The following short story was written by Noor Naga, winner of the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. This touching story is about motherhood and migrant labor, and it is set in the city of Dubai.
Look at this girl Lana she looks just like you and maybe she’s six too but look. She’s eating from the garbage look at her picking up dirty food from the ground. I’m putting this on the fridge so you’ll remember to thank Allah for everything we have because some little girls don’t get to eat turkey tonight and cake and watch the fireworks from Atlantis. Some little girls don’t have Sawiti to cook yummy food for them. They have to eat dirt look look.
I looked I looked but the girl she didn’t look like me. She had brown hair and I have brown hair and she had brown eyes and me too and her skin was brown and mine was brown but maybe hers was a tiny bit darker and her hair was darker and anyway her eyes were going sideways not normal like mine. She did have a bracelet with two beads on it though and one of them was a heart but the other one was purple and purple is my favorite colour so maybe we could be friends.
Mama took the airplane magnet from on top of the pizza picture what has the number to call and threw the pizza away and put the little girl there instead. Then mama said remember this next time you don’t want to finish your macarona bashamal so I looked I looked at the picture and made the sad face I thought mama wanted but then she said Lana this is serious not a joke and went to finish her coffee.
When I looked again the fridge girl she blinked so I ran upstairs.
I was playing Fruit Ninja on my bed. I was almost at level 5 I’m at level 8 now but I was almost at level 5 when I heard baba calling Laaanaaa Laaanaaa! So I said Omaaaar Omaaar which is so funny because he is baba but his name is Omar. When he came in he said oh you’re here! He was wearing his mayyo already and had his white hat to hide his head skin from the sun because no hair. He said me and mama are going to the beach yallah it’s family time. And I said yes! And closed the iPad.
I couldn’t find my Frozen mayyo in the mayyo drawer only the red one with the wavy lines and the bikini and some socks and underwears. I was throwing everything out fast fast because baba and mama were downstairs and I thought maybe they would leave without me and I kept shouting wait for me wait!
But then Sawiti came wearing the pink gloves what she cleans the bathroom with and after she took them off she kissed my belly and said fi eh ya binti?
Which is like nanny Arabic only mama and me understand but not baba and it is like she said what’s wrong Lana? Inti dawri Elsa? And I said yes and stopped crying and then she helped me find my Frozen mayyo with Elsa on it even though Anna is my best one but it’s ok mama didn’t know.
Before when we used to go to the beach we used to get in the car with the stinging seatbelts and drive for a long time and on the way home we had to clean our feet with buckets and sit on towels and not touch anything. But now we live on the palm tree what is not really a tree and we can just open the glass door and walk five steps and the sand is really there with no car even. Now we go to the beach every day when it’s almost night-time like when baba comes from work and mama says it’s not too hot. Today is the first time we go in the morning and I don’t have school and baba doesn’t have work because of the fireworks maybe.
Mama and baba were waiting for me on the beach and they were looking at something but I didn’t see and when I shut the glass door mama said shh! So I said sorry and went down the steps on my tippy toes.
Then I saw there were twenty no fifty no a hundred birds a hundred birds all white and grey but there was maybe one black bird no two. Two black birds and a hundred white and gray they were on the sand in front of the house beside our house and not moving just standing like they were waiting for something but I don’t know what.
Baba was saying very strange very strange and mama was saying are they looking at that house? Omar why are they looking at that house? The house next to ours is grey and dirty because all the hindi men are building it and my window is next to them every day they make it noisy and wake me up except today. Today they are not here but the birds are here. Sawiti loves birds I know she told me one time but I didn’t want to go call her with her pink gloves so I said come onnnn let’s go. We started walking but not the usual way where the birds are. The other way.
Baba was just walking and mama was picking shells every time she saw one she said oh if you insist! If you insist! I think she was talking to the shells because baba was sometimes too far and I don’t know what a sist is. When we walked to the end baba was waiting for us and he said look and there was a monster in the water with wings. Baba said its name but I forgot I said let’s put it in the bucket for Sawiti to see but we couldn’t it’s too big. When we came back after walking for maybe fifty hours the birds were still waiting in front of the dirty house. I didn’t tell Sawiti.
It’s a wiggly chair but it’s the closest one. I had to push it into the kitchen so I could reach because if I stand on tippy-toes I can open the cupboard but even on tippy-toes I can’t reach baba’s cereal. Always I sit on the counter with the jar between my dangly legs and eat the raisins because I only like the raisins I don’t like the nuts and seeds what mama calls bird food even though birds don’t eat them baba does.
Most of the raisins were gone but—right. Always I sit on the counter with the jar between my dangly legs but this time I didn’t because I didn’t want the fridge girl looking and maybe blinking again so after I got the jar I hugged it and slid down from the counter onto the chair and it wiggled a little but it didn’t fall it just wiggles sometimes.
I was going to take the jar into Sawiti’s room by the kitchen when she came in with the pink gloves and said eh ya binti which is like hey Lana! Inti ekel cereal baba? Baaden baba zalaan! But she wasn’t really mad she didn’t tell me stop. She put the mop and the clean stuff in the cupboard then she saw the fridge and she said eh hada ya binti? And I didn’t look but I said mama put it. And she said Madame? Leh? And I said because I don’t know. Then I said because you’re making turkey. And she said eh?
I could tell Sawiti was mad even though she wasn’t shouting but she was looking at the fridge and her mouth was mad. I didn’t look because maybe the fridge girl was blinking again so I went fast to Sawiti’s room. I ate raisins on her bed.
