Not My Other Half .. But All of Me

I always wondered what would happen if one day I crossed paths with my beloved by chance. I got my answer yesterday. When it happened, I immediately counted the days of my failed experiment at forgetting about him. In the Eighty Days that elapsed since our eyes last met, Phileas Fogg managed to go around the world, but nothing changed for this foolish heart, and judging by its reaction to seeing him, it might have even taken a turn for the worse.

Even before this chance encounter, I had a tough start for my day. I was feeling down, I had a tension headache, along with the ache of missing him. I sat in the sunshine trying to make peace with all these feelings and a few tears flowed.

I had salad for lunch and tried to eat it slowly and meditatively, sipping Jasmine tea to calm my nerves instead of my usual double coffee. I should have finished up quickly and escaped when I saw his back in the distance walking away from his office block, because there was a chance his return path will take him past where I was sitting. A minute or so later it was too late, time stretched endlessly as he walked towards me and my heart jumped into overdrive, and I felt tremors in my whole body. I was grateful that I was sitting down. He nodded a greeting, still busy on his phone and walked past. I continued drinking my now cold Jasmine tea, taking deep breaths, and trying to calm my racing heart. The last time I experienced similar sensations I was trying to recover from a panic attack. Only when the panic attacks subside, there is usually a feeling of warmth and drowsy contentment, whereas here the fight or flight response abated slowly leaving me tired, sad and empty.

My younger brother, bless his clueless and unromantic heart, told me recently that emotions are biochemical by definition. According to him they are a mix of serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline. These three compounds are not unlimited, so you can feel an intense emotion for 20 minutes before it peters out. He told me that it is all an illusion really, and referred me to the Lövheim cube of emotion. I argued that it was not that simple, that it was something in my beloved’s eyes that killed me. Then I sent him a photo, and I thought I scored a point, when he said: “I get your point, he has a babyface”, but he immediately spoiled it by telling me: “This is exactly is how it works. You fell for this …”. He attached “this”, an article from the BBC about the Benefits of Having a Babyface. The article argues that with a person with a babyface can literally get away with murder. I love my brother dearly, and at the end of the conversation I just told him, to stay the way he is, it is much easier on the heart.

No amount of logic has succeeded in taming this overwhelming emotion. The only solace I found so far was acceptance. I am now convinced that who we are determines how we respond to everything including our emotions, and our responses are not fully explainable through science. Love has a lot in common with faith, some people oppose them through science and logic, others respond to them mildly and philosophically, and a few succumb to them ardently and spiritually. There are no fixed rules, we are just different. Our responses vary according to our nature and experience, and depending on who or what elicits them.

Of course scientists are mostly correct because emotions are part biochemical for everyone, but that does not preclude that they may run deeper for some. I have recently revisited the Myers Briggs personality test. It is an interesting, albeit simplistic, test based on Carl Jung theories of personality types. I had done the test years ago, and it came up different to what I believed myself to be. I was always an introvert but I thought of myself more of a rational and thinking person, but in the Myers Briggs tests I always came out as an intuitive and feeling personality as opposed to thinking and judging. When I asked my best friend we turned out an exact match INFP-T, and recently I started to wonder whether there was some current of personality resonance that fuels the intense connection I feel with my beloved.

A few hours after the surprise meeting he texted me, it was close to the end of the working day, and my emotional state had prevented me from doing any useful work. So when he said he ordered coffee for me I thought I would go and see him. The damage was already done. We talked and quickly updated each other on general news in the few minutes I had before I needed to run and pick up my son from school. I told him about the personality type test and as I guessed we turned up a match although he is a borderline extrovert. We cannot change the way we are, how we respond to people, and how we love.

And incidentally, the brother I mentioned above, turns out to be an INTJ, defined as clueless in romance, and extremely skeptic even of his classification in this “unscientific” personality test. Ironically, all these aspects fit exactly with his personality type.

Seeing my beloved again opened the old wound. I have reset all counters to start again. I will try to forget how I know what he feels without him saying anything. I will try to forget that I can see what he is beneath all the masks of disdainful attitudes he wears for his daily life. I will try to forget that he found me, that he broke through the armour of cynicism and apathy that I wore to the world. And I have worn it for so long that I thought it was part of me, that it was me. He wasn’t even trying, he was just being himself, a mirror to my soul. He is not merely my other half but all of me* in the form of another human being, how could I not want to melt into him?

* I read this idea in an Arabic text attributed to Gibran, and translated to English as Half a Life, or quoted without title on goodreads, and others for example here.

