I fell in love at 1:30 p.m. Nigerian time, when the scorching sun was at its vilest; I remember vividly like I remember my face. It was in one of the northernmost states of Nigeria and certainly wasn’t love at first sight, because there wasn’t really a sight. She had just finished her zuhr prayer at the female section of the mosque that houses both our offices. The same spot that will host our trysts for months to come, before all hell will break loose and my life will never be the same again. When I walked up to her ― a girl on a niqab and just out of the mosque ― I didn’t know what I was thinking, neither did I know what exactly I wanted from her. It certainly wasn’t lust, because she was covered from her head to toes ― and I mean this literally because she had a socks and a hand glove on.
I have done this severally, but not like this. I often lie that she looks familiar, or I like her smile or something cheekier, but this girl has no face and somehow my brain couldn’t improvise a pick up line, so I used the easiest chip in the book. ‘Assalamu alaikum’ I said, trotting to catch up with her. ‘wa alaikum assalam’ she replied. She just had to reply; for Muslims, it’s a sort of religious obligation to reply anyone that says that to you. And that was how we got talking and I could bet she was smiling under her veil. We walked and talked until we got to her office doorsteps. I was about to turn and take my leave when she asked of my name. ‘Abdullah’ I said. I walked away telling her that I will see her around since obviously she seems very hard to miss. Her office was located at the fifth floor of the complex while mine was at the seventh floor. It is the third place I have worked in a year. All my employers have called me all sorts of names; “unemployable”, “intolerable”, and “non-conformist” to mention three. It is the latter that amazes me the most. I don’t know if it was intended to be a rebuke or a commendation.
My first job was at a pension office in Kano City. I had merely applied online and gotten the job, which is close to a miracle in Nigeria. My first week sailed smoothly, my boss loved the way I tidied up my work and always beat the time he sets for me. He even grew fond of me and I became his first point of contact in matters of urgency. But I noticed that my office seat mate didn’t like me, he always scowl when I am around. We barely talk to each other. In my first week, he made it a habit to remind me when it was time for prayers. So after he performs his ablution and before he rushes to the mosque, he says to me ‘assalat,’ and when he comes back, he meets me in the same position he had left me, often engrossed with my computer. On the second week, he stopped reminding me when it was time for prayers. He merely stands up and goes to the mosque; no more ‘assalat’. This brought a mass of relief to me and I was very glad we were past that phase, until one Thursday morning when I came late to the office. I had my earphones on and was jamming to ‘Getaway Car’ from Taylor Swift’s new album; it helped me through all the traffic and people I encounter on my way to work every day. I noticed that my Boss was not on his desk neither were most of my colleagues and the office was unusually quiet. As I approached the office library, I noticed that they were all in the conference room, my Boss; Alhaji Jamilu sat on the power seat at the conference table, facing the other staff of the office. The first person I sighted was my seatmate Adam and my four other colleagues at the round table. I quickly walked towards the library and opened the transparent door; upon seeing me my boss hastily said; “we have been waiting for you and I insisted we couldn’t start without you, where have you been?” I told him I was late because of the traffic. I sat on my seat at the other extreme of the table and the meeting commenced with the secretary reading the agenda. After hours of intense deliberation, my boss closed the meeting and asked everyone to leave except me.
When the last person had shut the door behind him, he asked me to come closer. I sat on the seat immediately beside his, and he started; ‘what is this I have been hearing about you not praying, I heard you barely go to mosque. Please I don’t want to hear such reports again. Do you want to spoil the image of this office, what do you want people to say about you if they find out you don’t pray? This has to end, do you hear me?’ I reluctantly nodded my head. I wanted to talk, but I had nothing to say. I merely walked out when he dismissed me. I knew this day would come, but somehow I had refused to prepare for it. I walked to my desk and switched on my desktop computer and started typing. That day I made sure I was the last to leave the office, I needed some alone time to cry. After I cried to my last sigh, I went to my Boss’ office and dropped my resignation letter on his desk. I looked at the office one last time and knew I was going to miss the peace I had while it lasted ― the scowling face of Adam and the trust of my boss I had earned.
