For Valentine’s Day, here is something light – a story by Nancy Lindisfarne from DANCING IN DAMASCUS, her collection of short stories about Syria in the 1990s (SUNY, 2000).
‘Come on. I’ll help you if you want.’ Rana grinned. She was lively, shiny, like her curly dark hair. And she was a gorgeous shape. So he didn’t really mind that she was also saying he was hopeless, the kind of guy who didn’t have the gumption to buy a Barbie doll for his kid.
‘Yeah. I’d appreciate it. She’s been on at me for months.’
They were still sitting in her office, sorting out the last bits of paperwork. Two software companies, no longer talking via E-mail, but talking face to face.
‘Difficult, is it? Hmmm…’
‘No, it shouldn’t be. I guess I just couldn’t be bothered.’ That was more honest than he’d meant. He sucked his teeth and could feel the stiff hairs of his moustache stub into his bottom lip. ‘I like business trips to be business trips, home to be home’. That sounded better, reasonable. But she swivelled round in her chair, gave him a piercing look, then shrugged. Clearly, she didn’t think much of his answer.
‘I don’t quite understand. Who asked you to bring back the Barbie, your wife or your daughter?’ The teasing note had gone and she looked at him intently.
‘Now it’s both of them. First, it was Hawa – that’s my wife. She had a Barbie doll when she was little. She still has it, but it’s tatty and she wants a new one for Aliyah. That’s my daughter, she’s nearly five. Anyway, Hawa got out her Barbie for Aliyah and now it’s all they talk about.’ He could feel the prickles of his moustache again. He must stop screwing up his face. It probably looked anxious, and certainly wouldn’t be good for business.
‘Okay, but does that mean you couldn’t be bothered for your wife’s sake, or for your daughter?’ Her question made him uncomfortable, but he couldn’t help being impressed. She didn’t let anything slip past. No wonder she was a good systems analyst. But not very Syrian. Maybe growing up in Britain made her more relaxed. And direct. He wasn’t used to working with a woman like Rana. Actually, he didn’t know anyone like her, and he wasn’t used to working with women, full stop. He was out of his depth.
‘To be honest, it’s a chore I can do without. Aliyah’s wonderful, but I feel I hardly know her. I guess I’ve travelled too much.’ He felt a twinge of resentment as he said it. They were awfully alike his daughter and his wife. Quiet, pretty and unpredictable. Unforgiving when he didn’t get things right.
‘And your wife?’
He looked at Rana. He was tempted to say something about how stiff and demanding Hawa could be. But he checked himself. It wouldn’t be fair. ‘She’s a good woman, and a good mother.’
‘I see’, Rana said, and he felt a bit of a shock. Just what did she see, he wondered, and peered at her carefully.
‘Come on, then. Let’s get this finished and I’ll take you off to Toys ‘R’ Us.’
He’d never been out of the centre of Oxford, so the ramshackle buildings near the Railway Station came as a surprise. No spires, none of that antique stonework, only scruffy Victorian brick. She suggested they walk, that it would do them good. When they reached the bridge over the Thames, she stopped and leaned down, enthusiastic, almost as if she wanted to dive into the swift grey river. Then she paused and looked out at the bank. ‘I like those allotments’, she said. ‘All that effort lavished those tiny plots.’
‘Hmmm…’, was all he could say. He’d never thought about allotments before, indeed he’d had to ask Rana what they were.
‘And look over there. It’s nice the way the woods rise up behind them. Especially when the air is so clear’. She nodded at the boiling white clouds which had just drenched Oxford in rain and hail and had now caught the sun and were now rolling away toward the horizon. ‘Great, huh?’ she asked. All he could do was nod, he didn’t know what to say about clouds either.
She chattered on as they walked down the road. ‘I hate those push chairs, don’t you? Those stupid women who shove their kids off the kerb first when they’re trying to cross the road. And the space capsule covers. Poor kids. Crap visibility, no wind on their faces and their mothers don’t even have to talk to them once they’re inside. Sensory deprivation, really. It’s not hard to work out why the English turn out to be way they are.’
He listened to her and looked at a lumpy woman pushing the child chrysalis. He liked what Rana was saying. It was sharp and funny. She was so different from Hawa who was, the thought suddenly came to him, like a sweet semolina pudding.
‘This could be a very tacky adventure’, Rana said as they walked through the car park towards the warehouse of a building. ‘The name alone is bad enough. It’s seriously naff, don’t you think?’
