Boreal

Falling for Uzza

Part I

We all reach a point in our lives when we only have so much time left to make fools of ourselves and we should use that time wisely and that includes being honest with ourselves and others. The following is about as honest as I can get.

Hers is a name derived from a chapter in the Koran. Her name is all about emotions, strong emotions, some evocative of the passion that a man once felt for a cherished spouse when she was alive and well.

She asked for assistance in dying at the beginning of July once she realized that the first full draft of Remembering Uzza was done. I said she couldn’t leave, that there was still much to do; but I did not insist when, a few days later, she called the number that would bring the doctor who would end her suffering to our apartment.

I spent most of the sunny summer of 2019 at the bar and restaurant patios that dot both sides of a street close to where we used to live, working on that draft and thinking about her, and later, the girl with the Koranic name who, with only a few words and a smile, soothed my longing for my beloved Lucette.

It was my first visit of the year to this particular bar and patio. It would not be my last. I sat down at an out-of-the-way table some distance from the serving area when I first spotted her: a beautiful, tanned vision of confidence in what I think was an imitation of the proverbial little black dress, making her way to my table, a gentle breeze teasing her hair.

While taking my order, she glanced at my draft copy of Remembering Uzza.

[Beautiful girl]: Is that a book about Islam?

Me: Yes.

[Beautiful girl]: Who is the author?

Me: That would be me. It’s not published yet. I am making corrections.

[Beautiful girl]: Oh! I am Arab and Muslim.

Me: That’s nice.

What else was I going to say? For the rest of the afternoon, the service took on a decidedly matter-of-fact quality. The subtitle If Islam was explained to me in a pub may have had something to with it. I don’t know and I didn’t care.

A week or so later, I found myself sitting in a different section when she rushed over and asked the waitress, who was about to take my order, if she could have this table. She was actually smiling when she enquired how my book was coming along. And that is how it started: our mostly random, maybe once-a-week conversation at her workplace about Islam, and about her.

I can’t tell you much about her—I want her to remain anonymous—except that she is twenty-something, beautiful and smart with the academic background to prove it.

I was very much interested in her as person but also as a Muslim. Nearly two decades of studying Islamic scriptures and I am still trying to understand how ostensibly rational individuals can embrace a religion steeped in incongruities whose core theology, stripped of all pretences, can be summed up in three little words: worship, war and sex—the latter being mainly the man’s commensurate reward for his commitment to the first two. Islamic State, and its imitators, are the most honest manifestation of Islam at its best, and Allah is a big fan of honesty, unless a lie will further His Cause.

It's probably a generational thing, but my interest in her was reciprocated only in her interest in the book that was, in so many ways, about her (and other young forward-looking Muslim female immigrants like her). It became even more evident as the parallels between the heroine of Remembering Uzza could not be avoided. I once remarked that, if I had made Uzza's character Arab instead of Pakistani, she could be Uzza.

She made me promise I would let her read my book as soon as it was published. I said I would love for her to read it and let me know what she thought. I even stoked her interest by revealing elements of the story with which she could identify.

As my self-imposed publication date approached, I started having second thoughts; these morphed into a small panic when a man who bore a strange resemblance to the Islamic vigilante of Uzza, big and balding, came to say the Asr—the late afternoon prayer for Sunnis—beneath the branches of a large tree across the street from where I live*. This had never happened before.

He laid his prayer mat down, facing east in the direction of Mecca, and got on with the prostrations, the kissing-the-ground and all that, and the reciting of verses from the Koran, which I could not hear from behind the double-pane bay window where I sat at a desk writing, catching up on the news and playing Hearts while watching the world go by**

All done, he picked up his mat—but rather than return the way he came, he slowly crossed the street in the direction of my condo building, looking up (my apartment is on the second floor) and moving his head from side to side. If I had leaned across my desk and looked down, chances are that I could tell you the colour of his eyes. Like in a horror movie, I feared coming face to face with my worst nightmare. When I finally did glance at the sidewalk beneath my window to the world, he was gone.

Had he returned the next day or the day after, I would have assumed he had found a place conducive to communing with the Almighty and left it that. But he never returned. What was that all about?

I know that, should Uzza find an audience, violence will find me, and my government will agree with the extremists that I had it coming. It is inevitable, a sign of the times and an honoured tradition (e.g., Charlie Hebdo), dating back to the Prophet who had his more vocal critics assassinated.

However, I would rather that, before the inevitable comes crashing in, Uzza’s reputation has spread further than my city's large diverse Muslim community—and Riyadh. My website, where I posted excerpts of Uzza prior to publication, including the chapter A Shirley Temple, Anyone? where the vigilante makes an appearance with his burka-clad sidekick, gets regular visits from a Riyadh web address.

It shouldn’t have, but that visit from a fan of a religion that brooks no equal and that does not suffer criticism gladly fuelled a reluctance to follow through on a promise made to a beautiful girl.

I started making excuses. I published Remembering Uzza: If Islam was explained to me in a pub in September. October came and went, and I was running out of excuses.

