Tupac Shakur was in Ras Al Khaimah, said Sami.
“But Tupac is dead,” said Connor.
“Astaghfirullah,” said Mayed.
“Tupac’s not dead,” said Sami. “He’s at the sheikh’s palace.” Sami had heard from his friend Nadia, whose uncle arranged security for the sheikh, that Tupac Shakur, the king of hip-hop, Mr. Thug Life himself, was on Jebel Jais.
The voice of the oppressed in the US of A was in their dusty little town of Ras Al Khaimah, UAE.
“How do we get there?” asked Omar.
The plan came quick.
Sami’s parents had flown to Beirut that weekend for a cousin’s wedding, leaving him in the haphazard care of his older brothers.
Omar and Connor would tell their parents they were with Mayed, and Mayed would tell his mom he was with his uncle in Khor Fakkan.
They had 150 dirhams, enough for taxi fare to the base of the mountain, where the paved road ended. They would camp overnight, and then Connor would guide them. He knew the bedu trails from hikes with his mother and brother, and he knew how to treat snakebites. Ras Al Khaimah snakes weren’t nearly so big as the ones in Queensland, said Connor.
Sami wanted to go to prove himself right, to show that he knew the town’s best secrets, and he thought the trip would impress the girls at school.
Mayed wanted to go to prove Sami wrong, and he knew the most about keeping safe from mountain jinn, and what else would he do on another weekend night in Ras Al Khaimah anyways? The cinema was playing Titanic for the third time, two years after its release. The bowling alley was shut for repairs, and a trip to the mountains was better than another night walking back and forth between Mishmish Grocery and Haidar’s Supermarket and throwing firecrackers on teachers’ doorsteps.
For Omar, the trip was everything.
Omar imagined he and Tupac would share a Red Bull and talk about how life was tough growing up in an unjust racist system, whether you were Black in America or Palestinian in Ras Al Khaimah, where rights were allotted not by skin color but by nationality, where parents moved families for opportunities they didn’t have in Palestine anymore. Tupac’s lyrics weren’t so different from what the imam preached at Friday prayers: loving your neighbor, equality between brothers, and all that.
Every Friday, Omar would walk from his neighborhood of Mamourah over the creek bridge, past the bird and vegetable market, and up six flights of stairs to Nasser’s flat at the Bruce Lee Building. (Named for the Kuwaiti Brousley family and not for any connection, real or imagined, to the martial artist.)
Nasser had Ras Al Khaimah’s fastest dial-up.
Other boys went to Nasser to watch Spice Girls videos or to burn Sublime CDs or to find the most outrageous pornography, like girls doing unspeakable things with an octopus.
But Omar went to Nasser to download and print Tupac lyrics, which he carried back across the bridge to Mamourah, where he spent nights memorizing them line by line, looking up words in a dog-eared Webster’s dictionary he’d taken from his mother’s classroom, playing songs over and over on a Sony Walkman after he and his brother went to bed.
“He speaks to me,” Omar told Nasser.
“That’ll be fifteen dirhams,” said Nasser.
Ras Al Khaimah claimed Tupac as its own, and if you listened to lyrics, it was all there.
East side and west side rivalry wasn’t about Miami or California; it was about opposite banks of the creek. Every time he said CAL-I-FOR-NIA, he meant RAS AL KHAI-MAH. “To Live and in Die in L.A.” was originally “To Live and Die R-A-K.” The boys from Ras Al Khaimah recognized the songs for what they were, a tribute to their town.
Ras Al Khaimah’s boys met in parking lots on weekends for 2:00 a.m. feasts with pots of their mother’s biryani or buckets of KFC (slightly cold, driven in from Sharjah) or trays of hamburgers and fries with Y2K fruit cocktails from King of Berger. (Later, the cafeteria would be renamed Saif Al Khaleej Cafeteria—the Sword of the Gulf—drop goat brains from its menu and add spicy shawarma when the neighborhood gentrified and its coastline expanded into the sea to make more land for mansions and a luxury resort for German tourists who believed themselves to be in Dubai.)
