I don’t know how I got through my first week at the English Language Institution. Name learning, playing embarrassing ice-breaking games with an enthusiasm that could give the Balamory presenters a run for their money and sitting in utter boredom during my lunch break with my dry sandwiches (the bread in Dubai is awful) in my hands and my iPod glued to my ears, is pretty much all I did. Alhamdulillah, I’ve made it to Friday and now I’m getting ready to go and meet my one and only friend.
Yes! I have a friend! I met up with Yasmine’s sister, Nadia, the day after I went out with that volleyball crowd and contrary to my initial wary feelings of hanging out with my best mate’s older sister, I actually had a really good time. We had a cheapy dinner at the MOE food court (halal food everywhere is still a novelty for me so I'm refusing to touch veggies or seafood after twenty-three years of the stuff in London) and just being able to speak English without having to carefully enunciate every letter was amazing. Chilling out with someone who I’ve known for years and who can relate to more than just who I am, but where I’m from, made my insides warm up. This little piece of North London in the middle of New Dubai has somehow brought a little order to my new, confusing life and I’m grateful for it. So grateful in fact, that this morning, I woke up to pray Fajr (my very first time) to thank God for his mercy. It wasn’t easy though. When the alarm went off at four in the morning, I whacked the snooze button so hard that it went flying off my nightstand and crashed into the hard, tiled floor. The bloody thing didn’t break though. It went off again ten minutes later and I covered my head with my pillow in a pitiful attempt to ignore it, muttering profanities under my breath. I eventually yanked myself out of bed, fuming, grabbed the alarm and took the batteries out and started climbing back into bed. As I lifted one knee onto the soft mattress, I felt conflicted. Part of me wanted to sink into the warm sheets but the better part kept telling me that now I had got up, I had won half the battle - it was only a matter of a bit of water and a few minutes on the prayer rug and then I could jump back into bed and sleep for as long as I liked.
Eventually, the angel in me conquered and bleary eyed, I made my way to my en-suite bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. Every ritual I performed, from rinsing my mouth to washing my face, my arms, my feet, made me feel stronger and when I finally stood on the prayer mat, I felt like I wasn’t alone – that Allah was looking after me.
After prayers, instead of going straight to sleep as I originally planned, I felt inspired to actually move my body a bit. I ended up throwing on jogging bottoms and a baggy, long sleeved t-shirt and went for a walk on the beach. Feeling the warm sand between my toes, and listening to the sound of the calm ocean lapping against the shore, as I sat and watched the sunrise, the hues of pinks, reds and oranges all around me, I felt completely connected to myself and to my Lord. For the first time in a very long time, I felt truly happy.
I'm not the only one surprised by my new, spiritual self. Nadia was shocked to see me in hijab. The last time I saw her was when she was a newlywed and I was a bit of a rebel. I went over to Roba’s apartment and she was there, canoodling with Daniel. They looked so cute together – him sitting on the floor doing something on a laptop and her sitting behind him on the armchair, playing with his neck. I remember Yasmine telling me afterwards that they’d been at it like rabbits ever since the wedding and that her mum had walked in on them a couple of times. She had a key to their flat and was prone to just walking in without ringing the bell first. Mind you, I personally think that Nadia could have done better. She is gorgeous – tall, slim, huge eyes, endearing smile. Daniel is also tall, but thin with a bald head and weedy look about him.
Anyway, she asked me why I’ve started wearing hijab and I gave her the usual ‘I want to be a better Muslim’ line because I don’t know how to articulate the depths of what I was really feeling the very first time I carefully wrapped a stripy blue scarf around my head and walked out of the house. It’s tricky trying to explain the events that lead to the decision – the mistakes I made, the slow recognition that the path I was on was taking me to a place I didn’t want to be, the sense of pride I felt when I declared my faith to the world - so I tend to just bluff my way through the question.
The spiritual vibe lasted all the way home, while I ate my breakfast and while I showered. When I turned on my PC and logged onto Facebook though, it fizzled out as soon as I saw that I had a friend request from Goldenboy. Before the angel in me could persuade me to ignore it, I quickly accepted it and then spent the next hour browsing through all his pictures, his friends list and the wall comments. He looked just as delectable scuba diving as he did clubbing but my favourite album was the one of him camping. Wearing khaki combats and a black wife-beater, I was pleased to see that his muscles are honed and he looks like he knows what he's doing with his hands. I shook the image of his hands out of my head and busied myself with tidying my room and doing my laundry, taking Facebook breaks every ten minutes to see if he had come online. He hadn't. He clearly had better things to do on a Friday.
I’m meeting Nadia at a shisha place called Momo’s tonight and I’m really looking forward to some stimulating conversation coupled with the subtle, smoky sweetness of double apple shisha. I’m wearing my one and only abaya and I must say, the layers of long, flowing black cloth really do make me feel like a million dirhams. Slipping it on over my jeans and t-shirt has transformed me from a cute, chubby and slightly awkward Egyptian into a slim, graceful and sophisticated Emirati. I’ve even secured a garish flower clip to my head under the sheila to give it the height at the back, have dumped the usual ballet pumps for my one and only pair of three-inch heels and have lined my eyes with MAC’s smolder eye pencil.
