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Excerpt: 'Layover In Dubai'

Layover In Dubai

When he was a boy, diving for pearls among sharks, and gambling with smugglers three times his age, Anwar Sharaf was rarely underestimated by his peers. Nowadays, in his fifties, people did it all the time. Especially Westerners, who needed only one look before writing him off as either incompetent or inconsequential.

Sharaf's police uniform was part of the problem -- green with epaulets and red piping, a canvas military belt, laced boots, a silly beret -- a getup that would have been right at home in some banana republic far across the waves. He accentuated the effect with a potbelly, a sloppy mustache, and the hangdog jowls of the long-suffering family man.

Glimpse him hunched over paperwork at his undersized desk and the word "beleaguered" came instantly to mind. So did "inept" and, possibly, "corrupt." Because surely here was an underpaid fellow who would soon have his hand out, sighing and grumbling about this rule and that until you bribed him and were merrily on your way. A harmless nuisance, in other words. A scrap of local color to liven up your texts and postcards home: Dumbest cop ever, LOL!

The moment Sharaf opened his mouth, impressions began to change. Fluent in English and Russian (his father, hiring tutors at the height of the Cold War, had hedged his bets), Sharaf had also picked up Hindi from the streets and Persian from the wharves. That left him in command of four of Dubai's main languages of commerce, with his native Arabic murmuring beneath them like an underground stream. His tutors had also schooled him in literature, economics, biology, philosophy -- the works. Throw in his seasons of instruction on the high seas at the age of thirteen -- a summer of pearling, an autumn of smuggling -- and he was arguably better equipped for intellectual combat than many of his contemporaries who had gone abroad to university.

Yet Sharaf usually held his fire. For one thing, why blow his cover? Enemies were more easily disarmed when they underestimated you. For another, he was accustomed to dismissive treatment, having endured it since the age of twenty-two, when he enraged his father by refusing to take a second wife even though his first one hadn't yet produced a child in two years of marriage. Thus did he break with a family tradition of Sharaf males taking multiple wives. Sharaf's father refused to acknowledge the move for what it was -- a gesture of rebellion by a young man determined to be "modern." He instead scorned it as a craven surrender to foreign values and a domineering wife, and the berating continued without letup until his death six years later.

At that point, Sharaf's wife, Amina, took up the cudgel, even though by then she was producing offspring as bountifully as Dubai's new offshore wells were spouting oil. It wasn't out of malice. It was part of her job as an Emirati wife, which in those days included running a household with the tyrannical rigor of a ship's captain.

Little surprise, then, that as we join Sharaf late one weeknight he is stoically fending off the latest blow, grimacing as Amina says, "You really can be a heartless imbecile, you know, when it comes to the welfare of your sons."

Amina had chosen a vulnerable moment for her new offensive. It was right before bedtime, when she knew that what Sharaf cherished most was a cool glass of camel's milk before climbing into bed with a book.

He was a man of uncomplicated tastes. Whereas Dubai's new elite favored art auctions, horse breeding, and an eclectic cuisine of, say, creamed leeks with shaved truffles, followed by poached Dover sole (which happened to be exactly what Sharaf's top boss, Brigadier Razzaq, had ordered that very night on the tab of a British banker), Sharaf preferred shopping malls, domino parlors, greasy mutton kebabs, and, his most recent discovery, sushi bars, which he treasured for their elemental taste of the sea.

In his reading he was far more adventuresome, a seeker of exotic riches from every hemisphere. He was particularly relishing tonight's offering -- Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, in the original Russian. A copy had arrived in the afternoon mail and awaited him on the bedside table. Sharaf was hungry for its insights, especially since certain Russians had lately been much on his mind. But now he would have to fight his way to sanctuary.

He set down his glass of milk with deliberation. He knew better than to answer hastily to such a skilled opponent. Early in their marriage Sharaf had enjoyed a clear advantage in these verbal contests, mostly because Amina's all-girl school had valued piety and deportment over rhetoric and quick thinking. But she had a sharp mind, and in raising their five children she had honed it on the whetstone of their daily stratagems and evasions. Sharaf, meanwhile, had steadily dulled his by going up against oafish criminals and sleepy desk sergeants, to the point that on the home front he was now sometimes overmatched.

Excerpted from Layover In Dubai by Dan Fesperman. Copyright 2010 by Dan Fesperman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf.

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Dan Fesperman