A good friend of mine and I went for dinner one night. At some point I took a long look at her face. I was suddenly overwhelmed by how she seemed to be both an old familiar friend and a stranger I hardly knew at all.
I don't know how we became friends. We're both doing the same programme at graduate school, but have taken only one course together. We hardly ever sat next to each other. In our lectures, I sat at the front while she sat at the back. Sometimes, we would exchange greetings and small talk as a group of us would congregate before and after classes. I have one random memory of running into her in the library, when she asked if I knew where the school clinic was. I did not know, but worked on finding out, hunted her down and passed the information along. We were strangers.
I was heading towards the library on another afternoon when suddenly she popped up in front of me, excited, asking if I wanted to join her for a coffee break, as if it were the most causal thing. She was procrastinating, she said, and wanted a partner in crime. We went to a cafe, talked, met other people and went on the first of many walks together. We were old friends.
She is quiet. So am I, generally. I am moody, and feel most at ease talking to close, old friends. But in trying to converse with a quiet person, I could safely be labelled, uncharacteristically, as talkative. I would talk endlessly about random things. With all that talking, one would think she could become my biographer. But in truth, I wasn't saying anything significant about myself. Do factoids and family narratives suffice to impart who and what I am to another person? We spent so many hours together, eating, walking around, going to see films and such - all of these were activities and we didn't exchange much about our pasts, ourselves. We were strangers.
There were times when she'd surprise me with how much she actually did share but in sporadic, inconsistent and unexpected short outbursts. I know a lot about her family. I now know a good deal of her past, experiences and aims. They don't come in the shape of long narratives. They are usually fragmented and random. I met her beautiful mother, who stole my heart. I am also familiar with her diet, her interests and her quirks. We were old friends.
Recently after a long day in the library, I'd got up from my spot and walked down to return the books I'd borrowed. When I got back to my place, she was there using the computer next to me, waiting for me to pack my stuff so we'd leave together. We casually agreed that we'd eat dinner together, and she told me about her dissertation and expected to hear about mine. If any outsider were to see us, they'd think we're old friends who have settled into a routine.
During dinner, I caught her staring at me. We were old friends, but still very much strangers.
I am leaving London soon, and we're both trying to figure out what we're going to do next with our lives. This will just add to the dichotomous situation of friend/stranger. A beautiful solid ground is gradually built by being in the same place, doing the same thing. I wonder if, without that, the next time we sit facing each other we'll still reflect the paradox.
A part of me believes that there is something new in old friendships and something old in new friendships, and this place is the best place to be in, for it's the space in which changes and developments are not disconcerting, but welcomed.
Salma Khalifa is an Emirati graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science