A change of scenery, for many, is a misguided dependency. Empty-headed, earthly voyeurism can tame a restless creature temporarily, give it a place to sleep overnight, and cradle its delicate frame as it wretches into a bin for neither the first or last time. Yet its ill-conceived, malleable friendship offers little unique or personal challenge. Material environments are important, but extenuating – never to be blamed for the creatures that emerge from them, whether bad or good. Eventually, and in excess, wanderlust is a vice dispensed as doses of antidote, or merely a self-indulgent escape that begs for more of itself. It can become just another drink that one may clutch too tightly. Closer proximity to the Earth’s eyes does not guarantee its acknowledgement or acceptance of those vying and dying for a transcendent purpose or profound epiphany. It does not need you in return. It will not offer any embrace, or whisper its secrets into the self-serving ear of the species which most exploits and manipulates it as needed, to the original parent and patent of Munchausen by proxy. Self-discovery is not a huffed lullaby through a hookah pipe. India will only inspire you if sweat corrodes upon your skin with the injustice of poverty and poor governance, rather than the rash of a cheap souvenir sari. The world is not a dependent lover or a subordinate mistress available when convenient. Its partnership is quiet and conditional, its wonders are to be interpreted meaningfully, independently, and offering the same in return. Its sands will much sooner scorch lazy eyes in dry, gritty gusts of blindness than actually clear their view to some higher knowledge.
This planet will bury you alive long before your search in its playground is complete.
Out here it always looked like sunset. The sky was ashen with the haze of displaced atoms. I imagined that the dusty earth had its particles tossed upwards like shrugging limbs, still in shock from the gratuitous development within the most barren heart of undeveloped, unsowable land.
I was a malady in the Middle East.
Shapeless vagabonds melted into sweat and smeared makeup. Slums collected between the jewel-encrusted toes of reclining sheikhs and shysters, clinging to the humid shade of anything that cast a shadow.
Lovers kissed on the Qasbah, under the safe hijab of nightfall. I felt queasy as their rough, arid lips eroded on to one another’s. It was a shared eternal dehydration that, I imagined, warm tongues would only tease. I was, I am, a stranger to this love. And so I could only imagine intimacy as a sip of saltwater in a barren desert, or the sensation of hot breaths and dusty breezes lapping at burnt limbs in a mirage of cold. I observed lovers whose eyes were fresh and vibrant, and wondered at which point these would swell into rockpools too salty for any creature to face, and too hot for any child's wandering toes to dare displace.
At 4am, barefooted children would kick a soccerball in nameless streets and alleyways where every stranger was a trusty friend. Teenagers would cycle around the soft haze of the corniche, untroubled and untroublesome. They would all scurry back to their houses and mosques at the first wailing note of the Quran’s call to prayer. It was safe and lively and relatively scrupulous, at least by human standards.
Committing crimes was for husbands and wives. Corruption was a negotiable option, given the stamps in your passport and the sandiness of your hair. Suicide was for the government to deny. Streetpaths were lined with stares, but not startles. Dangerously wealthy brats named Mohammed may kill a stray animal without reprimand, but only occasionally and anomalously would a non-local name a similarly stray creature Mohammed and be threatened with the same fate. Peace Be An Oligarchy.
Nonetheless, most Mohammeds I came across were innocuous and notably unthreatening, extreme only in hospitality and revelry. The majority of my classmates were courteous like clockwork.
“Our family would be honoured if yours were to join us in our Eid al-Fitr festivities.”
Each year, he never failed to offer.
“But you know I didn’t fast during Ramadan…”
“Habibti, our holy feast is blessed not by your faith but by your friendship. You will join us, inshallah.”
Inshallah, indeed. I am not your habibti.
In comparison to my peers, I was rough and ragged and uncouth. My pallid complexion and recessive mess branded me a curio of the classroom, but was offset by my quietly defensive nature. Drawn into my cherubic face, my peers would impale themselves on sharp, angular edges unforseen to them. I seemed to cause harm easily, deeply, unapologetically. When it rained here, it poured. And I was my own tempest in a teacup, shallow waste water appearing bottomless through a layer of filthy debris. There were no gutters, no intricate internal mechanisms to purge the storm. Water stood in the streets for weeks after monsoon, submerging everything in urban detritus.
Many new foreigners would initially become sick from the constant extremes, living halfway out the door of their air-conditioned suites in the face of dense, unrelenting heat. Old, new and industrial sectors fought for dominance, stacking upwards towards the sky like a precarious game of socioeconomic Jenga that I merely observed. Bustling souks of gold, silver, bronze and blue, provided livelihood and lucidity, while the arabesque of fanciful architecture stole the sky above them. Abra dinghies bobbed across the creek to converge the old and new for a tiny price, while jets zoomed businessmen overhead into the future, at a price dearer than a human life.
To claim sacred pieces of nature and history as our own with harsh tools and tattoos of a modernity that has little to be proud of.
To be raised by places alone, rather than a range of places and people and values and experiences, makes one worldly, but empty-worlded.
The marble palace we inhabited fell in place among smoked out stars, but never did fall from our lips as home. Like all our houses, the common areas were eerily clean like a meticulously sterilised crime scene, while the bedrooms collected every injustice we endured, thickening and blackening the grout between the tiles as if the floor were experiencing every harsh, bruising blow I did.
We were our own little emirates, united only in slashings of blood and the lashings of expatriotism we called family.
Swept away in a sandstorm, the desert I was squinting across seemed endless when I lost sight of her. It was quite possible that her initial presence was nothing but a heat-induced hallucination. She was a music box nearly buried in a sand dune – the tiny, hauntingly desperate tune of a tiny Scandinavian dancer, spinning slower and slower beneath suns that were never destined to incinerate her.
Our oasis was burnt to cinders that blew with the wind across endless plains. We would explore each edge of this desert, chasing our own ashes. On weekends he would drive us to faraway places, taking advantage of limitless roads with his foot burning a hole through the pedal in the guilt-plagued hope that we may collide into a better circumstance.
There was a string of girlfriends closer to my age than his, each of whom he would unleash upon me to play family. They were little girls with an unbranded, second-hand doll to feminise and soften and style as they pleased. But no matter how they tried, they could not conceal its patchy, haphazard haircut – and upon its graffitied face lit a kerosene semblance of a smile.
His Western egotism was predictable and patronising. He expected me to fix something so broken it had been ground into a coarse, indiscernible sand. In doing so, I was condemned to a life of over-accountability.
Discomfort grew as I did. Childhood and beyond, I was eerily silent during regular conversation, and loud only in my imperfect ideas. Playground eyes full of opinion and inquisition. Uncutesy, uncomfortable.
And I packed it all in my carry-on luggage, as did my parents with their broken marriage. The only difference being that I knew this baggage would be no lighter once we touched down at our destination.
I swallowed the blame on behalf of the creatures that had become of me.
I let my eyes close under singed eyelashes. I let my senses blur into an intense ache.
Of heat, and nothing more.