A Meeting Without a Future: New Chapter Two

by | Apr 23, 2024 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

“Where are you now?” Her sister asked in a furtive whisper on the other end of the line.

“You know where I am, Paris. Why are you whispering?” Jena Hussein replied, wheeling her suitcase through the slalom of oncoming outbound passengers.

“You know why. It’s late but Baba’s still awake. He’ll go crazy if he finds out I’m calling. He won’t even have your name mentioned in the house.” Reem Hussein countered, in the same hushed tone.

“Don’t worry, I’ll sort it on my return. He’ll sulk for a few days then it’ll all be back to normal.” Jena reassured her younger sibling.

“Why are you doing this to us Habibi? Why don’t you come home?” Reem’s voice wavered with emotion. “That world is not for the likes of us.”

Jena was torn between scolding her sister and crying for her. The world was hers, there for the taking. Her pure Arab blood had been transfused with the corpuscles of a hundred countries, from books, social media and the trip of a lifetime to China. Unfortunately the latter had ended in disaster and she was here in Paris to repair the damage.

“You know that’s not true Habibi,” she countered. “Look at our brothers. They’re free to travel and work anywhere. Why not us?” Jena’s compromise fell on deaf ears. She continued, tears pricking her eyes. “Why should we be expected to get married, bring up kids and worry about them until we die? Look at Mama, she’s so unhappy.”

“Just come home, please. I’m all alone here and getting the brunt of their anger. Mama misses the boys and you’re breaking Baba’s heart.” Sobs now punctuated Reem’s words. “I have to go, someone’s coming. I’ll ring you tomorrow.” With that, her sister was gone. Jena found a quiet corner of Charles De Gaulle airport’s vast concourse and sat on her case.

The tears flowed freely now, at her predicament. She was standing on the finest of knife edges, between the life she wanted and the one she was born to. The blade was cutting into her, threatening to slice her in two. She blinked away the droplets, allowing them to fall on the polished floor.

Checking her phone, she navigated to the Terminal Two RER station and purchased a single ticket to Gare de Lyon. All of the stations had romantic names, depicting their destinations or the direction in which the trains were travelling. Rail travel wasn’t new to the young woman even though her home country had none. Her years studying in China had hardened her to many things, including trains. Nevertheless, the slick public transport Paris had to offer tempted her from her preference for taxis.

As the train rushed through the northern suburbs of the city, Jena was mesmerised by the architecture and cultural mix of the city. Every nation in the world seemed to be represented in her carriage, the rich mix of languages, some of which she recognised, was an aural feast.

Her mind drifted back to the days before she had even been allowed to leave the house without permission. 

She had fought like a dog for the limited freedom she was allowed, turning away queues of prospective husbands that had been paraded before this beautiful young and eligible woman. 

Jenna looked up at the display above the door. The light flashed for the next station. Parc des Expositions, Exhibition Park. There in front of her, as the train came to a halt, was a giant site containing exhibition halls of varying sizes, adorned with banners advertising their contents. A young woman, around her own age entered the train and took a seat next to her. She looked at Jena’s case and greeted her in Arabic with a Lebanese accent.

“Hello sister. First time in Paris?” She said. The woman was typical of those of the capital, Beirut, with a natural beauty that had embraced the western culture in which she was living. A pang of jealousy struck Jena at the stylish clothes and wavy locks, dyed the colour of the black irises back home.

“You can tell?” She replied, running a fingers between her hijab and her cheek, a habit she’d formed since wearing the garment on her twelfth birthday. A stray hair visible would bring a stern ‘Shekh’ from her father.

“Don’t look so worried, you’ll love it and it will love you in return. We don’t call it the city of lights for nothing.” She placed a hand on Jena’s knee and squeezed. Far from feeling uncomfortable, it gave her a warm glow she’d never experienced before. Perhaps the girl was right, Paris would love her.

“I’m heading for the Gare de Lyon but Google says I have to change to a Metro. I’m a bit worried about that,” she confided in her new companion.

“I’m heading close by myself. I’ll show you what to do. Do you have a Navigo card? It’s Tania, by the way, like the singer?” Her new companion said, holding out the hand that had squeezed Jena’s knee. Jena inspected it like a strange gift, admiring the long manicured nails painted the same deep indigo as her hair. After a moment she took it in hers. It was soft to the touch and warm like a miniature hug. The feeling returned deep in Jena’s gut. Physical contact outside her immediate family was alien to her.

“Jena, I’m from Jordan, Amman,” she answered,withdrawing her hand abruptly. Her palm was tingling where it had touched that of the girl.

“I know. Pleased to meet you Jena. Similarly you’ll know I hail from Beirut originally. Don’t worry, I’ll have you navigating this city like a veteran before long,” Tania smiled. Her plump lips, enhanced by lipstick the colour of fresh blood, revealed perfect white teeth and the tip of her tongue. Jena shivered at the sheer beauty of the young woman. They arrived at Gare du Nord and Tania took Jena in hand, showing her how to buy the small blue card which was the gateway to the five public transport systems of Paris.

