I was shopping in the supermarket with my five-year-old daughter, Amna, in the trolley. As I piled up the groceries, Amna was pulling unnecessary items off the shelves and putting them in the trolley. I calmly replaced each one in a ridiculous, endless circle of the tame father and the playful child.
A lady crossed the end of our aisle and then crossed it again. The third time, she turned and came toward us, stopping beside our trolley. She was exceptionally tall and dressed in a beautiful abaya with the traditional face cover, the burqa, that showed nothing but her thick-lashed, alluring eyes. They spoke volumes of mystery, and with every blink an arrow to my heart hit home. The white of her eyes were the future, and the black pupils were the coffee fix to everything I thought I would ever desire from a woman. She stepped towards me with an unwavering stare.
“Peace be upon you,” she said in a lovely, husky voice that complemented her fanlike lashes and the sweet, fair cheeks that promised a sweeter face beneath the veil.
I was flabbergasted that she spoke to me, and even Amna stopped filling the trolley with small cereal boxes. What could she want? I was with a child who obviously looked like me. What would a single man be doing shopping for groceries and babysitting with the patience only a father of several years would have? Why me? Was she interested?
Her eyes wrinkled as she smiled, and my mouth twitched to one side in a pathetic attempt to smile at the vision plucking the harp of my wildest dreams. She passed by me like a gentle breeze, and I felt the gentle tug of her finger on the corner of my pocket. Dazed by the encounter, I stood in momentary paralysis, drinking in the sensual smell of oud and perfume that hung behind her. Finally, I straightened myself up, grabbed a stack of cereal boxes, and moved the trolley to the centre of the aisle to allow myself time to return the boxes to the shelves. Amna was chattering away about how she needed the boxes so she could get the toys that came inside for her collection.
It was November, but I felt the beads of sweat trickle down my brow to my neck. I opened one of the tissue boxes to wipe my face. The cool, air conditioned, multi-story supermarket was not cooling me enough. My wife Salwa always complained that they blasted the air conditioning so much that she had to wear a shawl, but I was perspiring. I felt flushed and shy, and yet the woman’s attention left me feeling good about myself. I was a tall man, but my waistline was slightly bulging. I was 42 years old, married with four children. Married for a good fifteen years. My children were Saad, fourteen; Rayan and Rakan, ten-year-old twin boys; and Amna, named after my late mother. After Amna, we decided we should focus on raising our children in a good lifestyle.
I wondered what the woman saw in me, and I kept thinking about it after I got home. That night, I tossed and turned, thinking that perhaps my aquiline nose gave her an idea that I was tribal. Maybe that attracted her. Maybe it was my height, or that I was a good, patient father, helping my wife with groceries and babysitting. Whatever it was, I felt special, revelling in the attention given to me by another.
My wife snored softly, but I did not mind. I felt so elated I could not sleep. I needed rest to be ready for my eight-hour shift in the bank, but I did not care. It was winter and the night was long and cold. But the thoughts of that day kept me warm and comforted. I felt like an attractive young man.
I awoke the next morning, anxious to check the garment I was wearing at the supermarket. I thought the stranger might have snuck something into my pocket, but I was so afraid my nervousness would show in front of my Salwa that I had ignored it. My thoub was in the laundry basket, and I worried that it might have gotten wet from the shower Salwa had taken before bed. I reached into the pocket. It was there: a small note, safe, dry, clearly written.
973 678 60
I punched the number in my phone, saved it under a man’s nickname, Bu Doaij (Father of Beautiful Eyes). I quickly ripped the paper into small pieces and flushed them down the toilet. I put off calling the woman until I had left home and dropped the children at school. Then I decided to wait until noon to call for fear of maybe waking her. She did not look like she had a day job, and she might be asleep if I called earlier.
I called from my car on my lunch break. She answered on the third ring.
“Hello.” I could hear the TV news in the background.
“Hello,” I said. I was more confident and wanted it to show on my tone.
“May I know who I’m speaking to?” She was curt and serious.
“My name is Awad. We bumped into each other at the supermarket, and I wanted to see how I could be of service.” I was trying to be charming and polite.
“Yes,” she said, her voice softening. “I remember you very well. I found you attractive and wanted to speak to you.”
“Can I ask you something?” I hesitated. “I am forty-two, married, and was with my daughter, grocery shopping. Why me?”
She switched off the TV before she said: “I want you to marry me.” She was silent, and I lost my tongue.
“I’m married. I have four kids. I don’t know you, and you don’t know me.” My voice trailed off. This woman was like a volcano; I began perspiring again. I raised the air conditioning in the car, and redirected the fan to hit me directly.
“You can have three other wives,” the woman said. “And we can get to know each other under the eyes of God. The Halal way. There is no shame in holy matrimony.” She was quiet after that. “Can I have your bank account details, please?”
I explained that she could not take anything from my account, but she insisted on giving me something. It seemed ludicrous, but I gave her the details, and she promptly ended the call. An hour later I received a message from her that she had wired me SR 100,000, calling it her ‘dowry’. Only it was in reverse, she was paying me to marry her. In due time I received the sum. I had no choice but to consider the offer. I must admit, I was flattered when I realised how much she wanted to be my wife. My ego was in the clouds. I found myself toying with the idea of marrying her, daydreaming about the fantasy that had fallen into my lap.
