I thought living in a country where I barely know anyone would be easy. I assumed I’d make friends at work and I’d have people to go out with if I wanted to, and that I would be okay pottering around by myself the days I stayed at home. I really wasn’t expecting an achy feeling in my chest whenever I experienced something funny/interesting/weird and I had no one to share it with. I didn’t realize that evenings can be so long when you spend each and every one alone either and that the novelty of solitude wears off pretty quickly when you have it forced upon you.
Nadia has been avoiding my calls as well. I tried ringing her a couple of times but I think she just needs some space to herself while she works out what to do with that skinny rat she married. So until then, I’m officially friendless.
I hear the front door of our apartment in JBR close and I wander out of my room in my mismatched pj’s, thankful to have a bit of space where I can walk around without hijab. I slide open the balcony door and step out onto it, basking in the sun and enjoying the rare feeling of the wind in my hair and the sun on my bare arms. I still haven’t made it to ladies only day at the beach, and doubt I ever will as it’s on a Monday and I’m at work then. So, until I can take a day off, it will have to be a few minutes on the balcony whenever the family goes out.
My hosts are a very lovely South African couple with their cute two year-old daughter. They’ve been really kind to me – letting me use their PC, taking me to the mall and even to the mosque. If I weren’t on my period, I would have gone for Friday prayers at the Spring's Mosque today (they're translated into English over there) but in Islam, you can’t pray when you are menstruating. Some girls see this as a holiday period, when they can do what they want without having to stop five times a day, make wudhu (translation: mess up their makeup) and submit to God. To be honest, I used to be one of them until I started praying properly, sincerely and with concentration. Now, I revel in the chance to connect with my creator so frequently and if I miss a prayer, I feel disorientated. It’s also a lot easier in Dubai where every mall has a prayer hall and there are mosques on almost every dusty street corner. In the UK though, I had friends who would pray in the most bizarre places whenever it was time – the beach, the park, a museum, a train station and I always thought it was a little extreme. Now I realise that they just didn’t believe that nothing should get in the way of their five minutes with God, that those little breaks within the day kept them in tune with their spiritual selves, offered a little clarity amidst all the confusion.
Instead of going to the mosque, I log into Facebook (*cough*) to check out Goldenboy’s page and see what he’s been up to. I learn that on Monday, he was painting, on Tuesday he felt sick from all the shisha, on Wednesday he was bored at work and on Thursday he was looking forward to clubbing with his friends. Today, he is still recovering from last night. I feel a twinge of jealousy when I look at all the sexy girls he’s friends with, with their big boobs and bootylicious bums, who he was no doubt dancing up against last night. He’s not good enough for you, I tell myself self-righteously, forgetting the fact that up until a few months ago, when I had my religious awakening, I was a hardcore clubber and would direct lost tourists in London using clubs, bars and pubs as landmarks.
Browsing through his 'clubbing' photo album and getting more and more annoyed by the pictures of him grinning with loads of pouty hoes by his side, I decide that he clearly isn’t the kind of guy who fears God. In fact, he’s probably the kind who sleeps around with any girl who’s up for it. He has probably fathered babies all over the Arabian Peninsula.
“Hi!” A message pops up on my Facebook Chat, interrupting my thoughts and I turn red when I see that it is Goldenboy himself. After working myself up into a frenzy with my stupid imagination, I feel a little annoyed with him, wondering how much of my speculations are true.
“Good morning,” I reply stiffly.
“How are you?”
“Fine thanks. You?”
“Too much clubbing?”
“Too much everything!”
“So go and rest.”
“I’d rather chat to you.”
When he says that, my stomach begins to flutter and I forget that two seconds ago, I thought he was a harlot. I tell myself not to get worked up over nothing as usual, and just play it cool. He's just being nice. We continue talking and I’m pleased to see that he’s actually funny and friendly without being overtly flirtatious. We have a lighthearted conversation without finding anything out about each other, until he asks me the dreaded ‘where are you from’ question.
