We were in the jacuzzi when Speedoman entered the pool area and our lives. There were five of us, all sitting spaced apart, the warm water bubbling up to our hairy chests. Outside, it was gray and snowing, the roads icy. We came to the Ford Community Center in the heart of Dearborn, Michigan, every Saturday afternoon to work out—intense cardio followed by weight training—and then relax our muscles in the jacuzzi. It was the highlight of our week and we could hardly wait for the days to pass so that we could be together again. Our wives spent their entire time gossiping in a corner of the shallow end of the pool. We encouraged them to use the elliptical machines or the treadmills because Allah knows, they could stand to lose a few pounds. They ignored us.
The past week had been terrifying. ICE agents arrested our poor brother Firas, dragging him from his home in handcuffs. The agents were crawling everywhere, appearing at our work and demanding that we submit paperwork on our employees or else we risked deportation. We refused, knowing our rights. “We’re Americans!” we cried. We told the white men in blue windbreakers that we had fled civil war in Lebanon and immigrated to Dearborn to reinvent ourselves. We worked the assembly lines at the Ford Rouge plant for several years before opening our own businesses: a convenience store, a gas station, a barbershop, a restaurant, and a halal butchery. The agents rolled their eyes.
Now we were in the jacuzzi, where we could forget our troubles. The community center was filled mostly with Arabs—all the brown faces had scared off the white folks. We were feeling confident, the kind of giddy confidence that comes after completing a hard workout. Then we saw a tall man in a pink robe, holding a thick book and towel, walk across the other side of the pool by the deep end. Our first thought: What man wears pink? His black hair was slicked back. He had a bushy mustache and long sideburns. Our second thought: ‘70s porn star, not that we watched porn, let alone ‘70s porn. That filth was haram; we were righteous Muslims. The man placed his book on a pool chair, draped his towel over the back, and put on a pair of goggles. He then turned to us—that is, everyone on the opposite side of the pool, including our wives, other swimmers, and the gym goers behind the glass barrier wall—and unloosened his robe. He wore sky blue speedos. His package, his package was… He removed his robe and laid it on his chair, his chest still turned to us. He had broad shoulders and a small potbelly. His skin was too tanned for winter. He stretched his arms and twisted his torso from side to side and then blew into his cupped palms. He then strode down the pool in the direction of our wives, walking with the haughtiness of a fashion model on a catwalk. “He better not get too close to our women,” we hissed. He had a big nose with a bump at the bridge, an Arab nose, one that we all shared. Having arrived within a few feet of our wives, he turned around and headed back to the deep end. A cedar tree covered the back of his speedo. We looked at one another. Who was this stranger?
As Dearbornites, we were accustomed to encountering newcomers on a daily basis. Since the creation of Israel, our city had been home to refugees from the Arab world. We heard all kinds of Arabic dialects at the mosque and in the grocery stores and coffeehouses around town. With the violence in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, the refugees continued to come, appearing on our shores like frightened children, just the way we had been when we arrived in 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. But in nearly thirty years of living in Dearborn, we had never seen a newcomer like Speedoman, the name we gave him the moment he removed his robe. He was the first Arab—he must have been Arab—we saw in a speedo.
As for the cedar tree on his ass, we were reminded of the Lebanese flag sewn on the sleeves of our cub scout shirts, back when we were boys. We were born and raised in Bint Jbeil, a small village near the Israeli border. The farthest we had ever travelled was to the coastal city of Tyre, where we saw the sea for the first time and wondered what lay beyond the blue expanse. When we learned we’d be camping near the cedars of Lebanon on our next scouts’ adventure, we jumped with excitement: We’d get to touch the same wood Noah had used for his ark.
