The Yellow Glowing Dot Near Dubai

Zahra Noorbakhsh

Zahra Noorbakhsh

Eds. Note: In last month’s column, Zahra thought she was going home to Iran to an extended family she hadn’t seen in 20 years. At the last minute, she had to cancel her trip there and rerouted to Dubai instead.

At 80 degrees and 80 percent humidity, it’s a cool night in Dubai. I’ve stopped wondering about the male gaze that rules the city, because I can’t stop staring at everyone and everything around me. So far today my infidel husband and I have been skiing, kissed a penguin, and bobsledded down a snowy mountain at the downtown mall’s negative-five-degrees, indoor ski resort. Yesterday, outside the Burj Khalifa, my husband, mom, dad and I listened to the adhan fade away as the jet streams of the Dancing Fountain burst into the air, choreographed to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

I have no idea who to be or how to behave in Dubai. Every moment feels like a collection of contradictions. Am I an American tourist, a Feminist taking careful notes, a horrified human rights activist, or will I come to discover an entirely new persona to add to the plethora of identities I’m already trying to integrate?

On our very first night in Dubai, we received a surprise visit from my uncle’s close friend and business partner of twenty-five years, Ehsan. He wanted to give us the Iranian tour of Dubai. It was midnight when Mom and I spotted Ehsan in the lobby talking to Dad.

When Ehsan saw us, his eyes lit up. He bowed to Mom and said, “Madam, I don’t know which custom to adopt. Is it a handshake or a hug for you? I don’t want your husband kicking me in the head, so a bow it is.”

That’s a translation of what he actually said. My Farsi is not that good. I have a hard time keeping up with the Persian idioms that get thrown back and forth in the hospitality wars called tarof. Adding to my inadequate translation is my terrible memory. I remember the feelings someone leaves me with more than their words.

What I remember him sounding like is, “Zahra! Yes! I know your name! I’m a close friend of one of your ten thousand uncles! But this time it’s a real uncle! Not a 6th cousin that you call uncle! Your father is my liver! Your mother is my pancreas! I’d sacrifice myself for you and erect a mausoleum in your family’s honor. By George! Get your husband down here for a dashing good time!”

I called up to our room wondering how to relay Ehsan’s effusive and gregarious sense of urgency to my exhausted husband and his Prussian practicality. “Wake up, honey!” I said. “My uncle is here from Iran and he’s leaving in two hours. Get dressed, ’cause we’re going out. Hurry!”

Five minutes later, the elevator dinged and, as its clear glass doors slid back, Ehsan reached in, grabbed my husband’s arm and pulled him in for a kiss on the cheek.

“Hello Dylan,” he said, “That is how Persians say hello. We kiss. Both cheeks.”

Dylan followed suit, and Ehsan laughed.

“Whoa! Slow down, Dylan. We’re not in love,” he said.

He grabbed Dylan by the torso and led him outside to his tiny white hatchback parked in an alley a few blocks away from the hotel. Mom, Dylan and I were squeezed into the back so tightly we didn’t need seatbelts.

Dad sat up front and mumbled all of the tarof phrases I remembered hearing at dinner parties, like one long run-on sentence, “Please, Ehsan sir, you’re embarrassing us there’s no way for us to pay you back for this kindness we’re such a burden on you please don’t let us keep you from your business you’re a busy man.”

“Nonsense,” said Ehsan.

And, just like that, tarof was over.

We rode with him for two hours around the entire city. I remember laughter, awe, a jumble of facts and some conspiracy theories. He drove like an Italian through the city’s roundabouts. He made a point of finding the highways with the best views for each burj and gave us their backstory. We slowed past an infamous spot where a British couple was caught and arrested for making out. We sped through the Iranian district with all its green and red neon lights, bakeries, and kabob houses.

Ehsan switched back and forth between English and Farsi as he talked about the pre-revolution business dealings between Iran and Dubai. He pointed out every Sheikh’s mansion and their wives’ identical mini-mansions. He drove us through a gorgeous tiled tunnel, crediting the Iranians for its attention to detail and beauty. His voice went hoarse and he let out an impassioned sigh.

“Zahra, Dylan…in twenty-two hours, I could show you all of Iran,” he said. He painted a picture of a day in the mountains on the ski slopes in Tehran to the Caspian coastline to the ruins of Persepolis until I fell asleep.

Mom woke me up, “Zahra, you have to see this.” In the millisecond before I opened my eyes, I believed that I’d open them to the sight of my real uncles, all three of them. And my 34 cousins hovering around the car, laughing at my tired, bobbing head.

Instead, I saw the gorgeous and gargantuan Palm Hotel, nestled in a mound of lush green lawn.

“Also the work of Iranian businessmen,” said Ehsan.

I stood in front of the building, craning my neck to sneak a peek inside even just one room. So many televisions on at two o’clock in the morning, lighting up queen beds and dressers.

“Come over here, Zahra,” said Mom. We sat on the concrete wall separating the street from the sea boulders. “Look,” she said.

A tiny yellow dot glowed, suspended in midair. I couldn’t tell if I was looking out over an ink black sea or a pitch-black sky.

“That’s Iran,” mom said, “It’s a lighthouse. It’s so foggy you can barely see it.”

“Eighteen minutes away, Dylan,” said Ehsan. “An eighteen-minute boat ride. That’s it. That’s how close you are. Say the word and I’ll throw you in the back of a fishing boat and we’ll go skiing in Iran, tomorrow.”

The yellow dot of Iran - 18 minutes away

The yellow dot of Iran – 18 minutes across the water

I breathed in the thick black air and stared out into the ink black water searching for a ripple.

“It’s too foggy,” mom said, “you can’t see anything, but it’s right there. Let’s go for a swim.”

She winked.

I smiled back, but I thought my chest would burst. I held my breath until I thought my lungs would vomit sobs in public. I wondered if there was a Persian idiom for wanting to cry so loudly that a crowd gathers, for hoping they’d be so revolted by your sobs that they’d throw you into the sea and send you home.

Read more by Zahra, here.

Zahra Noorbakhsh is a Feminist Muslim comedian and writer. The New Yorker dubbed her one woman show All Atheists Are Muslim a highlight of the Int’l New York City Fringe Theater Festival, the largest multi-arts festival in North America. Her story The Birds, The Bees, & My Hole was featured in the groundbreaking Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women anthology. Her most recent one-woman show Hijab and Hammerpants is playing in theaters around the Bay Area. Zahra is also one half of the podcast <a href=“” featured on PRI’s Global Nation, NPR’s “All Things Considered” and most recently, Tapestry on CBC.

To keep up with Zahra, visit <a href=“” and join her newsletter.


Twitter: @Zahrano