Don’t Let Your Keffiyeh Show

A Palestinian keffiyeh being worn by the author.
A Palestinian keffiyeh being worn by the author.

She was a fat woman with a double chin. Her hair was short, curly, brown with silver streaks. And her big arms, well, they reminded Nabil of sea cows beached in the sand. She called to him, “Water boy! Excuse me! Water boy!”

Nabil looked up from the floor, kneeling, carefully picking up pieces of an empty salad plate a server dropped.

“Can you please bring me some ice?”

“Yes ma’am. No problem.”

“Here,” she said, handing Nabil a plastic glass. “Use this one, make sure you fill it to the very top.”

“Yes ma’am. No problem. No problem.”

And that was Nabil’s response when customers asked for things. His boss was a short and jovial Greek man who always had a Cuban cigar in his mouth and urged the employees to say, ‘My Pleasure’ when answering customers’ requests. He overheard a waiter saying it while vacationing with his family at a ritzy resort in the Bahamas. Since he didn’t enforce it, Nabil used the more efficient, ‘No problem’. Most of the tasks Nabil was asked to do were not really his pleasure.

Nabil was a busboy. Busboys roamed the restaurant looking for tables to clean, dishes to pick up and waters to refill. It was a small restaurant with three rooms. The front room was the lounge, where the bar was located. The lounge was kept so dim that when Nabil first walked in to apply for a job he thought he had mistakenly walked into a strip club. “It looks like a cave with booths,” Nabil told his aunt. The fat woman always sat in the lounge sipping martinis in the dark. The brightly lit dining room was decorated in the style of an inn; inconsequential paintings hung on old-fashioned wallpaper. There was a third, much smaller room in the back that was usually reserved for big parties.

 After Nabil finished sweeping the rest of the broken plate, he went to the bus stand and sank the plastic glass in the ice bucket. He returned to the table and handed it back to the woman. She snatched it out of his hand. “Thank you!”

Nabil never wore his keffiyeh in public. He had only been in Miami four months and had yet to explore the city, except for what he got to see during his daily commute from South Miami where his aunt lived, to the FIU main campus on Eight Street, and finally culminating at his job. In trying to fit in, he gave up the thought of ever wearing his keffiyeh in public. Sometimes, he carried it in his back pocket folded in fours. His father, a rare book dealer from Cairo, bought him the checkered black keffiyeh before leaving for Miami. Nabil’s plan was to study Civil Engineering.

Palestinian keffiyeh

The day Nabil left for America he saw his father cry for the first time since his mother died. He helped Nabil pack and then sat on his only son’s bed watching him rush around the room searching for his books and CDs that he wanted to take on the long trip.

“Nabil.”

“Yes?”

“Will you promise to be cautious and strong and to keep in touch?”

“Of course father,” he said, trying to fit an old, dog-eared paperback copy of Amerika by Franz Kafka in his black tote bag. “There isn’t any reason to worry. Miami is not like Miami Vice. That’s just Hollywood.”

Father and son looked into each other’s eyes and the unspoken was spoken.

“I love you.”

“I love you too, father.”

When he arrived at his aunt Farah’s doorstep in May of 2001, she warned him about Miami, and after September 11, she warned him about everyone.

“Be very careful,” she said. “It is a difficult time for the country. Do not involve yourself in discussions. Just walk away.”

Nabil assured his aunt that he would walk away. His goal in Miami was to better himself with prestigious higher education at the Florida International University.

Nabil did notice that before the September attacks the customers paid him little attention but now everyone seemed to be aware of his existence. Is my keffiyeh showing, Nabil wondered. He had read a comic book in which Batman is forced to save a woman from a gang of thugs while dressed as Bruce Wayne. During the struggle Batman thinks, “Is my cape showing? Don’t let your cape hang out.”

Nabil thought it was funny. Is my keffiyeh showing Nabil asked himself again. You should run and hide and dispose of your keffiyeh! I do not want to run or hide my keffiyeh, but maybe I should.

The more demanding customers reminded Nabil of his three uprooted cousins from East Jerusalem. They were Anwar, Saeed, Talib, with their father, Nabil’s uncle, Hazeem. They temporarily moved to Nabil’s house in Cairo after their own house was torn down by Israeli bulldozers for being in the way of settlement land.

From the second they arrived they became a great burden for Nabil. His father had told him the day before to be sympathetic to their pain. “They are our guests so you will serve them, tending to their every wish. Our home is their home.”

The three cousins, being the ages of 6, 8 and 12, tried their hardest to abuse their older cousin’s hospitality at every instance, especially when grownups were not around.

They were not accustomed to being waited upon, but quickly adapted, as though they were Saudi Royalty, and became mean-spirited like a beggar who finds a treasure chest of gold.

“More water, please, Nabil. Fill it to the very top.”

“Yes Anwar.”

“Nabil, where is my piece of Vaklava?”

“I will get it now, Saeed.”

“Nabil, my bread and goat cheese please.”

“I am sorry Talib, I seem to have forgotten it.”

“But what about my plate? You are a poor host Nabil. Don’t you realize how I am a traumatized person because of the Zionists?”

“Yes, I will get you your plate.”

And it went on like this for a couple of months until one day Nabil blew up at the dinner table because he was worn out from studying and cooking for his cousins and his meal had become cold and Talib kept requesting pepper on his dish.

“I am not a slave! And I do not care what the Zionists did to you and I am not here to serve you!”

Everyone stopped eating and stared at Nabil.

Later on that same evening after Nabil had finished cleaning up, he eavesdropped on his father and uncle who were drinking tea in the living room. Nabil pretended to be studying at the kitchen table, dreaming of America when he overheard a moment that was only for brothers.

He pictured his father’s strong hairy hands on his uncle’s shoulders as he wept.

