It’s still dark when the muezzin calls for Fajr, the first prayer of the day. I’ve already been awake for a couple of hours: lying in bed, not thinking, not trying not to think, just taking in the predawn sounds of this utterly foreign city, Doha, the capital of Qatar. Our house faces Al Shamal Road, a long highway that snakes across the country from the northern coastline to the southern border with Saudi Arabia. Right at this moment I imagine all the Muslims in Qatar looking west toward Mecca, their eyes closed, their bodies prostrated in full surrender, their hearts bursting with devotion. I want to be a part of something like that. I don’t want to feel alone.
The sun is not out yet, but it’s already hot. Beads of sweat form between my breasts. I press my hands against the cheap cotton bedsheet and sink my head into the unfamiliar pillow, feeling miles away from my husband lying next to me, feeling removed from everything I know, from everyone I love. Outside, tires screech, motorcycles race, our neighbor’s bulldog barks — the cacophony of life in this city that has lodged itself in my throat like a splinter.
My husband of sixteen years and I were the last ones to arrive at this compound where the Qatari government was already housing twenty-seven other families from the UK, South Africa, Spain, and Australia. We are the only couple traveling from the U.S., but it makes no difference. We all are expatriates here, having made a trade-off: three years of our lives in exchange for a hefty, tax-free salary.
Coming to Qatar was an easy decision to make. My husband and I had freelance jobs, a high mortgage payment, financial uncertainty. Sometimes I sold a story, sometimes he had a short-term contract, but other times we had neither. We’re in our midforties and fifties, and our move to Qatar would ease our worries about reaching retirement age broke.
Two days after we got here, my husband started work as a helicopter pilot at the American military base, and the hollowness of this spacious, recently remodeled house began to sit heavy on my shoulders. Today I look out the window: all the husbands have gone to work, and some of the wives are getting ready to head for the shopping malls, or cake-decorating classes, or yoga at the Ritz. A few came over a couple of days ago to invite me to a ladies’ morning club, but I politely declined. This is not me. This is not what I want. I’m both here in this treeless land and there in lush Florida, but mostly there. My mind still occupies Florida time and space. I want to pet Honey, our eleven-year-old mutt who couldn’t come with us to Qatar and is staying at my daughter’s house in California; to step onto our balcony overlooking a small lake; to feed our neighbor’s horses carrots and lumps of sugar; to marvel at the sight of otters playing in our backyard and kingfishers flying away with silvery fish flapping at their beaks; to sit in my writing office by the water, that breezy basement room that was mine alone, where words seemed to flow out of me effortlessly.
I blame my mood on the flights from Tampa to Doha — 7,500 miles in less than two days — the sterility of this empty house, the new neighbors, the eight-hour time difference. When that doesn’t work, I blame it on my age. It’s premenopause, my hormones clumsily trying to reprogram my neural synapses.
Because being a writer gives me mobility, I have lived on three continents. My thirst for travel seemed unquenchable until this latest move. I realize now that my attachment to my house in Florida — the only place I have truly called home other than my mother’s house — is umbilical. I miss its fireplace, every inch of the handrail going up the staircase, every hole left by a nail in its walls. This move to Qatar has proven to me that I can’t live with my body in one place and my heart somewhere else.
I’ve even been in this part of the world before — in Kuwait in the nineties. But the Middle East now is more Westernized, more accessible, and therefore less innocent. Qatar is the new rich kid on the block, flashing his bling, buying the other kids’ friendship with expensive toys and extravagant outings. I am less intrigued by it, less tolerant, more suspicious of this generation driving through life in shiny Ferraris.
The kamikaze drivers here make me never want to get behind the wheel again. I live in a house whose expanse is accusatory — so big for just the two of us — a house I know will never become home to me. This is a country where I’m treated as a child; where, according to the law, I need my husband’s permission to have a driver’s license or a gynecological examination. This is a place where waiters ask my husband how his food is, but they don’t ask me. I’m his shadow here, and at forty-seven I feel too old, too tired to fight for the respect I already earned in my twenties and thirties. Days pass before I exchange a word with anyone other than my husband, who’s been in a bad mood thanks to my inability to adjust and smile. This is a country where nothing is final, no neighborhood is finished, no road is completed; a dusty country where everything is under construction; a country on a mad race to reinvent itself, frantically building the infrastructure needed to host the 2022 World Cup and earn a place at the global table. That’s at least one thing Qatar and I have in common: we are both desperate for acknowledgment.
