Honorary Sister by Kevin Scott Phillips

Finalist, Remember in November 2013

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camel-in-sandI’ve never been what you would call manly. I’m short, kind of nerdy, never particularly athletic, unless you count a one-time, third-place finish in a regional Ping-Pong tournament, which you probably don’t. I’m the kind of guy who studied classics in college, ostensibly “to get in touch with the ancients,” but mostly to land quality girls easily impressed by guys who could read Vergil in the original. It took ten long years for that plan to pay off, but it did eventually. My wife swears it was my Latin abilities that impressed her, but I can’t help but think it was more our mutual love for travel and Stephen King miniseries that cemented our bond. Either way, it certainly wasn’t my ability to change a tire, discuss NFL strategies, or lift a couch without recalibrating my spine. Like I said, I’ve never been the manliest.

Yet, here in the back of this all-girl’s bus in the middle of Arabia, I’ve never felt manlier. These are all my students from the Foundation English Program at one of the United Arab Emirates’ prestigious universities. They are decked out in their wispy black abayas (robes/gowns) and shaylas (head scarves), and have swapped out their high heels for sandals or bare feet. They are in a great mood, singing karaoke Arabic songs at the top of their lungs, mostly ignoring my masculine presence, although right now, shrinking in the back seat in my necktie, I feel more conspicuous than ever. I try to catch the eye of the driver in the rear view mirror, to give him a commiserating bro-nod, but he never deviates from his task.

“You can leave your shoes behind, sir,” one of my students says, interrupting my solitude by leaning over the seat in front of me. She has purple contact lenses in, which is kind of trippy. “When we get to the farm. It’s better if you just feel the sand.”

I realize then that they needed this field trip. The pressure of four hours a day of English instruction, stuck in the same classroom, preparing for an endless battery of tests is intense. I take it for granted, being the sole native English speaker—and for some of them, the sole male teacher—they have this semester.

A flurry of black and color greets the driver’s turn off into the desert. Gone is the Abu Dhabi to Dubai highway; we are now on broken pavement, in a world turned suddenly to sand. The black is something I never expected to see, my students’ abayas coming off. The color is the blooming of their flowery kandooras, their housecoats or desert dresses, the modest but beautiful, garb they wear underneath when they aren’t wearing designer jeans and silk blouses. I’ve never seen any of this, of course, being the wrong gender for such intimacy. I’ve never seen more than a hint of pant leg, never known the style or brand of tops that my Arab students wear, in their secret world beneath the black. They pay me no mind, swept up in the excitement of entering the countryside, where abayas are not required dress, are in fact encumbrances to sand and camel dung and smoky barbeque pits.

One of my students announces, “Sir, we’re here,” and sure enough the bus has taken a turn into a gated compound at the end of a lane of other gated compounds. These are all camel farms, lying end to end to end and separated by fences. I think of suburbs back home, only the yards here are made of sand and the neighbors of backwards-facing knee joints and coarse-haired humps.

Before the bus has fully stopped, the girls bustle out, abayas and heels ditched, anklets jangling. The compound has two large tents, striped black and white and opened in the front. A series of tethers holds them down, should a desert wind kick up, which judging from the way the wool fabric ripples, the way my students’ kandooras and head scarves flutter, is not such an unusual occurrence.

Several large barbeque pits have been dug outside the tents, along with rows of grills. As I follow the girls into the tent, I notice lamb kebabs with red and yellow peppers and red-glazed chicken legs. The floor is a patchwork of carpets and a low, wide table decked out with chocolate and strawberry cakes and an assortment of metal ewers, tea glasses, Arabic coffee cups and platters full of dates.

Around the perimeter of the tent are pillows. Most of the girls are sprawled out on these, talking and giggling with mirrored shades on. Most clutch designer bags and iPhones, busily fishing for things or texting away, probably to their friends on the other side of the cake table.

Hilala, one of my sweeter students, leads me to the back of the tent, the side facing the desert and the pens of camels we’ll soon visit. “Sit here,” she says, gesturing to a padded camel saddle. “Tea or coffee?”

“Coffee?” I say, feeling once more conspicuous as I straddle the saddle, waiting for my student to serve me. While she’s gone, others arrive, asking if I’m all right, can they get me dates or cake. In the classroom it is all I can do to get them away from their phones, to focus on me and all the great learning I am delivering. Here, in the desert, it is like I am an honored guest.

Fatima’s family, the owners of the farm, have more than a hundred head of camels. They are separated behind the tent into paddocks for milk camels, meat camels and racing camels. The racing camels are most valuable, some fetching as much as a million U.S. dollars at auction. The milk camels—lady camels, as Fatima calls them—are the ones we are permitted to hang out with. The racing camels, due to their value, and the throng of Pakistani and Afghani minders protecting their every move, are off-limits. As are the meat camels, which, for reasons of morale, are kept far away from the others.

As for the lady camels, a group of students, led by Fatima, takes me across the low dunes to see them up close. As we walk, me with my eyes fixed on the camel dung balls scattered liberally across the sands, I find myself marveling that girls whose heels hardly ever come closer than six inches from the ground in the university are out here bashing around in the desert, thoroughly indifferent to the squishy things oozing up between their toes.

