We pulled up to a covered parking lot. There were spaces for three cars, and Ahmed occupied the last one. I opened the door, and felt the anxiety that I was expecting to feel. It wasn’t the job that made my stomach tight. It was the thought of going into someone else’s home, the introduction, and the questions that I may be asked that made me nervous. I expelled the anxiety in a hurry, convincing myself of why I came here. Still, it wasn’t easy.
The house we were walking up to was a two-story villa. Its white façade was highlighted by grayish designs that decorated the windows. We walked through the front yard, which was decorated by flowers I had never seen before, and a large fountain, that could not have been smaller than two meters, crowned with two ducks with open beaks, where the water flowed through. It screamed for attention.
Right next to the large, brown front doors, there were two dark-grey columns that supported a wide balcony above them. Everything around the house seemed to be spotless. I did not envy the person who had to clean it all.
Ahmed rang the doorbell and waited with an eerie patience. A short, young woman opened the door, and acknowledged Ahmed with a welcoming, familiar smile. She extended her hand to her side as to welcome us in.
“Hello Mai”, Ahmed said as we passed the young girl. She had short, black hair, and a warm, friendly face. She did not look at me. I looked at her for a second, and turned my head to that which was in front of me.
“Hello”, she quietly said, closed the door, and quickly disappeared. She wore a light-blue uniform which highlighted her dark hair.
The corridor that we first met was not long. Right to our left, as we passed it, was the staircase to the upper part of the house. Everywhere I looked, my view was met with various flowers. It was a rainbow of flora that seemed to overtake the greeting part of the house.
Ahmed took of his shoes, and put on rubber slippers that were waiting for him. I followed suit, and we headed down a dark-brown carpet that sat atop dark, hardwood floors.
I looked neither right nor left, but focused on Ahmed’s back as a guide. He made an abrupt right and led us into the living room. As we entered, a man in his mid-sixties stood up, and gave Ahmed a bright smile. The men hugged, kissed on the cheek, and, as if continuing a conversation that was interrupted, began to talk softly. I did not hear what they were saying. I stood at the entrance of the living room, uncomfortable, and completely aware that I was alone in the small space that I occupied.
The man looked at me, smiled, and came forward.
“I am Abdulaziz Ali”, the man said quietly as he extended his hand. I introduced myself, surprised at how calm the man was. “Welcome”, he said as he placed his hand on my back, guiding me further into the living room.
“I understand there was a misunderstanding”, Mr. Ali said as he looked at Ahmed, then at me.
“I thought I would be driving you sir, but its fine”, I said softly.
“Oh I am not that old”, Mr. Ali said as he chuckled. “I can still drive myself around, at least for a little while longer. My wife also drives. She is not here at the moment.”
“I have no problem with driving your sons”, I assured Mr. Ali. He nodded in approval, and placed his hand on my shoulder.
“I am sure you will do just fine”, he said. “Did you settle in?” he asked.
“I sure did, thank you sir”, I answered quickly, trying desperately to sound as appreciative as I possibly could.
“My sons have to be in school on Sunday. I am sure Mr. Ahmed has explained to you that he will be there with you, on the first day to show you around”, said Mr. Ali.
“He did”, I smiled as I answered.
The man approved and offered us tea. Upon Ahmed’s rejection, we stood up, and headed towards the exit.
“Remember”, began Ahmed as we got back into the car. “You are the driver. There is no reason for you to drink tea or coffee with anybody in this family, especially not with the cook or the maid.” I nodded as I put my seatbelt on, wondering if I would inherit Ahmed’s demeanor.
As we drove back, it wasn’t hard to notice that Kuwait was different during the night. The bright lights, the headlights of the many cars, and less dust made it seem like a different place. I looked out of the window, and was bothered again. There it was again-that uneasy feeling, as if I had done something wrong. Did I forget something? I thought as we drove on.
It was Friday night when I tried to call my wife. The connection was testing my patience, but I succeeded. It was both calming and nerving to hear my wife’s voice. The familiarity brought me peace, but the fact that I wouldn’t see my family for so long saddened me.
It was Hannah’s voice that calmed me down, but it was her question that made me anxious again.
“When will you come back?” she asked, fighting the urge to fall asleep.
“Soon”, I said calmly, attempting my best to fight the urge to heave the phone away from me.
My wife Mariam, in her usual manner, asked if I had eaten anything, and how I had settled in. The conversation was short, which pleased me. I was still adjusting.
