THE STRANGERS OF DUBAI
by Victoria Kelly
The war seemed so far away from the hot,
dusty room inside the gold market. Outside, in the
street, clusters of robed women huddled like
pigeons, and you couldn’t tell who was Western
and who was Eastern beneath the fabric, and who
was slim or rich or beautiful or only wishing for it.
The shopkeepers stood at attention in the
doorways, like butlers, and tried to find the faces
of the Indian brides, whose mothers cooed over
wedding sets studded with emeralds.
My husband was happiest that weekend floating in
the hotel pool, watched by waiters who hovered
with cold towels and glided back and forth to a bar
stocked with date juice. It was nothing like the
ship, the too-narrow staterooms and the toilets
that wouldn’t flush, the jets pounding the decks
and the way you sometimes in the red-lit
darkness couldn’t tell whether it was day or night
or how far away the war was. But in the hotel
there were marble baths and blue carpets and the
hall lights and air conditioning stayed on all night.
In the market we quickly discovered that gold was
expensive wherever we went, and we wandered
into a side-street shop to buy cheaper souvenirs
instead. Two shopkeepers, dressed in white, stood
side by side with their hands clasped behind their
backs. I pointed to a wall of silk pashminas. “How
One of the men stepped forward. He was younger
than the other but I guessed that the older one did
not know English. “Three hundred dirham,” he
said. Thirty dollars.
My husband shook his head and laughed a little.
“One hundred,” he countered.
The younger one looked at the older man and said
something I couldn’t understand. The older man
nodded almost imperceptibly, and I saw my
husband wince. He reached out and put his arm
firmly around my waist.
The older man shuffled into the back while the
younger watched us, amused. “You are
American?” he asked.
We were stationed in Virginia at the time and
living in a white stucco townhouse by the beach.
But my husband, holding me by the waist, smiled
as if he didn’t understand.
The man smiled back at us, a tight-lipped smile,
as if we were all playing the same game. He was
young, no more than twenty-five. “I am Afghan,”
he said, still smiling, and I understood that my
husband had already known this, that he had
recognized in the men’s speech words he had
heard before. But before any of us could speak
again the pashminas were brought in. They were
wrapped in cellophane, and inside, the fabrics
were as delicate as stockings and brightly colored,
My husband took out his credit card.
“No card,” the young man said. “Dirham.”
“We don’t have it.”
“We take you to cash machine.”
My husband hesitated. He had spent weeks on the
ground with men just like these, who smiled at
him but shot rockets over the wall of the
compound at night. And none of us knew now in
this neutral desert whether we were friends or
enemies or what the others had or had not done.
The men pushed the pashminas into a plastic bag
and led us out of the shop and down the street
into a private courtyard, where groups of more
white-smocked men stood around smoking.
The younger shopkeeper gestured to an ATM
pushed against the wall of a shuttered bank. “Here
is cash,” he said, then stuck out his chin when my
husband didn’t move. “You get cash,” he said
again, forcefully this time. He edged us both
forward and I could smell the dry sootiness of his
breath on my neck. My husband opened his wallet
and the other shopkeeper pushed forward as well,
so that all four of us were pressed together in
front of the machine. I couldn’t bring myself to
breathe and I wished I had not made us leave the
But when I followed my husband’s gaze, I saw
that our shopkeepers were not looking at us. They
were watching the smoking men, who were
eyeing us eagerly. It only then occurred to me
that our shopkeepers had formed a wall behind us
so that these men could not accost us.
When the cash slid out of the machine, the older
man put out his hand. He took the money and put
it in his pocket and held out his hand again. When
my husband put out his hand as well, I understood
that it was not more money that was being asked
They grasped each other’s palms.
“This good buy,” the younger man translated,
gesturing toward the pashminas.
“Yes.” My husband repeated. “It’s good bye.”
Victoria Kelly received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’
Workshop. Her stories have been published in Colorado Review,
Fiction, Alaska Quarterly Review and The Idaho Review, among
others. She lives in Virginia Beach.