Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
But, as with everything in life, there are always different opinions, different expectations, different tastes from the thousands of different people in the world. Desperate in Dubai isn't everyone's cup of tea, and I wouldn't have it any other way. However, I have to admit, it's difficult when people who don't like the book start slating it and sending me nasty messages, mainly Emiratis who feel that my portrayal of Lady Luxe was unjust and unfair towards their culture. To an extent, I don't blame them. I was expecting this from people who are finding it difficult to comprehend that Desperate in Dubai is a story with characters and a plot. Just because a character is crazy, doesn't automatically mean that the writer is trying to say that all women of that particular nationality are crazy.
When we read The Catcher in the Rye, did we think that all American teenage boys were off their rockers? When we read The God of Small Things, did we think that all South Indian women had big bums and love affairs?
The list can go on and on and on.
One particular ignorant message came to me via Twitter - when a woman said that Desperate in Dubai is obviously my desperate attempt to overcome my failure at bagging a wealthy, already married Emirati man. Erm, I'm actually very happily married :) And thankfully my husband only has the one wife.
Another surprising comment came from an Emirati author who obviously doesn't realise that one author slating another just isn't the 'done' thing. It is tasteless and uncouth. I would never reciprocate with negative comments on her work.
You know what, though? The first negative comment I got really got to me - but as I get used to this business, my skin not only gets thicker but I actually start finding it amusing. After all, only one in 10 comments I get is negative - most of them are fantastic - so when that one person starts saying all this stuff on Twitter or whatever, all it does is generate more publicity. And we all know, there's no such thing as bad publicity :)
Wasn't it Oscar Wilde who said that 'The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about?' ;)
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Thursday, February 2, 2012
Desperate in Dubai has been banned in Dubai. Apparently.
Monday, July 18, 2011
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Monday, August 16, 2010
Nadia finds solace in the fact that Daniel has no idea. He has no idea that his wife, though in another country, is fully aware of the sordid affair he has embarked on with her friend. He has no idea that she reads his emails daily to keep abreast of his misdemeanors, and he is naively unaware that the ‘I love you toos’ and the ‘I can’t wait to see yous’ are completely, utterly, unwaveringly untrue.
Poor, ignorant Daniel just doesn’t have a clue that his wife is merely buying time until she returns to Dubai before she unleashes the true extent of her fury.
It is this feeling of empowerment, of having the upper hand, that gives Nadia just enough peace of mind to fall asleep at night. Albeit an uncomfortable, restless kind of sleep that never lasts more than an hour or two. And during her waking moments, she plots her revenge. Whether lying in bed and staring up at the childish ceiling adorned with glow-in-the-dark stars, or ploughing through a painfully quiet meal with Yasmine, Nadia cannot think of anything other than seeking justice.
Before Daniel metamorphosed into a lying, cheating, scheming son-of-a-bitch, Nadia took pride in her ability to rationalize with serene detachment. But months of emotional abuse have taken its toll on her personality, and she has recently discovered a side to her that previously remained dormant.
The initial hurt, pain and self-loathing has worn off and in its place sits a cloud of bitterness, and a desire to get her revenge.
“What do you want to do today?” Yasmine asks as she enters the dim kitchen to find her sister standing at the sink and staring out of the window, her view obstructed by the faded lace curtain intended to afford them a degree of privacy from their neighbours.
“Something that involves lots of walking,” Nadia replies, turning around and offering her sister the slightest of smiles. “In two days I’ll be back in the desert, back to using a car instead of my legs, and back to the sweltering heat. Let’s make the most of what London has to offer.”
“Yalla, so choose. Camden or Covent Garden?” Yasmine says with faux chirpiness, taking note of the sadness in Nadia’s eyes and trying to pretend that it has gone unnoticed. “Or anywhere else for that matter. It’s your day, you choose.”
It has not been easy for Yasmine to ignore Nadia’s weak countenance since she has returned, but whenever she opens her mouth to say something, she takes one look at her sister’s sunken eyes and snaps it closed. As they tidy up the breakfast mess, she makes a conscious decision to force herself to ask her sister what the hell is going on, regardless of how the answer will make either of them feel. After all, they are family, siblings, blood. They are supposed to help each other in times of need, irrespective of whether or not help has been sought.
An hour later, the sisters are walking arm in arm through the colourful stalls in Camden Lock, weaving their way through the crowds of people while Nadia tries not to stare at the punks with their fluorescent hair and piercings, the Goths with their pale faces and black attire, and the hippies with loose, flowing shirts and baggy trousers.
Months in the Middle East have made Nadia forget what true diversity is. People say that Dubai is a melting pot of cultures, but walking through Camden Town makes Nadia realize that every person in Dubai is almost exactly the same as everyone else from their nationality. There is no originality. So while Dubai is definitely a mix of cultures, it is more like a stir fry than a melting pot. Every ingredient its own, without merging with the next.
Their arms laden with haggled goods, Yasmine and Nadia finally sit down at the centre of the market with rich cheese crepes and devour them silence, grease dripping down their fingers. Nadia tries her best to absorb the atmosphere around her, but she is unable to fully merge into the ambience with Daniel's memory still looming above her.
Noticing the frown on Nadia's face, Yasmine takes a deep breath, and before she loses her nerve, begins to speak.
“Listen Nadia,” she begins, nervous at the prospect of upsetting her sister. "I know something's wrong." She falters as Nadia's expression changes from wistfulness to wariness but ploughs on regardless.
"Wait, let me finish," she says, avoiding her sister's eyes. "Please don't pretend that everything's okay when it's not. I know something's wrong. I don’t know what it is, but I know that it's bad enough to turn you into… this."
Yasmine reiterates her point by gesturing at Nadia's painfully thin body, at the sallow skin stretching over her bones, the pools of black surrounding her eyes, and the worry lines etched on her forehead like carvings on a stone statue.
Nadia looks down and says nothing, shame and panic rising within. She was hoping that Yasminewould never work up the courage to ask her what was wrong. She was hoping she wouldn't have to admit to her younger sister that she had failed.
She was hoping that she wouldn’t have to confess that she wasn’t enough for her husband.
"Please," Yasmine implores, taking her sister's hands in hers and finally looking into her eyes. "Tell me what's going on. Maybe I can help you, maybe I can't. Either way, talking about it will make you feel better."
The silence stretches itself around them, further strengthening the wall Nadia has built around her. It refuses to reveal even the smallest crack, its defiance irritating Yasmine, who is equally as stubborn. She refuses to let go of Nadia's hands or break eye contact. She doesn’t understand why her sister cannot bring herself to confide in her. She wonders what has happened to the Nadia she used to know, the one who was generous with her smiles yet cutting with her wit. This Nadia has forgotten how to smile with her eyes. This Nadia has no energy for wit.
"You're my sister. I love you. Seeing you like this without knowing why is killing me," Yasmine pleads, almost ready to give up. "Is it work? Too much pressure? Friends? The lack thereof? "
There is still no response from Nadia, and Yasmine feels her blood begin to boil. How is she supposed to help if she doesn’t know what is wrong? What is she supposed to say? She remembers all the times Nadia was there for her; through their parents' divorce, their subsequent remarriages, the second divorces. She helped her through years of being dragged from one country to another, constant bullying at school. Yasmine remembers the way Nadia would prise her emotions out of her, relentless in her pursuit to know what was going through her unstable mind.
Yet here she was. Unyielding. She could see what her silence was doing to Yasmine, yet she refused to surrender.
Nadia, oblivious to the emotions running through her sister's veins, struggles to breathe as claustrophobia overcomes her. Yasmine’s insistence makes the walls around her close in on her even more and she feels a wave of dizziness wash over her.
Please don’t make me say it.
"What is it Nadia?" Yasmine continues, her voice harder than before as she squeezes Nadia's hands, her frustration growing with every second that passes. "What is it? Are you bored? The luxurious Dubai lifestyle not good enough for you anymore?"
Nadia snaps out of her trance as if a bucket of water has been thrown over her head.
"Boredom?" she scoffs, yanking her hands out of Yasmine's grip, her eyes narrowed in disdain. "You think mere boredom can do this to me? You think that I want to have my baby sister staring at me with her big eyes like I'm some kind of freak show?"
"So what the hell is it then? What is so awful that you can't even tell me, your own flesh and blood?" Yasmine retorts, her tone matching her sister's. Although she feels bad about pushing Nadia to this level, she is also relieved that the wall Nadia has built around her is beginning to crumble, and that she is finally getting some answers.
