I’d had a handful of taxi drivers and all of them were fine. Nothing remarkable, nothing to complain about. Then I got Zaheer.
Zaheer was different from the other drivers I’d hailed from the streets. I can’t seem to pinpoint exactly what I noticed about him that was different; I can only say that it was a sense. I was completely comfortable in his presence. This comfort did not go unnoticed. I watched him from the back seat and appreciated what I observed: He was honest when he didn’t know directions; he was kind and considerate, always on time, arriving in a clean, fresh-smelling car, opening doors, driving in a deliberate and gentle kind of way; and he was genuine, free of any pretentious comments or gestures.
The hotel where I live called Zaheer to take me to work on my first day. My school is located about an hour out of the city, in a remote area behind the mountains that line the coast of the Arabian Gulf. He didn’t know where my school was, and of course, neither did I, but I had GPS coordinates so that served as our guide.
The first few trips we didn’t speak much, though he attempted conversation by talking about the weather. “Today weather nice,” he would say. A couple of times he showed me pictures of himself with his friends swimming at the beach, eating at a restaurant, etc. My response was a smile, nod of the head, “nice.”
As I sat in the back of the taxi, I watched the scenery speed past and felt a constant nagging of dissatisfaction. I wanted to veer off the main roads and see what was behind the developed strips. I could see farms behind the lines of shops and walled neighborhoods and I wanted to explore. My American counterparts in Fujairah were not interested in such a venture at all, and I didn’t want to try it alone. Zaheer. I wondered if he might take me off the main roads sometime. I was comfortable with him. I felt safe with him. Maybe?? Maybe he could take me. Would it be awkward? Would he try to hold me back with restrictions? Would he be too formal? Would he be too informal? I looked at him from the corners of my eye and asked my intuition if he just might be the one to take me. Nothing in my gut told me “no”.
Before I go on, I need to explain something: Even before I’d left the US, I knew I wanted to find a man who would be a close confidant and serve as a “protector” and “chaperone”. I had in my mind the idea of the male Saudi friendships I’d had in Indiana, but I didn’t really know how this might be realized in the UAE; I just knew that I was looking for more than a driver, but not a lover. And I believed that although this was an unrealistic expectation, it was indeed possible. This pre-US departure intention certainly guided me in seeking someone to take me beyond the main roads in the UAE.
One evening, I asked the hotel concierge to ask Zaheer if he would take me out on a Friday (weekends in the Middle East are Friday and Saturday). My request was to take me to some farms, hoping that maybe he knew someone who worked on one of the nearby farms. The concierge called Zaheer and made the arrangements.
That first trip shaped a new friendship and began the “Madam and Mohammad” partnership. We were together for 7 hours that first day, most of them in silence due to our language barrier, but the time flew by in a comfortable familiarity. We pointed at the animals and imitated their sounds, harmonized by our shared laughter. We used gestures and universal body language like head nods for “yes” and a scrunched-up nose for “no”.
When we returned to Fujairah, he pulled into a Pakistani restaurant, stating, “Now we eat.” And at the end of the meal, he paid. I interpreted that gesture to mean that he too, was happy, comfortable, and satisfied with our first day out.
When he dropped me off at my apartment I paid him for his service and asked him to take me to another place the following Friday. He agreed. We began texting during the week to further the development of our friendship. Most texts were simple language: How are you today? Are you busy? Did you eat? And they were accompanied with pictures to enhance the quality of communication. Through pictures we learned more about what each other’s daily routines (he sent me pictures of landmarks when he dropped off a customer and I sent him pictures of my school), and about each other’s families, friends, and homelands (he sent me a lot of farm pictures from Pakistan and I sent him pictures of my children and my dog in the US).
As our friendship grew, I was feeling more and more confident that I’d found the man I needed to lead me in my discovery of life in the UAE beyond the surface level. I was very clear in my mind regarding what I wanted even if I didn’t know in whom or how it might be manifest. Perhaps Zaheer is this man? My only hesitation or doubt was in knowing that in his culture, men and women are not friends with each other. I was concerned not only about his ability to be friends (i.e., platonic), but also about how having me as a friend might impact his relationships with other Pakistanis in Fujairah and at home.
After our second adventure, I invited Zaheer into the hotel lobby so I could use the internet to access Google Translate. By that time, I felt confident that indeed, Zaheer was the one I’d been searching for, but I needed to be clear and direct with him to ensure that we were on the same page as the friendship moved forward.
Through the assistance of Mr. Google, I asked Zaheer if he’d ever had an American friend. He said no. I asked him if he’d ever had a female friend. Platonic friend. He said no.
In true American style, I was bold. Direct. Very clear. Using Google Translate, I explained that in America, men and women can interact with each other, and in fact, commonly do so. Being in a car together, for example, does not imply any romantic or sexual relationship and there is no problem with men and women socializing with each other either publically or privately. I told him that I understood that was strange for him. He agreed. Then I asked him if we could be friends like that. He smiled and said yes.
I pushed further. I wrote about how different our lives have been from each other and that there are so many things we don’t know about each other, or each other’s countries and cultures. I told him I wanted to know more about him and his background, and I wanted to share with him about me and my background. He smiled and nodded yes.
Still I pushed further. I said point blank: We will not be sexually involved. His eyes widened, clearly embarrassed. “No! No!” I wrote that I didn’t mean to embarrass him or make assumptions, but that we needed to be clear. He smiled and nodded yes.
Then I asked him how such a friendship would impact his relationships within his local Pakistani group of friends. What would they think if you have me as a friend? Will it be uncomfortable for you to be my friend? Zaheer took the computer and switched languages in Google Translate. He wrote that he was comfortable pursuing a friendship with me and that in his Pakistani world, he would be fine. He said that he had never had a female friend and welcomed this opportunity. He wrote that I could feel safe with him, both publically and privately.
Still, I pushed further. I explained that I wanted him to serve a protective role for me. He smiled and nodded yes. I used the example of when we had gone to a fruit market earlier that day and the shop owner cornered me, then brushed his hand against my thigh. Zaheer’s eyes widened. Then he wrinkled his forehead. “I’m sorry,” he said.
It’s OK, I wrote. But from this point on, I want you to watch and be aware of those things and stand between me and those kinds of men.
“Yes,” he said. Then again, he took the computer and began typing. “No one can touch my sister or my mother and it’s the same with you. I don’t care what any shop owner thinks of me or our relationship. I will always stand between you and all men.” I smiled and nodded yes.
I closed the computer, thanked him for the day, and we shook hands.
To use the farm metaphor, that conversation was like the planting of a seedling. We did it together, and from that moment onward, we have shared in the cultivation of a rare plant: our friendship.