Scenes of Abu Dhabi, UAE during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Young masked men play pool outside Madinat Zayed. Others seem to be selling fake designer clothes in an illicit secondhand market. A lone man in a polo shirt has erected jumping castles to make extra cash outside the Gold Center. The castles are deserted. He listens to something on his phone, absorbed with all the intensity of the clouds gathering above. Life — the exchange of capital and conversations — must continue to rumble even at this off-kilter pace.
Laborers in the city must continue to earn money. Juice shops, cafeterias, carpet sellers, cobblers, tailors, honey vendors…all remain. They sip tea in their shops, trying to sell. In 48 hours, they will have to pack up and stay home for two weeks. Almost everyone on the street is masked. Small cigarettes and “massage cards” lie motionless on the pavement. Malayalam, French, Urdu, Wolof, Bengali: all the languages of the streets, of the working class, dance. They filter through masks and mix with the air like steam rising from the chai at Happy Cafeteria. Life — the exchange of capital and conversations — must continue to rumble even at this off-kilter pace.
Small groups of young West African men swap cigarette boxes, thin rolls of money, and bottles of hand sanitizer as they congregate outside an apartment building. I try not to look. I, girl with the zooming camera and lens-corrected eyes, am looked at. I stumble upon a shop called MASK FASHION nearby. Life — the exchange of capital and conversations — continues to rumble even at this off-kilter pace.
Vamika Sinhais a co-founder and editor-in-chief of Postscript. Find more of her photography here.
To make up for the lack of peacocks in Peacock Grocery below my apartment building, me and my Cousin Anan would buy mini M&Ms to cheer ourselves up, before our Ammas took us to walk in and out the little streets between the buildings and villas of Passport Road, Abu Dhabi. Don’t worry, Amma laughs, we have the passport to walk this street. On the way, me and Anan would pour M&Ms into each other’s hands, offerings of our cousinhood, like communion bread we were not old enough to partake in yet at St. Joseph’s church.
One day, a red M&M falls into the patch of empty sand between my apartment building and the sidewalk. It’s like a seed, maybe it will grow. Anan smiles wide-eyed as he plants his favourite green M&M next to the red and I drop a yellow one a few steps away because my science textbook says roots need space. Everytime we walked by that sand patch since, we’d watch for trees dripping in rainbow M&Ms, pigeons and mynas nesting upon its branches and dream of plucking a new yellow or green or blue or red M&M off to bite into its chocolate insides.
But the harsh heat of the Gulf is not for M&Ms and so the trees did not grow. With childhood persistence, we kept dropping them into the sand patch, hoping that like the M&Ms, we too could take root in the Gulf we called home.
Maya was just six years old when a woman with red fingernails pushed her into a lion enclosure. The woman’s name was Antonia Shepherd, she had shoes that clacked, and long fingernails that could, and often did, cause Maya to wince with pain. Maya’s father was in love with this woman: maybe because she smelled like a department store, or maybe because she had an adorable freckle on the end of her nose. Maya often longed to peel that freckle off, but she never got the chance, and she didn’t have any freckles of her own to practice with.
“Honey, Maya and I haven’t had nearly enough bonding time. What if I took her out somewhere, just the two of us?”
Maya listened from the living room, her heart beating loud against her t-shirt. She scooted closer to the door, further away from the TV that was always on, singing gibberish cartoons at her. Antonia said the TV kept her quiet, but the TV was so much louder than Maya could be. Sometimes she wrapped a blanket around her head and pretended she was being kidnapped to get away from the noise. Today, she eavesdropped instead.
“I know that little girl of yours is a handful, and most women wouldn’t want to take their boyfriend’s daughter out like I do, but well, you know I adore her. I just want her to know it.” “What did you have in mind?” Dad sounded much less concerned than he should have. “Oh, I don’t know, ice-cream, the zoo, the hairdresser?”
Maya clutched her long braid with fear. No. She loved to swing her braid and feel it slap against her face, and she hated the sound of the hair-dryer, which Antonia used every morning. She especially hated the hairdressing cape. Wearing it felt like being in the belly of a big black fish with her head poking out of its lips. No! She would not go get a haircut, especially not with that woman.
Antonia walked in, scratched her long fingernails against Maya’s scalp, and invited her out, just the two of them. Her fingers stopped Maya from turning her head to look at Dad. She could sense him though, lingering in the doorway. Her only choice was to say yes. “Only, I don’t want a haircut.” Antonia’s nails tightened a fraction. “Someone’s been eavesdropping,” she giggled. Maybe, if Antonia had taken Maya to the hairdresser, things would have been different, but she didn’t. She took her to the zoo instead.