I’m a North Londoner, through and through and everything from my accent to my trainers shouts out where I’m from. Well, it used to anyway. Lately, I’ve been called an Emirati, an Egyptian, a Palestinian, a Pakistani and a few things in between. Everything except British because, with my brown skin and hijab, I can’t possibly be from the UK.
In a bid to add a bit of variety to this tedious inquiry, I’ve started making up answers to the question. I never thought I’d do that again, not after the terrible faux pas I made back in London when I couldn’t be bothered to go through the long-winded truth behind my Arabic name and Arabic surname after an exercise class. Inspired by the Yaser Arafat scarf wrapped around my neck, I pretended I was Palestinian and I thought I got away with it until some know-it-all asked me about the elections.
What elections? I remember thinking. I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about, so I gave the most ambiguous answer I could think of.
“It was surprising,” I said at last.
“Oh really?” she answered, raising her eyebrows. “I thought it was quite obvious that Hamas would win.”
Oops. So she was talking about the Palestinian election, not the local ones.
“Maybe to us, living in the West,” I explained mysteriously. “In Palestine, the general feeling amongst the people is confusing." I then legged it as fast as I could.
When I first moved out here, I would answer truthfully when people asked me where I’m from, but after going through the routine around a hundred times, the conversation has become extremely tedious. Saying I’m from the UK isn’t good enough as it only explains my accent, not my colour or my hijab. Then there’s my Arabic name. So I have to explain that my grandparents moved to the UK from India many years ago, but no, we're not Hindus, we're Muslim. This explanation makes me fall from grace immediately, and I can almost visibly see the descent in their contemptuous eyes. At the beginning, it would bother me that I was judged by my culture and not my personality or my credentials. After three weeks though, I find I don’t care as much. I feel like I’m an ambassador of India (forget the fact that I haven’t been to India in 17 years), trying to prove that contrary to mass consensus, Indians, by default, are not short, stupid and smelly.
So now, depending on my mood and whether or not I can be bothered to go into a lengthy account of my heritage and the origins of my Arabic name, I answer different things.
“Where do you want me to be from?” I answer in the end, diverting the question away from me and back to him.
“I don’t care,” he replies. “It would be quite cool if you were from another planet though. I’ve always wanted to make friends with an alien.”
I laugh, and before I can think of a witty answer, he writes: “Would you like to go to the cinema tonight?”
Would I like to have the chance to spend time with an actual person rather than a computer? Hell yeah! I resist the urge to pump my fist in the air like they do in American movies and move my hands back to the keyboard.
“Sure, why not?” I reply coolly. “I’ll meet you at Ibn Battuta Mall at 8:00pm.”
“Aren’t you going to give me your number?”
“You don’t need it. Let’s pretend we’re from an era where people actually show up when they say they will. I’ll meet you by the cinema. Bye!”
Before he can change his mind, I log out of Facebook and sit staring at the PC for a few minutes. Is this a date, I wonder nervously. It can’t be a date. Hijabis don’t date. It’s just a meeting with a friend, I tell myself. Who happens to be a guy. An attractive guy.
As I sit at the desk, wondering if I'm about to launch into the second biggest mistake of my life, the hairs on my body begin to prickle and I'm struck by a sense of déjà vu. I feel as if I've been through all this before and I shouldn’t be going through it all over again. I've tried so hard to block out everything that happened a year ago from my mind but now, the excitement pulsating in my body has brought it all back – the fun, the secrets, the confusion… and that awful night when it all came tumbling down around me.
But no, this is different I tell myself. I need friends. I can’t just sit around alone all the time. I push the queasiness aside and focus on the matter at hand which is a mission in itself. I have about four hours to beautify myself without actually looking like I've made much of an effort.
After thinking for a few moments, I know exactly what to do. I pull on my abaya over my pyjamas, throw on a hijab, stuff my feet into flipflops and go out into the plaza level of our cluster of apartments in JBR which is buzzing with families playing in the pools or lounging around outside the restaurants.