On the day of departure, we boarded a school bus, dressed in caps, black-and-white neckerchiefs, collared shirts with badges sewn on the sleeves, and khakis. We sang folk songs as we drove north along the coast, passing through Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut. In Tripoli, we took a right and headed across the mountain ranges to Bsharri, where the great poet Kahlil Gibran was born. Our ears popped as we ascended the mountains. That night, we planted our tents in a small field at the crest of the Qadisha Valley and made a bonfire to keep ourselves warm as our counselors grilled skewers of chicken and shish kabab and a lone wolf howled in the depths of the valley. The following morning, as church bells tolled, we took a twenty-minute drive to the cedars, meat still stuck in our teeth and the smell of burnt wood in our hair. We were expecting a forest of cedars, but instead we found a handful of the majestic trees huddled together at the base of a mountain like a group of forgotten philosophers. We walked down a dirt path that winded between the trees. To be cast in the shade of the cedars was to be graced by the hand of God.
Speedoman stood at the edge of the deep end. He raised his hands above his head, the edges of his thumbs touching, palms turned down. His underarms were waxed. Hell, his entire body was waxed. He dove into the water as if afraid to wake someone up from a nap by the sound of his splash.
Mashallah. Allah has willed it. Our first utterance the moment we saw Speedoman enter the pool area. Mashallah, we repeated, when he took off his robe and thrust his hips forward; mashallah when he turned around and showed us the cedar tree on his firm buttocks. He swam laps with the strength and precision of an Olympic swimmer—he didn’t attack the water so much as glide over it. Our husbands in the jacuzzi had their eyes locked on him. The lazy bums, they spent all their time in the hot tub instead of working out. Their version of lifting weights was for one of them to lay flat on the bench, barely lifting the barbell, while the rest stood around, chatting, or laughing at some YouTube video on their smartphones.
Speedoman, for that was what we named him, climbed out of the pool and walked to his chair, dripping water. His bangs trickled over his face. He dried himself off with his towel, swept back his hair, slipped into his robe, and lay on his chair, where he opened his book as thick as the Qur’an and began reading. We were desperate to read the title of his book to get an idea of his literary tastes—we had a thriving book club—but we were camped too far away. Our husbands glanced at us; we immediately looked away from Speedoman. When we looked back at our husbands, they were staring at him, and so we returned our gaze on our well-endowed swimmer. He licked his finger to turn the page.
We asked about one another’s children, if only to distract ourselves from the enigma in the pink robe. We hadn’t seen a ‘70s man in years, not since we lived during that era. We were teenagers back then, all in the same school (but different grades) in Bint Jbeil. Our lives consisted of helping out our mothers with house chores and attending school. Our parents were waiting until we graduated from high school to marry us off. We expected to marry our local men, because that’s what our mothers and grandmothers had done. We only hoped that we wouldn’t be married off to our unlikeable cousins, though keeping the land in the family made sense. In those days most of the young village men had long sideburns and wore bellbottom pants and in the evenings, they hung out in the main square where they sipped Coca-Cola and smoked cigarettes. They boasted of being cosmopolitan men, though only few had ventured north to Beirut. We would have loved to visit the capital, which travelers described as the finest city in Arabia, but we were bound to our homes. When the civil war broke out in the streets of Beirut in 1975, we thought we’d never get the chance to see the metropolis.
The only way to leave home was to marry. When our husbands came calling and asked for our hands, our parents gave them their blessings. We had no say in the matter. At least we were married off to our more likeable (not necessarily desirable) cousins.
Speedoman was a man from the past, one that we imagined only lived in the great cities of the world. So why was he in Dearborn and not New York or Los Angeles? Was he chasing down a former lover? Was he escaping the law? Was he out for revenge? We attributed our line of questioning to the influence of Turkish soap operas dubbed in Arabic on Netflix.
When Speedoman walked toward us, we saw that he wasn’t as young as we first thought. He was somewhere in his forties, with thick hair. Our husbands were bald.
We checked the time on the clock. It was half past five. We had a dinner reservation at Baba’s Tacos and Shawarma at seven. It was our Saturday ritual—a workout followed by dinner with our lesser halves. But we didn’t want to leave so soon, and neither did our husbands. Every so often, they’d pull themselves out of the jacuzzi and sit on the edge, and then dip back in. If we approached Speedoman to learn what he was reading, then our husbands would accuse us of flirting with a stranger. “What Muslim woman does such a thing?” they’d surely ask. The hypocrites. It had been years since they last attended Friday prayer service.
