On Ice—fiction from Malu Halasa

2 July, 2023
Ice skating in the desert is more than just sport.


Malu Halasa


Malika’s trip began ominously. Her parents picked her up at the airport and drove to the family’s new villa. She stepped out of the car and fell into a dirt hole as deep as she was tall. The shock of finding the car’s front tires inches from her face erased the effect of any injury or hurt. No one came to her aid. Instead, her parents started bickering with each other.

“You didn’t warn her about the hole?”

“You forgot and parked right next to it!” her mother scolded her father.

The car stood on the side of a partially tarmacked road in front of a line of fancy houses, some finished, others in varying states of construction. The newly opened gated community rising from the desert was earmarked for the latest influx of foreign professionals. Many, according to Malika’s father on the drive in, were Palestinian and Egyptian. It didn’t matter that they were Arab nationals like he was; they weren’t Kuwaiti. The indigenous population required protection from corrupt foreign influences from other parts of the world, Islamic or otherwise.

Once Malika was safely ensconced in her parents’ spacious, air-conditioned, three-story villa, with nothing more than a scratch from the fall, her mother, Rania, let drop that four men in a car had followed her as she drove home from work that afternoon. “They turned away once they saw the guard at the gate,” she said.

“You weren’t scared?” asked Malika.

“No, not really.”

“What did they want?” Malika was alarmed by her mother’s nonchalance.

“It must have been a novelty for them to see a woman at the wheel. Whenever women leave the house, they’re usually driven by their chauffeurs.”

“Such a backward country!” snorted her daughter.

“Not backward,” her mother corrected, “just rich. Kuwaiti women don’t drive, as a rule; it’s not part of their culture.”

“That’s no excuse for threatening women — for threatening you!”

Their conversation ended abruptly at the sound of a car door slamming and a girlish voice thanking someone for the lift home. Sixteen-year-old Fidaa came bounding into the house with a stack of schoolbooks and a pair of scuffed white ice-skates, their blades protected by hot pink guards.

Her first words to her older sister were, “About time you visited,” and then: “I can’t believe I live here!” It was a sneer, followed by a glare directed towards Rania, who immediately stood up and excused herself. “I’d better go help your father in the kitchen,” she said.

Both daughters were incredulous as their mother exited the living room. “What does Mom know about cooking?” scoffed Fidaa. Unlike their other women relatives in Detroit, Rania hardly ever cooked, except for making toast in the morning. Family meals had always been their father’s responsibility.

Malika asked Fidaa, “How did you survive when Dad was in Kuwait?” He had lived in the country for six months and then returned to the US for a quick visit, before Rania and Fidaa went out to join him in the Gulf. Little Sister grimaced: “Takeaways and handouts from Teta and the aunties!”

Conversation didn’t improve over dinner. “Skating was okay,” Fidaa answered her father stiffly. Then, softening, she turned to Malika. “There’s nothing to do here but skate. I’m finally getting my Axels, double toe loops, and figures down.”

Malika was still confused about the sport Fidaa had taken up when she was ten, after Dorothy Hamill won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics. By then, Malika had already left Michigan for college in New York. She only saw Fidaa skate when she went back to Detroit for a visit. “Don’t be mad,” she said to Fidaa, “I don’t remember what an Axel is.”

Fidaa was academic in her description. “You take off on your left foot and go up on relevé. In the air, your free right foot steps up. After a half-turn, you straighten your knee and fold into a backspin position. You do one and a half revolutions in the air before landing backwards.” She stressed, “on your right foot.”

Rania joined in. “The jump distinguishes average skaters from more advanced skaters.”

Fidaa watched as her mother continued: “It’s scary to take off on the forward edge of the blade on one foot and land on the other foot’s backward edge of the blade. It’s a challenge every time you do it, because the transfer of weight in the air is difficult. When done correctly, in a sense you’re defying gravity.”

Fidaa nodded solemnly before she added, “The double toe loops —”

Malika held up her hand and stopped her. “I know. They’re jumps.” Although it was figures eights she remembered Little Sister learning first, as she traced endless symbols for infinity, on the ice.

Their father interrupted them. “And where did you skate?” he asked Fidaa pointedly. Malika thought it a peculiar question. How many ice rinks could there be in Kuwait City?

