Me and Mark sit in the grass and watch Mohammad do his chores. Usually we sit like this and stare at the road in front of our house, but today there’s nothing to see. Nobody is honking and weaving their fast cars around sluggish buses on their way to work. There is no line of enormous SUVs backed all the way down our street waiting to get to Starbucks. No Ferraris with the hoods up, trunks lifted, and glove compartments open, getting searched for bombs before driving into the parking lot of the Movenpick for egg sandwiches. It’s quiet, except for the scratchy sweep of Mohammad’s broom. Our dad warned us that traffic would begin to build in the early afternoon—worse than anything we have ever seen, and so we wait. Today is Kuwait’s version of the Fourth of July. Today is Liberation Day.

Mohammad is in charge of everything: guarding our door, carrying the groceries up to our kitchen, and wiping our smudgy handprints off the walls. He is our harris, which means house boss, but seems more like servant. He opens the gate to our courtyard at five o’clock every morning with a key he keeps tucked in the waistband of his shorts. If me and Mark are up early enough, we can see him from the window propping the heavy iron door open with a brick. Today he waters the lawn with a hose and clips the small patch of grass we are sitting on with hedge shears. Mohammad speaks Arabic, but he can understand a little English. When we talk to him we use our hands.

“You missed right there,” Mark says, and points his finger like a gun to a patch of grass. “Bam.”

Mohammad waddles over on his knees and snips in silence. Mark and I lean back on our elbows and tip our heads to the sky. It is blue and bare and I’m surprised by how much I miss clouds. Mohammad sets down his clippers, and me and Mark scoot off the grass and sit on the steps with our chins in our palms. Mohammad stomps over to our Prado with a bucket of water and suds it up with soap. We laugh as he squeaks around in flimsy plastic slippers, like they are real shoes, and not vacation throwaways for wearing by the pool. He’s from Pakistan and won’t shake hands with Mom.

“See the hand he uses to wash the car? The left one. That’s his wiping hand,” Mark says. “That’s the hand he uses on his ass.”

“No way,” I say.

Mark places his hand on top of my knee and pats it. Then he puts it on my face and over my mouth and nose like a muzzle.

“Say hello to my wiping hand,” he says.

I toss my head back with a quick jerk and turn it from side to side trying to shake Mark’s hand off my mouth. It doesn’t work, so I stick my tongue out and wiggle it between his salty fingers until he yanks it back. He rubs his hand on the side of his jeans and scrunches up his face.

“Gross,” he says. “You’re disgusting.”

We hear our mom open the sliding glass door to the balcony that overlooks our neighborhood, and we look up. She is peeking through the potted palms Dad brought home in huge wicker baskets. Before he put them there the family in the sandy-colored mansion next door could see directly into our house. Mom’s head is wrapped up in a towel turban and she cups a mug of tea with both hands.

“Hey you two,” she says. “I need you to do something for me. I need you to run a little errand.”

“Maybe,” Mark shouts back to her. “What is it?”

“Maybe?” she asks.

“Maybe we will and maybe we won’t,” I shout. “It all depends.”

Mark looks at me, like he doesn’t know who I am, and I realize that pissing off Mom was not what he had in mind.

“We’re just kidding, Mom,” he says, elbowing me in the ribs.

“Very funny,” she says, sharply. “Ha. Ha. Ha.”

“We’ll do it,” Mark calls up to her.

“Come and get some money,” she says, and slides the glass door shut.

“News flash, idiot,” Mark says to me in a hushed voice, “tonight we are having dinner with Dad’s boss. He flew all the way here to be wined and dined—by us. So try not to be an asshole.”

I nod my head and wonder why I can never keep my feelings matched with Mark’s. Just when I think we’re supposed to be sulking around, answering Mom and Dad’s questions with lots of noes, Mark switches everything up.

We tell Mohammad to go get us the money we need from Mom, because we don’t feel like walking upstairs. He drops his bucket by the car and does what we say. We can hear the echo of his footsteps as he runs up the marble staircase. The door to our house is wide open now in the morning heat. The freezing cold air from inside is leaking out into this sweaty country—no big deal, and I know that means we are the same as all the rich Arab families that live around us. We leave the lights on when we’re not home.

