I am out in California visiting my family, and a couple of days ago I got stung by a bee on my hand. While not allergic to bees per se, I don’t react well to being stung, though name someone who does. As a result, my hand right now, as my brother-in-law David gleefully pointed out, looks like the paw of an alien creature. He’s right. The swelling in my fingers is so severe that each digit is pointing off in a different direction.
I would forgive California and its bees if this were the first time. But last summer, after flying from Abu Dhabi to London, to New York, to Los Angeles to be with my family, I decided, while spinning with jet lag, to take a walk where I was attacked by a killer bee. At first, I thought someone had tossed a cigarette out a car window but when the “cigarette” started stinging my back, belly, neck and under my arms, I knew something was up. My shirt for one. In that mad panic that only bugs-beneath-clothing can create I, while simultaneously running up one of those steep L.A. hills, flung my top off. The bee was undeterred, if anything, my antics inspired him into a greater frenzy. I had no choice but to flag down a car. Thankfully my sister Sophie’s neighbor happened to be passing, and with her two kids in the back looking utterly bewildered, stopped, and before she could ask what was happening, I dove into the front seat and slammed the door while my attacker proceeded to hurl itself against the window.
So you can well imagine when I felt that tell-tale burning a couple of days ago I reacted poorly. As I started flapping about my sister gave me her famous half-mast stare and told me to shut the fuck up and just suck the stinger out, she was trying to read. I suppose this sorry tale is a blatant plea for someone in the universe to feel sorry for me.
Which brings me to Ralph’s supermarket. I was waiting on line, my cart full with an obscene amount of booze not because I intended to drown my sorrows in vodka but rather I was just so thrilled at the prospect of paying a reasonable price for one of life’s essentials. At home in Abu Dhabi that isn’t the case.
There was a woman in front of me and as her order was being rung through she happened to turn and notice my swollen hand.
“That looks painful.”
“It is,” I said. “It seems your bees have a thing for me.”
She ignored the last snarky remark because now she had noticed my wallet.
“I love that! Where did you get it?”
“In Abu Dhabi,” I told her. “I live there, and this Cross wallet was one of the first things I bought after our move."
“Really? What’s over there? My travel agent tried to get me to go there, but I said, ‘Larry, I’m a Jew, are you kidding me!’”
“Well, true it’s the Middle East, but it’s not that Middle East. There are plenty of Jewish people who visit."
“Real Jewish people?”
“Is there any other kind?”
Let me pause here.
Whenever I come home for a visit from Abu Dhabi, I find people are usually very curious about my new home, but they also can be wildly off base about the place. I don’t blame them, I was. When living in the West, all of the Middle East tends to be blended into one big impression and for many American that impression isn’t so hot.
Once I dispense with the notion that I don’t daily see people blowing themselves up, there are the softer misconceptions.
Though being a lazy dresser, there are some days when throwing on an Abaya, that loose overgarment you flash to when someone says "the Arab street" or some such, would be so easy, sort of like when I wore a school uniform, no fuss, no muss. Not that I’ve ever seen an Arab woman who looks the least bit frumpy. They may be covered but, by God, their black abayas are shimmering visions of elegance.
I do have my own curiosity about their sartorial obligations. While many wear only the head scarf, an equal number have most of their faces covered leaving only their eyes exposed. I used to know just how furious my mother was by the set of her lips and when my behavior rolled over into being a hellion, it was the steady stream of threats coming from lips so pursed that they were nearly white (It rarely worked). Arab mothers, while out in public, must have a whole other artillery of disciplinary tricks beneath their niqab.
As for the men in their dishdash, how the hell do they keep them so white? I have never seen a coffee, ketchup, or any stain on their floor length gowns. And for a long while, I wondered how they peed. That mystery was finally cleared up when I saw a man answer the call of nature at the side of the road. The whole robe has to be lifted. Some good shaking must go on because I’ve never seen a pee stain either.
My own curiosity aside, I’m always quick to assure people that we can wear what we want. There are notices posted outside the malls asking that people dress modestly, but as the whole world knows if a teenage girl wants to wear hot pants, she wears hot pants (Am I dating myself here?).
And while I don’t believe in God, I can see why people might be fearful that they might be denied that privilege of practice their own faith. However, considering all the Christmas, Easter, not to mention Valentine’s and Chinese New Year’s crap that is on sale during those holidays and occasions, blowing your money to celebrate your beliefs seems to be no problem at all.
That brings us back to the Jewish lady in Ralph’s Supermarket. There’s no denying that the history of the Jews and the Arabs is a fraught one, but in Abu Dhabi, at least, I think she would have done well coming to visit. Mingle people, mingle. It can’t hurt.
And one shouldn’t live by assumptions. I, for instance, don’t believe that all of California’s bees are out to get me, do I?