Nadia glides up to me and gives me a quick hug and kiss outside the entrance to Momo’s, looking like the epitome of Emirati beauty in an abaya scattered with black Swarovski crystals, lots of mascara and even more glittery lipgloss. We laugh at how local we look when neither of us even understand Arabic and walk into the restaurant.
I look around me and absorb the North African inspired décor and imagine myself to be in Aladdin’s cave. The high ceilings are covered with Moroccan lamps of all different shapes and sizes, the shadows from the little holes in the lamps playing on the burnt orange walls, and the DJ is fusing traditional Rai music with pounding hip hop beats. There is a large projector on the wall showing old, black and white Arabic movies which can barely be seen in the dim lighting, and all around us locals, expats and tourists lounge on the low sofa seats along the walls or at the circular tables in the middle of the restaurant, puffing shisha or nibbling on Arabic mezzas.
“Gosh this place is stunning,” I say to Nadia in awe, unable to tear my eyes away from the seductive lights. We lean back against the cushions on the low seats and chat away, and I enjoy being able to talk without explaining the words I’m choosing to use and without adding appendices to explain the London references. I take my phone out to send Nadia some pictures of Roba that I have, and when I turn on my Bluetooth, it automatically buzzes with an incoming message. Surprised, I look around me to see at least ten people playing with their phones. I ignore it but it buzzes again. Curious to find out what it says, I accept the message and then almost choke on my mocktail.
“Sugar, are you okay?” Nadia asks as I cough and splutter, tears filling my eyes and threatening to smudge the eye make-up I had painstakingly applied.
“Yes,” I gasp. “Here, check this out.”
Handing over my phone to her, I watch her mouth turn into a huge grin as she reads the message that I know I will never forget.
“i whant tel you you are so butfill,” the message declares. “Take cer abuot you slef every one he dreem he have one like you 0509190889.”
Butfill?! Nadia cracks up and the two of us can’t stop laughing for a good few minutes. I don’t know what to be more outraged by – the atrocious spelling or the fact that some loser out there has the audacity to send such messages to complete randoms without even knowing who he is sending the message to. For the next hour, my phone consistently beeps with incoming messages and Nadia and I have a good giggle at the variety – some just send their numbers, some add corny messages and others are more creative - one guy actually sends a picture of his torso with his number running across the middle. We just can't understand why guys would use Bluetooth to hit on girls they don't even know when they have mouths that can obviously do a better job.
Our giggles are interrupted when a couple walk into the shisha lounge, hand in hand. Completely focused on each, they take a seat in the corner of the room without looking around at all, and we can just about make out their faces in the shadows. I squint at the guy, trying to work out where I’ve seen him before. He’s tall, bald and very slim, bordering on skinny. The girl looks like any other white girl. She is petite and blonde and is dressed in a tiny white summer dress and I feel a burst of annoyance at the way her big chest is nearly hanging out of her dress.
“Oh my God,” Nadia whispers and I look at her face to see that all the blood has drained out of it. I glance back at the couple and realize that the guy is Daniel – Nadia's Daniel – and the way he is looking at her suggests that their relationship isn’t purely platonic. His gaze is fixed on her, he is leaning forward and he has a tiny smile on his thin lips.
“Nadia,” I start tentatively, not knowing what to say or do. Maybe they’re just friends, I tell myself, not wanting to draw conclusions.
“It’s okay. I already knew about this,” she says with a strained smile. “I’ve read all their emails.” She is gripping on to her glass tightly and I’m worried it will crack under the pressure.
“Do you want me to go up to them?” I ask, rage beginning to simmer inside me. I can’t believe that my beautiful, sweet friend has such an asshole for a husband and the more I look at him, the more I get the urge to castrate him and then report him to the Dubai Police for adultery. I can't help but wish we were in Saudi so that he can get stoned to death.
“No, don’t. I still haven’t worked out what I want to do.” Nadia’s voice is tight, and her clenched knuckles have turned white. She is staring at Daniel and the Busty Blonde, watching him laugh with her, feed her some humous with bread, tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear. I feel the pain radiating from her pores and I touch her arm, trying to transfer some of her agony to me.
“Yalla, let’s go,” I say after a while, unable to watch the scene in front of me anymore. Our fun-filled evening completely destroyed, Nadia wordlessly agrees and we both get up to go. As we walk out of the restaurant, our abayas flowing out behind us, I catch Daniel’s eye. I see recognition dawn upon him and I look at him with a completely blank expression. He looks to see who is with me, and when he spots Nadia in front of me, her gaze fixed straight ahead, he snatches his hand away from the Busty Blonde’s bare thigh. But it’s too late. And he knows.