I know what you’re thinking: if the local ummah was already aware, why not give her the damn book and be done with it? You may be right. Maybe it was the sex—in the book, that is.

Needless to say, no explanation of Islam would be complete without a discussion of Islam and sex, and Uzza is not afraid to talk about it. Maybe it was these scenes that worried me. Little did I know.

With that in mind, once—when I again showed up without the book—I said it was because I wanted her father, who was out the country, to read it first. He could order it from Amazon and have it delivered to wherever he was at the time to let him decide if it was suitable reading material for his daughter. She looked at me as if I was from another planet.

The sunny, warm summer and early fall of 2019 gave way to a contrarian November. One cold early November evening I left her workplace thinking it was too busy for her to find the time to talk to me. I was more than a short distance out the door when I heard a voice calling “Bernard, where are you going?” I turned around to find her next to me in attire totally unsuitable for the weather asking if I wanted to come back in—and, I think, asking if I had brought the book.

I was not lying about having the book when we next met, after I hit upon another delay tactic. I placed fifty dollars and a letter containing an excerpt from my wife’s eulogy in an envelope. The letter about keeping an open mind and mutual respect and understanding also revealed that my Lucette had passed away, but not when***.

A young woman’s underwhelming curiosity about the life of an old man had made it easy to avoid mentioning that I was recently widowed. It would probably have led to a display of emotions, which could only have damaged a relationship evolving based on a mutual interest in Islam.

I gave her the envelope. She read the letter while I explained that, because she was busy with more important things, she should take the fifty (Uzza retails for $19.50 CDN on Amazon.ca) and purchase a copy when she had more time to read it. She kept the letter and handed back my fifty dollars. No more nonsense. She wanted the book, and she wanted it from me.

Needless to say, the next time we met I had the book—and yes, another envelope. This one contained two hundred and fifty dollars, and nothing else. I explained that I was purchasing her opinion for five hundred dollars; she would be, in effect, my consultant, and she would get the remainder when she reported back on her impressions of Remembering Uzza after having read the entire script. If she accepted my conditions, her opinions about the book, for the time being, were for me only.

She agreed, and I gave her the book. She promised to give it back, but I said no: it was hers to keep and I expected her to scribble all over it, and she would. She then literally hugged the book, beaming as if I had given her the Hope diamond. What a heartwarming sight that was. How could I not find her endearing?

As expected, the next time we met she had been too busy with more important things to read more than twenty pages, but she seemed okay with Uzza, so far. Another week passed since I had seen her when it happened. She had obviously been to the hairdresser or seen someone skilled in doing the impossible: improving on perfection.

As she made her way to the stool next to me, the one nearest to the wall, she firmly stroked my back with the flat of her hand, from shoulder to shoulder. It was the type of greeting you would expect from more than just a friend, or a very good friend at the very least. I had forgotten what that felt like. For the last few years of Lucette’s existence, even that commonplace, somewhat forceful gesture of affection was beyond her capabilities. A feeble, bruised hand behind my neck was the best she could manage when I leaned over to kiss her goodnight.

In the four months or so since that serendipitous meeting on the patio on a street of patios, the only greeting we had exchanged was a light handshake, and now this.

She sat down next to me and turned toward me, at times leaning against the wall, at times leaning forward or sitting up straight. It didn’t matter; even when I looked into her eyes, I could not help but take in the exposed curvature of what the Prophet loved in young women: their breasts. Maybe three buttons of her blouse were unbuttoned; nothing unusual, we were not meeting in a convent, and it was only the manner in which we found ourselves sitting—next each other—that offered my peripheral vision something truly inspiring.

It was as if the gods were conspiring to make this old man long for something that was very much a distant memory. And they were not finished.

She brought the book in anticipation of, I assume, a serious discussion. She placed it on the counter. She left it open, or maybe it was me who - inadvertently, after helping her find an endnote - left it open at page 119, which was folded upon itself and acted as a bookmark.

Page 119 concludes the chapter No Paradise for Old Men, a prophetic title as it would turn out, where Uzza answers a question from Bob about whether “in Paradise they do it that way.” Page 119 also marks the end of a discussion about how holy warriors use rape, with virgins the preferred target, as a means of coercing innocent young girls into becoming suicide bombers. Nothing sexy about that either, but it didn’t matter.

That man beneath my window had me thinking conspiracies. If she wanted to spend a disappointing night in bed with a guy twice her age and then some, all she had to do was ask. What do they say about people who assume too much? That they make an “ass” of “u” and “me,” but mostly themselves?

Instead of continuing to seek her feedback on the book, I started talking about my afternoon at the University of Ottawa arranging a memorial scholarship in my late wife’s name. While I spoke, she buttoned her blouse all the way to the top, and when I was finished, she said she had to go. As she got up to leave, she again stroked my back, but this time in a more hurried way.

For someone who has lost a partner of more than thirty-eight years, the hardest thing to get used to is going to bed alone and waking up alone. Had I passed up an opportunity not to wake up alone? The thought was too much to bear. I had to find out.