Fidaa picked at the food on her plate. “I practiced on the little rink” — her voice grated — “but for the open session I moved onto the big rink. And nobody,” she stressed matter-of-factly, “said a thing.”

Her parents exchanged furtive glances before her father said softly, but firmly, “Honey, you know you shouldn’t do that.”

The teenager turned to Malika for support. “They built a brand-new ice-skating complex a year ago. But get this”  — the expression on her face was one of sheer incomprehension — “girls skating by themselves are supposed to stay on the small rink, while the boys are taught on the Olympic-size one. Officially, girls can only go on the big rink accompanied by their families, but never alone or in groups.” Fidaa spent her every free moment on ice in a new facility that had been built for a sheikh’s daughter, another skating friend of Fidaa’s.

“What happens if girls skate there?” asked Malika.

Their father answered for Fidaa: “It’s just not done.”

His younger daughter’s tone was caustic. “Yeah, what is the problem if I skate there? Haven’t turned into a pumpkin yet!”

“Don’t talk to your father like that,” Rania interjected wearily.

Fidaa muttered something about not being hungry, and left the table at lightning speed. After a few seconds of silence, Malika glanced over at her mother and asked, “It’s culture, again, right?”

Rania muttered over her food, “It’s taking all of us a while to get used to living here.”

Malika cleaned up after the meal. When she stuck her head around the living room door, her parents were in quiet discussion, and suddenly looked up in surprise. It was obvious they had forgotten she was there. Her room, the guest or maid’s room, was at the top of the villa. She retrieved a bag from her suitcase, went to the floor below and knocked on her sister’s door.

“Come in,” Fidaa called out. Her dark eyes brightened at the sight of Malika. “I was hoping it was you — not Dad and another lecture!”

“Maybe this will help,” said Malika, handing her the gift bag.

“Cool!” First out was a copy of Just Seventeen magazine, which Fidaa leafed through until she found the “Problems” page. “Some kid’s written here he doesn’t think he has — she couldn’t believe it herself — “the ‘right equipment.’” She put down the magazine and examined the other gifts in the bag: a pair of pointy retro sunglasses, some dangling white plastic earrings, and two 45 record singles.

Fidaa immediately put on the earrings and sunglasses. To complete the picture, she held up Duran Duran’s single “Girls on Film” next to her face and copied the pouting expression of the five English boys in make-up on the record sleeve.

“Oooh, sexy!” she exclaimed. “What’s England like?”

“Bet you didn’t know Birmingham is home of the New Romantics!” said Malika. “I see their fans in the streets: The boys look like Edwardian dandies in frilly, ruffled shirts, while the girls strut around in power pantsuits with these angular shoulder pads.”

The teenager, who’d discovered punk before she left Detroit, shook her head and admired the jiggle of the earrings in the mirror. “I might be here but at least civilization hasn’t failed in the rest of the world,” she said.

Malika chuckled. Fidaa had inherited their mother’s fair complexion, her skin unblemished and smooth. She had the family good looks. She was glamorous in her skating outfits. The sunglasses and earrings gave her camp star quality.

Malika paused then asked, “You okay?”

Despite the fun in the mirror, Fidaa’s voice was sullen. “No, not really. Mom and I were doing just fine in Detroit. She was in a better mood. You know, she actually likes being a skating mom, or at least that’s how it seemed in America. We’d get up at 5 am and go to the rink for an early-morning lesson before she dropped me off at school and went to work. Sometimes she took a late lunch and picked me up after school, left me at the rink, and collected me on her way home. We spent our weekends there. She really enjoyed the competitions and performances.”

Fidaa removed the sunglasses and the earrings and arranged them absentmindedly on her dresser. “Mom would watch my friends skate and say, ‘Rita, you look like a gazelle on the ice.’ Then she’d turn to me and say, ‘Fidaa, you don’t!’”

The sisters cracked up. Rania could be notoriously blunt in her assessment of her daughters.

Fidaa grew wistful. “The two of us were so busy, we had no time for Turkish coffee at Teta’s, and getting our fortunes read. Mom loved not having to deal with the relatives, and who could blame her!”

“Why didn’t the both of you stay in Detroit?” asked Malika.

