Habibi





Riyadh is a city with zero humidity, but rapidly growing temperature and yet my palms were sweaty. When I heard his approaching footsteps, my heart began thumping hard against my ribs as though it intended to leap out of my chest. When he emerged at the thin opening of our secret alleyway, reality struck me. I had always imagined that if we were ever to part, it would be because of the differences in our cultures and nationalities: he was a Yemeni and I was an Indian. But here I was, standing in the same alleyway where I had first met him while he was sneaking a smoke, to tell him news that would shatter his heart irreparably.

 

“Salamu Alikum, habibi!” he said. I’d always loved the way he called me “habibi”, “my love”.

 

“Safwaan,” I began but my voice broke. I breathed and blurted it out, my words stumbling over each other: “I’m moving back to India”. His soothing smile instantly vanished. After an achingly long moment of silence, he asked, “Where in India? Delhi? Kashmir? Karachi?”

 

I chuckled absentmindedly and corrected him like I always do. “Karachi is in Pakistan, not India.” He frowned, shrugging, he asked “Pakistan, India, no same-same?” he managed in English. He pronounced the “pa” in Pakistan as “ba”. I shook my head.

 

“When?” he spoke the mono-syllabic word that formed a lump in my throat.

“In two hours,” I said blinking back tears. His jaw fell open.

 

“What about me and you, habibi?” he asked and for the first time I noticed a look of helplessness, pleading and fear in his eyes.

“We were never meant to be,” I croaked and ran out the alley for the last time, my eyes stinging with tears.

 

***

 

25th June, 2010

 

Dear diary,

It’s been a week since I came to Chennai and I still can’t get it out of my mind. I cry silently every night. My sister says I’ll eventually forget and move on. I’m waiting for that day, for that eventuality.

 

***

 

1st July, 2010

 

Dear diary,

My college life is starting today. Baba is so excited. I hope at least studying will take my mind off Safwaan: his face with his thick mane and eyebrows, angular jaw, pert Yemeni nose and hazel eyes. I can almost smell him when I close my eyes, his smell of lemon grass. I miss the warmth of his Bedouin hands that used to hold me tenderly. I wish I could erase those memories now. Every one of them.

 

***

 

5th January, 2012

 

Dear diary,

Safwaan is slipping out of my memory. I can’t remember his face as distinctly now. But I hear his voice, all the time, I miss how he used to call me habibi.

 

***

 

2nd February, 2015

 

Dear diary,

Baba wants me to get married. I don’ know what came over me, but I told him everything about Safwaan. When I finished, he sat in silence for a while and exited the room. What if he feels betrayed? Safwaan was the only secret I kept from Baba. Baba used to like Safwaan a lot. I’m scared but also confused by Baba’s reaction. Inshallah, everything will be fine.

 

***

4th February, 2015

Dear diary,

Baba was unusually calm today and sister was grinning at me as she quickly whispered to her husband. Baba then handed me my passport, iqama and tickets for him and me to Riyadh. He said, “Safwaan is one of the best young men I’ve ever come across. You go talk to him, and after all these years if he accepts you, you have my blessings.” Baba agreed, diary! He agreed!

***

10th February, 2015

Dear diary,

I’m going to Malaz, to our old neighbourhood again, to meet Safwaan. I can’t wait!

***

I paid the taxi driver then walked to the alleyway, where I had mustered the strength to break Safwaan’s heart. I stepped into the alleyway and inhaled. Flashes of moments I had spent here with Safwaan for seven years reflected upon my inward eye. Someone was baking khubs and the smell filled my nostrils.

***

I knocked on Safwaan’s door. After a moment, his mother opened the door and when she laid eyes on me, she teared up. She cupped my face in her hands and said, “Noora, my girl!” She welcomed me inside and as I walked into the house, I felt a warm feeling course through me like old times. She offered me basboosa and khubs with hummus and tahini. My palate craved for Arabian delicacies and I gobbled them. Safwaan”s brother, Marvaan, then entered the room with their father trailing behind him as we filled each other in on what we had missed out in the past five years. After the chattering I finally decided to pop the question, “Where is Safwaan?”

His mother’s smile vanished but his father beamed and said, “My son has gone to fight war for our country.” But even his animated happiness vanished in a while.