من تحب ليس هو نصفك الآخر، هو أنت كلك في مكان آخر في نفس الوقت

The Arabic mirrors what I feel for my beloved: “The one you love is not your other half, but all of you in a different space at the same time”.

For some reason the English versions I read understand it differently, which leads me to believe that the poem was written in one language (my guess Arabic) and translated by someone other than the author into the other. The different interpretations could be a subject for discussion at another time and place. Here is a link to the Arabic version. I could not find a published or authoritative source for the poem itself. I found identical versions of the Arabic text but only on quote and blog sites. You are encouraged to post a comment if you can find a better source for either the Arabic or English.

Dear Dandelion

I never chose to love you, dear dandelion. I never thought you were beautiful, nor found you useful. You are surviving in my heart out of sheer hardiness and defiance; nothing will ever grow where you took root. So, I choose to make peace with you. I will ignore you and let nature take its course. Maybe the birds and the bees will find their way into this messy wilderness you created, and I will be able to see the beauty you have inadvertently brought into my life.

Love and Absence

I thought it would be easier to tame my longing in your absence, I was wrong.

Love survives the distance, and absence could make the heart grow fonder. Sometimes love defies even the distance between life and death; ask any soul who still grieves, years after the loved one is gone. Sometimes it survives on longing, on dreams never realized, ask the mother who still holds her stillborn child in her heart. Love knows no reason, although it is sufficient reason for everything.

Months have passed since I turned away from you, and I only tamed the pain of grieving for you. Now my awareness of your absence has become my companion, I ask it about you, and how you are. I can touch it gently and feel it aching like an old bruise. It will be there for a long time. I have stopped counting days, they do not matter anymore. The time of your absence stretches into the unknown, and your empty space is now acknowledged and familiar.

The loves that I have known in my life were like domesticated carnations, fragrant and pretty to look at in their prime. They survived for a couple of seasons, then withered and died quietly. Your love is wild like a dandelion, an invader that survives drought and fire, and grows through parched and rocky earth. I can neither fight you with fire nor with steel, so I surrender and bow to your resilience.

When it rains, I have to remember you my beloved and hardy dandelion. I send you peace, and surrender you and everything you meant to me to providence. I send you love, and forgive you for stealing my heart. I accept the pain of permanent absence, and open my soul to the lesson you came along to teach me.

Love is still steering my course.

The Resilience of Longing

The English language in its practical and innovative usage, and in its diverse richness of synonyms comes up short sometimes in expressing feelings. In my profession as an Arabic translator, dealing primarily with technical and scientific subjects I am often frustrated with the opposite problem in my native language.  Arabic often fails to deal with practicalities while it has oceans of words for feelings.  For those who are interested in the subject there are apparently 14 degrees of love in the Arabic language, some scholars have named even up to fifty. I often bemoan the shortcomings of my native language in my professional capacity, but when I am feeling nostalgic, blue, or when I am struck by deep longing for my lost love, I always listen to Arabic songs, or read love poems in Arabic.

I am sure the classical English poets have burnt through their papers with ardent poetry about love. There are many well repeated and quoted sonnets, describing in detail the intertwining feelings of love’s joy and pain. But the terminology of feelings comes sometimes lacking and borrows much from imagery or from other languages. The English, it seems, have no word for the deep longing that the Arabic expresses in those many synonyms for love, they even fail to express it as poetically as the Germans do in the expressive term “Sehnsucht”. The single word combines longing with obsession and addiction, and mirrors the torture of pining for someone who is not there, or no longer there.

My longing for the presence or even the sight of my beloved has been the hardest to overcome. The resilience of this longing continues to surprise me as I am never sure when or where it will spring from. It could be triggered by a word carelessly uttered, that reminds of something he often said. My son could show a sudden dislike of bananas and it will remind me that he hated them too. Or I would hear a song I have always loved and realize for the first time that its opening features the sound of the saxophone, his preferred instrument.  I never know whether the longing will be a passing thought, or a stab in the ribs. I never know whether it will bring on a smile or a deluge of tears. But it is still there, and its longevity after my last meeting with him, is always a source of wonder. I just allow myself to feel it and acknowledge it as part of love and loss.


Walking Away from Love

When it comes to love, it is either given or returned. It is neither forced upon someone, nor taken. It can be perhaps learned, and practiced, and willed into existence like a forgotten habit. It can also wither and die without sustenance.

My love for Aquarius was a force of nature, a phenomenon all itself that I was not prepared for. Its singularity left me without options, I wanted either to embrace it or abandon it entirely to embrace instead the full grief of its loss.