Outside, the sun was pale yellow and sweat-inducing. Maya lived in a small city in the middle of the desert, and though it was winter, it was still hot. Maya and Dad used to live in another country, but she could barely remember it. When she and Antonia got into the car, the woman blasted the A.C. until Maya was blue-lipped and shivering. Antonia saw the goose-bumps, but she didn’t turn the A.C. down and Maya refused to ask for relief. Instead, she wrapped her hand around her braid like it was a snake she could throw into the driver’s seat. They arrived at the zoo.
“Where would you like to go?” Antonia asked without looking at her. “The crocodiles!”
But the entire reptile house was closed. From the sounds of it, a small boy had climbed into the iguana enclosure and was refusing to come down from a very high box in the top corner. The iguanas were whipping their tails at any keeper who tried to come in and get him down. This zoo was not like most others.
Maya liked the big, ferocious animals. She had no interest in the timid gazelles or the tortoises chewing leaves of lettuce with their big grandpa lips. She liked animals with teeth much sharper than her own, and claws much sharper than Antonia’s. If she couldn’t see crocodiles, lions were the next best thing.
Maya and Antonia walked over to the enclosure, and Maya felt a shiver of joy when she looked down and saw their hulking shoulders and thick paws. She wished she was a lion. She roared quietly. They were separated from the lions by a glass barrier that reached Antonia’s chest, and a gorge that made it impossible for the lions to leap up to them.
“Why don’t we take a picture to send to your Daddy?”
Antonia took out her phone and began fixing her hair in the camera. Maya looked up at her, watching with amusement as one curl stuck down stubbornly, creating a swirl on the woman’s forehead. She started to giggle until Antonia’s murderous eyes flashed down at her and swept the smile off her face. When the curl was finally smoothed back, Antonia knelt down and pulled Maya towards her so they were cheek to cheek. Maya didn’t smile.
“Why aren’t you smiling?” Antonia said, straining to keep her voice light.
“Well, I took you here to be nice to you. The least you can do is smile.”
Maya smiled. Until Antonia pressed the button, then she quickly frowned. Antonia huffed.
“Look. Look how nice I look there, smiling. Why can’t you be a good girl and smile?”
Maya puffed her cheeks out like a blowfish in the next picture. Then crossed her eyes. Right before Antonia pressed the button, so that she wouldn’t see what she was about to do. Maya was very quick. The curl returned to Antonia’s forehead and stuck there. She dug her nails into Maya’s arm, clutching her ever closer.
“You—will—take—this—picture—nicely!” she shook the girl with every word.
“Sorry, I just don’t want to look like you,” Maya giggled.
“What?” Antonia snapped, dropping her arm, “What did you say?”
Maya wanted to take it back, Antonia’s eyes were bulging slightly.
“I just… I don’t want to look like you.”
“Why?” Antonia burst, “What’s wrong with how I look?”
A woman wearing a tennis visor and yoga pants pulled a wagon full of kids past them, and paused to give Antonia a raised eyebrow. Antonia tried to smile at her; her cheek twitched. When the woman was gone, Maya built up the courage to ask something she’d always wanted to. For once, she was having fun with Antonia.
“Can I peel your freckle off?”
Maya had been staring at it, and the urge was burning in her finger. She couldn’t hold it in any longer, her finger inched towards the woman’s face. Antonia swiped it away with a furious hiss. A stream of words came out. Maya didn’t understand much except for the end.
“—and everyone. I mean everyone. Tells me how ADORABLE. My freckle is. So, so.”
Antonia took a deep breath. She smiled like a crocodile.
“Let’s take the picture, Maya.”
Antonia lifted Maya so that she was standing on the barrier in front of the enclosure. It was sloped, not a good place to stand, not enough room for her feet. Maya tried to say so, but Antonia was lifting the phone to get both of them in the picture.
I’m not sure if Antonia intended to feed Maya to the lions from the beginning, or if it was an idea that dawned on her when she saw their yellow teeth. She loved her boyfriend, but something about his child unsettled her. Maya was always alone in her room, and Antonia could hear her, talking with different voices, thudding, shouting war-cries. Plus, who doesn’t like TV?
