© 1999 Allie McCormack
I pulled up to the curb across the street from the address Khalid had given me and pursed my lips in a soundless whistle. Zowwies! A massive two-story home off Cathedral Oaks, it boasted a smooth, spreading lawn with a huge oak tree, and a white-railed balcony opening off a bedroom over the three-car garage. Even with my trust fund I couldn't have afforded a house like this. At least, I amended to myself, not in Santa Barbara, which was indisputably one of the most expensive places to live in the States.
Getting out of the car, I tugged nervously at my blouse. I'd chosen silk again, pale yellow trousers and a darker gold blouse for this dinner. If I were going to go amongst the exotic birds, at least I would have the comfort of the soft luxuriance against my skin. The outfit was new, the subtle jewel colors enough of a departure from the usual colors that I'd been taught were "complimentary" to make me a tad nervous. I glanced around the quiet cul-de-sac. There were no cars parked on the street or crowding Khalid's driveway. I threw off a moment's hesitation. Although probably perfectly capable of throwing me over his shoulder and making off with me, luring me to his house under false pretenses just wasn't Khalid's style.
Knocking on the solid oak front door (golden oak at that, I noted), I could hear muted Arabic music coming from within. The door opened and Khalid stood there. This was a Khalid I'd never seen. His hair was mussed as if he'd been running his hands through it, falling over his forehead into his eyes, and he looked harried and not a little frazzled. He smiled, though, when he saw me, a glow starting deep in his eyes. He pulled the door wider.
I stepped inside, onto white marble tile. To my left was the living room, an arched opening leading into the dining room beyond, while golden oak stairs on the right led up to the second floor. Just to one side of the door was a low rack that held shoes, and I noted that Khalid wore dark leather slippers. I nudged my sandals off, feeling the cool marble beneath my stockinged feet. Lovely.
With interest I followed him towards the back of the house. Past the staircase, a large kitchen opened to the right, opposite the dining room. Brilliant sunlight streamed in through a series of sliding glass doors, and white counters gleamed bright beneath what seemed a massive amount of food. Khalid gestured at one end of the waist-height counter that clearly served as a breakfast bar, and slid a stool out for me.
"As you can see, I'm running a bit behind," he said apologetically.
Picking a tomato at random from the dozen lining the windowsill over the sink, he rinsed it and began dicing it on a wooden cutting board with quick, efficient motions. There were piles of fresh fruits and vegetables, some brass containers apparently for beverages, and dozens of tiny cups, besides plates and bowls of every shape and size. An electric coffee maker steamed in one corner by the sink. On the stove, pans of various sizes bubbled on their burners, and a crock pot on the counter near me held some unidentifiable brown substance.
"Can I help?" I offered.
He glanced over his shoulder.
"I didn't invite you just to put you to work, Sarah."
I raised an eyebrow at him, allowing my eyes to drift over the really incredible mass of food.
"It doesn't look like you're in a position to turn down any offers of assistance," I told him, unable to resist the smile that tugged at my lips.
He followed my glance and sighed. "You may be right. If you're sure you wouldn't mind?"
Bending, he dug out another cutting board from under the sink, and handed me a bowel and a sharp knife. He nodded at a small pile of cucumbers near me.
"Those are already cleaned and scrubbed. If you could just cut them up, any way is fine." He looked around him, a frown in those dark eyes, as if he'd forgotten something. "Oh yes. Sarah, would you like some tea? We'll have Arabic coffee later, but right now tea is all I have made."
"I drink tea any time, any place," I assured him.
He reached for the pot on the coffee maker, and I realized that the dark brew it contained was tea. Now, why hadn't I ever thought of brewing tea like that? I filed the idea away for future reference.
Pouring me a cup... a regular cup, not one of the tiny ones on the counter... he went back to chopping tomatoes.
"I asked you to come a little early," he said. "I wanted to explain about the sunna meal, what it is."
Not for nothing had I been reading everything about Saudi Arabia that I could get my hands on for the last two months.