"You just don’t get it, do you?" Nadia hisses, standing up. "You think I like looking like this? You think I don't know I look like a skeleton? That it's somehow escaped my notice that I've aged ten years in the past ten weeks? You think I came to London for pity? For an interrogation? I came here for peace God dammit Yasmine! I just wanted a break from wondering about who my husband was cheating on me with now. What I did to make him hate me so much. What I was supposed to do with my life now. There. I said it. Happy?"
Nadia moves so abruptly that she knocks one of their shopping bags off the table. Yasmine reaches out for her but she shoves her hands away from her, grabs her handbag and walks away, her heart pounding furiously and her pulse thumping in her ears, drowning out all the noise around her. She sees nothing as she pushes through the crowds of people, but feels as if they are closing in around her, suffocating her, preventing her from breathing. She breaks into a run, everything around her becomes a blur, and all she sees is Daniel. Daniel laughing, Daniel smiling, Daniel sleeping. Daniel cheating.
"Oi watch it," a voice cries out as Nadia slams into a passerby, almost knocking him over. He grabs onto her waist just as she almost falls to the ground. Her body presses against him and the shock prevents her from pulling away immediately. Panting heavily, she mumbles an embarrassed sorry and then disengages herself.
"No worries love," he replies, watching her with amusement as she attempts to straighten herself out, still mortified. "Hang on a second," he adds, staring intently at her face. "Haven't we met before?"
The shamefaced Nadia finally brings herself to look at the man insisting on conversing with her, and then does a double take as recognition dawns on her. There, in front of her, is quite possibly the best looking black guy in the whole of London. One she remembers meeting before.
"You're the guy from the tube," she says without thinking, and then curses herself for letting him know that she remembers him. Feeling more embarrassed than ever, she wills her face not to turn red as she looks down at the grey pavement, unable to meet his piercing gaze, and stares at his feet instead. He's wearing white trainers, and she wonders, quite banally, how he manages to keep them so clean in a rainy country.
"So you remember," he grins, puffing out his chest. "Seems like you can't stay away from my lap."
"If you say so," Nadia responds, not knowing what else to say. Her heart is still beating a little too fast, and she is unsure as to whether it is due to the physically exertion, the adrenaline, or the good looking stranger who seems to have a knack of showing up when she needs to be pulled out of a black hole. She decides that she doesn’t want to know what it is that is making her so flustered.
"Anyway, I'm sorry once again," she says indifferently. "Take care…" Hoisting her bag onto her shoulder, she begins to walk away.
"Hey, hang on a second," the guy calls out, jogging to catch up with her. "Don't you think you owe me a drink at least?"
"For what?" Nadia glances at him sideways without slowing down, resenting the intrusion of her personal space but kind of enjoying it at the same time. It has been so long since she allowed this kind of attention. And although she feels a twinge of guilt, the white gold band on her ring finger suddenly feeling like lead, she shoves the uneasiness aside and reminds herself that her husband is currently sleeping with her friend. Surely this gives her the right to engage in a little harmless banter with an attractive black guy.
"For what?! For physically assaulting me, not just once, but twice!"
"Does it look like I drink?"
"I don’t know. I never judge a book by its cover."
"Well I don’t."
"Not even hot chocolate? On a cold winter's day?"
Nadia stops walking, Camden Town tube station now right in front of her, and she looks at the stranger, not knowing what to say. Most of her wants to laugh off his advances without a second thought, but another part of her, the part that longs for some kind of male attention, the part that needs to feel desired, tempts her into reconsidering his offer. He has, after all, saved her from falling flat on her face twice. And he obviously likes her. Maybe he can help her forget about Daniel, at least for an hour or two, if nothing else.
"You know what? Why not? But you're inviting me."
"My pleasure, m'lady!"
For the first time in weeks, Nadia breaks into a genuine smile as they walk into the warm station, and for the first time in months, she feels like a woman.
Daniel used to always make Nadia feel like a woman. It was one of the reasons she fell so deeply in love with him. With Daniel, she was never bland, never tired, never weak. She was always sexy, alive, confident, strong. According to him, she was exquisite. Like a porcelain doll in an antique shop, apparently. She used to feign offence, and would ask him if he was implying that she was old. Sometimes he would say yes, other times he would say no. Either way, they would laugh, or he would tickle her, and she would feel like the most beautiful thing in the world.
Their first few months of marriage were perfect. They hated being away from each other, and every moment apart was spent in longing. They would cook together, clean together, sleep together, shower together. They became so close that Nadia forgot what it was like to be just her, not one half of Daniel and Nadia. She was so in tune with his feelings that she often knew what he wanted to say before he said it. She could read him like children's book. Whenever he squinted, she suggested having a nap, whenever he began to fidget, she dragged him out for a walk, and whenever he stared out of the window, she knew to leave him alone.
Until one day, everything she did was wrong. The book was no longer in English. She didn’t know what the letters were.
The naïve Nadia, with her heads in the clouds, didn’t even realize he was unhappy until he had already made up his mind about Dubai. And by that time, it was too late.
Looking back, deep in her heart, Nadia knows that she is partly to blame for the disintegration of her marriage. She knows that it didn’t break down overnight, that it was a gradual erosion of self-worth, self-confidence, self-belief. A slow, painful emasculation process that stripped Daniel of everything he ever though he was.
And when he stopped believing in himself as a husband, he stopped believing in them as a couple. And when he stopped believing in them, it was over.
Nadia, still as naïve as ever, kept thinking that maybe things would be okay.
"Are your eyes always this sad?" Prince Charming asks Nadia as they walk through Regent's Park, their hands stuffed into their coat pockets, and their noses red from the chilly March wind.
"Of late, yes," she replies, surprising herself with her honesty. Prince Charming is far easier to talk to than she expected, and she finds herself admitting things she would never admit to someone she actually knows. In fact, he doesn’t even know her name, she doesn’t know his, and she cannot help but find this sense of anonymity strangely liberating.
"Of late? What century are we in?" he teases, and she shoves him in response, feeling shy all over again. In just three short hours, Prince Charming has already succeeded in crawling under Nadia’s skin, and during these three, short hours, she has barely thought about Daniel and her thirst for revenge. The absence of Daniel and payback plots from her cluttered mind is refreshing, and in those three hours, London has burst into colours. Through the grey, she is noticing the vivid green grass, the splatters of bright yellow as Spring's first daffodils emerge from the ground, the painfully blue sky decorated with tufts of cartoon-like clouds.
And then there’s the chocolate of Prince Charming’s skin, the specks of gold in his coffee coloured eyes, his soot coloured hair. It is easier to forget Daniel who teetering on the brink of baldness, when she is next to someone far superior in the looks department.
It’s a shame he’s not Muslim, she thinks for a fleeting moment, before shoving the thought into a dusty corner of her mind. She cannot allow herself to open a door of possibilities. It’s just today, she chastises herself. Nothing more. There will be no tomorrow. You don’t need anymore complications in your life.
There is a familiar sound in the distance and Nadia stops mid-step and mid-thought to listen.
"What –" Prince Charming begins, and Nadia hushes him, her eyes closed.
"Shh…can you hear that?" she whispers.
"That voice in the distance? It's so amazing. Listening to it, you'd think we were somewhere in the Middle East, yet here we are, in a public park in the middle of London…"
"The adhaan, you mean?" Prince Charming asks, and Nadia opens her eyes in surprise.
"That's very culturally aware of you," she half-teases, secretly impressed. "You must know that it’s time for prayer then. Mind if we go to the mosque so I can pray?"
They start walking again, towards the minaret in the distance. It is partly hidden by the trees surrounding the mosque, and when the golden dome is finally within sight, Nadia stops again to devour her eyes. Prince Charming watches her in amusement, and she catches him looking at her and shrugs helplessly.
“It’s just so beautiful!” Nadia says, smiling sheepishly and turning to face the minaret again. “I know it must seem weird to you, and I don’t even know how to explain it myself, but right now, I’m in a pretty dark place and my faith is the only thing that’s keeping me going.”
She stops talking and glances at Prince Charming from the corner of her eye, wondering what his reaction to her open testimony of faith is. There is no disgust, pity, or even confusion in his expression though. Rather, he appears to be deep in thought, so she continues, searching deeper within herself to articulate what she is experiencing.
“Just when I’m about to fall, something will happen to remind me of why I was created. Like, I’ll see a mosque, or I’ll hear the adhaan, or I’ll come across a verse in the Qur’an that touches me, and suddenly, it’s like everything will be okay again.”