The shorter way to the women’s locker room was past the jacuzzi. We took the longer route. As we neared Speedoman, our hearts began to race. We could hardly breathe. We heard our husbands calling out our names. Speedoman licked his finger again to turn a page. We read the title on the cover of his book: A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Our man was a history buff. Interesting. Not once did he look up at us. Too bad, because we were wearing brand new burkinis.
At Baba’s Tacos and Shawarma, we sat at one end of the long table and our wives at the other end. We had arrived an hour late. After our workout, we rushed home to bathe—bathing together in the communal showers at the community center was a foreign idea to us. Only our wives saw us naked, and it had been a while since they had.
We ordered beef tacos, chicken shawarma, lamb chops, fried liver, tabbouleh, and bowls of guacamole, salsa, hummus, and baba ghanoush. Despite all the food, we lacked an appetite. We were only hungry for stories of our youth, and that’s what we exchanged at dinner, remembering the days we’d hunt and camp in the woods and swim in the Litani river. We had been happy back then, before we were married with children. We wanted to be scouts forever! But when we turned eighteen, we sought to make a living. Some of us worked in the shops in the main square and others took up jobs in construction. One summer, a villager who had immigrated to Dearborn returned to tell us that there were plenty of well-paying positions in the automobile factories in that part of the world. We had no interest in leaving our beloved village, and after we married and began having children, we thought we’d never leave. But the Israeli invasion changed things; fighter jets bombed our land, decimating our houses, schools, and mosques, killing our loved ones. We left with thousands of others. The first time we and our families got to see Beirut was when drove up to the airport to leave the country. By that point, most of the city had been destroyed.
We were easily susceptible to bouts of nostalgia. A song by Fairuz, the smell of home cooking, a Lebanese film on TV, could trigger our melancholy. Our wives complained that our favorite pastime was to reminisce about our past. They preferred our lives in Dearborn because the city, with all its Arabic restaurants and grocery stores and mosques, reminded them of home while having the conveniences of America. But an imitation of home was inferior. We wanted the real thing.
Speedoman had unlocked something deep inside us. We were reliving our memories, not simply remembering them. We could feel the neckerchiefs around our necks, hear the crackle of pinewood in the bonfire, smell the holy cedars. We felt young and free again.
We were interrupted from our thoughts when our wives asked us to pass the lamb chops. We had been furious at them for approaching Speedoman, but instead of chastising them, we asked if they had caught the title of the man’s book. They shook their heads, as if they hadn’t even noticed the stranger in the pink robe.
As we forced ourselves to eat, we heard our wives smacking their lips and licking their greasy fingers as they wolfed down the chops. They were licking a little too greedily.
We lived a few blocks from one another in East Dearborn. While our husbands were at work, we managed our online business and later prepared dinner. We sold handmade jewelry and purses we crafted ourselves or commissioned other women to make. Our children were either in university or had married and started their own families.
On Wednesday afternoon, we met at Salma’s house to discuss our latest book club selection, Danielle Steel’s A Good Woman. We had torn through the book like the rest of Steel’s novels, but on this day, as we sat in the living room sipping tea, we had no interest in discussing romance literature. We were three days away from Saturday. Would Speedoman be at the community center? What were the chances that we’d meet again at exactly the same time? Was he a new member or had just paid a day pass?
It had been months since we last had sex. When we did have sex, our husbands lasted as long as it took to boil a single brik of Turkish coffee. We never suggested improvements because they had fragile hearts.
What would happen if our husbands waxed their bodies and actually lifted weights? Would we ravage them in bed?
Later that night, as we lay under our covers as our husbands snored, we messaged one another over our WhatsApp group, the “Smokin’ Entrepreneurs.” If Speedoman returned on Saturday, what color speedos would he be wearing? Would he have finished his book on the Byzantine empire? Was he that voracious a reader? Was the man married? Had anyone noticed a ring on his finger?
We decided on a name for Speedoman’s blessing between his legs: the Beast from the Middle East, aka BME. We messaged until we fell asleep.
