Last week you helped me narrow the cover concept for Love Comes Later a novel I’m working on
The book is a meditation on love, set in Doha, Qatar (with the plot taking readers back and forth to London as well).
I’m sharing an excerpt of the prologue below so you get a feel for the characters, as well as the setting. Both are very interesting but foreign to me. We follow Abdulla, the first protagonist, inside a Qatari home, and then further, into his thoughts.
As always feel free to leave feedback, ask questions or make suggestions. Sign up for my newsletter and you’ll know when the book is launched!
If you’re interested in learning more about Qatar, you may want to check out the essay anthology I co-edited with Carol Henderson, Qatari Voices. I’ve got other books too, on everything from hip hop to being a modern mama, so take a look at the Books tab.
Abdulla’s mind wasn’t on Fatima, nor his uncles or cousins. Not even when he drove past the wrought iron entry gate, oblivious to the sprawl of family cars, parked haphazardly in the shared courtyard, did he give them a thought. Despite the holy season, his mind was still hard at work. Mentally, he clicked through a final checklist for tomorrow’s meetings. I can squeeze in a few more hours if Fatima is nauseous and sleeps in tomorrow, he thought, rubbing his chin. Instead of the stubble he had anticipated, his whiskers were turning soft. A trim was one other thing he didn’t have time for these days, though longer beards were out of fashion, according to his younger brother Khalid who had been trying to grow one for years. Beard length. Just another change to keep up with.
Change was all around him, Abdulla thought. The cousins getting older, he himself soon to become a father. But it was in the growing complexity of diplomatic work that Abdulla felt it most immediately, specifically the ballooning volume of requests by foreign governments for new trade agreements. By the day, it seemed, Qatar’s international status was growing, which meant more discussions, more meetings.
He slid the car into a gap in the growing shadow between his father’s and grandfather’s houses. It would have to serve as a parking space. The Range Rover door clicked shut behind him as he walked briskly toward his father’s house, Blackberry in hand, scrolling through his messages. Only then did the sound of wailing reach him, women in pain or grief, emanating from his Uncle Ahmed’s house across the courtyard. He jerked the hands-free device out of his ear and quickened his pace, jogging not toward the majlis where the rest of the men were gathering, but into the main living area of Uncle Ahmed’s, straight toward those unearthly sounds.
The sight of Aunt Wadha, stopped him short. Disheveled, her hijab slipping as she howled, she was smacking herself on the forehead. Then came his mother, reaching her arms out to him, with a tender, pitying look he hadn’t seen since his pet rabbits from the souq died. But it was Hessa, his other aunt, Fatima’s mother, his own mother-in-law, who sent him into a panic. Ashen faced, her lips bleeding, she was clutching the evil eye necklace he had bought Fatima on their honeymoon. At the sight of it, the delicate gold cord in Hessa’s hands and not around his wife’s neck, Abdulla felt his knees buckle and the Blackberry slip from his hand.
“What has happened?” he said. He looked from one stricken face to another.
“Abdulla. Abdulla…” his mother began but was thrust aside by Aunt Hessa.
“Fatima!” Hessa screamed, staring wildly at him. “Fatima!”
Rather than fall onto the floor in front of the women, Abdulla slumped heavily into the nearest overstuffed armchair. Fatima… Numbly, he noted his female cousins were all there: glamorous Noor, bookish Hind, gangly nine year old Luluwa, Fatima’s sister. His father entered his face gray and tired. Abdulla remained slouched and waited. His father began to talk, but on hearing “accident” and “the intersection at Al Waab” he remembered the Hakoomi traffic service SMS. Then he heard, “Ahmed,” and a shiver of horror ran up his back. The driver had been Ahmed, his uncle, the father of his wife.
Later that night, in the morgue, in the minutes, or hours (he couldn’t keep track) he waited to receive her body, Abdulla flicked the Zippo open and stuck it aflame. Holding it just so, he burned a small patch on his wrist, just below his watchstrap. Even this couldn’t contain his rage at the truck driver who came through without a scratch, at his uncle, or at himself.
Fatima’s body, the secret she was carrying were wrapped in the gauzy white shroud when he was finally allowed to see them. The police advised against unwrapping her, assuring them there would be erasing the memory of a face marked with innumerable shards of glass. The morgue was antiseptic, mercilessly public. Any goodbyes he had hoped to say had to be suppressed. Surrounded by family and hospital staff, he couldn’t hold her, talk to her, stroke her slightly rounding stomach, the burial site of their unborn child. He would have to mourn the baby in secret. He hadn’t wanted to tell his relatives about it yet. Now it could never happen: the need to visibly accept of God’s will in front of them would prevent him from crying it out, this woe upon woe that was almost too much to bear.
