So This is Christmas

It's Christmas Eve but nobody knows it, or if they do they pretend like they don't. In Saudi Arabia late-December is business as usual by law. I'm waiting at a stoplight behind a guy in a beat up coup. His window is down and his hairy arm hangs lazily against the dented car door, fingers scissor-pinching a cigarette. He taps the stubby stick at the moment a listless puff of wind pushes by, and it lifts a clump of ash, robbing gravity and lifting it on its invisible back. The cigarette ash is infinitesimal and insignificant, grey and grubby, but it rises on the breeze and I watch it until it sails over my car and out of sight. And I'm smiling because I'm a clump of cigarette ash too.

I'm coming home after running errands on Christmas Day, feeling a little dispirited that to everyone around me it's a day like any other. Just a Tuesday. High of 82. Normal business rhythm -- work, prayer, work, prayer, work, prayer. I pass a park and I give it a three-second glance as it slides by beside my car. Two men comfortably slouching on a park bench, one's face bursting into laughter at something his smiling friend says. A child playing, his arms outstretched as if he fancies himself an airplane, dust billowing from beneath his sandaled foot as it strikes the earth. A father in a long white thobe stooping a little to reach his toddler's hand, the toddler smiling up earnestly into his father's face. See? I tell myself. They do have Christmas here.

Me and Grace take the seaside road on the way home from a quick stop at the consulate on the day after Christmas. She's quietly watching the ocean pass out the port-side window, then she spots a playground and begs to stop. Normally I'm a louse of a father, but it's Boxing Day for crying out loud, so we stop. Grace scurries over the playground equipment and I find shade beneath a squat palm tree, a safe distance from the clump of women in black abayas and face-covering niqabs crouched in the shade of a toy house, squawking like a murder of crows. I listen to Grace laugh to herself, watch the sea breeze blow my daughter's hair across her face and ocean spray across the black rocks guarding the playground from the ocean. The tip of a palm frond tickles the back of my neck. I brush it away but it playfully nips at me again, and I sigh happily at the frisky palm tree and the blue sea and the clod of black polyester and estrogen and my little girl with stringy hair. This is Christmas.