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Muhammad A. Al Mahdi

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Habiba
By Muhammad A. Al Mahdi
Wednesday, March 23, 2005

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Short Story




Thinking back of Africa, I feel the fierce and heavy odour of burnt rubbish in my nostrils and on my tongue. In my memory it assumes an almost narcotic, haluzinatory dimension. Did it ever occure to you the scent of love might be the penetrating smell of burnt rubbish?



The area where we lived was one of the poorest in town, one of those that are considered unsafe. I have known hunger more than once in my life, and I'm saying this with pride because my hunger was sincere. It was as pure as life, and I have mastered it. Torn lips, a stomach like a cat balancing on a silk thread in the skies, a sleep that annihilates any feeling for time and dreams inhabited by nothing but food. May God then bless the hunger too! Having known it, I have known Allah.



Habiba was a girl of 12 or 13 when her father died leaving two widows and four or five orphaned children behind. Their house was a combination of wood, timber and naked cement. It consisted of one room and a half. It was dark inside and had a wooden fence around it half of which had succumbed to the assaults of storm and rain. If anywhere in this world there is happiness, it is there. The sky and its stars dwelled in it. You may tell us: you are poor but I say: you, too.



Like most of us, Habiba has never been to a school. The prices for books and school uniforms defeat the institution of free compulsory education. We can't pay them, and so we are barred from the schools. The only true free education provided are the madrassahs, the Islamic schools which are trying to compensate for the lack of primary education by introducing subjects like English and Maths but their teachers are helplessly underqualified and teaching materials are lacking. As the mu'allems are unpaid and will not be provided with the necessary equipment, our madrassahs fail to attract serious scholars. But Habiba excelled in them. She succeeded to obtain the address of a branch of Egypt's Al Azhar University and occasionally received materials and test forms from there which she would send back completed whereupon they would be checked by teachers and sent back with their marks.



I first noticed her when she walked down our road selling oranges. Her family and I know each other well and we are almost neighbours. I called her, bought an orange and offered to help her carrying the remaining fruits back home as it grew dark. On the way I tried to engage her in a conversation. Her language at the time was poor but her smile was pleasant and I had observed her for a while. She didn't strike me as beautiful by then but she was a respectful andhard-working girl with a pleasant temper. My heart was troubled by the memories of a girl I once loved but had to abandon because her family strongly opposed our marriage. As I'm saying this, you know what I thought. It wasn't love but I needed to drown the pain of my memories in the unpolluted spring of a new life. In other words: I tried to master myself, and Habiba would certainly be an eligible wife. As an orphaned daughter, her marriage would be a welcome relief to her family as well. So I directed out conversation, carried on more or less sluggishly, to the area of schooling. When she pointed out that there was, for financial reasons, no such perspective, I suggested to pay her fees and send her to a school though it wouldn't for the meantime be one of the more expensive ones. She looked up at me for a second and a smile flashed over her lips: "Could you do this?"   

 "I'm a free man", I responded, "I can do whatever I resolve to. I could even take you to my house and keep you as my wife if I so wished."  

Her response was surprisingly direct: "Would there be nobody who will beat me when she sees me there, at your house?"    

 "Nobody," I replied, "not a soul. There would be no one but you."  

 Again her smile. Then she lowered her eyes. "We have reached home. Let me go the last steps on my own.," she said, "As-Salamu 'alaikum!" My heart was silent but glad. "Wa 'alaikum as-Salam war-rahmatu'llah!" Thus we parted.



I sent my messengers to her family the next day. When they has sought her out and informed her of their mission, she signalled agreement and asked them to go ahead. They then proceeded to her mother enquiring of those in charge of their matters after her husband's death. She named his older brother and two other male relatives one of whom was currently abroad.  

 Our request having been presented to them, they all consented but said we had to wait with finalising the arrangements until their absent borther, too, had been contacted. This proved difficult as his exact whereabouts were unknown, and things, therefore, wouldn't go fast.



In the meantime I invited Habiba's mother and her late husband's second wife to have lunch in my house with one or two of my representatives present so as to discuss one or the other thing in a closer frame. When I had the rice, meat and stew dished in the main room, they asked to be excused, for, as an indication of respect, they felt shy to eat in my presence. I had hoped Habiba would be with them but they came alone. Having seen to it that they had eaten to their satisfaction undisturbed in another room, we asked them back into the main room afterwards, discussed the details we wished to discuss and saw them off.