The muezzin’s voice announces the sunrise, which marks the end of the morning prayer period. It’s 6:06 AM. I’m a student of Buddhism, but I don’t want to meditate this morning; I want to pray. Hard. On a rigid schedule, as Muslims do. I didn’t get up at the impossibly early first call, but now the natural light makes me more receptive to spiritual experiments. I stand by my desk and face west, looking not to Mecca but to my home in Florida. I raise both hands close to my ears and say, “God is great,” in English, Spanish, French, and Arabic, as if on a quest to find the right linguistic connection to the divine. I’m not sure how to follow through on this made-up declaration of faith. I look out the window. The sun is crowning the little mosque in our housing complex. For a moment the cement crescent atop the mosque and the sun fall into perfect alignment. I interpret this as a sign that the light will soon come back into my life. And so, my hands still beside my ears, my chest bursting with anticipation, I wait for this to happen.
Some people are prone to public tears. I am not one of them. To me crying and getting drunk fall into the same category: things not to be done in public. Crying is a private act, a grueling exercise that requires me to fold into myself with the cause of my suffering piercing my core. My face contorts into a warped version of itself that I don’t want anyone to see. Then, of course, there is the aftermath: the red nose, the puffy eyes, the feverish chill that invariably comes after a good cry, the feeling that I’m physically ill.
But Qatar has caused me to violate my rule. At the flea market today my husband and I stumbled upon some puppies for sale, and I petted one. I buried my fingertips in his fur and massaged the knobs of his spine. His hind legs buckled with joy, and he gave my hand grateful licks. And this moment of understanding between this small creature and me made me weep — in public. My reaction was so out of character that my husband stood there helpless, as if he were watching a complete stranger break down in the middle of a busy market. He is handsome, vibrant, witty; he doesn’t overthink or dwell on what-ifs or should-have-dones. Nothing keeps him awake at night. He loves his new job and is rapidly becoming acclimated to life in Doha. And the realization that I’m lagging behind him, that I’ve lost the elasticity required to adapt to foreign environments, that I can’t share his excitement about life in Qatar, made me cry harder.
As we walked across the dusty market parking lot, a gust of wind lifted my hair, blowing away a little clip I had borrowed from a friend in Florida and had forgotten to give back. By the time we got into the car, I was crying uncontrollably and clutching my loose hair. I wasn’t crying because I felt homeless and isolated, or because of the widening abyss between my husband and me, or because I hadn’t been able to write anything worth keeping in weeks. I was crying for the manageable thing: the loss of that hair clip and the sand sticking to the sunscreen on my face.
I like transforming discarded objects into home decorations. A piece of cloth becomes wall art; an old ladder turns into a bookshelf. In the U.S. it’s common to make home improvements yourself, thanks to the high cost of labor. Qatar has no do-it-yourself mentality. This is a someone-does-it-for-you culture. The reliance on cheap labor and the lack of stores like Home Depot have made it impossible for me to redecorate. One day I spot a few two-by-fours abandoned on a nearby construction site, and out of habit I make a mental list of the tools I need to transform them: a hammer, nails, sandpaper, a power drill, glue, paint, and brushes. But the two-by-fours are dry and splintered; the desert sun has rendered them unusable. I decide to paint the walls instead. Although we are not allowed to remodel the houses, I think I can get away with a splash of color, some red and blue and yellow to inject life into this place. I start a new list: primer, brushes, paint. What I really need is my sisters, my dog, my daughter’s smile. I need more than tools to transform my surroundings.
Tonight in bed I pay scrupulous attention to the distance between my husband’s body and mine. His elbow rests a mere foot from my head: the closest he has been to me in weeks. I turn on my side, facing the window that overlooks Al Shamal Road. The floodlights from the construction site next door to the compound seep through the curtains, and I block their glare with the blanket. I cry silently. I can no longer attribute this heaviness to jet lag, to insomnia, to the move.
Then, just like that, the elbow becomes a hand touching me. The hand crawls over my belly, pulls me close, and I feel my husband’s hot breath on my neck. He kisses me tentatively, as if he were defusing a bomb with his lips, afraid of making the wrong move, of pushing me farther away. I have been craving his touch, the consideration he has always given to my body. His fingers do that little trot below my hipbones that never fails to set my desire ablaze, and my crying comes to a halt. He lifts my hair and licks the back of my neck, sending ripples down my spine. I loosen up. Remaining in that spooning position, I take off my panties and direct him inside me. But his desire, I sense, is merely carnal, and this gap I imagine between what he is feeling and what I am feeling distracts me. I count his ins and outs, wondering if the sight of his gloomy wife disgusts him, and that’s why he is having sex with me in the dark, from behind. My husband hastens his pace and asks if I am ready. I hurriedly refocus my thoughts. In my head, a train is approaching and I want to be on it. I need this desperately. A flock of birds swoops down into my belly. My loins quiver. I am almost there, almost.
