Nadia has had many strange propositions in her (almost) thirty years. At just six years-old, when she was living in Austria, her curious classmate asked her to lift up her skirt. She obliged, and then ensured he pulled down his pants. She was always a firm believer of equality. When she was eleven, now living in London, she was invited to a school friend’s birthday party as the only guest. She happily accepted the invitation and spent the afternoon awkwardly playing games designed for groups. When she was fifteen and living in Qatar, her best friend got down on one knobbly, bruised knee and earnestly asked her to marry him. Blushing furiously, she politely declined and asked him to revert back to her in seven years – a decision she still regrets to this day.
Now, as she sits curled up on her L-shaped sofa with a thin, woollen blanket wrapped around her and the customary cup of green tea warming up her cold hands, she smiles a wry smile. None of her childhood propositions are quite as odd or unexpected as the one is she currently mulling over in her mind.
Well accustomed to watching relationships fail, Nadia has never been under any illusions that marriage is easy. Lust, she assumed, fizzled out after some time, the absence of which, although much missed, was overcompensated by deep love and respect.
She remembers her first few months of marriage, when Daniel's ego was still intact despite relying on financial stability from his wife, and hers was flourishing under the weight of constant compliments from her husband. She remembers the raunchy text messages they would exchange whilst she was at work, the tingling feeling in her toes whenever she would turn the corner into her street, excited about seeing him again and the lazy Sunday mornings they would spend in bed, just snuggling up to each other and talking about their lives, their hopes, their dreams.
Nadia can’t pinpoint the exact moment when their Sunday morning chats started taking a bitter turn, when Daniel stopped asking her about her job, stopped sharing with her his plans, stopped talking about the future. At the beginning, he relished having so much time to read, to study Islam, to explore London and would recount a lecture he had attended, or show her a book on Sufism he had found. After a while though, he stopped going out, stopped reading and spent all day and night on the internet looking for employment. Their chats now consisted of him complaining about London – the weather, the pace and even the pigeons. When he ran out of problems he had with the UK, he would move onto her family or even her: her tiredness after a long day at work, the housework that piled up and had to be tackled on the weekends, her lack of interest in the kitchen.
During one fight, when he brought up the stack of laundry that had yet to be put away and the amount of pizza they consumed on a weekly basis, Nadia, her voice shaking, retorted: “I’m the one who is at work every day with an hour long commute each way. Since you’re the one sitting around at home, why don’t YOU do it?”
He fell silent. The anger that was sizzling in the air died as if a bucket of water had been thrown over it. He turned on his heels and walked out of the flat, into the cold, winter streets without his coat.
Nadia collapsed onto the kitchen chair, and with her head in her hands, regretted the words that carelessly (but accurately) fell out of her. A little part of her remained angry though. As sensitive as the subject was, the fact did remain that he was the one at home so he should have been the one tidying up and cooking, she shouldn’t have to do it both. She was being made to feel guilty for not fulfilling ‘wifely’ obligations, but the sad reality was, neither was he. In Islam, it was his duty to provide her with a roof over her head, to put the bread on the table, not hers.
After the fight, Daniel stopped complaining about everything. In fact, he stopped talking altogether. He spent more time alone and no matter how hard Nadia tried to give him a shoulder to lean on, he refused to acknowledge it. Terrified that her marriage was failing because of its uneven dynamics, Nadia stopped talking about work and spent more time in the kitchen, attempting to restore some balance into their relationship.
The silence became louder and louder until one Sunday morning, he told her that he had been offered a job - in Dubai. A job he had already accepted, without even asking her, that he would take regardless of her opinion.
What Nadia hadn’t realized about her husband at that time, was that he rarely spoke about the inner battles he fought daily. He was skilled at translating lust into love and then conveying it, but that was it. All other turmoil, conflict, confusion, was buried under an indifferent façade. So, although he had finally broken down and admitted his resentment, he didn’t reveal the extent of his emotions – his bitterness at marrying someone more educated, more intelligent, better looking than him – his inexplicable need to feel wanted, powerful and desirable.
