Saadia Ahmed is a writer, vlogger, blogger and storyteller. Hailing from Lahore, Pakistan, she is now based in Australia. Her work is regularly published in leading publications in Pakistan with special emphasis on human rights in general and women rights in particular.
During her residency, Saadia completed the first chapter of a novella. Read on to find out more about her residency experience, then further to read the excerpt.
Tell us about your residency venues. What did you enjoy about writing in this space?
I worked at Centre for Stories and Alex Hotel. To be honest, initially I was a bit nervous about being at Alex Hotel because Centre for Stories was always home. I wondered what it would be like working in a public space. But after working at Alex Hotel, I realised that it provided muse in a number of different ways. Writing was no longer an isolated experience and observing people who came to visit was interesting (quite valuable for writing). Centre for Stories, as I have mentioned already, is home and hence working there was a delight.
What did you work on during the residency?
Interestingly, I worked on a novella despite never writing fiction before. The experience was therapeutic and refreshing. I never thought I could write fiction.
Did you find it challenging to write for extended blocks of time, multiple times per week?
There were days when I would feel blank and experience writer’s block, but taking breaks always helped. I was working only twice a week which was good for my creativity.
Why was participating in a residency valuable for your writing practice?
Totally! It has helped me understand my writing style and abilities. I had never imagined writing a fiction book in my life before. The residency made it happen. I moved out of my comfort zone and loved every bit of it.
And finally, what was your residency drink of choice? Black coffee? Peppermint tea? Chai latte?
Long black for life!
Chapter 1 (untitled)
By Saadia Ahmed
Shahbano stood with her red suitcase stuffed to the core struggling her way to drag it out of the swanky apartment she and her husband, Zeeshan, had inhabited for nearly three years now. Zeeshan sat on the thick brown leather couch in the living room staring out into the oblivion with his deep red eyes and puffy face. Wearing his black hoodie and blue rugged jeans, Zeeshan was not wearing any socks, as usual. He liked keeping his feet bare, free of any shackles and touch. He did not get up to help her out of the apartment with her red suitcase, which had everything she had ever owned; from clothes to books, from shoes to bracelets, from hair dryer to nail polish remover. He could not if he wanted to. The same Zeeshan who used open the can of Coca Cola for Shahbano was now sitting on the couch trying to control his thick tears and attempting not to look at her. Who could bear the sight of an almost ten-year union coming to its end? Deep down, they had always known it. But then who wanted to address the elephant in the room?
Deep down he wanted to stop her. He could not. He knew that he had lost all those rights and hopes. He did not want to face the truth, but they both knew that the game was over. The chapter was now closed.
As Shahbano’s favourite Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz said,
‘Tere ehad mein dil e zaar kay sab hee ikhtiar chalay gayai’
(In your era, all the privileges of my aching heart are gone)
He knew his time was up. Zeeshan knew one day this water had to spill from the flooded mud wall of Shahbano’s heart. Although she was never a part of his future dreams, Zeeshan had still not imagined living a life without her. All these years, he had woken up to eggs whipped up exactly the way he wanted, toast buttered the way his mother did, and steaming chai with an equal amount of tea and sugar—less water, more milk—just the way all Punjabis liked. He stepped out of the room and there laid his breakfast on the faux wooden table with bright red mats, some clutter here and there. Daylight entered their apartment through the tall glass windows of their living room which had a view of Victoria Avenue, St. Mary’s cathedral towered towards the left, Swan River on the right.
The first thing Shabano did after waking up was slide open the curtains and letting the sunshine in. She did not like using electricity during the day. She loved sunshine which was ample in the city of Perth. She looked like it too.
Despite knowing it all, Zeeshan still had a faint hope that she might turn back like she always did every time she forgot her keys when stepping out of the house. Shahbano always wanted to look her best before leaving home and sometimes even inside home. She needed to look good to feel good about herself. Sometimes, she even turned back because she had checked herself in the mirror and her red lipstick did not look as red as it should have. There were many inside jokes in the family about this habit of hers. Zeeshan tried hoping today was no exception.
It was not just another day. It was the day of judgement they could always see coming. It was not even a bad day. It was a sad day.
Today Shahbano had done her hair exactly the way she did when they first met. He loved the waves in her thick black mane. Her lipstick was redder than ever. Maybe it was the double coat, blotting out the first application on a white tissue paper leaving her lip mark. She had left that on the side table, not on purpose. She just did. It was a bit unlike her because she was obsessed with leaving no clutter lying here and there. But today was not just another day.
Dressed in her black fitted pants that she wore only to her girls’ night out and a fitted black lace top with a short jacket, Shahbano had decided to wear her long black heels instead of the usual white sneakers. She wore these shoes when she was feeling sad or happy. There was no midway. It was her way of reassuring herself that all was okay. It was not. But the least she could do was to pretend.
Shahbano was quite used to darkening the rim of her eyes. Whenever she did not people would point that out because that was her signature look. Today she needed no eyeliner. It would have been a bit irksome today with tears struggling their way through her dark brown eyes. Not that Shahbano was crying, but she knew where her overwhelming emotions could lead to. There was a heavy lump in her throat. It was there throughout those almost ten years, but now it was bigger and heavier. After all, it was not just another day.
Zeeshan always knew she would leave one day, but he could still not believe his deep red eyes that she was leaving. He always considered her too meek who couldn’t pursue what she felt. He was also aware of the social power he had over her. Crushing her for all those years, he thought he was successful in molding her the way he wanted.
Men are like that. They think women might leave, but they also think they would never leave.
He was leaving too but their destinations were different this time around. Those had never been the same, to be honest, but at least the path had not bifurcated into separate ways until now.
Zeeshan had to return to where they had both come from five years ago; his home and family in Pakistan. Shahbano was leaving for a destination she had only dreamed of, but had never seen with the naked eye. He knew what life had to offer him. His path and destination was predictable. Hers was not. It had to be a leap of faith.
There was heavy construction machinery blazing outside in broad daylight, but still there was pin-drop silence. It was a bright sunny day despite the rain forecast from yesterday.
Shahbano started dragging her red suitcase matching her lipstick to the door which would have led her outside.
‘It does not take this long to drag the suitcase outside. She is taking forever, maybe she is rethinking over her foolish decision?’ Zeeshan said to himself.
‘Where do I drag this suitcase to?’ Shahbano asked herself.
But a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do. She had to walk out shutting the door and not looking behind to say her last goodbye to him. Remember the story where those who looked back turned into stone? Shahbano knew that story by heart since she was a little girl playing with her brother in the lush green garden of her home in Pakistan. There was no choice. She could clear the lump in her throat. She refused to turn into a marble sculpture no matter how divinely Greek and graceful it looked from a distance. But a final farewell had to be concluded.
Shahbano did not have the heart to turn around. So she said goodbye in her heart—and without looking back at him, said in a teary voice,
‘Darwaza lock kar lo.’
(Lock the door.)
She did not have the heart to say a final goodbye. He did not have the heart to lock the door. He considered the door locked anyway as she had left their home and marriage shutting down every possible door behind.
For a moment, he thought if she left for another man. But then he quickly shrugged away the thought because he had a fair idea it was always about them and no one else.
Shahbano and Zeeshan were separated after almost ten years of marriage; for good or not, for now at least. Their times together had come to an end they both had anticipated since the day they had gotten married. She knew she deserved happiness and more. He knew the same, if not more. But there had been good days too. No wonder why she had not applied the eyeliner and he had puffy red eyes.