The train passes, leaving me behind. I hear the whistle in the distance. My husband apologizes, assuming it was his fault, and he starts to go down on me, but I stop him. I don’t want a consolation prize.
Zuhr, the early-afternoon prayer, subdues the city noises outside the house. I stand up and face west, toward the crypt safeguarding my mother’s ashes on the other side of the Atlantic. I rest one hand on top of the other between my chest and stomach, and I start reciting bits of prayers I learned in Colombia as a girl. My stomach growls. I haven’t had breakfast, but the thought of eating alone takes away my appetite. It’s not the physical company of my husband I crave. His material presence alone is not enough. It’s the other kind of presence that I’m starving for. It’s the “I’ve got your back even when you are being impossible to decipher” presence. It’s the quiet talks couples have in bed, the loving gaze, the comforting kiss that doesn’t ask for anything in return, the hug that says, “You don’t have to be alone in that dark place.” It’s the voice at the door begging to be let in, to be with me under this weighty cloak of sadness.
Three Indian men knocked at my door today. In their limited English they identified themselves as “the plumber.” Which one was the plumber? I wondered. Or, if all of them were plumbers, why did a leak in the shower require three of them? I didn’t bother asking but just pointed the way to the bathroom and followed them, breathing in their body odors, which trailed behind them like a comet’s gaseous tail. It wasn’t only the smell of three sweaty male workers that hit me square in the face; it was the unique nature of their bodily secretions. Their sweat had a history. It told a story of migration, isolation, prejudice, hunger, and toil under the Qatari sun. It was acidic and pungent and ricocheted off the walls. It came out of their armpits, feet, genitals, groins — all the crevasses in the human body. It evoked algae dredged from the Indian Ocean; an Asian paste of garlic, onions, and curry; green mold crawling over a piece of Gouda. Their body odors had such presence, it felt as though they were a human entity, a fourth plumber come to fix the leak. After the men left, I could still smell them on my hair, my clothes, my reading glasses. Their lingering odor kept me company when the house grew quiet and I was alone again in this empty space that presses against me. The plumbers’ sweat, so heavy with humanity, made me feel less lonely.
I had been looking for an extra-large coffee mug ever since I’d arrived in Doha but had found only tiny Arab coffee cups, the type that makes me think of free tea samples at the mall. But yesterday I found the perfect mugs for sale. They had small impressions around their middles and faint gray designs, like a newspaper left out in the rain. I was so delighted, I wanted to tell someone. Calling my sister in Florida was out of the question: she was eight hours behind and would be in bed. In any case, what would I say to her? Hey, guess what. I bought coffee mugs.
This morning I unwrap the mugs and rinse them in the kitchen sink, fully aware of the pathetic amount of joy this brings me. But as soon as I pour hot water in one of them, the mug cracks like dry clay in a kiln.
My mother used to say that depression is not a real illness; that it’s something rich housewives invented back when men still called women “hysterical.” Depression, according to Mom, is a convenient fabrication, like PMS, an excuse to be horrible to our husbands, children, relatives, and friends. In my family we scoff at the word depression. There are no rich, hysterical women in my family. We are fighters, not whiners. When life gets tough, we punch the bitch in the face and show her who’s boss.
My husband is already home when the call for Asr, the late-afternoon prayer, permeates the compound. By the time he arrives, I’m feeling the exhaustion of not accomplishing anything, the weariness of incessant trying and failing: to pray, to write, to free myself from this darkness, to force my mouth into a smile so that my husband will look at me and believe he made the right decision sixteen years ago. The kettle hisses. While I brew his tea, I feel an urgent compulsion to turn around and tell him: I know you don’t know what to do with me or for me. Just be patient. What is going on has no name. This sadness is sharp and blinding and persistent and heavy. And because I have never felt it before, I don’t know what to do with it either. But here’s the thing: Yesterday, after you came home from work, you did the dishes and then the laundry. I looked for signs of resentment in your face and found none. You hummed quietly as you folded my jeans. That’s how you operate. You did the laundry — not because I hadn’t done it, but because it needed to be done. Life is simple mathematics for you. Two times two equals four. Always. But I don’t say any of this. Instead I leave his tea steeping on the table while I heed the Asr and run to the spot by my desk. I bow — hands on my knees, back straight, face toward the ground — and say three times, “Glory be to my Lord Almighty.” I conjure up the three Indian plumbers (none of whom was a plumber, I later found out), and together we surrender to the mysterious beyond.
