Aisha would neither have shown me her face nor spoken to me in her home. But the freedom she felt in this public setting, an outdoor café near the foot of Al Khalifa Tower, released a torrent of words. As if to discipline her freedom so it would not run away with itself, she fussed with her headscarf as she talked, making sure that not a single strand of hair had escaped. Her husband, Mahmoud, who could have snapped me in two as casually as he washed down a fresh date with his tiny, bitter cup of qahwa, nodded agreement as she spoke. Noticing me struggle with my own Arabian coffee after I had finished both dates, he offered the second one from his own dish. Now Aisha was talking about Hosni Mubarak.
“Your country, you know, was very bad to support this man. In thirty years, what did he do for Egypt? He was a bad man and a bad leader, corrupt, very bad for the Egyptian people.”
Her husband interrupted.
“But Aisha, I think Mr. Don had nothing to do with keeping Mubarak in power.”
A blush, barely discernible against her olive skin, crept across her small, finely drawn features.
“Of course. The United States is the same as Egypt, I think, with the government believing one way and the people another.”
Assuming my consent, she continued.
“Now that Mubarak has gone, it is a great day for all Egyptians. Only God can say what will happen next. We hope the army will help the people and not want to rule them. On this day, however, with our bad leader finally gone, all Egyptians can dream about a better future, inshallah.”
“Yes, inshallah,” her husband murmured. Mahmoud looked quizzically at me.
“Do you know this word, inshallah? You will hear Muslims say it many, many times. It means ‘God willing.’ Inshallah.”
Ordering qahwa as I sat at the table next to theirs had prompted Mahmoud to speak to me first, though Aisha held her own after that. With my own two dates and one of Mahmoud’s consumed, only the bitterness of the qahwa remained and I thought, staring into my still half-full cup, never again. But the sacrifice had rewarded me with the company of Aisha and Mahmoud.
Aisha wanted to know how I liked Dubai.
“My wife and I have hardly spent any time here at all. We’re staying near Al Rifai mosque.”
“We live very close to Al Rifai!”
Her face creased with a smile that displayed a full set of perfect white teeth.
“We have God’s protection there, so it is much safer for raising our children. All the tourists come to Dubai to drink alcohol and act like pigs. Dubai is beautiful, so Mahmoud and I visit maybe one time a month. Always in the day, though, and never at night. I think you will not find the angels here.”
Embarrassed by his wife’s directness, Mahmoud hastened to correct her.
“You have a different way of thinking, Aisha, but you must respect what other people believe and how they live.”
“It’s all right. I’m pretty sure most Americans and Europeans drink alcohol, but my wife and I do not.”
They both seemed astonished to meet a Christian—or someone they assumed to be Christian—who didn’t drink. I changed the subject.
“Aisha is a teacher of English and History at a private school. I am a cop on the beat.”
“You’re a policeman?”
He crushed his cigarette in the ashtray and lit another one, smiling when I declined his offer.
“I hear your whole country has stopped smoking. But I’m not a policeman. They say I am Dean of Students at my wife’s school. That means I spend my day shoving and screaming at very bad boys.”
Aisha, finding her way wordlessly back into the conversation, opened her mouth wide and used an index finger to make the “gag me” gesture; part of international language now, I suppose, like red and green traffic lights and the differentiated stick figures on the doors to men’s and women’s toilets.
“Yes, they disgust us; they have no morals.”
Mahmoud’s voice grew progressively louder as he spoke.
“Their fathers are rich, so they don’t value education. They think they can any time punch a hole in the ground and money flows out like oil. But what happens to this country when there is no more oil and the rich boys have education in only shopping? Do they think the Americans will save their grand houses when they start to crumble? Do they think the British will give jobs to boys who never studied? I like to see those rich boys then, when they have to drive taxis and wash other people’s dirty laundry!”
Mahmoud either didn’t notice or didn’t care that two men wearing traditional kandora robes as white as Aisha’s teeth watched him from the table to his left. Sitting on his right, Aisha, who saw the men and their enormous cigars, leaned closer to me, pulling her headscarf taut and dropping her voice.
“Egypt produced a great civilization that the whole world still remembers. In the modern time we have Salah Jaheen and Abdel Rahman el-Abnudi and other poets. We have the novelist who won the Nobel Prize, Naguib Mahfouz, and even great women writers like Alifa Rifaat and Nawal El Saadawi. We don’t have the oil, but we have creative people who do not depend on oil. Egypt has a soul that the world will honor long after these rich beasts have nothing to run their cars with and must go back to riding camels.”
Languorously blinking his eyes once, like a cat, Mahmoud turned to fix his stare on the men in the kandoras, who stood up to go.
“They boast about the safety of their little country. But do you know why it’s so safe, Mr. Don? It’s because half the country is in the police or the army. They create no art or civilization. They only know how to sell the oil which God created, how to shop, and how to train police to frighten the foreign workers so that they don’t cause problems.”
“Our own two sons don’t go to this bad school where we work,” Aisha said in an angry whisper. “We send them to the public school with the children of other foreign workers because we don’t want the rich boys to ruin their manners and turn them against God. These rich boys don’t even respect their own fathers. They are not good Muslims.”
Mahmoud had drained his qahwa and Aisha her Coca-Cola while they waited to meet my wife, gift-shopping for our four children and one daughter-in-law in California. But she had taken longer than I expected and now they needed to leave on their own errand, buying a jeweled abayah to send to Aisha’s mother in Ismaïlia, the “City of Roses” on the west bank of the Suez Canal, a strategic port where Mubarak had raised tensions with large troop reinforcements.
“My mother dresses in the traditional way, covering everything except her eyes. You know, even like that, a woman can be beautiful.”
Not wanting to lose a drop of Coca-Cola, Aisha inspected her glass: completely empty. Then she looked me in the eyes.
“Do you think it’s strange to care so much about a woman’s beauty in this time, when the whole world is shifting under our feet? I think that is when beauty is the most important.”—Don Stoll