While I gave generously and completely, my beloved was pleased to receive my adoration. He shone in its warmth but was not prepared to return affection in the same way.  I could not force him to acknowledge the depth of my love and reciprocate it. Even though I knew that I could have pressed my advantage, exploited his weakness, and the emotional need I felt he had for me. I did not want to be just a passing fancy, a fling, or a quick answer to an unfulfilled desire. I loved him too much to settle for this. I would have settled for the role of an occasional or temporary lover, I would have taken the love affair, with all its guilt and inevitable breakup. Love though would have needed to be an acknowledged part of it, not the close friendship he wanted it to pass for.

Perhaps I am paraphrasing Gibran when I say that love gives only itself and grows by the giving. And only a heart that completely gives itself, and opens itself to pain is capable of thriving in love, or at least truly appreciating its force. Many people approach life with a closed heart, whether in the interest of self preservation, or to protect the self or others from pain, and those will never uncover the mystery of true love.

I still grieve over my love, that was never meant to be. I still cry sometimes over what I could have had. But I am comforted with my conviction of freedom in love. I always accepted the choice of those who walked away from me, and exercised the choice to walk away myself when love ceased to be enough.

It is easier to remember the callous, self-absorbed, and constantly complaining Aquarius, when I do not have to gaze into his eyes. His eyes always told me their own story. Through them I looked into his gentle soul, and peeled away at the layers of pretense. My beloved’s true substance, I felt, hid under all these layers of opinionated adherence to certain form, style, physique and diet. If I do not see his eyes again, I can no longer interpret the subtext of his soul, or misinterpret it.

I am starting to rewrite his memory, it is my way of forgetting what I felt.  The English say, out of sight out of mind. In my Arab culture this saying goes, literally, “Far from the eye, is far from the heart”. This literal image fits my situation perfectly. His eyes were his way into my heart, and by walking away from them I am trying to set my heart free.


The Angels of Nairobi

I have a new catchphrase now: “I have never lost anything of value in Kenya, except for my heart”. The story remains true, and I have added another chapter to it today.

There are many reasons why I fell in love with Kenya, since I first visited Nairobi in 2009. I had mentioned elsewhere on this blog that JKIA (Jomo Kenyatta International Airport) was my first landing point in Africa twenty years ago. I have had a long history with this place, but I am mostly attracted to the friendliness of its people. There are times in Africa when a mzungu* could feel intimidated and afraid, but Kenyans rarely unsettle me in this way. They are in general honest, peace-loving, helpful and genuinely friendly.

I have always enjoyed a laugh with the security guards in our estate. I am on good friendly terms as well with the taxi drivers who regularly help me out with lifts to the airport or when my car breaks down (the latter happens more often than I would like). Almost everyone I work with in the banks, at my coffee station, or the local grocery is helpful, courteous and kind. They offer help most of the time without reservation.

One incident that demonstrates the helpfulness of Kenyans happened to me late last year. I was driving to the aforementioned JKIA to fetch my parents who were coming on their first visit to Kenya (it was also my father’s first visit to Africa). It was dark but not too late at night, and I was happily following the directions of the google navigator. I was perhaps within minutes of arriving when I took the turn to the airport too early, and ended up heading towards the industrial area in bumper to bumper traffic. The google navigator went ominously silent and completely stopped making any route suggestions. There was a dark screen showing a dotted line on the road where I was heading away from the airport. My son beside me started panicking and proclaiming that we were lost, and I was worried that there was nowhere for me to turn around. I was not afraid because the road was full of cars and there was no chance of anything criminal happening to me in such setting. But the time was approaching my parents’ arrival and I needed to act, so I did the only thing I could think of, the African way. I rolled the window down and signaled the passenger from the car next to me that I needed to talk and asked how to get to the airport. The man and his driver/friend smiled and told me that I needed to turn around, I told them I knew that but I did not know how. They tried to explain, and I struggled a bit to follow their directions. They kept watching me and the driver used his indicators to point me to the turnaround route.

It is quite complicated to drive in Nairobi as there are so many parallel routes that run along a main road and offer a chance to turn around, go onto a side street, or to continue on the same main road. After a while of this partially successful navigating their car stopped and they told me to follow them. They ended up leading me to the airport security gates. I took the number of the helpful passenger and promised to stay in touch. A few minutes later, I managed to get to my parents after they cleared customs and collected their bags, they had to wait for me for a bit. Later that evening I also enlisted the help of another kind Kenyan airport worker to point me to the parking pay-station. He earned the price of a cool drink for his trouble.

