‘Salams Ibrahim,’ says Ayşegül, coming to a standstill half a metre in front of me. ‘I knew you’d be in the library, somehow.’Chapter 3 of my winter writing project, Seeking the one.
3: Amongst the books
Wednesday, 31 March 2021
‘Salams Ibrahim,’ says Ayşegül, coming to a standstill half a metre in front of me. ‘I knew you’d be in the library, somehow.’
‘Mo told you I’m a square too?’
‘I just know you take your studies seriously,’ she says, fiddling with one of the folds of the burgundy headscarf which encircles her face. ‘Mind if I sit down?’
‘It’s a free country,’ I shrug. ‘Okay, it’s not a free country right now. But, um, it’s not my table, so… do what you like.’
I only sat down at the large table today because my usual desk around the corner was occupied; perhaps that’s her excuse too. Sitting down on the other edge, she begins unpacking her bag, laying down a text book beside her ring binder. From her pencil case, she retrieves a pencil and a set of highlighter pens. I’ve never seen anyone as organised as Ayşegül. Not only is her folder sorted into neat sections with multi-coloured tabs, but her notes are exquisite, filled with mind maps, flowcharts and mesmerising drawings to explain every topic and concept. Right now, she’s taken to writing keywords down on one side of a set of flashcards, followed by paragraphs of text on the reverse. I’m impressed; my notes look pretty thoughtless by comparison, but I continue regardless. I have no intention of interrupting her while this essay still looms over me: the deadline’s lunchtime tomorrow and so far my draft reads like a work of science fiction.
I look up to find Ayşegül sliding one of her flashcards across the table towards me. Plucking it from its resting place, I find a greeting inscribed on the front: Salam alaikum! Flipping it over, I discover five letters set down in a beautiful calligraphic hand, decorated with a swirling vine of grapes and flowers drawn in three different colour inks. ‘Smile,’ it says. I don’t actually smile when I see it, but I manage to draw a smiley underneath and pass it back.
A minute later, another card slides across the table, lodging itself under my notes. ‘Are you okay?’ it says on the front. This time I allow myself to smile; inside, anyway. Without looking up, I turn it over and write a paragraph of my own on the other side. I hope she won’t judge me on my terrible handwriting.
‘That company we found yesterday: I’m certain it’s my gran. I found out when she was born and it matches that date of birth. But I haven’t messaged her. I don’t know what to say. I wished I’d taken your number yesterday. Wanted to get your advice.’ I think for a moment. ‘Thanks for asking,’ I scribble at the bottom, then I draw another smiley before passing it back.
Across the table from me, I watch as Ayşegül takes her phone out and fidgets with it. After a second, she reaches across the table and thrusts it beneath my gaze. ‘Here,’ she says, ‘my contact card.’
‘No, don’t. I don’t want it.’
‘Oh,’ she says, shrinking back, ‘You’re very…’
‘I was going to say strict.’
‘Nope. Just paranoid.’ I didn’t mean to be so brusque and now I feel bad for making her blush. ‘I could still do with your advice though,’ I whisper, hiding my mouth behind my hand. ‘What should I do? Do I send a friend request? What if she blocks me?’
Glancing all around her, Ayşegül pulls her chair onto the next side of the table and sits back down again on my right. ‘Can’t you just message her?’ she asks, leaning in.
‘Yes, but say what? “Hello, I think you’re my gran?” Can you imagine it?’
‘Maybe that’s exactly what you have to say. You don’t want to beat about the bush. Just get straight to the point. Short and sweet.’
Unfortunately, this is definitely not my strong point; I neither have the confidence, nor would I know how to start. ‘You’re studying English Language, aren’t you?’ I ask, ‘Would you help me write something?’
‘Do you really want me to? I hardly know you.’
‘I know, but… Would you?’
Without responding, Ayşegül reaches for a sheet of paper and her pen. Hastily, she begins scribbling down some lines of text, only to scribble them out and start again.
‘What’s your dad’s name?’ she asks.
‘As in the footballer?’
‘You follow football?’
‘I’m Turkish, so it’s mandatory,’ she laughs.
At my side, I watch as she thoughtfully writes and edits a paragraph of considered prose. When she’s finished, she takes a flashcard and copies down what she’s written in one neat block. ‘How’s this?’ she asks me, handing it to me.
‘This is a long shot, but are you the mother of Ben Johnson? If you are, I’d be eternally grateful if you could message me back.’
‘What do you think?’ she asks.
‘I don’t know.’
Ayşegül gazes at me pensively. ‘Do you want me to contact her for you?’ she asks.
‘That would be even weirder, wouldn’t it?’ I ask, shrugging.
‘Maybe. But if it helps, I don’t mind.’
‘Would you?’ I ask.
