What did I do during the December holidays? How ’bout pages and pages of plot and character notes for a new novel, my third one? I’m giving it the working title Hijab. It features a young Syrian refugee who has an unusual side job: she’s a “honey trap” detective who specializes in catching cheating spouses–that is, until one of those cases goes terribly wrong.
Here’s an excerpt to provide insight into the protagonist. Right now the novel is at first-draft stage.
Later that night after Douglas fell asleep Nawar rose from bed. She picked up her purse from beneath the nightstand, brought it to the dining table, turned on the small light above the stove. She withdrew the phone, clicked through the photos she’d taken. Shadowy but visible. Sufficient for the task.
Next she took out a tan colored wallet, unsnapped it, reached for the slot at the top of the right side, pulled out three of her own photos. She’d been a fool to leave them there. If the man had grabbed her purse instead of demanding it, if he’d run, she’d have lost all that remained from her life before America. She felt a quiver in her shoulders, and she balled her left hand into a fist. She rose and turned on the full kitchen light, peered at the snapshots of what her life once had been.
When she fled Homs she had only the clothes she wore and a purse, and in her purse she carried two photographs. She had bent over Syad lying motionless on the ground, a neat trickle of blood dribbling from the hole beneath his eye, rifle fire snapping, the pant legs of men and the jilbabs and skirts of women blurring in flight left and right. The smell of burning, of death, of fear. The wetness of tears. A hand grabbed her arm, pulled at her, but she yanked free, threw her arms around his bleeding head. The hand returned, and another one on her other arm, and the two hands pulled so that as they tugged she lifted Syad, would have clung and forced them to drag the two of them, except someone else, a third person perhaps, stripped her hands away from her beloved Syad and his head fell back to the pavement and it was the last time she ever saw him on the last night she ever passed in Homs.
The two of them, Syad and Nawar, occupied the first photograph, she in a long-sleeved white gown and a white hijab to hide from his view the arms and shoulders and neck that he alone among all men could view later the night of the photograph, later when he would claim her and hold her. They believed with every kernel of life in the message inscribed inside each of their wedding rings:
What a handsome husband she had caught. A strong chest behind that steel-blue tuxedo, the white dress shirt and bowtie. A neat dark brown beard, short and as she’d learn later that night, scratchy. Eyes bold. A heart fueled by the thirst for justice.
She set the photo on the table and the second one on top of it–a family portrait, she at the age of 15, her father seated in a chair, her mother behind him, her 12-year-old brother next to her looking over the photographer impatiently and next to him Murjanah, curly haired at the age of nine. Her father insisted that she be educated, encouraged her gift for languages, never teased her about the BBC radio tape recordings she made and mimicked in the mornings before the rest of the family rose. More than anyone, he celebrated her appointment at the international school. He let her decide the man to whom she was drawn.
When she allowed Syad’s friends to sneak her across the border into Jordan, Nawar thought she had spared her family. She would not reside beneath their roof and therefore they would not be held responsible for her resistance. But less than a year later she learned the bombs that fell from Syrian Air Force jets did not discriminate on the basis of political allegiances. Her family was dead.
The third photograph. Who would have expected it?
A second wedding in her life, this one with Douglas. In America. She smiled, and the lines of her smile touched a pathway that soothed the soreness of her heart.
With Douglas maybe she was secure here in this nation but when the next day came nobody could know how reality would unfold. Anything could happen at any time. She looked around the kitchen as though one of the cupboards or drawers could provide a shelter for the images of the people precious to her life, but the notion of leaving the house without them seemed to freeze her heart. She thought of another place, the file with their travel documents, and she retrieved from it a money belt that she vowed to wear everyday now for the rest of her life. Another person might laugh at her but not Douglas. He would understand. If someone were to shoot her or if a bomb dropped from the sky she’d go to the hospital or die on the street with the images of her loved ones tight against her body and in her wounded or dying breaths she would feel them flowing to her soul.