All had been well, and Habiba was allowed to correspond with me in letters she dictated to her older brother who had been to school for a few years and, though in a spelling that was barely comprehensible, was able to write. Her first letter to me acknowledged her two mothers' visit and her family's positive reaction to the proposal urging me to pursue matters with the necessary determination and speed upon which I responded:   

"Habiba, as-Salamu 'alaikum! I thank you for your letter and promise to give the issue of our marriage all the attention it requires, in the name of Allah and HIS prophet (s.a.w.s.) and in the name of my elders and those who represent me. This exchange is a secret of our hearts and I wish it to remain so forever with no word and no letter ever being spilled over the surface of this innermost stream which we should guard as our most precious possession. I trust that you understand and respect what I am saying. It can rightly be said that you are very young and may not yet be sure of your feelings. If you do consent to our marriage, I do not wish this to happen merely in response to your mother's suggestions or to the pressure your family may exercise and which may weigh on you heavily. There is a truth only the heart can know and I want you to act in accordance to what you perceive to be that truth. I shall respect your decision whatever it will be.  

May Allah guide and protect you!"    

 Her answer, again, was very clear:    

 "All I ask you is to believe me that I welcome you with all my heart and that this my heart is the only force that compells me to consent. May Allah protect you forever!"   

Thereafter Habiba started to pay me occasional visits, which was a keen gesture because it was against the conventions though it happened with the knowledge and silent agreement of her mother but had to be hidden from her male relatives.     I should have understood then that she took this risk -the utmost she was able to do- in order to distract my last doubts. But instead I grew impatient with her emphasis on the shy and respectful reservedness that made her speak only when she was asked restricting her answers to a few formally polite phrases.    



 Was I blind? Don't ask me! There is no strength and no power save in God. Impatience can make a man see a jewel in the sand and throw it away for a stone on which he merely cuts his fingers. Habiba wasn't a city girl who adhered to the customs a shallow way, for whom it was a sport to violate them by drowning their substance in the slyness of hypocrisy, who was yours and everybody's and could be with you at any time. She was a girl whose consciousness and self-respect was rooted in the dignified, uncorrupted ways of a tribe who knew who they were.



A broken spike from a bycicle glistens in the sun. The heat is oppressive and I feel in evry fibre of my body that rain is coming. The clouds are heavy like the belly of a pregnant woman and, like her breasts are swollen and painful with milk, they are painful with the longing of rain's sweet, raging fruit; heaven's milk that nourishes our souls.  

When the clouds burst open, my heart unveils its beauty and abandons itself in a cry of victory. The rain pours down and plants its seed into the red earth with the raging caresses of a torrential lover. The earth gives way to its force and sighs. Their fire will last, relent,  become sweet and tinkling, resume its force, move into trance and then recede. The passion of this bare, open red earth will then assume a melancholy quality, sing, soothe her tired surface and rock her into a dreamful sleep. The day turns chilly. Our streets are flooded and it is impossible to get from one side of the road to the other. The flood's current is fierce and powerful. Everybody in the neighbourhood is out trying to create channels for it to pass through and its torrent will be tamed within some hours. The air is filled with the laughter of children. Their voices dance in the sky. Our hearts are birds of the rainy season, and would I die in a day like this, I would die happily.



Halfway to town, I used to hold a short siesta in one of the shops I used to pass. One of our neighbours worked there, and so it was my habit to stop by for a chat. It was there I met Rashida.   

Rashida was a girl of about 20 who worked there for the second year. Her cheeks were two cherries, her eyes two sparrows, two stars of sweetness embroidered in an earth-coloured sky and her voice an ornament of dark silk. Her ways were jovial and flirtatious. She was responsive in conversation and never shy of an answer. She would make you laugh and play with you giving a man the feeling she enjoyed and craved for his company. Like Habiba, she was a migrant from the North whose parents, like most of our community, had settled down in the semi-rural suburbs of the capital but she had grown up here and the attitudes of the big city had penetrated into her blood. Any claim of customary decency in her was a mere pretension, a spice, a parody of the ways she had been taught at home meant to increase the sweetness of the challenge. I had not yet understood then that this was the very signature of girls like her, their tool and weapon in the daily struggle, their strategy of survival. It is girls like Rashida who give a man the feeling he has a way with girls who appeal  to his self-image, his pride and exploit it, and she certainly had a way with me. She had everything Habiba lacked in my eyes, and I fell for her a way only a man can fall for a woman.     