At around the same time as last Saturday, Speedoman entered the pool area. He was in his pink robe, with a book and towel in hand. The book was slimmer than the one from last week. He placed his items on a chair and then looked up at the ceiling, which caused us to look up at the lights—ah, there was a trapped bird. It hovered over a spotlight before perching on a beam. How did we not notice it before? When we looked back down, Speedoman had already removed his robe. His speedos were pinkish gold, the color of sunset. He began his walk down the pool, in the direction of our wives. We eagerly waited for him to turn around to see the image on his ass. When he did, we reached for our hearts. Beirut’s Pigeon Rocks covered his rear, the two towering rock pillars with grassy peaks rising from the sea. He walked slowly enough for us to discern the features of the scene: A couple stood at the railing of the Corniche overlooking the Pigeon Rocks, facing the horizon.
After the civil war ended, we returned to Lebanon in 1991. We had followed the news of our country’s self-destruction from abroad, wondering if the violence would ever end. A hundred thousand Lebanese had been killed. We spent most of our time in Dahieh, a Shiite suburb of Beirut, because it was too dangerous to return to Bint Jbeil, which like the rest of southern Lebanon, was still occupied by the Israeli Army. One day, we hired a bus driver to take our families into Beirut to tour the city. Many buildings were pockmarked with mortar shells and bullets. Downtown was a wasteland of broken buildings and streets overgrown with weeds. Our children whined about how much they hated Lebanon and wanted to return to Dearborn. We fed them ice cream to shut them up.
We took a long walk down the corniche. The fronds of palm trees lining the promenade swayed in the wind. Fishermen stood at the railing with their lines cast out at sea. On a stretch of rocky shore down from the promenade, young men sunbathed and smoked cigarettes, their skin darkened by the sun. We walked up a steep incline that plateaued at the Pigeon Rocks and stood there gazing at the sea, remembering the first time we saw the Mediterranean as boys and wondered about the world beyond our shores. When the sun dipped into the waters and the stars emerged, we returned to the bus.
Melancholy coursed through us. Damn Speedoman! How was it possible that a stranger knew what heart strings to pull? Was he some kind of informant or spy working for ICE? Had he wiretapped us?
At this point, he had finished his laps and was now reading on his chair. We were determined to discover his identity. When we noticed the time on the clock, we realized that if we didn’t leave the jacuzzi now, we’d be late to our dinner reservation at Ali’s Famous Sushi and Kabob. Our wives called out our names, pointing to the clock. We know, we gestured. Calm the hell down.
But we couldn’t extract ourselves from the bubbling water, not until we understood what Speedoman was up to. Should we approach him? If we did, our wives would see us conversing with him and think that we were infatuated with the man. We just wanted an explanation for the content of his speedos. The heat got to us, so we climbed out of the jacuzzi and sat on the edge. Our chests were nearly dry when we saw our wives walking past Speedoman. They paused when they arrived at his chair—his face was buried in his book—and then continued on to the locker room. Feeling cold, we dipped back into the water. Now was our chance to question Speedoman. We were five, he was one. The numbers were on our side. If one of us faltered in his questioning, there was someone else to step in. All for one and one for all! Why were we even hesitating? For God’s sake, we had survived seven years of civil war and an Israeli invasion. We had stood up to the ICE agents, and before them, back when the towers fell, we stood up to FBI agents when they started surveilling us because we happened to be Arab. There was nothing that could hold us back, and if we didn’t get out of the water now, then—Speedoman stood up, put on his robe, gathered his book and towel, and left the premises. We looked at one another. He was headed to the locker room. We left the jacuzzi.
Our lockers were in different aisles, the space we gave one another to change in privacy. But now we congregated in the same aisle, towels draped over our shoulders. We hadn’t spotted Speedoman in any of the aisles. We headed over to the communal showers and saw him under one of the showerheads, his back turned to us. The paleness of his ass stood out in contrast to his tanned body. He was singing a ballad by Abdel Halim Hafez. Asmar ya asmarani, he sang softly. Meen assak alaya? Why do you add to my suffering? Why don’t you care about my youth? Why have you been gone for so long? Why? Why? Tell me why, y’asmar. His voice was more passionate than memorable. We had grown up listening to Abdel Halim on the transistor radio and had seen all his Egyptian films. We began to hum along, which got Speedoman to turn around and look at us. He smiled. His package, his package was… We fled the showers and retreated to our respective aisles. We didn’t want to lose our dinner reservation!
