Farewell, My Broken Heart: fourth place in The National's 2013 Short Story Competition
Shahd Thani, 27, lives in Dubai. Thani holds a Bachelor's degree in English literature and translation, and is studying for a Master's degree in strategic marketing from the University of Wollongong in Dubai. "I grew up with writing," she says. "It's as essential as breathing to me."
The Emirati writer is currently working on a serialised book, Just Another Emirati Kind of Love Story, which follows the lives of six Emirati characters. Chapters are uploaded on her blog (www.shahoodeh.blogspot.com) every Friday. "I have been so blessed to find readers print screening quotes or [offering to] designing book covers for me," says Thani.
Below is her story:
Let us lose our oaths to find ourselves
Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths
Her hand tightened around his the closer they got to the airport. They had spent the last four years making this trip. He would drop her at the airport, help her with her bag and wave her off. She stared out the window watching the trees, the green landscapes, old historical buildings and mountains in the distance. She stared at the plump clouds filling the skies and tried to burn it all into her memory. He would let go to manoeuvre the clutch and find her hand again. She felt the warmth of his skin seep into her and though she wasn't looking at him, she could see him in her mind's eye. It was like his portrait was engraved on the back of her eyelids.
"You're quiet," he said, his thumb rubbing circles in her palms and she turned to look at him. His voice gentled. "Are you OK?"
She nodded. Inwardly, she prayed for courage.
He parked the car and when he stepped out, the warm sunshine created a halo around him. It made his brown hair turn to bronze. His smiling eyes, the feature she loved the most in him, melted her heart. He took her luggage and they walked together to the airport. Her hair was loose, rippling around her shoulders. She was dressed modestly in stylish clothes that covered her. She had Oil of Oud dabbed behind her ears and at her collar bones, her only concession to the trip home to the country of her birth. The sunshine in this country she had made her home was so unlike the scorching heat they both had grown up in. The wind was pleasant, almost kind, as it blew against them. They stepped into the airport together. The airport seemed colder and darker, especially after they have been outside in the sunlight. She stepped closer to him, feeling a tremor quake through her.
He pulled her into his arms and she leant into him, his strength, his solid presence. His sweater, something she had bought him on a whim, rubbed against her cheek as she burrowed into his embrace. His scent surrounded her. His favourite perfume was more familiar to her at this point than the powdered gardenia scent of her mother. She clung to him and when he let her go, her eyes shone.
"Habibti," he crooned. "I can't believe you're crying. It won't be long before you're home. You're going to continue your Masters next Fall, Insh'Allah."
"I know," she swallowed. "I miss you already. I hate Dubai without you in it."
"You don't even see me in Dubai," he laughed, then seriously: "I'll be waiting for you. It's never home without you."
"You are home. You have been my sanctuary." She touched his cheek. Her nutmeg skin was a stark contrast against the fairness of his skin. Her heart pounded with suppressed sobs and shattered hopes. She yearned to cling to him again but she didn't want him to know the truth.
"Allah bring you back safely," he called out
She turned away, taking her luggage as she walked towards the gate. He watched her like he always did so she could turn and wave one last time as she passed through. She took resolute steps, but turned back towards him. She wanted to let go of her luggage, rush back to him and let go of all she was walking towards. She couldn't bear letting go of the life they had lived together. Waking up early and knocking on his door in the complex building they lived in together. She had asked him to share apartments like some of the other Khaleeji couples did, but he refused. He promised her that their love was pure and that they would not live in sin. It didn't feel sinful to hold him in her arms. It only felt impure when she was back in the UAE. Some of those couples had married against their family's wishes and she envied them for choosing love over duty. She had agonised over the choice for the last four years. She had always known she couldn't have both simultaneously.
He told people who asked that their families know each other very well and that they were only waiting to finish university before they could be married. It was almost official. He told her it was to preserve her reputation and chided her for using the word "boyfriend". She would often stamp her foot and cry, "Even here, miles and oceans away from anyone I know, I have to worry about my reputation!"
He called her a dreamer but it was often said with compassionate sweetness. But she knew with great sorrow that it was he who was the dreamer. He would talk about their life together living abroad and having children with her eyes and her smile. She would lay her head on his shoulder, listening to him weave his fantasies, and she wondered if it was possible to ache more than she already did. She ached for him. She ached without him. There was never any solace for her.
