As I drew on my ruby lipstick, the kind that makes me feel like an Egyptian starlet of the 1950s, I stood up and twirled around. The scarlet skirt and top were more risque compared to what I would normally wear. I ran my fingers over my bare stomach, debating if I should put sheer netting over it, when my phone buzzed, which was tucked underneath a pile of gold bangles. I gently removed them to see a picture of Baba. It was the picture where he’s posed with one hand tucked under his chin and he’s gazing off into space. He called it his “thinking scientist pose.”
I sighed. I was on in about 10 minutes and it was impossible to have a quick conversation with my father. It was easier to just pick up rather than have him call ten more times.
“Halukum, Dina. You picked up this time. Good. You know that I could die soon.”
I rolled my eyes. My shimmy sisters let out a zaghrouta. Their high pitched, trilling cry reverberated through the restaurant.
“You are perfectly healthy, Baba. We’ve been over this. How is Hoda?” “Hoda is still in Egypt. She will be there for another two weeks.”
I cringed at this news. Hoda, my stepmother, kept him occupied. He hadn’t handled retirement well.
“I can’t talk for too long Baba.” I didn’t dare tell him I was about to perform. Baba didn’t know I belly danced, and I had no intention of ever telling him.
“Okay, I’ll be quick. Mohammed—you remember Mohammed, you met him when you came to Denver last Thanksgiving? His son is now looking for a wife. Mohammed Jr. is a doctor. He just finished med school. And he’s a good Muslim, he’s been coming to the Mosque, unlike you. You should come to Denver and meet him.”
For the past two years, Baba had been trying to marry me off to one of his friends’ sons: A good Muslim boy who was a doctor, lawyer, or engineer.
“Baba, I’m not moving to Denver to marry Mohammed’s son whom I’ve never met.” I knew that Mohammedand I would have nothing in common. I hadn’t had anything in common with the previous Mohammeds. They didn’t want to get married and neither did I. I knew that they would eventually give into their parents’ wishes and marry some mild mannered girl who wore a Hijab and cooked him dinner every night. I wasn’t about to tell Baba that I had been seeing someone for the past year who was the exact opposite of Mohammed’s son. Jake was a musician from North Carolina whose family was Baptist. He hadn’t expressed any interest in getting married anytime soon. He would never dream of going to med school. Music was his passion.
“Well you don’t have to marry him, but you should at least come meet him. You’re 25 now. It’s time to start thinking about marriage.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of my shimmy sisters waving at me. “I’m sorry, Baba, I have to go.”
“Baba, I will call later, I promise—”
“Please do. Remember that I could die soon.”
I sashayed over to the front of the restaurant as another dancer gave her final bow. Jake, who was also ourdrummer, winked at me. His floppy brown hair dangled down in front of his deep blue eyes. Under his white chiffon shirt, I could make out his muscles. He knew what a gym was and frequented it. I discreetly blew him a kiss back.
As Jake began to drum, I began to dance, losing myself in the music. The floor was my dance partner. I didn’t notice the pain in the balls of my feet as I spun my silk veil. The beat of the drum slithered down my shoulders. I shook my hips towards Jake, who improvised a rhythm to match their movement. He grinned as I shimmied towardshim, only to shimmy away, much to the delight of the audience. The papyrus drawings and plates of pharaoh’s heads hanging on the walls blurred together as I whipped past them. When I danced, I was no longer Dina: mild manneredcopywriter. I transformed into Dina: belly dancing goddess.
The music came to a close. I took a small bow and retrieved my veil. As I sauntered towards our dressing room, a smooth drawl, dripping with more honey than baklava, trickled into my ears.
“God, you drive me crazy when you dance.” Jake pulled me into his arms. I traced my fingers over his tattoo, a series of musical notes that had been written by Jake. He often played the melody for me. He didn’t want to become a rockstar or even a singer/songwriter. His dream was to compose sweeping melodies for fantastical films. I loved whenever Jake played one of his melodies for me. A small crease formed between his eyebrows as he concentrated and he closed his eyes as he played.
“That wasn’t my intention,” I smirked at him. He gave me a deep kiss. I quickly waved him away.
