I’m on a flight to Sydney, Australia. The attendant asks if I want tea or wine. I tell her tea is fine. The passenger beside me, an old woman, opts for red wine. I ask her what she is going to Australia for, and she says it’s the last country on her bucket list. She has visited 42 countries she fears after this year she might not be able to visit anymore. She asks me the same thing, and I say, “I’m going to Sydney to find a woman, an old friend of mine.”
A month ago, I woke up from a nightmare panting. I was covered in sweat. The nightmare had dragged out for so long that I was relieved when I woke up to the sound of the azan on my phone. I was on a tennis court, playing and winning. The strange thing was I could not see my opponent. And then just when I was about to be pronounced as the grand slam champion, the whole court changed and became a hilltop, and a herd of cattle was running violently towards me, when they got nearer they metamorphosed into butterflies and then when they got even closer, they became rose flowers. I reached for the roses but the petals and then the hilltop started to shake. I was on the edge of a cliff when a woman whose facial features were blurred out stroke me with thorns, and as I was falling off, I woke up.
The next day was a Friday so I went to mosque for Jumuah prayer. During the sermon, Imam Shadee highlighted the difficulties Muslims are going through in the United States and asked the congregants to be mindful of God and to exercise patience. At the end of his talk, he encouraged people to be generous in their contributions as the mosque was footing the legal bills of some poor families who have become victims in one way or the other to the growing trend of Islamophobia. Imam Shadee is a very intelligent man and someone I consider a good friend. He was once a member of the Black Panther Party. After the Jumuah, I went to Imam Shadee and asked to have a counselling session with him later that day.
After narrating the nightmare to him, he stayed quiet for a while. Then he said: “This story somehow brings the story of Yusuf to my mind. You know there’s no specific science to interpretation of dreams, but alhamdulillah, I do have intuition when people tell me their dreams. From what you’ve just told me, I fear that there’s a step in the purification process you have missed or haven’t done.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“How can I put this?” He put a finger on his lip, thinking. “Okay, remember the conditions of tawbah, repentance, It seems you have missed one step. I don’t know what the sin is or what the step is. But it seems God is calling you to that.
“Subhannallah,” I exclaimed. Hearing those words from his mouth shook me to the core. It seems God is you to that.
Imam Shadee rubbed his beard and then furrowed his brows. Then he turned to me again. “Wait, did you say that you saw a woman at the end?”
“Yes, but I could not see her face.”
Imam Shadee nodded knowingly. “I think the sin had to do with a woman.”
In college, I was the type of student that professors liked – not too inquisitive, and not too quiet. I did the readings, submitted my assignments on time, and earned good grades. As a result, at the end of a semester, in the spring of 1992, I think, a professor of mine asked me to come have a dinner at her house. It was my second year in the United States, and this was my first dinner party.
The professor, Claire Smith, had white-tan skin, and long brunette hair. Her apartment was in SoHo, Manhattan. When I knocked the door, she was the one who opened. Her dress and make-up showed she was ready for the party to begin. She gave me a hug and showed me to the kitchen where she asked what I’d like to drink. I told her I don’t drink. She gave me a light bloody slamming and flashed a smile that – if it was coming from someone other than her – I would call flirtatious. Later that evening, she introduced me to her daughter, Emily, who was an agemate, studying philosophy at New York University.
Emily and I started talking about African and Middle-Eastern politics. I told her about the intermittent coups of Nigeria since independence, with details about the latest one by General Babangida. And she told me about her time in Egypt before her parents divorced. She was half-Egyptian with the Muslim name – Malika. In her room, she shared a lot with me, and I ended up sharing things that I had never shared with anyone. Looking back now, I think what drew me to her most was her adventurousness and ability to persuade: because at the end of that night, what her mother could not accomplish by a smile, she did by simply offering and pouting. I had had my first taste of wine by her hands.
Emily and I became close friends. I would share my poems and stories with her, and she would share the philosophical essays she was writing just for fun during summer break. We would meet up at museums, parks, and go shopping together whenever her father, a minister in Egypt, sent her some pocket money. Emily had a boyfriend: John. I hated John. He was so macho and all. He was in the fencing team of NYU. They would later break up; the reason of which I have totally forgotten.
One day, Emily dared me to follow her to class and act as though I was a student. By now, I had become thoroughly initiated into Emily’s world of adventure and exploration: drugs, smoking, and drinking, so I went. The name of the class was Self and Society. New to philosophy, the terms and names were alien to me: existentialism, utilitarianism, naturalism, absurdism and many other isms. It looked like they were just playing with suffixes. A student will say something about one ism, and the teacher would answer with a statement with another ism, which would lead to more discussions. Something one would think as trivial and simple as “what is good?” that day generated a discussion that lasted two hours. In the last half hour of the class (the class met once a week), the bald professor with his gigantic unkempt beard stood and wrote on the board LIBERALISM, and then asked who among the students liked the philosophy.
