I Just Can't Understand You
Every night in my dreams
I see you, I feel you,
That is how I know you go on
Celine Dion’s nasal serenades were competing with the gruff voice of the mu’athin across the crowded café terrace. No one seemed to pay attention to either of them. Everyone was immersed in conversation except for Ahmed. He was sitting alone, waiting for her.
He looked up at the large beige umbrella that emerged from a hole in the center of the table. He remembered the first time he’d entered this fancy establishment and seen one of these large parasols.
It was two years after his father passed away. He had been working at an electronic store on Sakhr Street in Sana’a. One day, he’d met a client who had offered him some work fixing some computers and phones. The client had asked him to deliver the equipment to a café with a name he couldn’t pronounce. Arriving at the café with the large orange English sign, the security guard standing at the door stopped him from entering because he was chewing qat.
“Aren’t we in Yemen where everyone is chewing qat?” he had asked the guard.
“Yes, but not here.”
“The owners don’t want the place to be dirty.”
Ahmed had spat out the qat and placed the chewed up green lump in a bag to save for later. He had, after all, only begun chewing an hour earlier. He remembered looking around, feeling out of place in this fancy space where stylish men and women sat comfortably together, sipping drinks and eating cake. He’d felt his oversized blazer and brown sandals were unsuitable, maybe even offensive, to the people around him. He had wanted to leave as soon as possible but the client was running late, so he had sat at an empty table waiting for him. A waiter gave him a menu. Though he’d turned it around, he could not find the Arabic version.
“My brother, do I look like a tourist?” he had asked the waiter.
“What do you mean?”
“You gave me the tourist menu.” He pointed at the laminated two-sided paper. “Give me the Yemeni one.”
“We only have one menu.”
“Why is it all in English?”
“Ask the owner…”
“Just give me tea.”
When the tea arrived, Ahmed had realized he had paid four times the usual price. The tea had been worse than usual; it was just water and a Lipton tea bag without any coriander seed, black peppercorns, green cardamom pods, cloves, or cinnamon. He could not believe how people could be so fooled into paying so much for something that cost nothing. I would be so rich if I sold real tea outside this place, he had thought to himself.
That was four years ago. Since then, Ahmed had become wealthier, but not from selling tea. The customer he dreaded meeting had helped him obtain two scholarships, one to learn English at a local organization, and another to pursue higher education abroad. When he returned to Sana’a, armed with an impressive British diploma, employment opportunities opened up. The more his social standing increased, however, the greater his family and social obligations became.
Now, Ahmed had become a regular customer at the same place he’d vowed he would never return. His white spotless zannah, so crisp and a perfect length – not reaching his foot, and not too high above his ankle- was covered by an expensive blazer, and complimented with black shiny dress shoes. His trimmed goatee and expensive SUV exuded a rich man’s confidence. Very few people could see his insecurities. Amal was one of the few who could.
He was anxious to see her. He knew she wouldn’t like what he was going to ask her, but she would just have to understand. He rolled a Kamaran several times between his index finger and thumb. The smoothness comforted him. These cigarettes were among the few things that could. If we can make these perfect cigarettes locally, why can’t we perfect everything else?
A piercing scream startled him back to reality. He smiled and shook his head as he saw Amal clumsily getting up from the floor, pulling up her balto all the way to her knee, and shaking the dust off the black dress covering her clothes. He smiled as he watched her climb up the three steps to the café terrace. Is she crazy, or am I the crazy one to be in love with her?
She began walking towards him. He looked down, sniffed his shirt. He smelled like a mix of sweat, cigarettes, and Christian Dior’s Fahrenheit Absolute. They shook hands and she sat down in front of him.
“I wish we could hug in public!” he confessed.
“Me too,” she said with the same innocent yet mischievous smile that made him fall for her. Amal pulled a pink flower from her bag and put it behind his ear. “I love your goatee, please don’t ever shave again.”
