My wife and I were not alone on the beach. At Qantab, an old fishing village near Muscat around which a posh residential neighborhood has mushroomed, two Arab men parked their Lexus above the beach before going in the water with their masks and spear-guns.
Marianne had not planned to wear her swimsuit, anyway. In Oman the Arab men’s good manners prohibit them from approaching or speaking to women they don’t know. Although they see countless Indian women who do not cover their hair, any Western woman in a swimsuit raises uncovering to a different level, and the men make no effort not to look. Still fit and athletic in her early fifties, Marianne would have been too much. So she wore her standard Omani swimwear into the water: pink T-shirt and olive Capri pants. I also swim in a T-shirt, a practice I adopted in Hawaii years ago to keep my back from burning. Here it yields the ancillary benefit of modesty.
The spear-fishermen had gone by the time Mina arrived. That was just as well, since the sight of a Muslim woman in a swimsuit shocked even me. As many times as Marianne and I have visited Omani beaches, Mina remains the only Muslim woman we have seen swimming. In her late thirties, she is lean and tall, so even her conservatively cut Speedo revealed a great expanse of leg stretching out beneath it. Since I met her in the UAE in February, she had shortened her hair by two or three inches. This brought it clear of a pair of shoulders which, though less muscular than Marianne’s, were enhanced by their bare isolation. Because I had never seen so much of a Muslim woman, she seemed naked. To have her return to her car after a short swim so that she could dress again was a relief.
A cliff rose out of the sand a few feet from the water and we hugged the face appreciatively. As long as we made no movements at all, it rewarded our devotion with shade. But the sun splashed its heat on our hands as we offered dates to Mina, who smelled of mint and something else I couldn’t identify. We accepted pistachios in return.
“How sad that Americans know my country for ayatollahs and not for pistachios. Iranian pistachios are the best in the world.”
The frequency and full volume of her laughter rushed back to me from our only previous encounter. Pure pleasure, not irony, motivated her laugh now; she did not doubt the incommensurability of Iranian pistachios with all others. These were good, although I had no non-Iranian pistachios with which to compare them. But I was less curious about the pistachios than about why she had left the UAE.
“Don’t ask why I left there; ask why I came here. I ask myself the same question because I think, here are more Arabs so the stupidité will be exactly the same.”
She had learned French before she learned English, as a child, and later she lived in Paris. Though she spoke English with what sounded to me like the slightest of French accents, now and then a French word nearly identical to its English equivalent would assert priority.
Marianne, who had not met Mina before, wasn’t disappointed.
“Don told me you would speak your mind. But what do you mean by stupidity?”
“Believe me: I don’t mean Iranians are not stupid!”
She spat a date seed as far as she could out to sea and looked pleased with the result.
“Why not spitting date seeds for a new Olympic sport? It’s something Iranian women can do without violating the Islamic dress code. You see?”
Draping her beach towel over her head and shoulders and down her back, like a chador, she spat again.
“Here is stupid for you: a father who will not allow his son to learn because of a single bad word that the boy wrote. Listen to my story.”
She shook her head in disgust before telling us about one of her high school students in Dubai. The boy wrote a story in which he used the word “wine,” served by the hero to a gang of thieves in order to get them drunk so he could call the police. Although Mina praised the story, the boy’s father had a different opinion.
“The fool called and shouted at me that I should have punished his son for writing about wine. I tried to make him understand that the boy didn’t say that wine is a good thing. The story gave a reason not to drink wine!”
As the memory made her more angry she paced back and forth between the cliff and the edge of the surf, in and out of the baking heat.
“He only shouted louder and became more abusive.”
For the father’s part in the dialogue, she deepened her voice like a man’s and distorted her features into a comical mask of brainless fury.
“You have no right to contradict me. You are my employee, so you will obey!”
“That’s enough! You can’t speak to me like I’m an Indian.”
“Oh, no? Even your great Ayatollah was Indian. You should take a shower and wash off your filth!”
She saw the shock on our faces and stopped to explain.