“Dunno,” shrugged the teenager. “Dad visited us after his first months in Kuwait. You saw him on that trip; he stopped in Birmingham on his way to Detroit. Notice anything funny when he passed through?”

Malika shook her head. She wasn’t going to tell her little sister that their father had refused to stay with her and Keith, and booked himself into a hotel instead. The morning she went to collect him, she found him removing the sheets from his bed. He said it was to help the cleaner before he rushed the two of them out of the room. It was then that Malika had that same, queasy feeling she used to get at home in Michigan. It happened whenever she caught a glimpse of her father’s secret life, the one he tried to keep separate from his wife and daughters and far away from the prying eyes of his relatives who had followed him to America.

“Dad got a little odd after he returned to Kuwait the second time,” Fidaa said. “He stopped answering Mom’s calls and refused to send money home. Mom said he didn’t want to pay for skating lessons. So I wrote him a letter and said, ‘We really don’t care what you’re up to. Just send the damn money!’

“Before I knew it,” Fidaa shrugged, “we had moved to this hellhole.” A look of disgust contorted her young face.

Sitting next to each other on Fidaa’s bed, the sisters hunkered over the record player. Before Fidaa put on one of her new singles, she said, “We have to keep the volume low, or Mom and Dad will have a conniption fit.” Despite Adam Ant barely shouting “Stand and Deliver!” above an audible whisper, the two of them bounced together on the bed, part punk pogo and part Egyptian belly dancing. Afterwards they fell back on the pillows, unable to muffle their screams and laughter. Once they settled down, Malika air-kissed her sister goodnight and tiptoed back upstairs to her room.

She waited until the house was completely silent before she retrieved the hash and tobacco concealed in her toiletries, and rolled herself a joint. She paused in the hallway outside her room and listened for any movement in the rest of the household before she walked up a short flight of stairs. She double-checked the latch on the door so she wouldn’t lock herself out, and stepped outside onto the flat roof.

Whirling, mechanical noises from the ventilation fans filled the dry night air. The surrounding villas, identical to her parents’, loomed above streetlamps and the jaundiced light that filled the lanes and in-between spaces of the gated community below. On the roof, Malika found a lawn chair that had been conveniently left in the shadows. She lit the joint. In the distance, outlined in blinking lights, were the towering cranes of Kuwait City, still under construction. When she finished smoking, she wrapped the butt-end in the tinfoil she had taken from the kitchen. She had only spent a few hours in the country, and already it felt totally weird.

The following morning, before she went to school, Fidaa threw a spectacular tantrum and forced their father to iron her clothes. Nothing, it seemed, quelled her adolescent rage — not even the visit from her older sister.

Most of the time Malika occupied herself by reading or writing cards to Keith, as she waited for her parents to return from work. Bored one afternoon a few days after arriving, she lathered herself with sunscreen, put on her own pointy sunglasses, and ventured outside. Sidewalks had not yet been laid in the gated splendor. The odd car slowed right down when passing her on the street, but this was less bothersome than the sun overhead. Locals obviously knew better than to take walks, or, if they did, they wore hats. She quickly retreated to her parents’ air-conditioned villa.

She used to tag along whenever her father went shopping for food. Their conversations were easier while he was driving the car, as though distraction and traffic enabled him to speak his mind. “I thought you told me you were never going to marry,” he told her.

“That’s what I thought when I was a teenager.” Malika had been heavily influenced by the then-nascent feminist movement, and had smuggled into the house a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. “Then I met Keith and he changed my mind.”

“You seem to like Birmingham.” He was referring to his brief visit there.

“It’s okay.” She stopped herself from saying it was better than Kuwait City.

At the villa, her father washed fresh produce from the supermarket in water laced with chlorine, rinsed it a couple of times in bottled water, and spread it out to dry on sterilized kitchen surfaces. “Can’t be too careful with foreign bacteria,” he said.

Her mother joined the two of them when they went to buy frozen meat at the Sheraton Hotel. “You have to wait for a consignment to arrive from the US,” Rania explained. “It’s a service for expats.”

Malika thought it strange that her mother considered herself an “expat.” She wasn’t an expat American, she was Palestinian — an immigrant to the US, an immigrant here.