What didn't I do to convince her of my love! When I first suggested we should get married, she laughed me straight in the face: "What kind of girl do you think I am? Do you believe I don't know what the whole world knows? That you have a fiance named Habiba who is getting ready to marry you? If you think I will allow you to play this kind of game with me, you are badly mistaken. Rashida is a girl who respects herself. You can't hide your fiance from me and turn me into a fool." "O Rashida," I replied, "Do you think you have to believe everything people are saying? It is true that I once had a fiance called Habiba but I have left her a long time ago. She didn't love me and I felt nothing for her. I only did it to help her family but I decided I can leave her and still help them..."        If ever a man has betrayed a girl's love--- But can there be justice in the matters of the heart? I was maddened by my love and my desire for this girl. I had tired of Habiba and of the delays in establishing a contact with her uncle abroad.



One day, as usual, I passed by the place where Habiba sold her oranges. She used to give me two of them every day I passed her on my way to the mosque. She made it a ceremony to look them through carefully and select the two sweetest and juiciest ones for me. It was as if the bond between us was confirmed, reinforced and celebrated each day this quiet, happy ritual was reinacted, and now I took the oranges from her while my heart I had already ceased to remember her. This time I was in the company of a female friend whom I wanted to introduce to Habiba. 

Habiba, upon seeing us, fell silent and refused to respond my greeting. The girl, following up my courtesy, greeted her and enquired of her health. Habiba looked up at her, fixing her glances on her eyes and refused to speak. I waited to be  handed my oranges but nothing happened. I felt the flame of angern flare up in my blood, and so quickly saw off my friend who was -obviously- embarassed by the scene. Then I went back to Habiba. Barely able to restrain myself from shouting at her, I addressed her in a voice that clearly betrayed the effort it took me to control my temper: "Habiba, I have to talk to you." I signalled her to follow me to a somewhat remoter part of the place a few metres away from where she had her wooden table with the oranges. "What is the meaning of this?" She looked at me for a second and asked in a low voice: "What have I done to displease you?"    

 I exploded. "What are you asking me?! You are asking me what you have done wrong?! Has the sun bleeched out your brain or what happened to you? You are exposing me before a friend of mine, before a woman! Who are you to think you can make me a scene?!" 

 "She is your wife.", Habiba said under her breath, moving away a step from me seeking an illusionary protection.     

 "My what--? You are mad," I retorted, "you are completely mad." I explained her that that was not the case, that, however, I was free to move with whomever I chose to, that her jealousy would stand between us and that this was an attitude I was not going to tolerate. She said she understood but, yet, she didn't give me any orange.  

I had missed the prayer. So I went home, angry and irritated. Gradually the veins of my heart turned into the pages of a book in which I registered everything I disliked about Habiba measuring it up against everything I was taken with in Rashida.



A girl has an unfailing instinct to know when you have left her in your heart. But Habiba forced this knowledge out of her spirit trusting in the fact that a marriage was more than an individual matter left to the moods of passion but an agreement between two families, an expression of loyalty and trust that could not easily be violated. Instinctively she understood what it was that fascinated me in the other girl, and in a desperate attempt to win me back, she tried to copy her ways. 

A man who gets accustomed to shallow ways recognises love only when he hears the word. But is it the blessed liquid entering a thirsty person's stomach that revives his spirit or is it the word "water"? How far your arrow can miss if you see only with your eyes!



I remember the 'Id day, the day of the great festival, when she came to my house with the trays of food her mother and her father's second wife had prepared for me; rice and fried yam with meat and stew, meals the fragrance of which radiated the fulfilment of a love so deep and precious that it could not be spoken, the shy and jealous tenderness of a girl's earliest bloom, the sacred gift of her youth's dedication, which was so full of seriousness, so full of devotion, the pride and soft-spoken affection of in-laws ready to defend my interests by sacrificing their own-- all the treasures in which the heart of Africa was preserved, still withstanding the cruel assaults of a time designed by an alient, brilliant, destructive mind and that of its unsatiable thirst for domination, upholding  against the flames of poverty and deprivation all that the sacred Africa was about, greater than life or death and greater than pain. Is the age of colonisation over? No, it has only just began. And so has the age of resistance. 

But all I could see was the inappropriateness of the dress with which she tried to impress me and that today of all days she had chosen to leave her hair uncovered.   

