The hour drew nigh, and the moon was rent asunder.
—54:1, Surah Al-Qamar (Chapter of the Moon), The Holy Qur’an.
The sure Truth!
What is the sure Truth?
And what would make thee realize what the sure Truth is?
—69:1-3, Surah Al-Haqqah (Chapter of the Sure Truth), The Holy Qur’an.
Qamar’s face has what they call noor, a radiance that reminds me of the moon. She is as fair as I am dark, as conservative as I am liberal. My opposite, my perfect other half. Whenever I think of Qamar, I recall the image I had of her on our wedding day—a pale, delicate oval of a face barely shielded by the fine black net of her veil. A shy, well-raised Najdi girl. A marble sculpture swathed in black.
We married in 1964, the year King Saud officially abdicated his throne to his brother Faisal, due to what the newspapers called “a prolonged illness.” The real reason, as my father said, ran more along the lines of “a prolonged national embarrassment.” My father was the kind of man who, to my mother’s consternation, never minced words, voicing things better left unsaid. My mother, who believed that I’d inherited this trait from him, thought that marriage to Qamar would calm me down.
But Qamar, though lovely, could not curb the restlessness of my mind. She did not understand my fascination with Voltaire, whom she called a long-haired faranji, and evaded any attempts I made at teaching her English: “Not today; I’m a little tired.” “I have a headache.” “I am not as intelligent as you, habibi.”
A year after our wedding, I received a scholarship from King Faisal’s education fund to leave Riyadh and pursue further studies in Pune, India. Qamar refused to come along; the idea of leaving Saudi Arabia and her family had always frightened her. We separated several times like this over the years: I earned doctoral degrees in Jeddah and Geneva—one in Islamic studies and another in political science— and Qamar, I suppose, accumulated merit points from God and society for being a devout homemaker.
“I cannot live with you anymore,” I told Qamar on the eve of our fortieth anniversary. She did not cry the way I expected her to, but quite simply went numb.
“You cannot divorce me,” she said, after a pause.
“No, I cannot,” I agreed.
Divorce was not an option. Not for a woman like Qamar, whose very life depended on the approval of her family, friends, and acquaintances. Yet she does not know that when I married her, I had hoped we would last. For richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, as the Christians say.
I moved out of our villa on Palestine Street and found an apartment in Aziziyah, in a building next to the girls’ section of Qala Academy. I did not hear from Qamar until two months after our separation, when she left a message on my answering machine.
“I read your interview with that human rights magazine, Abu Faisal,” she said. Father of Faisal, Mother of Faisal— this is how we referred to each other in public; now this is what we call each other in private as well.
“My brother says you shouldn’t have done it. That you’ve made many people angry this time.” A hush of breath and then nothing.
I pressed ‘delete.’
Over the years, I have received many letters, phone calls and e-mails from a variety of people, both Saudi and non-Saudi. Some lauded me, some criticized me, some vowed to kill me. I learned to take the threats in stride—especially after they proved to be empty. Qamar, of course, had always taken them seriously. She would call me on the way to work, when I reached the campus, during lunch breaks, tea breaks, and when my car left the university, homeward— multiple checks to ensure I was still alive.
I did not think of my wife after our separation, or at least I tried not to. For the most part, I had been successful— until that morning, about a week ago.
I think of my wife now as I follow a guard across the sand-block courtyard of the detention centre in Aziziyah, as
the moon glows at us through the wire mesh ceiling.
My friends say that I have always been outspoken. My column in the Al-Arabiya newspaper and my lectures at King Abdulaziz University have always drawn the wrath of certain readers and parents. In public, I have been called “too western,” “too unorthodox,” and “too critical of Saudi Arabia.” In private, I am “the American lapdog,” “an apostate,” and “a traitor.”
My wife, my relatives, and my friends have constantly lamented my inability to adopt the classic schizophrenic perspective common to people who live in the kingdom. In a British documentary called Death of a Princess, an anonymous Arab explained this perspective as the ability to live “in two worlds at once.”
Yet I feel that Najda Khan, a woman who once taught at Qala Academy, explained it better. “It’s not really schizophrenia,” she told me, “but a sort of hypocrisy we’ve adopted over the years. For instance, many of us in South Asia or the Middle East have no qualms about watching a kissing scene in an English movie. But if any of our movies include such scenes, we march out on the streets in protest; we burn effigies of the actors; we call the movie a degradation of our culture.
“We rebuke foreign filmmakers and news channels for broadcasting our problems to the world: the problems we as a society have learned to overlook. ‘Don’t shantytowns exist in New York?’ we ask. ‘Aren’t children sold into prostitution in Europe? Who are you to point fingers at us?’
“But when our countrymen reveal the same things, we either ignore them or accuse them of treason. We make them so miserable that eventually they, too, lose faith and cease all effort.”
And so, the things that must be said remain unsaid.