They reach the entrance to the courtyard and pause for a moment. Nadia wonders if Prince Charming will wait for her outside or whether he is curious enough to venture into the peaceful grounds with her.
"I'll let you in on a secret," he says, his voice light but the look in his eyes strangely serious. Nadia says nothing and waits for him to continue, assuming that he will confess that he has been inside a mosque before.
“I actually converted to Islam a few years ago.”
Nadia stares at Prince Charming in shock. This is definitely not the confession she was expecting.
“Erm, okay,” she says eventually, unsure whether to be pleased or troubled by this short, simple admission of fact that has suddenly and drastically altered the dynamics between them. All this time, there was no possibility of anything ever happening between them. It was supposed to be nothing more than a beautiful afternoon between two strangers who would never cross paths again. It was this lack of possibility that Nadia found so liberating and that allowed her to open up in a manner usually alien to her.
“Don’t look too thrilled,” Prince Charming says wryly, noting Nadia’s wary expression.
“Sorry, it’s just… I don’t know. I didn’t expect this.”
“Well, why don’t you go and pray, I’ll do the same, and I’ll meet you back here in about 15 minutes?”
They walk together through the spacious courtyard and part ways when they reach the foyer of the mosque. Nadia slips into the women’s section, taking off her black cashmere coat and unwrapping her grey hijab as she does so. Rolling up the sleeves of her slightly fitted black woolen jumper and taking off her boots and socks, she sits on a stool and begins performing ablution, the hot water instantly heating up her cold skin. She dries her face, arms and feet using tissue paper and then stares at herself in the mirror, wondering what it is about her that Prince Charming likes so much.
Her face, void of even a smear of Vaseline let alone any makeup, looks plain and tired. She pinches her cheeks in a pitiful attempt to add a little colour, but even that isn’t enough to brighten her complexion. Sighing, she wraps the scarf back around her head and pins it place before climbing the stairs to the prayer area.
The women’s prayer hall is almost empty, with the exception of a couple of Arab-looking women sitting on the floor with their backs against the wall, reading the Qur’an. Nadia looks around the room, at the familiar thick, red carpet, the glistening chandeliers, and the magnificent dome, engraved with verses from the Qur’an, and remembers the times she would come here to get away from whatever was bothering her. It used to be her secret hideaway, her respite from the outside world. The emotions connected to the room are intoxicating, and Nadia blinks tears away from her eyes.
In Dubai, she had nowhere to go. Everywhere was unfamiliar, uninviting. There was no place that she could look upon with fondness, nowhere that held special memories.
The imam begins the prayer, his melodic voice filling the hall, and Nadia joins the line of women in prayer, as they follow the imam through all the various motions. When her forehead touches the soft carpet, she feels tears rush to her eyes again, and this time, they fall down her cheek.
When the congregational prayer is over, Nadia holds up her hands and offers her personal supplications to God, begging him to help her through the darkness, to give her the strength to leave Daniel, and to give her a sign that the future holds some form of happiness for her.
She sits in prayer for over an hour, and it is only when her phone beeps with an incoming text message that she remembers that there is someone waiting for her outside. She tries to get up quickly, but her knees are sore from kneeling for so long, and even her feet have fallen asleep. Hobbling over to the shoe rack, she somehow manages to put her boots back on as she stumbles down the stairs, hoping that Prince Charming hasn’t given up on her and left.
Rushing out into the courtyard, her coat still in her hand, Nadia is confronted by the ice-cold wind as she looks around the empty area for Prince Charming, cursing herself for forgetting all about him. Her hijab flailing in the wind and the tip of her nose already turning red, she struggles to put her coat back, her heart already beginning to ache with loneliness.
Don’t be such an idiot. You only knew him for a few hours, she tells herself as she does up the buttons with cold, stiff fingers. But those few hours were more real than the thousands of hours before it, and Nadia knows in her heart that soulmates are hard to come by. It is not every day you meet someone and feel so drawn to them, so inexplicably intertwined with them.
If he hadn’t been Muslim, she would have easily walked away, telling herself that nothing could possibly happen.
But he was. Which meant that one day, if not today, or even next year, when she was ready, when her wounds were beginning to heal, something could have happened.
Shoving her hands back into her pockets, she walks away, each step laden with a newfound emptiness, one that was different from the emptiness she felt the day before.
“Don’t tell me you’re leaving me after making me wait almost an hour for you!”
Nadia spins around to find Prince Charming jogging up to her, holding his coat in his hands with a bewildered expression on his face.
“Oh, you’re still here? I thought you had left,” she mumbles indifferently, her heart skipping a beat. His presence breathes life into her and now that he hadn’t actually disappeared, and she had confessed her true feelings to herself for no reason, Nadia feels more disorientated than ever.
“You didn’t think I was going to stand out in the cold all that time did you? I was in the bookshop. Anyways, it’s freezing out here. Let’s go and get something to eat. You up for it?”
“Yeah, why not,” she concedes, still trying to remain impassive whilst acutely aware that their relationship was beginning to take a dangerous turn.
Oh screw it, she thinks as they walk up Park Road, past rows and rows of grandiose apartments. It's not like Daniel gives a shit. Is it really so bad if I enjoy this man's company for the next two days?
Prince Charming stop outside Mumtaz, an Indian restaurant Nadia has never been to before, and gestures for her to follow him inside. As they open the door, they are welcomed by a blast of heat and Nadia takes off her coat before she begins to perspire. As she does so, she notices Prince Charming running his eyes over her body with appreciation. They make eye contact and he blushes, embarrassed at being caught out.
“Nice jumper,” he says sheepishly, looking away.
Turning red herself, Nadia hurriedly plants herself on her chair and clears her throat, anxious to change the subject.
“So why did you become Muslim, but more importantly, why didn’t you say anything to me sooner?” she says, hoping that the question will dampen the charged atmosphere.
“Do you want the long answer or the short answer?”
“How about short, and if it’s interesting, you can tell me the long one later.”
“Alright, here it goes. I met a Muslim girl when I was at Uni, we started dating, I fell madly in love with her but she wouldn’t go all the way as she was a bit strict like that. Hormones, love and a little bit of interest in Islam inspired me to convert, so I did, and we got married in secret.”
Prince Charming pauses and looks at Nadia, who stares back at him in astonishment.
“It’s like something out of a movie,” she says, genuinely intrigued. “Go on, tell me more.”
Prince Charming laughs and takes a sip of sweet lassi. He licks his lips and Nadia tries not to stare at them by focusing on his nose instead.
“Okay, so we got married in secret and obviously did everything married people do. Well, not really, as it was a secret so I couldn’t exactly meet her family or anything.”
“Then she got pregnant. She confided in one of her cousins, who she thought was her friend, who actually grassed her up to another cousin, and before we knew it, her whole family had found out that their precious angel was knocked up. Only the thing is, her bitch cousin failed to tell them that we were married. She only told them the pregnant part.”
“Oh my god.”
“Exactly. So her brothers and her cousins came after me, beat the crap out of me and pretty much left me for dead. Here, see this.”
Prince Charming stands up and much to the horror of the rest of the customers, lifts up his white hoodie to reveal a long, deep scar against his taut torso. Nadia stares at it.
“It’s beautiful,” she says simply, looking away. “So what happened next?”
“Her brother was arrested, but he got out of it as he obviously had a million alibis and they didn’t have enough proof that it was him. And then she disappeared. At first I thought they did something to her. I went crazy looking for her everywhere. But then I heard that she left town and that she didn’t want anything to do with me. The last time I saw her was when she told me she was pregnant. And that was it. I never heard from her again."
“That’s so sad," Nadia whispers, touching her chest with her hand. "So you went through all that for nothing?”
“Yeah that pretty much sums it up.” Prince Charming feigns indifference but it is obvious to Nadia, from the slouch in his shoulders and shadow in his eyes, that he’s still hurting. She leans over and takes his smooth hands into hers, and he looks at her in surprise, but she says nothing.
“So what’s your story?” he croaks after a while, pulling his hands away.
“Long or short?”
“Short of course.”
“I met a guy. Fell in love. Got married. Moved to the other side of the world to be with him. Then found out he’s been cheating on me with various women pretty much from the get go. Only he doesn’t know that I know and I’m working out what to do about it.”
“Ouch. That’s harsh.”
Nadia and Prince Charming eat the rest of their meals in silence, barely tasting any of the strong flavours, both lost in their own thoughts.
“You know, it’s so weird how we know so much about each other but we don’t even know each other’s names,” Nadia says after a while, breaking the comfortable silence they had fallen into. "Somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter though."
