A Youthful Respite
Aarif quickly slips on his shoes and walks out of the cramped apartment. He just ate a family dinner with four of his six brothers—the usual rice, curry, chicken—and he has excused himself to go back to his work in the finance department of the Grand Hyatt Muscat.
In slacks and a button-down shirt, dark glasses and gelled hair, Aarif looks decidedly ‘cool’ as he relaxes in the driver’s seat and speeds down Sultan Qaboos Street. Glowing orange light frames the jagged outline of the mountains to the west, and the street lamps flicker on as Muscat transforms from the work and religion of day to the leisure and modern metropolis of night.
Aarif grew up in a traditional Omani family of his parents, seven sons and three daughters. His oldest and youngest siblings are 20 years apart; he falls squarely in the middle. His parents and teenage sisters still live in Nizwá, Oman’s traditional capital nestled in the mountains west of bustling Muscat.
Nizwá embodies Omani traditional identity, which evolved primarily from Arab language and culture. Oman is an Islamic state, and gendered space and roles are common: most homes have formal rooms for men and their guests, and women generally stay home to pray while the men are required to be present in mosque. Traditions like Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr are carefully observed, and clothing like the dishdasha (an ankle-length gown for men), the kuma (a traditional cap for men), the abaya (a modest black dress for women) and the hijab hair covering are worn on special and normal days alike.
“We don’t drink alcohol because we Muslim,” Aarif’s oldest brother had said earlier in the evening at dinner. His tone was matter-of-fact, stating the obvious, and the other brothers nodded in agreement.
In the passenger seat of Aarif’s car is one of his brothers’ roommates: a young woman from Costa Rica who came to Oman to join her uncle as a chef in a local restaurant. Her wavy, blonde hair cascades down her back and her fitted black vest, half-buttoned white shirt and black slacks highlight her curves. She tagged along because she’s been dying to see the Hyatt’s new Christmas decorations.
Aarif brings the car to a stop near the hotel entrance. Trading his usual Arabic for flawless English, he tells “Costa Rica”, as he affectionately refers to her, to go ahead. As she disappears past the marble staircase and the twenty-foot Christmas tree smothered with adornments, Aarif makes his way down a winding path towards a wooden door attached to the hotel.
He slips inside.
The pub is empty save for a bartender and two foreign guests. Aarif chooses a stool at the bar and orders a large popcorn and a larger beer. The waiter places the cold glass on a coaster and Aarif’s fingers reach out instinctively as he turns his gaze to the soccer match on television.
Half an hour later, Costa Rica finds Aarif and leans on the bar. She grabs a couple kernels of popcorn and a sip of beer as she energetically tells jokes—it’s clear this evening agenda is fairly routine.
In these moments of perceived freedom, Aarif is a man transformed. He’s laughing, the saturated tension in his shoulders dissipates, and his foot swings of its own accord. The formality of his behavior, especially around women, has noticeably slackened—he pats Costa Rica’s shoulder in a friendly gesture and looks her directly in the eyes when he speaks to her. He’s left the world he knows and entered one he can only discover in hiding, in a way that will never fully satiate.
Aarif drains the final drops of beer from the glass and the magic ends, as if on cue. His expression carries a subtle melancholy that the moment has passed, soon to be buried under the expectations and obligations of his circumstances.
He sighs in surrender.
“Shall we?” he says to Costa Rica. She nods knowingly, pats him on the back, and they slowly walk back to the car under a black, starry sky. Aarif says nothing, lost in his own thoughts, self-possessed.
In a world where there is so much that can’t be expressed, the pulsing undertones of Arcade Fire do the job nicely, making Aarif’s head bob and bringing a soft smile to his lips as he makes his retreat home.