When mama got home from the coiffer she said Lana you can stay up for the fireworks tonight because no school tomorrow but right after you have to go to sleep. Then she gave me a princess dress it’s so pretty for when the people come. She said if you drop anything on it you’ll be in big trouble and enough iPad now clean your room because guests are coming yallah I love you. I love you too mama the princess dress is so pretty it has a bow. I put the mayyos back in the mayyo drawer and was going to put the colouring stuff away but then the glitter fell and it went all over the floor and I tried to pick it up but it’s too tiny. I went downstairs to get the broom from Sawiti’s room. She wasn’t inside.
Sawiti has a big mirror I looked so pretty I started spinning around and the dress was going woooo like a balloon. Then I got close so close I kissed it then I licked it. It was cold. I pulled my eyes on the side to look like the fridge girl but I couldn’t see anything then I oh. Ok. Ok. That’s why the fridge girl was eating from the garbage. The turkey was inside the house but she didn’t know because her eyes are sideways. Ok maybe if you don’t blink anymore we can be friends. We’re both six and I’ll show you where the turkey is.
Sawiti came in and said eh da ya binti? Helwa awy! Which is like oh Lana you look so pretty like a princess! And I said Sawiti are you still mad? And she said la ya binti. But I think she was lying I think she was mad. Then she brushed my hair and let me brush her hair under her esharpe. It’s even longer than mama’s all the way to her fat belly but it’s straight and black not brown.
Sawiti’s belly is fat now but you can’t tell anyone that not even Sawiti. One time mama’s friend came and she used to be so skinny but not now and I said why is your belly so fat? And mama said Lana! That’s rude say sorry right now! And then she said sorry to the lady before I could say sorry. But the lady she said it’s ok she was so nice she said it’s fat because there’s a baby inside.
After mama told me some people have babies and some are just fat but you can’t say because one is good and one is bad and maybe you’ll make someone cry.
Sawiti can’t have a baby though because she already has one in Indonesia except she’s not a baby she’s a big girl now bigger than me even she’s nine. Sometimes Sawiti has to leave Dubai and go see her. One time Sawiti let me say hello to her on the phone and her name was oh I forgot her name.
Sawiti made the turkey and the people came.
All the ladies followed mama around and they said ohhhh so much space this is beautiful Leila you have a taste and mama said no you have a taste but it’s all wrong because we didn’t eat yet. Then later when the turkey came and everyone was sitting the ladies were saying mhmm this is so good Leila you are a good cook but mama didn’t cook Sawiti did. So I said mama didn’t cook Sawiti did and all the ladies looked at me like I should go to my room. I got scared but baba said yes! Sawiti has magic hands! And all the ladies stopped being mad and I think it was ok and mama nodded she said she’s one of the family.
Then mama started telling stories about Sawiti like after we moved to the palm tree Sawiti put all the chicken nuggets and ice cream in the fridge not the freezer because the freezer in the old house was up so high but the freezer in the new house is down it’s like a mayyo drawer but for the freezer. Then all the ice cream melted and the eggs got freezed and broke. The ladies started saying poor dear so sweet and looking sad but they were also laughing which is confused. It wasn’t funny all the ice cream melted.
Then mama told another story about the tiny broom she got from the fancy shop what is made of sticks and string from a long time ago.
Mama hung it on the kitchen wall to make it pretty but Sawiti took it down and was sweeping with it. All the ladies laughed and me too the broom was so tiny. Then baba said let’s all move to the garden. The balloons were in the garden.
Baba woke me up in Sawiti’s bed to take me upstairs and I remembered the fireworks and I said the fireworks! And he said it’s ok they weren’t that fun and picked me up. It was dark the lights were all off. When we passed by the kitchen mama and Sawiti were talking and mama was saying the picture? This picture? And Sawiti was saying eh Madame eh. She sounded mad I knew it. And mama was saying take it down? It reminds you of who? And Sawiti was saying binti madame binti.
Then I heard mama laughing so I guess Sawiti started telling jokes like I know a joke about a flower and it goes what did the bee say to the flower? You’re cute but you have no feet. And the flower said go home poo. It’s so funny. I made it myself. There’s one more joke but I didn’t make it someone said it and it goes one day there was a hindi man he saw a boy no two boys and I think they were twins he said what’s your name? They said same same. He said ok I’m going to the mall. Can we come? No.
Mama said Sawiti is family but she never eats at the table or comes with us to the beach for family time and I want her to come to see the monster I forgot its name but also too I don’t want her to come.
When I woke up in my bed it was so early the sun was still coming and mama and baba’s door was closed. I was in my princess dress and it had sleep lines on it but it was clean. I didn’t drop any cake on it only turkey what didn’t show. It was the earliest I ever woke up in my whole life. It was not noisy yet there was only a little beep beep sound. I looked outside the window and there were hindi men getting off a bus. I didn’t know they have a bus I thought they all lived in the house but they were all getting off the bus and going inside. Maybe they were different hindi men. Maybe some have a bus and some have a house.
When I went down the stairs I saw through the glass door what takes you to the beach all the balloons from yesterday were still there and some of the cups were outside and some cake and one hindi man. There was one. He went on the sand and he was talking on the phone and he had something in a bag he started throwing it and oh! All the birds were there too it was dark I forgot I mean I didn’t see. One hundred birds so many they were all there grey and white and some black but not too many black. And the hindi man was throwing something from the bag and they were all flapping around eating saying kaaw kaaw it was so cool.
Sawiti loves birds she told me one time. I ran to tell her but I thought she was sleeping her door was locked but then I heard something. She was talking so so quiet. I said Sawiti come! There are birds outside! But she didn’t hear me she just kept talking quiet. Again I said Sawiti I can’t hear you! Come see there are birds outside one hindi man he is feeding them come!
When I put my ear on the door so I could hear what she is saying I saw in the kitchen what was in front of my face the fridge girl she was gone.
Editor’s Note: This piece about motherhood and migrant work is set in Dubai. Noor’s story was originally published at The Puritan.