Nadia, like any other wife who wanted to save her marriage, quickly agreed to move to Dubai, despite recently landing a swanky new job in a swanky new City office. She blamed herself for not acknowledging Daniel’s restlessness and bitterness until it had developed beyond repair, for not doing more to make him feel strong and worthy. Weighed down with burden of truly believing that she had not fulfilled her duties as his life partner, she pushed thoughts of her career, her family, her life and her home to the back of the mind and went about arranging the move with robotic precision.
“Are you sure you want to move out there? How could he not have even asked you before he accepted the job?” Roba was furious at the thought of her older sister moving across the globe with a husband who didn’t seem to hold their relationship in much regard. Although Nadia didn’t complain about the decision, it was clear that she was scared. Her family and friends assumed it was fear of the unknown that was worrying her, but the truth was, she was scared that her marriage was falling to pieces and that it was All Her Fault.
Daniel packed up and left, leaving her to sort out the rest of their belongings and admin issues while she worked out her notice period.
Their first few weeks in Dubai were difficult. Now that he had a job, instead of acting happily empowered, Daniel seemed to gloat over Nadia, laughing at the way she was at a loss of what to do with the vast, empty expanses of time she was confronted with. They already had an apartment, courtesy of the University, and after she had shopped for all their furniture and had decorated it with Ottoman inspired ornaments, rugs and cushions, she had absolutely nothing to do but eat, shop and sleep. As Daniel had lived in Dubai for six weeks before she came out and joined him, he had already made friends and Nadia was disappointed to find that they were nothing like his friends in England. Gone were the cute, God fearing guys she was happy to feed routinely. In their place were a couple of obnoxious, misogynistic ‘Muslims’ with drinking problems that she refused to tolerate. She was even more upset when she realized that he clearly preferred their company over hers.
Despite the steady degeneration of their relationship and the clear indicators of his impending – if not existing – infidelity, Nadia still clung on to a single shred of hope. Even when she was confronted with the extent of his Facebook fetish, the awful evening when he found her weeping and bleeding in the shower, a tiny part of her believed that it wasn’t over. She would remember their dizzy courting days, the lovely, lazy Sunday mornings and his eloquent love letters and tell herself that all that love couldn’t have just worn away. It was this fragment of faith that kept her heart beating and forced her blood to pump around her body.
She had eventually climbed out of the shower with aching joints and shriveled, prune-like skin. She wrapped a thick towel around herself and pushed opened the bathroom door. Her wet hair clung to her head and her neck as the water dripped down her back before being absorbed by the towel. Her eyes were still bloodshot and the cuts she had inflicted on herself – the long scratches on her arms and legs - were now sore and tender.
Daniel was sitting on the sofa in stony silence. He didn’t look up when she entered the living room, nor did he utter a single word of consolation. His sullenness shocked Nadia, who expected a contrite apology at the very least. Even a denial would have been better than the refusal to dignify her pain with a response. She sat next to him on the sofa, her gaze cast down, her pulse throbbing in her head. Clearing her throat, she tried to speak, but nothing came out. Terrified that this was the end of her rocky fairytale, that she was about to be just another statistic, she tentatively took his hand into hers.
She didn’t know why she took his hand. She just knew that she was scared, that she wasn’t quite ready to let him go, and that she needed to find out exactly what was going on in his mind. Why did he feel the need to run after scores of women? She was tired of wondering, hoping, loving, to no avail.
“Daniel,” she began, her voice hoarse. “What’s going on?”
There was another long silence.
“Nothing,” he eventually replied, his voice trembling. He let go of her hand and turned his head away, but she took it again and squeezed it.
“Daniel,” she started again. “I love you. I loved you when I married you and even after everything, I still love you. But I can’t continue like this. When we got married, you made me feel like the most amazing woman in the world. You made me feel like I could tackle anything with you by my side, that I would never be alone. You made me feel smart, beautiful, happy. Now, I don’t know who I am anymore. I feel ugly, I feel weak, I feel lonely. Every day I walk around in a daze, my head splitting with pain, my lungs contracting as I try to breathe and try to understand. I left everything for you. I came out here for you. But I don’t even know who you are anymore.”