“He meant Khomeini, whose grandfather came from India. Iranians who don’t like the Revolution say it is the fault of Khomeini because he was not a true Persian.”
The sun, under which she had stood for a moment too long, released a cascade of sweat down her forehead and into her eyes. She took off her dark glasses, now too slick to get a purchase on her aquiline nose, and tried unsuccessfully to mop her face with one damp hand.
“My God, it’s hot! Why don’t we go back in the water?”
I didn’t want to say anything about her swimsuit, but there was no need. Still fully dressed, she forged into the sea up to her armpits. We heard her ecstatic sigh over the basso profundo of the waves as we waded in behind her. She picked up the thread of her story once we had all found the same waist-deep level.
“This man was ignorant. Yet he knew just enough about my country to insult me.”
“That’s the whole point of knowledge for some people,” Marianne said.
Bird-like, Mina’s head snapped alertly toward her.
“Yes! If insulting people means more than ugly comments sometimes. If it also means building a tower for yourself so you can look down on the others and know you are superior. This man was more than one ignorant fool that I can forget about. He was like a poster on a wall, on which somebody has concentrated all the imbecilic racism of the Arabs—and of the Persians, too, just for good measure!”
She gazed out to sea.
“You know, I’m proud to be Shia. We are always opprimés, underdogs, in Islam, but lately we’ve been quite brave about standing up for ourselves and for all of our other poor underdogs, even among the Sunnis. If only we could keep that part of the Islamic Revolution and get rid of the morality police and the executions! But unfortunately, what is said about Khomeini not being a true Persian shows that we also like to have our own dogs to kick.”
Interrupting her reverie on the waves, she glanced up at the sun—briefly, but carefully enough to fix its position in the afternoon sky.
“I think straight that way is the southernmost point of my country’s border with Pakistan; that’s a border you don’t want to cross if you’re Shia.”
Her eyes shut for an instant.
“If we ever get the Islamic Revolution that we should have had—the one that is only about justice—then I will go back and you must visit me. Iranian hospitality is the most generous in the world; even the Arabs can’t compete.”
She closed her eyes again.
“I want my parents to live to see a new Iran. They’ve both passed sixty and, I don’t know why, but in my family we don’t live far beyond that. My father’s mother was sixty-three, the same age as her husband, when she died. Everybody said, he seems healthy, but he loved her so much that soon he will follow her to the grave. And he did, only a few months later.”
Her loud laughter startled me.
“No man loves me like that, so I won’t be responsable for anyone’s early death!”
Turning forty-five degrees to the right, she pointed.
“Don’t rely on my geography. But the state of Gujarat must lie over there.”
We all stared in the same direction; I think her geography was accurate.
“Khomeini’s grandfather came from India, and so do the men who do all the backbreaking outdoor work here.”
I mentioned that I had heard construction workers earn two or three hundred dollars per month in Oman.
“And in this heat! So you understand why the idiot told me to take a shower. But this is why I ask myself why I am here: I see the same conditions as in the UAE.”
“Did you think you wouldn’t?” I asked. “Is that why you chose to move here?”
She shook her head and surveyed the length of her body.
“I’d better dry these,” she said as she made her way toward shore. “But ‘chose’ isn’t the right word. The fool complained to my principal about my grossièreté, rudeness, and had me sacked. I needed a job, of course, so, voilà. I get to teach both English and French and, naturally, I show the students a lot of poetry.”
“Do you use Rumi?” Marianne asked.
Mina looked at her as if to size her up.
“You can’t teach poetry without Rumi; nobody writes more lyrically or more wisely. But I use the great modern Persian poets also—my own translations if I must.”
Work as a translator of Persian and French literature into English sometimes allowed her to take time off from teaching and probably, I thought, explained her occasional practice of using a Persian or French word followed immediately by its English equivalent.
She turned to me.
“In America today, who are your Indians?”
I decided on a story instead of generalities.