“We’ll top you up with thirty Euros and five zones, more than enough for a week’s sightseeing,” Tania said, sticking Jena’s photograph on the back of the card. “Follow me, just scan the card here.” Jena copied her teacher and her heart jumped as the barrier opened when she presented the magic piece of plastic. She felt the rush of cool air from somewhere deep below her and was filled with elation at this incredible new world. The car wasn’t too busy and they got a seat together.

“So my little Levantine beauty, what brings you to the wicked west and its wickedest city?” Tania asked, a mischievous look on her exquisite features. Jena immediately felt that she could confide in this woman. She seemed to be a bridge between the two cultures, exactly what she was looking for.

“I’m sort of running away. From my past and my future,” the words left her lips before she could stop them.

“A good plan, Habibti. After all, they don’t exist. Only the present is real. The here and now.” Tania placed a hand on the back of Jena’s, setting off the tingling sensation again. Was it her touch or the magic of the surroundings?

“I don’t want what my family wants.” Jena whispered. “That was why I rebelled against settling in Amman, the city I grew up in. To work in an office where all I’d see during the day was the laptop in front of me.” The ease with which she was confiding in Tania shocked her. Nevertheless, she ploughed on, encouraged by nods of approval from the girl.  “Not that I look down on such a life, after all,  I was a product of it. On the contrary, I respected everyone – each to their own. Like chocolate, so is life. People have a preference for their favourite flavour and enjoy every bite. I simply want the unique taste, that is my liberty. I know there’s more to offer an intelligent, inquisitive woman of the world if only I go for it.

“Bravo sister! That’s the ticket. With those positive thoughts, you’re halfway there.” Tania shouted, several people looked up at the pair. “How did you manage to escape, if you don’t mind me asking? It seems you’re from a pretty strict background.” She touched Jena’s hijab just above her right ear with the tips of her fingers. Jena gasped visibly and Tania giggled. “What you need is a good western man to love and cherish you and you’ve come to the right place.” The words and actions sent ripples of cold through her like the air brought by the approaching trains. She ignored the last comment and carried on.

“Well, following a successful stint as a Chinese tour guide, I used the funds and grasped the opportunity to work as a freelance translator; it was risky, but I love it. If I hadn’t taken that risk, I wouldn’t be here now, flying under the streets of the world’s most romantic city in a tin box.” Jena was shocked at her own admission as if she’d heard it from the lips of someone else.

“Wow. What does your family think of all this? Mine have disowned me. We haven’t spoken for over three years,” the young woman countered. Jena’s heart sank at the image of her father. Both when she’d left for China and yesterday when she’d boarded the plane at Amman airport. The pain etched on his face was palpable and all she could see for the whole flight to Paris. There was a lull in the conversation as they changed metros. The long passages between stations were adorned with colourful posters advertising cultural events from opera to rock concerts, as well as expensive perfumes and clothes. She recognised some of the brands from the malls of Amman. Following Tania through the labyrinth, Jena recalled the day she severed the ties with her culture, inwardly at least.

There were two sides to Jena, the public side, strongly Muslim and fiercely Arab. With dark brown eyes, light brown skin, and a delicately shaped face, framed by her neatly folded hijab, she was a typical woman of her race. At one-point-six metres, she looked up at most people but they placed her on a pedestal when they got to know her.

Then there was the private Jena, confined to the four walls of her room where she would brush her waist-length, jet-black hair. After a hundred strokes with the brush, it bounced and shone like the tail of an Arabian mare. She imagined the man of her dreams running his fingers through it. One day, that man appeared in the form of a handsome Chinese student in Wuhan. She was immediately smitten by this tall athletic young man who made her laugh with his typical Chinese attitude to his beloved country. She was also under the spell of her exotic surroundings, where everyone made her feel special and wanted a photograph with the pretty Arab doll.

“Quick Habibti, we’ll catch this one and we’ll have time for a coffee before my meeting,” Tania’s voice brought her back with a bump. The thought of her favourite brew on a street corner in such company made her heart race faster than any coffee could. Her anticipation was realised as they took a seat at a table at the little Terminus cafe opposite the terminal. The red and white awning and red velvet seats were exactly as she’d imagined when first planning this trip. However she could never visualise herself sitting, as she was now, watching the hustle and bustle of Parisian life pass before her.

“Double espresso? It’s as close as you’ll get to home unless you go up to Chateau Rouge. I daresay you don’t want to be reminded of home though.” Tania said, looking at the menu.

“You guessed right,” Jena quipped.

“”Double espressos it is then.” Tania waved the menu at the waiter who responded immediately. The next series of events dampened Jena’s enthusiasm even though not a word was spoken. The man gave a tiny bow and smiled at Tania, a sparkle in his eye. She gave him the order and he wrote it in his notebook. Then he turned to Jena and his expression changed. Immediately the seasons changed from summer to winter. Leaves turned brown and fell from the trees. The wind increased and chilled her inner core as she looked into his eyes. It was as if she was a piece of dirt on the image of the young woman opposite. Tania noticed both the look and Jena’s reaction. Quickly, she got up and marched into the cafe. The man followed her parth with his eyes, a mixture of puzzlement and residual desire on his face. In an instant the manager came out and took the waiter by the arm. He unceremoniously dragged the man into the cafe. Tania sat down and rubbed her hands as if getting rid of dirt on them.