"You're going to tell me not to use my left hand to eat," I guessed.
He laughed, his eyes glinting with amusement as he glanced at me.
"That too. Although, the others know you are American, and will make allowances. No one will be offended if you forget."
'Know,' he'd said. The others 'know' I'm American; not 'will know.' He'd told them about me? I mulled that over.
"The best way to describe it," Khalid continued, unaware of the direction of my private thoughts, "is a communal meal. The food is put in the center, and everyone eats from there. This is uncomfortable for many Americans, and so I wanted to let you know ahead of time that I can serve you a plate from here if you wish. It is no problem."
I paused in my cutting, not wanting to slice my hand along with the cucumbers as I looked up at Khalid. It sounded more intriguing than anything else.
"You don't use plates?" I asked.
"For some things," he assured me, "like the rice. But mostly not. You'll see."
I decided then and there that I was going to eat just the way they did, communal or not. I was in their milieu, after all, not vice versa; an invited guest to their get-together dinner. When in Rome, and all that.
I looked around the kitchen once more, definitely impressed.
"I can't believe you prepared all this by yourself!"
Turning in surprise, Khalid surveyed the laden counters and started to laugh, shaking his head.
"I couldn't begin to! Some of the students stopped by this morning and got things started, and I sent them home to get ready. The girls at least tend to dress up."
He must have read the sudden apprehension in my face, because he wiped his hands on a towel and came around the counter, touching my cheek gently.
"You'll do fine, Sarah." He didn't pronounce my name as Americans did, but with the vowels softer, more drawn out, the 'r' slightly rolled. On Khalid's lips my name was beautiful, a warm caress. His eyes held me captive, and he lowered his head. I knew he was going to kiss me, and for the life of me I couldn't move away. My breath caught in my throat, and time seemed to come to a halt as I awaited the touch of his lips against mine.
Car doors slammed outside, and voices were raised in lively chatter, breaking the spell. Khalid stepped back as the doorbell rang. There was regret in his eyes, and although my heart was pounding fiercely, I was grateful for the reprieve. My feelings were definitely ambiguous. I'd wanted him to kiss me, yes. I wanted more than anything I'd ever wanted in this life to feel his lips on mine, to taste him, to feel his arms about me. Just once, my heart begged, but I knew that in that direction lay heartbreak.
As Khalid left the kitchen to answer the cheerful summons at the door, I drew a shaky breath, trying hard to bring my runaway emotions under control. The more I saw of him, the more I wanted of him, and all the while my sensible side was telling me to run as I'd never run before, to bring an end to this madness. And oh, yes, it was madness. At least I had the sense to know it. Whether I would continue to have the strength to resist, remained to be seen.
An hour later, the house was full of people, or so it seemed. I wound up in the kitchen, helping finish getting the food ready along with several other young women, most of them a bit younger than myself, while the men sat in another part of the house, talking.
"It's always that way," one of the women, Salima, told me, rolling her eyes in disgust. "When you see them on campus they're, like, so liberated, you know? But the instant they set foot in the door here, it's like they're right back home, expecting to be waited on."
Khalid passed through the kitchen just then and paused long enough to give her a stern look.
"And who lets them get away with it?" he asked pointedly.
"You do!" came the chorus of female voices.
Laughing, Khalid ducked as Noura hurled a piece of the pita bread she'd been cutting at him. Holding up his hands in surrender, he backed out of the kitchen.
A timer went off, and Salima grabbed a potholder and opened the oven door to pull out two huge roasting pans. A groan went up as incredibly enticing odors pervaded the room.
I looked around to find Fatima, the one Khalid had told me was studying childhood education, seating herself on a stool beside me with a shy smile. She was dressed in a long brown skirt and tan blouse. The white scarf she wore over her head, covering her hair and pinned under her chin, framed a gentle face with large, fluid brown eyes under arched brows.
"I have wanted to meet you," she told me, her voice low and musical, lightly accented. "You came to give a lecture at my class last month."
