Sajid didn’t waste any time arranging a meeting with his friend after Samiah begrudgingly agreed to it. Two days later she found herself with Sajid, walking towards the restaurant where they were to meet Amer.
“This feels like a blind date,” Samiah said, trying to hide her nerves. “When did you transform into Cilla Black?”
“It’s a chaperoned dinner date,” Sajid corrected her.
“Date is the operative word,” she replied drily. She felt overdressed. She had spent longer getting dressed that evening than she would ever admit to. She had changed outfits approximately six times, more if you counted the number of times she changed her underwear to make sure it wasn’t visible through her dress. Her wardrobe had regurgitated its entire contents onto the bed and floor in an attempt at putting together an outfit appropriate for a dinner-date-rishta-meeting-thing. Nevertheless, six outfit changes later, she still felt uncomfortable and kept pulling her blazer together to cover herself. At thirty-one years old, she felt ridiculously like a teenager on her first date: she’d met dozens of men and been confident, cold even, about the whole process, but somehow this felt entirely new, almost alien.
“Just relax, sis; you look fine.”
She was annoyed with herself for showing her nerves.
Sajid chose a restaurant a little out of town so she wouldn’t come across the prying eyes of anyone who might know her in the local community. The walk to the restaurant was only a few minutes but felt like mile-long trek and not only because her shoes were uncomfortable. She remembered how nervous she had been for her first ever rishta, but that had been excitement – this felt more like terror. She felt sick.
“Saj, I can’t do this.” She stopped and grabbed his arm. Panic rose in her chest: “Please take me home, I can’t do this!” She tried to hide her shaking hands. Sajid tried to calm her, told her to stop talking and take deep breaths.
“What the hell is wrong with me?” Frustrated tears pricked her eyes. “This is not me. Why are you making me do this? I told you that I can’t do this anymore. You all won’t stop until I lose my sanity.”
Sajid sat her down on a nearby bench and went to find her a bottle of water. When he returned, her eyes were dry and determination had returned. “I am not going to get married,” she declared. “Ever. I’m going to be like Elizabeth I. The Virgin Queen.”
“What?” Sajid looked so taken aback he didn’t know what to say. “Are you drunk?” Realising what he’d just said, he shoved the bottle under her nose: “Shut up and drink this.”
Half a bottle later and when her hands were steadier, Sajid said: “No, this is not you. You are going to take control. You’re going to throw out all that rishta baggage from your mind and you are going to be that confident and proud and incessantly annoying woman that I know you are. Do you understand?”
The last time she had had the pleasure of a dinner date was when her mother had blackmailed her into meeting someone who refused to attend a traditional rishta meeting at her house. Her mother had been too desperate to care about traditional protocol anymore. Naveed wore a shirt that was far too tight and had one too many buttons undone beneath the collar. His hair was slicked back with what appeared to be the entire contents of a hair gel tub. He also talked far too much.
Within the first half hour, Naveed said to her dismissively: “You’re not really my type, but I think we may as well give it a go – my mother really likes your type. Homely and all that.”
She was so disgusted she couldn’t speak, so she excused herself to go to the bathroom. Standing in front of the mirror, she calmed herself by smoothing her hijab and swiping a ferocious red lipstick across her angry mouth. Turning her heel, she marched back to the table to her where he sat waiting and said: “Had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner, I might just have honoured you with more of my time.” She opened her purse, slammed down a twenty on the table and walked out. She was glad she had worn high heels, they added fire to her walk.
The moment she saw Amer – the moment he laid eyes on her – she knew this wouldn’t be like the last dinner date. He stood to greet them, smiled warmly, asked about their journey, if he could order them any drinks.
He wasn’t particularly tall, nor was he distinctively handsome, but his hair was dark and there seemed a comforting softness about him. Within minutes, Samiah recognised a man who was humble and good natured. His voice was deep and quiet; he didn’t speak unnecessarily and yet he listened attentively and spoke to her often, as if there was nothing that she could say that might surprise him. Samiah’s nerves slipped away and, by the time the food arrived, it no longer felt like a date or even a rishta meeting, but more like meeting a new family friend on any normal, no-pressure day.
