St. George and the Saracen
"Ten Euros to Pyla." The three-hundred pound, cantankerous proprietor of St. George's Taxi Service uttered not another word once installed behind the wheel of the sleek Mercedes sedan to dispatch him back to The Sandy Beach Hotel that overlooked a sea village ten minutes away. Within seconds, they pulled away from the jerry-built shack, mere steps from the sentry box at the entrance to the British Forces Base at Dhekelia.
Since immigrating to Calgary, Canada, he could no longer accustom himself to the British tradition of driving on the left side of the road. It had its compensation, though. In this instance, it brought him ever closer to the sea and beach that ran beside him all the way "home" to Pyla. On his right stood sun-browned rolling hills, bereft of grass or any other vegetation. The scorching sun, overwhelming in its intensity on this late Sunday afternoon, had him sweating profusely, despite the intermittent breeze from the car's air conditioner.
Beyond the purple bougainvillea, the sheltering trees and the barbed wire gate of Dhekelia, the CTO (Cyprus Tourist Organisation) public beaches sprawled alongside the whole stretch of southern Greek Cyprus. Today, what the tourists had shunned — barricading themselves in their hotels to sip and nibble beside their palm-fringed pools (everything closed down on Sunday) — the locals embraced with abandon. A carnival atmosphere prevailed. Hordes of children chased down a football or competed for space to play badminton and volleyball. Elderly women gathered in circles, covered head to toe in long skirts, dark blouses and headscarves, chattering away; middle-aged women wore knee-length shorts or modest swimwear; only the youngest children were allowed the comfort of swimming trunks and bikinis. The men had sequestered the cooking equipment and stood readying the food, talking quietly to each other while smoking or drawing pipes in and out of their mouths to emphasize their conversation. As he lowered his window a little, the aroma of barbecued chicken and fish wafted in to tantalize him.
Well-trod footpaths dividing the road from the beach had been taken over by the vendors of ubiquitous fresh cut slices of watermelon, which they handed out from blue and white plastic coolers filled with ice, along with cold drinks, at a fraction of what the shops charged. Smiles and waves beckoned him to join them, the same way uncles had smiled and waved him to join their scratch cricket teams on the baking hot Sunday afternoons he'd spent on Kunduchi Beach as a child a dozen miles south of Dar-es-Salaam on the coast of East Africa.
Unlike here on Dhekelia Road on a Sunday, where the locals dominated the beaches, there had been no sign of local Africans on Kunduchi Beach, save as accompanying servants or village urchins peering from behind sand dunes to watch the muindi cavorting in the sun.
"Ten Euros to Pyla."
Beyond this curt demand, the Saint parried away all his attempts at conversation in total silence.
He smiled to himself. Little did St. George know he had a twin brother of the same build, weaving a battered white Toyota Corolla taxi in and out of the maze of streets and alleys of Muscat, the capital of Oman, perched on the Straits of Hormuz just across the water from Iran.
A week in glittery, glitzy Dubai had left him overwhelmed. He longed for the traditional way of life practised by his Arab forebears. He had flown in from Seattle on a thirteen-hour direct flight to the newly minted Emirates terminal. And he had expected the new billion dollar edifice to be as efficient as the terminal in Hong Kong, where it would take him 20 minutes from leaving the airplane to hitting the high speed Maglev train to Central station. Here, he had to take a ten-minute "people mover" — an underground train. On disembarking, there was another 20 minutes of meandering through an empty hundred-foot-high glass concourse with pink marble flooring, only there, it seemed, to impress. It could easily have doubled as a palace or a grand mosque. At its end, three immigration officers emerged to serve three hundred passengers. Once he'd retrieved his luggage, a chauffeur driven limousine took him to his hotel.
The Madinat Mina A'Salam was a billion dollar resort in the playboy billionaire district of Jumeirah Beach. Resembling an ancient Arab estate, it had its own canal system to transport its guests by mini-dhows. Beside it, across a causeway, stood the world's first 7-star hotel — the Burj Al Arab, its white canvas-like exterior the shape of a sail on a dhow or yacht. The lighting on the Burj changed colour every five minutes in the evening, and throughout the night radiated soft hues of green, powder blue or lilac.
Sheik Zayed Road, the strip of six-lane highway on the edge of the Arabian Gulf traversing Dubai was deemed to have the greatest number of skyscrapers per kilometre in the world. The buildings came in every size and shape, from needle-like structures of jet black graphite pencils to rotund, short bodies of shimmering multi-coloured glass seated like bejewelled dowagers awaiting their audience. Fifteen feet above the median, as if floating in the air, ran a rapid transit rail. All the stuff of Star Wars.