“I do not know what I’m going to do. Everything I owned was in Jerusalem. I never mentioned this but the day they came and I witnessed my life in ruins all I wanted to do was fall on my knees, weeping. I was ready to die, but I knew I could not.”

“Because of your sons.”

“Because of my sons. If I break down, then they too would follow, and what would become of them? So I’d imagine them running around like chickens with their heads cut off.”

Nabil could almost see his father’s tender brown eyes watching his uncle, wiping his face.

“But now brother, you must regain your strength again for your sons. Each day you waste away sitting around the house depressed is a day in which the Zionists win. You must continue on and do what you must for the sake of the generations to come, for the sake of our sons.”

“Yes, yes, you are right. But there is a deep dark hole inside me.”

That night Nabil realized that he must go to America and become the greatest civil engineer and build houses so strong they could not be destroyed by Zionist bulldozers.

As Nabil remembered all those things from his past, he carried the bus-tub to the dishwasher meaning to drop it off, pick up a new one and hurry back, but the dishwasher, a large African American, splashed him with dirty dish water. Nabil knew it was intentional because Sammy the dishwasher smiled and did it a second time.

“How many times have I told you Arab, bring the silverware bucket first.”

“Do not splash me again or I will be forced to tell the manager.”

Sammy sprayed him from the hose again. The night manager who was not even six feet away was standing in front of the kitchen television watching an American Football game.

“Sammy, leave Nabil alone. The guy has work to do. Please apologize to him…keep running…keep running. Touchdown baby.”

Sammy stared at a wet Nabil. “I’m sorry Osama.”

Nabil left the kitchen in a rush angry and frustrated. And once he was back on the floor, “Nabil, honey, can I get a water refill on D-4?”

Nabil grabbed a water pitcher and went into the dining room. He walked directly to the table where the water was needed. It was two older couples with four empty water glasses. He picked up a glass and poured the water carefully. Everyone in the table watched him.

He put the first refill down. “Thank you,” said the lady. The guests at the table watched him as he refilled the second glass, which Nabil did not pick up because of its close proximity. He looked down at the table. Two left Nabil thought. His brow was perspiring. He grabbed the third glass, refilling it to the very top. He put the third refill down and picked up the last glass. As he refilled the glass and before placing it back on the table, a man said, “Hey buddy, could your bring us some lemon for this water?”

“No problem,” said Nabil.

“Thanks buddy.”

As Nabil grabbed a monkey dish of lemon slices from the bus stand, the dwarf server squeezed his butt.

“Hey, water boy. Mrs. Sanders wants some more ice.”

Nabil looked down. He didn’t like the dwarf server because she was rude and annoying and treated the busboys with little respect. At five feet she was the most annoying person Nabil had ever met. Nabil faked a smile.

“She wants her ice now, Nabil, so you better hurry or she might eat you.”

Dwarf Server was referring to the big woman. Nabil never cared for learning customers’ names. He overheard a rumor that Dwarf Server had done dirty very sexual things with one of the bartenders behind the bar after the restaurant had closed. Her face made Nabil uneasy.

“Don’t go blow yourself up or anything!” She slapped his butt and ran off.

Nabil dropped off the lemon slices and they said, “Thank you buddy.” He went back to the bus stand, grabbed a cup of ice, and a water pitcher in case there were waters to refill.

Mrs. Sanders’ booth was the last one opposite the bar. The news had been on around the clock like everywhere else and everyone in the lounge was watching it.

Arriving at the table, he handed her the glass.

“Why do your people hate America?”

“Excuse me?”

“Haven’t you been watching the television?”

“My people?”

“Don’t deny it. Maybe you don’t because you live here, but your family in Afghanistan does.”

“I am not Afghan. I am sorry. I don’t think I should be discuss-“

“Your people just murdered thousands of Americans for no good reason!”

All the customers in the lounge and at the bar stared at Nabil. He felt their eyes.

“My people, they did not kill anyone! Those are crazy people!” Nabil walked away slamming the pitcher on the bus stand, spilling water. He grabbed a towel and started wiping the counter. 

“I need a water refill all over my room!” the dining room server yelled.

Nabil picked up the other pitcher and went into the dining room. Don’t let your keffiyeh show! He searched for empty water glasses, four on the first table and they needed more butter, two in the second table and they wanted barbecue sauce. As he refilled water in the third table, everyone in the dining room watched him. Nabil, with all eyes on him, began to think he was a keffiyeh by itself with no person underneath. A magical keffiyeh like in the One Thousand and One Nights. A walking, talking, water-refilling, dirty plate removing, (Are you finished?) bus tub full of dishes carrying, restroom-cleaning, coffee-making, towel-replacing, dirty ashtray-swapping, garbage-dumping, ice-retrieving, spill- cleaning, (On its knees or with a broom. The keffiyeh that is.) hot tea-making keffiyeh.

And keffiyeh was the one overfilling the glass, spilling water on its black pants. Keffiyeh let the glass drop. No one in the dining room stopped watching Keffiyeh. “Oh no! My keffiyeh is showing!” Keffiyeh screamed. And then Keffiyeh fell on its “knees” pondering God, Love, Death and its very own keffiyeh existence. “I am not a keffiyeh,” he said, addressing all the customers. 

About the Author
Fawzy Zablah was born in El Salvador but raised in Miami. Among his works is the short story collection CIAO! MIAMI and the novel RARITY OF THE CENTURY. His fiction has been published widely at Hobart, 3AM Magazine, Acentos Review and Expat Press. His short story, THIS MODERN MAN IS BEAT, was adapted into an award winning short film in 2015 currently playing on Amazon Prime. He is hard at work on a novel about the Arabs and Jews of Latin America with the working title of GITANES.
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