Boys would lay out these banquets on plastic mats and blast music from their cars, lip-sync to Tupac, moonwalk to Michael Jackson. By the end of the night, they’d be crooning to Amr Diab and Mehad Hamad, exchanging verses of Qabbani or Darwish taught by pan-Arabist parents, or reciting Khaleeji ghazals about the beauty of rain in the desert.
They’d trade stories about how they had seen Tupac at the Maaridh market picking out sheri fish for his crew (inquiring about the freshness of its eyes) or how they had spotted Snoop outside Ruwais Cafeteria (ordering a Zinker Burger). When the dawn call to prayer crackled from the minarets above, it signaled the sun would soon rise and it was time to go home.
It wasn’t just Ras Al Khaimah. Everyone claimed Tupac.
Sharjah boys said Tupac went into hiding after the emirate turned conservative in 1979, when it banned alcohol and shisha cafés and gangsta rap. Tupac moved to California and pretended to be an all-out American, because what American audience would ever accept a Muslim rapper from Sharjah as an OG?
In Fujairah, they said he was a Baluchi Bidoon who didn’t belong to any country. An NGO had gotten him to the U.S., where was able to claim amnesty and an American identity, never forgetting what it was like to be without a passport.
He was Algerian, the son of an American Black Panther and a Tuareg activist.
He was Bangladeshi, the great-grandson of a Sufi mystic whose Qawwali performances swept nobility into trances of ecstasy.
He was Pakistani, obviously—why else was he called 2Pac?
All Omar knew was that he saw his life in Tupac’s prose: stories of parents doing their best, of longing for a steady home, of being temporary in the only place he knew, of goodness in the world, of struggle and salvation, of revolution and the fight against social injustice.
Did Tupac die in a Las Vegas shooting? Maybe. Maybe not. Who could believe the American news? It never got the Palestinian story right. Maybe Tupac was alive. Maybe he did know the sheikh. Maybe he was from Ras Al Khaimah and had come back. Maybe the only way for Omar to know the truth was to go and see for himself.
So, at eight o’clock on the eve of the weekend, the boys found themselves standing outside Mishmish Grocery.
Each wore identical cargo shorts from the town’s only ready-made clothing store. The shorts had deeper pockets than a Sudanese thobe.
Sami’s pockets were filled with a Swiss Army knife, two coils of rope, a compass, a flashlight, and a list of emergency contacts. He wore his brother’s digital Casio watch, swiped from a dresser.
Connor’s pockets contained a fire starter kit, one ziplock bag of pickled turnips from Qamar Libnan Restaurant, two tuna sandwiches on whole wheat, two bags of Cheetos, and one can of Pocari Sweat. He also carried a large backpack with old blankets and a grease-stained bag of beef sausage rolls from Sticky Buns Bakery.
Omar’s pockets held four zaatar manaeesh, a geometry notebook with several pages of questions for Tupac, four packages of AA batteries, and a Sony Walkman with the All Eyez on Me tape that he’d bought for thirty dirhams from Nasser, who’d gotten it from a cousin in Beirut.
On the outside of his cargo shorts, Omar wore a thick metal chain, just like gangstas wore in hip-hop music videos.
Mayed came late. They were about to give up on him when he walked around the corner, raising a six-inch knife in the air.
“Allahu Akbar,” he said, and burst into laughter.
The only thing you ever need is a knife, explained Mayed, to cut wood or honeycomb or to frighten Irani sailors smuggling sheep with drug-stuffed assholes across the Strait of Hormuz. “In case we walk too far north,” said Mayed.
Mayed had won the knife six months earlier in a bet from an American classmate, who had ordered it from GunzNKnives.com. When the parcel arrived at customs, he was summoned to the police headquarters to explain why he wanted a knife like that, as if a thirteen-year-old needed a reason to want a knife.
Mayed’s American friend told the police that his knife was traditionally Scottish, that he was Scottish American, that it was a birthday present for his brother to remind him of their heritage. He was referred to higher-and-higher-ranking officers until a three-star officer said he could keep the knife on the condition he sign a paper declaring his liability if anyone was ever killed or injured with the imported blade.
