He sits with the others in one of the larger tents. The roof sags from the weight of itself, the great stretch of canvas propped only by a rickety frame. He wonders how it remains upright. He sits beside Abdul Karim, the tribe elder. He knows by the size of the party before him that the occasion is great, and he is the guest of honor. He is also the only westerner. There are only men in this tent and they form themselves in a large circle, their bodies strewn across randomly scattered cushions and mats that cover the earthen floor. At the heart of the circle lies a feast fit for a king. Platters brim with steaming rice, vegetables, and chunks of a recently cooked goat. The men are dressed in traditional thobes that are streaked with the grime of Bedouin life. There are no eating utensils – just hands and on his part, a large deal of faith that he’s not going to get sick.
Through the flap of the tent sway two women carrying more food. They are Abdul Karim’s latest wives. Dressed in colourful Bedouin garb, one is clearly younger. The older one chews on something as she serves. Their only accessories are the stains on their dresses, left behind after cooking the meal. The room fills with the scent of spices and the chatter of hungry men and he watches the younger girl lay down her tray. She skips out the door straight after. Outside, the tent looks alarmingly small in the great desert landscape. The air is crisp and the stars look like pinholes punched in a blue-black blanket of sky. The camels are tethered nearby. They are all miles from nowhere.
Inside, he watches the second wife linger. Still chewing and holding the platter of food, she chats to her brother. She laughs a laugh that gets caught in her throat. It develops into a hacking cough. TB is rife in these parts. He sees alarm in her eyes as she hacks away, still trying to balance the tray. But her bronchial spasm wins out and soon she is choking though no one can hear over the noise. He watches her lips turn a dusky blue. The tray slides from her hands – baked vegetables smash to the ground. She follows them, clutching her throat. He panics – no one seems troubled by the woman choking on the tent floor. He stands to help, aware that their culture forbids him to touch her. Despite this, he finds himself crossing the room, crossing that line of cultural respect. As he reaches her, a small crowd of women have gathered about her. He didn’t see them come in. An elderly woman fans her with the smoke from a smoldering bundle of weed. The woman rouses, occasionally heaving but no longer the shade of the blue that she was. The women escort her away, while the men continue to eat as if nothing has happened.