‘Naff?’ he’d had to ask. Rana’s Arabic was laden with English slang, and his vocabulary just wasn’t up to it.
‘You’ll see’, she said, and added as they marched past the shopping trolleys, ‘Do people really buy that many toys in one go?’
They were hit by the smell of plastic when they entered the store, though Rana didn’t comment on that. She’d spotted some Barbie stuff straight away. ‘Yuk, paper dolls’, and she opened the book to show him: roller skates, perky hats, full breasts covered by various bits of clothing. ‘Barbie dismembered. Great for fetishists.’ She rolled her eyes salaciously, ‘What do you fancy? Gloves or shoes?’
Gloves he didn’t know about, but he thought of the rack of shoes Hawa kept in her wardrobe. All those pointy feet, high arched, ready to dance, going nowhere. He couldn’t remember when he and Hawa had last walked anywhere. Even in Damascus which could be a wonderful place for a stroll. And they certainly didn’t walk in Jeddah. No one did. And as for dancing … He was glad his glasses were tinted, hoping they hid his eyes, and his naivety.
Rana cornered a young lad who was stocking shelves and asked for the Barbies. Wasting no time, she headed off to the back of the store. He stumbled behind her, glad she was taking charge.
‘Oh, my God! Just look.’ No grin on her face this time. She looked dumbfounded, staring at a wall of bright pink boxes about ten metres long and three or four metres high. When she’d recovered, she smiled ruefully. ‘Well’, she said, ‘I hadn’t bargained for this. So what kind of a Barbie are you supposed to get?’
‘I don’t know.’ But he now understood why Hawa had insisted he buy the damned doll in the UK, not in the Duty Free in Dubai. He’d looked in the airport, but there were only a couple of dolls to choose from. Did Hawa know it would be like this? She certainly didn’t know much else. Her world didn’t extend much beyond their flat in Jeddah and her circle of friends in Damascus. Somebody must have told her. She was good at taking other people’s advice.
‘How about this one?’ Rana had spotted a life-sized Barbie wrapped in cellophane like the chrysalis kids. ‘”You can wear Barbies’ clothes too”‘, she parroted and gave him a wink. He peered at the doll. About a metre high, just like Aliyah, but the doll’s head was small in proportion to its body, a miniature woman, not his chubby little daughter. ‘It’s grotesque, isn’t it? Reminds me of veal crates.’ Again he had to ask for an explanation.
‘Actually, she looks a bit like Hawa – my wife’, he said, remembering the wedding photos taken in Damascus five years before. Later Hawa had told him she’d hated her make-up. ‘It wasn’t me at all’, she’d said, still aggrieved months afterwards. At the time he hadn’t known better – in fact, he still wasn’t too sure what ‘me’ she was talking about. Anyway, she’d had a chance beforehand to see what ‘full make-up, applied by a professional’, would look like. ‘Every one does a make-up rehearsal’, she’d said, so he’d assumed that she’d been pleased with the result. But she had looked bizarre. Her face was stiff and pale. Like the bisque doll his mother kept in the glass-fronted cupboard. Or a corpse. That’s what he’d thought at the time. Strange and comic. Her bright red mouth shaped like a perfect heart. Meant to be romantic, he’d guessed, but it made him feel like a pervert. When he’d collected her from her mother’s for the arada procession – when he’d first seen her dressed as a bride, he’d been shocked. And, sitting next to her in the back of the decorated car, he’d wondered how he’d manage to kiss her sticky mouth in her death mask face.
‘Really?’, Rana brought him back to Oxford. ‘Really? Your wife must be beautiful, beautiful in that perfect Damascene way.’ He nodded. Hawa was beautiful, everyone said so. But as he peered at the life-sized Barbie with her wide eyes and simpering smile, he knew nobody could have a mouth like that. It didn’t take any account of muscles and bones. He turned away, embarrassed that he’d mentioned Hawa, wondering if Rana had heard it as a jibe.
He looked down the bright pink row of boxes. It was a hateful colour. Sick pink, he used to call it when he was a kid. It reminded him of the candyfloss they would buy during the Feast at the end of Ramadan. Vile coloured stuff which he’d thrown up on his shoes one year. He felt he was standing at the bottom of a nightmare with pink canyon walls looming above. He wanted desperately to get out, but Rana was showing no signs of unease. She was marching up and down the aisle, calling out the different Barbies he could buy, laughing at the lot of them, not caring who heard.
