasionally threw things, but they were happy. The story, and its minor details, make us feel as if we are back in Cairo.

I try to catch Maura’s eye, but she is listening carefully to Khaled. 

When the story ends we are silent, the three of us. We sit and wait. Inez is still in the kitchen, making bread. But she will come back soon, very soon. 

SUAD KHATAB ALI is a poet and fiction writer from the UAE.

The Adirondack Review