Yes, I did just say that. But if she thinks I’m a moron now, she doesn’t let on. She just smiles at me, taking her phone in hand, and begins tapping out a new message.
‘What’s your dad’s birthday?’ she asks.
As she edits backwards and forwards, her face moves with curious jolts, her lips in perfect sync with her typing thumbs. When she’s finished, she looks up at me briefly. ‘Are you sure about this?’ she asks me. ‘Bismillah,’ she says when I nod. ‘Sent.’
‘What did you say?’
Glancing down at her phone, she reads her message back to me. ‘Forgive me for this strange message, but I’m trying to help a friend find his grandmother. Are you the mother of Ben Johnson, born 5/5/77? Please message me back.’
‘How will we know if she’s seen it?’
‘Blue tick means it’s been delivered. If she’s read it, it’ll show her profile picture.’
‘What’s it showing now?’
‘A blue circle.’
In my stomach, I feel butterflies and a horrible, dizzy nausea. Already, I’ve started wondering if we did the right thing, but the librarian terminates these nascent thoughts, wandering past to shush us. Seeing her, Ayşegül returns to her side of the table to continue writing out her own detailed study notes. She has an essay to prepare for and so do I, but it seems she’s more focused than I am.
‘What about now?’ I whisper over to her fifteen minutes later.
‘Sabr,’ she whispers back. ‘You know the ayat: “And be patient. Surely, Allah is with those who are patient.” Sabret.’
‘I know,’ I mutter mournfully. ‘I don’t expect a reply straight away. I know it’s going to be a shock for her too. She hasn’t heard from my dad for twenty-five years. She doesn’t even know I exist. To be honest, I don’t expect a reply at all.’
‘Have hope, Ibrahim. Be hopeful. Think the best.’
‘I know. You’re right. But if it was me… I’d probably just think it’s a prank. If I looked at it at all. Who even uses Facebook anymore?’
‘Baby Boomers,’ she giggles. ‘You might be surprised. My aunts are on it all the time. And my mum. Mostly watching cooking videos on how to make kemal paşa tatlısı, like they don’t already know.’
‘My parents are anti-social-media. I wasn’t even allowed a smartphone until I came to college. They’re total technophobes, which is odd, because my dad works in IT.’
‘Well you do realize our parents were the last generation to experience being a teenager without the internet?’
‘Your parents tell you that too, do they?’ I laugh. ‘Yeah, “In our day we had books.” Or, “In our day when you wanted to learn something, you’d visit the library, not open Google.” Yeah, yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah.’
‘Sounds familiar. A while back, my dad showed me this totally antique laptop from like 2005. It still works, but it’s sooo slow. He was proudly showing me all his old CDs. This encyclopedia that he reckons was basically the web before the web. Oh, and some Alim app: Quran, hadith, all that. I just laughed, showed him I have it all on my phone.’
‘Yep. Parents are just so… old fashioned. At least mine are.’
‘Strict?’ she asks.
‘Just a bit. Always asking me where I am. My mum: always asking about my friends. No Xbox, no PlayStation. Man, my life is so boring. Have to come straight home after college. They don’t let me hang around with my mates, lest I be stabbed to death by the roving gangs they believe dominate the lives of Gen Z. And yet when I get home, there’s nothing to do. My dad’s got some weird mental health issues going on. My mum’s having a nervous breakdown. My sister’s turning into the spitting image of mum, all serious and self-righteous. And my little brother: a complete weirdo. I can’t wait to leave home. That’s the only reason I’m always in the library: so I can get a place at uni as far away from home as possible.’
Ayşegül smiles at me in a way that makes me think I might just have revealed way too much information. ‘They’re probably only being protective,’ she tells me. ‘Maybe they’ve seen your mate, Mo.’
‘He’s alright,’ I begin, but the librarian is back, telling us to hush again. ‘Sorry,’ I mutter, feigning interest in my essay prep. I manage another ten minutes of work, but I’m soon distracted by Ayşegül’s phone, which keeps on buzzing beside her. Briefly, she glances down at it, then gazes all around. ‘Anything?’
‘No, sorry. Just a friend.’
I don’t mean to be nosy, but when she messages back, there’s a big grin on her face. A second later, I see her eyes cross the library, and I can’t help following them; they land on her friend, Parveen, sniggering back, tapping into her own phone.
‘Are you two laughing at me?’
‘It’s nothing bad,’ she says. ‘They’re just teasing me.’
‘At my expense.’
‘Not at all,’ she says.
‘They’re always laughing at me.’
‘It’s not you,’ she says. ‘It’s just…’
Ayşegül pauses for a moment, as if she’s unsure whether or not to let these thoughts out. Momentarily her eyes flit away, but return reticently.
‘They know I like you,’ she says abruptly.