“The customers could see!” I giggled at him, as he went in for another kiss.
“I don’t give a damn,” Jake kissed me again. “I’ve got to get you home.” He eyed my outfit. “Don’t even bother to change.”
I reluctantly untangled myself from his arms. “You know that Hassan doesn’t like the customers to see us in costumes when we’re not performing. It takes away the mystique.”
Jake sighed heavily. “I guess you’re right. I don’t want to get you in trouble with the owner of therestaurant. He’ll probably start stiffing my cut if I do. After all, he can’t lose his Egyptian goddess.” Jake winked again.
I smiled and went to change. I didn’t know what to say when Jake made jokes like that or when Hassan introduced me to customers as the Egyptian queen. I was technically only half Egyptian, and Baba consistently reminded me that I wasn’t a very good one at that. I couldn’t help the fact that my mother, who had died when I was a teenager, had been White and hadn’t taught me how to be a proper Egyptian girl. Mama had always been free spirited; I think it’s what drove Baba to her in the first place. After Mama passed away, Baba married the kind of woman that he insisted he should have married years ago.
Hoda loved to cook. She would bustle around the kitchen, feeding me until I felt I might explode. She kept aclean house, relegating my father’s endless piles of paper to designated
corners in his office. She prayed next to Baba and at night, the two would curl up on the couch and watch British dramas as they sipped on tea. They were currently on Downton Abbey. They went to the mosque and during Ramadan they frequently held Iftar at their home. Hoda always wore a Hijab.
One night, as Jake and I cuddled on the couch watching the latest absurd documentary on Netflix that involved cults, elephants, and a cocaine smuggling ring, Baba called. I ignored it. He called two more times, so I reluctantly picked up on the third. Jake gave me a sympathetic smile. He had yet to meet Baba, and I had yet to tell Jake that Baba didn’t know he existed.
“Hi Baba,” I said wearily. Jake paused the show and walked over to the kitchen.
“Finally you pick up. I told Hoda that I thought you had been in a horrible car accident or kidnapped. Why do you give your poor Baba frights like this?”
I rolled my eyes. Jake motioned if I wanted a beer. I nodded. “I’m fine Baba, just watching a movie. I’m with friends so I actually can’t talk for too long.” Jake raised an eyebrow at the word friends.
“You can never talk for too long,” Baba huffed. “You are always busy busy. Too busy for your own family…”
“Did you just call to chat, Baba?” I rubbed my forehead. “If so I can call back tomorrow.” “I do want to hear how you’re doing since you do not tell me anything, but that’s not the reason I called. Hoda and I are coming to L.A. Armen’s son – you remember Armen right? His son is getting marriedand we are going to his wedding. You must come too.”
“I will have to check my schedule.” I hadn’t seen Armen in over 10 years. I wasn’t even sure what his son’s name was.
“Well, will you at least make time for dinner with your Baba? Or are you too good for that?”
“Yes Baba,” I sighed. “We can have dinner together.”
“Good. Call me tomorrow and we can discuss it. You will remember to call me, right, bakuka?”
I groaned. Unlike normal fathers who called their daughters princess or pumpkin, Baba’s pet name for me was Bakuka, which in English roughly translated into “fat round ball.”
“Yes, I will call. I love you.”
Jake wrapped his arm over me and handed me a beer. “Why did you tell your dad that you were hanging out with friends?”
“My dad is coming to town.” I replied curtly. “Oh?” Jake popped open my beer. “When?” “I think sometime next week.”
Jake grabbed the remote and turned down the volume. “Will I get to meet him? We’ve been together for awhile now, and you came with me to North Carolina to meet my family. My mama loves you. She thinks you’ve got such good manners.”
I smiled. “Tell her I said thank you.”
Jake chuckled. He took a sip of his beer. “I know your dad doesn’t come to visit too often. You usually go to Colorado, right?”
“So this is kind of a big deal then.” Jake set his beer down. “Do you not want me to meet your dad?”
“It’s not that, it’s just that dating is a bit different in Egypt. People don’t really date like they do here. If you’remeeting someone’s family, you’re either engaged or about to be engaged.”
