Monday, March 16, 2009

Uncle Scrooge, the evil eye, and more tidbits from my life here and there

During my life abroad, I have worked for a series of evil midgets.

The first evil midget who employed me was my uncle-in-law-in-law - or "Uncle" as everyone in my husband's whole family called him. Other uncles in the family had names or nicknames like "Cha cha" or "Abou" but he was just Uncle. He was THE uncle - the rich one.

Uncle is about 5' 5"; I am taller than this, so as far as I am concerned, he is a midget. He was my husband's boss too, and what I consider to be a major contributing factor in the destruction of my marriage. I worked in his hotel after I first got married. Luckily he wasn't as directly involved in the day to day management of the hotel so I didn't have to deal with him that often. My husband was not so lucky.

Uncle is the Muslim version of Ebenezer Scrooge. His employees work every day of the week from 8- to as late as he keeps them. On Sundays they get a "half" day that ends at 2 PM - considering they are working 6 hours, I don't see how that is a half day. On Eid they also work "half' days. When his father passed away, his shops remained open.

He never likes to see people enjoying themselves, especially poor people. He resents it because, although he is rich, he doesn't know how to enjoy life, all he knows is work and making money, and it bothered him that people had other priorities and could be happier than he was (is) but have less money. Deep down inside he knows that he should be happy with what he has and should enjoy life more and let his wife and children enjoy, but he can't. So he resents being reminded of what a miserable person he is.

The last time I saw Uncle, which was close to the last time I saw my husband, we were all in the car, and my husband was driving. Uncle never could qualify for a UAE license. We stopped at a traffic light, and he was looking out the window. In a simple car next to us, a Filipino couple was laughing and talking happily. He sighed and asked me "why is it that everyone else seems to be enjoying themselves and they have nothing?" My husband told me later that he had asked him and another person the same question earlier in the day.

Uncle has a very slight build. He runs several miles every morning and swims in the Indian Ocean. The rest of his family is obese. His sisters, when seated - as they almost always are - look like Jabba the Hutt draped in brightly colored cloth. My husband's aunt (mother's sister) - his wife - is not a small woman. She is taller than he is and overweight - but normal looking, and she was lovely and slim as a young girl. She carries her weight well and manages to look dignified. His sisters were never lovely or slim, and they don't carry their weight well. They rarely carry it at all, if they can help it.

One of Uncle's brothers married his cousin "S"; she was pretty and pleasantly round and plump when they got hitched, but she rapidly expanded and now rivals his sisters. One time "S" visited Dubai with his fattest brother Hanif's very fat wife; compared to them Auntie looked slim. My husband got the job of ferrying them all around Dubai while they were there. We had a Mercedes 4WD, which should have had plenty of room. Hanif's wife, who is way too fat for words, sat in the front seat - where I should have been riding as the wife of the man driving - and I had to go sit back with "S "and Auntie. I was the last to climb in. I was pleased to see that S had left me enough room to fit only 1/10 of one thigh in the car (and I was a size zero at the time). Even better, I got to hold Hanif's abnormally large son on my lap while "S" bounced my little light weight Salman on her knee.

"S" was a big liar too. Once she had became very very fat, she didn't like to move around a lot. Which meant that her activities were restricted to mainly sitting, and eating, watching Hindi films and gossiping. It was while gossiping that she often lied as well. Gossip is bad enough, untrue gossip is worse.

But still, I felt kind of sorry for her. Both of her babies were stillborn, and she lived in constant fear that her husband Amir would take another wife. It used to irritate me, though, that from her side she didn't seriously try losing any weight since her weight was a big concern during the pregnancies and made it more difficult for the doctor to check on the health of the babies. Amir eventually did take another wife. "S" had adopted the baby of a relative, hoping it would be enough for him, but it wasn't. He still wanted his "OWN" child. I didn't see her after that, but I felt bad for her. I wouldn't wish that feeling on any woman - aside from maybe the one currently living with my husband that is...>:[

I used to think Uncle's family had some kind of thyroid problem, or some other physical problem that made them so large. But I soon realized that it was the result of sheer laziness combined with gluttony. I never saw any people before who were so reluctant to move a finger and so interested in eating everything in sight. Because they were rich (thanks to Uncle) they had maids. so the women didn't have to do a single thing all day, and they didn't. As I mentioned before, Uncle exercised every day and was a tiny slip of a man.

Uncle's father died during Ramadhan, so that meant that my husband and I were forced to go have Iftar on several occasions at his mother's house. I sat with the women. From what I had seen in my husband's family and the other Muslim families that I had spent time with, after the prayer call announcing the breaking of the fast, people eat something small - like a date or two and drink some juice or water and then go pray. I was sitting on the floor in the big room in Uncle's mother's house where the women were supposed to eat. The floor was covered in straw mats and there were cushions against the wall. The food was arranged in the middle of the floor on a circular straw mat with a woven zigzag design on it.

