Late one summer night on the Edgware Road in London, the streets aglow with electric bulbs and neon, I walked towards one of my regular haunts: a shisha café crammed with gilt palm trees and red sofas.
The weather was balmy and the streets teeming with tourists from the Gulf, who sauntered past in monochrome dress, their young children and maids trailing behind them. The delineation between night and day was muddied by busy kiosks selling candy floss and roasted peanuts. The traffic was loud and obnoxious while the air carried the scent of lamb kebabs mingled with musky attar perfume and shisha smoke. A few shops were still open, catering to insomniacs with an itch to spend; one large emporium on the corner sold faux-Baroque furniture, including a grotesque lamp in the shape of a little black servant boy holding aloft a golden palm leaf. Belly dancers twinkled in their costumes through restaurant windows; itinerant rose-sellers harassed couples on the terraces.
Edgware Road was once home to Tyburn gallows, where traitors, heretics, and petty criminals were publicly hanged. This was long before Hyde Park stretched out along its southern front and the Marylebone flyover cut across its northern boundary. Close to Marble Arch and Oxford Street, it now shares their trashy anonymity while having a distinctive Middle Eastern ambiance—first, Ottoman traders in the nineteenth century and then students from Egypt, exiles from Iran, and refugees from Lebanon put their stamp on this neighborhood. It is where I go to stretch out time with friends, assured that we will find someplace open before we each have to return to our distant quarters of the city. The road attracts a very specific mix of people: Muslim teenagers looking for halal hangouts that don’t revolve around alcohol; hippie students soaking up the exotic vibe; Somali, Pakistani, Iranian, and Arab couples and families dining out. From the quick wrap and juice cafés to the ornate and extortionate restaurants, the soundtrack is always synthesizer-heavy Arabic pop, usually Lebanese or Egyptian, which for me always creates a Pavlovian hunger for falafels, hummus, and pita bread.
In the downstairs salon of my red-and-gold shisha palace, the music played on a widescreen TV attached to a wall and connected to an obscure satellite channel. It screened everything from denim-shorted hotties cavorting in the surf to old Egyptian musicals, in which a two-inch gap had to constantly be maintained between male and female dancers. The small room had cushions cut from kilims placed along the walls, and low brass coffee tables surrounded by a litter of shisha pipes. In one corner I saw a party in their early twenties: the men in pressed jeans and smart shirts, a blonde in a black dress with discreet jewelry. To my left was a young couple: the teenage girl with long, thick, dark hair and huge hoop earrings, the man beside her slumped over his shisha, a baseball cap on his head and a closely cropped beard along his jowls.
She flicked through her phone with long, translucent nails. As my wild-haired and wide-smiling male friend came to join me at the table, her eyes slid across to me.
“She’s with me,” she said to him in a sharp London accent, assuming that he was about to harass.
“He’s with me,” I replied, smiling at her protectiveness. She giggled and her small, uneven teeth made her look even younger than I had guessed.
She told me that she was half-Lebanese and at college. Her best female friend, she continued, was Somali, and they would often go to clubs together, do things like shout, “Where the men up in here?” and generally run riot. Her mascara was smudged around her eyes and she had the leaden limbs of someone who had drunk heavily, but there was still a sweetness about her, a childlike openness and tactility. Her boyfriend, however, sat catatonic beside her, smoke streaming from his nostrils and the corner of his mouth. I wondered how old he was, but didn’t ask.
I turned to my friend, and with a rose and mint shisha between us, caught up on each other’s lives.
It was sometime later that I heard a commotion behind me and turned to see the young girl belly-dancing to a darbouka solo, slowly swinging her hair and hips. I tried to resume my conversation but was irritated by the whooping and wolf whistling of the waiters. Turning once again, I saw that the student had removed her jeans and was playing with the hem of her long, tight, black T-shirt, which was riding over her thighs and bum.
I knew the waiters pretty well—had chatted late into the night with a couple of them when there were enough customers to justify a lock-in, about Iraq and the families they had left behind—but they had now turned into leering, glassy-eyed caricatures. They pulled out their phones to capture her performance; they shouted lurid encouragement in Arabic, they laughed and laughed. Only the youngest waiter, a handsome boy about the same age as the dancing girl, seemed uncomfortable, and pulled away from the scene to busy himself somewhere else. The tidy blonde woman in the other group looked disgusted by the striptease, and I watched her mouth move, sneering at “the whore.”
Aghast, in confusion and worry, I turned to the dancer’s boyfriend and asked him what she was doing.
“She’s always like this when she drinks. She’ll only stop if I hit her,” he replied dispassionately.
I turned back to her. Her arms were raised in some kind of euphoria, causing her T-shirt to rise up and reveal her G-string. It reminded me, too vividly, of the opening scenes in The Accused , when Jodie Foster is dancing in the pool hall, seemingly blissful and in control of the situation, before the attackers encircle her.
“I wanna take my top off,” the girl yelled, and I jumped to my feet.
“You shouldn’t take anything more off,” I said, taking on an eldest sister tone. “These guys are taking photos of you.”
“I don’t even like ‘em,” she replied. “I don’t care what they think.”
“They don’t deserve to see you naked.”
“Sharmuta, slut,” chortled the eldest waiter, wiping his hand along his stubbly beard.
Her arms came down, her hips stopped gyrating, and she agreed, dejectedly, to put her jeans back on. The handsome teenage server happily passed me the neatly folded denim jeans from where he had put them on a shelf, and I led her to a toilet where she could change in privacy.
Once she was dressed, it was as if a spell had been broken. She put on her jacket, and whatever dream or nightmare she was recreating scattered. She pulled me in for an embrace and whispered thank you in my ear.
She had put us all under a test and I felt vindicated. My instinct had been to protect her as she had tried to protect me. This crazy young girl, flitting around London at night, reminded me of those jinns that take human form to toy with and improve humanity. The homeless man who exchanges a few coins for a life story worthy of an epic; the mentally ill woman on the night bus who sings like Ella Fitzgerald; the young hoodie boys who once rescued me from a trapped elevator.
Linking arms with her boyfriend to remain steady as they climbed the steps back up to the street, the dancer turned around to me. She said, “You wanna stay out, then?”