Poems by Nizar Qabbani. The title of the book Speedoman was reading the second time we saw him. The title was in Arabic. Our man was a reader of diverse interests. Over dinner at Ali’s Famous Sushi and Kabob, we pulled out our smartphones and ordered copies of the book, which we unanimously selected as our next book club selection. We opted for overnight shipping. All we could do was talk about our mystery man. We spoke in whispers so as not to attract our husbands’ attention, but they were adrift in melancholy. They had barely touched their food, and we knew they loved sushi.
Days later, we met at Lamise’s house to discuss Qabbani’s poems. We each took turns reciting our favorite poems, and ended up reciting the following poem together:
Read me, my lady
Read me well
for I am in search
of a moonstruck reader
who will slip my poetry
on her wrists like bracelets
and see the world
take the shape of a poet
Be drunk on me, my lady
We imagined Speedoman as the speaker of the poem. Intoxicated, we arrived at the same question: Why not work out at the community center during the week? We all rushed back to our homes, packed our gym bags, and waited for Lamise to pick us up in her minivan. She drove like a getaway driver, swerving between the cars, honking her horn.
“Faster!” we cried. We still had to process online orders and make dinner for our husbands.
We changed into our burkinis and hopped in the jacuzzi. After an hour, another group of hijabis came over and complained that we were hogging the hot tub. We reluctantly got out and sat in our regular corner of the pool. We waited another hour and he didn’t appear. Before leaving the community center, we visited the reception desk and asked the young woman behind the counter if she had information about a new member. The young woman sat in a swivel chair, chewing bubblegum as she texted someone. She had spiky black hair and wore a nose ring. We described Speedoman as a‘70s man, leaving out his speedos but mentioning his pink robe. The woman popped a bubble. We just want a name, we pleaded. Without bothering to look up from her phone, she said it was against company policy to disclose membership information.
We returned the next day, but still no sighting. The following day, we decided to cook dinner in the morning so we could spend more time at the community center before our husbands came home from work. We were in the jacuzzi when Speedoman appeared in the afternoon. On the back of his speedo was an image of a woman standing on the balcony of a French colonial style building, lowering a basket down to a man on the street. We had seen a very similar sight in Beirut. We couldn’t stand the heat of the jacuzzi anymore—how did our husbands tolerate it?—and moved over to our corner in the pool. Speedoman never acknowledged us, absorbed in his book—a new book, by the looks of it, with a red cover. Or was that part of his ploy? He knew we were there; he must have recognized us, even though we had never exchanged words. He was luring us, the bastard. But why? When it was time to leave, we stopped in front of his chair to read the title of his book: Introduction to Quantum Mechanics. He was reading intensely, as if we didn’t exist. His robe was fastened over his body, his feet extended. We recited our beloved poem: Read me, my lady/Read me well… He looked up at us and completed the poem. He had a soft, deep voice. We couldn’t quite place his Arabic dialect. Did this mean he wasn’t actually Lebanese? He opened his robe like the door to a secret treasure. Mashallah, the BME was awake and swollen.
“You’ve come alone today,” he said.
Our eyes travelled up to his face. We were about to ask him for his name, for his story, when our hearts got caught in our throats. We shouldn’t be here. Other hijabis might spot us and tell our husbands we had gone astray.
“Would you like to pull up some chairs?” he asked, making eye-contact with each of us.
We hurried to the locker room, nearly slipping on the tiles.
That night in bed, over WhatsApp messages, we contemplated our stage fright, for that was what it truly was. We had missed a golden opportunity.
“We’ll talk to him tomorrow,” Lamise texted.
“Inshallah,” we responded.
But Speedoman never appeared the next day.