Jake nodded slowly. “I see.”
“He’s also not the easiest person to get along with,” I added quickly. “He can be downright obnoxious.”
“Well, we’re not engaged, but we’ve been together for a while now. You’ve met my family. I think that it’s high time I met yours.”
“It might be too soon.” I fiddled with the corner of his shirt.
Jake stared at the TV for a moment. “My dad always took care of my mama when he was alive and she took care of him. She cooked for him. He always said that’s what drew him to her. He said the fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”
“You must really love my dancing then because I’m not the best cook,” I giggled.
“Your cooking’s amazing. That’s beside the point. I want a family like the one I had growing up. And I couldsee that happening with you,” He took my hands in his. “But if I don’t get to meet your family, I don’t feel like I know who you really are.”
I sighed. He wasn’t going to let this go.
“I still don’t know if this is the best idea, Jake—”
“If you’re not willing to introduce me to your family,” Jake said, unwrapping his arm. “Then maybe we need to reconsider this relationship.”
“It’s not that I don’t want you to meet them,” I told Jake, who had gotten up from the
couch and was now strumming his guitar. “Baba is overprotective. I’m his only daughter. He can be a lot.”
“Do you not think I can handle him? It’s not like I’ve never been around Arabs.” I fought the temptation to say not this Arab. “Do you really want to meet him?”
As we waited inside of Carousel, one of the fancier Middle Eastern restaurants in Glendale, I reviewed with Jake the topics that he was allowed to bring up at dinner as well as of the ones that even under the penalty of death he should never bring up.
“So remember that he loves soccer,” I told Jake, who was fidgeting with the buttons on his jacket. “And history. Especially anything involving the Ottoman Empire.”
“Okay,” Jake said. I pulled his hand away from his buttons and engulfed it in mine. “And what am I not supposed to bring up again?”
“Just avoid politics and religion. And dessert hummus. He thinks it’s blasphemy. And whatever you do, don’t order a drink . He doesn’t know that I drink either, so just don’t bring up alcohol. He thinks that I pray five times a day. Also don’t mention that North Carolina BBQ has a lot of pork—remember he doesn’t eat pork. Don’t let on that we go to bars—he thinks that we just have dinner parties. And the most important one is to not mention belly dancing. Remember he doesn’t know that I dance and I don’t plan on him ever finding out.”
Jake nodded and studied the walls, which were painted a gaudy gold. An enormous vase of fake flowers sat on each table. “That seems like a lot to hide from your dad.” He drummed his fingers to the light classicalsymphonies that trickled from the stereo.
“Trust me, it’s just easier this way.”
He pulled out his phone and checked the time.
“Your dad did say seven right? It’s 7:20 now. Do you think he’s okay? Did he maybe get lost or something? The reservation is for seven.”
“No,” I yawned. “He’s just running on EPT.”
“EPT?” Jake frowned.
“Oh, Egyptian people time.”
At 7:30, Baba and Hoda arrived. Hoda had worn her Chanel hijab and Baba was dressed like a tree in a green polo shirt and khaki pants.
“Good Evening, Dina,” Hoda leaned in and pecked the air beside each of my cheeks. “You look well.When will you come to Denver? We miss you.”
“Soon, Hoda,” I rested my hand in hers. “I’ll try my best to be there for Thanksgiving.”
Hoda turned to introduce herself to Jake as Baba turned to me. As he gave me air kisses, he whispered, “How could you not tell me that you had a boyfriend? A White boyfriend? If he’s planning to marry you, he better be converting.”
I had told Baba a few days ago about Jake. He had gotten most of his ranting out of his system, including how American men were rude and didn’t know how to treat women and that Jake would bring shame to the family. When I asked him if he had told any of our relatives about Jake, he murmured not yet and instead ranted about how a white man would never be able to properly provide for me. He was clearly not over this.
I pulled away from Baba. “Slow down, Baba. He has good character. Give him a chance.”
Baba groaned as though he had been told to go take out the trash. “You are Jake?” Baba asked. Jake turned to me for directions.
“Yes Baba, this is Jake.”