Now it’s my eyes that flit away, but mine don’t return to her. If my face looks how it feels, roasting me alive, I must be blushing already.
‘There’s nothing wrong with that, you know?’ she retorts swiftly. ‘What’s the most famous story we’re constantly taught? The story of Khadija. She witnessed the character of Al-Amin and pursued him. The marriage proposal was hers.’
‘Woah, that got serious fast,’ I reply, glancing back at her and shrinking backwards at the same time.
‘I’m not saying…’
‘One minute we’re talking about social media, the next minute…’
‘That’s just an example. I just meant…’
‘Is this how a Muslim girl should speak?’
Before me, Ayşegül just shrugs. ‘I don’t know about other Muslim girls,’ she murmurs, ‘I can only speak for myself. And, as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with what I’m saying. I wouldn’t do anything haram. I’m just telling you how I feel. I like you.’
‘But… but this is the first time we’ve ever really spoken.’
‘Not the first time I’ve ever encountered you though. The first time was in that initial Sociology lesson of ours, back in 2019. You were intelligent, articulate, honest. I was impressed. And you just went on impressing me every lesson, mashallah.’
‘I don’t know how. I’m just a very boring nobody.’
‘Not to me. You’re not like other boys. I’m so glad you’re not like Mo and that lot.’
‘Mo’s alright. At least he’s confident.’
‘Confident in the wrong things,’ she says. ‘But you: confident in the right things. Mashallah. You have your priorities right.’
‘No, I just have domineering parents. Don’t dare step out of line, lest World War Three break out.’
‘I think you sell yourself short. You’re your own man. I’ve seen that every day for the past two years.’
‘We’ve been in lockdown for most of the past year.’
‘Maybe that’s exactly why I’m being so direct. I was worried I’d never see you again. The one thing I’ll thank Mo for is coming over to sing your praises yesterday.’
‘Thank my gran,’ I smile. ‘That’s the reason I was looking at you. I knew that if anyone could help me, it would be you.’
‘Inshallah,’ she says. ‘But… but I confess I had other motives.’ Ayşegül looks at me seriously. ‘Can we exchange numbers?’ she asks.
‘I’ve told you…’ I mutter.
‘I’ll write it down for you, then you don’t have to worry about who sees what’s on your phone.’
Rashly, she writes her contact details down on one of her flashcards and passes it to me.
‘What would your parents say?’ I ask her.
Hearing me, Ayşegül beams back at me. ‘I’ve already told my parents about you,’ she chuckles.
‘Told them what?’ I splutter.
‘That there’s this really nice Muslim boy in my class I really like.’
‘You said that?’
‘Yes,’ she says, laughing out loud.
‘And what did they say?’
‘Get his number.’
‘Wait… what? Are your parents practising Muslims?’
‘Of course. In fact, they’ve practiced so much that they’re pretty good at it now, ha-ha.’
‘I’m sorry, I can’t get my head around that. I’d never be able to talk to my parents like that.’
‘They’re just so… I don’t even know how to describe it. Middle class? Overbearing? Insecure? I don’t know, is it because they’re converts? They’re just so restrictive, in everything.’
Ayşegül looks at me, then reaches for the flashcard she gave me. I watch as she scribbles two more numbers down, and two names.
‘That my mum’s number,’ she says, passing it back to me. ‘Ask your mum to call her. When you’re ready, I mean.’ She thinks for a moment. ‘But don’t keep me waiting too long,’ she chortles.
Glancing down at the note, I see she’s written her parent’s numbers underneath her own. ‘You don’t even know if I like you yet,’ I tell her.
‘Oh, I know,’ she smiles back.
‘Your eyes have betrayed you,’ she laughs. ‘Ah, and your best mate.’ I nearly put the card in my pocket. ‘Wait a minute,’ she says, ‘let me give you my email address too.’ I watch her scribble it down and pass it back to me. ‘Don’t lose it,’ she says.
‘I’ll try not to,’ I say, only to watch her glance down at her buzzing phone again. ‘More mockery?’
‘Not at all,’ she says, ‘I just have to go now. But I’ll let you know as soon as your gran reads the message.’
‘Thanks,’ I mutter, watching as she packs up her things.
‘Will you be okay?’ she asks me, standing at my side.
‘Inshallah,’ I say. ‘And thanks,’ I add, ‘Thanks for everything.’
‘My pleasure,’ she says, her face radiating joy.
It’s only after she’s gone that I realise I forgot to give her my own number. I’m such an airhead, so completely unprepared for anything life throws at me. I can already tell that today is going to be a long day. But, hey, at least I have an essay to write. That should distract me from my despondent morass. I’m grateful for small mercies.
Table of contents: folio.me.uk/books/seeking-the-one
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