Maybe she didn’t mean to push her into the enclosure, or maybe she did. Either way, Maya felt a sharp elbow smack her knee, and then the ground was out from under her. She saw the sky, the glass barrier trembling, her own arms reaching out for something to grab onto. Her scream rang through the big cat section of the zoo. When she landed, the wind was knocked right out of her. Her head smacked the grass painfully, and for a moment, everything went black. She opened her eyes and squinted up at Antonia, who was peering down at her, safely behind the glass. Maya couldn’t get up, everything hurt. Then she felt the hot huff of lion breath.
When Antonia saw Maya stirring, she glanced around to see if anyone had seen the girl fall. The zoo was not busy, since it was a weekday afternoon. Nobody was around. Antonia clacked over to the pizza stand, ordered a slice, and chewed while she contemplated her next move. She rubbed her lower belly and tried to glow, the way women in her condition were supposed to. The pizza server asked if everything was okay, watching her demented smile with trepidation.
“Is the pizza not agreeing with you?”
Antonia started to retort, then simpered, “Maybe the little one doesn’t like beef-pepperoni.”
She rubbed her belly more conspicuously. The server backed away.
Antonia nodded to herself, this was as good a time as any to tell him. She clacked over to the zoo entrance, smiled at the attendant, got in her car and drove home.
Meanwhile Maya had started to regain feeling in her arms and legs. She could sense the lion nearby, but didn’t dare to look at it. Should she move? Play dead? Try to run? Before she could do anything, she felt jaws closing around her ankle. She froze. She was certain that if she screamed the lion would start to eat her right then. Her braid dragged behind her as the lion pulled her into the fake den, and down into the concrete pit underneath the enclosure.
“Hello sweetheart, I’m back!” Antonia sang at her boyfriend.
“Hey, you’re back soon, how was it?”
How that man loved that woman we’ll never know, but he did, truly.
Antonia smiled sweetly, “I have something to tell you!”
“Well, she didn’t want to leave the zoo, see. But I had to tell you something and it couldn’t wait,” Antonia rubbed her belly in anticipation.
“You left my six year old daughter at the zoo, alone?”
He was getting hung up on the wrong detail. He wasn’t noticing her glow.
“Well yes, but–”
“I cannot believe this,” his face looked like thunder, “my daughter. My only daughter, who do you think you ARE?”
Maya was scratched all over from where she’d been dragged against the concrete. The light was dim and her heart was pounding. If they were going to eat her, she hoped it would be quick. The lioness had dropped her like a rag-doll and was greeting an old lion that was lazing in the corner. The lion stood up, and both of them loomed over her with drooling jaws.
“What are you doing in our enclosure, human?”
The lion. It was speaking.
“Y-you can talk!”
The lion huffed, “Yes, and they never drop live meat into our enclosure, so I have to be sure. Have you been laced with poison? Is this how they finally get rid of me?”
“I hope I haven’t been poisoned. I fell in accidentally. Or, I guess, I was pushed.”
Maya told the old lion about Antonia, her clacking heels and her department store smell.
“I hate when humans wear perfume,” the lion growled.
Maya nodded, “Me too.”
There was a long, almost awkward pause. Maya felt the need to break it, the lions still looked angry.
“Wow, it’s pretty dark down here.”
“Dark, really? Do you see that light in the corner? It’s always on, always flickering and irritating my eyes. We’re mostly nocturnal you know,” the old lion said.
“Can’t you tell the zookeepers that it bothers you?”
The old lion snorted, “All they hear when I talk is growling. I learned to talk from my first owner. A girl who was a little older than you.”
“What happened to her?”
So the old lion told Maya the story of how he ended up in a zoo in the desert. Poachers came for his pride, in a place far away, with long grasses and wide open space. He heard gunshots and he tried to run. He got left behind. The poachers put him in a cage, and the cage went on a plane, and the plane landed here, where a man kept him in an apartment and fed him cat food, which made him feel very sick. Finally, the man put the lion in a cardboard box with holes, and when it was opened, the lion saw the smiling face of a girl in a party hat.
“You got me a lion cub?” she squealed.
The girl had never been so happy, and neither had the lion, except for during his days in the wild. But he was growing too fast, and one day the girl’s Dad put him in the back of their car, and walked him on a leash into the zoo.
“I’m not the only one. All the lions here have a story like me. And the cheetahs too.”
Maya felt anger bubbling in her stomach. She was so angry that she forgot the scrapes on her skin and the aches from where she’d fallen. She sat up and felt her head spin.
“This isn’t fair! We’ve got to do something.”
The lion roared his agreement, and Maya heard the echoes of other lions roaring back. There were at least thirty lions down there in cages, hidden from the public.
Maya’s father sprinted through the zoo, calling her name. The girl was nowhere to be found. Antonia trotted reluctantly behind him. She didn’t see why he would miss Maya when she was providing a brand new kid for him.