“How come you never asked me before?” Prince Charming asks, raising his eyebrows.
“I didn’t see a point,” Nadia admits, her voice quiet.
“I see a point.”
There is another silence as Prince Charming weighs up the depth of Nadia's words.
“Well," he says eventually. Nadia looks at him in trepidation, wondering what he will say.
He's going to tell you to forget about it. You're married. He doesn’t want you. You have too much baggage.
"How about we start again then?" he says with a smile, holding out his hand. Nadia laughs in relief, and accepts his handshake with enthusiasm.
"Alright love? My name’s Jayden. Jayden Lynch. What’s yours?” he says in his most charming voice, puffing out his chest like a proud peacock.
“Nadia Ziani,” Nadia replies with an exaggerated coy smile, trying not to laugh.
“Pleasure to meet you Nadia.”
“The pleasure’s mine, Jayden.”
Nadia and Jayden burst into laughter and this time, it is him who reaches across the table and takes her small, cold hands into his. The warmth of his touch runs through her veins and she smiles at him, hoping he doesn’t let go.
Instead, he draws her hand closer to him and brings it slowly up to his lips.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Lady Luxe winces as her car door swings open and Leila glares down at her, her eyes wild with uninhibited rage.
For almost a month, Lady Luxe has spent every waking moment – and occasionally, even sleeping moments – worrying about the day her friend would discover the truth about her relationship with her boyfriend, either through a mistake of Lady Luxe's own, or Mohamed's careless attitude towards hiding his identity. She has plotted and planned, lied and avoided, and even persuaded her cousin to pretend to be her alter ego in order to ensure that the subject of her nightmares would never materialise.
And now, for the first time in twenty-two years, Lady Luxe finally understands what God means when He says he is the Greatest Planner.
No amount of scheming or hypothesising has prepared her for this moment. In all the scenarios she has imagined, one thing she never expected was for her mindless brother to actually be disrespectful enough to bring his girlfriend to his father's house. How difficult would it have been to hire a hotel room for the night, or even take her to one of the many extra family villas scattered around the city? But no. The obnoxious fool had to bring her to the main home – the one her Grandfather had given his eldest son when he finally let go of his inappropriate Western wife and agreed to marry a more suitable bride – the home that symbolised all that the X family stood for; respect, culture and loyalty.
What an idiot.
For all his lectures on honour, shame and dignity, Mohamed was really nothing more than an ignorant boy, ruled by the anatomy on the lower part of his body, completely oblivious to the consequences of his hormone-induced actions. And it is Lady Luxe who has to pay the price.
Staring back at her friend with a thudding heart and a dry throat, she suppresses the urge to drive away with the door still open and instead, persuades herself to climb out of the car as gracefully as possible, trying hard not to let her legs wobble. She takes a deep breath and turns around to face her furious friend.
Leila's face is contorted with anger, but beneath the fire, Lady Luxe knows there is a deep sadness. Once again, she fell for the charms of a wealthy, handsome and enigmatic man who lacked the most crucial characteristic in a relationship: loyalty. And once again, Leila was embarrassed in front of Lady Luxe, who had warned her against such predators right from the start.
It is this pain, this shame, and this humiliation, that Lady Luxe knows she will have to exploit in order to protect herself. After all, everyone knows that all is fair in love and war.
“You fucking bitch,” Leila begins, her body heaving as she visibly tries to control herself, her rising voice shattering the previous silence. The watchman’s light turns on and Lady Luxe begins to panic. The last thing she needs is Mohamed waking up.
“You fucking backstabbing bitch,” Leila continues, the intensity of her venom causing spittle to spray out of her mouth. “Of all the guys in
“Control yourself, you silly tart,” Lady Luxe snaps with slight defiance. “Why are you staring at me like I’m some kind of traitor when you’re the one who is imposing on my territory?” It is my territory, she justifies to herself. Although not in the way I am implying.
“What?” In an instant, Leila’s voice plummets to a whisper, the blood draining from her face. She clutches onto the Ferrari for support, her knees almost buckling from the shock. Surely she doesn't mean what she thinks she means? Her mind spinning, she stumbles, and Lady Luxe is forced to grab onto her before she falls to the ground.
The contact between her hands and Leila's quivering body sends a pang of guilt shooting through Lady Luxe's body, and she swallows, trying to push the intense feeling of unease aside. You have to look out for number one, she tells herself, still holding onto Leila frail frame.
“Look Leila, it’s not a good idea to talk here. Let’s go for a drive,” she finally says, letting go of her friend. Leila doesn’t reply, so she ushers her friend into the car and looks back at the watchman who is watching her intently. She gives him a quick smile and a wave before slipping into the driver’s seat, igniting the engine and rolling out of the grounds.
The street is dark and quiet, as it always is after midnight, with the dim streetlamps providing only enough light for haggard stray kittens that to observe their surroundings. The only sound to be heard is the Ferrari, which slices through the silence like a knife through butter. In the distance, the silvery grey Burj Khalifa juts into the cloudless sky, standing tall, proud and imposing; a reminder of
Lady Luxe glances over at Leila who is staring straight ahead, almost as if she is in a trance. She looks away, guilt poking her again, and continues to drive. She has a good idea what Leila is thinking, and it is exactly what she wants her to think. But if things are going the way she is planning, why does she feel so terrible?
They reach Umm Suqeim public beach, without a single word uttered between the two of them during the entire journey. Lady Luxe pulls over next to a group of young Emirati boys sitting on the low wall, blasting traditional Khaleeji music from their white Land Cruiser. She ignores their stares and kicks off her shoes, rolling the legs of her jeans up to her shins.
“Let’s walk out onto the sand and sit here for a bit,” she suggests, looking back at Leila who is still inside the car. Lost in her own thoughts, Leila obliges without uttering a word. She too takes off her shoes and follows Lady Luxe onto the sand. It is cold underneath the clammy soles of her feet, and she welcomes the sensation.
Dropping to the ground, Lady Luxe draws her knees to her chest and looks out into the ocean and at the illuminated Burj al Arab in the near distance. The beach is unusually quiet, but at three am on a Thursday night, she guesses most people are either sleeping soundly or wandering drunk out of one of
“So? Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” Leila finally ventures, unable to stomach the suspense any longer. She looks over at Lady Luxe, who has a strange expression on her face, one that Leila has never seen before. She wonders if she should just get up and walk away, without listening to the explanation and without looking back. Although she would love to just pretend that all this never happened, she knows she cannot. As much as the reason is sure to pain her, she needs to know exactly what has been going on without her knowledge. What kind of ride she has been taken on. How much of a naïve fool she has been.
Lady Luxe, knowing that whatever comes out of her mouth next will determine her immediate fate, mulls over the various explanations one last time before she takes a deep breath and clears her throat.
“Mohamed is…” she begins hesitantly. Leila’s anxious face has distorted into a mixture of pain and anger, and Lady Luxe’s words get caught in her throat. Should she confess the truth and relieve of her pain, or should she utter a lie to protect herself? Whatever she says, she is inextricably connected to Mohamed now, and whatever she says, Leila will have the opportunity to blackmail her. However, if she does lie and profess to be a girlfriend, there is a small possibility of Leila being angry enough with Mohamed to cut him out of her life once and for all. If she tells the truth, that she is only his sister, Leila may still believe she has a chance with the handsome Emirati and use her new-found knowledge as lifelong leverage.
“What?” Leila feels as she if has been punched in the stomach and she struggles to breathe.
“We got married about a year ago, while I was still in
Lady Luxe cannot look Leila in the eyes for fear of revealing the truth, so instead, she stares at the sea and digs her toes further into the sand. Please just accept what I say and then just leave me and my family alone.
“W-why didn’t you tell me something sooner?” Leila asks shakily, remembering the night they came across Moe and the way Lady Luxe practically shoved him onto her. So that was why she couldn’t get away fast enough. That was why she was so condemning of their relationship. And that was why she had been avoiding her like an epidemic and had refused to meet the two of them together.
"What was I supposed to say?" Lady Luxe retorts, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "The guy you manhandled in the alleyway was actually my husband? You should know me better than that, Leila."
"Turns out I don’t know you at all," Leila replies quietly, looking straight at Lady Luxe.
She believes me, Lady Luxe thinks with sheer relief as she stares back at Leila's confused eyes that are brimming with tears."I'm sorry," Lady Luxe says simply. Leila accepts the sentiment with a nod, completely unaware that her friend is not apologising for hiding her marital status, but apologising for lying about it.