As for my airport guide, I invited him a few weeks later to have lunch with me and my son. The story ended on a little bit of a sour note when a few days after our meeting he texted me to lend him money for his agriculture project. I told him I would gift him a significantly less amount, and I sent him that to never hear from him again. I still think that my overly obvious gratitude for his original kind deed made him bold enough to ask. If I did not offer that type of gratitude (and the very expensive lunch) he wouldn’t have asked to borrow money. And he did not expect anything in return for helping me that first time. I would like to think that he would have done it anyway. After all I could have just driven away into the airport that evening, never to see him again.

Now getting back to my luck at never losing things in Kenya, I have a few stories to demonstrate it, including my brush with disaster some time ago. But the first incident that set the scene for me and gave me a good feeling about the place happened a few days after my arrival in Nairobi. I was still unsettled and living out of my many suitcases in a guesthouse. My son was trying to adjust to the new school, and we did not have yet our regular routine for daily transport. Sometimes I picked my son up from his nearby school and brought him with me to the office compound, where we had lunch at our cafeteria. We arrived in the rainy season, so we always had some umbrellas and rain jackets with us, but this being Africa means that there are always spells of sunshine even on rainy days. It so happened that my son forgot his rain jacket at the cafeteria one Friday and we only noticed this at the weekend. I thought that I will never see his beloved blue jacket again, but on Monday when I checked for it at the lost and found counter, it was there. And I thought, this is cool, this place is for me. I completely lost track of the number of things I lost and had to discard in New York, yet this place welcomed me by returning to me something that I care about.

Later things like this happened with my son again. Whereas he lost many things at school or at the YMCA in New York, never to be seen again, he always managed to find the things he misplaced at his school in Nairobi.

Today I added another chapter to this saga of lost and found. I walked to a nearby bakery to order donuts for a school party. I withdrew money from the ATM, to pay for the oder, then headed back to the office to have my coffee in the garden. While getting ready to receive my coffee I noticed that my debit card was gone. Surprisingly, and because of my history of being a loskop I did not panic and just went meticulously through my wallet and my hand bag. I still had the receipt from the bakery and I phoned the lady who took my order and explained to her what happened. She said she would look. Meanwhile I retraced my steps out of the compound and back to the bakery. I was sure that I either left it in the ATM machine, or dropped it on the way back. When I arrived at the small shopping mall where the bakery was, the saleslady was already there and told me that she asked the bank. The security guard was there too, and some other people from the bank. Where this would usually unsettle me, I sensed the genuine helpfulness and concern from everyone. I was completely calm through all this. I went methodically again through the contents of my bag and wallet, then I sat on the bench in front of bank machine and the small bank branch and started dialing my overseas bank to cancel my card. The bakery sales lady told me that she informed the bank manager so I did not bother to check with them again. As I was starting to make my phone calls one of the bank employees came out to check the machine, I told her that I had lost my card, and that it might have been retrieved by the machine. She asked me to hold on a bit. A minute or so later I was asked for my passport but the only ID I had on me was my work ID, they accepted that and returned my very same debit card.

I laughed thanking them and said that I always tell everyone that I haven’t lost anything of value in Kenya, except my heart. The bank manager smiled and said: You lost it to someone in Kenya? How sweet ! Yes, I said, although I thought that sweet was something else. Then you haven’t lost it really, she replied, it is with someone, you see?. Perhaps you are right, I answered. But I wished I could believe that.

In the meantime, I send a heartfelt blessing to the angels of Nairobi. Thank you, I feel honoured to be one of you.


* Mzungu: Common Kiswhaili word referring to a person of pale complexion or European descent – plural: Wazungu.

Going Somewhere Authentic

My son and I returned last weekend from a short holiday. It was the first time I travel to South East Asia, and my son was the one who chose the destination, the small island nation of Singapore. It is one of a handful of places that allows me entry without a visa, so I did not object, although the trip came with a large price tag.

My boy has a fixation with architecture and buildings. When we were in New York he pestered me to go up the Freedom Tower, but for many reasons we could not. When we were there the price for the excursion looked steep to me, and before we left the USA things got so hectic that we did not have the time. Last year we went to Dubai. I paid for the visa and a nice hotel, but the visit was hugely anticlimactic for me. I lived part of my youth in the middle east and my experience there as a growing young woman, then a single working woman, was anything other than positive. I could not wait to get out of there, and the first opportunity that presented itself was getting married to someone I hardly knew, but who was heading out of the middle east for good.