I didn’t see Halima for a week; the truth is I didn’t put any particular effort in seeking her. I didn’t even think about her after I left the doorsteps of her office the other day, but I kept wondering if I made any impression on her when we talked. I didn’t even know if I made her smile with all the jokes I cracked because there was no way I could tell. But she talked gently and replied to all my questions swiftly. She seemed very lively and sociable despite the fact that her Niqab suggested otherwise. I decided to lurk around where we met exactly a week ago and about the same time I had seen her and there she was walking out of the mosque alone wearing a grey niqab this time. Her long hijab was swinging from left to right responding to the whirling of the wind. This time I was standing in the hallway that led to the elevator, so she walked up to me and before I could say a word, she said; “Hey you, don’t you pray? You are always here in the hallway during Salat”. I laughed and told her I was actually stalking her. I told her I couldn’t stop thinking of her since the day we talked. This much, I think I lied about. She made an expression when I said it, but I don’t know what expression it was. She probably was agape at the shock of my lie. “Who exactly were you thinking about? Since you have never seen my face?” I couldn’t come back from that. She went on about how I barely know her and therefore couldn’t have been thinking of her. So I asked her on a date. I told her I wanted to get to know her and nothing more. I knew the answer was supposed to be a big NO. But to my shock, she said she wouldn’t mind that. So I chose a Friday night for the date. I told her I was going to come pick her up and she agreed, we exchanged phone numbers and dispersed. This time I didn’t walk her to her office doorsteps, when the elevator stopped, she got out first and awkwardly, I waved at her.
My new office is at an Insurance company at Nasarawa Local government, also in Kano City. After the sagas from my last two jobs, I developed a strategy to survive this job without any upheaval. When it’s prayer time, everyone in the office disperses to mosque one after the other. Sometimes our Boss comes to our office to remind us that it’s time for prayer; I will scamper along all other members of the office as if making my way to the mosque. Sometimes I will sit in the hallway until it is way past prayer time then return to the office. Other times, I will take a stroll down the quiet boulevard that leads to the main road. I will walk past the bank that shares a fence with our complex, and the many quiet houses and retail shops that are seldom busy but have their stocks on display and beautifully decorated. I will cross the road from one end to the other watching as cars speed to and from the quiet road, and then I will walk back to the office where everyone is definitely back on their seats; I will then sneak to my cubicle and continue with my task for the day. This did the trick and kept me out of trouble for a very long time.
On Friday at 6 p.m. when I couldn’t see the cars approaching without switching on my headlights, I called Halima and told her I was on my way to pick her up. She said she would be ready by the time I arrive. I tracked her house using the Google map application on my phone and as soon as I got to my destination, I called her and she said she was on her way out. She came out wearing a long grey hijab and a brown niqab this time. When she got in, her cologne invaded my car; it smelled like chocolate cosmos, she didn’t say a word, neither did I. I wanted to continue driving without stopping, I wanted to drive her out of this city, to Kaduna, then Abuja and probably we should cross to the south and somewhere no one could find us. But I stopped at my favourite restaurant at Zoo Road, opposite the Ado Bayaro shopping mall where I had made a reservation for us both. When I switched off the ignition she spoke for the first time since she got into the car. “Where is this place? I have never been here”. I told her it’s my getaway spot. I love the quiet and their dishes. I quickly got out and opened the door for her and led her to our spot in the eatery.