"Me too," she says after a while, digging her toes into the sand and wrapping her arms around her cold body. "Listen… I kind of need to be alone right now. Do you mind if I just hang out here by myself?"
"Of course not,” Lady Luxe answers without pausing. “I'll see you soon okay?” She is thrilled at the opportunity to exit, but before she leaves, she leans over and gives her friend an unexpected hug. I'm sorry, she says silently before she hoists herself off the ground and walks to the car, leaving Leila's dejected silhouette behind.
Neither girl looks back at the other.
Lady Luxe drives down Al Sufouh on the slow lane almost at a snail's pace, ignoring the curious looks her pink Ferrari receives from passers by. She realises that her knuckles have turned white from clutching onto the steering wheel and she flexes her fingers in a lame attempt to relax them.
"It should be illegal to drive a Ferrari that slowly!" an Aussie voice shouts out to her from a gigantic red pick-up truck that pulls up beside her, slowing down to match her pace. Lady Luxe ignores the intrusion and looks straight ahead, a scowl on her lips. Why can’t a girl ever drive in peace around here?
“What’s your name, sweetheart?” The man tries again, raising his voice over the loud engines of both vehicles.
"Fuck off," Lady Luxe replies, and although it is against the law, sticks up her finger to reiterate her point. Let’s see you try to report me you prick, she thinks, closing the window and stepping on the gas. The car roars to life and she shoots forwards like a bullet, leaving the pick-up far behind in a cloud of dust.
Sniggering to herself, Lady Luxe continues driving without thinking, her mind still focused on Leila and Mohamed. She absent-mindedly takes the first exit onto the Palm and is surprised to find herself outside a familiar villa.
A recent birthday present from her father, the villa she is parked outside is also supposed to be part of her inheritance, yet Lady Luxe feels like an intruder as she walks through its gates. Upon handing her the keys, her father specifically told her that she could do whatever she pleased with it after she got married, but until then, it was hers in name only. Thus, the blissfully naïve X has no idea that his daughter has taken his sentiments with a pinch of salt (after all, it was like handing a lollipop to a baby and telling it not to taste it), and has actually been visiting it every few weeks whenever she needs a little time out from her stifling social life.
The exterior of the modest villa is inspired by Islamic art and it is decorated sparsely with traditional berber and shaami furniture. Although a cleaning service cleans it every week without fail, no one uses it, and whenever Lady Luxe does venture into her respite from the outside world, she feels guilty and nervous, as if she is a trespasser. Hence, for the most part, the villa sits abandoned and derelict, like a beautiful virgin bride whose husband refuses to touch her. A complete and utter waste.
Still shaken from the confrontation with Leila, Lady Luxe feels light-headed as she leans against the front door and tries to regulate her breath. When she finally manages to calm down and her pulse returns to normal, without turning on a single lamp, she walks through the house and into the garden facing the artificial beach and sea. With her abaya still covering her body, she lies down on one of the two sun loungers by the pool and stares out into the sea, aching to hear it crash against the shore. But it doesn’t. It sits still and silent, much like her.
* * *
From the moment Lady Luxe awoke up to the brutal wails of her alarm clock, she was confronted with a nervous sensation in the pit of her stomach, warning her of the events that were yet to occur.
After dragging herself out of bed, she bumped into Mohamed, whom she can barely look in the eye following the staircase incident. He muttered ‘salaam’ to her, their brief encounter putting her off her breakfast. Dismissing Claudine’s delicious waffles, she changed into a plain abaya coupled with a hot pink sheila and went to meet her cousins who were due to fly out that evening.
Moza and Rowdha, anxious to remain in
Bored of their endless moaning, Lady Luxe tuned out and listened to the low hum of conversation around her instead. Anything to take her mind off the growing sense of unease she was experiencing.
A blast of air conditioning from the vent directly above her head soon destroyed the daydream, and Lady Luxe opened her eyes and inwardly sighed. It was far too cold indoors and far too sunny outdoors for her to be in
Get over it, those days are gone, she told herself, trying not to think of her glorious three and a half years studying in
"What the hell's wrong with you?" Rowdha, who detested public displays of emotion, wrinkled her nose, shooting Moza a dirty look upon receiving a sharp dig in her ribs for her brutal approach. "What? Why did you just assault me with your pointy elbows?"
"Can't you be a bit sympathetic for a change?" Moza scolded, taking Lady Luxe's hands into hers. "Ignore her habibti. She's just pissed off because we're going back to Saudi tonight. Now tell me. What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Lady Luxe mumbled, pulling her hand away and staring out of the window at the happy people walking by, enjoying
"What exactly about your over privileged life is upsetting you today?" Rowdha continued, almost as if her sister hadn't spoken. "What? It's true! Look at you. You’re young, beautiful, healthy, rich. You live in a gigantic villa, you drive a Porsche and a Ferrari, and to make things worse, you’re even a successful businesswomen. So please, enlighten me. What exactly about your life is so shitty?”
Lady Luxe remained silent, knowing that what her cousin said was harsh but true. She didn’t want to try to explain that she was always disorientated, that she never, ever felt truly comfortable, even in her own home. Especially in her own home. She didn’t know how to describe the ache in her gut whenever she heard a British accent, came across a picture from her student days in
But most importantly, she didn’t know how to adequately convey the fear that was slowly creeping its way around her entire body, warning her that things were about to blow up in her face. And she didn’t know which was worse. To be beaten by Moe, kicked out of the family or killed in order to protect their honour.
“Nothing,” she said shortly. “My life is great. And so was Hend’s I’m sure.”
There was a discomforting silence.
It had already been five years, yet a mere mention of the circumstances that lead to Hend’s disappearance was enough to send shivers down the spines of all the girls in the X family.
The product of a consanguineous marriage, Hend was both her father’s sister’s daughter and her father’s cousin’s daughter, a common practice in the X family. She was bright, fun loving and feisty, and when Lady Luxe is being honest with herself, she acknowledges that there were great similarities between them both.
Externally, they could not have been more different. Hend’s hair was jet black and unruly, her skin was a smooth mocha and her eyes were framed with the thickest, darkest eyelashes Lady Luxe had ever seen. Unlike Lady Luxe’s slight, athletic frame, Hend had a curvaceous body that could rival the likes of J-Lo and Beyonce, and she loved to show it off in skin-tight glittery gowns whenever they went to weddings. She was loud, she was smart and she had no qualms about speaking her mind. Everyone knew when Hend was in the room.
Beneath the lively exterior however, was a deep sadness that only those extremely close to her could detect. When all the cousins would get together and joke about their other family members, amidst laughter and giggles, Lady Luxe would look over at Hend to find her staring into the distance with a pained expression on her face. When their eyes collided, Hend would always smile at her younger cousin, but Lady Luxe, even as a teenager, was aware that the smile was hiding a sorrow that could not be articulated.
When news of Hend’s disappearance made its way to Lady Luxe’s ears, when rumours of Western boyfriends, stolen chastity and shameful acts travelled through the grapevine, everyone knew exactly what had happened. But no one had the nerve to say it.
They stopped visiting Hend’s house and for a while, the inhabitants of the house stopped visiting everyone else. When they finally made their way back into the community, all mentions of Hend stopped. It was as if the parents had raised two sons and no daughter.
Two years later, Lady Luxe paid a visit to her sick Aunt. Her Aunt’s health had completely deteriorated following the disappearance of her only daughter. Dark, deep circles rimmed her eyes, her sallow skin was sickly and thin, and she had lost most of the hair on her head. Towards the end of the customary visit, Lady Luxe claimed to need the toilet. Ignoring the bathroom door altogether, she slipped past the wandering maids, crept up the stairs and sought out Hend’s bedroom.
She pushed open the door and stepped inside, bracing herself to be assaulted by memories of her missing cousin. But she didn't have to, for the pink walls were now a clinical white, the countless photographs were nowhere to be seen and there was not a single pretty ornament in sight. It was almost as if Hend never existed.
Feeling nauseous, the eighteen year-old Lady Luxe turned away and closed the door softly behind her. Tears falling down her face, she ran back downstairs and for the first time in two years, confronted her Aunt.
“Where have all of her things gone?” she demanded upon returning to her Aunt’s bedside, unable to contain her emotions.
Her Aunt looked over at her niece and saw in her hazel eyes her own tempestuous daughter.
“Habibti,” she began, her voice quivering with uninhibited pain. “There is no place in this family for shame. Not one member, even those who profess to love you, will spare a girl who soils our name with dishonourable acts. Never forget that.”