“Mohammad has your money,” Mom calls out from the porch balcony. “Get a nice box of dates—something that can be opened up with a little drama. Something with a bow.”

“Okay,” says Mark.

“You’re safe walking there alone?” Mom asks.

“He’s not alone,” I say.

We start backing out into the street and look up at Mom. Mark grabs my arm and holds it up for her to see.

“Jonah’s my bodyguard,” he says.

I let my arm drop back down to my side.

“Make a muscle,” Mark says, but I don’t.

He takes off running and I follow in a slow jog. We pass a woman in a black abaya power-walking in front of my favorite house. It’s full of copper-tinted windows, and each one shines in the morning sun like a new penny. I yank on clumps of yellow dates dangling in mesh bags from the palm trees I pass. I pull them down as far as they will go and then I let them fly. I can hear the swooshing of the sacks behind me as they bob against the dry fronds.

Mark is stopped up ahead and looking back at me to hurry.

“Come on,” he yells. “It’s right here.”

I sprint over and put my hands on my hips to catch my breath while Mark stomps dust off his shoes.

I follow Mark into Al-Rafai. The door jingles with a little bell as it closes behind us. The store is brightly lit and freezing. The air-conditioning buzzes in the rickety vents above our heads, and I wrap my arms around my body to stay warm as we take a look around. A tall Arab man in an orange button-down shirt appears behind the counter and offers us tiny glasses filled with white milky liquid, but I know that we won’t fall for this little trick.

“No way,” says Mark. “No thank you.”

The man comes from behind the counter and walks toward us smiling, thrusting the tray in front of us.

Laban,” he says. “Laban for you, sir.”

Mark puts his hand up, to say stop.

“We don’t want any,” I say, putting my hand up too.

“That stuff looks like milk,” Mark tells him, “but tastes like throw up.”

Laban is very nice,” the man says.

“No,” says Mark. “It’s not.”

The man smiles, does a little bow, and backs away.

Mark takes a deep breath and we walk over to the middle of the store and stare into barrels filled with dried fruits. Mark sifts dried elderberries and pomegranate seeds through his fingers. He pulls an apple ring out and twirls it around his pointer before taking a bite. I pull out a dried yellow pear, curled like an ear, and rest it in my palm.

“Let me try that,” Mark says, plucking the pear from my hand and shoving it into his mouth. “I need to taste test everything.”

We walk over to a glass case of jellied fruits. We see oozy kiwis and guavas dripping sticky syrup onto cupcake papers. Mark points at ripe dates stuffed with tahini paste, wrapped in pink translucent foil.

“I think that’s what we want,” he says. “A giant box of those Medjools.”

Mark points at the dates and taps the glass. The man appears again and holds up boxes for us to see. I like the purple one with the yellow bow, but Mark nods his head when we are shown the red velvet.

“Okay, next,” Mark says. “We need more stuff. We need something extra that will make this guy go crazy.”

I walk over to a shelf filled with colored bottles of water and try to figure out what they taste like from the pictures. The pink one shows roses, but that doesn’t seem like a flavor to me. I see a date on one and call Mark over.

Jallab,” Mark says. “That’s what we’re looking for.”

I tuck two bottles up under my arms like bowling pins and carry them over to the counter.

By the time I turn around, Mark is standing all the way on the other side of the store where nuts and seeds sit in roasted piles behind glass. He has his arms pulled inside his shirt, so it looks like they got blown off. His short sleeves hang loosely from his shoulders. I shiver in the cold and walk over to pick out nuts with him. There are flavors here that I’ve never heard of, so we sample them all. Mark tugs his arms back into his sleeves so he can point to what he wants. Curried macadamias and lemon zatar peanuts are tossed in a shallow metal pan along with Egyptian seeds, and passed to us for tasting. We see freeze-dried peas that remind us of the astronaut food we ate at space camp last summer, and Mark orders up a baggie of those for the two of us to share. We taste everything, but decide four pounds of salted mixed nuts will look good dumped in a golden bag sealed with a wax stamp that says God.

“This is perfect,” Mark says. “Some extra-special stuff.”

Mark pays while I grab Fantas from a cooler filled with dry ice.

“Get one for Mohammad too,” Mark says. “It’s hot outside.”

“Really?” I ask. “Should we do that? Give him stuff?”