"Yes, I remember." I recalled her instantly. "You sat very close to the front of the room and wore a brown scarf."
She colored delicately. "I stand out because I wear the hajjab."
"No," I said rather drily. "You stood out because you actually listened."
"Oh, no you don't." Salima advanced on us. "Don't even get started on that child raising stuff now, Fatima! You'll monopolize Sarah all evening, and we've only just gotten a chance to meet her."
"Yes, we've been hoping to meet you," put in Miriam, who'd been one of the first to arrive, along with her cousin Magda. Her friendliness wasn't shared by her cousin, an elegantly groomed, rather supercilious beauty who gave me a cold look from between long black lashes. I couldn't imagine what her problem was.
I turned my attention back to the others. With quick movements Miriam scooped the tomatoes and cucumbers that Khalid and I had diced earlier into a container. I observed with interest as she dribbled a small amount of oil over the whole, and generously tipped a shaker of greenish-brown powder over the whole. Noticing me watching closely, she proffered the small bottle. I sniffed it.
"Yes, just a little oil, a little kamuun- cumin - you see? And voila!" With a fork she lightly tossed the tomatoes and cucumbers. "Salad."
We all looked up as another young woman entered the room, slightly breathless from hurrying.
"Hello, all... sorry to be late!"
"Lisa!" Noura rushed to greet her, drawing her into the kitchen. "I was hoping you could make it. Come and meet Sarah, who is American too."
Lisa turned to survey me with interest. She was a little taller than I, slender, with curling black hair to her waist and lovely blue eyes framed by lashes so thick it was almost unreal. Her face was a perfect oval with the kind of clear, creamy complexion that women have struggled for centuries to achieve, and in fact she reminded me of an old ivory cameo of my mother's. Her smile lit her face, dispelling the air of fragility that clung to her. I held out my hand, liking her instantly.
"Lisa tutored some of us in English, when we first arrived," Noura explained. "She is studying to teach English as a Second Language."
"Really?" I was terrifically interested. Many of the mothers at my daycare spoke very little English, and sometimes it just wasn't possible for them to take the classes offered by the local community centers. My second Master's was also in ESL, but the center kept me so busy that I had little time to do much else.
"No, no," Fatima intervened, taking my arm with a laugh. "Not the two of you, either. There will be time after dinner."
Lisa laughed, but her eyes wandered to the door at the far end of the room where male voices could be heard rumbling, raised now and again in laughter.
"Jesse didn't come," Miriam told her. She blushed, and the others set about teasing her gently.
"Jesse is one of Khalid's students," explained Fatima. "He is studying Arabic."
Noura snickered. "So is Lisa."
There was a chorus of giggles, and Lisa looked across the room at me, gesturing helplessly.
"I found out he was going to take Khalid's class, so I signed up also."
Miriam took up the tale. "She had to crash the classes, because Khalid was teaching two beginning Arabic courses. One the classical, and the other colloquial -- spoken Arabic, you understand -- and she didn't know which one Jesse would be in."
"And of course he was taking the classical Arabic," Lisa sighed, groaning in mock agony.
I eyed her with increased respect. "Arabic is supposed to be one of the hardest languages there is."
"It is," she said fervently. "But it is a beautiful language, very flowing and expressive. I've just finished the first year, and it's gotten easier."
"So does Khalid invite all his students to these dinners?" I asked, wondering why Lisa was the only American there besides myself.
"Oh, no!" There was a chorus of replies, and much shaking of heads.
Salima touched my hand lightly. "Only a very few are invited. They would not be comfortable with our ways, and too, many Americans look down on us. Fatima is the only one amongst us who covers... wears the hajjab... here in America, but when we are at home, we all do, and this is by our choice. Many Americans do not understand this."
"They do not want to understand," Fatima put in, a little hotly. "They like to think that it is the men who force us to cover, and that all they have to do is educate us, that we Arab women are poor creatures who have no minds of our own."
I felt my way cautiously, a little confused. "But this Jesse, he is invited?"
Noura nodded. "We invite him always, but he never comes."