Today I will sweep the house. Today I will clean the bathrooms, mop the floors, and dust the furniture. Today I will rid my life of specks of sand and impurities. Water will flow into basins, iridescent soapsuds will trap the dirt, the germ-free tub will shine, and afterward I’ll take an ablutionary bath.
I grab the broom and go straight to the master bedroom. I start in one corner and sweep in overlapping strokes toward the center of the room. The bristles find my hair (long, black, curly) and his (reddish, short, wavy). Also a nail clipping and the skin our bodies have shed, ghosts of our former selves. Humans slough off and regrow the outer layer of their skin about once every twenty-seven days. We’ve been in Qatar thirty-one days now. Our old epidermis is lying in the corners of the bedroom, around the edges of our closet, under the vanity. I sit on our bed and ponder whether I should finish sweeping up the old me. What if I don’t become someone else, someone new, someone worth staying with? What if I sweep away the woman I used to be and disappear for good?
I put the broom away.
The house remains unswept.
All the husbands in the compound are back from work, their identical SUVs parked in front of identical houses. The couple next door is young and affectionate. I want to merge with them, place my hand between their hands, lock arms with the husband, do that obnoxious nose rub they do every few minutes, let his tongue into my mouth so that he can kiss her through me. It’s almost time for Maghrib, the fourth prayer of the day. What are these other husbands and wives doing? They are not arguing about money; that’s not an issue for Western expats in Qatar. They are not quarreling about dirty socks on the floor or hairs on the sink; they all have Filipina maids to smooth the wrinkles of domestic life. They are not disagreeing on remodeling projects, the unappealing wallpaper, the chandelier hanging too low over the dinner table; we are all tenants and don’t own the spaces we inhabit.
Sex. That’s where I imagine their minds and bodies are. Their children are riding bikes in front of our house and playing with the kittens. Their homes are quiet, dark, intimate. They look out their windows to make sure the kids will be busy for the next few minutes. They undress each other behind a closed door. Tongues twirl, nipples bounce, fingers explore and flick and enter. The men’s bodies harden quickly, like starched clothes; the women’s bodies bend and drip, like freshly washed garments on the line. There are slurping sounds, sucking sounds, oohs and aahs and yeses. There are groins that shiver and spasm and spurt. My neighbors have sex. They make love. They fuck.
This morning I ask my husband to carpool with one of the other twenty-seven men in the compound so that I can get out of the house. We are not done with the paperwork required to get me a driver’s license, but I can’t stand the solitude any longer and have decided to drive with my international permit — which technically isn’t valid in Qatar, but I’m feeling pretty fearless. I learned to drive in South America and drove for four years in Kuwait; Qatar can’t possibly be any worse than that.
But it is. At first the midmorning traffic is manageable. I blast the air-conditioning to combat the hundred-degree heat and drive confidently past the LuLu Hypermarket (a grocery for the wealthy) and the Landmark (a grocery for the wealthier); past a chain of tailoring shops; past a group of Sri Lankan migrant workers finding shade under a tree; past Al Gharafa Stadium; past a dusty construction site and through an even dustier intersection; past a blocked road, a demolished building, and a succession of sand-colored mosques. It’s hard to tell whether Doha is under construction or being demolished. It’s all just debris, cranes, and workers in overalls and helmets.
Then I cross paths with two speeding Toyota Land Cruisers. Next to them, our puny Mitsubishi Galant is like a bread crumb. The two Qatari drivers zoom by in their matching SUVs as if I didn’t exist. I catch up with them at a traffic light, where they check their appearances in their rearview mirrors, adjusting their ghutras — the headdress worn by most Arab men. They rev their engines, making me think of silverback gorillas beating their chests.
When the light changes, the drivers speed off the line, leaving behind a blinding cloud of sand. Easy does it, I tell myself as I approach the first roundabout. Then I’m sandwiched between the two Land Cruisers again, and the gap dividing the cars seems to narrow as I enter the circular intersection. I hold my breath and brace for the inevitable crash, the shriek of metal against metal. The voice of the GPS tells me to take the second exit. But how can I take an exit with these SUVs flanking me, weaving in and out of my lane, and not once indicating if or in which direction they’re turning?
I miss my exit and end up going around the circle a second time, red faced and bothered. I’m getting tired of being bullied by other drivers. A bus transporting construction workers gets on my tail, and someone else flashes his lights at me. I’m so overwhelmed that when the other drivers blow their horns at me for slowing down, I want to stop the Galant right in the middle of the roundabout, get out of the car, and tell everyone to go to hell. Can’t they see I’ve lost my way home?