Baba stuck out his hand and gave Jake a curt handshake. He walked over to the host and the two began to shout at each other in Arabic.
“Is he okay?” Jake looked at Baba with alarm as Baba shoved his finger into the host’s podium.
“Oh yes,” Hoda patted Jake’s arm, “He will be fine. This is just how he communicates.”
Two seconds later the host walked us over to our table. I desperately wanted to order a glass of wine but knew that I couldn’t.
“Ramadan is coming up,” Baba said as he set down his menu. Hoda waved to a waiter. “Are you going to fast this year?”
He chuckled and patted my arm. “Good, good. I know that Ramadan is hard for you because you didn’t grow up fasting because of your mother. Yet she had you chase Easter eggs,” Baba shook his head. “I swear I’ll never get Christianity.”
“I had a friend in college who was Muslim,” Jake beamed at Baba.”
Baba raised an eyebrow at him. He sipped his water and muttered “peace be upon him.”
Our waiter appeared to take our order, which Hoda handled. She ordered half the menu and asked us if it was enough food.
“Where are you from, Jake?” Hoda asked. She squeezed some lemon into her tea. “Oh, North Carolina. I’m from this town in the mountains.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know much about American geography,” Hoda smiled sheepishly. “Where is that exactly?”
“By the way,” Baba turned to me. “Your Instagram is bringing shame on the family.”
I rolled my eyes. At least twice a month Baba told me that my social media embarrassed the family.
“How is it bringing shame?” I asked. Hoda glared at Baba.
“You are in a bikini! The family is upset. They can’t believe that you are posting naked pictures of yourself—”
“They’re not naked. And who in the family is upset? I’ll talk to them.” Last time I had checked the bikini picture, three of my cousins had posted fire emojis under it.
“Sharif!” Hoda snapped at Baba. She switched to Arabic. “You have been berating your daughter and you have not once spoken to Jake. Say something to him.”
“Fine, fine,” Baba threw up his hands. “Just know that your Instagram is shameful.”
“Just know that I don’t care,” I retorted.
Hoda exchanged a few words with Baba in Arabic. She then turned to Jake. “Where did you say you are from again Jake?”
Baba frowned. “Isn’t North Carolina the state with all the NASCAR and rednecks? I swear I read an article about how this one town got mad that they could only have two junk cars in their front yard.”
“Baba!” I turned to Jake. “I am so sorry.”
“We’re not all rednecks, Sharif. North Carolina is a swing state now.” Jake chuckled. Baba’s eyes narrowed into slits.
Three waiters arrived with our appetizers. Heaping platters of falafels, dolma, hummus, salad, and tahini were set down. Hoda picked up Jake’s plate and piled it with a little bit of everything.
“Baba,” I decided to change the topic to focus on what he loved most, “Liverpool is doing very well this season.”
“It’s because of Salah. Allah blessed the team with an Egyptian player.”
“Oh you’re talking about soccer?” Jake interrupted, placing his elbows on the table. “Beckham’s great, isn’t he?”
Baba raised his eyebrows. His eyes darted to Hoda and then back to Jake. “Yes. That was a player.”
“Enough talk of sports,” Hoda piled more falafels onto Jake’s plate. “This one, he’s always on about the soccer. I tell him normal people don’t care. Dina mentioned that you are a musician?”
“Yes, I have a Master’s in composition.”
“Oh that is impressive,” Hoda nodded as she bit into a falafel. “Isn’t that impressive, Sharif?”
“It’s funny, I didn’t originally intend to study music,” Jake dipped a falafel into hummus. “I actually first studied engineering, but I had always been a musician, and my heart wasn’t really in engineering.”
“Oh!” Hoda dabbed her lips with her napkin. “That’s rather unusual, isn’t it?”
“Wait,” Baba held up his hand. “You gave up a career as an engineer to become a musician?”
“Well, I changed my major.”
“I was an engineer,” Baba sat up in his chair. Hoda rolled her eyes at him. “It is a very good career. You can provide for a family as an engineer. You gave that up?!”
