I remember the first time I ever set eyes on you. I was sitting in the student common room when my Pakistani companion pointed at you and asked me: “Can you guess where she’s from?”
I found this a strange question to ask, because you were wearing a white headscarf, and I had taken to lowering my gaze in the presence of hijab-wearing women. I was not a Muslim then; I just assumed that this was what was expected of me. My companion told me that you were half French. I said, how interesting, and went back to my conversation.
Over the weeks and months that followed, we often seemed to encounter one another. Whenever we did, my eyes would hit the floor. In my mind, I thought I was showing you respect; I thought that was what the hijab was for, to signify that you did not want the gaze of strange men settling on you. But as I say, I was not a Muslim then. That was all supposition on my part.
Alas, as time went by, word got back to me that you took my behaviour to mean that I hated Muslims. That I refused to look at you specifically, because you were both new to wearing hijab and European-looking. When I heard this, I got myself in quite a tizz, because my intentions were quite the opposite. The accusation riled me, winding me up.
Once, when visited by my brother and his then-fiancée at our halls of residence, I remember my sister-in-law giving you quite an unpleasant and disapproving look when she saw you sitting on a bench by the door. I remember giving her a disapproving glance in return, defending you against her apparent hostility towards the white hijabi. But you would never have known that. Instead, one of your friends later confronted me head-on, lecturing me at length about my ignorance, all while staring directly into my eyes. That may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.
That was when I decided to confront you about it. I approached you as you were standing at your locker. “Excuse me,” I said abruptly, “can I speak to you please? I just want you to know that the reason I was looking at the ground in your presence was because I was trying to show respect. I don’t hate Muslims. I was just doing what I thought was expected of me.”
Of course, that did not help things at all. Nothing ever did. I was a pretty messed up kid then. A few days later, another of your friends rebuked me for confronting you like that. “She’s pregnant,” she said, which I took to mean you were fragile and undeserving of my hostile defence, which was absolutely true. I was too caught up in my own ego to understand that other people had feelings.
After that I did not see you again at university. Obviously, you had dropped the year to raise your newborn baby. The next time I encountered you was on the stairs at Goodge Street masjid. I was a Muslim by then. You smiled at me and said, “Assalamu alaikum.” I replied, “Wa alaikum assalam,” grateful to have had the opportunity to exchange greetings of peace.
A few months later, on the eve of my final year exam on the politics of the Middle East, when I realised that I had truly made a mess of my revision, I decided to make a pact with my Lord. In prayer, I said to Him, “O Allah, this exam is a lost cause; it is hopeless. I know nothing. O Allah, if I apologise to that sister, will You help me pass the exam?”
I had not seen you all year long. You were not in any of my lectures. But when I arrived for my exam, you were sitting at the desk directly behind me. My Lord had placed you right in front of my eyes, to enable me to apologise there and then. And all through my exam, that was what was on my mind. Not the Middle East peace process. Not the nationalisation of Iran’s oil industry. Not border disputes in the Gulf. No, only how I was going to do as I had promised.
But alas, my exam was such a disaster that I stormed out of the room at the end, without looking at anybody. I didn’t keep my part of the bargain, and naturally I flunked my exam. Funnily enough though, it was never that exam that bothered me through all the years that followed. No, it was failing that simple test: to say sorry to you for that day I rudely confronted you at your locker, to tell you what a respectful young man I was.
For years I have yearned to say sorry and make amends. I suppose you returned to France to live your life there with your husband. I don’t know your name. By now the baby you were carrying must be at least twenty-four, older than either of us were then. Who knows the adventures you have had in your life.
Still, if I had a chance to apologise today, I would. Perhaps this is what this letter is, though it is highly unlikely you will ever read it. Who am I? Just a man of perpetual regrets, working through the long list of people I have wronged, hoping desperately to make amends.