I’ve only ever ventured into a salon to have a haircut before, but now that I’m in Dubai I might as well live like a Dubaian, so I stride into the tiny reception of my nearest beauty salon and ask for a manicure and pedicure. I relax on one of the large, comfortable, chairs as two nail technicians begin working on my hands and feet simultaneously. I feel as if I’ve gone to heaven, once I get over the fact that people are touching up my feet that is. I fall asleep soon after letting the therapists just do their thing without instructing them. When they shake me awake an hour later, I have neat, clean and shiny nails that have been buffed to perfection.
By 7:30, I’ve finally finished my regime. I’ve perfected the effortless, ‘natural’ look that appears to have taken ten minutes, not three hours. My complexion looks bright and slightly flushed, thanks to the help of my signature MAC studio fix and blusher that I stole from my older sister years ago, my lips are shiny and pouty, all praise going to Mr Calvin Klein’s lip plumping gloss and I smell fresh and young, courtesy of Kate Moss’s debut perfume. I’m wearing my favourite magic jeans again and a loose purple jersey dress, casual enough for the cinema and dressy enough in case Goldenboy suggests dinner afterwards. And deep down, I’m hoping he will.
I spot him standing outside the cinema, by the big wooden ship in the China Court of the mall and wave at him. Although I prefer Mall of the Emirates (MOE) to Ibn Battuta as the atmosphere is friendlier and warmer, there’s no doubt that the latter is stunning to look at, especially for first timers. Immortalising the journeys of the famous Arab traveler, Ibn Battuta, each section of the mall follows a different theme. The India court, with its elephants and ornate, marble like pillars feels like the inside of a Moghul palace whereas the Persian court, with its imposing dome and intricately decorated ceiling is exactly how I imagined the interior of the stone mosques in Tehran to look like.
I can barely prevent myself from grinning widely as I walk up to him, trying not to stare at his biceps that are just perfectly proportionate with the rest of him, straining against the fabric of his black t-shirt. We shake hands and I wonder what he will think if I don’t let go of his hand. I do of course, reluctantly, relishing the warmth of human contact while I can and he gives me a weird look. I look intently at the crepe menu, ignoring his gaze.
For the next two hours, I am in agony. I’m dying to lean against him and feel his arm against mine and I have to apply every ounce of self control in order to restrain myself. I’ve never been this attracted to a guy before and I begin to wonder if God is testing me more now that I’m a hijabi. If I had met him in my pre-enlightened days, I would have been delighted by all the sexual tension knowing that it would bear some fruit eventually. But now, I’m beginning to wish he was ugly and smelly so that I didn’t have to be subjected to this masochistic torture. So I spend the entire film holding my breath and muttering swear words under my breath occasionally.
It ends without me having a clue what happened so I avoid making small talk about it after. He invites me for dinner at the Marina Walk, which despite dying to accept, I yawn a fake, dainty yawn and decline politely, claiming that my self-imposed curfew has been reached. In the two hours I spent not watching the film, I had plenty of time to analyse all possible outcomes of my newfound 'friendship' with Goldenboy, and in this pivotal time I decided that it simply wasn’t worth the risk. I didn’t leave everything behind – my friends, my family, my life, just to make the same mistakes all over again. So, hoping my sudden holier-than-thou strategy will deter him and render me a geeky loser, I insist that I have to go home and that I am usually in bed by 10pm.
"Are you sure?" he asks, his eyebrows raised. No I'm bloody not but with every second I spend with him, my barriers are getting weaker and weaker. I've only been a 'good' Muslim for a couple of months. It's much too soon to test the waters. I now know how Edward Cullen felt when meeting whatsherface, only he had plenty more years of practice.
My plan doesn't appear to have worked though. There is newfound respect in his eyes as he realises I’m not like all the other girls he knows, that I'm not just going to drop everything and run off with every fit guy who appears to be interested in me.
“Next time then,” he says. It’s not a statement, but a question, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, to feel flattered or to run a mile. I get the feeling that the faster I run though, the harder he will chase. And in all honesty, I don’t want to run. A part of me is hoping that platonic relationships do exist between girls and guys who fancy each other. But then, that’s what I thought last time.