“I knew I wouldn’t be happy,” Jake explained. “I also had some ethical concerns too. I didn’t want to build planes that could be used as a weapon -”
“This is an American idea,” Baba cut in. “In other countries, people understand that they have to have a good job to support their family.” Baba shifted his attention to me. “If your mother hadn’t instilled these stupid ideas in your head, you would know to marry someone who is a doctor or lawyer—”
“I’ve been working hard on my music,” Jake said. “And I plan to provide for my family when I have one. I think that a man should provide for his family. I’m a bit old fashioned that way.”
“Hmm.” Baba took a bite of his salad. “We agree on one thing then.”
We all ate in silence for a few minutes. Jake asked Hoda about her recent trip to Egypt.
Baba turned his attention back to me.
“You need to come to Denver. I will book a ticket for you. Mohammed Jr. is still available, but he won’t be for long.”
“Baba,” I hissed, leaning towards him so that Jake wouldn’t hear. “I’m not going to marry Mohammed Jr. Youneed to trust me.”
Baba grumbled into his salad. Hoda muttered something to him in Arabic. Baba ignored whatever she said and asked Jake, “So you are planning to marry my daughter, yes?”
“Uh,” Jake glanced at me. “I mean, not right now, but in the future, maybe—”
“Ah!” Baba dropped his fork. “You see? He is not even serious about you. A good Muslim boy would have already asked for your hand.”
“Baba! Can you please stop?” I gave him a small kick under the table. “This is embarassing!”
“Sharif,” Jake said as Baba grimaced, “I do love your daughter. And I have considered marrying her one day, but there is still a lot to discuss. We have to consider where we want to settle, our views on raising children, I know that Dina’s not that traditional,” He chuckled again. “I wouldn’t want her to continue belly dancing, for one.”
I dropped my fork. Hoda’s eyes widened. I swiftly kicked Jake under the table.
“What does he mean belly dance?” Baba turned his attention to me. “You do not belly dance.”
I looked behind my shoulder. The nearest exit was a good 20 feet away. If I was really quiet, maybe I could make a break for it.
“Right, Dina?” Baba leaned forward, reaching out for my hand. “You don’t do that.”
I couldn’t believe that Jake brought up the one topic he wasn’t supposed to. And what did he mean by saying I wouldn’t want her to keep belly dancing?
“You know that the type of women who belly dance aren’t good ones,” Baba took a sip of his water. “I did not raise you to be like that.”
“You weren’t the only one who raised me,” I murmured. I could feel my hands curling into fists. Jake tried to touch my shoulder but I shifted away. “I have been belly dancing for a few years. Dancing makes me happy. It’s how I spend my Friday nights. That’s better than going out and getting drunk at the club, right?”
“No good Muslim man will marry you if you belly dance. You must end this rubbish immediately.” Baba’s eyes flitted towards Jake. “You will end up with this.”
“Wait just a minute,” Jake tried to cut in.
“Baba, I love performing,” I gave his hand a squeeze. “I love who I am when I dance. Don’t you want me to be happy?”
“Of course I want you to be happy! I want you to marry a good Muslim man and have children!” He turned to Jake. “You are not Muslim. You did not grow up with our traditions.”
“Does that matter?” Jake asked. “Look, I truly love your daughter, and I just said that I
don’t think she should keep belly dancing if we got married-”
“It does matter!” Baba roared. The table next to us jumped. Hoda shook her head. She knew that trying tostop him now was like trying to stop a rampaging rhinoceros. “I don’t want Dina to make the same mistake I did!”
“Mistake? You think that marrying Mama was a mistake? Am I a mistake?” A tear trickled down my cheek. I pulled my hands away from Baba and stared down at my chipped nail polish.
“I—of course you are not a mistake, Dina,” Baba began to soften. “You are what I love most in this world. I just want what is best for you.” Baba sighed and patted Hoda’s hand. “Being married to your mother was very difficult. You did not always see it because you were so young. She drank constantly. She would drink at the Egyptian-American picnics. Do you remember those?”
I nodded slowly.
