Loss. Love. Forgiveness. Love. In that order.Posted: December 20, 2012
July 3, 2009 – the day that I finally got the divorce papers in my hand. Walking away from the lawyer’s office, tears streaming down my face, heart overjoyed, arms wrapped for dear life around the precious file, I knew I was finally free.
The three years prior to that day had been difficult. I had consented to an arranged marriage, despite alarms going off like sirens inside my head, in spite of a very strong instinct telling me to run in the other direction. It’s strange, but I almost knew that divorce was inevitable even before the marriage ceremony occurred.
Yet despite the hours of debate between my hardcore feminist self working in the women’s rights field and my Islamic values and family ties, this good Muslim girl convinced herself that marriage was the right thing to do at that time. At 22, never even having had a boyfriend, I became a married woman. My notions of love up to that point were the stuff of dreams – a million infatuations with musicians, actors and the like, always believing that “the one” was out there for me.
I stopped believing in those dreams on the day of my nikah. For the two years it lasted, I was married only on paper. We lived in two different countries in South Asia while I completed my undergraduate degree. He forgot my birthdays, while I remembered monthly anniversaries, wrote poems and letters, and anticipated text messages and calls that rarely came. I prayed in an attempt to convince myself this was “love”. It wasn’t. During my marriage all my notions of love dissipated. I didn’t know what the word meant anymore. I didn’t know how to find it. I didn’t care to.
The same year I became single again, I was chosen for a three-week human rights seminar in Cape Town, South Africa. Never having ventured out of South Asia, it was my first taste of independence. I was angry at my self and my circumstances and needed to escape the crazy city I lived in, where I was feeling increasingly trapped. The timing of the seminar was perfect.
I was going to enjoy this adventure as an independent single woman, right? Wrong.
On the first day of the seminar, with 20 other human rights activists and advocates from around the world, Dedan’s icebreaker buddy introduced him as, “A Kenyan human rights lawyers, who loves football, beer and finding quiet moments”. I was hooked at ‘quiet’.
Over the next two weeks, magic happened. Dedan and I soul-connected over truth commissions and amnesty, our shared passion for the ‘quiet’, a loving God, human rights and the beauty of Cape Town. He was intelligent, articulate and introspective. He said, “Even in a bar full of noisy friends, I try to find a quiet moment”. Most importanly, he made me feel beautiful in his company and presence. It wasn’t something I had ever felt before.
In our heads we pondered what was happening, sometimes even discussing it with mutual friends who sensed the magic, but never with each other. Polite and respectful of personal spaces and opinions, a conversation about ‘what if’ was best kept to ourselves, we both individually decided. That is, until Desmond Tutu intervened.
The last Sunday of our time together, Archbishop Tutu was holding a peace mass in Cape Town, and people from all denominations were invited. On the morning of the mass, Dedan and I walked to the church from the hotel and finally talked about what lay between us – about love, marriage and our obvious differences. He was black, I was brown, people stared at us when we walked together, some even gawked. We were from two different cultures, countries, heck, even continents. We were the epitome of inter-racial, inter-cultural, inter-continental.
All of this might have been overcome. But, it was not going to work because of the elephant in the room – religion. I was a devout, hijab-wearing Muslim, and he was a practicing Catholic. If we were going to follow one religion, he knew it was he who would be at the compromising end. If we decided to practice our own religions, then we wondered, “What about the kids?” We were willing to cross all the other boundaries – but not this one.
We parted a few days later as strong friends. His last words to me were, “You are beautiful”. Our mutual friends, railed at us for months afterward to “Give it a try” because “there is something there.” They said we could be “two human rights advocates who crossed all boundaries for love”. If we couldn’t do it, they wondered, who could?
But the truth is, we both knew that with so many battles to fight in the world, we couldn’t afford to fight this one too. Maybe that’s just an excuse, but I believe it was for the best. A few years later, he found love and I found life.
In retrospect, I know that my Cape Town experience was not about him or us, but about me. As someone who had never experienced a romantic relationship or had a boyfriend, I didn’t know what love really meant, or even what it should or would feel like.
But, in those three short weeks in Cape Town, I learnt the lesson of love. If love ever comes my way again, I now know what it may feel like. I will feel beautiful in his company. I now know what I will feel looking into his eyes, eyes that are kind. I know he’ll have an introspective soul. I now know he will care about the world, enough to fight for its betterment. As someone who supports mixed marriages and relationships, I also now know my personal boundaries on this matter. Those three weeks were the universe’s crash course on love tailored just for me.
Over the course of the next few years, I began to plant the seeds of forgiveness for the three years of my youth which were stolen from me. I focused on forgiveness and letting go of anger, mostly directed at myself for not trusting my instincts. I moved on to find religion beyond dogma and inner quiet through spirituality and meditation. I learned to love a big, wide world while being contentedly single. All of this critical personal growth started during those three precious weeks in South Africa.
A traveler site I read before my trip began stated, “You will find yourself in Cape Town.” I did indeed. My journey to South Africa taught me that love is possible and that I have the capacity for it.
Very aptly, Dedan signed my copy of Desmond Tutu’s book No Future without Forgiveness with the inscription, “I hope that you continue loving life, for it will love you back”.
Loss. Love. Forgiveness. Love. In that order.
Hayah is a women’s rights advocate and identifies as South Asian, having lived and travelled all over the region. She is currently doing her graduate studies in the US. Hayah is a caffeine addict, acoustic music lover, cheesy poet, indie photographer and wannabe ink artist.