“Where did you leave her?” he growled.
“By the lions,” Antonia said.
They arrived in the big cats section, and Maya’s father skidded to a stop, unsure of where to look. Then, both of them heard a squealing child who was standing in front of the lion enclosure, looking in.
“Look Mummy! Look!”
“Look, look, there’s a girl!”
The child’s mother let out a soul-tearing scream when she saw Maya cartwheeling for the lions. The scream was so loud that Antonia was sure Maya was done for, and hurried over, doing her best to look concerned.
When she saw Maya riding on the back of a lion, she knew she was toast. She let out a shrill little scream of her own. Maya’s father was pale, and swayed like he might fall over. Maya looked up at them, smiled and waved.
“Don’t worry Daddy, I’m okay!”
Maya returned to the lions as she grew older, and told the zookeepers their grievances with the food and the lack of space. In exchange, the keepers let her play in the enclosure after visiting hours. They called her Maya The Lion Tamer, and though she hated Antonia, Maya loved her new baby brother when he arrived.
Maya also befriended the boy who lived in the iguana enclosure… but that’s another story for another time.
They say it doesn’t rain in Abu Dhabi, but this is a lie. Something’s always leaking. Fat, fat droplets, that I see on Sayed’s face sometimes, when he walks in from the heat or disappears into the storage closet to quickly rub his eyes. It’s probably sweat. Everything here sweats: the air-cons above the shops, the glasses of lemon mint and the soft-skinned people with cameras who look at me too long. Abu Dhabi is really a rainy city, otherwise it would burn up. That is why when Sayed gets tense, I go to him. Like today, there were no customers around so I walked into his room to let him I know was there. Sometimes he just looks at me for hours, not moving. It is a very long time. But I don’t mind with him. His face softens a bit, like sogged up paper, and he lets something in him rain. I don’t know what that feels like but I do know that in Abu Dhabi, it is very important to stay cool.
Sayed is making chai. It reminds me of that boyfriend I had once, with skin the color of karak. He stayed close by behind the baqala, from where he’d steal large cold water bottles for me. One time, we had ended up walking as far as the corniche from Al Wahda. There were so many men there, like yapping puppies, dressed in t-shirts fitted to the smile of their bellies. I fleetingly wondered how my body would change if I got pregnant. The men had been staring. Staring hard, it seemed, at a pair of logs, in a creamy pinky milky color, like a shake. Logs? We moved closer. The long peach stumps soon revealed a set of knees, swelling up into thighs, flowering up into a whole person. It was a white woman, sunbathing.
How different those men were from Sayed. They must not be praying; and I’m sure it had even been a Friday. The thought of it makes my back arch again, as if some cold slime is trickling through the vertebrae. I remember my boyfriend gazing out towards the water, oblivious to all. We had not looked at each other for a single moment; there was something more beautiful in front of us. It was so blue, so bright and lovely and unmarred by humanness. An oasis. And yet, I don’t remember much else but feeling hot, just too hot. That boyfriend is gone now, but my stomach still feels funny when I catch the smell of karak.
These days the weather is quite cool at night, so I go walking in Al Wahda. Hours pass as the taxi cabs go by. I think they are beautiful. These days I find myself dreaming of walking straight onto the road, as if wading into an endless current. Nobody would see me; everyone would be looking up, looking at the road ahead. How long would this game last before I lost my body, in some forgotten underbelly of that powerful stream? Yet when I watch these cabs swim through the night, something inside me stops. I wish I could communicate it – that ripple settling into silence.
Why don’t the big, creamy, perfumed people take photographs of such things? Like the yellow hats of taxi cabs or the pastel apartment blocks with so many eyes or the crushed pools of dates on the pavements. Things grown and fallen and full and lived in. Instead, they pick and choose what to see. My friend Roza who stays with an American expatriate, told me that they like to gather in very specific places, like Emirates Palace. Or they go to the Louvre, to take pictures of the ‘rain of light’. I wish I could see this mysterious rain but Saadiyat Island is very far and I would die walking there. But I’m sure I would like it. One day perhaps, if Sayed gets a nice car; a rain of light sounds like something you could never look at long enough. Perhaps it’s true then, maybe those people do know better. Maybe they look so carefree because they are the best at deciding the most beautiful and lovely things. Imagine, a rain of light. Even Sayed might pull out his phone to take a picture and send it home. Maybe he’d make it his background for a while, replacing the shot of his parents’ home in Lucknow.