(Such was the way with the local police, whose inclination was to interfere with Ras Al Khaimah’s natural equilibrium as little as possible and send potential miscreants away with a finger-wag and, perhaps, a warning that God and the CID were watching.)
The American promptly lost the knife in a bet to Mayed about who could eat the most KFC chicken skins during an all-you-can-eat promotion.
Mayed’s other pockets held his grandmother’s charms: pouches of frankincense to keep jinn at bay, silver amulets stolen from her jewelry box, a pocket-sized Quran, a small vial of Zamzam water.
At Mishmish Grocery, the boys bought six Red Bulls, four laban, six bottles of water, two bags of flatbread, twelve bags of Chips Oman, one jar of spreadable cheese, one jar of hot sauce, one bottle of lighter fluid and eight Mars bars.
They were ready for anything.
The taxi carried them away from the city for an hour, past a military base, into the blackness of wadi basin, and dropped them at the end of the paved road, by the empty, flat fields of an abandoned farm.
Connor and Sami scavenged some wood, used a bottle of lighter fluid to turn their campsite into a pyrotechnics display, pushed some rocks around the fire, and unfurled blankets beneath a sidr tree.
They shared a dinner of sausage rolls and laban.
“For every dark night, there’s a brighter day,” said Omar, adding a few drops of hot sauce to his laban.
Mayed threw frankincense onto the fire, filling the air with clouds of smoke, and recited Ayat al Kursi to repel any lingering spirits. “I’m not scared of jinn,” he said, watching the fragrant plumes curl into the night. “But, you know, jinn love mountains.”
He told them about a cave connecting Ras Al Khaimah to Fujairah, where strange wailings were said to come from the shaytan that lived inside. Word got out about the haunted cave, and tourists began to come from Ajman, Sharjah, and even Dubai, because city slickers love to visit the haunted places of Ras Al Khaimah. Within a week, a pair of enterprising Keralites had set up competing stalls outside the cave, selling balloons and Pikachu dolls, popcorn and chips, chai karak and samosa to fill the bellies and empty the wallets of jinn-seeking tourists.
“But there was no jinn,” said Connor. “A group of Finnish geologists came out last year and said the cave only went back thirty meters. All that noise was probably just owls or doves or something.”
The worst were hitchhikers, said Sami. Never, ever pick up hitchhikers in the mountains. Everyone knew mountain hitchers were jinn in disguise. You could only recognize them by their cloven feet.
Never mind jinn hitchhikers, said Mayed. His friend’s village in Oman was haunted by an afreet, the worst, most gangsta type of jinn. It fell in love with a local woman, and when she got married, the afreet massacred the groom’s entire family. The next day, not a single drop of blood or piece of bone could be found. They were gone, their house empty.
“Tupac felt empty too, until he started living for a cause,” said Omar.
“Wasn’t he convicted of sexual assault?” said Connor. “Doesn’t sound like social justice to me.”
“That was a CIA setup,” said Omar. “And tomorrow, maybe we’ll meet him and have all the details.”
“You know, my cousin said he saw a tiger last week when they were out here doing military training,” said Sami. “No, really. And a lion last year. The Al Ain Zoo is full, and when Abdullah tried to donate his pet lion, they told him they had too many lions, twenty-two of them! No, I’m serious: they have, like, twenty-two lions, because people keep buying them as cubs and then they grow up. They told Abdullah he’d have to keep his cub and raise it himself. His wife was so angry, but now she loves it more than he does.”
“The only lion is the one in the heart,” said Omar.
Connor shook his head. “Who knows how hungry they are—they’ve just been living off goats and doves.”
“Lions are like jinn,” said Mayed. “You just have to show them you’re the boss.”
“What’s the worst they can do to a player?” said Omar. “We’re in a city of angels and constant danger.” Then Omar put on his headphones, rolled over and fell asleep.