A tall, rich woman in her early thirties with confidence to rock a nation was wooing me, begging me to marry her. She even accepted that I was married with kids. We spoke again, and I enjoyed her conversation, especially her humour, and I longed to meet her. She told me her name was Layla, and she invited me to her home that coming Thursday to properly meet her, to ask for her hand formally from her father, to court her, and to agree to marry her on a pre-assigned date. She said I did not need provide her with a house, as she had her own. She merely insisted that she had the right for a divorce if she so wished.
I went to see her in her beautiful, colonial-style house. She recommended keeping our marriage quiet in the beginning and asked that I take a month leave from work, informing my wife that I will be out of the country for work. I was a bundle of nerves, but I agreed to the plan. I was excited that such a beautiful lady had entered into my life and even paid me to be her husband. I must have done something really good in my life to deserve such a blessing.
We had a small wedding ceremony in her fathers’ house, followed by a luxurious dinner, and flew out on the same night to Geneva, Switzerland. We were booked in the La Reserve Hotel. Every day we would have breakfast on the balcony, lunch on Lake Geneva, and dinner in a fine restaurant. The weather was beginning to get colder, and we were feeling the frost. One morning while we were having breakfast, it snowed. I had never seen snow falling before. I had seen snow in the famous Ski Dubai, an artificial gigantic slope within a shopping mall in Dubai called Mall of the Emirates. The real snowfall was breathtaking, and Layla was a vision of beauty, grace and intellect. She had become more withdrawn, and that drew me toward her. I wished I could hear her thoughts, and I would lie in bed awake looking at her. Sometimes I watched till the sun sent its beams through the window and they fell on her lovely cheeks. I would fall in love again as I watched her, my rose, bloom awake. Her eyelashes would flutter like butterflies and her cheeks would turn rose as she would stretch and whisper, “Good morning”.
On the same day it snowed, which was two weeks into the honeymoon, she told me it was time to go back. I did not understand. I was thinking of announcing her as my official wife because I had found in her the solace of my midlife. She was the answer to all my prayers, and I was content with her. A woman could not be more perfect.
I was in no hurry to return, but she insisted. I was a little hurt and taken aback. I tried to explain that I had told my wife and family that I would be away on an important Swiss business trip for several weeks. This seemed plausible, because Swiss banks take their work very seriously, and supposedly I was going to be working with a Swiss Bank. I finally succumbed because Layla seemed preoccupied in her silence. Trouble at home perhaps? Being a gentleman, I complied and asked the hotel concierge to arrange our tickets and car to the airport.
She wore white fur on the last day along with a white fur hat. The stark contrast of the raven black night of her hair on the snow white feathery fur befitted a painted portrait hung in an ancient European stone castle atop a mantle where a large hearth burned and people would stare at her beauty and warm their hearts and souls to the fire in her eyes and lips. I could not take my eyes off of her.
So this was love, painfully and brutally demanding of everything of you until you were shaken with the mighty magnetism you cannot control yourself. She was gravity, and I, the heaviest mountain on Earth.
She removed her fur coat as we neared the land of the desert. We were headed to our conservative, hot-weathered home, and Layla went to the bathroom to change into more fitting attire, to don her black cloak abaya and hijab. How it changed her look. She left a Snow White and returned a mature, serious woman, a ninja, with her face covered in the burqa, showing only the very large eyes that shot me down.
We had some air turbulence, and I found myself worrying about her. She stared out of the window as I tried to comfort her. I held her hand tightly, to make her feel safe. She simply said “God will keep us safe” and continued to stare out the window. I hoped whatever trouble it was, we could talk about it tonight. I sat concerned and worried beside her. I do not know why I troubled exaggeratedly about her well-being. It was as if she were my child now, and I wanted to nurture her and protect her, but I selfishly wanted her to be mine. Only mine. This need I had for her was making me question my sanity.
She walked ahead of me at the airport, insisting that she did not want to be seen with me for fear of trouble with my wife or a gossipy spy that could recognise me. I let it slide. She had a car collect her at the foot of the plane, and I had my driver meet me at the baggage terminal. A few minutes later my phone beeped and I received a text message.
I have deposited another SR100, 000 in your account.
Kindly divorce me.
I did not understand. I tried calling her, but she didn’t answer. I persisted, and finally she answered. She explained that she had used me to return to her old husband, who divorced her a few months earlier. She simply needed another husband to legalise her returning to her original husband—a borrowed donkey was the common term used. In Islam, a couple has three chances or rounds in attempting a divorce. After the third round, the couple cannot reunite until the wife has been with another man, who is used for a short time to make it legal to remarry.
I was the fool in Layla’s game. I had accepted the money and married her. She had the right to release herself of the marriage, and so she did. My manhood, my pride, and my self-respect were shaken to their very core. I was left feeling humiliated, and I have yet to fully recover. I guess this is what they mean when they say there is no such thing as a free lunch.