‘Babuuu! Fatima is harassing me!’ comes Hussein’s half entreaty, half-wail. This boy, six-years old, petulant, soft-spoken, thoughtful, introverted, worries me. I wonder when he will learn to stand up for himself against his feisty four-year old sister.
‘Wewe Fatima! Stop it!’ I admonish her in half-jest. She darts a naughty glance at me, a twinkle in her eye and a smile playing on her lips, every bit as spirited and tongue-in-cheek as her mother—my daughter Zuwena. Even now, she has disappeared in the vast multitude here at the beach, cheekily leaving me to tend to her kids while she presumably catches up with some long lost friend. She would come back, as I know from past experience, with excited chatter about something obscure—I have never failed to fall for it—and the question wouldn’t be raised altogether.
I do not mind, however. I quite like to play mediator between the feisty and the petulant. Sometimes I would even indulge them with magical stories of the past, or play with them—occasions Fatima takes as freedom to bully me somehow, pulling my beard, or grabbing my cap and trotting off with it, shrieking with delight as I curse and chase after her. Hussein would join in the chase, emboldened, and more often than not we would end up in a squealing heap on the ground—or to be more precise, Hussein and Fatima would be squaring off upon my chest and stomach in what I expect to be a timeless sibling duel.
Today, however, I prefer to just sit under the shade and drown in the salty warmth of the breeze, blown in tandem with the tide’s swish and hush, whistling calm tales and memories of times past. As usual, a carnival atmosphere hangs around the beach. I resent this crowd. I yearn for the quiet and peace of the beach I knew as a young boy accompanying my father to fish in the sea, when the green of the swaying palm trees was truly green, and the blue of the sea and sky was truly blue. It never failed to take my breath away, this beach—its expanse, white sands, fishes washed ashore, salt in the air, and the mystery of jinns lurking in the shadows of a full moon. It is here where the sunlight was glorious but now somehow isn’t, and where the moonlight shone on Christine’s wide-eyed chance glance upon me.
Zuwena remarked the other day that I have become more thoughtful lately. I presume this is expected in one’s sunset years—age seems to weigh down on one more and more, becoming progressively difficult for life to carry. One can see it in the slight stoop of my shoulders and upper back, in the slow deliberateness of my trudge, in the relieved sighs I heave when I sit, and in the strength I draw from a supporting hand. My wife Aisha used to make fun of me—and I of her—and it was easy, even bearable, but now she rests, may Allah grant her jannah.
Now Fatima faces me—eyes wide, nose flaring, and catching her breath, ready to make a damning reportage, most likely of some tit-for-tat miscreant deed by Hussein. Even at her young age, I can see Aisha already in her curious and restless eyes, her mischief, beauty, and tough love, apparent only after she bullies her object of affection. Aisha’s eyes, when we first met through a calculating uncle, seemed to know that our fate was already sealed, and she smiled as though to say I was a pretty good pick. I was well read in Deen, my family was well known and respected for its staunch faith, and I believe she thought I was good looking. We both knew it wasn’t really up to us—these considerations had already been taken into account by both families, and a ‘chance’ introduction was a trivial formality. She might have known about Christine—she was from the island, but word travelled fast even in those days—but she never once raised this subject. We took a great liking to each other, one that developed into profound love and companionship over the years. I terribly miss her now.
Fatima thinks I am ignoring her, and pulls my beard. ‘Babu! Look at Hussein playing with a stranger!’ Which is to say she is jealous. Indeed Hussein has made a new friend, and together they are engrossed in building a sand castle. I hear him mumbling something about Fort Jesus, to which his father, constantly away on business in Dubai, took him last month.
‘Come get your sister and play together.’ I turn to Fatima with a playful smile and say, ‘Go, show your brother how to build a better castle, that one looks bad!’ She brightens up at this implicit compliment, a nod to her belief that she should be in charge. She runs off, her whiff of jealousy gone, and soon they are all getting along.
They bring me so much joy, these two. Alhamdulillah, I have been blessed and lucky to have such a warm family: from my late grandparents and parents; my brothers, sisters and extended family; and to Aisha and our children and grandchildren. Zuwena, a doting daughter to say the least, never wanted us—Aisha and I—out of her sight. She decided to stay close to us, especially as her brother Mustapha decided to settle in Nairobi, that clever city. I must pressure him to marry—the boy is taking too long. I must see more grandchildren. But where will he find a suitable Muslim wife in that big city? I have asked him to spend more time here at the Coast, but he seems reluctant. Like Hussein, he is thoughtful and inward, a little different, much like me in my youth.
Yet, as happy and lucky as I have been, I can’t help but wonder how it would have been with Christine. Her of the arresting hazel eyes and teeth as white as the sand on the beach, of the pretty nose perched with a sculptor’s precision upon her pretty face, of the high cheekbones and deep dimples, and of the long eyelashes and thin, smiling lips. As the moonlight shone on her that night a great many years ago—under a palm tree I have revisited countless times, her dress fluttering with the warm breeze, standing there, graceful, fair-skinned, smiling—I became aware of a warmth I had never felt before.