"You see, he is blind," Lisa told me softly. "He will not come because of the sunna meal."
"As if we did not have blind people in Saudia," Miriam put in. "I should think eating with the fingers would be easier than using silverware when you are blind. Khalid said that he has reassured him many times, but still he refuses."
Magda, I noted, didn't join in the chorus of assent. In fact, her slender nostrils quivered as if in distaste. My curiosity about her apparent dislike of me instantly coalesced into cold antipathy. I turned away from her, addressing some remark to Miriam.
"I think the dinner is ready," Salima announced, turning to survey the kitchen intently. She'd pretty much taken charge when she arrived, even though at twenty she was the youngest of the five Arab women. She also had the best command of English, being quite fluent and having a marvelous grasp of American colloquialisms. "Who wants to do the honors?"
Noura and Fatima volunteered, and Salima handed them what looked like a Christmas-wrap-sized roll of plastic film a couple of feet wide, the kind for covering food in the refrigerator. Curious, I wandered out of the kitchen in their wake.
I blinked a bit in surprise as we went into the dining room. I hadn't really noticed it when I first arrived, and I'd been in the kitchen since. There was no table, and only low long cushions set against the wall along the length and one side of the room. There were firm rectangular pillows... more like bolsters, really... upholstered in the same dark grey velvet as the cushions.
Unrolling the plastic film to about twelve feet in length -- and it was very like plastic wrap, perhaps a little thicker -- the two women laid it flat on the floor down the center of the room. The others appeared with bowls and platters of food, placing them on the plastic. Returning to the kitchen, I picked up the two large bowls of whole fruit that were left and carried them out. Noura met me halfway with a smile.
"Oh, Sarah, thank you! You can put those there, and there," she pointed to where she wanted them, spaced between three huge platters of rice and meat.
"In Saudi, we have servants," said Fatima, beside me. "They would prepare the meal and set it out. It is enjoyable for us to do this, here."
"Slumming," Salima agreed with a laugh, overhearing. "As long as I don't have to do it..."
She looked around assessingly. "I think we're ready."
Magda, the cold one, stared at me pointedly.
"Shouldn't we get her a plate?" she said to the others. "So she doesn't have to eat off the platters with us?"
"Magda!" Fatima's voice was sharp, and she flushed rosily. She looked at me apologetically. "If you do want your own plate, it is no trouble. We understand that it is different, our customs."
"I wouldn't dream of it," I assured her. Especially not now, although I kept that thought to myself. To be honest, I'd forgotten all my earlier conversation with Khalid, and in fact was looking forward to the dinner with great enjoyment. Although, what was wrong with that Magda? She had a chip on her shoulder the size of the iceberg that sank the Titanic, and just as frigid. Well, I'd just avoid her.
This wasn't so difficult, as the others kept between us for the rest of the evening. Whether this was intentional or not was hard to say, but Fatima at least had clearly established herself as my guardian, from the angry looks she was casting the older girl.
The men, apparently sensing that the dinner was ready, began filing in from yet another room beyond the garage where they'd been, according to Miriam's soto voice comment, probably watching some soccer match. The last one to emerge was Khalid, and he gave me a searching look as he entered. Fatima's hand crept into mine, and she all but beamed at me.
"See how he looks at you," she whispered. "Like you are the cream and he the cat."
Noura leaned close, adding her mite. "Magda had best be careful how she speaks to you with Khalid by."
Neither seemed unduly disturbed by the prospect of Magda's finding disfavor with her host, and I decided that I wouldn't let it disturb me much either.
Everyone was sitting, and Fatima pulled me down beside her. Despite what I'd heard about the rigid segregation of the sexes in Saudi Arabia, there seemed to be no such consideration here. I did note, however, that while Fatima and I sat across from Khalid, Magda by some chance wound up at the far end of the room. For which I was duly grateful.
