“Basmah” means “smile” in Arabic. That’s what my ex-wife named our daughter; she said that maybe she could teach me how to smile. Our marriage lasted for eight years. I tried my best. I’m convinced that the mother of my child and I are both good people who failed to feel happiness in tandem. When we split up, they moved to Jeddah, an hour and a half away by plane. The last image I saw was of them disappearing into the elevator at the airport, my two-year-old crying in her stroller. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Her cavernous mouth.
That image stuck with me for a long time. We agreed that Basmah would spend ten days out of every month with me, so I would fly out, pick her up, and fly back on the same day. Then, ten days later, I would fly again. That image of her disappearing into the elevator dominated my thoughts for twenty days out of every month. I pictured Basmah crying for her father at all times, and I hated myself for it. I told myself that I was a terrible father, because in terminating the marriage I prioritized my own happiness over hers.
I would lie down on the couch for hours, mentally torturing myself. I would cry in the corner of the bathroom. I lost weight in the unhealthiest of fashions. I wasn’t suicidal, but I fantasized about my death.
In January 2018, about a year removed from our separation, I began to hear a voice in my head. It was clearest during meditation. Self/Soul/Divine; I’m not interested in the divisions between these terms. I perceived this voice in a feminine form. Images: A woman with golden brown skin and curls. A ball of light. All of them the most inchoate of metaphors. Pyramids, civilizations, time folding into a paper cone.
You know what’s funny, Beloved? You’re ambivalent about having more children, yet you sometimes daydream about having a son just to name him Abdul-Wadud. You love that divine name, Al-Wadud, don’t you? The Gentle. A lover should aspire to acquire his object of worship’s attributes. Wouldn’t you agree? Where is your gentleness, Beloved? Focus your affection on that name.
With time, this voice has grown clearer in my head. Everything else falls away. I imagine a massive tree with light emanating from its trunk, yet all I can focus on is its dark branches. Why aren’t they illuminated, Beloved?
Ah. Some things you can only experience as a saint, Beloved.
I’m not a saint. Sigh.
Baba. Beloved. Think of Basmah. I love you more than you love her.
I immediately scour my psyche for any negative emotions I may harbor towards Basmah. We play video games: Mario Party, Mario Kart, Mario Tennis. All I do is let Princess Peach win.
Didn’t a thought cross your mind: that when she’s a little bit older, it will be fun to actually play with her instead of just letting her win? Wouldn’t it be nice to talk to her about books and movies and music? To have an intellectual conversation with her? Does that make you love her any less, Beloved?
Remember that there are things you enjoy with her now that you won’t be able to enjoy later. How does it feel to hold her in your arms and carry her, Beloved? Do you remember caressing her bald head?
As Basmah grew, she helped me re-learn my own worth. Whenever we ran in the garden or played hide-and-seek or snuggled up next to each other or danced to Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” she would communicate to me that I was not failing her. “I want to stay in Riyadh forever.” If only, beloved.
Today, she transformed me into the Cookie Monster. She was a cookie, as were all her cousins. I raced after her with everything I had. This wasn’t going to be one of those times when I let her win at something. I intended to catch her, scoop her up, and nibble on her arm. Alas, she was too quick for me. I’ve never been the fastest runner.
Today, she said, “Feed me, Baba.” I cut up little strips of chicken and put them in her mouth with my hand. “Baba, I don’t like chicken, but I like chicken nuggets.”
Today, we watched videos of her as a one-year-old. Her face dominated the screen as I recited the alphabet to her. “Baba, is that your voice?”
Four trips a month. To Jeddah and back on the same day. As we wait by the gate for our flight, I tell myself that it will only be twenty days before I see her again. “Baba, why can’t I stay in Riyadh forever?” Because you have to see both your baba and your mama, beloved. I buy her a Kinder egg. The gate opens. I close my eyes and gather myself. I breathe deeply. We fly, Beloved.