We're very excited to have an excerpt from Tania Malik's new book Hope You Are Satisfied, which goes on sale this week, for this month's edition.
In this opening chapter, Riya, a somewhat forgetful employee of Discover Arabia Tours, tries to hang onto her job and avoid the looming geopolitical clash of Operation Desert Storm, all after nights of tequila shots and nautical limbo. She's part of a misfit cast of tour guides who are hustling up a living in Dubai, years before the wealth and brand new skyline truly arrives in town.
It's a very fun scene with a darker edge looming.
“The Sheikh was on the wrong plane.”
When my boss, Simon, was mad about something, he’d throw his pen at us like a dart. It didn’t hurt, but the evasive sidestepping involved on our parts robbed us of no small amount of dignity. From Simon’s sputtering and spewing you would guess my incompetence had led not only to the misplaced Sheikh but to the next world war brewing just beyond our borders. Neither was good for business.
A couple of weeks ago, on August 2, Saddam Hussein, in a long-smoldering fit of pique, invaded Kuwait. We were 560 miles away from the action, yet close enough for U.S. warships and F-16 fighter jets to monopolize the shipping ports and airfields of our marble-sized city lolling in the cupped hand of the Arabian Peninsula. Fresh-faced marines appeared all over the place looking so young and delicious, as if the USA had sent baby goats to us as gifts for Eid al-Adha. The boys strolled our malls, ate fast food in tight groups, and sweltered on park benches in the afternoons when most public places closed shop because it was too hot to do anything but nap.
Unfortunately, no handsome staff sergeant of Operation Desert Shield was going to rescue me from Simon’s wrath. Vigilant of the projectile about to head my way, I prepared to duck or dodge.
“Riya, Riya,” Simon said as I squirmed in front of his desk. He was winding up for another outburst. “You know what a close friend the Sheikh is of Mohammed Salem’s?”
Much to my sorrow and shame, I did know. Mohammed Salem bin Fahd was the owner and CEO of Discover Arabia Tours. As a friend of his, the Sheikh benefited from the convenience of having one of the Discover Arabia employees with airport clearance escort him from his limousine to his aircraft cabin before any of the other passengers boarded, and without having to wait in the queues for check-in and immigration. When we were not taking care of the owner’s friends, we were a small inbound tour operator, our clientele mainly middle-class tourists from Western Europe and Britain who arrived in chartered planeloads for the constant sunshine, the warm Gulf waters, and a taste of the mysteries of Arabia.
“All you had to do—” Simon cut himself off in exasperation. “One simple task.”
He was going to dock my pay. I could feel it coming. Inwardly, I cursed myself for being so careless. In my half-asleep, half-hungover state this morning, I’d failed to do the “check and double check”—one of Simon’s constant admonishments.
At 0600 hours I’d met the Sheikh at the entrance to the airport. He was in the requisite flowing white robe and red-and-white checkered headscarf, with his two wives cloaked in burkas, six children dressed like they were going to dinner at a nice restaurant, and their two nannies. I looked presentable in my uniform of navy-blue pencil skirt and beige blazer, the colors meant to evoke the ocean and the desert sand. I’d wrestled my hair into a chignon and slapped on a layer of foundation, eyeliner, and red lipstick as per company policy. There was something about the arrangement of my features—the straight nose, the level distance between my eyes, the Chiclet rickrack of teeth, the faint bronze blush to my skin—that reminded people of someone they knew somewhere. My kind of face was ideal for customer service: neither too exceptional nor too familiar. Sometimes I wished for Amazonian height or comely curves or even a distinctive mole on my upper lip like Cindy Crawford had. But as my father often said, “If wishes were horses, even fools would ride them.”
The octagonal fountain outside the airport had just sputtered to life, taxis and cars pulled up alongside the curb, and passengers stumbled through the swishing glass doors with loaded baggage carts, their groggy children clutching toys and blankets. The Sheikh was impervious to my bright greeting. He wanted to get a move on, to be in his seat, enjoying his apple juice and warm mixed nuts long before the normal passengers lumbered aboard, crowding the aisles, heaving bags into the overhead bins. The airport security guard barely glanced at my identification card when I wished him good morning. Nothing new; the guards regularly saw me come and go as I welcomed or saw off Discover Arabia guests. The Sheikh and his brood obediently followed the tap-tap of my heels through security, past the duty-free and the row of departure lounges to the van waiting on the tarmac.
I was on three hours of sleep. To catch the bus to the airport meant rising an hour earlier than usual. I shot out of bed when the alarm went off, retrieved my skirt from under my mattress, where I’d placed it the night before to flatten out the creases (I needed to buy an iron; I needed to buy many things) before rushing out the door without a cup of tea or a sip of water. I didn’t have time to shower off the smell of cigarettes and sweat.