“He’s being re-trained,” she said, accompanying the last word with mimicked speech marks in the air. A few seconds later, the manager appeared with two coffees and two pain au chocolate on a tray.

“On the house Miss Alush,” he said, giving both women a genuinely warm smile.

“Merci beaucoup Alain,” Tania replied, winking at Jena. When the manager had gone she turned to her companion. “Be prepared for such episodes if you are going to continue like that. It’s not racism. It’s just that the state comes before anything else, including religion. You’ll probably get worse from our own kind too. Especially if you decide to settle and definitely if the man of your dreams is a handsome European.” She grinned and took a bite from her cake, golden flakes of pastry sticking to her lips.

They continued their conversation, exchanging stories of tragic love and restrictive culture. Jena explained how, unlike her peers, she preferred to let her expressions and personality do the talking rather than a liberal application of expensive makeup. From time to time, friends, and even strangers, would tell her how much they admired her smile, and how it made their day. She had many male friends and loved to have conversations with people from diverse backgrounds.

Nevertheless, some of these admirers would occasionally express feelings other than friendship. In these instances, she’d come up with excuses and watch, without relishing, as they turned away from her, dejected and heartbroken.

Jena indicated that she didn’t fall in love easily, but the one occasion she did, on the other side of the world, she gave her heart and soul to him. They lived as man and wife for a month, a world away from her real life. However their plans were plucked out of the sky by her father, like a falcon pulling a quail down with one swoop.

Her lover didn’t have the stomach to fight for her and left her heart shattered on her bedroom floor.

Tania had a similar story of a fellow countryman who had promised her the world before running off with a Moroccan woman. That was the day she tore off her hijab and never wore it again. Her fathers rage was unmatched by anything before or since, the day she stepped outside without it. Jenna gasped for the second time at the thought of the young woman opening the door and exposing that precious mane to the world.

The two women parted after exchanging numbers on WhatsApp and Jena checked Google maps for her hotel. Although it was a few metres away, she couldn’t check in for an hour. She decided to browse the nearby shops. Passing a small premises with boxes of postcards stacked outside, she was in her element. As she began to flick through the tiny rectangles of beautiful art, an older woman sidled up beside her. 

‘You love postcards, yes?’ the woman asked, in English. She was fingering the goods with the greatest of care. 

‘My favourite,’ Jena replied, feeling welcomed.

‘Oui, moi aussi. I still love sending them. Even the older ones – especially the older ones.’ 

Her smile was as warm and friendly as the Parisienne sun, drawing Jena further into this intimate new world. She was in her fifties, Jena guessed, but could be ten years either side of that, such was the beauty of the French woman. Her make-up, although liberally applied, was done with perfection. Jena returned her attention to the cards, examining each one in fine detail. Some portrayed beautiful watercolours, showing images of places she could only dream of. Others were sepia photographs of familiar landmarks. 

‘It doesn’t exist in my world,’ she blurted out, as she held a monochrome image of the Eiffel Tower. 

‘Pardon?’ The woman turned to Jena, a puzzled look on her face. 

‘We did have a postal service but now, unfortunately, it is sparse. Emails and texts always feel cold in comparison to postcards and letters. When one holds a pen and writes, deep feelings come out.’ Jena watched the woman’s face take on a deeper form of perplexity and became aware of the language and cultural gap between them. ‘Sorry, my name is Jena, from Jordan.’ She held out her hand in greeting, but still with the card in it. 

The woman looked at the card and smiled. ‘A gift? You should purchase it first, my Cherie.’ Her smile broadened and broke into a chuckle. ‘Claudette, I live around the corner from here. Please, let me purchase one for you in return.’ 

Jena took the card from her outstretched hand with the other and held it out a moment longer. Claudette took it delicately and kissed Jena on both cheeks. ‘Come and see me sometime, this is my backyard.’ She reached into her handbag and took out a business card. Handing it to Jena, she then proceeded to pick a postcard for the young woman. The one she chose depicted a seafaring scene in monochrome. Half a dozen unusual small ships were dotted around the sea. The title read : SAINT-GILLES – CROIX-de-VIE: Barques des pêches en Rads. On the reverse, a strange message in French and an address in the town clung onto the paper in faded ink. After paying for their respective gifts, they said their farewells.

Not far from the postcard shop, she stumbled on a large double-fronted shop with the strange title La Maison de la Bible. Compared to the shop nearby, the postcard selection left something to be desired. Disappointed, she made instead for the bestsellers, she could do with a book to help her sleep, to relax in this vibrant city. As she scanned the colourful array of covers, she became aware of something. She was being watched.

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