“In California, my son’s high school football team once lost badly to a team from a different school. My son was goalkeeper, and I couldn’t count how many goals he let in. The parents of the players on the other team came mostly from Mexico and spoke very little English. After the game, I heard the father of one of my son’s teammates tell him to forget the loss, because in a few years the boys who had just beaten him would be carrying his groceries and mowing his lawn.”
That silenced her.
“So,” she finally said, “this is the enlightenment we can look forward to if we become like a Western country. But the Emiratis and Omanis have their own countries, too. If they’re happy with brains like camels, maybe I should accept that.”
“Except for your student,” Marianne protested. “Do you think the boy who wrote the story wants something more?”
Mina struck her forehead with her palm.
“I’ve forgotten the best part of the story! When I explained to the boy why I couldn’t tutor him anymore, he told me that his father drinks wine in front of him every night. But the father tells the boy to ignore him and only to do what is permitted by the Holy Qur’an!”
Now she stood in the sun deliberately in order to dry off. That wouldn’t take long in this heat, now augmented by wind from a thousand hair dryers. I wondered whether she would need to go back in the water again if we continued talking, and she answered by walking toward her car and beckoning us to follow. When she opened the elderly Toyota and an overpowering scent poured out, I knew I had smelled fennel on her before along with the mint. She reached into the glovebox.
“Help yourself. Lotfan, please.”
What she showed us in her Gitanes Brunes pack had not come from a factory. Marianne and I recoiled and I surveyed the beach.
“So timid for Americans! You can kill Saddam Hussein and bully my country out of its right to nuclear weapons, but you won’t dare to enjoy a little smoke.”
Then, still laughing: “It’s practically genetic, you know. I’ll bet Iran leads every country in the world in drug use.”
She put the pack away.
“For later. I need to keep my head clear now so I can think. I’ve told you about my former husband, who left me when he found out I was pregnant?”
“You said he was French.”
“And still is: Jean-Michel. Of course we’ve had some contact over the years, but now there’s a sudden big change. He says he was just a boy then, he still hasn’t found anyone like me, he wants to get to know our daughter—nineteen years later!—and on and on. But I think it’s all crap. What do you think?”
Marianne spoke firmly.
“It sounds like something has gone wrong in his life. It sounds like now he has nothing, so he hopes to get back something he used to have. But what did he do to have nothing? What’s wrong with him, and how has he hurt people, that now he has nothing?”
Mina smiled at me.
“I like your wife very much. You’ll keep her?”
“Forever, if I can.”
She spread her beach towel on the vinyl seat and started the car. The air conditioning came on and punished us with its heat.
“I think you’re right, Marianne: now he has nothing. It was another story twenty years ago, though. He had a body like iron and he was as handsome as the devil himself. I hope that now I couldn’t fall in love with a man just because of his looks. But with Jean-Michel, I’m lucky.”
One last time before she drove away, her uninhibited laughter.
“He’s nothing special anymore, so I won’t be tested.”
Marianne and I left Qantab to look for another beach we had heard good things about, by a village called Yiti. Not for the first or last time in Oman, we lost our way. Finding ourselves in a village whose name we didn’t know, we stopped two doors down from a mosque. In front of a tall house and shaded by a cluster of date palms, a shapeless middle-aged man sweated into his dishdasha as he washed a Mercedes-Benz. He looked grateful for a reason to take a break and he gave us meticulous directions. But something in our words or gestures must have given us away because, minutes later, when we were already lost again, he tracked us down.
“We thought we understood,” I called out as he advanced toward us.
He waved off my apology and thrust a paper plate laden with slices of watermelon and pineapple through our open car window.
“You are German? British?”
“Ahh, American! Very good, very good. But I think you don’t know, so now I show you.”
I had some trouble keeping up with the Mercedes, which he treated like a four-by-four on isolated back roads consisting more often of gravel or dirt than of asphalt. Finally, within sight of the beach we wanted and therefore satisfied that we wouldn’t get lost a third time, he screeched through a U-turn and dragged his billowing plume of dust toward home.—Don Stoll