I’m awoken next morning by a knocking on the door, subtle, but persistent. I look around my cabin. Shadows are still sharp and deep but it is undoubtedly morning. Nobody’s come calling before. It occurs to me it could be the girl from the library. She looked a bit desperate somehow. I deliberately dress carelessly with just a sarong, loosely tied around my hips (I am such a tart). But it’s Shamim. She looks me up and down and grins broadly. She looks as completely fresh and well-groomed as always. ‘Breakfast?’ she says brightly.
I mutter a vague agreement and she closes the door so I can get dressed. I let the sarong drop and it hangs there on the morning glory. ‘Bloody hell’ I think. ‘Now there is a woman.’
Up in the bar, (or the bistro as we now jovially refer to it) she’s got a table on the eastern side and the sun is dazzling. In front of her are waffles and maple syrup but no bacon I note. Plus there’s coffee and orange juice.
‘I didn’t know what you like to eat so I just got coffee’ she says.
I’m not used to this. What’s she up to? I think about what I want. Waffles and syrup looks good, but with bacon for me. I hope she’s not offended. I get up to go and fetch it but she pushes me back and asks me what I want. I don’t mention the bacon. She goes and gets it. When it arrives there’s bacon on the plate. I ask how she knew and she narrows her eyes and taps her nose.
After the initial rush of nourishment to my brain I look up and see her watching me. I look about self-consciously. ‘So what’s all this about?’ I say, hoping I don’t sound ungracious.
She considers for a moment. ‘I thought you might ask that,’ she says. ‘I just thought I’d like to get to know you better. Is that alright?’
‘Fine’, I say, suddenly aware that my chewing is not very dignified.
‘Also you are the only person here who’s had the nerve to come over and sit with us so far.’
‘Oh, the others are polite, but you know...’
I finish the food (excellent, as always) and sit back with my coffee. I find it hard to meet her gaze, which is very candid. I try to make small talk – about the weather, and the décor, and the food. She smiles serenely throughout, as if slightly amused by something. Then she asks me about my life and I pencil in the outline for her, avoiding the messier parts. I really want to ask about her life but feel inhibited. Eventually she leans back in her chair – they’re the wicker curve-backed sort, crosses her arms and looks quizzically at me. ‘You’re a little afraid of us too, aren’t you.’
I think about my answer ‘Not afraid exactly.’
‘What’s wrong? You’re very friendly and polite and so forth but...’
‘It’s just... all the things that are happening in the world, Palestine and Kashmir and everything...’
She frowns a little and looks at me more intently. ‘In the Muslim world you mean.’
‘I suppose we all feel like we have to tread carefully’ I say.
‘Are you as careful with Christians?’
‘But they are at war too. They have terrorists. What about Ulster? What about Oklahoma? Are you a Christian by the way?’
‘No. I don’t really have a faith.’
‘Hmm’ she says, stirring her cup. A waiter comes and asks if we want more coffee and we both nod enthusiastically. I comment that I know we shouldn’t but she tells me there’s good evidence that coffee is actually very good for us, in moderation of course. ‘And here... Who knows or cares?’ she adds, taking a good slurp.
We smile at each other and enjoy our second cups of the day.
‘You said you went back to Iran after the revolution.’
She nods. ‘I was very young then but I still remember. You suspect us of being raging fanatics?’
‘I didn’t say that. It’s just...’
‘Were your family religious?’
‘Not really. I guess we all put C of E on our hospital forms, but no, we never went to church much – weddings and funerals, you know.’
‘Hmm’ she says again.
‘I was interested in paganism.’
‘Which is not devil worship, in case...’
‘No. I know what paganism means.’ After a pause she goes on ‘My father had very high hopes after the overthrow of the Shah. He thought it would be the beginning of a wonderful new age of enlightenment and wisdom. And it wasn’t so bad... I know I know, the pictures in the western media, but it wasn’t all like that. I went to university, worked in a newspaper office. I was especially interested in environmental issues believe it or not. You all think Iran is a land of sticks and stones but it can be very beautiful, especially in the north, in the mountains.’
I say ‘About ten years ago a friend of mine travelled all through the Middle East into central Asia, and he had a fabulous time. He said the people were fantastic, inviting him in, giving him food and so on, taking him to parties.’
She nods passionately and says ‘It’s still like that’ but I see there’s some sadness in her face nonetheless.
‘So is it all media hype?’ I say, ‘all this stuff about forced marriages and adulterers being stoned and women having to cover themselves up completely?’