* * *
Lady Luxe shivers, the thin cloth of her abaya providing little warmth from the ice that has numbed her body. Thinking about Hend always has this effect on her. No one knows exactly what happened to her cousin. What they did to her; if they were kind enough to drive her out of the country, if she had voluntarily left and never looked back, or if they got rid of her forever. She is not sure she wants to know.
“Salaam’alaykom,” a voice calls out to her and she sits up straight, startled at the intrusion. Pulling her sheila onto her head, she looks around to see a solitary figure in the adjacent garden looking out into the sea, and she scowls, wishing the walls separating the two were higher.
“What do you want?” she snaps in English, shooting him a cutting look that goes amiss in the darkness.
“Sorry, you just looked a little lonely so I thought I’d keep you company,” the man replies sheepishly, also in English but with a strong Arabic accent.
“What makes you think I’m lonely?” she asks, adjusting her abaya to cover her body properly.
“Well, for starters, you didn’t deny it.”
“Oh, we have a jester on the
“Every queen has a jester,” he flirts back, and Lady Luxe laughs at his audacity. He too laughs and edges closer to the wall. “May I request the pleasure of your company this evening, my lady?
"Ahlan," she replies with a smile, welcoming the distraction from her painful thoughts. She would rather indulge in meaningless conversation with a flirtatious stranger than be left alone with haunting memories of Hend or Leila.
She watches the man jump over the wall, his fluid movements catching her attention and she readjusts her abaya to expose one slim, smooth ankle. Before he turns around, she lets her sheila drop to her shoulders and hastily rearranges her fringe. After all, with her naked face and her drab abaya, there isn't much else she can do to make herself more attractive for this intriguing stranger.
"Mind if I take a seat?" Without waiting for a response, he hops onto the lounger beside her and stretches, his fitted t-shirt rising to expose a taut stomach. Lady Luxe feels a stirring within and she swallows nervously. It has been a long time since she has sowed her oats, and the combination of the sensual moonlight, the seductive breeze and an attractive stranger is making her feel a little flustered.
"Sure," she croaks, too worried to look at his face in case he senses her feelings. She watches him lie back onto the lounger from the corner of her eye and then turns to look at him, ready to get a proper look at the mystery man by her side.
Despite the darkness that surrounds them, despite the shadows playing on the angles of his face, there is absolutely no denying the familiar dark eyes and messy hair. Lady Luxe, overcome with sheer horror, stares at the man - no longer a stranger and definitely no longer attractive - not knowing whether to get up and run or throw herself into to the sea in front of her. Either way, she is completely and utterly screwed.
"So," he says, turning his body to face her. "How are you my dear future bride? And pray tell, how is our mutual friend Jennifer?"
* * *
A million light years away from the luxury man-made island, Leila sits alone in her bare bedroom in Discovery Gardens staring at the blank wall in front of her. Unable to digest what she has recently come to know, she feels weak, queasy and stupid. She wonders what Lady Luxe was thinking all those times she gloated about Moe's attentiveness, his full lips and his big hands. When she boasted about all the gifts she had received and how she would return the favour.
She was thinking you were an old, delusional tramp who could never bag a single man, a cruel voice taunts her, causing her heart to wrench in shame and agony. She didn't tell you sooner because she wanted to prove you a fool.
"Shut up," Leila mumbles, unaware that she is actually speaking out loud to herself.
She wanted to mock you, to jeer at you, to snicker when your back was turned, the voice continues, relentless in its sadistic - or perhaps masochistic - pursuits.
Rocking back and forth, her knees drawn to her chest, Leila begins to cry. She weeps for herself, her achingly lonely self who had been played a fool all over again. She weeps for her heart, in love with a man who was married to her friend. And she weeps for this friend - stuck in a loveless marriage with a man who brought his conquests to their marital home.
Thinking back to the opulent villa with its marble floors and crystal chandeliers, Leila feels another emotion that suddenly replaces the previous emotions of pain. Envy.
She has all of that yet she's still not happy, she thinks, her mind taking a more dangerous course. Plenty of men cheated on their wives, but at least their wives were not alone. They had someone who came home to them at the end of the day. They had someone to look after them. They had someone to raise children with. What did she have? A shabby little apartment in the middle of the desert?
She needed a man. She needed a husband. She needed someone to spend the rest of her life with. She wouldn't have minded sharing him with someone else if it meant that she was taken care of.
I could have made him happy, she thinks wistfully.
And then, a tiny seed plants itself in the darkest depths of her mind.
I can still make him happy.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
Just as the sun begins to descend, casting an orange glow over the entire Persian Gulf, he coughs nervously and takes out a heart-stopping pale blue box. Leila's eyes grow wide as she spots the simple black logo and the tiny hairs all over her body prickle in trepidation.
In real life, the doorbell rings. And then, like all good things, Leila's wondrous dream comes to an abrupt end.
Cursing silently, she rolls over onto her stomach and covers her head with the pillow, hoping that whoever it is who has stumbled across her doorstep at such an ungodly hour will interpret her silence as her absence. And leave. She forces her eyes closed and desperately tries to make the dream come back and start where it left off.
To her dismay, the doorbell rings again, diminishing every iota of slumber remaining in her system. Leila is a morning person and it usually takes her alarm clock a mere thirty seconds to persuade her to arise. She mumbles an incoherent "I'm coming," (along with a list of other profanities) and then pulls herself out of bed, scowling and muttering as she stretches, her slim body arching like a baby tiger.
I didn’t even get to see what kind of ring it was, she laments to herself as she pads over to the front door barefoot, the cold tiles abusing the warm soles of her feet. Her eyes sore from the bright sunlight flooding the entire open-plan living area - courtesy of the gigantic floor-to-ceiling window - she opens the front door, squinting at the little man holding a clipboard.
"Yes?" she scowls, folding her arms over her chest in an attempt to hide the lack of a bra beneath her cotton nightshirt. So this is the munchkin that ruined my dream, she thinks, her frown deepening. She smoothes it out abruptly when she remembers that she spotted her first wrinkle a few days before (first post-Botox that is). And it was (unsurprisingly) on her forehead.
"Leila Saade?" the small Indian man asks with a grin, bemused at Leila's bedraggled appearance. Her hair is sticking up in all directions as it always does first thing in the morning - before she has a chance to smooth it out with her Braun IONTEC hairbrush that is - and her tattered nightshirt is so faded that it barely resembles a colour.
"Yes?" she snaps impatiently. Her eyes fall upon his hands and widen as she comprehends the familiar red and grey Aramex packaging, colours that have recently become synonymous with beauty and luxury.
"Ma'am can you please –"
"Okay!" Leila snatches the biro out of his hand before the poor thing has a chance to complete his sentence and hastily scrawls her name on the form. She is barely able to contain her excitement and grabs the parcel before he can protest. She slams the front door closed without even thanking him, let alone tipping him.
Leaning against the door and listening to the disappointed footsteps of the delivery man on the other side disappear, she holds the package in her hands for a few moments, wondering what it could contain. The last time she went 'shopping' with Moe, she pointed out various things in Dubai Mall's fashion avenue that had taken her fancy, but none of the things she had 'oohed' and 'aahed' over were small enough to fit in parcel of that size.
Although Leila is accustomed to receiving gifts from generous suitors, she still gets a tingling sensation in her stomach every time she is bestowed with a package – whether it comes wrapped in pretty paper, adorned with bows, in its original packaging or, as of late, in a plastic courier packet. In the past she has received designer goodies, jewellery, hampers, experiences and once, a horse. The latter was from an ex, also Lebanese, who was anxious to prove his love to her despite her breaking up with him, changing her number, and threatening to report him to the police for his stalkerish ways. He named the horse Lei-mo – a testimony to her name and his - completely oblivious to what it sounded like it English.
Leila gently shakes the parcel and feels something move inside. Unable to suppress her curiosity for a single second further, she runs over to her slightly dusty kitchen table and plonks herself onto a fragile IKEA chair. The scissors are still lying on the surface from three days ago when she opened a package containing a gloriously luxurious La Perla underwear set in pale pink with a note saying, "when will I get to see you in this?" She grabs them and cuts the parcel open as neatly as possible.
Inside the plastic packet sits a flat box with the stomach-tingling Damas logo glistening in the centre. Shaking with excitement, she opens the box to find a stunning white gold necklace encrusted with what appear to be countless brilliant cut diamonds. Her breath stuck in her throat, she lifts it out of its velvet surroundings and gapes at it in awe before running over to her full length mirror and placing it against her smooth, tanned neck. It sits perfectly on her collarbones as if it were created especially for her and she turns her body to examine it at all angles. The diamonds sparkle in the sunlight and a shiver runs down her spine.