Seven students among the fifteen raised their hands. He went ahead and asked why. One said he liked it because it saved Europe from the clutches of The Christian Church’s evil. Emily said she did because it gives people freedom to do whatever they want so long they’re not hurting other people. “Those are good responses,” the professor said. “But they’re not totally accurate description of liberalism. For example, Stephen, you said it saved Europe, but people might argue industrialization and science changed Europe not liberalism.” Stephen interjected and tried to say something. “I know, I know,” the professor waved, “Some would contend liberalism – thanks to John Locke, that his thoughts led to this and that, but it would be false, as science and technology precede his theories of government and market.”
I was sitting behind Emily, but I could see the side of her face. She was paying full attention. She tucked her hair behind her ear, and something lit up in me. The professor explained that liberalism is a half baked farce of a philosophy. It cannot truly liberate any society, which is paradoxical, since the root of the French word ‘liberie’ means “to free”. We’re just a bunch of hypocrites with our inconsistencies. We the left want cultural liberalism, we don’t want government to interfere in our lifestyles: we want free sex, drugs, gay marriages, in short, we want to do what we want. But we’re the first to oppose the right-wing conservatives when they are asking for non-interference in their business and corporations. And the same goes for the right-wing.
That night, back at her mother’s apartment, we were having some discussions over wine. Claire, as she insisted I call her by, was out of the city on some conference. Emily got drunk quite quickly. A little bit tipsy, I made a move to kiss Emily, and she did not resist. We kissed for a few seconds but when I started to unbutton her blouse, she pulled back. There I remembered what a friend told me in high school about girls and sex. They really want it, even if they protest at first. So all you have to do is try harder. With Emily I did not have to try harder, I just started kissing her on the cheek, neck and all. In a few minutes, we were done. Emily stood up and went to the bathroom immediately. Alone in the living room, a strange, overwhelming feeling of sadness enveloped me.
I knock on the door, and a voice tells me to come inside the office. The young woman has a long face. She’s telling someone to hold on at the other end of a phone call.
“What can I do for you?” the young woman asks.
“I am looking for Professor Emily Carrick?”
“Yes, she’s in a meeting right now. Have a seat.” She resumes the call.
The books on the shelves, the stationeries, and the posters on the notice board remind me of Claire’s office. I reach for my inhaler in the jacket pocket and as I set to inhale, she arrives. She looks more petite than I remember, and time has caught up with her. I am torn between remorse, anxiety, guilt, and strangely, excitement. She is startled by my presence. I’m a ghost and she’s just seen me. She stands there for minutes, arms folded, and her eyes wide behind her glasses. I am on my feet, not quite sure what to do. It feels like a million years. And then she finally says, “Hey, what are you doing here?”
Apology and forgiveness, she chuckles, and that’s supposed to make up for all those years of unbearable pains? We are now inside her office, door shut behind us. I try to explain to her how the enormity of what I had done did not occur to me that night. I did not even know it was what I now know it is. Unfortunately, our discussion is abruptly ended by a phone call. A friend of hers just had a heart attack, says the person on the phone. And so she bolts out and says to leave my phone number with the secretary: she will get back to me.
She gets back to me later this noon and says we can meet at a restaurant not far from the hotel I lodged for dinner. The friend ended up fine. At seven-thirty, I get to the restaurant and order apple juice while I wait for her. The light is dim in the restaurant, soft music plays in the background. The table behind me is occupied by a middle-aged couple who seem to be going through a difficult time in their marriage. A couple of tables away, there is this young couple who are definitely in the passionate phase of the love cycle. They remind me of the first year of my marriage, and this leads me to wonder if Emily is married also. Her last-name changed, that’s a sign. But is she still married or is the change of name just her decision to part from Egyptian roots? Google had been useful enough to only get her workplace.
While I await her arrival, I let myself imagine how hurt and disappointed she must have been by my act, but I can’t see it. It’s not like she screamed or something. I had always thought of what I did to be criminal or evil when the other party – in most cases, woman – is expressively saying no or physically disapproving, but now reflecting on the days following that night, and how Emily disappeared, and more importantly, the coldness in her eyes earlier in the office, I am certain I did wrong her.
The restaurant is becoming less crowdy. Most of the customers have left. The waiters are packing up. I look at the time and it is 11:30pm. I leave for my room, and on the way out I see a homeless man folding his carton box. I go to him and drop some change in his bowl.
Back in my room, I put on the TV and the breaking news of a car accident stares at me. I blink and blink. My eyes become blurred. For the first time in years, there are tears streaming down my face.