We attended Friday prayer service at the mosque. We stood in line next to one another among dozens of men and followed the imam’s prayer, bending down and touching our foreheads to the floor. Since Saturday, we were unable to shake off our melancholy. We missed Bint Jbeil like never before. As much as we loved America, it appeared that the country didn’t love us back—at least not anymore.
We were also ashamed. We couldn’t stop thinking about Speedoman and we didn’t know what this meant; we were afraid to dig deeper into our thoughts. We had seen his package, which made us feel worse about our own. We considered our baldness, our flabby arms, our round bellies, our stubby feet. Perhaps we needed to hire personal trainers. Maybe then our wives would look at us with the same hunger as they did Speedoman.
We prayed that Allah would guide us down a righteous path. We prayed and prayed, even after the imam and congregants left the room. In less than twenty-four hours, we’d be back in the jacuzzi, and this both thrilled and terrified us.
Speedoman wore an image of Bint Jbeil on his buttocks. There was no mistaking the communal spring in the main square, in the shade of a weeping willow tree. We couldn’t talk to him with our husbands looking over our shoulders, and this killed us. We’d have to try again during the week. Or so we thought, because he put his book down, removed his robe, and walked over to the jacuzzi and asked if he could join. Our husbands made room for him. Not wanting to miss a word, we climbed out of the pool and walked over to the jacuzzi. The men were all silent. Speedoman looked at us, grinning. We were worried he’d mention our previous encounter, which would get us in trouble with our husbands, but he was a discreet man. Our husbands gave us the stink eye. We gave it right back to them. We were all too nervous to speak.
“I’d like to show you all something,” Speedoman said in Arabic. “Meet me out front in the parking lot in an hour.” He got out and walked to the locker room. He was that confident.
An hour later, we and our husbands found Speedoman standing outside in a faux fur coat, gym bag in hand. He wore fingerless gloves and a beaver hat with ear flaps. The sun was setting, an orange ray breaking through the gray sky.
“Follow me,” he said.
We followed him to a broken-down Volkswagen van, the kind that hippies once drove. He had an Arizona license plate. He opened the trunk and removed a cardboard box.
We looked at one another, and then at our husbands.
Speedoman extended the box to each of us. We reached inside and pulled out a calendar with Speedoman on the cover, dressed in a speedo. We flipped through the pages. For each month, he wore a different themed speedo, all evoking our homeland.
“You’re a model?” Lamise asked him.
“I’m a peddler. Just like my father and his father before him. My product is available for a limited time.”
We asked for the price.
“$150 per calendar.”
That’s robbery! we said.
Our husbands asked him if he accepted credit cards.
Speedoman took out a card reader and plugged it into his smartphone. We demanded our own copies. Our husbands each bought two copies.
“God bless,” Speedoman said. He closed his trunk, got in his van, and drove off.
That was the last we saw him. But we didn’t know that then, and stood in the cold. We still needed to shower and get dressed for dinner if we wanted to make it in time to our reservation at Aunt Ayda’s Pizza and Falafel Shack.
We exchanged glances with our husbands, trying to understand what had just happened, what had happened to us for the past several weeks. At dinner, we (our husbands included) perused the calendar. There was no website or name, nothing to identify Speedoman. We took out our phones and plugged in key words in our search engines to see if he’d surface online; there was no trace of him.
When the food came, we (our husbands included) put the calendars away so as not to smear them with grease. At our side of the table, we reprimanded ourselves for not hounding Speedoman with questions. He had tricked us into buying his calendar. How many others had he also duped?
When we asked our husbands to pass the falafel down the table, they looked at us with mournful faces. We were at a loss of how to console them because we didn’t know how to console ourselves. The calendar, no doubt, would add to our collective pain. And yet we couldn’t wait to return to its glossy pages.
Note: The excerpt of the Nizar Qabbani poem was translated from Arabic by the writer and scholar Mohja Kahf. Kahf's translation first appeared in Grand Street, 68 (1999): 106-111, and was later included in Susan Muaddi Darraj's Scheherazade's Legacy: Arab and Arab American Women on Writing.