In hindsight, I should’ve sensed something was wrong when we drove up to the parked aircraft. The stairway was in place, the door was open, and the perfumed cabin air hinted at the recent presence of a cleaning crew. But there was an air of desolation about the Boeing that should’ve alerted me. I stowed their hand baggage and saw them settled into their seats in the first class cabin. “The flight crew will be here soon,” I said in farewell before speeding off with the van driver.
“No one bloody showed up!” Simon shouted at me. “It was a hundred degrees in there and no air-conditioning. His children were crying, his wives were complaining. And his flight to London departed from the other end of the tarmac.”
I had no defense, no excuse. I hung my head in contrition. It wasn’t a huge airport. The Sheikh probably watched his actual flight take off and soar out of sight without knowing what he was seeing.
Simon would take a while to get his anger out of his system. This gave me time to reflect on my blunder, and my options. A pay cut was preferable to the alternative, which was Simon firing me and canceling my work visa, which would, in turn, lead to deportation and facing my family back home in India.
Every month I sparingly used the minutes on my phone card to call my mother. Our short conversations, with cut-outs, static, and delay, didn’t give her much time to ask motherly questions about how I was faring. It’d been four years since I last saw her. Even if she asked after the nervous girl who had left home at twenty-one with a small suitcase and mixed feelings, I wouldn’t know what to tell her. Another girl, one who made stupid mistakes, and who couldn’t take the time to check and double-check something as simple as a flight number and aircraft location, had superseded her.
Simon paused to pick up the ringing phone on his desk. It was the owner of Discover Arabia. He was screaming about incompetence and consequences. Simon’s eyes were glassy and ringed with creases, which made him look much older than his thirty-five years. He rubbed his hand tiredly over his face and across the top of his head, ruffling the short, curly chestnut hair.
I paid no attention to what Simon was saying and just hoped in my heart of hearts that he’d recall the fun we’d had last night on his friend’s sixty-eight-foot yacht—how we did the limbo to the rocking of the waves and that I’d let his creepy Lebanese acquaintance with fat fingers push up my silky top and do tequila shots off my bare stomach.
From the other side of the glass wall of Simon’s office, Grace, my roommate and best friend, threw occasional concerned looks in my direction. Lending cheer to the white wall behind her were framed poster prints of Dubai’s skyline by night, of a golden beach and infinite azure ocean, of a desert safari campsite, and of a blond-haired man sandboarding down a dune.
Simon had originally planned on having Grace take care of the Sheikh. I’d offered to go instead, mainly to make myself useful to Simon, but also to help Grace out. Grace was efficient and exuded warmth even when dealing with the many idiosyncrasies of our middle-class guests, whether from England or Germany. Her disdain was reserved for people like the Sheikh and other friends of the owner, who demanded special treatment and were supercilious to boot. Interacting with them tried her patience and she was always relieved when I’d volunteer to go in her place.
For me, words floated out of my mouth like bubbles. I had no trouble making conversation. When I was a child, it pleased my parents that I remembered the names of people around our town, could ask after their sons and daughters and talk about the weather while other children my age kicked at the ground or answered in monosyllables when spoken to. (Of course, sometimes when I turned a simple observation into a soliloquy, they’d make me sit with a finger against my lips to shut me up.) My compulsive chattiness, as it turned out, was a big plus when it came to my career in the hospitality industry.
My mother had been encouraging but wary about my move to the Middle East for a job that promised to pay the bills but that took me away from her and my younger sister, Lucy. I couldn’t imagine telling them back home that I’d lost my job and the remittances everyone so depended on were coming to an end.
The telex machine began to disgorge a ream of names and dates. Since the events in Kuwait, there were more cancellations than reservations. Tourists were emptying out of our hotels, reworking their vacation packages to avoid the Middle East. Our tour guides, Hanna and Jette, traipsed into the office after a day out with our few remaining guests. They spoke six languages between them, which serviced a large swath of Western European countries.
Simon replaced the receiver and massaged his temples. “You’ve made a right hash of it. What’s the matter with you?”
I was squinting, trying to squeeze out a few tears. Crying was a fallback for Grace and had gotten her out of Simon’s office relatively unscathed for her snafus. But I’d never found it easy to summon the waterworks. Fear and even sadness had the opposite effect, and instead seemed to harden the blood in my veins. I could beg. I could plead. I would happily lie and blame someone else in the office if that was an option. But crying, not so much.