It was right after the phone conversation that I decided to stop living inside of my head. I had to get out. It wasn’t just cabin fever. I had to accept where I was. What better way to do that than to take in the world around me?
Mr. Ali’s house was in a much nicer area than where my apartment was. It wasn’t as if I was complaining, but the difference was just that obvious. There were no high-rise towers. There were no plants.
As soon as I walked out of the building, I was met with a truck that was dispensing water into the containers that were on the smaller building next to the one I was staying in. The driver was having a lively conversation with another man. The other man was complaining about how expensive Kuwait has gotten, and the other seemed to agree with a strong fervor.
I took a right as I left the courtyard. I walked past a small barbershop on my right, in front of which two men seemed to be ignoring each other, while their attention was grabbed on by something on their phones. Right across from the barbershop, the three trash containers were invaded by cats trying to flip over anything, whether it was made of cardboard or metal, in a desperate attempt to find something to eat.
On what seemed to be the main road of the area, my senses were battered by the various perfumes, the smell of grilled chicken, and the constant songs of welcome from the man standing outside of his store, trying to attract customers.
As I walked, I was doing math in my head. I was subtracting. My monthly salary here would be one hundred and fifty Kuwaiti Dinars. Based on what I read about Kuwait, I would need about fifty Dinars to get me through the month. I didn’t have to pay for the apartment, or any of the utilities. The rest- one hundred Dinars, which amounts to just a little less than six thousand Egyptian Pounds, I would send to my family. Was it enough? I thought to myself. It was more than I was making in Egypt.
I was given a phone and a fifty Dinar allowance upon my arrival. I decided to buy what I need for the month ahead, and go back to the apartment. I didn’t have to walk much longer before I stumbled upon a supermarket. It was a hive of shoppers attempting to grab the bargain deals, while supplies lasted. I picked up some canned food, some juice, sliced salami, cheese, shampoo, soap, and coffee. I already had a razor and shaving cream. It was still in a gift box, given to me by Mariam before I left.
The man behind the cashier was far too busy to be friendly. He scanned items and quickly handed them off to the man standing next to him, who was in charge of bagging things as they came his way. He had to separate the heavy items, because they would get their own bags. Upon a quick attempt at a conversation with the cashier, I learned that he too was Syrian.
“Did you lose anybody”? I asked him. He said nothing. The question didn’t seem to grab his attention. It was the packets of ready-to-mix coffee that occupied his mind, beeping as they passed his hands and went to the skinny, young man that was ready to bag it all.
Upon walking back, I realized how quickly I had to settle in. I had another day before I had to start work. I thought about what is it that I had to do. Every month, I am to send money to my family, and eventually try to bring them here. I started to hope that days here were short. I watched the bags I was carrying bob along as I walked back. I had to eat.
Sunday had finally arrived. I woke up at five to shower, shave, and have a cup of coffee before Ahmed came to pick me up. I sat on the couch, sipping the coffee I was drinking from the mug I had found in the apartment, wondering if I had ironed my pants correctly. I found the iron and the ironing board in the apartment as well. The person who was living here before me seemed to have everything.
I called the elevator, and waited. I was nervous. I didn’t even meet these boys, and now I would spend every day with them. I knew that one complaint from them would mean the end of my job. I became even more nervous. I could have ironed the pants better.
Both Abdullah and Omar were quite polite. They introduced themselves as they approached the car, but judging by their facial expressions, they were not ready to go anywhere except back to bed.
Both of the boys dug their faces into their phones during the entire drive to school. Ahmed was also silent. He was fighting traffic, driving into alleys, and avoiding the swarm of inconsiderate drivers. He looked so relaxed doing it. I was as vigilant as I could be, keeping my eye on the streets we had just taken, and passed. The white Nissan Patrol had a navigation system, but Ahmed chose to ignore it.
We arrived in front of the International Bilingual School ten minutes before eight. The boys reluctantly grabbed their bags and got out of the car. Their walk towards the school entrance was slow. Ahmed quickly got out, and I followed him. He walked towards the heavy-set man that sat behind the information desk, and asked him if the two o’clock was the pick-up time.
“After you drop off the boys”, Ahmed began with a sense of purpose in his voice. “You go back to the house, and you are to be available for anything that Mr. Ali may need you for, including driving the cook or the maid to the market.
“Where is the supermarket?” I asked him, trying to visualize in my head the streets around Mr. Ali’s house. Ahmed was quiet. He threw me a quick, serious glance and focused on the road again.
“They will tell you”, he said quietly.
Ahmed stopped next to a building that was nowhere near the house.