Rania must have read her daughter’s thoughts. “It must come from all those years living in Detroit. Funny, I can really taste the difference between US meat and meat that’s local.”

“I guess that means you’re thoroughly Americanized,” said Malika. No one mentioned halal butchering, although her aunties would have said something if they were there.

Instead Rania gazed out the window. She seemed distracted whenever she, her eldest daughter and husband were together.

Malika liked her trips to the bakery best, in a strip mall filled with sleepy import/export shops. A motley crowd of Filipina maids, men in Western business suits, and veiled women accompanied by their chauffeurs or husbands in traditional dishdashas spilled out from beneath the bakery’s tattered awning into a parking lot full of expensive cars. The skinny bakers, mustachioed men in flour-dusted T-shirts and aprons, often chain-smoking cigarettes, rolled the dough into paper-thin sheets. In seconds, the shrak flatbread was baked on hot stones in a cavernous oven. The sheets were peeled off and folded into halves and quarters that the customers carried away in cloth bags or baskets. Malika didn’t miss her mother’s toast in the mornings; she ate shrak with lashings of tahini and murabba almashmash, apricot jam.

As the interminable afternoons dragged on, she often thought about sneaking up to the roof for a quick smoke, but was fearful of the heat outside. The belief that the nighttime was cooler than the day was, she wrote to Keith, “the fantasy of people fooled by living in temperate climates.” Beyond the reach of the air-con, summer days and nights in Kuwait were uniformly stifling.

One night after lighting up in the lawn chair, she felt a deep sense of unease. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she surveyed the upper floors of the villas around her. On the nearest roof, she thought she caught someone moving in the darkness. Whoever it was ducked down behind a parapet once they thought she had seen them. Malika hadn’t noticed anyone on the roofs before. Crushing the joint into the tinfoil, she stood up and took her time to stroll casually across her parents’ roof to the door, intent on giving the impression that nothing was amiss. She didn’t want to appear nervous or fearful. Yet, once inside, she pulled the door behind her and triple-checked to make sure it was locked. In the guestroom, she crumbled the little hash she had left into dust and went downstairs to get rid of it in between layers of kitchen trash. She didn’t think it was safe to mention the incident in her correspondence to Keith. England had made her complacent, and she scolded herself for unwittingly putting herself in danger.

The following afternoon, after she and her father finished shopping, he followed the highway out of the city until the traffic thinned. Eventually he pulled off the road and drove straight into the desert. She wasn’t sure why he had stopped the car, but seized the opportunity anyway and asked, “What’s up with you and Mom?”

Her father shrugged. “You know your mom. She gets these crazy ideas in her head.” He drawled in that funny way of his, like he was a cowboy in a Western. “Half the time I don’t know what’s she’s saying.” If he thought his explanation was good enough, it only made matters worse in Malika’s eyes.

She had known for a long time that her charismatic father was a terrible liar. It was more than willfulness on his part. The zeitgeist of sex, drugs, and rock & roll she had taken for granted while coming of age — not so much in Detroit, but after she went to New York — had affected him in profound ways as well. He left a conservative society and, in the 1950s, moved to an almost equally conservative America. Throughout the 1970s, the sexual revolution had turned everything upside down, including her parents’ marriage. Even the color of his skin, which still made him an object of derision in their own family, had become less of a stumbling block in this new world of free love. Professional success had also helped.

Yet, in Kuwait, he insisted on conforming to social custom. Malika didn’t believe it was religious convention, as the family was Assyrian Orthodox Christian. Despite her father’s own questionable conduct, he thought nothing of curtailing the behavior of “his girls.” Malika wasn’t sure what it was exactly that conspired to keep Fidaa off Olympic ice. His controlling behavior had been one of the reasons Malika had made a life for herself, one radically different to that of her parents, in another part of the world.

To change the mood, her father held his hands wide over the steering wheel and motioned at the desert vista in front of them. “In the springtime, the sand is utterly transformed.” There was his drawl again, that false bravado. “It becomes a lush garden filled with tiny green shoots.” She could tell that, in his mind at least, the two of them had put any unpleasantries behind them.

“You mean after the rains?” Malika said somewhat suspiciously. She was determined not to give in and jolly him along.