Mayed, spooked by his own stories of jinn and afreet, kept awake for another hour. When they woke in the morning, he was clutching his grandmother’s amulets.
“Shaytan tried to possess me in the night. He pulled at my feet, and I felt his hot breath on me, but I held onto the tree, and prayed, and he was banished,” Mayed said.
“That was a goat,” said Sami. “The same one bleating in sync with Omar’s snoring. I saw him sniff your toes while you shut your eyes and cried. Connor kept the sausage rolls in his backpack with the blankets, remember?”
The boys packed up and started up the dusty road to meet Tupac Shakur, their feet light with adventure, the layers of the earth unfolded below.
Two hours later, the summit didn’t look any closer.
But Omar’s heart lifted as they walked through the mountain strata.
Sometimes he also felt like he was living to die, living in a country that would never give him citizenship. He held a passport for Jordan, where he had never lived and his parents weren’t born. He was exiled from a land that wasn’t even recognized as a country. His own parents might not have dealt with gang violence, but they were born just after the Nakba and knew violence of another kind. His grandmother still carried the key from her house in her pocket, kept safe since the day in 1948 when Israelis forced his family from their home. His people had their own oppressors, backed by Western politicians, just like the police and FBI fought against Black Americans and…
“This sucks,” said Mayed, puffing.
“Tupac said, ‘Everything will be alright if you hold on. It’s a struggle every day, gotta roll on,’” said Omar.
“Shuddup, Omar,” said Mayed.
A rumble rose from the valley below, its hum growing until a truck overtook them and stopped on the bouldered track ahead.
“No way,” said Sami. “We’re definitely not getting in. Remember what happened to Saleh with the taxi driver?”
“Well, I’m done walking,” said Connor, greeting the driver with a hearty “Salam aleykum.” He jumped in.
“Me too,” said Omar.
“Inshallah khair,” said Mayed.
Sami followed, reluctant. The driver was tall and skinny, a bright-eyed teen not much older than the boys who introduced himself as Kaka and said he’d drive them to a slope directly below the palace. It was no trouble, he said. He was on his way to collect some goats from a neighboring farm, and the trail was on his way.
Plastic grapes and a glittering pink Allah pendant swung from the rearview mirror, and with each bump, Connor quietly burped the gas from the pickled turnips he’d eaten for breakfast that morning.
Kaka’s face broke into a grin. “You know, my uncle told me not to take hitchhikers. He said so many hitchhikers are not people, they are jinn. But now I know you’re not jinn.”
Kaka veered just shy of the sharp drops at each hairpin turn, zigzagging up until the track began to level. He parked on the side of the dirt road. The stone steps of a donkey trail, worn to a sheen from centuries of footfall, rose perpendicular to the road.
“From here, the walk is short,” he said. “One hour only.”
“Will you take us to the palace?” said Sami.
Kaka shook his head. He heard his uncle’s voice in his head, cautioning him to avoid Arab kids. They can turn you into the police anytime, his uncle warned. Keep away.
Omar rummaged in his pockets and held up his Walkman like a trophy.
“I’ve got this,” he said. “It’s yours, if you take us.”
Kaka had come to the UAE dreaming of the big city. He thought his dreams came true the night he flew into Dubai and saw the shine of ships in the Gulf, the gleam of the city, the orange tendrils of well-lit highways stretching into the desert. In Dubai, everything was bright like a festival. Even the airport’s trees were wrapped in twinkling garlands.
But the driver who collected him took him out of Dubai, down one of those bright highways, and kept driving into the darkness of the mountains where his uncle waited for him. Kaka wanted the Dubai life. Ras Al Khaimah was like Peshawar, but without family.
Kaka and his uncle saw their employer on weekends in winter, when his family went to their mountain house for the novelty of chilly nights, but most of the time it was just Kaka and his uncle tending to a few stone huts, a herd of goats, and a pair of donkeys. Kaka had nicknamed the female after the movie star Kajol, for her intelligence, and the male Shah Rukh Khan, for his expressive eyes.