The women in Uncle's family arranged themselves around the food and didn't take their eyes off of it. At second they heard the prayer call, they all (except for Auntie) pounced and their plates overflowed with mountains of samosas and other fried snacks, chapatis, different kinds of curry, and rice. I watched in fascination and horror as they quickly polished off everything on their plates.... and THEN they got up to pray. I wondered how they could manage with all that food in their stomachs. After praying, Uncle's sister Fatima scurried as fast as her pudgy legs could carry her back to the food. "Now we can eat!" she exclaimed.

Fatima is Uncle's youngest sister. He had to buy her a husband. Her husband was only interested in the money. Once he got it, he left her and took another another wife. Uncle's other sister was widowed with one son, a lazy high school drop out who considered himself a ladies' man. She hated my husband and another guy from India named Zahir who worked for Uncle, because he gave them better positions in the company, so she went to one of the villages and visited a witch doctor. She asked the witch doctor to curse them. When my husband heard about it, he didn't take it seriously and laughed, but I happened to mention it to his mom when we were in Mombasa for his Aunt's funeral (she had visited from England for the first time in many years and had a stroke) and she freaked out. Next thing we knew, an Imam had been summoned from a mosque, and all the "kids" - including big ones like me and my husband - had to sit on the floor in front of him while he chanted something from the Qur'an. Then he gave my husband a bottle of water to take home and do something with it to protect himself from the black magic. I learned recently that her son died unexpectedly from a stroke.

Witch doctors are common in Zanzibar, and black magic is widely used for a variety of purposes. When ever anyone gets sick, it is attributed to witch doctors. After Salman was born, I was constantly badgered by Auntie to protect him with various charms, and bracelets with black beads. Being an American, I am not a real believer in the "evil eye", so I wasn't that careful to follow the instructions Auntie gave me. Once I brought Salman over to her house "unprotected" (minus his charm bracelet). Horrified, she ran upstairs and got a black Dior eyeliner pencil and told me to make a dot on him somewhere with it. She told me to keep the pencil - I was happy to oblige her - it worked really nicely for its intended purpose - lining eyes.

Auntie's youngest daughter was born 6 months after Salman. Whenever I went over to their house, the poor child was decked out to the hilt in anti evil eye charms and remedies - from her monkey bone charm bracelets to the black smudges around her eyes, on her forehead and behind her ear.

They had some strange beliefs about the evil eye. Once while in Nairobi, right after we had left Zanzibar and I was about to come to Dubai for the first time, my husband's cousin "Ziggy" was visiting from the UK. He was married to a British girl. I have no idea what their "love" story was, but she was 18 and already had two kids, and the younger one was Salman's age.

They assumed that Leila - as they called her - and I would have so much in common, based on the fact that we are both white. Unfortunately, that was where the similarities ended. Leila tried really hard to fit in with her in laws. It didn't work so well, and she stuck out like a sore thumb. Painfully thin, blond, and pale, she loved wearing the brightest colored Shalvar Kameezes she could get her hands on. I have a photograph from that visit. I am sitting with Salman ,and she is with her two kids. You can't even see her face in the picture - it is totally obliterated by the glare of her outfit.

Leila spoke broken English - just like her mother in law. I really couldn't understand why, all I could think was that she must have wanted to fit in so badly she even started talking like them. Shahid, the little boy from across the street (whose sister was married to my brother in law) found this baffling and amusing. Whenever she would start to talk, I would see him giggling. Finally he asked her "Why do you speak broken English?" I had a hard time not laughing when I heard him ask that. She didn't answer him.

She reminded me of the blond girlfriend of one of the boys in the Movie East is East. I was told that she had beaten up more than one girl she suspected of making moves on her husband and that when they were visiting my grandmother in law in Mombasa (Nany) and he went out to meet some of his old friends, she ran out to the balcony and started screaming at him about how he'd better not be going off to do "jiggy jiggy."

I was about to visit my family for Christmas at that time and my mother in law gave me some small gold earrings to give to my older sister (long story). I was looking at them up close and saw something that looked like writing in Arabic on it. I asked her what it said. She got out her reading glasses. but she couldn't make it out. Finally, she told me that she was sorry but she couldn't give them to my sister, because she was afraid that maybe they have something from the Qur'an written on them and that maybe my sister would eat pork or go to the toilet while wearing them. I asked "why make earrings that someone has to remove every time they have to pee?"

I don't quite recall how, but this conversation rapidly turned into a discussion of the evil eye, with Leila nodding her head and gravely agreeing with everything my mother in law said - even claiming that her husband's brother's wife had put the evil eye on her son. I told them "I don't believe in the evil eye." My mother in law looked at me with dismay. "No, you must!" she told me and went on about how, unless you protect your children from the evil eye they will get sick and maybe even die. I pointed out to her that in the US most people don't believe in the evil eye and we have a lower infant mortality rate than all the countries that do believe in it. This little bit of information was only minor setback to their reasoning, after a split second of shocked silence, my mother-in-law quickly rebounded with "that's because you all eat pork."

"So pork eating pork is a good thing then?" I asked.

"what? no...."