Nadia explained that she needed to feel loved and appreciated – by the man who mattered most to her. As she articulated her frustration and confusion, pain squeezed her heart and she wondered how she ended up in this position. She knew that Happily Ever After was just a gimmick created by Disney to make money, but she never imagined that she would be sitting with her husband a year after their wedding, trying to coax him into revealing the reason why he couldn’t be loyal to her. Why her love simply wasn’t enough for him.
With a lot of coaxing, Daniel reluctantly began to speak and their conversation was surprisingly honest. He confessed his desire for attention, his inferiority complex, the way he needed to feel loved, wanted. His history of depression. He admitted that he used to be on Prozac, that when he met her, he thought his self-deprecating days were over. And for a while, they were. Until his unemployed state began eating away at his self-esteem, his sense of self-worth, his masculinity. And now, even though he has a good job, he still feels weak. He hates that she used to earn more than he does now, that she has a better degree than him, that men are always looking at them wherever they go. He believes that they are wondering why she settled for him. Everyone thinks she is too good for him, and now, he feels that he is not good enough. He needs to feel worthy.
The more they spoke however, the darker the confessions became. He admitted to fantasizing over her friends, indulging in porn, hoarding a secret stash of pictures he had copied off Facebook - of very ordinary girls whom he felt attracted to. Nadia, sick to her stomach, was too scared to let her true feelings be known in case he stopped talking and reverted back into his shell. She listened to him admit that he had invited her buxom air stewardess friend out on a desert trip, and how Sophia had come assuming that Nadia was going to be there. She felt as if she had been stabbed. Running after random women was one thing, but to pursue her friend was the ultimate betrayal. Her words stuck in her throat, she said nothing, just stared at him in horror as she realised his issues ran deeper than just craving attention – he actually needed obscurity within his sex life.
A part of her wanted to get up, run out of the flat and never look back, but another part of her reminded her that she swore to be by his side, for better or worse. At almost thirty, she knew it would be tricky to find a Muslim husband and as a divorcee, it would be almost impossible. Should she – could she – overlook her husband’s indiscretions for the sake of not being alone? No marriage is perfect and at least he isn’t physically abusive – right?
“I do love you,” Daniel explained, his voice strained. “But I need more. I can’t help it. This isn’t the first time this has happened. It has happened in all my relationships. I don’t want you to leave me but I need more than just us. I’m sorry.”
He stared at Nadia, at her bristle, uncombed hair, at her pale face and big, dark eyes. He stared at her small, frail frame wrapped up in a towel, the weakest of barriers, and for the first time in their relationship, realised how powerful he actually was.
“So what are you saying?” she finally asked. “You want to be with me but you want me to share you with any girl who takes your fancy? How would you feel if you were sharing me with a bunch of other guys?”
“Actually,” he began nervously. “To be honest, I wouldn’t mind. Why don’t we try having an open marriage? We both love each other, we both like being together, so why don’t we stay married but just enjoy other people’s company once in a while? It’ll solve everything.”
Nadia’s jaw fell open. In all her wildest dreams, her darkest nightmares, she never imagined that one day, her husband would offer to share her with other men in order to fulfill his own sexual fantasies. She was astounded that Daniel felt like his masculinity had been impaired by unemployment, and yet would remain intact if she - his wife and his honour - slept with other men. She shook her head in disbelief, got up and walked into the bedroom, locking the door firmly behind her. She had heard enough for one night.
Today, she sits on the sofa, still curled up, still unsure as to what she should do. Although she is not the slightest bit interested in embarking on affairs with other men, she is wondering if she should turn a blind eye to Daniel’s infidelity, if she can be happy knowing that she isn’t the only woman in his life. It has been done before, and no doubt it will be done again, but whether she too should live this kind of existence, she doesn’t know. She does know that she doesn't want to be divorced, doesn't want her family in Morocco gossiping about her inability to hold onto her husband. She doesn't even want her grandmother to throw her arms around her and applaud her for doing the right thing.
Picking up the phone, she nervously begins to dial her mother’s number. She can no longer face this alone.