'Do you have coffee with non-fat milk?" I ask the lady behind the counter, straining to see if it is on the list of options plastered to the wall. A girl in a niqab behind me in the line laughs and nudges me gently. "It is OK," she says, "you don't need non-fat. Enjoy life." That's so nice of her, I think. "Thank you," I say. "My name is Rym," and we shake hands. "My name is Fatima," she says. I can tell she is smiling. The eyes always give it away.
I order my coffee and invite Fatima to join me, but she tells me she is with her husband for a "break" from the humdrum of household responsibilities and looking after the children. "We come here to sit, relax and watch the young people," she says as she orders coffee for the pair of them. We are at one of the popular American coffee shop chains in Jumeirah in Dubai, and there is much to "watch" and see. I find a little corner table where I can put my laptop and do some work or at least pretend to be working.
To my left, a group of girls are busy chatting and text messaging and ranking the men as they come in. "Oh, that one is cute," one says as a man wearing designer clothes, a perfect smile and an impenetrable air of confidence, walks past. His T-shirt is Polo, cap Armani, jeans Versace and even his flip-flops carry a brand label: Louis Vuitton. He smelled pretty good, too. Actually, the whole coffee shop is a carnival of smells, from fancy French perfumes (there goes Chanel No 5) to more traditional fragrances of oud and oils and of course, masculine colognes: the kind of enjoyable sensory overload one never experiences outside the Gulf. I am enjoying playing the guessing game of who's wearing what as they pass my table when I see a familiar face.
"Hey Ernest!" I wave to my friend, who is sitting across the room alone with his laptop. He waves back, but appears to be too busy to come and chat. All right then. Back to people watching. A group of Emirati men walk in, and take over a large table nearby. It is funny how the women in the cafe go quiet and watch them settle in. There is just something about men in kanduras. They demand respect and decorum.
Then a group of Emirati women walk in, each wearing a customised abayah and extravagant designer bags and mobile phones as accessories. I jotted down some ideas for the abayah I am tailoring for myself. "Excuse me," says a woman's voice next to me. I look up and see a girl in a glittery abayah looking at me. "There are no more free tables, can I sit with you?" she asks. "Sure, have a seat," I say. It turns out she is Bahraini, and her family is shopping in Jumeirah souk but she needed a break. I talk her into "watching" people with me, and straightaway it becomes obvious we see people and things differently.
I love seeing how the different cultures blend in and how everyone is enjoying themselves, flirting a bit here and there. It is such a positive atmosphere, where strangers can strike up conversations and everyone is laid back and friendly. Single girls giggling in one corner, and single guys stealing glances in the other, some daring ones crossing over and asking for mobile numbers. My new Bahraini friend, though, is watching more subtle exchanges. She points out and translates some of the sign language that I had been missing. The girl, for instance, carefully fixing her scarf while signalling someone at the other end of the coffee shop to meet at the counter. It is discrete and creative. "In strict societies you are forced to use strange methods to meet people," is my new friend's explanation.
Ernest finally graces us with a visit, and shows me several business cards he has collected. He claims that "beautiful girls" had dropped them on his table as they passed, some without uttering a single word. The cards carry their names, mobile numbers, e-mail addresses and some even a passport photo. One of the photos showed a veiled girl with just her eyes showing. "Some gave me shy smiles. I feel like I am the handsomest man in the world," Ernest says.
He definitely is not, but before we can debate the point further, he gathers up all the cards and leaves. And there's more than a hint of a smug smile as he turns and waves. Fatima and her husband then pass by my table as they leave. The husband stands back as his wife comes over and bids her farewell. "Hope you enjoyed your coffee?" she says. "Yes, and it is really fun to sit back and watch everything here," I reply.
"Yes, why do you think we come here, it makes me appreciate the fact I am already married," she said. "It is tough being single these days, there seems to be so much more pressure and confusion." My Bahraini friend and I just laugh not sure how to respond. firstname.lastname@example.org