This is it, she thinks to herself as she studies her reflection, knowing how amazing she will look once she wears it with a more appropriate outfit. It's time to give in to his needs.
Leila has had enough experience with generous men to know that it is unlikely to get better than this. A diamond on her finger is almost certainly out of the question so she will make do with a whole load glittering on her neck, while little something back before things turn sour. She is perfectly aware of the fact that every gift comes with a price and only last week she was forced into almost betraying her friend in an attempt to stay on Moe’s right side.
The time for her to get out with her gifts while she could, had arrived.
For the first time since she embarked on her precarious relationship with Mohamed, Leila picks up her phone and dials his number. She no longer cares about appearing to be too interested, too eager, too easy. In fact, she would rather control the way their relationship degenerates than allow him to just dispose of her like an empty cigarette carton once he has had his way with her.
"'allo?" he answers, dropping the 'h' in the typical Arabic, guttural way.
"Keefak habibi?" she purrs back, still looking at her reflection and tentatively touching the necklace with her finger tips.
"Do you like it?" Moe says, as more of a statement than a question.
"I love it," she answers with sincerity, beaming. She imagines his chest swelling with pride and for once, allows his ego to inflate as much as it wants.
"It is exquisite," she adds. "Thank you."
"So when can I see you?" he demands impatiently, raising his voice over the sound of traffic.
"Whenever you want," is her coy reply, a small smile playing on her lips. There is a stunned silence as Moe's heart begins to thud. During their entire courtship, Leila has remained stiff, stern and, for want of a better description, positively prudish. There were moments when Moe would wonder if he had imagined their first physical encounter, whether the entire scenario was a figment of his imagination.
"Now?" he suggests quickly, as if he is worried she may take back her promise.
"No, not now. Tonight." Leila affirms, still staring at her reflection. She may be grateful but certainly not so grateful that she is willing to drop everything to go and cater to his whims.
"Come and collect me at 8:00pm. See you later…" With that, Leila hangs up the phone and then gently takes off the necklace and places back inside the box, as carefully as if it were a newborn baby. Turning on the taps in the bathtub, she fills the tub with fragrant bath oils and when the temperature is just right, climbs in and closes her eyes. She was ready to give Moe a night he would never, ever forget.
* * *
Leila is wearing pale pink satin dress so tight and so low that her breasts are almost spilling out of its embrace. She is also wearing her new diamond necklace, although the spectacular creation is struggling to compete with her cleavage. Every single man in the restaurant is aching to catch a glimpse of Leila’s bosom as she wriggles past them, until they realise that her rear assets are just as generous as the front. Every woman is shooting her down with death stares, their eyes fixated on her sparkling necklace.
In ode to the occasion, Leila’s hair has been professionally blow dried and is sitting in soft, sensuous waves down her bare back and her makeup, courtesy of the MAC counter at Ibn Battuta, is simply smouldering. Everything about her persona – from her silky blonde hair to her tanned golden skin, her slender neck surrounded by a cluster of glittering diamonds and her tiny waist – is screaming for attention, and oozing with sexiness.
Quite naturally, the Emirati man who has the pleasure of escorting walking the sex siren is being tantalised by her in a manner he never anticipated. Not even his highly overactive imagination that was often fuelled by late night television could have conjured up the stirring sensation in his loins, or the lump stuck at the back of his throat, as his heart pounds so furiously that it is almost threatening to spill out of his mouth and into his date’s lap.
They are dining at Ewaan at the Palace Hotel in Old Town, and are sitting by the pool. Tiny yellow lights are wrapped around the palm trees and the atmosphere is alive with gentle laughter and the clinking of glasses. The tortured voice of the singer seduces the audience with his own renditions of the renowned Um Kulthoum, while Leila and Mohahmed puff on individual sheeshas and sip fine wine.
Unbeknownst to said singer, he is not the only one on a seduction mission.
From the moment Leila slid into Moe's orange AMG, she has been all over him like a rash, touching his knee, stroking his face, clinging to his arm. Now, at the restaurant, she is staring at him through half-closed eyelids and slowly licks her lips before taking the mouth of the sheesha pipe between them. Moe almost chokes on his Chardonnay and tries to compose himself, wiping his clammy palms on his dark brown candoura. Leila pretends not to notice and inhales deeply, before allowing the smoke to whirl out of her mouth slowly and gracefully.
Although Leila was originally only pretending to be like a cat on heat, the more she pretends, the more real the feelings become, until she too is desperate to get away from the crowd of people and spend some quality ‘alone time’ with the man who she knows is about to slip through her talons.
She analyses Moe's handsome face as he stares at the singer and realises with a jolt that she will miss him. Over the past few weeks he has become the only constant in life. With the global economic crisis at its peak and the subsequent crash of the real estate sector, Leila’s career has taken a gigantic plunge. She has been getting paid late, her commission percentage has been reduced, and she is highly unlikely to receive a bonus.
If her turbulent financial status wasn’t bad enough, Leila has also noticed with horror that her body is changing. A fine line here, a wrinkle there, a sun spot, an ache. Although hours of Yogilates has kept her muscles supple and flexible, she just doesn’t move with the same agility she did a decade ago, her face just doesn’t hold the same youthful glow, and no amount of gym, microdermabrasions or sneaky visits to clinics in Jumeirah can prevent time from taking its natural course.
Then there is her love life. Turbulent, exciting, promising, painful. Uncertain.
And now, with Moe soon to exit the scene, she will be left alone. All over again.
Leila wonders when that defining moment in her life was, the moment when she traded her naivety for cynicism, when her innocence was stripped away from her, when she realised that there was no such thing as a ‘happily ever after’. She wonders if she should pin all the blame on Fahd who taught her that no man wanted an imperfect woman and no Arab man would marry a ‘loose’ girl. Or maybe she should blame Michael – the American who falsely made her believe that fairy tales did exist.
Michael had escaped Leila’s thoughts for a very long time. She liked to tell herself that he was just one of her countless conquests, and his memories often became trapped between those of recent lovers. Until she catches a whiff of his spicy cologne, or her gaze accidentally falls upon a pair of startlingly blue eyes, or her ears catch hold of a wry, New York accent. Then the memories slowly come seeping back and she spends the night looking up at the ceiling and remembering his broad smile, the tiny bump in his otherwise perfect nose, his sandy blond hair… and those eyes. Those bright blue, sparkling eyes that she would disappear within whenever she would gaze into them.
They met in Leila’s second week in Dubai and for the naïve twenty-something Lebanese girl, it was a dream come true. Not only was he intelligent, attentive and respectful, but he was also American. And not the kind of American she had encountered whilst studying in Ohio either, but a native New Yorker who drawled, dropped his r’s and wore Italian shoes. The fact that he was ten years her senior made him all the more appealing.
Although Leila had youth on her side, she was certainly lacking in the looks department and it wasn’t long before the sweet Michael dropped a few hints about his fascination with blondes during a post-movie dinner. Mortified, the brunette hastily booked herself into her local salon and emerged three hours later with a gorgeous yellow mane.
As the weeks progressed, Michael’s dissatisfaction with his girlfriend continued to grow. Fuelled by their lack of physical contact and her commitment towards maintaining her virginity, Michael expressed his frustration through degrading Leila whenever possible. He commented on her acne-prone skin, persuaded her to see a dermatologist, made subtle remarks about her B-cups and laughed at her very Middle Eastern nose. He even made fun of her accent that was tinged with Arabic and French. The more he ‘joked’, the more Leila withdrew into her shell. Her confidence deteriorated with every comment and she was desperate to do something right.
Then, two months into their relationship, came the inevitable day when he invited her for ‘dinner’ at his apartment. She happily agreed, stunned that a man was willing to cook for a woman, completely oblivious to his ulterior motive. Or perhaps she knew, but was hoping he would prove her wrong.
The putrid stench of his alcoholic breath on her face, the wildness in his eyes, the aggression of his touch, plagued her at every moment for weeks after. How could she have understood the situation so wrong? How could she have expected a man to respect her monogamous choice?
You fucking tease. You’ve been fucking using me and expecting nothing back? You fucking ugly bitch.
His voice continued ringing in her ears long after she had managed to extract herself from him after kneeing him in the groin, long after she had stumbled to the lobby of his apartment, her dress torn and her arms bruised. And long after the bruises faded away.