It was difficult watching Halima eat under her veil, how the spoon disappears and comes back empty. She does this effortlessly while staring at me. She ate slowly, and we did more of talking than eating. We got along quite well, but there was a topic that lingered and both of us have refused to discuss. I know I should bring it up. I know she has been expecting me to, but I have intentionally desisted. We went on talking about random things, she loves music and that meant a lot to me. I promised to share my collections with her. She listens to Taylor Swift and Brymo; some of my favourite. Our lives were walking on the same corridors when she said what will change the entire landscape of our relationship. “I have met many people and in less than 24 hours of meeting them they have always asked me why I wear a niqab and often challenge me for wearing it. You seem to see past my niqab. You have never even accidentally asked or made comments on it. Why? Doesn’t it make you cringe too?” she asked. It sincerely doesn’t make me cringe; I have learnt to interact with people the way they are without making a fuss about them. “Besides I know why you wear it. Why should I still go about asking you again” I said. I comfortably thought it should be the same reason why every other girl of her ilk wears it. They feel it’s a religious obligation and that’s just about it. When I said this, she smiled, I could see it through her veil, she might just be right, I see past her veil all the time. But she said I have no idea, that that is not the reason she wears the niqab. I was very surprised and thought she was lying until she told me she had vitiligo, and she started wearing niqab immediately it started manifesting. I was just seated there and staring at her in shock, I couldn’t say a word. This was spontaneous and unscripted, I didn’t even realize when she stood up and walked to the car. I trailed behind her and opened the door with the remote control key. When I got in I switched the engine and started driving. We rode in silence and I could swear all I could hear was her heartbeat. I drove fast, ignoring all the traffic lights and sounds of car horns. I got to the front of her house in no time and immediately I stopped the car, she tried to open the door but it was locked. She was forced to look at me and all I could see was her red eyes exposed by the street lights. I leaned closer to her and she stood still. I kissed her through her veil, it was easy locating her lips, and like in a dream she kissed me back. She placed her hands on my cheeks and pulled me closer, I felt warm and hot at once, my heart was beating fast and so was hers. I lifted the veil and put it over my head. When my lips touched hers, I discovered she was sweating profusely. I then grabbed her upper lip with both my lips. It felt like ice. When I put my hand on her breasts, she fidgeted and pulled back; she made a heavy sigh and went for the door again. I unlocked the door and she rushed out immediately.
I didn’t call Halima throughout the weekend. Each time I pick up my phone and tried to dial her, my hands begin to tremble. I have no idea what to tell her after Friday night incident. I still can’t believe we kissed and wonder where that leaves us. I promised myself to call her on Monday or try meeting her in her office, but Monday came and I couldn’t summon the guts to do so. It was almost 3 p.m. when I received a message from her asking to see me after I close from work. I felt so bad that she had to make the first move. When it was 4 p.m. and we were closed for the day, we met at the parking lot where cars were honking and exchanging farewells amongst themselves. I was speechless and just stood there staring at her. Then she asked where I had been all day. She said she had waited for me at the hallway after both zuhr and asr prayers but she couldn’t find me. She said she thought I didn’t come to work today at all and was worried something had happened to me. I felt that was the right time for me to come clear with her. I don’t want to her to find out eventually, which will be more devastating. When we were both in the car and before I switched it on, I told her there is something very important I want to tell her, and I swear I could feel the anxiety that lapped the car. I know she thinks she knows what was coming, but she doesn’t have an inkling of idea. I told her I loved her but we cannot be together. And she asked if it’s because of her niqab or her vitiligo or whether she was a bad kisser. I laughed when she said that and I felt tears roll down my cheeks. I started breathing heavily and hiccupping at the same time. I told her I didn’t care about her face. I grew fond of her not her face and she is the most amazing person I have met. She thought I was being portentous, so she used her fingers to wipe my cheeks and told me to stop crying that everything will be alright. So I told her that we cannot be together because I am not a Muslim. I told her that my name is misleading because I used to be a Muslim but I am no longer one and I know as a Muslim she is not allowed to be with a non Muslim. I told her I never meant to break her heart. I never knew I was going to fall in love with her. But I know she had long stopped listening to me. She got out of the car and ran towards the gate. She ran until she was out of sight and I was stuck on my seat. I cried on the wheels for a while before I turned the car on and started driving. I kept driving until I ran out of fuel and was stranded at the middle of the road, miles away from my home.