Kaka had learnt pidgin Arabic and how to coax a Hilux over the network of stony tracks that connected mountain hamlets. But he missed the company of boys his age. So when Omar made his offer, Kaka thought the Walkman would be entertainment, and so would the walk. He pushed his uncle’s voice out of his head.
“Okay,” he said, taking the Walkman, shaking Omar’s hand with a firm clasp. “I know the path. I can take you most of the way. Come.”
In half an hour, Kaka would come to regret this decision. But at that moment, his heart was full, his mood hopeful.
“Listen,” said Omar, putting the headphones on Kaka’s head. “We want to meet this poet.”
Kaka nodded with the music. “I can take you most of the way,” he repeated. “But not too close. Too many police.”
“You afraid?” said Connor. “What, are you a criminal or something?”
“I don’t have residency,” said Kaka. “I came on a tourist visa. I am sixteen and can’t get a work visa. If the police find me, they deport me. My family needs money. My mother, father, sister, they told me, ‘Don’t go to school. We need money,’ and so I came here last year.”
“I get it. You gotta lay low,” said Omar. “Tupac had problems with the police, too. Like, ‘They got me trapped, can barely walk the city streets without a cop harassin’ me, searching me, then askin’ my identity. Hands up, throw me up against the wall, didn’t do a thing at all…’”
As Omar’s rapping gathered momentum, Kaka grinned in encouragement, and after what seemed an appropriately long minute, he turned and marched nimbly up the steep path, calling for the boys to keep pace. The palace was on the ridge just beyond the boulder patch, he promised.
Connor followed closely, listing Australia’s most venomous spiders and all of the gruesome, painful ways they could kill. He’d unwound a rope and kept whacking it off rocks for emphasis.
“A funnel-web spider’ll knock you dead in fifteen minutes, but you’d sure be lucky with that, because it’s the bird-eaters you gotta watch out for, worst agony imaginable, like your bones are being put through a grinder. The bird-eating spider is the size of your face, it’s covered in hair, it hisses, and it’s only in Queensland, and it won’t kill you, but it’ll make you feel so much pain that you puke your guts out. You got any camel spiders out here in these mountains, Mayed? I’d sure like to see one of those.”
Mayed wasn’t listening. He was eyeing Kaka with suspicion, clasping the jar of Zamzam water in his right fist. Maybe Sami was right not to trust drivers. If jinn could transform into hitchhikers, wouldn’t they also be able to disguise themselves as drivers?
Sami had forgotten all about jinn. He was squinting at the crevices in the limestone above and peering into dark crannies beneath boulders, looking for partridge and lizard bones or other evidence of big cats.
“Lions love places like this,” he said, as they crawled and jumped their way through the boulder patch. “Look at those caves up there. Lions would love that. A perfect lair.”
He had picked up a giant stick, and he swung it back and forth as he walked.
Omar had fallen behind. He kept stopping to write in his notebook. He had tied a red kerchief around his head with a big bow in the front, just like Tupac wore it. For the heat, he said.
Kaka looked nervously at the motley crew behind him swinging sticks and cracking ropes, and his doubt grew. Who were these strange boys? Had they really come to the mountain to meet a poet? He wasn’t so sure now.
What did that boy with the bow on his head keep writing in his notebook? Why did they have all that rope? What was in the backpack? Could they be bounty hunters? Did they work with the police? Or were they some sort of mischief jinn, leading him straight into trouble?
Omar had crouched behind another boulder to write in his notebook again.
That’s when they heard it. A low, sustained growl and the quick shuffle of gravel.
Omar leapt up. The others froze.
“A lion!” said Connor.
“A jinn!” said Sami.
“Tupac?” said Omar.
“Astaghfirullah!” said Mayed, unsheathing the knife and raising it above his head, both hands gripping the handle.
Kaka took his chance and set off in the other direction, bounding back between the boulders as fast as his legs could carry him.
A shot sounded from above. A tall soldier stood on the ridge above, his rifle smoking.
“Come,” yelled the soldier. “You, come.”
“Cops in dishdashas,” whispered Sami. “CID are everywhere.”