I stared pitifully at Simon, hoping to mind-meld him into mercy, hoping my sighs conveyed my deepest regret, not only for the morning’s lamentable incident with the Sheikh but in large part for the trouble Saddam Hussein was causing everyone. In such uncertain times, I shouldn’t have placed my job in jeopardy, especially by mishandling a VIP like the Sheikh.
The points in my favor were few but worth considering. I still handled a good roster of tour companies, and the current hiring freeze by Discover Arabia’s owner precluded anyone from coming in to replace me. And who else but me knew what kind of tea Simon preferred? Who else would pick up his dry cleaning?
I made myself available to Simon twenty-four hours a day, for official and unofficial work. I did whatever he ordered or demanded if it ensured my job security.
Which was why I was aware that Simon abhorred conflict, aggravation, tough decisions, and drastic actions.
“I owe you,” I said before Simon uttered anything he couldn’t take back. “I’ll go to the airport right now and get them on the next flight to London.”
“We already got them on another flight,” he said. “You’ll have to apologize when they return.”
“I will. I will,” I promised.
I made some quick mental calculations. The dent in this month’s paycheck, which Simon would certainly levy, would compound my state of being broke by one hundred percent.
“Go on, then,” he said, dismissing me.
I’d been motionless for the last half hour, and a surge of pins and needles sent a painful shock to my numbed legs as I peeled my backside off the chair. Just before I reached the door, I felt a sharp ping off my shoulder blade. Simon’s pen fell to the floor by my shoes.
Fucking Simon. He never missed.
The month of August ended, as did Simon’s hopes for a quick and clean end to the chaos caused by Saddam Hussein’s invasion, so more and more he sought comfort in the dim lights, the sturdy oak bar, and the numerous pints of ale available at the Red Lion Pub. The place reminded him of home, of England. He gathered the customer service reps around him after work like his own war council, assessing the dregs of another day spent trying to convince fellow tour operators from Brussels to Milan not to break up with us. Immediate reservations had taken a massive dive. If there was no happy solution to the invasion soon, Simon feared for our busiest time of the year, Christmas. We converged at the pub, still in our beige and navy-blue uniforms except for Simon, who mostly wore casual trousers and buttoned shirts.
“Saddam Hussein has redrawn the maps, erased Kuwait from the face of the earth.” Simon snorted. “It’s fucking mental is what it is. And he’s gone and flipped off the United States.” He rattled off a series of “fucks” into his pint.
Any other time, we would’ve immediately hushed him. If anyone overheard and reported the swearing to the police, he would face a fine and incarceration. But today the preoccupied patrons at the Red Lion couldn’t give much of a fuck themselves.
Saddam Hussein had decreed Kuwait to be Iraq’s nineteenth province and installed his cousin as the new governor. “Chemical Ali’s in charge there now,” Simon said, as Grace shuddered and crossed herself. “Chemical Ali” Hassan al-Majid had indiscriminately sprayed sarin and mustard gases over Kurdish villages in northern Iraq, massacring thousands, his squads exterminating whoever remained, whether rebel separatists or civilian men, women, and children. And he was just the sidekick. What about the dictator himself?
Still, sitting next to Grace and surrounded by my other colleagues grimly sipping their beers, I wished they’d all calm the hell down. Between Iraq and Dubai was a Saudi Arabian expanse of desert. It would take Saddam Hussein a good while to reach us. He could launch one of his Soviet Scud missiles at us—that was a more likely scenario. But so far all he had done was ignore calls for a withdrawal and invite other Islamic nations to join him in his jihad against the United States.
We were all well into our twenties, originating mostly from different areas off India’s coasts—Bombay, Goa, Mangalore, Cochin. Our fathers’ occupations, however varied they might have been, from two-bit farmer to shopkeeper to bank employee to small-time businessman, all carried the same implicit caveat: that we’d contribute to our family’s finances when we came of age. We might have met at an office or socialized at church in one of those many towns, but instead we shared our exiles in this city of human odds and ends.
Everyone was speaking about “the events,” but what I wanted to ask was how these events would affect me. I had obligations to my family. While the residents of the city were overrunning the banks converting dirhams to US dollars, I didn’t have enough in my bank account to change into any useful currency. Though not everyone was in the same dire straits, I couldn’t be the only one alarmed over what would happen if our jobs disappeared because of the invasion. Anyhow, I had the sneaking suspicion that their increasingly loud and indignant talk about Saddam Hussein’s incursions served to cover up their own anxieties.
Cedric, who was the oldest among us and had served the longest with the company, was telling of an airline steward friend of his taking off from Kuwait City just as Iraqi soldiers in tanks rumbled onto the tarmac. From the plane’s window he watched them tie the limbs of an airport worker to two cars and drive off in opposite directions.