The lady camels are gorgeous, long-lashed and sweet-natured. Their graceful necks swoop down over the fences to collect hugs from the girls. Hands rub their coarse-haired cheeks, stroke their swollen, pregnant bellies. I join in, touching my first camels, pregnant or otherwise. Their bellies amaze me most, the size of them, the wire-like rib bones stretched around the unborn babies within.

Later, a group of students and I sit in the sands between the paddocks, playing a game of tic-tac-toe, with sticks for X’s and balls of dung for O’s. The girls let me play sticks, almost as if they know a Western man like me will be grossed out by the alternative. They are probably right.

Once the sun hits its zenith, its great big eye burning down through the blue, we retreat back to the shadows of the tent. The cakes have been mostly decimated, and the dates, too. But the coffee is hot and the shade is cool. The flies are killer, but if the girls can deal with them, I can too.

Feeling more at ease with my students, petting pregnant camels together and playing with sticks and dung balls strengthening the bond, I gather some around for a card game. My choice is I Doubt It, a game about lying. Before starting, I ask them if it will be all right to play. Lying is haram in Islam, forbidden, so I’m not sure how it will go over.

Most say yes immediately, but not Rayza. She, one of my more serious students, the kind who likes to display a Koran on her desk next to her textbook, holds up the deck of cards.

“I really can’t, sir. My parents are strict. They say after what happened with my brother that I can’t. If they even catch me—”

“What happened with your brother?” Hanan presses.

Rayza lowers her head. “Gambling. Then drugs. The gambling led to drugs. It was a bad scene.”

Nice colloquial English, I think, even as I feel bad for starting all this.

“The gangsters came next,” she says, prompting gasps of disbelief from everyone in the circle, me included. “They came one night and kidnapped my little sister.” (“Oh, my god!” someone whispers). “They took her out to the desert, right out here actually.” More gasps. “I think she might still be there, somewhere beyond the camels.”

By this time some of the girls are tittering.

“So this game is all about lying, right?” Rayza says to me, and now everyone is laughing. “Think I can handle it?”

We play for maybe an hour, the circle of girls and me. Most of the conversation is in Arabic, but as I’ve come to appreciate after a couple years in the UAE, even though I don’t understand what’s being said (or maybe because I don’t understand what’s being said), the sound of Arabic is like honey to my ears, warm and sweet, and a bit hard to get out once it gets in there.

It’s a good game, spirited, but finally it’s interrupted.

One of the girls approaches, sheepishly, as if too shy to ask me something.

“Sir, do you think, is it okay if…”

“Spit it out!” Rayza says in perfect colloquial.

“Sir, the girls want to dance.”

I blink for a second, not understanding. “And you want me to leave?”

“Yes, please.”

While the girls are dancing, I camp outside in the sand listening to the handclaps and percussion of the music, but more than anything, it’s their laughter that I hear. I stare out into the desert, somewhere beyond the camels, and reflect on how lucky I am. I’ve always had that typical Western mental block about Emirati and Arab culture. All that black, they must be sad. Praying five times a day, they must never have fun. Separation of the sexes; whose idea was that? Women are oppressed, that’s what I’d been told, subservient to men, trailing after them like shadows. Look at their covered hair and faces, their spirits must be veiled too, hidden from the world.

All of these myths went up like shisha smoke the first time I set foot into a classroom. And out here in the desert, in early June, listening to my students having such fun, I can no more see evidence for dourness and oppression than I can see clouds in the sky. These things may exist on some level, out of range of what I can experience or see, but out here, today, they do not.

When the dance is over, it’s time for the meal. Everything else has been a prelude.

Fatima finds me to say, “Everyone has gone to the women’s tent for lunch, sir. Come, while it’s hot.”

“But…” I flounder, “the tent…”

“Don’t be silly, sir! You’re our teacher. You’re not really a man.”

I laugh as I follow her to where the girls are, dipping into platters of roast chicken, lamb kebabs, fatoush, hummus, zataar and a whole bunch of soups and stews I can’t identify. Not really a man.

Why has it taken me all the way to Arabia to finally like the way that sounds?

kevin-phillipsKevin Scott Phillips is a teacher and writer living in the United Arab Emirates.  A graduate of Louisiana State University with an MFA in Fiction, Kevin has published short stories in Bryant Literary Review and Children, Churches, and Daddies magazine.  He was also awarded the Robert Penn Award for his novel Hosni and the Lamb in 2005, and was a 2009 Finalist for Novel-in-Progress for the Faulkner-Wisdom Words and Music competition.

Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons, user hoolengsiong

  6 comments for “Honorary Sister by Kevin Scott Phillips

  1. Thanks for all the kind words! It’s so nice to share my weird little experiences out here in the Gulf!

    • Hello sir, I hope you are doing good. I was wondering if there is any way to contact you? I need to ask you something related to Global Studies.

  2. Loved this. You have a wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humor and a vocabulary that makes my brain buzz with delight. I especially enjoyed how you introduced yourself in the first paragraph then BAM we’re in the desert (without the need for some long set-up). Keep writing, sir. You’re really good at it.

  3. Kevin, I just read your story and never looked up…you had me there in the desert with the delight of your students from the moment I started. Your voice comes through so strongly, I would have willingly kept reading on for pages! Great work! Thank you for this glimpse of life many of us know nothing about.

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