"I mean, it must be if it magically protects the children of pork eaters from sickness"

They fumbled with that one for a while, and then I pointed out that Jewish Americans don't eat pork and their babies are healthier too.

I am sure that, from this, you can see why I was the favorite Daughter-in-law.

After that, we went to the Maasai market in Nairobi with Ziggy, Leila, their kids.. Leila almost got us beaten up.

The Maasai Market, at that time at least, was on a hill somewhere in the middle of Nairobi. African people sat around with various trinkets, souvenirs and other items they hoped tourists would like. I wanted to go, because I still needed to get Christmas presents for my family. The sun was hot and her kids started to fuss. The African people around us noticed and started telling her - the sun is too hot for the kids, you shouldn't bring them here. They were just trying to be nice, and were concerned for the kids, so I smiled at them and patted Salman (who was not fussing) on the head; but she took it the wrong way and got all steamed up. She blurted out: "No they aren't too hot! They are crying because you people scare them!!" ... not such a wise thing to say to a crowd of Africans in the middle of Nairobi, when you are a white as a ghost Brit accompanied by Indians and small children. The mood of the crowd started to get ugly. In Nairobi, there are always those people who lurk around waiting for any chance to stir up trouble - they especially seem to enjoy spats between tribes or races and they look for any chance to get a riot or mob lynching going. Africans are quick to react to anything they consider an offense. When they realized what was happening, my Mother-in-Law and Ziggy started apologizing profusely in Swahili and whisked us the hell out of there.

I kept my mouth shut the entire time, and thanked God, I wasn't the one to blame for the scene.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Bathroom Attendant

I went to the movies recently, I saw Killshot... but that is not the focus of this post.

When I first got to the mall, I used the ladies room. Now here in the mall, there is a bathroom attendant for each bathroom. Her job is to sit in the bathroom, clean it periodically, make sure there is toilet paper in the stalls, flush after the surprisingly large number of adult females who find it too complicated of a task to do themselves (perhaps they should paste detailed instructions complete with charts and pictures to the wall behind the toilet?), and hand paper towels to spoiled women who don't want to walk the extra five feet from the sink to the towel dispenser.

I noticed the attendant, sitting wearily next to the towel dispenser. Nobody looked at her, it was like she was just another inanimate part of the bathroom, like the towel dispenser or the garbage can. Even when she quickly got up to offer towels, she was not acknowledged. The towel would be accepted without a thank you, shukran, or even a nod of the head.

The attendant in the bathroom near the movie theatre this evening, was a very tired and sad looking middle aged Sri Lankan woman. She had huge dark circles under her eyes that gave her the look of someone who had not slept in weeks. As I headed towards the towel dispenser, she got up and got me a towel, "Thank you" I told her, automatically (I was raised to thank people who do small favors for me). Her face lit up, and I realized that it was something she seldom heard.

After checking the movie times and realizing that unless I wanted to see a cartoon, I would have to wait a little more than an hour until the next film capable of entertaining someone over 12 years of age started playing, I went to have a bite to eat and after that I went to the movie.

When the movie finished, having the pea sized bladder that I do, I was pressed again and went to the toilets. The same lady was there, in the same spot. While washing my hands, I watched her in the mirror, her weary expressionless face, and the women with fancy purses gliding by her, taking towels from her, leaving their poo for her to flush, who didn't see her.

As I was drying my hands, I asked her:

"What time does your duty finish"

"eleven thirty" she replied with shrug (11:30 PM)

"and what time does your duty begin?"

"morning nine o clock" she told me and then started to ramble half in her language and half broken English about how she goes home, has to cook, clean her clothes, then sleeps at around 3 am until 8 and in the morning when she gets up does it all over again - every day. So for 14 1/2 hours, every day, she lives in a toilet, leaving it only for a small break, and from what I know of salaries here, I doubt she earns more than 800 Dirhams (a little over 200 dollars) a month. She probably does it so that her family back home, can have a "better" life. As I was thinking this, a woman in a glittering abaya with an expensive handbag that costs way more than that woman makes in year limply threw a paper towel in the general direction of waste basket. It fluttered to the floor far short of its target and the Sri Lankan woman quickly bent to pick it up as the woman swept out the door without even looking at her. I felt weird, a mixture of guilt - for ever having complained about having a crappy life, sadness - because I knew that bleak as it is, there aren't many other options for women like her, and helplessness - because I wish I could do something that could make a lasting difference for people like her, and I don't know what I can do.

I stood there awkwardly for a moment, silent; there was nothing I could say really. So finally I wished her good night.

I have seen her a couple times since then. She always smiles when she sees me (she is usually expressionless), which makes me feel guilty, because I don't think I did something to deserve this recognition from her. But it made me realize that small as it might seem, being acknowledged as human and thanked for whatever assistance they provide, does mean something to the many underprivileged hard working people employed in similar positions here - the people who fade into the background and that we take for granted as we rush about our busy lives: cleaners, drivers, office boys / girls, fast food counter attendants, delivery men, and many, many others.