As an Egyptian whose family was actually based in Dubai, Amir was the closest we had to an insider. Lifting his glass of orange juice to his lips and half closing his hauntingly dark eyes, the pub’s lighting playing up his sharp cheekbones and the shadows of his tawny Mediterranean skin, he declared Saddam Hussein’s actions “against the tenets of the faith of Islam.”
Amir was an upstanding guy, affable but not irritatingly so. I had tried more than once to set him up with Grace, but she refused to get involved with a coworker and couldn’t see past their cultural differences. I knew if Grace showed any signs of being amiable, Amir would happily overlook the whole Muslim-Christian thing, let alone their work situation. He mostly hung out with Uday, a slender man whose ready smile made his thin mustache flare at the ends, who agreeably laughed at our jokes.
“Saddam now controls Kuwait’s oil reserves along with his own. That’s almost twenty percent of the world’s oil. If he can get Saudi’s oil too, he’ll be unstoppable. He’s not going to let that chance go. And what’ll this cream puff do about Saddam Hussein?” Simon said, pounding his empty beer mug on an old Newsweek magazine that had been dredged up and circulated among us. The cover had George H. W. Bush in a yellow slicker at the helm of a motorboat with the title “Fighting the ‘Wimp Factor.’” “Even his own people don’t believe he can do anything.”
“Let’s talk about something else,” I broke in.
“Iraq has the fifth-largest army in the world,” Cedric informed us, as if he’d recruited each and every Iraqi soldier. “And Saddam’s rounding up all the foreign nationals. He’s going to use them as bargaining chips.”
From where I sat, Cedric really needed to shut the hell up. He was throwing everyone into a frenzy with his inflammatory news bulletins.
“Saddam Hussein isn’t knocking on our doors yet,” I snapped. “You all are acting like he’s going to be here tomorrow.”
It was like I hadn’t spoken. Only Grace responded softly in my ear. “The news is bad, but I know it doesn’t compare to what’s going on with Lucy.” I stiffened when she mentioned my sister, the babble at the table fading away. “I still can’t believe it,” Grace was saying. “You hear about people suddenly getting sick like that, with—” She wanted to say “cancer” but stumbled on the word, and I allowed it to hang there between us. “We can leave now if you want. We can go call your mother.”
Calls to my mother were not what I’d choose to soothe my turbulent feelings. She was a tempest of problems and complaints, and even from afar, I was expected to help her with ideas on how to deal with an interfering aunt or provide solutions to mundane household matters. But my most recent conversation with my mother had been like nothing before. She’d been incoherent one moment and cold and clear the next. “What should I do?” she asked me again and again about Lucy as I tried to absorb what she was telling me.
“Don’t say you’re fine,” Grace whispered just as I was about to say exactly that. “For something as awful as this, you don’t have to pretend.”
Grace was waiting for me to lose it.
“First the invasion, and now this news,” she lamented, ready at all times to offer comfort and compassion when it finally dawned on me that I’d been dealt a blow that should have me raging at the unfairness or crumpled in a corner drinking a liter of whiskey. For one, Grace should know I never cried. Lucy and I were never allowed tears. Our father said tears gave the wrong impression to the world about our family, as they signaled a deficiency of character and he couldn’t abide that. And two, how would tears help? They wouldn’t change anything for Lucy.
“The guys just need to take a deep breath. They’re taking Iraq’s activities too personally,” I said. “Some of us have bigger problems.”
This whole conversation about the dictator and the wimp was a waste of time.
“And you take a deep breath too. We’ll get through this.” Grace squeezed my hand and turned back to the conversation around the table.
“Bush will lose his next election if he can’t secure the oil, and he’s not going to allow that to happen,” Rohit said. “Bush and Thatcher—they’ll meet, they’ll make love, and they’ll jam a Scud up Saddam’s ass.”
Rohit was an optimistic kind of fellow, a clean-cut Punjabi boy whose brash north Indian way of speaking often made Grace roll her eyes and tell him to shut up. Which she did now.
“Shut up and be serious,” she said.
“Why?” Rohit asked. “We’re screwed either way.”
From Hope You Are Satisfied by Tania Malik. Used with permission of the publisher, Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2023 by Tania Malik.
Tania Malik is the author of the novels Hope You Are Satisfied and Three Bargains. She was educated in boarding schools in the foothills of the Himalayas and has had a varied career in the travel and non-profit fields. She was raised in India, Africa, and the Middle East and currently lives in San Francisco's Bay Area. She can be found at www.taniamalik.com.