‘Salaam…’ I stopped in my accustomed greeting, as, in my slow awakening from a befuddlement, I realized she couldn’t be Muslim—she had no hijab on. I must have hesitated as I searched for the right salutation, for she giggled—a high-pitched, melodious giggle that sounded sweet as a bird’s song. Conscious of my awkwardness, I laughed too.
‘Such a lovely night!’ her voice sang. I had never heard such a beautiful voice. It carried an irresistible cheer, inviting me to a conversation. I made a step towards her and away from the boat, to which my father had sent me to fetch the last fish harvest of the day.
‘Yes, it’s always lovely here in Diani. We are used to this.’ Thinking these words to be inappropriate, perhaps belittling her observation, I hastily emphasised, ‘Yes! Yes, very lovely indeed.’ I glanced at her, nervous. She was lost in the beauty of the full moon shining upon the calm waters of the sea. She sighed, her eyes dreamy and absently happy.
‘We don’t get to see this where we are from,’ she remarked. ‘Back there it’s always the mountain and the cold and endless plantations of coffee.’ She turned to regard me, her eyes casting a helpless befuddlement again upon me. I had to say something—she seemed to be a natural conversationalist. My anxiety increased, for I tended to ponder before talking.
‘You are very lucky to live here—you can’t imagine the cold in Nyeri! I’m so glad we have moved here,’ she continued.
‘Ah, you are most welcome. You will love this place. I’ll show you around,’ I ventured, more relaxed. Something about her set me at ease.
‘Great!’ She turned again, a question forming on her lips. ‘Is it safe to swim at night?’
I feigned seriousness. ‘Actually, I wanted to warn you. You shouldn’t be alone outside like this. There are jinns,’ I whispered. Her eyes widened in contemplation, searching my face. We both burst out laughing.
‘You are very funny,’ she laughed. Although I dramatized my seriousness, I wasn’t sure the question of jinns was entirely funny, as I knew one or two people who could swear to have seen them. But having made her laugh, I was loath to further contemplate this question.
She enrolled in the local High School where we all went to—it was the only one in Diani at the time, and the next six years were among the happiest of my life. We were inseparable, doting on each other like lovebirds. Many thought it was a great friendship, platonic and harmless, and we quite didn’t mind putting a name to it—we made each other happy, and not much else mattered. Apart, we would fret and worry about the other; together, we would lose ourselves in bliss, unaware of the passage of time, or of people around us. Whether in silence, during which we pondered with great sighs the magnitude of what we shared, or in passionate conversation, we found a happy and undeclared harmony, a natural coming together of souls.
Thus, it was an inescapable fact that I was bound to announce to my father my wish to spend the rest of my life with Christine. We had just finished our A-levels, and I thought of myself as a man, according myself the right to approach him in a way I had never attempted before.
A stern faced man, my father surprised me when he settled back in his favourite chair and let out a soft, benign laugh. I was thrown off-balance, as I had expected a tongue lashing of sorts, for which I had prepared myself.
‘Ahmed, my son, you know it’s not going to happen,’ he said in a steady voice whose resolve was stark, and whose rebuke was greater than what a berating voice could possibly carry.
‘Habibi,’ my mother, sitting next to my father, began. ‘She is a good girl. We quite like her, but you know our ways, habibi, we have taught you well. Think about your family.’ She spoke in a calm voice, but I could see her eyes carried a fear—the very possibility that a son might betray and dishonor the family and Deen seemed too terrible to contemplate.
In the agony of the weeks that followed, I tried to remain steadfast in my wish, which I made obvious to the rest of the family, and which the neighbourhood came to know of. What I had imagined became the subject of hushed discussions, and once, even of a Friday sermon at the local Masjid. I sat through dissuading family meetings, petulant and stubborn. Soon, however, the overpowering implausibility of my aspiration began to unfold before me, and when Christine informed me one Sunday afternoon, tearful and hysterical, that her parents were sending her abroad to study, I knew it was altogether impossible. In her hysteria she mentioned—though I am not quite sure—that they were anxious to get her away from the all the tension and from me.
Well, not that all this matters now. I have had Aisha and a glorious family, I have been happy, and I couldn’t wish for anything more. I look to my right in search of Hussein and Fatima, and I can’t see them. A mild panic comes over me, and I look again, left, right, but they are nowhere to be seen. Frantic now, I sit up and look behind me, and there, releasing excitement pent up while waiting for me to turn and find them, as they knew I would, they let out massive and delighted squeals.
‘Enhe! Huo ndio mchezo, eh?’ I get up and run after them. A large tidal wave hits the shore, unexpected, and surprised and excited screams from the crowd rend the air. I bump into a few people rushing for the next wave, and catch up with the feisty and petulant pair. I feel exalted, my spirits soar. I let myself fall on the sand, and they immediately pounce upon me. Hussein is quite heavy as he tries to restrain Fatima from pulling my beard. I laugh and mock, they shriek with relish.
Picture credit: Wetcanvas