The Arabian sea lapped at the shore, coaxing a civilization of tiny hermits out of their pits in a quest for food before the next wave threatened to drag them into the surf. The specimen closest to my bare feet was a funny creature. He spooked at my surveillance, but nevertheless sorted through the tiny bits of edibles (what do crabs eat, anyway?) that I placed in offering before his den. This shred of seaweed, accepted; that shred, spat out like the clothes of a no-good husband onto the lawn.
On this shore I felt closest to Arabia. the tip of the Emirate States, with their man-made isles and overnight metropoles, extended in the reach beyond the sunset. I had a desire to leave my shirt at the shore and bathe in the tide—my hotel existed without hot water knobs and this was perfect—but I would have been alone. Children bathed in their thigh-chafing jeans and neon tanks & tees, while swarms of black-robed figures hovered above them like a shadowy mirage, salty brine creeping up the rippling expanses of cloth. With each approach of the tide, squeals. Joy.
I was red-tinged white, in shorts with a camera. The shadow-mothers saw through me even as their children gawked. Every minute or so, a group of boys—pairs or trios or gangs—passed by, corners of their mouths upturned. Hello—if they dared make use of their school english. One offered me an indian version of a cheese-puff. He fed it to me as my hands were sand-drenched. We all laughed. Where are you coming from—do you like indian food—what do americans think of India—are you married?—where is your room?— with each group of new friends we ticked through the checklist of queries from the top.
Two young men in their early twenties walked by- terrifying my skittish crab-friend. Both in white long-sleeved shirts with knit skull-caps. Hello, how are you?
They kept on towards the northwest, and I returned my gaze to the hole-dweller. A short moment later—Hello!—They had returned. The one with the broad-toothed smile explained that he was a teacher at a local school and he wanted to practice his english and I was only the second american he had met and that he wanted to tell his class about our upcoming conversation. I happily obliged, squinting into the sun.
Do you like Obama? Did he create NATO or was that George W Bush? Are there a lot of muslims in the US? Obama supported the building of an Islamic Center near the World Trade Center site, no? What do you think of that? What does the US think of India and China growing? What does the US export nowadays? Obama is muslim, no? But didn’t his mother go to Hajj at Mecca last year? I read it on a Chinese news site. I read that Europe is becoming muslim. Does the US have islamophobia like Europe?
Be truthful with me: what do you think of Islam?
I squinted again, evaluating my response. These boys were sweet and curious and informed very, very differently from myself. I explained that I grew up Christian but that I didn’t really have a faith nowadays. The tricky thing with religions, I posited, is that they all preach inclusivity, but are by nature exclusive and a lot of violence and killing and intolerance has been inflicted on others in defense of their beliefs. I like peaceful, honest, tolerant, religious people, of all faiths. I lobbed a tough one back at him: What do you think of the Islamic State?
A squint, a wide smile and an utterly indecipherable lolling nod, one that Indians are reputed for. No real response. Maybe they didn’t understand? They excused themselves as it was nearly prayer time, and they climbed up the sand-bank, then reversed back to me.
May I give you a gift? I want to give you my cap and I have another and its hand-knitted and no its not expensive, and I won’t miss it—and he stretched it on my crown.
I smiled and was touched and confused and—that was such a kind gesture—am I being islamified?—what does that even mean, Chris?—Thank you, thank you!
I rambled back to the road, leaving the nodding sun and the surf and the crab, with a lovely knit white skull-cap in my bag. (I felt like a phony brandishing it in front of the veritable believers).
As I watched another batch of children board camels for a beach shuffle, I felt completely disarmed. How long after we begin telling ourselves something does it just become fact? What are my facts; are they factual here? I suppose we largely only believe what serves our story-making. It is a soul of tremendous courage and humility that risks believing something that unwrites his story.