“He’s in fatigues,” said Connor. “Military. Not CID.”
The sheikh’s modest stone palace came into sight on the summit as the boys reached the top of the slope. The gate looked locked. No sign of Tupac or anyone else.
“This is worse than any snake,” said Connor.
“Nadia’s uncle will help us,” said Sami. “He’s a real wastafarian. He knows everyone.”
“Will they lock us up?” asked Omar.
“Stay cool, Omar,” said Sami. “My cousin will take care of everything. I’m never going to jail. My dad knows too much about the royals.”
“And nobody will bother you, Connor,” said Mayed. “You’re white, and you’ve got the Australian embassy.”
“I’ll get grounded,” said Connor.
“Grounded? We’ll get deported,” said Omar. “Even me, and I don’t even have a country to get deported to.”
“Quiet,” said the solider, pointing his rifle to a sun-bleached portacabin down the ridge.
Inside, it smelt of stale Nescafé. The boys seated themselves on cold metal chairs under an air conditioner blasting at full force and yellowed, curling posters of sheikhs who, despite gentle smiles and aviator sunglasses, held the authority of omniscient, omnipotent beings. Tupac had never seemed so distant.
The soldier pulled out a pen and notebook and filled an entire page. Omar squinted to decipher the upside-down words: Smugglers. Illegal. Dangerous. Weapons.
Not good, thought Omar.
“This is very serious,” said the solider. “How did you get here?”
“We walked,” said Connor, straightening.
“Up the mountain,” said Connor.
“But we weren’t alone,” said Sami.
“There was this shape-shifter jinn,” began Mayed.
“A truck driver,” said Connor. “But I was the one who found the path…”
“He was a jinn,” said Mayed. “Did you hear that growl? A shape-shifter cat, and if I hadn’t saved us…”
“Qat?” said the soldier, his eyebrows lifting above his sunglasses. His writing accelerated and his notes spilled onto a second page. Omar could make out the word Hadhrami.
“Open your bag,” ordered the soldier. “And empty your pockets onto the table.”
Out came the Swiss Army knife, the coils of rope, the compass, the flashlight, wrinkled sheets that smelt of sausage rolls, crumpled bags of Cheetos, crushed cartons of laban, the notebook of geometry proofs and questions for Tupac, the six-inch knife.
“It’s for Tupac,” said Sami. “He’s a freedom fighter from Ras Al Khaimah, like, the real OG and—”
“Fighting… in Ras Al Khaimah?” said the soldier. “Obaid! Captain Obaid!”
“No, no, I mean, he’s from Ras Al Khaimah, but he just fights injustice and racism and oppression. Tell him, Omar…”
“Shuddup, Sami,” said Omar.
“…and our friend’s uncle heard he was visiting the sheikh at his palace, and so we said we’d go to the palace and…”
“…and that’s why we have the knives and ropes and stuff, because nothing is going to stop us from…”
The door opened, and an older officer entered. He took a hard look at the scrappy, dust-caked boys. Tears softened Omar’s lashes. Connor’s face was crimson. Mayed bowed his head, but Sami looked the captain straight in the eyes.
“Hamoudi, what is this about?” asked the captain.
The soldier handed his senior the report.
The captain sat in silence, rubbing his lapis ring for a full minute before he spoke.
The boys were completely still. The only noise came from the AC.
“This report,” said the captain, finally breaking the silence, “it says you are illegals? Maybe smugglers?”
His eyes flitted between the young soldier and the boys, a flicker of a smile at the corners of his lips. “Are you smugglers?”
“We wanted to meet Tupac, sir,” said Mayed. “He’s like, um, Mohammed Abdu or Fairuz, but for Americans. We heard he was at the sheikh’s palace.”
“Illegal entry into the sheikh’s palace, Captain,” said Private Ahmed. “I don’t need to tell you that is a security breach of the highest order, Captain. You boys are in very serious trouble. Very serious.”
The boys nodded miserably in unison.
“It says something here about Yemeni connections,” said the captain. “Do you have Yemeni connections?”