“When we first got engaged, she told me that she would convert and that she was interested in learning about other cultures. She even wanted to go to Egypt to meet my family. That all changed after we got married. She refused to come to the mosque with me. She didn’t understand the importance of fasting during Ramadan. Her family never approved of me because I wasn’t like them,” Baba took a sip of water. “With Hoda, it is much easier because we come from the same background. We understand one another. It will be much easier for you to do the same.”
“Baba, you are treating Jake the same way,” I pointed out to him. “He is not like you and you are immediately dismissing him.”
“That’s because I know what it will be like for you! I just told you!”
“Sharif!” Hoda dug her nails into his hand. “Calm down!”
“Baba, you literally never listen to me.”
“That’s because younever listen to me -”
“For once, just for once, I need you to sit there, shut up, and listen.”
Hoda covered her mouth. Jake’s mouth fell open. Baba sputtered incoherently.
“I will never be able to live up to your definition of a proper Egyptian girl. I feel like you blame me for everything that went wrong with mama. None of that was my fault. I can’t control the fact that you two couldn’t put your differences aside.” I paused to take a sip of water. “You put an overwhelming amount of pressure on me. I am trying to be a good daughter, but I can’t live up to whatever vision you have for me.You need to respect that.” I couldn’t control the tears that flowed down my face. “I feel like I’ll never be good enough for you.”
“Sharif!” Hoda turned to Baba. “See how you made Dina feel? I always tell you, this is America, trust her to make her own decisions and you just bombard her all the time—”
Baba ignored Hoda. He leaned back in his chair. “I’m sorry, Dina. I didn’t mean to make you feel this way.”
“It’s okay,” I shrugged. “I never told you how I was feeling.”
Baba grunted. “It’s important you communicate with me Dina. You need to tell me things. If you can’t turn to your family, who else can you turn to?”
“I don’t tell you things because you freak out. I didn’t tell you about Jake because I knew you would freak out.”
Baba remained silent. His eyes flitted towards Jake and then settled back on my own. “If you want me to tell you things, you need to respect my choices. You need to trust me.”
Baba sighed. “You are right. I have not trusted you. I haven’t been fair to you. Look, I can’t say that I am going to immediately accept everything that you are doing, but I do want you to feel like you can reach out to me. I love you, bakuka.”
“I love you too, Baba.”
Hoda motioned a waiter for the check. “It’s getting a bit late. Why don’t you take this food home with you?”
Jake drummed his fingers on the dashboard as he drove me back to his apartment. The chords of abluegrass band drifted out of the radio. I stared out the window. It was surprisingly gloomy for an LA night.
“Jake,” I asked, as he pulled down my street, “Why did you tell my dad I belly dance? That was the one thing I asked you not to do.”
Jake stopped the car in front of my apartment. He ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m sorry, Dina. I know you told me not to do that. Your dad was riling me up and I just forgot.”
“That’s the kind of thing you can’t just forget, Jake. In this case, it worked out because my dad and I were able to talk a bit, but this is definitely not the last I’m going to hear about it.”
“I’m sorry.” He reached out for my hand. I didn’t return it. “I was trying to relate to him. I wanted him to approve of me. I wanted him to know that I can be a good provider.”
I watched as a man with a thick beard walked his labrador down the street. “And what did you mean I would have to stop belly dancing if we got married?”
“I’ve told you, I’m a bit on the traditional side,” Jake said. “I wouldn’t want my wife to dance half naked in front of men. For now it’s fine, but everything changes once you’re married.”
“You love my dancing! And why would everything change once you get married?”
“I believe that the man and the woman have specific roles when it comes to marriage. And belly dancing doesn’t fit into those roles.”
I sighed heavily. I reached for the car door handle and stepped out of the car. “Dina!” Jake cried.“Where are you going? We have to talk about this.”
“Let’s talk tomorrow.” I opened the door to my apartment and closed it. I set my keys down in the turquoise bowl that sat on my kitchen counter. I walked over to my bedroom and opened the closet door. I put on my hip belt, plugged my phone into my speaker, and danced around my living room.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer based in coastal North Carolina. She writes about film, TV, mental health, and the Arab diaspora. She also loves to belly dance. She has a deep appreciation for sloths and tacos.