“It’s amazing!” He described the trips he had taken into the desert, waxing lyrical about something that had once been, but was no longer there — for spring, which had come and gone, and had been decimated by the summer heat. Under the circumstances, another season, one that had been fresh and wet, could barely be imagined. Maybe it was the promise that it would come again next year that made her father oddly ecstatic.

By the time the car was turned around and headed towards another view of the same sand, Malika had her own epiphany in the desert. Wherever she and her father had gone, whether within or outside the capital, the landscape had been flat and unchanging. Living day in, day out in monotony was not without consequences. Her father, she realized, was suffering from sensory deprivation, and that’s what she saw in him when he had come back from Kuwait that first time. She remembered their shopping trip together in Birmingham.

He had left the Gulf empty-handed and needed gifts for his wife and daughter, who were expecting him in Detroit. The morning Malika picked him up at the Holiday Inn, they went to Birmingham’s best-known department store. She only ever visited Rackham’s on rare occasions, considering her income, and Keith’s. Its food hall was one of the few places in Birmingham she could find brownies, as they weren’t sold in the neighborhood bakery or the Indian grocery stores.

She and her father had pushed open the double doors of the department store to music blaring inside over the loudspeaker. A giant disco ball hung from the ceiling, sending shafts of light over a crowded ground floor filled with attractive assistants behind elaborate displays for make-up and hair and fashion accessories. Her father stood motionless, taking it all in. Then, as though mesmerized, he went from glittering counter to glittering counter and purchased ornaments for Fidaa’s hair and bottles of expensive French perfume for Rania.

In Kuwait, Malika’s father and mother spent their Sunday afternoons at the expats’ club and, over drinks, Malika met the people her parents socialized with. She particularly liked one married couple, a Saudi PhD and his American wife, both scientists in their early thirties. They planned to move to “the Kingdom” next door to start a family, despite the religious conservatism they knew they’d encounter. Kuwait was a momentary reprieve — “a toenail in the water”, as the California-educated Saudi described it to Malika. His young American wife, by his side, nodded her consent; she just needed some time to adjust to life in the region.

Malika admired their resolve. Their enthusiasm won her over and made her believe that love could conquer all. The other people she met at the club were less pleasant. A stuffy English couple lost interest in Malika as soon as they heard she lived not in London, but the West Midlands.

Her parents were off in a corner by themselves. Their low, restrained tones told Malika an argument was brewing. Her mother wanted them to collect Fidaa from the rink. Her father said he preferred to stay at the club, and that he’d make his own way home. Rania left in a huff, with Malika trailing behind her.

With only the two of them in the car, Rania held back her feelings until she couldn’t any longer, and blurted out, “Your father’s having an affair with a woman who lives next door. She was at the club. I’m so upset. What should I do?”

Malika knew her father well enough. He often prided himself on providing for his immediate family, not to mention the wider family he had brought to Detroit. He said he had taken the job in Kuwait for the benefit of his wife and children. Shopping, feeding, and cooking for them were his ways of showing his devotion. But he hadn’t been devoted for a long time. Malika thought of Fidaa’s ultimatum to their father — “send the damn money” — and the consequences for her mother and sister.

“Divorce him,” Malika told Rania. “Go back to Detroit. You and Fidaa don’t seem happy here.”

Her mother eyed the traffic on the road. An uneasy silence settled in the car, and nothing more was said. Malika understood it would be the first and last time her mother discussed her husband’s infidelities with her daughters.

The Ice Skating Rink of Kuwait City was more than a sports arena. It was an important landmark, a signifier of modernity, the first facility of its kind to open in the arid Gulf. Malika followed her mother through the lobby to the small rink, which had seating for 600 spectators. They checked the locker rooms and cafeteria, but Fidaa was nowhere to be found.

The realization made Rania laugh out loud. “Come on!” She hurried Malika through white-tiled hallways to the other complex. In the far center of the Olympic rink, wearing a short skating skirt and red tights, her long hair held in place on top of her head by bright, shiny barrettes, Fidaa twirled on the blue-white glassy surface.

She skated figures; she skated fast, and she wasn’t alone. A group of six similarly attired teenage girls kept pace behind her. They weren’t as skilled as she was, but they glided over the ice, their heads and bodies erect, and their arms in fluid motion in front of them or by their sides. None of these young women would be cowed, forced to hide on the smaller, inferior rink. The grown-ups on the Olympic ice, some with children and others in couples admired the nimble, fast-moving group. Teenage boys on the sidelines eyed them warily.

