“Safa” by Orla Fay

Many years ago I dreamed that I was in a city in a foreign land full of large and grey buildings and in this dream I knew that I was in a significant place in my life. I thought nothing of this dream until one day I found myself in such a city.
I met Safa on the Saturday night. We were in a bar drinking and ended up sitting beside each other through introductions from mutual friends. She became distressed as it grew late in the evening and I knew that I wanted to comfort her as soon as she said that she had to leave. I accompanied her outside where she put a scarf around her head. It was a black hijab.
Safa was a Pakistani girl who had been born and raised in Glasgow. Her mother had died when she was in her mid teens and she lived with her father, her brother and his wife. Her brother was only recently married and he had gone to Pakistan to meet his wife in an arranged marriage before returning with her to Scotland. He was an authoritarian figure and he was a strict follower of Islam. Safa felt answerable to her elder sibling.
It was then July of 2005 and the London bombings had just taken place. On the 7th of July four bombs had detonated killing fifty two civilians and injuring seven hundred. It was very hot and I wore a white t-shirt with an orange and yellow butterfly print across the front. My friend and I flew to Prestwick airport on the Saturday morning, the 9th of July. It was our planned weekend away from Ireland seeking fun and excitement. We were met by armed guards as we left the airport to take the express into the city.
The venom of terrorism was threatening to immobilise the world. On nine eleven we had watched the dwarfing of the giant twin towers. The dust was yet rising up from ground zero. I was very conscious of my Irish accent firstly and secondly that I was a small town girl. Nearing the outskirts the train slowed down somewhat and a concrete jungle emerged. Abandoned buildings and walls were marked with graffiti repeatedly. Glasgow has great long and wide streets. Buchanan Street for example rolls down impressively off a hill like an unfurled tongue. Argyle Street and Sauchiehall Street are main shopping thoroughfares. The River Clyde lends its grey banks in support.
She often said that she felt trapped between two worlds; the western society she was educated in and formed friendships within, and the Pakistani culture her blood belonged to. I was very affected by her plight. Safa is a gay woman. There is little tolerance for homosexuality in Islam. The Qur’an condemns it. In some Islamic countries it is punishable by whipping, fines, jail sentence and in the extreme by death.
At times she spoke of death being an escape from the situation. This horrified me. Surely she could leave her family and start a life of her own somewhere? But no, she felt that the family would find her eventually and make her return to the fold. Frequently she addressed herself as a coward. How could she be on her own when she had never been independent? She had never spent a night away from home despite being in her early twenties. She had always been sheltered and taught to defer to the ways of the men in her life. She feared for her father’s health and did not want to hurt him. He smoked heavily and had a weak heart. She saw no possible way of disclosing her sexuality to him or to her brother and a profound sense of shame had attached itself to her.
I had no intention of ever seeing Safa again after that weekend in 2005 but over the months we began a correspondence via internet and mobile phone. We shared a common interest in popular music especially and we both appreciated the exotic. I learned about Ramadan and Eid. She would send me text messages very late at night or early in the morning during Ramadan. She was supposed to be fasting but frequently broke fast. She did not believe in its severity. She introduced me to the beautiful mystic, Sufi poet Rumi and to the whirling dervishes. She loved perfumes and scents. I read Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam. That December I visited her again en route to Manchester. It was clear that my friend was lost but her kindness and nobility of spirit were luminous.
The mid winter darkness filled the room but some light came in through the window from the street lamps outside and the sickle moon could be seen from our bed. We had drunk a bottle of champagne, Moet and Chandon, in the hotel room. I did not feel alone wrapped up in her nakedness and warmth. This was one side of our affair; us under the cover of moonlight and secrecy. The other side of the coin was that she had to leave me and could never spend an entire night in my company. And she was full of guilt, crippled by having to lie about her whereabouts. We would pay the price for our pleasure. Though I found our relationship life enhancing she found it soul destroying and in the end I too would be devastated by the reality that we could no longer spend time together. We had no future as lovers.
She refused to wear make-up or dress in feminine clothes and was teased by female members of her extended family. Under protest from her brother she took up taekwondo and later kick-boxing. Whisperings of possible male suitors in an arranged marriage made me cringe. She would not marry and she was adamant about this. Yet I worried that her resolve would soften in time.
In the summer of 2006 Safa took me on Glasgow’s underground. I had never been on an underground before. It was frightening to stand in the dark tunnel waiting and listening for the hurtling machine to appear. We visited the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum which had been recently reopened. We saw Dali’s Christ of Saint John of the Cross. In the painting Christ is depicted on the cross in a darkened sky hanging over a body of water. Dali considered the work to be cosmic and Christ became the unity of the universe. He had dreamed of the image representing the nucleus of the atom. Standing beside my Muslim friend looking at the painting I felt the significance of religion and difference truly for the first time in my life.
By Hallowe’en confronted by masked faces and disguised bodies on those streets we knew that the end was near. I did not want to let go. Central Station is an island in time, a place of pause, but we are always in a state of transformation and life is a river moving forward. At the centre of the heart we are all the same. I envision summer sunshine and recall short, white curtains blowing in the breeze and the faint murmur of traffic in an age of innocence.
This May Bank Holiday Monday morning past I learned that Barack Obama had announced the death of Osama Bin Laden. Scenes of citizens of the United States in celebration filled me with confusion. It seems morally wrong on some level to revel in the death of another, however treacherous they have been. I wonder what Safa thinks about it. I hear little from her now though I know that she came out to her father and brother a while ago, a sea change in itself. I wonder if we are entering a new period in history and what will the recent changes and unrest in Egypt, Libya and the Middle East mean for the future.

Biographical Note
Orla Fay is a member of Boyne Writers’ Group. Her work has been included in Boyne Berries, Crannog, Revival, Riposte, The Sharp Review, Ropes, The Meath Chronicle, The Linnet’s Wings, Wordlegs, New Poems of Oriel, The Stony Thursday Book, Nuig’s Writers’ Society Writers’ Exchange Chapbook, thefirstcut and forthcoming in Carillon. She keeps a blog at orlafay.blogspot.com

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