It was one of the most enjoyable meals I'd ever had. We sat on the floor around the plastic film and helped ourselves from the mounds - literally - of food in the center. The food itself was marvelous. Chunks of lamb and beef lay in heaping beds of rice that was brown with spices, punctuated with plump raisins and tasty nuts. Whole broasted chickens were placed on plates down the length of the makeshift tablecloth.
The brown mass from the crock pot turned out to be fuul, a kind of bean... fava beans, I learned later. Salima had doctored it in the kitchen with some lemon juice and cumin, and beat in a few tablespoons of oil, but it resided in a thick semiliquid lump in dish near me, rather grayish and unappetizing. The young man seated on the other side of me, Omar, saw my doubtful glance and nudged me with his elbow.
"Don't judge by looks." His English was superb, hardly accented at all. "Here, watch me."
Tearing off a chunk from the pita bread before him, he scooped up a portion, rather like chips and dip. He tore off another piece of bread and handed it to me. Following his example, I scooped a small portion and took a bite. My eyes widened as the full flavor made itself known, and I reached instinctively for more bread. Omar laughed, pushing the stack of bread closer to me, and I dived back into the beans.
That was the easy part. The chicken was a little more tricky. They were whole, not cut into pieces. You just tore off a piece with your fingers and ate it. Using your right hand. Only. Watching the others easily peel off wings and legs and chunks of breast, I thought it didn't look too hard. Even Lisa, down the table (floor) from me, was managing with ease. I decided to go for it. Wrong. It was definitely not as easy as it looked. Fatima succumbed to giggles as I wrestled one-handed with the chicken. I gave her a mock glare as I finally held my hard-won prize, an entire drumstick and thigh. The rice wasn't so easy to eat, either. The others expertly scooped bits of rice into small balls with their fingers, which they then ate. It took me awhile to get the hang of it, but at least I didn't have to fight for it as I had the chicken. Fatima was still giggling over that, and I nudged her in the ribs.
Glancing down the table to see what to do with the chicken bones, I noted with some amusement that bones, along with fruit pits and peels and napkins, were merely tossed onto the plastic. Later I saw the convenience of this; when cleaning up they removed the platters and cups, and the plastic was simply gathered up, wadded, and thrown away, with all the trash intact. Handy. I immediately wondered how we could get some of that plastic stuff for the day care center.
Conversation flourished up and down the room, both in Arabic and English. At the far end, Magda remained silent, apparently sulking. As dinner ended, Noura and Salima made several trips to the kitchen, and tiny cups no bigger than shot glasses filled with thick, cardamom-laced coffee and sweet black tea made their appearance. One young man settled back in a corner against the cushions, idly strumming a stringed instrument that Fatima told me was called an oud.
Throughout, Khalid said little but his sharp gaze missed nothing, I was sure. Although he didn't seem to be watching me, I felt his gaze on me any number of times. I wasn't the only one who noticed it, either; Noura and Fatima exchanged significant looks more than once.
"He never stops watching you," Noura told me later as we sat on the patio. It was just the six of us, Salima and Miriam having joined Fatima and I outside, along with Lisa. The men were in charge of the clean-up, and Magda had disappeared somewhere after everyone left the dining room. Fatima and I were seated on the raised stone wall of a flower bed, and the other women settled in comfortable lawn chairs.
"Even when he was not looking at you, he still watched," Miriam chimed in, sighing enviously. The others nodded portentously.
I was speechless. They obviously liked Khalid and respected him, looked up to him, so their patent approval was surprising. Impossible to tell them that they were off in their estimation of his interest in me, but I didn't want to leave them, either, with this impression they seemed to have that a permanent relationship was being established.
Seeing my troubled frown, Salima leaned forward to take my hand, squeezing gently.
"He has changed, since he met you," she told me. "He has always been there for us, of course, but... distant."
"Very formal," Noura injected. There was a chorus of assent.
Salima nodded. "Yes, formal. But since meeting you, he has become so much more, how do you say? approachable. Almost, more human."
"He talks about you," Fatima took up the tale. "Always he is telling the men, come with me to The Cafe."