She sits back straight in her chair and puts her cup down. ‘Ok’ she says, ‘first, I don’t take you to task because of the prevalence of domestic violence, or anorexia or, I don’t know, child pornography in your country. You can’t write off a whole nation because of the practices of a misguided minority.’
‘I wasn’t, that’s why I asked...’
‘Secondly, only a short while ago Europe was a basket case – not just the Second World War – in Spain there was a fascist regime until very recently, Portugal even more recently – were you aware of that? Then there’s Russia and the whole Iron Curtain atrocity, which I know is gone now but it’s only been ten years, and then there’s Yugoslavia – ah – I see your face, you think all this is in the past. You think that sort of thing couldn’t possibly happen now. Think again.’
I decide to sit quietly and wait for her to finish.
‘Thirdly I don’t think you perhaps realise that the part of the world I come from has been meddled with and exploited by your country among others for generations. We’re not just a bunch of semi-literate peasants you know. Persia had philosophy and mathematics and science long before you guys even knew what writing was for. Religion aside we’re deeply pissed off with you guys. We won’t put up with it forever, just so you can have all the oil you want.’
I look around the room. I can feel her eyes on me, intense, challenging. I don’t feel I deserve this. I had a lot of sympathy for the Palestinians. ‘Actually you don’t know anything about what I think at all’ I say, entering the fray with gusto (just like at college). ‘Actually I think the way the Palestinians are reacting makes perfect sense, after the way the Zionists behaved and the Algerians with the French...’
‘Excuse me?’ she says, clearly outraged, ‘Blowing up innocent children Gabriel? Hostage taking and torturing? Have you any idea whatsoever, what you’re talking about?’
‘I just think, maybe, if nothing else works...’ but my voice tails off. I suppose I’d been expecting a different reaction from her. This had been a popular debating topic back in the refectory, or down the pub – The IRA - terrorists or freedom-fighters? We all thought we were very impressive, being so broad-minded.
‘Oh yes’ she says mock cheerily, ‘Diplomacy has failed! Let’s kill a lot of random by-standers. That’ll help!’
She looks really pissed off. Well so she should. It’s a bit more real for her I suppose. We sit quietly for a while, gathering ourselves, catching our respective breaths. Then she turns and looks intently at me, searching my eyes. ‘Violence never works Gabriel’ she says. ‘I don’t know why anybody ever thought it might.’
‘Ok’ I say, feeling oddly guilty.
I feel her take hold of my hand. She looks into my face.
‘I’m sorry Gabriel’ she says, ‘but you people need to understand this stuff.’
I stand up, gently but firmly extricating my hand. That ‘You people’ stung. Who does she think I am? I look about for the others. The dining room is gradually filling up. I see Olly wave and I wave back, but he can tell from my face not to come over. Lou and Ned are there too I note, but I don’t feel the need to go to them. I sit down again.
‘Do you talk like this to all westerners you meet?’
‘No. Only those I think might understand.’ She smiles warmly again. ‘No disrespect, but most westerners I meet are just so very ill-informed, even the supposed intelligentsia, the ones at university I met.’
‘You shouldn’t assume I don’t know anything though.’
‘I know. I get on my soapbox. I’m sorry.’
‘What I meant about the Palestinians was, I just don’t get it how the Israelis can be so astonished at the Palestinian response to their occupation – as if they expected the Palestinians to just step aside and say “God said you could have it? Good enough for me. There you go mate, help yourself. Don’t mind us.”’
She smiles. ‘It might surprise you to know I had a Jewish American boyfriend back in London. Father doesn’t know about it incidentally. I don’t think he’d mind especially, but you know, what with one thing and another...’
‘What did he think, your boyfriend?’
‘Oh, he said the Zionists should have taken Manhattan. There’d have probably been less resistance.’
She laughs lightly, shaking her head. I smile uncomfortably. My politically correct education means I’m not sure if I’m allowed to laugh at anything to do with Jews.
‘Do you feel better now?’ she says.
‘Now we’ve got all that out in the open?’
I have to smile and acknowledge I do feel more relaxed with her now.
‘Good. Now. I believe my parents will be along very soon and I’d like to meet them. You can join us if you want to.’
‘I’m going to see my friends, over there.’
She nods and smiles ‘Don’t be a stranger’ she says with a perfect Brooklyn accent, and I laugh and weave my way among the tables and chairs across to where Ned and the others are seated.