Of course, that didn’t mean that Samiah wouldn’t do what Samiah did best. So when Sajid excused himself to go to the bathroom, Samiah began to list her disclaimers: “Here’s the deal: I’m not living with in-laws; I will not give up my job and will work for as many hours as I wish; I will have children when I feel like having children; I won’t be told how I should and shouldn’t dress -”
“I think you look great,” Amer interrupted.
Samiah was momentarily lost for words on being complimented and forgot the rest of the requirements on her list. So she said “You have no idea what Sajid has let you in for.”
Amer looked amused. “Saj said you might try to scare me off. You’re the shrew of the house, I hear.”
This annoyed her. “So he hired you to tame me?”
He smiled, “Don’t worry, I don’t plan to starve you.”
She pretended not to be impressed with his knowledge of Shakespeare. “It’s unfair that Saj prepared you to meet me but I know nothing about you.”
He encouraged her to ask anything she wished.
“You seem like an intelligent person who is doing well for himself; you’re not hideous, you don’t look like an alcoholic or a drug addict. What’s the catch?”
He laughed, but wasn’t fazed by the directness of the question. He replied equally directly: “I was engaged to the wrong girl for longer than I should have been. Her family’s requirements became ludicrous, both emotionally and financially.”
“Why did you keep it up? Out of love?”
“Well, yes at first. But somewhere along the line I grew up. I didn’t break the engagement, despite no longer wanting to marry her, because I’d made a promise to her. It turned into a tug of war between her family and my own. In the end they broke the engagement themselves as they realised I couldn’t give them what they wanted and I wasn’t prepared to lose my family.”
Amer’s honesty impressed her and she felt that she didn’t need to ask him anything else – at least, not for the rest of the evening, which passed pleasantly. There was something strangely familiar and yet unfamiliar about him. She liked to hear him talk, the soft way he told stories and how he asked questions about her life and her work. Unlike many men that she had met previously, he seemed actually interested in knowing her.
After dinner, Amer walked them to the car and, with Sajid’s permission, gave Samiah his business card: “I had a really nice evening and if you ever feel like you’d like to chat, then please do drop me a message.” For the first time in years, Samiah felt herself blush as she took the card from his hand.
On the journey home, Samiah noted how calm she felt in comparison to her panic attack a few hours earlier. Somehow the world seemed gentler, more freeing. Sajid smiled at her knowingly but said nothing. Amer was not the product of her daydreams, but she was definitely onto something.
The next day, she sent him a text message. His response was almost instant. He was attentive, gentlemanlike and good humoured. Samiah felt silly and girly each time she spoke to him, although it was hardly the stuff of romance. She felt comfortable allowing her hard shell to slip away for this man who did not expect anything from her except to be herself: over the years she had become so accustomed to fighting for everything she believed in and projected.
Although she liked Amer better and better the more she got to know him, it became that much harder for Samiah to accept that she had found The One. How could she know that he was the right one? She had made that mistake in the past. Some nights she would stay awake for hours, thinking of all the reasons he might be wrong for her. But her only hesitation stemmed from the fact that he was not the kind of man she had always assumed that she would marry. However, that vision of the ideal man had been shattered long ago. Should she continue to seek a man who lived up to her dreams or marry a man that she had not realised could fit into her life – and heart – so effortlessly?
Realising she could do no more except seek God’s counsel, she prayed for guidance for three consecutive nights. Her happiness was in His hands. After each night’s prayers, she felt that she could no longer go back to her old life after meeting Amer. And so, she finally gave Amer permission to speak to Sajid about arranging a family meeting. “Let’s allow the parents to take control from this point on,” Amer advised her. “Or let them think they have control,” laughed Samiah.
It was all happening so smoothly that Samiah felt the torture of the past eight years just wash away. She saw the same in her mother’s eyes when she told her about Amer. Her mother had lit up like a beacon, as if her life was once more worth living – that she was not, after all, a failed mother. This news was a gift from Samiah to her mother, possibly the most important gift that she might ever give her (though becoming a grandmother might trump it, but that could wait).
Samiah wiped the tears of joy from her mother’s face. They had both fought this battle, sometimes together and sometimes opposing, but it now felt right that they celebrated together.
Hafsah Zamir is a part-feminist part-traditionalist who hopes to publish a novel one day. She blogs at http://www.esotericsips.com