“Trust me, I won’t. You should hear the amount of criticism I received from everyone. By the way, I’m sorry I couldn’t come to watch the play with you. I had so much work to finish. How was it?”
Amal shrugged. “It was ok, I guess.”
“It sounds like you didn’t like it?”
“Well…it was annoying. The gender roles were reversed—the wife was too masculine and the man not masculine enough—and that simple fact was supposed to be hysterical. It was the basis of all the jokes. ‘How can we have two men in the same house’ the lead character said at some point.”
“Oh is this that play, Kun Rajaal?” Ahmed asked.
“The title is ‘Be a man’. You should’ve known!”
“But Mohammed Hassan was directing it! The so-called progressive artist, and his very liberal team of actors and actresses. That’s what shocked me the most.”
“They’re catering to society,” Ahmed said.
Amal looked at him. “But isn’t the purpose of art to question reality – to push us to think?”
“It’s just a comedy, don’t over analyze it.”
“Akhhhhh you don’t get it because of that thing that dangles,” she pointed between his legs.
A friend interrupted them. Ahmed got up and kissed him once on the right cheek and countless times on the left. The two men held hands, their fingers intertwined like two trees whose branches have grown together. The waiter appeared with a tray and two mugs. Like a pruner, he separated the two entangled hands. Ahmed sat back down and his friend went inside.
The waiter placed two mugs on the table. “One Cappuccino for our favorite customer and an Americano for my brother with the thick-lensed glasses.”
“I’m their favorite customer,” Amal said teasingly.
“A brother is closer than a customer,” Ahmed responded, sticking his tongue out. He quickly looked around in case someone caught a glimpse of his unacceptable childish behavior. Men don’t stick out their tongues! He remembered his mother scolding him as a kid. Ahmed turned his attention to Amal’s delicate long fingers, covered with silver rings, as she carefully placed a spoon of sugar into the heart shaped foam of the Cappuccino. She was stirring it with such devotion, as she did with everything else. He admired her passion. She was enthusiastic about everything. He wished he were more like that. Suddenly Amal looked up.
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing, can’t a man admire a beauty?”
“Oh please, you and your cheesy lines. I look like crap today.”
“You can never accept a compliment. When I’m sensitive and romantic you hate it, when I’m not, you tell me I’m too insensitive.” He extended his hand and took hers in his. “Make up your mind woman!”
“We’re in public!” she pulled her hand away in a panic, spilling coffee on her black robe.
“My clumsy woman!” he laughed.
“Say that again and you’ll be the one washing it,” she smirked.
Behind them, the throaty sounds of a guitar began. Amal and Ahmed turned towards the music. A young man with long hair, a striped blue, pink, and white t-shirt, and faded jeans held a red electric guitar and was jamming to his own tunes. Ahmed looked at Amal as she watched the man play. He enjoyed watching her expressions change. He envied her ability to express every emotion. To be free to smile, laugh, and cry whenever and wherever she wanted. Society did not necessarily accept that she was so open about her feelings, yet she still was.
A man’s loud voice ruined the moment. “When will you cut your hair, you look like a woman!” the man yelled to the musician.
“Actually, he looks like a villager from Marib,” another man interrupted, laughing.
“So what? Neither of those two are a bad thing!” Amal exclaimed.
Laughter filled the outdoor section of the café.
“Amal, why do you always do that?” Ahmed said in a hushed voice.
“Why do you feel the need to always respond to everything?”
“I don’t, but that was just so rude,” she snapped, giving him an irritated look.
“It’s between them,” he said, his voice beginning to rise. “It has nothing to do with you!”
Ahmed pulled out a cigarette from the blue and white Kamaran packet in front of him. He lit the cigarette and watched it burn. There was a familiarity to the flame. He pulled the cigarette closer to his mouth and inhaled it deeply. His lungs felt tight and alive.
Amal was staring at him. Finally she spoke.