“Are you asking if it’s okay to buy him a Fanta that costs fifty cents?” Mark says. “Yeah. It is. It’s called being nice.”

We walk back to the house carrying bags of presents for Dad’s boss. The air is hot and sticky and I wish that we could stop and drink our Fanta in the shade of a date palm, but Mark is in a hurry.

“These treats are going to be perfect,” he says. “They will show that Dad is awesome, and deserves another promotion—back to civilization. I really think tonight we have a chance to turn this thing around.”

By four o’clock the traffic starts to build and there is a lot of honking outside our windows while we get ready for dinner. I look out and see our neighbor’s harris lift two small girls in sequined dresses up into their SUV. Their parents climb in next, and they pull out of their shaded parking spot to join the traffic jam. Mom irons our dress shirts and takes her favorite scarf out of tissue paper to tuck around her shoulders during dinner. Dad paces back and forth in the kitchen checking his cell phone. Earlier today he took his boss on a walk-through of the plant, and he is happy it went so well.

“He actually shook my hand congratulations, and clapped me on the shoulders. That’s something I want you boys to remember to do tonight. When you shake hands with Jack, look him straight in the eye and say your name.” Dad holds his hand out in front of him and cuts the air like a knife. “You say, ‘It’s very nice to meet you’—or ‘It’s a pleasure. My name is so-and-so.’”

“I think they can handle that,” Mom says, running her comb under the kitchen sink, and shaking it off. She slicks down my flyaways, and tells Mark to hurry up because tonight we will have to walk to dinner. The traffic jam will be standstill until midnight, and the only way to get anywhere quickly is to walk. Lucky for us, Dad knows how holidays work around here and we’re meeting his boss at a restaurant that overlooks the Gulf a few blocks down the road.

“It’s a fifteen minute walk, tops,” Dad says, as we head out the door.

We walk down the stairs of the apartment, and Mohammad is there to see us off. He tries to grab the bags of gifts out of Dad’s hands, but Dad brushes him away.

“No thanks, Mohammad,” he says. “We’re fine tonight.”

Mohammad places his hand over his heart and shakes his head apologetically.

We cross the street as a family, and the chaos all around us is like nothing I have seen before. Large hotels and restaurants line this road, but nobody is pulling in for dinner. Cars sit idle, and passengers hang out the windows waving the Kuwaiti flag and clucking their tongues to wild Arabic music, like this is a parade. Only it’s not. A boy smaller than me carries flashing colorful light sticks in both hands like batons. He swirls them in front of the windshields of cars, tosses one in the air, and catches it just before it reaches the pavement. He runs over to us trying to block our way. He waves the light sticks in front of Mark’s face.

“One dinar,” he shouts above the music, but we shake our heads no and keep on walking. I am sweating badly in this heat, and I see Mom sweep her hair up into a pile on her head, and hold it with her hand. Dad pulls the scarf from around her shoulders like there’s no point in extra clothes, and we keep walking.

We watch as a group of children are hoisted up on top of an SUV where they stand with their arms raised to the sky. The driver turns the ignition on with a jerk, and inches forward just a little, rocking all the kids on top. A girl is nearly toppled off when the car is thrown back into park. They have only moved a foot or so, but the man driving looks satisfied and cranks his radio up. Behind us we hear a squeal of tires, and Dad moves us farther over on the side of the road. Now we aren’t even on the sidewalk. We walk through dusty sand, past empty bottles and styrofoam cups. Dad holds his arm up shielding Mom and we turn our heads to watch as a car swerves out of line behind us and comes racing up the sidewalk.

“They’re going to hit us,” Mom yells, and crouches down in the sand. The car is honking at us to move out of the way, but we can’t, because there is nowhere else to go. Hot wind passes over my face as the car speeds by. It barely misses us.

“Damn,” Mark says.

“This is dangerous,” yells Mom. “I want the boys next to me—right now.”

We walk in a little huddle, and people yell and clap as we pass by. Five teenage boys swing open their car door and jump out and surround us. They sing and shout and jostle us as they move around pushing us into the middle of a tight circle. One guy grabs Mark by the shoulders and pulls him into the outer ring of dancing boys, but he just stumbles backward into the road.

“Stop it!” yells Mom. She grabs me by the hand and we push through them, breaking everything up. All five boys abandon their car and run off down the street making whooping noises and punching the air, like they just won a game.