“I hope he is safe, under Allah’s protection,” I said, my mind racing, as his parents sadly nodded.

***

Marvaan walked me out to help get me a taxi when he said, “Ukhti, Safwaan told me that if you ever came to Riyadh, I should give you this,” he handed out an envelope, “Just before he went to Yemen.” He placed it in my palm. “Ukhti” he called me, “my sister”.

He said “Akhi, Safwaan truly loves you!”

***

Dear Noora,

Habibi, if you have got this letter it means you have come all the way from India, just for me. I knew it, Noora, from the way you ran that you would come back running the same way. I loved you from when you were fifteen and I will forever love you. Habibi, I even came for you in 2013, to Mumbai. But I did not know where you lived in India and I searched to no luck. I am now leaving to Yemen, as I write this letter, to fight war.




Joining the army seemed like the only way I could keep myself from becoming majnoon (crazy). Now that I think of this, I was always majnoon. Over you, habibi. You have come for me, Noora dear, now it’s my turn to come for you. You wait, habibi, in Riyadh with akhi (my brother) Marvaan. I will come for you, because I never stopped loving you.

Your majnoon lover,

Safwaan

***

25th February, 2015

Dear diary,

Do you even want to know the details of Yemen’s civil war? If you do, then I’m the wrong person. I’ll let you in on what I understood. The conflict is between two factions who want to get hold of the government. A man named Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi is fighting against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The southern separatists are supporting Hadi and the Houthi forces are backing Abdullah Saleh. And in between all this chaos, the Al-Qaeda and Iraq are also bombing and attacking. I don’t know what Al-Qaeda’s problem is, they already have most of the territory along the coast under their control. For all I know, Yemen is disintegrating and the civilians are those who are paying for it.

***

3rd March, 2015

Dear diary,

I’m tending to the wounded soldiers in the camps. And Hadi’s men cut off his arm. I feel so bad for Marvaan. Like his brother, he is also fighting on Saleh’s side. Marvaan doesn’t seem to regret coming to Yemen despite losing his arm. He has this satisfied look on his face. I brought Marvaan into this mess.

***

25th March, 2015

Dear diary,

Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition and is launching military operations to help restore the former government. Even the USA is helping.

***

“Ukhti,” a man called “out of the way!” I immediately stepped aside. Two armed men in uniforms were holding a man with a bruised face by his arms. I brought them a folding chair and they helped the wounded soldier sit. He had swollen lips, a black eye and a big gash over his face that was profusely bleeding. There were oozing wounds in innumerable places. As I wiped the blood and met the man’s eyes, there were something oddly familiar about them.

***

“Habibi, you don’t have to do this now,” Safwaan said, shifting in his bed to face me.

“Why?” I said in tears.

“Look at the scars on my face,” he said and covered his face with his hands.

“I don’t care,” I sobbed, “I came all the way to Yemen for you Safwaan. If you think I’ll stop loving you because of these stupid scars, then you have truly become majoon!” I said wiping my tears. He chuckled because I had referred to the letter.

“I said that I would come for you. Why did you come here?” His gaze was far off.

“Because I never stopped loving you,” I whispered. A solitary tear ran down his scarred cheek, “But I can’t leave this country like this and come, habibi. I want to help finish this war.”

I remained silent. There followed a long moment of silence and then I said, “Baba wants me to marry this year.”

Safwaan sat up with difficulty and cupped my face with his hands. He brought his face close to mine and whispered “Habibi, please wait for me. Please?”

I nodded, tears rolling down my cheeks.

***

2 years later:

“Do you, Noora bint Abdul Aziz, take this man, Safwaan ibn Muhammed Ismai’l as your husband?” The Imam asked thrice and I said yes each time.

***

“Where do you want to go for our honeymoon, habibi?” Safwaan asked, sipping black coffee with dates.

“I made all the wedding choices, you make this one.” I said.

“I want to visit your homeland. Where is it? Delhi? Kashmir? Karachi?”

I chuckled, remembering that day and said, “Karachi is in Pakistan, silly!”

He grinned with a twinkle in his eyes, then frowned, shrugged and managed in English “Pakistan, India, no same-same?”

– Amrin Khalil


Image source: pixabay.com




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