One Sunday, he sat having brunch with an Emirati friend at the Atlantis, its two-storey aquarium "nurturing a thousand species" and, like most things in Dubai, the largest in the world. At naively expressing his disappointment at not experiencing the "real" Arabia, his friend threw up his hands in exasperation.
"Will you never appreciate the vision, pain and courage that have lifted us from lice-infested nomads to this, the envy of the world?”
The Emirati gave him the look of a wise father to an errant son. "If you must see what we were like, go east, young man. To Oman. There you will find the romanticism you yearn for. But you will be sorely disappointed."
"As for me," his Arab friend continued, "leave me my aquarium to marvel at and my beautiful six-lane highway that I really don't need. To you, I donate all my camels and sand, my seven wives and fifty children," he added jokingly.
So, he went to Oman.
Two surprises greeted him at the Al Bustan Palace Hotel in Muscat.
Firstly, there were no female receptionists. Dubai had prided itself on its female workforce, all be it imported from abroad. Its receptionists were a wonder to behold — freshly mascaraed, ruby lipped blondes from Eastern Russia or Ukraine; they were a sight for sore eyes, welcoming their flight weary guests with flirtatious smiles.
Instead, he was met with a wall of faceless men behind the reception desk, all in traditional Arab attire, each vying to look identically like the other.
The second surprise, after giving Ali, the manager, his passport was "Jambo na Habari."
"Hullo and how are you in Swahili, sir." Behind the traditional thobe (an ankle length, long sleeved garment of white gossamer) came an accent of pure Eton educated, privileged class.
"How did you know I spoke Swahili?" he asked in bewilderment.
"Your passport tells me you were born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. I assumed…"
While this was going on, each member of staff was executing his assigned duty with practised precision. One had checked his reservation online. Another had already signalled to the porter and announced his room to him.
"OK, but where did you pick up Swahili?"
"I've just returned from Zanzibar after two years. We own a resort there." The man spoke as though his family owned this palace of a hotel and much more. "Our history with Tanzania goes back centuries."
In 1698, the Omanis, intrepid seamen and fierce warriors, captured the sleepy island of Zanzibar. For the next two hundred years, the island became a staging post for a thriving empire fuelled by trade in slaves, ivory and spices. So important was this trade to the Omanis that, in 1840, its sultan actually moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar. The island and Dar-es-Salaam, its counterpart on the mainland of East Africa, also established by Sultan Qaboos, were now a part of Tanzania.
“The Omanis trade with the Zanzibaris to this day," Ali concluded. "You will find your sea view room on the sixth floor. Breakfast starts at 6:30 a.m. in the restaurant on the lower floor overlooking the pool. Is there anything else we can do for you?"
"Thank you, Ali. What I'd really like is to rent a taxi for the day."
"Where were you thinking of going, sir? We are a humble nation. We don't have the malls and resorts that Dubai has. Unless you wish to go hiking or dhow sailing, you can most probably see Muscat in an hour. There are interesting forts and villages on the way south, if you prefer. I could get you a Land Rover tour of the desert, if you wish? We’ve received nothing but compliments from our guests." He picked up the phone, presumably to dial the tour operator.
"Thank you Ali, but no. Just a local taxi will do. I'm not sure what I want to do, but I really don't want to spend time with a group of people." What he really wanted to do was explore where the locals lived and shopped and ate.
A few phone calls later, Ali came back to him. “A taxi is not a problem; it will be here shortly. But they have no English speaking drivers." Ali gestured for him to follow. Outside, he almost changed his mind. At the curb stood a mud caked white Toyota Corolla that looked as if it had barely survived an earthquake. When he was introduced to its driver, he had a sudden urge to turn and head straight back to Dubai and the Atlantis.
As forewarned, the driver couldn't speak English. A twin of his brother-in-arms at Dhekelia, he too frowned and gestured. What he communicated with a raised eyebrow, however, more than compensated for his lack of tongue.
A fee was agreed upon, but as he reached to open the front passenger door to sit beside the driver, all hell broke loose. He was virtually manhandled into the back seat. A broken-toothed smile appeared on the driver's face, if only for a moment.
"Sir, you are our important guest," Ali explained. "Hakim, will be shamed if you sit beside him. People will think you don't trust his driving." There was no answer to that.
They zoomed out of the driveway, with him clutching a book-marked guide in one hand and a phrase book in the other. Surreptitiously, he eyed his chauffeur through the rear-view mirror. Hakim's smile disappeared in a blink, swallowed, as it were, by his too-wide body and flowing Arab garb that covered him head to toe. The only thing he could see was the driver's swarthy face, what little was exposed. Beneath the red and white checked headdress, dark bushy eyebrows and a dark but greying beard covered three quarters of his face. Heavy dark sunglasses hid the remainder of his humanity. The only thing missing was a Kalashnikov, ready and waiting on the seat beside him. Arab pop music blared from the car's speakers at the highest volume possible, driving him near crazy. The windows were all rolled open, and sand drier than dust infiltrated every crevice of his body. The air conditioning had packed up.
