On the eve of my departure for graduate school at Nankai University, in Tianjin, I got very ill. The problem was vastly mis-diagnosed. On the very verge of death, curled up in the foetal position on the bare floor of my apartment, by seeming accident, I was found by an old girlfriend passing through town. She had dumped me for a richer, more glamorous alternative, a Hollywood art director. At the hospital, after a spinal tap, she was told that I was too far gone to recover. I had, it turns out, simultaneously, both meningitis and encephalitis. I was then cast into a coma that lasted 89 days. An Iranian doctor kept vigil.
While in China, at my initiation, I corresponded with that doctor, and with her husband, also a doctor. We became, as much as distance would allow, friends, even close friends, bonded by destiny, by history, by literature, by poetry, by blood – hers, that was mine, but that I had never known – mine, that was hers, but that she had never known. She was the sister I never had, and though now passed, may she rest in peace, despite and still, I love her as a sister.
On a brief trip back to the States, to work a job before going to Gabon, I arranged to meet with her and her husband, to deliver three large but still manageable hand-made carpets that I had selected myself for them in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Northwest China, and carried by train back to Tianjin, then to Zhanjiang, then to Hong Kong, then to the States.
They met me at the airport, the carpets barely fitting inside their vehicle. We had not seen one another for nearly twenty years. I had never met her husband. In the arrivals lane, we quickly loaded, and were off, heading towards their home. Though I felt like I knew them, when face to face, I wasn’t sure. She turned in her seat, revealing eyes, especially, and mouth, even voice, that penetrated to my soul, but in her hijab, her husband beside her, I was uncharacteristically timorous.
At their home, I carried the carpets in, and laid them aside for the proper moment of revelation. I was exited, finally, to repay, at least in gesture, the favour of her vigilance those many years before. Though she had claimed it was all me – my internal strength of will to live – that had kept me alive and more or less whole, loss of experiential memory notwithstanding, I believed that it was she who by her will had kept me alive. She had saved my life, and to her I owed my life. The carpets were merely an expression of my gratitude.
While I made myself at home, as they requested, they departed to their bedroom, I presume, to make themselves more comfortable, before preparing dinner. When Yasamin emerged, she was in a loose and flowing house dress of the prettiest of powder blues, her long grey hair also loose and flowing. Tears came to my eyes for the first time that day. I couldn’t hold them back. Here, at last, was the sister to whom I had written since my recovery. We met again mid-span on the bridge that we had crossed together towards one another.
When her husband, Omar, also came out, I said to her, in his presence, ‘I feel so privileged that you would remove your hijab in my presence.’
They both smiled, knowingly, suggesting mutual consent, then she responded, ‘My hijab denies me nothing. It grants me, rather, the freedom to decide to whom to reveal myself. You are my brother. I witnessed your re-birth. I have seen much more of you than you will ever see of me. This I give you freely, in the presence of my husband, the fullest, the most genuine welcome of my heart and home.’
I asked her if I could hug her. She said, ‘Yes, of course.’ I asked him if I could hug him. He, too, opened his arms in embrace.
After a lovely dinner, talking about their children, my health, China, the States, it was time for the big reveal. I had told them the entire story of the search for, the purchase, and the caring for the carpets. They weren’t Persian, to be sure, nor were they Anatolian. They were Uighur. I had chosen them with love, in indebtedness, and had awaited this moment of presentation. The three carpets were of different sizes, colours, and patterns.
Loosening the ties that bound them, and puling off the muslin sleeves, one by one, beginning with the largest, I unfurled them, looking up at their faces, his arm over her shoulder. It was just as I had hoped for, they were visibly, audibly pleased. Selecting and buying oriental carpets for native Persians was bold. I had succeeded. They were very happy. When all three carpets had finally made it home, the three of us hugged, arms around each other, faces together.
‘Thank you, Yasamin. Thank you for all those days you watched over me.’ I was crying; so was she.
‘That was the first time I had cared for a Welsh warrior-poet. You were a worthy patient. Even in coma, you fought every moment. I will never forget. You defied death, and then you dared every other outcome that would leave you permanently disabled. No one else believed, but I did. That’s why a stayed by your side.’
In the morning, after an evening of catching up, they took me again to the airport, Yasamin again in her hijab. I shook Omar’s hand. I bowed to Yasamin. Though we continued to write, I never saw them again.
To this day, tears again in my eyes, I miss them. Had it not been for Yasamin, this story would likely not have been told. Without Yasamin, I would likely not have learned that life-changing lesson regarding the the self-determination of Muslim women.