Now it was she who tried to strike up a conversation but I was  annoyed about her outfit and therefore restricted myself to responding her greeting and remain silent to any further approach. Realising my reservedness, she left after a few minutes. I asked her to extend my thanks to her father's two widows and to see to it that her mode of dressing improved before it run out of hand entirely.



Habiba on her way home. Empty eyes and defiantly firm steps. An endless sky the colour of sea sand fuelling our restless yearnings, a thousand times vaster than ourselves.       I in my house tasting the food and deciding to eat later, drinking black Ivorian coffee, my mind's inner circle crowded with feelings that for minutes render me speechless, then drinking coffee again, soaked with its sweet, heavy aroma and resenting everything.    

What do our eyes say? What is our inner meaning in a day like this? What or where or who are we in this moment?



The next day I set out for Rashida. I did not expect her to ne at work but surprisingly she was. As I was sitting with her chatting, her father passed by somwhere in the distance. She pointed him out to me, her words wrapped in the silky elasticity of her voice, teasing me in a low pitch: "My father." "Has he seen us?", I asked. 

 "No, " she answered, "It's too far."    

 "Let me see him, " I demanded, "I have to talk to him. Tell him I wish to meet him at the house."  

"You will see him, " she said, "You will see him."   

 I spoke out: "Rashida, I'm going abroad very soon. Will you wait for my return, Rashida? Will you wait for me to come back and marry you?" I looked into her eyes and pronounced her name in the sweetest of voices: "Rashida..."  

"Why are you calling my name like this?" she asked, watching me with intense and scrutinising looks.   

"Will you wait for me to come back and marry you?", I repeated.

 "Yes, " she finally conceded, "I will."

I hadn't seen her father before I left but it was her whom I sent money. I was her whom I sent letters and whom I phoned when I was abroad.

I stayed longer than planned. It was not in my hand. I had tried to send a letter to Habiba once but it didn't arrive.

When finally I managed to return, I returned to marry Rashida. The day of my arrival was the day of her marriage to another man.



She was afraid to see me herself. I received the message from a common friend. I wasn't the only man whose love and promise she betrayed. She had her reason, and that reason was survival. It was the same reason that drives us abroad in the prime of our years leaving ourselves behind and pouring our fresh, vital splashing blood into a foreign well to be drank by another land's earth, thirstily, greedily, that blood for the power of which we and our own earth are thirsty and greedy giving birth to a prosperity that deprives us of the fruit of our own labour. It was the weapon of a woman who had no other weapon.

I wasn't going to give in and a scandal ensued. Our elders barely suceeded to avoid bloodshed -again our blood is being spilled- by arranging a settlement by compensation.

As I had not seen her father nor anybody of her family, my position was weak, and only this convinced me to accept settlement. I now understood why she had delayed my request. It is certain that she was advised by her mother.



For more than a month I restricted myself to my own company. I didn't leave the area where I lived and , in fact, barely left the house.

Having resumed life afterwards, I went to visit Habiba. To my dismay I realised that my memory was obscured by a distance that was more than just a distance of space. However incomprehensible this may appear, I swear it is true : I couldn't remember the place and so failed to get there. I returned home and forgot of her and of all there had been between us.



I sought a new life, and when I believed I had found it, she suddenly appeared, like a mirage materialising out of a voidness that was our past, hers and mine, buried and revived in an instant, neither entirely mine nor entirely hers, stepping out of time or out of the water in a pattern in which legend, memory and utter confusion were interwoven. I was struck by her beauty and by her language that had become eloquent and brilliant, by her confidence and by that power of hers. 

All these were characteristics she hadn't shown when we knew each other and it was in this moment that I understood how much time had passed and what the weight of time can be. She came to me like a dream, and it was a dream that was immaculate and perfect.

"Sometime ago I heard the rumour that you had arrived. But I told them: You are lying. If what you are saying was true , the first place where he would have come was my house. I waited for a long time. Nothing happened. I said: What you are telling me is untrue . But one day I decided to come here and see for myself." 

These words have been with me since, and they shall be with me forever. When she spoke them, I understood what I had never understood before, just then, all of a sudden.

I said: "Habiba, in the first weeksa nd months after I came back I haven't seen anybody and I haven't gone anywhere. I have once tried to come to your house but I couldn't." 

