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.
Of the hijab, I can say it was hot. And it was hard to put on. I was always wrapping it wrong, and the women were always laughing at me. It was not so difficult and yet there I was, gasping for air as the billowy folds of the thing caught in my armpit, my hair, and so on. But there were always women fussing over me by then. Sisters, aunts, telling me to slow down, they would do it for me. Stop moving, turn this way, lift your arm. This was in Arabic, which I had begun to understand, and it was also in eye language and body language and all the other ways human beings communicate when we do not speak the same verbal language.
We all, and I mean my guy, his mother and stepbrother, brother, and aunts and uncles, began to talk about getting married. Us. My beloved and me. Getting married. In the traditional sense. Which, I came to understand, had to do with being painted in henna, and daylong festivities of singing and ritualized sword fighting, and me being hidden away and then presented to the celebratory cries of the women in the family who claimed me as their own, as the woman whom they approved to marry the best and brightest of their brood. And he was that, really. He was, and still is, I am sure, brilliant in every way. Modern. Smart. Full of both humility and pride of place, of background, of personal circumstance.
I came to understand that I was to go through these rituals and then it was expected that we would have a traditional American wedding, too. Though I had no idea what that was, I nodded when we all sat around the small house where my beloved was born, a house that had no running water and just a small outdoor area for cooking. I thought of the way my parents married, before a justice of the peace. I would carry white lilies. He would buy a suit. My parents would welcome him into our family and then we would begin to do what married couples do. We would begin to have children. We would begin to build our own house, brick by brick, next to his mother's house. Only we would have running water and a toilet, because I was from the West and everyone knew I could not live without that.
But then I got sick, very, very sick. I had caught malaria one night as I lay sleeping on the rooftop outside of the mosquito netting. I had to be hospitalized and as I lay there surrounded by anti-American doctors and nurses who cursed American intervention in Islamic affairs, I feared for my life. I would ask for a clean needle, and a nurse would jab me with one that had already been used. AIDS patients were in every room, coughing and staring at me.
In that hospital I realized something. Namely, that I could not be sick in such a place. There were borders I could not cross. And once I acknowledged that, I saw the poverty all around, and the way I would be treated as a Western woman whenever I was out of doors and uncovered, and I began to feel the unlikelihood of the entire endeavor. Where would I take my children if they were sick? How would I explain myself, my choices, to my children? I became afraid. I guess you could say, as we do here, I got cold feet.
I had to catch a special supply plane to get out of that place one morning when I was still sick and could barely see. I told him I'd be back, but I never went back. For years I thought of myself as a coward. I missed him. Longed for him. Wrote long letters to his mother, begging her forgiveness. I could not marry her son. The dress she bought for me, the plans she was making, the money she was putting aside day by day, they should be saved for someone more worthy. Someone more brave. Reliable. Acclimated.
We did not marry and yet I consider that wedding, the wedding I never had, as one of the most pivotal moments in my life. Religion, culture, language, all of these I was willing to cross, but there were some things I could not let go. There were other realities that had to be considered. I wanted to love him every day for the rest of my life, but I could not pull the trigger. I could not do it.
Now he is a memory. I am with another man, the father of my child, the love of my life. But still this wedding, the wedding that did not come to pass, is the one that sticks. At times I wish I had taken the leap. At times, I realize what a wedding can mean. What a wedding can do. It can make you weep. Can make you change. Can make all your dreams of being with another come true. I have respect for weddings because of the one I didn't have. I have not attempted it again, perhaps because I believe you only have one wedding per lifetime, and even though I missed mine, it was enough.