For months after that night, Leila would sit in the shower with her knees drawn to her chest, her entire body shaking as tears rolled down her cheeks, trying to wash away the invisible imprints Michael had left behind. She would scrub away the memory of his forceful hands pushing her against the wall, his unwavering grip on her sore, bruised wrists, his clumsy lips all over her neck.
And all the while, deep down, she believed it to be her fault.
When she gave herself to Fahd, a year later, her mind wandered back to Michael and her refusal to give herself to him. Sometimes, during her darker moments, she wished she had.
The Michael incident, coupled with Fahd’s betrayal, taught Leila an invaluable lesson or ten: virginity had no value to absolutely anyone – least of all herself – with the exception of her future husband on their wedding night. And that was if he happened to be Arab. With simple surgical procedures readily available for women wanting to repair their hymens in order to dupe their unsuspecting husbands, even that wasn’t a big deal anymore.
Leila realised that her body was her own, what she did with it was her business, and what was more important was the illusion she portrayed of herself. For it was the illusion that was something she had 100 per cent control over.
“Shall we go?” Moe’s tentative question, coupled with the longing in his dark eyes, is a welcome distraction from Leila’s painful memories, and she nods. When the bill is settled, Moe stands up and for the first time in their relationship, offers her his arm. Leila feels another stab in her heart. Would this be the last time? She accepts it graciously and stands up. There is the same look on every man and woman’s face as they watch the tiger and tigress glide away: envy.
* * *
Leila gently extracts herself from Moe’s embrace, his gentle snores assuring her of the depth of his slumber. As she lifts one heavy arm, he stirs, and she stiffens, her heart beating quickly. The last thing she wants is him waking up and pretending that he still wants her there after finally achieving his goal. She would rather his last memory of her to be beautiful, strong and sexy – not weak, cowardly and ashamed.
She smiles as she recollects the look on his face when he unzipped her dress and let it fall to the floor. His eyes moved up and down her body, savouring every inch of it and lingered on the pale pink lingerie that he had bought her for just a moment, before taking it off and leaving her in nothing but the diamond necklace.
Then, it was non-stop for almost two hours. Three times in one night was quite an achievement for Leila, who usually got bored after just one. But the pent up tension from weeks of dating had developed a hunger in her that had to be satiated and finally, exhausted, they both collapsed onto the bed. Moe immediately fell asleep, while Leila played over the details in her mind. At least it was a night neither of them would ever forget.
She finally manages to sneak out of bed and looks around the room for some clues as to who Moe actually is. She still cannot believe that he has actually brought her home instead of taking her to a fancy hotel, and she relishes the opportunity to snoop around.
Mohamed’s bedroom is the stereotypical bachelor pad, and needs just a mirrored ceiling to complete the look. The walls are a plain grey, all the furniture is black and all the accessories are chrome. The bed is possibly bigger than any of the beds Leila has ever slept in and a gigantic zebra print rug sits at its foot. On the wall opposite is a 60-inch plasma screen and below it is a water feature that is more annoying than soothing. Leila cannot comprehend how Moe can manage to sleep with that incessant racket. There are no photos on the nightstands and no pictures on the walls. Nothing to divulge who the real Mohamed is.
Treading carefully, Leila gathers all her clothes, tiptoes across the room and opens the bathroom door, hoping it doesn’t creak. Thankfully it glides open with ease and she locks the door firmly behind her.
The bathroom is just as sleek as the bedroom with stark black and white tiles and a huge shower. There is a corner tub which Leila assumes is a Jacuzzi and she wishes she could fill it up and just soak there for a while. It is a definite upgrade from her own little bathroom in Discovery Gardens and she sighs audibly, wishing she had been blessed with better fortune.
Hoping to learn something new about the man who is soon to become her ‘ex’, Leila peeks inside the medicine cabinet but is disappointed to find that all it contains is toothpaste, floss, mouthwash, shaving lotion and aftershave.
She closes the cabinet and stares at her reflection. The girl staring back at her looks tired and weary. Makeup is smeared all across her face and her hair has lost its grace. Tearing her eyes away from her pitiful appearance, she sits down and opens up her gigantic handbag, glad that she didn’t use the new Chanel. As beautiful as it is, it wouldn’t have been able to hold a pair of leggings, a long t-shirt, deodorant, a hair brush, ballet pumps, face wipes, moisturizer and her wallet. Not to mention her perfume, makeup bag and keys.
Leila gets to work with the face wipes and cleans off every scrap of makeup before rinsing her face quickly and moisturizing it. She moves quickly and diligently, afraid that if she stops moving, the void that Moe had temporary filled will resurface, leaving a dull ache in its place.
So, she focuses on completely the task at hand as soon as possible so that she can go home and forget that Moe ever existed. She runs the hairbrush through her hair and pulls it into a ponytail before putting her bra back on, climbing into her new outfit and slipping her feet into her rubber soled pumps. Spraying on some deodorant and perfume, she squashes her beautiful pink dress and lingerie set into the bag, places the necklace back into its box and then zips it up.
Khalas. Time to say goodbye.
Exiting the bathroom as quietly as she entered, Leila takes one last look at Moe’s peaceful expression and turns away before tears begin to form in her eyes.
Stop being such a wimp, she thinks as she forces herself to open the bedroom door and step out into the deserted upstairs hallway. She is glad she had enough sense to bring rubber soled shoes that will reduce the chances of her making enough noise to wake him (or God forbid, someone else) up. All the doors in the hallway are closed and although Leila is dying to peek into some of the rooms, she controls herself in case there are any other people living there, despite Moe promising that no one else was at home.
Walking down the magnificent marble stairs and absorbing the crystal chandeliers and intricate stained glass window, Leila wonders if she has made a terrible mistake by approaching her relationship with Moe as nothing more than a little fun on the side. Had she put up the innocent act a little longer, had she packaged herself as the perfect wife, perhaps he would have wanted her enough to marry her? She stops at the foot of the stairs and looks around her at the beautiful artwork and ornate marble with wonder. Imagine if she could wake up to such splendour every morning.
Don’t be stupid. You met him in a club. You gave him a you-know-what the same night. You were nothing more than a bit of meat for him. You ruined it before it even began.
Her limbs aching from the indoor sports and her heart heavier than ever, Leila tells herself that she made the most of her situation. She had a 50,000 dirham diamond necklace in her handbag and was obviously better off than she was when she met him. Straightening her back and holding her head up high, Leila decides to just go home and enjoy the memories she had created instead of skulking around the villa wondering about what might have been.
The front door is heavy and creaks as she pulls it open. Wincing, she steps out into the cool, desert night and closes it behind her. Inhaling deeply and enjoying the fresh scent of the mysterious desert plants all across the driveway, she looks back at the enormous villa and smiles. This will be one interesting story to tell her daughters one day.
A roar fills the garden and Leila jumps, almost dropping her handbag. She spins around and then squints as a bright light shines on her face. Like a deer caught in headlights, she freezes, wincing at the intensity of the spotlight and wondering if there is a guard with a gun about to shoot her down.
The lights turn off and so does the deafening roar, leaving Leila in complete darkness and silence once again, and she blinks rapidly, trying to adjust her vision, her ears still ringing. The hair on her arms begin to prickle and as her eyes adjust to the moonlight, she realises that the lights did, indeed, belong to a car. And not just any car, but what appears to be a Ferrari.
Staring at the familiar car but still not registering where she has seen it before, she tries to see who is at the driver’s seat, the tinted windscreen preventing her from doing so. Perhaps it is Moe’s parents back early from their vacation. It is too late to hide behind a palm tree, and all she can do now is walk away as gracefully as possible. How she hates walks of shame.
Feeling more than a little awkward, she quickly begins shuffling towards the gate, but as she passes the Ferrari, she realises with a shock that it is pink. Stopping in her tracks, she stares at it again, not caring that it could potentially be Moe’s father. Something just doesn’t feel right. A million thoughts begin racing through Leila's confused mind and through the dark tints, she eventually makes out the silhouette of a woman. Still disoriented, before she can control herself, she raps on the window. There can’t be only one pink Ferrari in the whole of Dubai…but then, she has never seen more than one before.
Anger begins to boil within, and Leila raps on the window again, this time with her fist not her knuckles. It can't be her, she desperately tells herself, panic racing through her system. When there is no answer, she tries the door and it swings open, revealing exactly who she was afraid she would find.
Her face red with fury, her mouth dry and her eyes wide with shock, Leila clenches her fists and forces herself not to react until she knows precisely what is happening.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” she manages to hiss as Lady Luxe, the woman she once described as her friend, stares back at her, with eyes full of guilt.