‘Dear God, Look! There’s even a Mermaid Barbie with a Swan.’ Rana was pointing to the lurid green fish tail which glistened through the cellophane of the box.
‘She looks like the belly dancer we had at our wedding’, he said, trying to get away from Hawa, wanting to make a joke.
‘Oh, no! Really? You had a belly dancer at your wedding?’
‘Sure, a belly dancer at a wedding makes everyone happy. Part of the show.’ His cousin Walid had done all the arrangements, so that, as Walid had said, he could relax and enjoy the reception. ‘The Meridian recommended the dancer, but we had to sort out what she’d wear.’
Rana was looking at him very strangely.
‘You know, in Damascus the dancers are pretty well-covered, but I wanted one Egyptian-style.’ More or less naked, is what he had said to Walid. ‘We like Egyptian dancers in Jeddah. There’s a joke about less being more’, he added, and then wished he hadn’t.
‘Oh, so a good belly dancer can do her stuff at the end of a dog’s tail? Yuk. That’s what I’d call ‘naff”, Rana said, putting her index finger to her mouth. He wondered if her gesture meant something obscene. ‘I guess I’m one of those people who think a belly dancer ruins a wedding’, she added, as if just stating a fact. She wasn’t trying to put him down. ‘Anyway, you’re right. This godawful mermaid is grown man’s fantasy completely.’
‘So what do you know about men’s fantasies?’ He tried to make it sound light, but he wondered what she did knew about men. More than Hawa, he suspected. Rana wasn’t married and she hadn’t mentioned a boyfriend either.
‘Oh, come on, you Syrian-Saudi creep. Even you must have heard about feminism. It’s been around for years. Barbie is ‘Woman as Sex-object, Exhibit No. 1.’
Khara, shit, he thought. He wasn’t exactly sure what a creep was, but he could guess. And he wasn’t used to being talked to this way, and certainly not by some snippy woman. He hated it when people talked about feminism. It made him feel as if he were to blame. But Rana didn’t act like a tank, nor was she heavy and greying like Nawal el-Sadawi. But then, maybe he’d never met a real feminist before. And whatever a creep was, he wasn’t as bad as she thought. His grin felt tight, but at least he’d managed not to screw up his face.
After a moment, he looked at her again. She had a great body. Then, suddenly, he remembered the first week of his marriage. It was a time he mostly tried to forget. Of course, Hawa had been very young. Nineteen, she’d just finished her bac. And she’d grown up in Jeddah too. That was partly why they’d got together. Damascus was so easy and open, it would have been impossible if he’d found a Syrian girl who didn’t understood how they lived in Saudi and who didn’t know how housebound she’d be. Hawa’s mother was a muhajjebah, veiled. That probably accounted for some of it too. And Hawa was the oldest, didn’t have any big sisters who might have told her the score. The list of reasons could go on forever. He felt a flush creeping up his neck.
‘Sex-objects’, Rana continued. ‘Not one of these damn dolls looks like it could do any real work. Do you see Barbie the panel-beater, or even Barbie the secretary? And not many computer experts among them either’, Rana gleeked, flashing him a toothpaste smile. He wanted to tell her to shut up, but she was too damned quick. She made him feel like a fool. ‘Not one of them shows a lick of creativity either. Sex for security, that’s what it’s about, or Stepford wives. Take your choice.’
‘Look. I’ve had enough’, he said and he could hear the anger in his voice. ‘Let’s chose a doll and get out of here.’ He made a grab at one of the boxes. Rana looked at him in surprise, then softened and laughed. At herself, not him.
‘Sorry. I’ve come on a bit strong.’ She shook her head and then put her hand on his arm. He was startled by her touch and his anger got lost in an embarrassing rush of pleasure.
‘It’s okay’, he grunted. ‘I just hate shopping.’ And to show willing he forced himself to ask about the Stepford wives. Her explanation, or perhaps the lingering warmth on his arm, unsettled him again and he wandered some distance down the aisle. She was right, of course. But actually the Barbies weren’t doing anything different from what Hawa did every day. Got up, put on her make-up, did her hair, worried a bit about breakfast, got Aliyah up, did Aliyah’s hair and got Aliyah to nursery school. That was pretty much it.
He peered into the ‘Barbie at the Beach’ box, Barbie and her beach shower. It made him realize he’d never even seen Hawa in a bathing costume. In fact, he was pretty sure she didn’t have one. It had never before occured to him to ask whether or not she could swim. Probably not, he concluded. She wasn’t very good at being more or less naked. He felt himself starting to redden again.