Fatima’s body was washed and wrapped at the hospital. His little wife, the round face, the knowing eyes he’d grown up next to in the family compound, and the baby he would never see crawl, sleep, or walk, were hidden to him now, for all eternity.
At the burial site, as was customary, he fell in line behind his father and uncles. Ahmed, the father, carried his daughter’s slight form.
They placed her on her right side.
Men came to lay the concrete slabs that sealed the grave, so her bones would not rise up as they decomposed in the earth. Abdulla regretted not stroking the softness of her chin or the imperceptible rounding curve of her belly. I am burying my wife and our unborn child, he thought with amazement. Their secret would be lost within her lifeless womb. News of a double tragedy would spread with the sand under doors and into the ears of their larger circle of acquaintances. Someone would call someone to read the Qur’an over him. Someone would search out someone else for a bottle of zaem zaem water from Mecca.
None of it would stop the acid from chewing through his heart.
In swirls of conjecture and pity, his new assignment as the widowed and grieving almost-father in a fertile and happy extended family, would erase their memory of him as the eldest grandchild, though this was what got him where he was. Caught between duty and tradition, he did the only thing he could do. He tried to forget that he had been too busy to drive Fatima that day, that he lost a wife and a child because of his own selfishness. No, he should have died with them.
They returned from the funeral to gather at the home of the grieving parents. Abdulla rode in the backseat of the Landcruiser, his father at the wheel, his cousins and brothers listening to music on their phones or messaging friends on various applications. He was the last to climb out of the car but the first to see Luluwa hunched on the marble steps of Uncle Ahmed’s entryway. Something in her face drew his attention, something more than grief for her sister. His mother saw it at the same time and hurried over to the girl, concerned, questioning with her eyes.
“Yella, what is it?” she said, pulling her up.
Luluwa shook her head.
“Go inside, habibti.” said Abdulla’s mother, but Luluwah shook free and drew back, panic in her face. Abdulla’s mother turned her face back to the men, her eyes questioning. Then they heard the shouting.
“When? When did this all start?” Hessa’s voice screamed, raw and startling, from inside the open door. “Leave this house.”
The family halted in their tracks, exchanging uncertain glances.
Ahmed emerged, looking shaken but defiant, a weekender bag in one hand. Abdulla’s father, the eldest of the brothers, stepped forward and took him by the arm. “Everyone is upset,” he whispered harshly. He was trying to lead him back back inside, as his wife had done a moment ago with Luluwa, when Hessa burst forward into view, her face aflame with indignation.
“Tell them,” she spat at her husband, “Tell them now, so when you don’t came back here everyone will know why.”
The words made no sense to Abdulla. His first thought was to speak up and still the voices. He had already forgiven Ahmed in his mind. The accident hadn’t been his fault. “There’s no reason to throw him out,” he called out, half-climbing the steps. “It was my fault, not his. I should have been driving them.”
Hessa turned on him and laughed in a way that made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. “Who needs to throw him out when he’s leaving,” she said.
“Baba, no,” Luluwa cried, moving toward her father, but her mother grabbed a fistful of her abaya and spun the girl around by the shoulders.
Abdulla’s mind whirred to compute what they were witnessing. A sudden white hot rage stiffened his spine. His gaze narrowed on Ahmed. So the rumors were true, he thought.
“He doesn’t want me and so he doesn’t want you,” Hessa hissed, nose to nose with her daughter.
The family froze in the entryway as understanding sluiced them like rainwater. Ahmed stood for a moment in the glare of his their stares. He shifted the weekender bag into his opposite hand.
Saoud the middle brother, stepped forward to question Ahmed, the baby of the family, but Hessa wasn’t finished yet.
“Go to your whore,” she screamed at her husband. “You’ll never set foot in any house that has me inside ever again.” She collapsed onto the floor, her abaya billowing up around her like a mushroom, obscuring her face.
Saoud moved quickly to stand in front of his brother as his wife helped Hessa up. “Think of your daughter,” and added pointedly, “the one that’s still alive.”
Abdulla brought Luluwa forward, tear-streaked and trembling so hard it was causing his own hand to shake.
“Keep her, if you want,” Ahmed said, his glance flickering over Luluwa’s bent head. “My new wife will give me many sons.” He sidestepped Mohammed and Saoud, continuing on down the stairs towards his car.
Luluwa began to wail, a sound without any force, the bleating of a stray cat. Abdulla folded her into his arms, this slip of a girl who used to hide his car keys so that her weekend visits with her sister and brother-in-law wouldn’t end; this girl who had already lost so much, a sister and now a father. Abdulla’s heart went out to her, the reverse mirror of his own loss. From deep in his own grief, he resolved to reach out to her. He would speak to his father. If nothing else, perhaps now she might gain a new brother, and he, a little sister.