I feel a stream of water hit me on the back at the same time I here Mom gasp.

“What the hell?” Mark yells, and turns toward a silver Prado, just like ours.

A boy his age pops up in the window and douses us with a Super Soaker.

“Keep your heads down,” Dad says. “Ignore it. We’re almost there.”

“Ignore it?” Mom yells, giving Dad an angry look. “That’s your solution to us getting shot?”

“It’s only water,” Dad says.

I can see the restaurant’s glowing sign ahead of us, and I grab Mom’s hand. “Almost there,” I say. “Hang on.”

Mom lifts her head, and we see paper confetti explode from the sun roof of the car in front of us.

Inside the restaurant, we are greeted with apologies.

“The Kuwaiti people,” our waiter says. “They like parties too much.”

“That didn’t seem like much of a party,” Dad says. “That felt more like a riot.”

“American?” our waiter asks.

We nod our heads, and he points to himself shrugging his shoulders, “Lebanese.”

Me and Mark order mint lemonades and wait at the table with Mom, while she combs her hair and smoothes her blouse. Dad goes out back to meet his boss. He’s staying at the hotel next door, and didn’t have to walk past all the messy traffic to get here.

When they walk up to the table, we stand and shake hands with him like we’re supposed to. I’m shocked that he’s younger than Dad. I grab onto his hand, squeezing tightly, and look him in the eye. “Nice to meet you,” I say.

Mark is up next, and he does the same thing.

“I’m Jack,” Dad’s boss says. “That’s quite a grip you boys have there. I like that. Firm handshakes.”

We all sit down, and Mom and Dad tell Jack about the walk over like it was fun and interesting, instead of scary.

“Culturally,” says Mom, “this has been a wonderful experience.”

“Sure has,” Dad says. “They’ve got Super Soakers over here. Who would have thought!”

Mark and I let our mouths hang open as we listen to Mom and Dad tell Jack how much they love Kuwait. Dad’s arm rests on the back of Mom’s chair and she tips her head back laughing at everything Dad says.

“The time you got spit on?” Dad asks. “Can I tell that one?”

Mom leans across the table toward Jack, and I’m confused because she is acting like everything bad that has happened here is really hilarious.

“So, I was waiting at the drive-through of Kentucky Fried Chicken, if you can believe that—KFC!—when I realized that my headlights were shining into the eyes of a group of boys about Jonah’s age. Well, I turned off my lights, so I wouldn’t blind the poor things. Poor things! Can you believe I thought that?”

Dad laughs and takes a sip of his lemonade. “Get ready,” he says to Jack.

“Uh-oh,” Jack says.

“Well,” Mom continues, “those boys saw this as a signal to run up to my car and bang on the hood making kissy faces. I waved my hands at them to go away, and I thought they had. But when I rolled down my window to order, one popped right up in my face and made those same kissy lips. I shouted ‘Stop that!’ and waved him away.”

Jack leans in and shoots a quick look at me and Mark. We are listening with our arms crossed.

“Then that kid sucked in his cheeks and shot a big wad of spit on my shoulder. He spit on my bare skin! Can you believe that?” Mom says with glee. “It’s the grossest thing that has ever happened to me!”

“Wow,” Jack says, laughing. “That’s unbelievable. How did you react?”

“How did she react?” Dad repeats, with a smile. “She broke every rule in the book. She threw that car in park so fast, and went running through the Salwa marketplace after them. It was busy as hell, right before evening prayer. The place was packed, and my wife, my lovely wife. Oh God. She went tearing through that place screaming bloody murder like a lunatic. Talk about not calling attention to yourself!”

Mom is laughing now, like this story is her favorite one, but I’ve never heard it told this way. She has her fists raised in the air like a warrior.

“I’m going to kill you!” she says. “I’m going to rip your goddamned head off!”

“Can you believe that?” Dad says, “She was out of her mind!”

“That’s a good one,” Jack says, laughing.

“I thought I’d never hear the end of it,” says Dad.

“What do you think about that?” Jack asks Mark.

“It’s funny, I guess,” Mark says.

“It wasn’t funny at the time,” I say. “It wasn’t funny at all.”

“Well,” Dad says. “All this stuff makes for good storytelling, once you have time to cool off.”