Their wedding night wasn’t the problem, what happened then didn’t count. Walid had wanted him to relax, but by the end he’d been so exhausted he could barely recognize the guests as he and Hawa walked around the ballroom arm in arm. And if he’d been that tired, he could only guess what Hawa had been feeling. Throughout the reception she’d sat bolt upright on the wedding throne, staring down from the eski glassy-eyed, pale like a mannequin. The huge backdrop of carnations, hearts and doves picked out in red and white, had looked more animated. And when they’d finally taken the lift up to the bridal suite, she’d mumbled something about having been sewn into her dress. He’d have to be careful, she said. It would be difficult to get off. In the end, neither of them had taken off a stitch, they’d just collapsed on the bed and fallen asleep. He couldn’t be sure if he’d even removed his shoes.
‘I take it all back’, he heard Rana say from the other end of the aisle. ‘Here’s Barbie with a piano. But come and have a look. It’s called “Two in one – sofa chair and piano”, and guess what? Barbie’s reposing decorously on the sofa, in case you expected her to be playing a Chopin etude.’ He came up and had a look, and saw too the mischievous sparks in Rana’s eyes. She’d started again. Perhaps she couldn’t help herself, but she made him smile. She was talking to him, trying to get through. And he had to admit that a part of him enjoyed being teased. He could take it, he thought, and decided to find another Barbie doing something.
‘Rana’, he invited her down to the mouth of the canyon to look at Barbie the horsewoman. “Barbie with Allegra, who whinnies when Barbie rides. I whinny”, said the vomit pink box.
‘Wow!’ He wasn’t sure whether she was pleased he’d picked up her challenge or just mocking him.
‘Ah. Pony Club clits’, she said, then saw he didn’t understand. ‘Little girls’ porn. The perfect Arab white horse with its flowing mane. A real nightmare’, Rana added in English, then looked at him and muttered, ‘It’s a joke’.
‘And look at the next one’, Rana pointed. ‘”Champion”. Jet black. What a stud!’ Then she paused a moment, her smile vanishing. ‘A bit racist, what do you think?’ He didn’t know what to think. He was working hard just to keep up with her. And he wasn’t very sure what was sarcasm and what was not. Barbie and the horse’s saddle were covered in red tartan. ‘Dressage. Discipline. So how would you fancy Barbie with a whip?’, Rana was beginning to frighten him. He didn’t know what to say.
‘Does your wife ever come with you on your business trips?’ He looked around, wondering what had provoked her question. Not that he could avoid it, now that she’d asked.
‘Sometimes. When I go back to Damascus. We can’t afford it otherwise. And who’d look after Aliyah? Anyway, I’m not sure Hawa’s that interested in travelling. She’s embarrassed about not knowing English and worried she’ll make stupid mistakes.’
‘That’s a shame. Maybe it’ll be different when Aliyah’s older.’
‘Maybe.’ But he couldn’t see it.
At this point they stumbled onto the few Kens in the collection. ‘Dishy, huh?’ Rana laughed. ‘”Ken is scented with flower fragrance”. That’s good, isn’t it? But they haven’t even given him real fake hair, only moulded plastic. No body hair either’, she said, and looked appreciatively at the thick black wires on the backs of his hands.
What was this woman up to? She was too nice to be playing the whore. But he couldn’t help it. He felt a stirring, a throb of desire. This could get tricky, he thought and started to back off down the aisle, but he had to give in and laugh when she pressed her thumb gently against Ken’s cellophane and shorts and shouted gleefully, ‘No genitals either. But then what did we expect?’
It wasn’t the wedding night, but the next few days that upset him. They’d had a local honeymoon. A week in Malula before he’d had to return to Jeddah. And yes, he had balls and a prick in good working order. But what was he supposed to do, rape his wife? Maybe that’s what some men did, but it wasn’t his style. So there’d been four agonizing days of trying to help Hawa relax, enjoy being touched, kissed, and not so damned shy. Okay, maybe he had been like a stranger. They hadn’t had much time together even though they’d been engaged for a six months. Believe it or not – it still made him angry – as a Saudi citizen he’d had to wait that long for permission to marry. And most of that time she’d been in Damascus preparing her trousseau and getting the wedding dress made. But it was as if she’d never heard that a man’s pyjamas are not the same as his tie. Why, during those six months, had she avoided finding out about sex?
