On Nationalism and Rubber Chicken.

 

The Grosvenor House, or the Inn on the Park; a Saturday night.  A tourist; a tanned, turtle-faced American woman in a white shell suit with two kids (either her grandchildren or living proof that women shouldn't give birth in their forties) pushes through the sea of black suits and embroidered dresses flooding the hotel lobby.  She looks around her with faint repulsion; she came to London expecting middle England and found the Middle East instead; an Arab charity fund-raiser.

 

It's not quite my idea of a good time either, but tonight, I forget myself, and become the 'ajanbiyah'; the foreign wife.  I watch the glossy Arab women greet each other fondly.  'Habibti', they croon, as they stroke each other's cheeks and kiss; once, twice, three times.  Then they smile their plump, pussy cat smiles and nod their heads as they speak; pecking their words out like perfectly coiffeured pigeons - if pigeons wore Dior and went to cocktail parties.

 

They are sweet, nice women; often beautiful, polite to the point of formality; and they still think it's 1957.  Many of them are founder members of the long-suffering wives club for whom marriage is a life-long career with good working conditions and excellent pension prospects; just as long as you can put up with the boss.  Some wear chin to ankle traditional Arab dresses, stiff with blood-red embroidery bleeding down the front.  Others wear couture in every size from borderline obscene to voluminous, and every shade from screaming pink to black, black and black.  Beige, however, is not big in the Arab world.

 

Generally speaking, neither are the men.  Throughout the evening I am introduced to one diminutive, elderly gentleman after another;  The tall woman with foresight leaves both her high heels and her cleavage at home. On these occasions the only breast you really want to display is the one belonging to the rubber chicken on your £100-a-head dinner plate, not the one at eye level.  

 

However, dˇcolletage does go exceedingly well with diamonds, which seem to be obligatory.  The jewellery runs the gamut from tasteless to priceless. Women wear chandeliers around their necks; huge glittering white rocks on their manicured fingers which, you can be sure, didn't come from the QVC home shopping channel.  They drape coloured stones around their wrists like baubles on a Christmas tree.  Everything sparkles, except the women's eyes which are all a little dead. 

 

My dress comes from Marks & Spencer; my hair colour, in common with most of the other guests, from a bottle; and my ear-rings from the charity fund-raising raffle several years ago when I won the star prize. 

 

'Two thousand, five hundred pounds,' whispered the hostess gleefully in my ear as she presented them to me in a blue, silk-lined box almost big enough to be buried in. The other women made small cooing noises as I walked back to my seat and even now, they still recognise me by the two small golden European principalities hanging from my ears, which is useful: It gives us something to talk about for the millennium between hello and good-bye, after they've asked about the children.

 

In the Arab world, I can wear my four children like a brooch, pinned to my maternal chest like a rosette given to a prize breeding heifer; a model for the Palestinian demographic solution.  I could have cards printed that itemise their names, ages, schools and distribute them to interested parties.  This would leave me free to get very discreetly but blindingly drunk, which I'm also rather good at.

 

In the powder room, however, there's a voice of dissent. A dusky racehorse of a girl is sprawled across a velvet banquette talking on her mobile phone.

 

'Don't come', she says in an Arab American accent.  "It's full of all the people I've been avoiding ever since I arrived in London.  'Very Arabische, all gold and jewellery, and that's just the men.'

 

We share a smile of solidarity.  I return to my place on the fringes of the room, to sit with an attentively pleasant expression, frozen across my foreign face.  I pass the time inhaling secondary smoke from my neighbour's long, white Cartier cigarette. stubbed out after three puffs. 

 

The master of ceremonies; an Essex boy, dressed in red frogging like a performing chimp, is attempting to pronounce the name of a Saudi businessman  with all the finesse of a cat coughing up a hair ball.  The man sitting next to me valiantly attempts a little conversation.

 

'You are English?' he asks with the charm of those unable to distinguish between regional accents and received pronunciation. 

 

'Scottish,' I reply.

 

'Ah - so you must be pleased to finally have your own parliament?' he asks with the genuine awe any Palestinian feels for the accoutrements of even semi autonomy.

 

Frankly, at this moment, I don't give a damn either way, but political correctness demands that I must, indeed, be pleased.  I explain that, naturally, I think it's high time that Scotland had self rule, but as an expatriate I don't feel entitled to an opinion.

 

But you still feel Scottish, he asks, which is akin to asking an Eskimo if he feels the cold.

 

Of course, I protest, my hibernian hackles bristling that he should suggest otherwise; although at this moment, I feel less like a disenfranchised Scot than a victim of alien abduction.  Next they'll impregnate me and return me to normal society - or have they already done that?

 

The raffle comes and goes. An imported celebrity pulls tickets from a hat and calls out the numbers, a task which almost makes one feel glad not to be famous.  Fifty pound notes litter the table to be collected by a delegation of nubile young lovelies auditioning for husbands.  Someone wins the car and the haircut at Jamil's beauty parlour in Edgeware, and the £200 worth of air freight between London and Dubai.  An anonymous donor, of which there are many, donates the cost of the whole evening to the charity and another row of zeros is added to the generous amount already raised.

 

We all dance the bossa nova in celebration.

 

Then a woman stands up on the stage, and with a theatrical gesture begins to sing forlornly.  With her dramatic hand movements she looks like a Middle Eastern Shirley Bassey, but the words of the song which she dedicates to Palestinian refugees are tender: 'Sana'a auwdu yauman'. We will return one day.

 

I think of Hogmanay:  My mother singing about 'her ain' folk.  Moira Stewart and the White Heather Club: 'Oh flower of Scotland - when will we see your like again':  Every sentimental Scotsman's nostalgic lament for a country that doesn't exist except in his imagination.  And as the Arab matrons click their jewelled fingers, and the small giants of commerce beside them pull back the cuffs of their dinner jackets and clap in rhythm, I see that perhaps, we're not so different after all. 

 

But it's not until everyone in the audience begins to sing sadly along with the words of the song, that I really begin to feel at home.