“Seriously, what’s the matter with you these days? You’re full of contradictions. All our female friends come to you for advice, and you encourage them to continue doing what they are doing and even push them to challenge the status quo. But with me, you hate it when I’m outspoken in public. Maybe it’s because you worry I’ll be as ‘loud’ or opinionated with your family?”
“Here we go again!” he said, with a sigh.
“Just admit it. It upsets you that I am the way I am.”
“Oh, shut up!”
Amal pushed her chair back and half stood up. Ahmed glared at her, aggressive and self-assured. She sat back down.
“Amal, you accuse me of having contradictions, but look at you. Remember that day when the young man cursed at us in the street and I just walked away?” He looked at her intensely waiting for an answer. “I didn’t do anything to him, and you resented me because of it. It’s like you somehow felt betrayed or disappointed that I didn’t assert my authority or fall into a blind rage. If I had, you would’ve found me sexy, but because I didn’t I was a sissy in your eyes.”
Silence filled the space between their coffee mugs. His almond shaped eyes drooped like those of a sad dog. His dark eyebrows pinched together, revealing the wrinkles of a man with a much older soul. The pink flower placed gently on his right ear brought out his hazel eyes. Amal extended her hands to the Kamaran packet, looked inside for a cigarette to smoke, and then tossed the empty packet back on the table. Ahmed was relieved he’d finished the last cigarette. He didn’t want to have that fight again. There was something more urgent he needed to discuss with her.
“I’m sorry habibati, I didn’t mean to be rude,” he took her hands in his. This time she let him. Her fingers gently squeezed his.
Amal was quiet for a moment. Finally she sighed. “I just can’t understand you.”
“The truth is…” he paused. “I’m scared about how our marriage might impact my family.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you’re on television. My entire family is already mocking me for not ‘controlling’ my fiancée. They say if you have no shame to be on television and work with men, then….” He stopped himself.
“Listen, of course I don’t believe that shit. But you know what people say. It impacts me. It impacts my family. Do you know that a man who proposed to my sister retracted his proposal after he found out that you are my fiancée?”
“Well good riddance” she waved dismissively. “You don’t want her to be with that kind of a man anyways.”
Ahmed shook his head.
“You know I can’t quit my job,” Amal said angrily.
“I didn’t ask you to quit—”
“Yeah, but you will…”
“I just don’t see how this will work out unless you do,” Ahmed admitted.
“Give me a fucking break. You pretend you’re a hero saving your family, just because you give them money every month. But in reality you’re a coward. You’re unable to confront them, to confront our traditions, and worse, to confront yourself.”
“Look, I told them you’re not quitting your job, but can you see how you working would make people think that I can’t provide for you?”
“Who exactly will feel like that?”
“Your family. My family. Society.”
“Look at your life—financially and socially—and look at mine,” Amal said. “I don’t own a car, I take public buses all the time, and I have a salary that pays peanuts. You, on the other hand, have an expensive car, an apartment in a rich neighborhood, and you wear a jambiya worth hundreds of dollars just to prove your manhood!” She took a deep breath. “And yet, you think I am the one who needs to have a rich guy?”
“Sure, but you come from a rich family, that’s why you can accept this lower paying job. You have a sense of security if something goes wrong. I don’t. Neither does my family. I have to be rich enough so that I could support us the way you are used to, but also continue to help my family.”
“You’re not Superman. That’s almost impossible, especially if I stop working.”
“I have obligations as a man in this society.”
“Are you seriously telling me, a woman, that it can be difficult to be a man?”
“Have you not heard anything I just said?” Ahmed slammed his fist on the table.
Amal looked at him with sad eyes. “It’s true what they say, a man thinks the sun rises just to hear him crow. What happened to you? What happened to us? Why have we become so disconnected?” She took off her ring and placed it on his right palm. “Ahmed, I love you. But that’s not enough.”
Amal stood up, and this time she kept on walking, leaving Ahmed alone, a pink flower behind his ear, under the large beige umbrella shielding him from the midday sun in a western café in the old city of Sana’a. He grabbed the Kamaran packet, crushed it and threw it on the floor.