When the muezzin calls for Maghrib, the sunset prayer, my husband is behind a locked door in his study, trying his best to pretend that I’m not here. But I am here, two flights of stairs away from him, attempting to pray. “God hears those who call upon Him,” so I do. I call him by his name in English, Spanish, French, and Arabic: God, Dios, Dieu, Allah. Deliver me from this melancholy. Exorcise this dark demon inside me. Replace the ocean between my husband and me with solid ground and fresh pastures. Set my heart free so that it can be reunited with my body.
From a kneeling position I lower my face until my forehead touches the marble floor. The Muslims say three times, “Glory be to my Lord, the Most High,” but I repeat the word shikantaza, the Japanese name for zazen, a meditation practice that teaches mindful sitting, the constant return to the present, and the direct experience of whatever is hitting the mind. Right now it is a host of olfactory memories: the smells of Honey’s fur, a scent that was my companion for more than a decade; of my daughter’s shampoo; of the paper and books I stored away in cardboard boxes — my first book, on undocumented women; of the magazines that have featured my stories, little tokens of recognition in the writing world, a faraway realm where I was more than just an expatriate housewife.
Search-and-rescue drills over the Persian Gulf: that’s how my husband spent his day as captain of a fifteen-seat, twin-engine military helicopter. Now he wants to know what I did today. I wrote, is the answer. Of course. What else am I going to do? It must be incomprehensible to him that a person can actually start writing at 5:30 AM after he leaves for work and still be writing at 2:00 PM when he comes back. At the end of the day I have nothing tangible to offer as a proof of my efforts. Even if I were to print out my work and share it with him, what would that actually be? Another essay or story that may or may not be published, another chapter of what may or may not become a book. And it’s not just the writing; it’s the rewriting, the constant rearranging of words and paragraphs, like moving furniture around the house. It’s the unexpected paths writing sometimes takes. It’s this process of looking for the right word, then a better word, then the perfect word to describe a sound, a smell, a feeling. It’s the constant introspection nonfiction writers have to engage in, the self-scrutiny, the self-deprecating prose that has to be tempered with beauty to be palatable. It’s the self-doubt that comes from writing in a foreign language; the nuts and bolts of spelling, punctuation, and grammar. It’s the rhythm, the imagery, the laborious wading through a sea of fickle linguistic devices. I can’t express all this to my husband.
So when he asks what I did today, I say, “Nothing,” which only makes matters worse.
At 7 PM I go to my prayer spot with Mom’s words about depression resonating in my head. Isha is identical to Asr and Zuhr, except that the first half of the prayer is meant to be recited audibly. I don’t know the prayer, don’t know what I’m doing. But I bow in prostration, then rise up to a sitting position. On my way down to the floor for the second time, I weep.
Tonight the Al Jazeera network broadcasts images from Mali and the devastation that civil war has caused there. My husband and I visited that West African country a few years ago, and its people, mosques, and music made an indelible impression on us. If there are places that contain magic, where people effortlessly fall in love with each other and their surroundings, then Timbuktu is one of them. Now we watch in horror as robed and turbaned men destroy half the city’s legendary Sufi mausoleums and shrines, along with tombs in the town’s grand mosques, places my husband and I explored hand in hand, happy to be together in the fabled “city of 333 saints.” I cry in front of the TV, because these fundamentalist hooligans are doing much more than demolishing shrines; it feels as though they are destroying something personal that belongs to us.
There is no epiphany, no revelation as we watch the news. We don’t say anything profound. But this is an important moment for us, and we both know it. How could we have been happy in Timbuktu — sleeping on the floor, going days without running water or electricity — and not be happy now, in abundant Doha? And I don’t know why we say what we say next, whom the words are for or what they mean, but here they are on our lips:
“We love Mali,” I say.
My husband stands behind me and gives my shoulders a squeeze. “Yes, we do,” he says.
Tonight we lie in bed, silently aware of each other’s presence. For the first time since we arrived in Qatar, I feel a sliver of optimism. He slides his arm under my back, turns me around, and whispers good night. I shake with the chill of recognition, as if this were my first time hearing his voice after months of separation. He offers me that nook on his chest where my head has fit perfectly for sixteen years of marriage, but it feels uncomfortable, unnatural, like a new pair of shoes that need to be broken in. I wriggle around, looking for that unnamed something I have lost along the way.
This difficult time will pass, I know. Together we will rise above the ashes of relocation, and when all this is over, we’ll say it was the darkest month of our life together. But not yet. Right now it’s just my head on his chest, the sweet smell of his body, and the certainty of his breath. Right now it’s just me, half naked and weary, inching my way home.