What Could Have Been

An almost-married woman discovers the boundaries she could not cross

Took a year off from Yale and decided to travel through Africa with a friend. We went through Egypt, the Sudan and landed in Kenya. I reached a small island off the coast, Pemba, and fell in love. With the island. No cars, exquisitely carved doors, a beach with warm emerald and turquoise waters. We were to be there three days. It was a respite. The travel in Egypt had been hard. Men groped us on the street. There was a Kentucky Fried Chicken in front of the Sphinx. I got lost in the Land of Kings. One moment I was in the desert, with Queen Hatshepsut’s temple in plain view. The next I was in a wide-open eternity of sand, without direction. Without water.

Our three-day respite turned into a week, and then two. We found a tiny guesthouse with a hammock that looked out over the sea. We began to meet people—travelers, locals, shady opportunists who preyed on tourists—and then, one night, I met the man I wanted to marry. He was tall, he was blindingly handsome. On the day I met him he wore a white button-down shirt and a striped kikoi, a men’s sarong, around his hips. On the day he met me, I had just washed my hair in a giant white bowl on the rooftop of the guesthouse. It was hot, and I was thirsty. He laughed at me, washing my long hair outside without a towel, and asked me where I had come from. Why I was there, on his island.

It was Ramadan and he worked carving doors all day in a workshop with 10 other men. One night at sunset he came to break the fast with me. He brought sweet spaghetti, a delicacy, for me to eat. His mother made it. He brought mango soup, a meal that turned out to be my favorite over the coming months. Bring me mango soup, I would say later on, when we had become more familiar. But that night he stayed with me, talking about God, the Koran, my feminist ideas. He listened to every word I said. He answered thoughtfully, as if he wanted me to know exactly where he stood and what he believed. I admired his clarity. His openness. I was shocked to find him completely different from what I thought him to be.

What can I say? We fell in love over the next several weeks. He brought me food and then to meet his mother. The woman I traveled with left to go to South Africa. I stayed and moved in with his family. His mother taught me how to wash a full load of laundry with one pitcher of water. She tried to teach me to make a fire and to roll the juice out of a coconut to make rice for dinner. She laughed at my ineptitude and, little by little, she began to treat me—to see me—as family. Little by little, I came to see her as family, too, and when we walked the streets to go to market in the evening, I wore the hijab to be closer to her and to have the freedom to walk unmolested.

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