Hijabs and Hamam
In the center of Ras al Khaimah where poor fishermen still used old wooden boats with sails and nets to bring in the day’s catch, a series of storefronts, not much more than glass-fronted shacks, sat lined-up on side streets and roads that turned in on themselves or ended abruptly at the waterfront. In the middle of the merging streets was the fish market, a large white building with a robust and aromatic daily business. From its premier position, bargain hunters had easy access to the Pakistani souq. While Dubai had souqs for gold and woven woolen rugs, for colorful Palestinian ceramicware, ground pillows and tents, and colored glass in silver hanging lanterns, Ras al Khaimah’s souq had far more bargains. In the dusty and dirty corners of the downtown, the Pakistani souq did a healthy trade in cut-rate perfumes and cashmere scarves. The streets were lined with fine tailors who sewed saris for Indians and abayas for Emiratis. There were shops for the white robe-like kanduras and matching head scarves in a variety of colors, and displays for the signature black braided cords to help keep the head scarves in place. Bargaining was a must, and patrons engaged with gusto.
“One hundred fifty. It’s Calvin Klein,” the Pakistani merchant barked at Fadi.
“Haram (sinful)!” Fadi yelled in reply. “No more than fifty.”
“Fifty?” the shop owner responded. “This is an insult!”
Our presence had already created a stir. A tall Arab man with, as they said in the Middle East, a white Western woman was not something they saw every day, so the workers and other customers gathered around the counter as the bargaining began. At first, they were curious to understand our relationship. When they realized we were married, they were keen on witnessing the haggling. “A birthday present for the wife,” they whispered to each other. Both Fadi and the merchant played to the audience, and as their voices grew louder and their gesticulations grew wilder, I grew less comfortable.
“You are a thief!” Fadi screamed.
“One twenty-five,” the merchant yelled in response.
When I left his side and pushed through the crowd of onlookers, Fadi did not even notice. He was too engaged, too focused on a win. I skulked red-faced and shaking to the other side of the store where I hoped nobody would notice me. Nobody did. Everybody was engaged in the haggling at the counter. I peeked through displays of perfumes, expensive watch knock-offs, and a variety of electronics and cheap jewelry. I had never seen Fadi act so rude.
“For you,” I heard the merchant yell, “ninety dirhams. Last offer.”
“Seventy-five,” Fadi responded just as loudly.
“Eighty-five. Khalas (Finished)!” the man said. “I must feed my children.”
“Khalas,” Fadi agreed and reached out to shake the man’s hand. The crowd patted Fadi on the back for a well-struck bargain, and he looked around for me to glory in his victory.
“Come,” he waved me over to him. “Meet my friend.”
As I walked to the counter, the merchant wrapped my birthday present: Obsession by Calvin Klein. Fadi laid out the eighty-five dirhams.
“Happy birthday, Madame Saeed,” he said without looking at me.
“Thank you,” I murmured.
Fadi left the store to the men shaking his hand and slapping him on the shoulders and the back. “After all,” one of them said as we passed, “he could not be embarrassed in front of his wife.” Fadi considered the bartering the bulk of my birthday present; the Obsession was just an added bonus.
It was the first time I had watched a true battle for a bargain. I misunderstood it as rude, but the men involved—including my husband—recognized it as a contest to prove their masculinity and feral intelligence.
“The goal,” Fadi told me, “is to get it exactly right. Not too high; not too low. It’s a blessing to be fair.”
On the morning I was to buy the abaya, I did a lot of walking. It helped me determine the just right price for an abaya and matching hijab, but it was making my son Collin anxious. In the third store after I had tried on my sixth or seventh abaya, I turned to Collin.
“Do you like this one?”
“Mom,” he whined. “Just pick one.”
“I want the right one,” I said.
“They’re all black,” he countered “They all look the same.”
“Good point,” I relented and bought the one I had in my hand. At a negotiated price, of course.
On the morning of National Day as I entered the school, nobody—not even the security guards—knew me. I had worn sunglasses to cover my light blue eyes.
“La! La! La! (no! no! no!),” the hardcore, ex-military Jordanian guard yelled as I walked through the gate.
I stopped and raised my arms while the guard shouted: “No mothers allowed.” The commotion alerted the school’s front desk manager, Mr. Abdulla, who made his way to the gate. The boys in their gray and blue uniforms pushed passed watching the showdown between the abaya-d mother and the Jordanian guard in military fatigues. As Mr. Abdulla approached, I lifted my sun glasses.
“Maasha’allah! (God wills it),” he yelled when he recognized me.
“Very beautiful . . . you,” the Jordanian security guard added in broken English. “Dress this all days,” he told me.
Even the students were surprised at my transformation, “Very good, miss,” they said, their thumbs up in the air. “Emirati now, yea?”
At the door to the school, the Emirati ladies from the main office waited for me, “Come,” they said and escorted me arm-in-arm into their inner sanctum for tea and a chat. “You look good,” they said. “Beautiful,” they added as they unwrapped and rewrapped my hijab.
Later in the day as we celebrated National Day with the students, I was awarded a gift card for being the best dressed Westerner; the boys in the school had voted unanimously after what amounted to a kind of camel auction where the foreigners were paraded across a makeshift stage. When I opened the gift card, my eyes had to adjust to a staggering amount of money. In a matter of seconds, I had daydreamed a whole new wardrobe until I looked again and understood it was linked to a store that sold abayas and hijabs.
“Good store. Best store,” one of the Emirati women told me.
“Good for three abayas,” one of the Emirati men said holding up three fingers. “Good ones,” he added and stopped before insulting the one I wore.
BIO: Jaclyn Maria Fowler is an adventurer, a lover of culture and language, a traveler, a writer. She works as the Department Head and Associate Professor at American Public University System (APUS). Fowler earned a doctorate in education from Penn State and an MFA in creative writing from Wilkes University. She is the author of the novel, “It is Myself that I Remake.”
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