“Now you take over”, he said, noticing the puzzled look on my face. I wasn’t just puzzled. I was angry.
“You said that you would come with me today”, I asked, regretting my statement as soon as I said it.
“You cannot do it?” He asked. I said nothing. He waited for me to say something, and seeing as how nothing was going to come out, he got out of the car. I got out of the car and headed to his side of the vehicle. He handed me the keys, and without saying anything, was off. With quick steps, he opened the door to the building and disappeared.
I got behind the wheel. The car seemed a lot bigger now. The sandy-colored, leather seats were comfortable, but I had no time to grasp how luxurious the car was. I took out my phone, checked the address of Mr. Ali’s house, and put it into the navigation system. The pants were now definitely wrinkled.
After what seemed like half a day, I arrived in front of the house. One of the cars from the parking lot was missing. I parked, in reverse, so as to make leaving easier, and headed for the front door. Before I could ring the doorbell, Mai, the dark-haired maid opened the door. She was still trying to figure out whether to be official with me, or be very nice. I was glad she chose the latter.
She led me into the kitchen and had me sit down right next to the black counter top. She gave me a plate filled with scrambled eggs, bread, and a fork. She handed me a glass of orange juice, and walked away. Her uniform was perfectly ironed.
I was hesitant to eat, still thinking about what Ahmed told me. I was not to be anyone’s friend here. I was the driver. The solitude inside the vast kitchen made me more than uncomfortable.
“How were the eggs?” asked a short, balding man as he entered the kitchen. He was in his forties and had a spring to his step. He extended his hand to me and introduced himself as John. He said he came from Manila and was evidently proud of it. He was the cook. He had black pants and a black, button-down shirt.
After talking to John, I learned that he came to Kuwait ten years ago. This was the third family he has worked for, and according to him, Mr. Ali is a very nice man.
“It’s the older son you need to watch out for”, he began. “He is a tricky one. He will convince you to take him anywhere, even to places he is definitely not supposed to go.”
“How did Ahmed handle it?” I asked, worried that the answer would not satisfy me.
“Oh, Ahmed had a way with these boys. They respected him”, said John in admiration. It wasn’t the answer I wanted.
Two o’clock rolled around, and I found myself standing inside of the school, watching the children drag their backpacks behind them. The cars of the drivers were lined up in front of the school, and some were standing by their vehicles, but I had to be inside. Not only because of the heat, but because I wanted to escort these boys from the building to the car.
The school was not very big. It was a two-story building, covered with a yellow-brick façade. There were cameras on every corner of the building. Abdullah came out first, laughing with a friend who was in a hurry to leave the school. I waived at the young man and he acknowledged my presence. Omar came out of the glass doors, angry, spewing curse words as he walked. They got into the car, slammed the doors, and said nothing.
Abdullah’s face was yet again buried into his phone. He was liking, swiping, and scrolling. His face was expressionless. Omar was typing on his phone and seemed to blame the phone for any error that he had made.
“I got an F!” screamed Omar as he walked towards his father. He handed the man a paper and ran up the stairs.
“Again?” asked a woman appearing from the living room. It was Mrs. Ali. She was a gracious, tall woman.
“Omar has had a problem with English ever since he started school”, said Mr. Ali in his recognizable, soft voice. “He hates it, and seems to hate anyone who tries to teach it to him.”
“I can try to help him”, I said. I don’t know why I said it. For a brief moment, I regretted saying anything. I was the driver. Mr. Ali looked at me with a slight surprise. “I was an English teacher in Syria”, I said, hoping that my credentials would not cost me my job. Mr. Ali looked at me with a saddened expression. He realized it, and quickly changed it to a wide smile. “Anything we can do to help the boy is worth it”, he said.
“We have had countless tutors here, and Omar hated each and every one of them”, said Mrs. Ali. Upon hearing this, I regretted saying anything even more. There was no backing out now.
“It can’t hurt to try”, I said insecurely. Both of them nodded with approval. Idiot! I thought to myself. I forgot rule number one. I am the driver.
On my drive back to the apartment, I felt a mixture of relief and anxiety. I should have kept my mouth shut. I had no time for that now. I had to focus and try to figure out how to get back to the apartment.
(To be continued…)
Asmir Dzankovic was born in 1984, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1995, he moved to Chicago with his family. It was in Chicago that he found his love of writing. In 2012 he graduated from the University of Sarajevo, with a degree in English Language and Literature. Today, Asmir is teaching Creative Writing at a private school in the Middle East.
Photo: Patrick Marioné