Rana ushered Malika into the sparsely filled 1,600-seat arena and claimed a couple of front-row seats. “What your father doesn’t understand is that skating is first and foremost a performance sport,” she said, assessing her younger daughter’s movements on the ice with a critical eye. “Fidaa’s not half bad. Skating isn’t about showing off; she needs to be seen, to perform, in order to improve. Some arts are like that. Practice, of course, helps—but you learn more from the successes and failures you make in front of others.”

Rania sat back, absorbed. For the first time during Malika’s visit, her mother appeared to be enjoying herself.

During their laps around the rink, Fidaa dropped back to her friends and exchanged a few words. The group slackened its pace and fanned out in a line heading towards Rania and Malika. Fidaa, in her dangling new earrings, was closer now, and the swirling skaters gave the impression they were getting ready to come off the ice. Rania cheered them back on. “Keep going,” she yelled in parental approval. “All of you look enchanting!”

The girls headed out again. Fidaa glanced over her shoulder and shouted out, “Mom, this one’s for you!”

Picking up speed, she leaped into the air and momentarily levitated as she executed an Axel / double toe jump combination. She landed with grace, on the ice. Rania clapped her approval.

“There’s nothing like a good jump,” she admitted afterwards to Malika. “It’s —” her eyes were bright — “transformative.”

Later, in the dressing room, Malika exclaimed, “All I can say is ‘Wow!’ Everyone was impressed.”

“You bet!” Fidaa was breathless. She unlaced her skates. “Don’t think I’m bragging, but I’m the best skater here. I’ve studied and practiced longer and harder than anyone else in the whole damn country. Of course I should be on the Olympic rink!” She suddenly snickered. “Did you notice those stupid boys?”

Malika nodded.

“Whenever I go to the mall in Kuwait City, they’re the same ones who call me ‘sharmuta’!”

“They call you a whore?” Malika was shocked. “What for?”

“’Cause of these!” Fidaa held up a pair of jeans she retrieved from her locker. “They probably call me other dirty names as well, but that’s not my problem, I don’t speak Arabic!” Like many first-generation Arab-Americans, Fidaa and Malika hadn’t been taught the difficult language of their family’s home country: Their parents had been too busy trying to earn a living.

Fidaa went on to explain: “Teenage girls in Kuwait never go out without a male chaperone. So Dad’s always with me in the mall whenever I go. How many times has he tried to reason with these boys in Arabic, but they just laugh at him.

“At the rink, I get the last laugh!” She shook her head and her earrings dangled, in glee.

“Ready?” asked Rania as she popped into the dressing room, interrupting her daughters. They gazed up at her, and then, like a burst dam, everyone started talking and joking at the same time. The three, still elated, didn’t even notice when they left the coolness of the rink behind and were enveloped by the caustic heat outside.


“On Ice” was excerpted from Malu Halasa’s unpublished novella Sweethearts of Morocco.

Malu Halasa, literary editor at The Markaz Review, is a London-based writer and editor. Her latest book as editor is Woman Life Freedom: Voices and Art From the Women’s Protests in Iran (Saqi 2023). Her six previous co-edited anthologies include Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline, with coedited with Zaher Omareen & Nawara Mahfoud; The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie: Intimacy and Design, with Rana Salam; and the short series: Transit Beirut: New Writing and Images, with Rosanne Khalaf, and Transit Tehran: Young Iran and Its Inspirations, with Maziar Bahari. She was managing editor of the Prince Claus Fund Library; a founding editor of Tank Magazine and Editor at Large for Portal 9. As a freelance journalist in London, she has covered wide-ranging subjects, from water as occupation in Israel/Palestine to Syrian comics during the present-day conflict. Her books, exhibitions and lectures chart a changing Middle East. Malu Halasa’s debut novel, Mother of All Pigs was reviewed by the New York Times as “a microcosmic portrait of … a patriarchal order in slow-motion decline.” She tweets at @halasamalu.

expatriotsfictionIce skatinginfidelityKuwaitshort story

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *