“You will spend the rest of the evening in your bedroom. No cell telephone, no iPod, no computer, no music, no video games, no snacks, and no visitors!” my mother burst out as soon as she shut the front door.
“But mother, that’s too harsh!” I protested.
“Don’t you ‘but Mama’ me, young man! You are to go to your room, and stay there till tomorrow afternoon,” she responded with a note of finality in her tone.
“Papa, please tell me you are not siding with her.” I turned to my father, who by now had picked a newspaper and was busy reading the political opinion column.
“Your mother is right, Omar.” my father responded without lifting his eyes from the newspaper. “What you have done is totally unacceptable. You have embarrassed the whole family!” He added.
“But Papa, I didn’t mean it. It was just a joke…”
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“Let’s not go over that again, son.” my father interjected, now looking at me straight in the eyes. “Just do as your mother says. Go to your bedroom and reflect about the shame you have brought upon us all.”
“Please Papa… Mama…” I pleaded.
“Move on, son and enjoy your evening.” Mama said rather sarcastically as she escorted me to the staircase.
“Please guys, I am supposed to go on an evening desert safari with my friends!”
They would neither talk nor listen any further. My mother resumed her laundry work and Papa continued with his reading. There was no use standing there pleading anymore. I clumsily climbed the stairs, entered my room and banged the door behind me. I slumped on my bed and switched off the bedside lamp. I wanted to be in the dark. A stupid joke had cost me what was to be a memorable evening of sand dunning with my three best friends. Earlier that evening, I had come back home from school and found a white Nissan family van parked outside our gate. As I approached the house, I noticed some pairs of shoes left at the front door. Right away, I knew we had guests. This was nothing unusual. We had guests coming into our home almost every day of the week. My father, being one of the most influential local politicians, loved to receive and entertain guests at home. I rushed in to see who were inside. I walked into the living room, and seated there with my parents. There were also two guests – a man in a blue, trendy Galabiyya and a woman wearing a flowery hijab. They had been conversing rather confidentially, but stopped short immediately they saw me.
“Salaam aleikum.” I greeted my parents and kissed their hands in the typical Arabian tradition. I turned to the guests and did the same.
“Come back for a moment, son. We would like to talk with you.” My mother called me back as I was making my way to the kitchen to grab a snack.
I froze. My mother was not in the habit announcing that she wanted to talk. Whenever she had something to say, she would just blurt it out. The fact that she wanted to talk with me in the presence of the two guests disturbed me even more.
I walked back to the living room and sat next to my father, facing my mother. He was mellower, and quite diplomatic. Years of practicing politics had taught him to show tolerance towards everyone.
“Son, do you have a classmate called Faiza Omar?” my mother inquired.
Yes, Mama. I responded, trying to figure out what this was all about.
“Well, these are her parents.” my mother informed me.
“Alright” I replied, almost in a whisper.
Just then, my father passed me a piece of paper. I unfolded it and immediately recognized it. Finally, I understood what this was all about. I wished for the earth to open up and swallow me alive.
“Haven’t you anything to say about that piece of paper Omar?” Mama queried.
All eyes were on me. Faiza’s father was particularly more attentive. He was a burly man with a clean-shaven head and a long, dark beard. He looked at me in a manner likely to suggest that a minute was all he needed to knock me out completely.
“Well, son?” nagged my mother.
“It’s…it’s…it’s a letter I wrote to…to…to Faiza...”
“A love letter you, mean.” Faiza’s mother chipped in rather softly.
“Yes, but I didn’t mean it…I was only joking.” I said apologetically.
“Only joking? Read the letter to us and tell us exactly what part of it is a joke.” My mother instructed.
“Read the letter, young man.” My mother always referred to me as ‘young man’ whenever she was serious with me.
“My dearest Faiza…” I cleared my throat and looked at my father as if pleading to be spared from the embarrassment of having to read the letter. He looked back at me as if to communicate that on this one, I was on my own.
“My dearest Faiza, I would like you to know that I find you very attractive. Ever since I first saw you; I have never stopped thinking about you, and whenever I think of you, my heart misses a beat. You are beautiful beyond description. You are too marvelous for words, and too wonderful for comprehension. You are my angel, my morning star; my lily of the valleys. Your eyes are like the glittering lights of Dubai. Your hair is as soft as cotton. Your teeth are as white as snow. Your lips are as red as strawberry. Your two breasts are …”
“Okay, that’s enough.” My father interrupted, thankfully.