Well, that wasn’t strictly true. She had found out something, or, maybe it was instinctive, he didn’t know. When they’d finally managed to deal with the virginity problem, she’d started complaining, timidly, he’d had to admit, about being sore. Then her headaches had started. And then Aliyah had come along – right away, and things hadn’t been a lot better in the whole five years.
But maybe it was just him. He didn’t know. He was startled to hear himself give a deep huffing sigh. Blushing, he looked up quickly, and was glad to see Rana some way off down the aisle.
‘Yo, look!’, she called. Reluctantly he joined her. He was feeling battered. ‘Cross-cultural Barbies. Italian Barbie, Kenyan Barbie. Chinese Barbie and like all them “Made in China”. But, no Arab Barbie. Shall we try and guess why?’ She paused, waiting for an acknowledging nod.
‘My hunch is that they think that genuine, authentic – that is to say, Arab folkloric – dress would hide too many of Barbie’s charms. After all’, her voice sharp with sarcasm, ‘we know that all Arab women – who are all Muslims, of course, never atheists, Christians or Jews … that all Arab women wear black cloaks with just a tiny peephole for their seductive, singular eye.’
Rana was getting wound up. It made him want to squirm, made him worry that she was going to be violent. Feminists were often violent, weren’t they? Then he checked himself and pulled in his panic. If he made himself listen, she made sense. And how could he blame her? He didn’t have to be a feminist to understand. She was good at her job, he admired her for that, and for how well she handled being an Arab woman in an office of Englishmen in Oxford. No wonder she was annoyed.
‘Let’s just choose one and leave’, he said quickly. ‘I’m grateful you came, but let’s get this over and find a cup of tea?’ She nodded. This time she had understood. ‘So which one? You choose. Frankly, to me each one seems as good – or bad’, he wanted her to know he wasn’t a complete creep, ‘- as the next.’
Rana walked soberly between the towering boxes. ‘If they have been waiting a long time for this Barbie, why don’t you go for bust and take the Barbie bride. After all, as it says on the box, “She’s got something special”. “This is the day Barbie has dreamt of so long. She’s a vision in her glorious bridal gown”. Rana suppressed a giggle, then looked at him contritely.
‘That’s a good idea.’ Then he paused, still trying to match Rana’s sardonic style. ‘I don’t think we’ll bother with Ken, do you? After all, there’s no Ken in a bridegroom’s dress.’
Rana laughed. She was nice. ‘Yeah, let’s grab a few button and bow accessories and get out of here’, but she couldn’t resist commenting on the next aisle down from the Barbies which was chock full of Action Men, Night Climbers, and one Ninja Turtle after the other, each more murderously ugly than the one before. ‘Yuk’, she said and looked so dispirited that he wanted to reach out and say they aren’t the worst things in the world. But he didn’t, partly because he didn’t dare, and partly because she was right. The toys were revolting. And maybe they did say it all.
As they started to walk back, the bridal Barbie boxed in, swinging sideways in a huge plastic cocoon, Rana said, ‘There is a lovely footpath along the east side of Osney Island which goes all the way over to Christ Church. Do you think we can cleanse our souls with some fresh air?’
The Thames was close and high as they walked along the row of small brick houses. They paused at the bridge near the weir, watching a swan, sans mermaid, struggle against the current. ‘So when do you go back to Saudi?’
He looked out to where the sun was setting behind one of the little warehouses which, Rana had quipped, were all that remained of pre-electronic Oxford. ‘Rana, I’ve enjoyed these last couple of days. The work has been great. And it’s been good to get out this afternoon has been great. I’m embarrassed to say it’, he made an effort not to screw up his mouth, ‘but I’ve learned a lot. Could you bear to have dinner with me tonight?’
She looked at him, thoughtful, her eyes narrow, her chin tilted up.
‘I know I’m still a Syrian-Saudi creep’, he smiled as he said ‘creep’ carefully in English. ‘And of course, you’ve already guessed that my wife doesn’t understand me.’ He finished, then looked up quickly, relieved to see that she understood he’d meant the last bit as a joke. Though it didn’t sound all that funny after he’d said it. He started to suck his teeth. ‘Anyway, I’d like to talk some more, before we get back to E-mail only.’
‘Sure’, she smiled. ‘I’d enjoy dinner. And it’ll give me a chance to ask you what you think you’re doing for your daughter.’