It is difficult for me to understand Sayed’s world. But I think I have definitely figured out the word “paisa”. Sayed needs money. I’ve obviously never needed it myself but I want to make Sayed happy and that is what he says he needs. Paisa, paisa, paisa, he yells many times into the phone. At first, I thought paisa was a woman. There was this Filipina nurse who came into the shop once. She had soft hands, and she bent down properly to talk to me, her voice kind of sticky. I saw Sayed look at her for a very long time, even when she had walked out. He would stare as if the corniche itself was in front of him, except there was no visible horizon, only a world he wanted to reach his arms out to forever – if only his body didn’t ache so much. On that island there would be no rain perhaps. Just sun and palms and breeze – and paisa. Different. Different from where he was.
Sayed talks to me a lot nowadays. I’m afraid I’m his only real friend, except maybe Hamza-bhai from the baqala who comes over with a pack of cards on a blue moon Saturday. But nobody really talks to me either, unless they want me to get out of the way. I know I’m not pretty. I’m too skinny, even though I eat well now, and my limbs remain bone and angles. But Sayed still loves me. He told me so. I didn’t know how to ask him what love was, but I think I sort of figured it out one day, from a guy called Rahul. He was a skinny boy with a face in permanent shadow. I found him one night while walking, spraying the letters “A M A L” on a wall, eyes leaking and leaking like some faulty faucet. He taught me some signs; he kept going on about how he had missed or dismissed them. Like the way someone talks to you, a bit more padded and softer than usual, like the underside of a new-born kitten’s paws. The shape of their palm when they touch you. Where they touch you. A gaze that lingers. Sayed lets me sit next to him while he prays. When he finishes, he looks up for a long time, his face as open as a desert. I look too but I don’t really see anything. Not even rain. But I am grateful to be with him. Nobody else sees the love he mouths upwards, evaporating to join the clouds. I always move closer and lay my head on his thigh. And he smiles in return. I think we have so much to give to each other.
We watched a new Madhuri Dixit film today. Obviously, we couldn’t miss it on ZeeTV now that it was finally showing. This was Sayed’s favorite actress, and the most beautiful woman in the world. How incredible, firstly that I even have a name, and that I’m named after her. I often wish she would just shake off the TV screen like pesky bathwater and walk into Sayed’s arms. Then we’d be a real family, a filmy one in a white house. Sayed would smile so much that his cheeks would ache for months. He would hug us and call home and pay for extra meethai and invite Hamza-bhai for chai and then hug us again, tighter. I would wind through both of their legs. They would laugh, entwined, Sayed’s face bursting like the splitting open of a flower, seeds spilling, life pouring forth.
This is my favorite daydream.
Sometimes it comes back so sharply. My life three years ago – eating out of garbage cans, like so many others in this city. It was so difficult to move. And then Sayed. Sayed found me in that pedestrian underpass. That place where the sun couldn’t glare at me anymore, where the ground was cool as lemon mint because of course, everyone knows it is important to stay cool in Abu Dhabi. I had gone to that underpass to give up. My body spread in surrender. So many footsteps bobbed by me, interrupted at times by curiosity and then inevitable, helpless revulsion. My eyes were perpetually half-closed but I still saw, always the same grotesque realization hooking onto their features: “Awww…oh…oh…poor thing. Poor kitty.”
Until. One pair of feet, paused. A man kneeling down to look at me, properly, even gently patting my fur. He had begun to talk softly in Hindi, which a lot of people speak here. The words I know best are “Chal hat!” and “kaali billi.” I get the feeling they don’t like me because my fur is a deep black. And so they don’t understand when I try tell them it’s just like the hair on their heads. Many of them run away in fear, eyes popping.
Sayed brought me to his home, and soon I came to learn new smells – blackened banana peel-stinks forgotten, I discovered the sharp tang of lemon dishwasher liquid, so heady my eyes swam. I remember resting for many weeks in a little bed made from old fabrics. All the fabrics sold at Sayed Fashion Tailors are the color of apartments in Abu Dhabi. Or of sand. The sand is to Abu Dhabi what hope is to us: me, you, Sayed.
“I think, I will name you Madhuri,” he had told me when I finally started walking properly again, pointing to the television. And he had smiled. We had looked at each other for a long time that afternoon and I hope he knew I was close to happy too.
I hope he knows.
Today, Madhuri Dixit is dancing, shut within the television set – for outside the window, there is rain, and a song is beginning to play. It talks about love. As Madhuri’s body moves, she suddenly remembers that she knows all the words well.