“Well, I mean, all Arabs come from Yemen,” said Mayed. “My father’s mother’s family are Nuaimi, and on my father’s father’s side we have Za’ab from Ibb, and…”
Wrong answer, thought Omar. Control-Alt-Delete. What was Mayed thinking? They were on the Deportation Express. Next stop: exile.
“A confession!” said the young soldier. “We’ve got them, Captain. Drug smuggling, I’d say. International networks, American associates…”
“Cool it, Sarfarosh,” said the captain. “Isn’t half your family from Mahra? And why are you still wearing those ridiculous sunglasses? Have you asked them for ID?”
“Sir, I am Majed bin Juma’a bin Majed bin Juma’a bin Omran bin…” began Mayed, hoping a long lineage would demonstrate his good character and perhaps persuade the captain to find leniency in his heart. “And one day I would like to be a captain too.”
The other boys gave their names, their parents’ names, their phone numbers, and their addresses. None carried ID.
This was it, thought Omar. The end to his life in Ras Al Khaimah. They would call his parents and tell them that their Palestinian son was a drug smuggler, or a trafficker, or an intifada stone thrower, or a criminal gangster, and his mother would die of a broken heart, his sisters would never marry, his father would pretend he was never born, and he would be exiled in Jordan, away from his school, his friends, his family, his mother’s tabouleh, the salty waters of the Gulf and its pink sunsets, the call of the minarets over Mamourah, the heady scent of the frangipanis on a humid night. It was all over. Deportation and a lifetime ban. He would grow up away from his parents, and they would forget him, their no-good son. His mother had always told him American rap would lead to trouble, and here he was.
And if his family in Jordan found out he was corrupted by American rap in Dubai, then they probably wouldn’t even take him. It would be the end to his schooling, and he’d have to find work like so many other boys his age in Amman, maybe at a bakery, but he was no good with his hands. He’d lose his home, his family, himself. Mayed was Emirati, Sami had wasta, and Connor had the Australian embassy, but Omar knew he only had himself and this was it, game over.
“When do you deport us?” blurted Omar.
“What are you talking about? I just need to make a report before I get you back.”
“To Jordan?” asked Omar.
“To Ras Al Khaimah,” said the officer. “Doesn’t your mother teach at the Maaridh high school? I went there. She taught me English. A very kind woman, God bless her. And, Connor, I know your mother too. She teaches at the women’s college, doesn’t she? My sister is always talking about her. Very strict. But good.”
Mayed rolled his eyes. “This town is too small.”
Omar pulled off his bandana and wiped the tears from his flushed cheeks.
“But this Mr. Tupac,” said the captain, “I know him too. He is American. And he is dead. Tupac? Too dead. You know there is no Tupac here. I won’t tell your parents you were out. We’re looking for illegal workers, not lost boys.
“My colleague doesn’t know these mountains. He keeps looking for reasons to fire his rifle and impress his cousins in Abu Dhabi. They think Ras Al Khaimah is jungle. Here, have some coffee. These dates are from my garden. Hamoudi, haven’t you offered our guests tea?”
After the captain finished his report, he guided them down the ridge to a wide dirt road. They settled into the back of a Nissan Patrol and set off down the wadi. Vibrations rattled their bones. A breeze dried the sweat from their temples. All Omar felt was exhaustion.
“Guess you gotta start saving up for a new Walkman,” said Connor.
“I can’t believe they took my knife,” said Mayed.
“I’m sorry you didn’t find Tupac,” said Sami.
“It’s okay,” said Omar. “Maybe Tupac is not from Ras Al Khaimah. But we are.” This dust, this air, these friends.
None of the boys thought again about Kaka.
They were back by Thursday evening. Nobody noticed they’d gone.
Anna Zacharias is a Canadian journalist raised in the United Arab Emirates. Her book, People of Ras Al Khaimah, with American photojournalist Jeff Topping, documents more than fifty firsthand accounts of Gulf migration, with portraits of pearl divers, gold traders, sword dancers, henna artists, and other long-term residents.