I might have passed through Dubai airport after 1999, but the last time I visited the city was perhaps in 1997 or 1998, almost twenty years before. During the nineties, I drove  sometimes between Al-Ain and Dubai. The Dubai World Trade Centre used to be the building that loomed large on the Dubai skyline on approach from Al-Ain, and the two Emirates Tower, where we ended up staying last year, were still under construction. Today they are dwarfed by all the giant structures around them, and the World Trade Centre is a puny, nondescript building, hardly visible among the other giants around it. I felt that the Dubai skyline bordered on the grotesque, a Frankenstein Monster of architecture, with clear examples of bad design and taste. The whole vista wasperhaps saved by the singularity of Burj Khalifa, which stands out as unique and beautiful. Since Dubai is often trumpeted as the Singapore or New York of the Middle East, I had really no expectations about the little South East Asian city/country, but I was in for a pleasant surprise.

The place is unbelievably clean and organized, and there are gardens and parks and natural green around. The weather, while warm, is tolerable unlike the alternating torture of Dubai between the furnace of the outside air and the freezer temperature of the malls. There are no traffic jams, the public transportation runs well, and is within budget. The skyline is not overly crowded with enormous structures and the tall buildings leave room to see the sky. The architecture is amazing, especially the new Marina Bay Sands Hotel, with its classy mall, museum and adjacent botanical garden. There is an interesting integration of art and nature, which was evident even to my young son. The artwork chosen is beautiful and speaks volumes of the artistic bent of Asians in general. The food was also great, there is plenty of opportunity to experience the authentic local food fare at very reasonable price.

I know that taste is highly subjective, but Singapore, in my opinion, is a nation city that works on many levels. I am not exactly sure about its environmental footprint but I am willing to bet that it is more environmentally friendly than Dubai or New York. I could not tolerate either of these cities, whereas I could imagine myself living in Singapore. Dubai is stressful, hectic, and extreme in its weather, while New York is snobbish and pretentious in addition to being stressful and hectic. It also suffers from extreme weather conditions. In summer, the sun bakes the tarmac and reflects on the concrete and glass structures creating heat islands that closely resemble the heat of the Sahara desert, while the trains and buses are cooled to winter-like temperatures. As for the New York winter it can get extremely cold as demonstrated by this year’s record-breaking freeze. Singapore is blessed by equatorial climate, mild year round.

Perhaps what made Singapore close to my heart is also its authenticity. I am sensitive against impostors of any kind. Dubai feels to me like an impostor. It pretends that it is modern, while hiding its underbelly of gender and income inequality, along with poor human rights record. It does not score well either on freedom or democracy. New York is better at hiding its vices in plain sight. There, the long arm of capitalism touches everything. It inflates property prices, crushes the poor and squeezes them out into filthy neighborhoods and crumbling schools. I know that poverty exists also in Singapore but I do not think its anywhere near the scale or desperation visible in New York.  Democracy might be another problem in the Island state, as the ruling party has been in power for half a century. Still, the place proudly displays its own ambiance, culture, food and technology. This cannot be said about Dubai for example, a city that borrowed whatever money can buy from everywhere else. In its quest to showcase the expensive, I feel that the desert metropolis lost many aspects of art, simplicity and beauty that do exist in its native culture. Singapore has a keener eye for beauty, and displays it stylishly in the Gardens on the Bay, the Museum and in its unique music and light show. Dubai does try with its musical fountains which impressed me at the time, but now I feel that they pale in comparison to what I have seen in Singapore.

You might think that I am biased against my native culture. Yet I still appreciate parts of this culture, the undulating curves of Arabic calligraphy that are drawn into symmetrical or artistic shapes, the heart-rending whine of a violin tuned into the melancholy Arabic musical scales, a touching poem about love sung to the tune of the Oud, and the rhythm of the tabla (goblet drum) to which you cannot help but dance. There were so many authentic examples of art, traditional crafts, and culture in the Arab and Islamic world. Unfortunately the natives did not value them and they mostly end up collected by western orientalists, museums or curators. I have been blown away by the Aleppo Room at the Berlin Museum for example, but I have not seen anything similar in its artistic quality preserved in my native city.

Authenticity in places and people touches me, while spuriousness and falsehood repel me. Living in pretentious New York exhausted me, and visiting Dubai felt like sinking into a spiritual vacuum, eviscerating and exhausting too. Singapore enriches and invigorates with its orderliness, vitality, authenticity and artistic flair. There is a soul to places too, and that place has a calm and gentle soul.