"I also heard them talk of a certain girl you wanted to marry.", she continued, "But I didn't believe them because I held your word. My mother, my family and I myself have heard your promise. Soon after you left my uncle abroad has given us his answer. He said he was happy to hear of your proposal and blessed it. So I told them: Your jealousy is driving you to tell lies." She paused as if expecting an answer.

"Habiba, " I responded, "What they say is true . I felt that our issue for delayed by an absent uncle and there was no way to get any further...I met another girl and proposed marriage-- but she has left me."

Habiba smiled a compassionate, resigned, impenetrable smile. She said to me in a tone in which this smile of hers resonated: "Haven't we told you that if you don't disappoint me, I shall not disappoint you either? All these years men came with theit families to see us and ask for my hand but I told them I was promised. You were the only one who lived in my heart. Every day you were away I waited for you to return. I knew you would come, no matter what people said. I wouldn't have accepted anybody else. All my hope was you."   

"O dearest one, " I pleaded, stroking her cheek, "Wallahi: I thought I would never see you again. And I thought you would never forgive me Rashida. So when she left me and time went by --it would be senseless to tell you lies and I do not want to hide anything from you now-- I settled for marriage with another girl.

"Yet another girl?", Habiba said, half inquiry, half disbelieving exclamation. 

"Yes."

 The word stood between us like a wedge or an ocean, or the finality of loss.

"I had no idea you felt the way you do.", I told her. "I had no idea, sweetheart."

"What else", she asked in dismay, "should I have done to convince you?"

 "Listen to me", I resumed, "Think well about what I am saying. I cannot withdraw from the arrangement made with the girl in question because all has been agreed, the date is set and I cannot betray my loyalty. I can't take back a word I have spoken, not in her case and not in yours. I shall marry her and I shall marry you-- whenever you like. I love you, and this I now understand. Accept to be my second wife and let us live in happiness!"

With that impenetrable smile of hers returning into her face, she asked me whether I still kept the letters written by her brother she once sent me. When I told her I did, she asked to see them because then she had not known how to read and write but now she had learnt it. I gave them to her and she said she would take them home with her to read them and find out whether her brother had indeed written what she had asked him to-- and return them in a few days. I reluctantly agreed urging her to bring them back soon as they meant very much to me.

When she left, I tried to kiss her but she turned round resisting my embrace. "O, I'm sorry," I excused myself, "I didn't mean it." When she resumed her position, I tried it again. "Please, let me go," she demanded, a very serious note swinging in her voice. For a few endless instants I blocked her way my eyes immersed in hers in a mixture of desire, fondness, anxiety and madness. "I love you, Habiba. I love you."                            



She never returned her letters.

 When I came to her house to see her, I was told she had gone out. Leaving the place, I saw her watch me from behind the room's only window.



There can nothing be said which has not been said a thousand times already. There is no oath in this world which has not been betrayed a thousand times before. 

 A Sheikh, despairing of the world's thousand treasons, set out on a journey throughout the inhabited world in his quest to find one loyal person, for he had heard the saying that if you find somebody whom God has forgiven, HE will forgive you, too. When, after having revolved round the world's and his own axis time and time again, he finally found such a person, he betrayed her.

 

 To this day; whenever I eat an orange, I think of Habiba.
  
 
     


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Reviewed by J Howard 2/1/2012
i think this is a beautiful story full of colorful description, tradition and human emotion that is carried in all hearts, whether Muslim, Buddist, Christian or other...hearts all live and love and decieve the same i think. good write.
Reviewed by S H 6/21/2009
I know this is true and I now I see why you do not like a woman with her own voice and you call her angry. I understand it all. It is a culture clash. I still will always miss you and think of you. I will cherish the poetry you took the time to write for only me. I actually have tears in my eyes when I write that, so much emotion for one man so far? Goodbye Muhammad.
Reviewed by Sandra Mushi 6/10/2007
Muhammad! an other one of your master pieces! Why do you men like to have your cakes, erm, oranges and eat them though? Why can't you settle for just one? Why do you have to dip everywhere you go?

God bless,

Sandie.
Reviewed by Lee Garrett 3/23/2005
An interesting and absorbing story, starkly real, appealing to the senses, and educational. For those of us reading it from the framework of another culture, it's a window into another world.
Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado 3/23/2005
excelleent story, muhammad, very well written! enjoyed; thanks for sharing!

(((HUGS))) and much love, your friend in america, karen lynn in texas. :D



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