The next time we met was a few days before Christmas. She greeted me in the same way she always had - except for that last time - with a smile and a “how are you,” or something equally engaging. I think she was wearing that same little black dress as when we first met. It was the end of her shift. I asked if we could go someplace else, someplace more quiet. She got her coat and we walked to a nearby, near-empty bar in the next block .

We sat down in a banquette across from one another. I wasted no time in asking what had happened the last time we met. Her answer was both a relief and a disappointment. No, she had not tried to seduce me and she was sorry if I got that impression. But what about the book left open at that chapter? “You mean the one about...; what about it?” Just like my Uzza, nothing fazed her.

Just like before, I changed the subject and started talking about me, only me. She seemed to be as attentive as if I was talking about Islam. I stopped myself. She had better and more fun things to do than listen to me talk about me. I knew her friends were waiting for her. This time, I was the one who decided it was time to go. Before we left, I handed her a small box containing some of Lucette’s more whimsical jewelry: gold-plated charm bracelets.

She opened the box and asked, “Why?” I explained that during one of, if not the most difficult time of my life, two constant had been two Muslims: her and ..., who still calls every day. I wanted to show my appreciation for being, among other things, a welcomed distraction. To keep my emotions in check, I half-jokingly reminded her what the Prophet said about people who wear gold jewelry in this world: that they would not be allowed to wear gold in Paradise. “That was for men only,” she said with a smile. I’ll have to look that up.

She told me that after Christmas she was going away for a few weeks, during which time she would be able to finish reading my book.

We walked to where I knew her friends were waiting. She stood there and I stood there, not quite knowing what to do. What the hell,I gave her hug, turned around and went home.

Except for an artist’s rendering of my Lucette’s beautiful smiling face, which I hung at the end of the corridor leading to my bedroom and to which I say goodnight and good morning, I had not yet brought myself to put up any more pictures of her, or of us together. When I got home that night, I took out a framed photograph of the two of us in more optimistic, carefree times and put it on my desk****. It’s been there ever since. It’s was there while I wrote this. She’s okay with it.

As to my other beautiful girl: no matter what she said about that night, when life again imitated art, when she made me feel that I was more than an acquaintance, I still think it was an Uzza moment. For what that means, you will have to read the book.

As to what happens next, I don't know. One thing is for sure: a young woman from West Africa started me on this journey of discovery of a religion like no other twenty years ago, and a young woman from the troubled Middle East will mark the end of that journey no matter what. No doubt this is how it was meant to be.

Bernard Payeur

December 31, 2019, last updated January 12, 2020.

Falling for Uzza - Part II

Remembering Uzza

------

* The tree from the screen covered side window and part of the sidewalk. I was standing when I took the picture the day after. Go figure!

** My desk, December 31, 2019

*** Dear [beautiful girl],

The following is an excerpt from my eulogy pronounced at my wife’s funeral. It is both a tribute and an aspiration which we both shared. Remembering Uzza was written in that spirit of hope for the future.

Sincerely

Bernard

-----

Most days began with the buzz of the alarm clock; my signal to get up and go downstairs to make the coffee. Ten minutes later, a warm cup of coffee in each hand, I would make my way back up the stairs, leaving one cup on the desk in my home office, and the other on her bathroom vanity.

Back in the bedroom I would open the curtains and then walk over to the bed to kiss her good morning. She would shower and get dressed and I would drive her to her job on Parliament Hill, a five to ten minute drive depending on the traffic.

For 35 years, she was one of the fifty or so elite professionals who provide translation and simultaneous interpretation to the House of Commons, the Senate of Canada, Parliamentary and Cabinet Committees and Party Caucuses.

After a hurried goodbye and have a nice day – Wellington Street, in front of Parliament, is a busy street in the morning – I would make my way back home and begin my day’s work which was, for about ten years, bringing order to the Koran.

When she got home at the end of the day, depending on the season, and the weather, we would sit on the front porch with a glass of wine and some munchies and she would read and comment on my day’s work. I always had a copy of Fakhry’s interpretation of the Koran on my lap ready to answer her questions. This was when her Masters in Linguistics, specialty Translation, came in handy.

Sipping her wine, she would patiently explain some of the nuances of Fakhry’s translation that I had failed to grasp or that I might have misunderstood.

We agreed on most things when it came to Islam and the threat it posed to Western Civilization except, that she believed it would all come to pass, that the moderates would win the day and the March of Civilization would continue and we would not see the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which ushered in the Age of Reason, undone.

She was always the optimist. As Pain, Pleasure and Prejudice, our layman's guide to the Koran, grew from a few hundred pages to encompassing the entire book, her optimism was severely tested, but her dedication to what would become our project to make the Koran accessible to the layperson never wavered.

If we can, believers and non-believers, have the type of discussions Lucette and I had about Islam – taking time-outs if the discussion gets too animated – then her optimism that a modern interpretation of the Koran and mutual respect and understanding will eventually overcome fanaticism and intolerance may be validated and nothing would make her happier.

Love you Lucette

**** The picture in the frame on the desk.