To say that I was embarrassed would be an understatement. Faiza’s mother informed me that she had found the letter below Faiza’s pillow while cleaning, and she was not amused at all. Faiza, she reminded me, was only 13 and still too young for love relationships. Faiza’s father on his part sternly warned that he would not allow me to confuse and mess up his daughter. My father advised me to concentrate on my education and spare matters of the heart for the future. My mother did not speak. She just stared at me, but I knew she was not done with me. After many other words of advice and caution, I was asked to apologize for my misbehavior; which I did promptly. To my relief, Faiza’s parents accepted my apology and left, and that was when my mother dropped the bombshell: I was grounded. My thoughts were interrupted by a knock on my bedroom window. I ignored it. I did not want to see anyone.
“Hey, Omar” It was Khalifa. I walked to the window, opened it and stuck my head out.
“Hey man! What’s up? Your mother wouldn’t let us in.” Gargash said.
“Yeah, I’m grounded.” I replied unhappily.
“Grounded? Ahmed said in disbelief. “But we are supposed to go sand dunning!”
“I know. Sorry, I can’t come with you guys.” I said.
“Come’ on Abdul. You can’t miss this. Seriously, it is going to be fun! Tell you what, just sneak out through the window and before your old folks know it, you’ll be back.” Khalifa advised.
“I can’t. They’ll soon be up here to check on me.” I answered.
“Alright then, you’ve missed out buddy.” Ahmed said.
With that, my three comrades left. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I watched them drive off excitedly. Several minutes later, I was still lying on my bed imagining how my three friends were enjoying themselves. They are now shrieking and laughing noisily as they drive up and down the desert dunes of Arabia, I thought. Or perhaps they are now having a break and taking sunset photographs, or eating barbeque beside a blazing bonfire underneath the pitch-black night sky… It pained to think further. Khalifa, Gargash and Ahmed had been my friends since early childhood. Actually, they were like brothers to me. We grew up together you see. Khalifa, who was older than the rest of us by two years, was our leader.
He was quite charismatic and most of the time we found ourselves doing whatever he said. It had been his idea that we go sand dunning this evening. Gargash, a slender boy of Egyptian heritage, was in many ways like me – sociable, cheerful and fun-loving. Ahmed was the clever one. He seemed to have answers for all sorts of questions. His creativity and industry made him the best science student in his class. I must have dozed off for about an hour when my father woke me up vigorously. He told me that he had just received a call from Ahmed’s father. There had been an accident involving my three friends. He was on his way to see how he could help and wondered if I wanted to go with him. Without a word, I slipped into some evening wear and soon, we were on our way to the Hatta Road Sand-Dune fields, where my friends had gone.
The scene of the accident was repulsive. Ahmed’s lifeless body lay there, half-buried in the desert sand. Next to it was the bruised body of Gargash - minus the head. Khalifa’s bloody body was still in the ill-fated car, trapped between the steering wheel and the driver’s seat. He had been the one driving and had buckled up. Witnesses said that the three were cruising up a steep sand dune when their Toyota Land Cruiser collided head-on with a Range Rover. The two four-wheel drive vehicles flipped and started rolling down the sand dune. Ahmed and Gargash, who had not buckled up, were literally flung out of the car, and that was how Gargash ended up decapitated.
The two had died instantly while Khalifa was still groaning when he was found, but died a few moments later. I couldn’t stomach it anymore. The thought that I too could have died had I accompanied my friends was just too much for me to bear. I felt nauseated and within seconds, I was vomiting profusely on the golden sand. My father came and helped me clean up.
“Let me take you to the car, son.” He offered as he helped me up.
“I could have died too, Papa. I could have died too! I said, now crying aloud and freely.
“Shh…I know son.” He comforted me. “It was Allah’s will that you remain at home.”
I remembered Mama back at home, and for the first time in my life, I appreciated her for being tough on me at times. As soon as I got home, I would hug her and tell her I loved her. The bodies of my three dead friends were loaded into a waiting ambulance. As the ambulance pulled out, I remembered Ahmed’s last words to me, “you have missed out buddy.”
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