“You’d be a hit at dinner parties back home,” Jack says. “I’m going to have to invite you guys out on the boat when you get back to the States. My whole family would get a kick out of hearing this stuff.”

I see Mark perk up. I know he’s waiting for Jack to say that this will happen soon, that Dad is awesome, that we are going home. I watch him stare expectantly.

“I’m glad you are enjoying it over here,” Jack says to Dad. “Cause we’re really in it now. We’ve got orders coming in that we weren’t prepared for. Orders so big, we can’t fill them fast enough. But we’re going to get you some help in the plant. More down-fill, shift managers, someone from HR on site. We’re gonna get you all set up.”

I see Mark’s face go limp. Then he screws up his mouth in concentration and I’m afraid he might start to cry.

“Damn,” Jack says reaching his arm under the table. “Someone just kicked me.”

“Sorry,” Mark says. “I thought it was the table.”

“You got me pretty good there,” Jack says, and I can tell he is rubbing his shin. “Damn that hurt.”

“Mark,” Dad says. “Watch what you’re doing.”

I pat my hands around under the table and feel for the gifts we picked out. I loop my fingers around the ropey handle of the Al-Rafai bag and yank it up onto my lap.

“Here,” I say, holding the red velvet box out to Jack. “We got this for you.”

“Jonah,” Dad says. “Well all right then. That was supposed to be for after dinner, but okay.”

Jack reaches out and takes the box and the gift bag from me. He rifles through it pulling out the Jallab water. He holds a bottle in one hand and the sack of nuts in the other.

“What’s all this?” he asks me. “I feel like it’s my birthday.”

“No,” I say. “It’s Liberation Day.”

Jack reaches across the table and ruffles up my hair. “You know your dad here is doing an excellent job. Setting up an entire operation in under nine months is nearly impossible. You should be proud of him.”

Mark is sucking the last of his juice through his straw, ignoring Jack as he opens up the gifts we carefully picked out.

Jack sets all his stuff on the chair next to him, as a waiter arrives with a covered silver platter. He sets it in the middle of the table and takes a step back.

“I don’t remember ordering yet,” Dad says.

“A gift from the chef,” the waiter explains, lifting the lid off a steaming plate of something I don’t recognize. “A special delicacy to help you celebrate.”

“What in the world is that?” Mom asks, leaning in to have a look.

“This is ortolan,” the waiter says. “It’s very nice.”

“But these look like baby birds,” Mom says.

“I think they are,” Dad says, poking one with his finger. “You know, I think I’ve heard of this. I think these are a big deal.”

I look at the tiny birds laid out on a bed of lettuce. They look small and thin, like they just fell out of a nest. Their bulging purple eyes are closed, and their beaks look as flimsy as a fingernail.

“But how are they cooked?” Mom asks.

“They look deep fried,” says Jack. “I thought this was a French thing. I thought this was banned.” He lifts one of the birds off the plate and pinches it between his fingers.

“Leave it to the Arabs to break all the rules,” Dad says.

“Poor little guys,” Mom says. “The damage is done. I guess we should give them a try.”

Dad reaches over and plucks two tiny birds off the plate, and passes them to me and Mark.

“What do you guys think?” he asks. “You up for this? It’s kind of like Fear Factor. You just pop them right in your mouth. It’s one bite.”

I look down at the tiny bird in my palm. Mark flinches as Dad plops one in his hand.

“So we eat the whole thing,” I say.

Mark is looking at Mom and Dad like he can’t believe we’re doing this. Dad thrusts his bird into the center of the table and says, “Cheers.”

Mom laughs and taps her little bird’s head gently against his. Jack does the same thing, and they all hold them there until Mark and I lean in with ours.

“Here we go,” Dad says, looking at me and Mark as he places the tiny bird in his mouth and chomps down. I watch Mom do the same thing. Jack is chewing thoughtfully, and brushing his hands together like he is getting rid of crumbs. I close my eyes, and shove the bird into my mouth, repeating the words: taste test, over and over in my head while I chew as fast as I can. The tiny bird bursts in my mouth, and I know that it’s all the insides that taste so good and creamy. I look over at Mark, to see if he’s as surprised as I am. He sits next to me with his lips tightly pressed together, cradling the bird in his palm like a heavy stone.

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