I frowned. "Only the men? It's not that kind of a place, that women can't go to. I mean, families come, with children and everything."
Fatima touched my hand.
"Of course we can go there. But it would not be proper for Khalid, a single man, to invite one of us. We told him, let us come, all of us. But every time he says, no, wait. Maybe tonight, I can speak to her. When the time passed and still he could not meet you, he would be angry... no, that is the wrong word, too strong."
"I think, edgy is a better word," Salima noted. "But also sad. It was a bad time for us, then, very tense."
"He would sit in his office for hours," Noura said, looking to the others, who nodded. "We would go by and see him there. Just sitting, looking out the window. And then last week, the biggest change of all. When we came to him at his office, he was smiling, and so happy. We knew, before he even told us, that finally he had met you, talked with you."
Miriam smiled slyly, her eyes darting to the house to be sure no one was in hearing distance. She leaned forward a little, lowering her voice.
"Magda has been furious. She broke every perfume bottle in her room, throwing them at the wall."
This brought forth delighted gasps, and gave me something else to think about than their astounding revelations.
"She's in love with Khalid?" That more than explained her attitude towards me. My heart twisted in agony.
The reply was hoots of laughter.
"Love?" Miriam grimaced. "Magda wouldn't know love if it bit her on the..."
"Miriam!" Fatima interrupted her sharply, and the other girl subsided with an apologetic glance.
"Besides being wealthy, which is not so unusual in Saudia," and they all laughed, "Khalid is very... how do you say it? ...very high, socially. He is close to many of the princes, he attended Eaton and Harvard. His father is a diplomat, his mother a famous artist. This makes him very attractive to women such as Magda."
Miriam kicked at a small rock crossly.
"I have to share an apartment with her because she is my cousin, but I hate her!"
"You should not hate her," chided Fatima gently. "She is your family. And she is studying hard, trying to better herself."
"You know she only wants a degree because she thinks it will make her a better marriage!" flashed Miriam.
"Does Khalid know she is interested in him?" I ventured, mostly to try to avert what appeared to be an escalating quarrel.
"What man ever notices, unless he also is looking?"
There was a hushed whooshing sound as one of the patio doors slid back. Khalid stood in the opening, looking at us quizzically.
"Are you ladies coming inside to join us, or are you going to continue your own private party out here?"
We ladies looked at each other, debating.
"We'll get back to you," Noura told him.
His rich chuckle sounded as he closed the door, casting me another of his searching looks as he did so. I just smiled sweetly at him, and he turned back into the house.
Sighs filled the evening air, and Noura put her hand over her heart.
"If a man looked at me, so, I think I could not resist him!"
"It isn't easy," I muttered, soto voice.
Fatima frowned across the yard at the house.
"Really, we should go in. Sarah," she asked. "Do you have plans for tomorrow? Maybe we could get together."
"Well, I was going to Solvang," I said doubtfully. "I'm out of ableskiever mix, and can't get there during the week, when I'm working."
Immediately I was the focus of interested attention.
"Ableskievers!" Lisa breathed reverently.
"What are those?"
"None of us have been to Solvang."
Noura waved her hand in the air until there was silence.
"I've never even heard of Solvang! Or apple... whatever," she wailed plaintively. "What is it?"
"Solvang is a little Danish town, about an hour's drive north," Lisa told her. "It's a great tourist attraction, and just stuffed with little shops of all kinds, and bakeries. There's a windmill or two, art galleries, and a horse-drawn trolley. There used to be a couple of glass-blowers, too, and you could watch them blowing the glass, but I don't know if they are there any more."
"As for ableskievers..." she sighed in blissful reminiscence. "They're like little cakes, but round, and about the size of a tennis ball. They're fried rather than baked, and served hot with raspberry jam spooned over them and powdered sugar sprinkled over the whole."
I was struck by a great idea.
"I've got an Aerostar, so there's lots of room. What are you all doing tomorrow?"
They looked at each other, then back at me. Salima spoke for all of them.
"Going to Solvang with you!"
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