From love's source comes destruction. It was an Arabic saying, but never had it resonated within her as much as it did at that moment. There was madness and sacrifice in love. In the love she carried for her family, there was the destruction of her heart, the essence of who she was and where she belonged. In the love she carried for him, the destruction of bonds she grew up with and all that she knew to hold sacred.
Her phone chose that instant to ring. She answered and could barely get a word in edge wise, as suddenly, the phone was passed around. Her sisters. Her cousins. Her family. There were well wishes and suddenly her father's voice on the line. He asked when she would be arriving.
"Have you got everything? Your boarding pass, your passport?" her father asked her with pride. She was the prodigal daughter returning home.
She listened to the sounds of home coming through the telephone. She took empty comfort in the pride in her father's voice, his tenderness, because she lost that essence when she chose to study abroad. She didn't expect time to stand still without her. She didn't think the space she left would close up so tight that she couldn't find her way back in.
Every trip she would be close to tears, horribly homesick. The welcome would last only until her first day, yet after that she realised that her siblings' lives would move on like clockwork, excluding her. She would try to find solace with her friends but even their ranks have closed up. It became exhausting listening to pleasantries, excuses, and always being a guest. It was never home.
She ordered coffee, bitter black, without sugar, the same way he took it when he was running on little sleep doing his residency. He was her dearest friend. He was her family. She didn't know how it happened. How could two strangers find each other abroad and become absolutely tangled. She didn't know who she was without him. Who would hear her now? Who would understand her? The coffee burnt her throat but did little to warm the ice that had lodged in her chest.
They had lived their whole lives in Dubai but never found one another. It was possible that they may never have met. She wondered what it would be like to pass him by without having what they did. She didn't know, but how she wished she loved him less.
She remembered two years ago, her cousins and friends were in her room. They were looking through pictures on her laptop. There was a picture of him with a few of the other Khaleeji and Arab students. It had been Eid. They were celebrating at the UAE embassy.
"Are there no Emirati men in this state?" one exclaimed. "How will you ever get married?"
"He's cute … for a non Emirati," her cousin pointed at his picture and her heart pounded. She waited for an opportunity to speak. She wanted to tell them the secret she had been carrying.
"Ugh," exclaimed her older cousin. "He looks like he works in KFC."
"He's studying to be a doctor," she defended, but she wasn't brave enough to disgrace herself in their eyes by admitting to wanting to marry him. She had told herself so often that people's opinions didn't mean anything. Love would conquer all. In the presence of the people she loved more than anything - her friends, her family - she knew how much their opinions meant to her.
She wept throughout the plane trip after all the lights went off, the last intercom clicked, huddled under the blanket. All around her, lights of the small media screens flickered with movies being watched by passengers. She had only the film reel of the past four years to console and condemn her heavy heart.
She carried the film reel as she walked through Heathrow airport. She called her mother.
"Esalaam alaaykum," she forced cheer into her voice. "I'm almost home. Just a few more hours."
"Fedaitech." Her mother's endearment was a welcome balm. "I can't wait till you are safely home. I have so much to tell you. Your second cousin has been asking about you."
She mouthed all the perfunctory things she was supposed to say, but her heart despaired of ever going home. Would she ever belong?
She slept through this flight, finding relief in exhaustion. When she woke up, there was an hour left before the plane would land. She took her make up bag, her carefully folded abaya and sheila out of her carry on bag and went to the airplane lavatory. She washed her face with cool water. She rubbed moisturiser into her parched skin. She proceeded to do her make up in that elaborate way all her friends and sisters were used to. She drew thick lines and swooped the curves. She brushed her lashes with mascara and slicked on a smile with lipstick. She put on her abaya and wrapped her sheila carefully around her head, the intricate twists coming back to her with a practised flip of her wrist. She stared at herself in the mirror. The perfect Emirati girl coming home. The garment fit her well, though she stumbled a little as she walked back to her seat.
When the plane finally landed, she was ready. She took her carry on bag, her purse and stepped off the airplane into the busy Dubai airport.
Updated: April 29, 2013 04:00 AM