All day, he was driven from one site to another. Every time, there was a tussle between where he wanted to go and where Hakim wanted to lead him. The Corolla kept veering left and right as each contender finger-pointed to pages in the guide book. The driver just didn't seem to understand that he actually wanted to visit the smelly fish market and the dirt ridden Muttrah Souk, that he'd seen enough of modern, air conditioned malls like Muscat Grand or Qurm city — Muscat's latest gem, according to his handbook — which the Saracen particularly wanted to show him. When he refused, Hakim's consternation was palpable; his passenger's desire for an authentic experience seemed to confuse and disturb the driver greatly.
After a great deal of persuasion, he convinced Hakim to take him to the National Museum of Oman. He instantly fell in love with the eight-year old school children there on a field trip, full of laughter and mischief, in immaculate dark blue and starched white uniforms, their skin the colour of milk chocolate, their doe-like brown eyes huge and round with wonder. They were led by women teachers, covered from head to foot in black abayas with full head and face covering, save for their obsidian eyes, so diligently serious, as their charges raced from one room to the other. The women shared a knowing look and simply threw their hands in the air. Outside the museum, the driver snored in the back of his Toyota, under a tree with the car doors open to capture any hint of a breeze, as he did at each destination.
On the road again, he asked Hakim in mangled, phrase-book Arabic to take him to a local eatery. Hakim put his foot down, folding his arms horizontally and unlocking them sideways, like karate chops. He would only take his passenger to Western cafes or hotels to eat. And when invited to eat with him, again in extraordinary Arabic pronunciation, Hakim mustered the entire battery of words he had learnt in a lifetime to respond in an equally hideous accent, this time in English, "No! Me driver, NOT Sheik." He had been completely insulted.
Ultimately, the driver took him everywhere he wanted to go, and it was all fine, until they returned to the Al Bustan, where he tried to hand Hakim the agreed fare. Hakim refused with a roaring "No!" that let out all his frustration and disappointment at this unyielding and incorrigible passenger.
The passenger, meanwhile, couldn't understand the angry refusal. Was the driver now trying to gouge him for more money? No way was he going to pay more than they'd agreed upon. After all, instead of travelling all day, they had visited a mere handful of places, and Hakim had spent most of his day snoozing in the back of his car. Never at ease with the sour, darkly menacing Arab, he panicked and rushed up the front steps to the lobby, shouting for Ali.
Ali also seemed to panic, as if fearing the worse had happened to his esteemed guest. He listened intently, then dashed down the steps to the curb. Outside the hotel now, a flurry of raised voices and then peace, followed by a benign smile from Ali and, finally, an explanation.
"Sir, of course the driver has refused the payment."
"You agreed to go to many places, but Hakim tells me you only went to half of them, preferring to go to museums and spend time on your own."
"Yes, that's so, but why would that entitle him to more money? We spent the same number of hours as agreed."
A smile beamed across Ali's face." But that is exactly the point, sir. Under the changed circumstances, he cannot accept the agreed fee. It is unfair and not in accordance with his religious principles."
"Ali, just tell me what he wants." Frustration was getting the better of him and his anger rose.
"Half of the fare agreed on."
"According to him, he cannot take advantage of an honoured guest who was recommended to him by us."
The fee was duly cut in half and they parted as pleasantly as the driver would allow. He dared not attempt to shake Hakim's hand.
During his short but memorable stay at the Al Bustan, he was treated like family, just as he was treated by the village ladies who cleaned his room at The Sandy Beach Hotel in Pyla, where he was now staying for the summer.
The following December, back in Calgary, the Al Bustan all but forgotten, a card arrived from Muscat bearing "Season's greetings from Ali and the staff." Each had signed the card with a personal message. The Saracens had sent him a Christmas card.
St. George was still pouting. When he looked at him, again through the rear-view mirror, the Saint reminded him of the Saracen. As he gazed out at the revellers on the CTO beach, he was transported to a beach in Africa, where a native boy peered at him from behind a sand dune, much as he had spent his life peering at the alien world around him, trying in vain to understand it, to make it more manageable.
And so he oscillated between the past and the present — the past so dangerously more real.
"Sandy Beach Hotel!" St. George's voice pierced his reverie, yanking him back to the here and now.
Emil began writing St. George and the Saracen in 2014 on the death of his Indian father, the latest of many voices cut off by death in old age that had guided him and their community at large. The loss of these voices and the destruction of their community impelled him to preserve their wisdom for future generations, including his two teenage sons.