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Sarah, the lovely daughter of the Al Janubi clan is engaged to be married to another man but this doesn't deter Ahmed from falling for a woman whose clan he has abhorred all his life. And when Kismet trudges them towards an unlikely path through its bosom, does the Nafud forgive them for this mistake or does it unleash a fury unheard of in Janub as Sehra, their Native land?

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Prologue

The harsh cry of a Saker Falcon flying overhead woke her up from slumber. She opened her eyes to see a magnificent grey and white bird in flight against the sombre blue morning sky. A gentle mist had built up through the night, and now it swam a notch above the sand dunes leaving immense emptiness between the earth and the sky just like the vacuum that she had left behind. The desert sun had almost risen, imparting a golden hue to the sands as far as the eye could see. She was still exhausted from yesterday’s journey. She tried lifting her head to look around. Ahmed had fallen asleep at the place where he had been on watch, his one arm under his head for a pillow. Sarah gazed at his sun-kissed cheeks, his bright black shoulder-length hair falling on the dusky sand. His checkered red and white Shemagh had come off during sleep. A lazy curl was playing on his forehead. It looked irresistible as the desert wind played through his hair. She felt like touching it, but a twinge of pain passed through the back of her neck as she tried to lift her head.

The great Nafud desert stretched for miles on all sides with no sign of civilization around them. They had no one for company.

She picked up the bottle of perfume that she had dropped in her sleep and held on tightly to her abaya, which flapped noisily on this blustery desert morning.

‘Time to move on,’ she thought.

She felt like waking up Ahmed but decided against it. He needed rest.

Her throat was parched from the cold, windy night in the desert. She brushed off the sand dust from her clothes and threw the veil over her head, letting her long waist-length dusky hair fall aimlessly all around her shoulders but left the face uncovered. There wasn’t anyone around for miles. She moved towards the vehicle with languid steps, her feet sinking at many places into the soft desert sand. Thankfully, their sandy brown-hued Land Cruiser which blended perfectly with the surrounding sand and made them almost inconspicuous, wasn’t very far from where they had settled for the night.

She opened the car boot and pulled out a water bottle from the carton lying under the back seat. They had to be careful with the water. She had no idea how long it could take them to cross the desert. From what she had ascertained, they were headed for Jordan; however, she still had not talked to Ahmed about it though she was sure he had a plan. She took a few carefully measured sips, splashed some water on her face, and then ascertained the direction of the qiblah from the sun's position; she turned towards the south and began her prayers.

A waft of tears floated in her eyes as she raised her hands towards the skies. She asked Allah to help them find a safe passage to Jordan as soon as possible without getting caught. She prayed for the safety of those they had left behind. Her back ached from the unforgiving and restless night in the desert, and her heart ached even more.

She loved Ahmad with all her heart and had no reason to doubt his love for her. They were the survivors of a deadly clan war that they inadvertently had begun and of which they had absolutely no knowledge.

The sun was almost over the horizon when she finished her prayers. Ahmad was still asleep, his back turned towards her. She swallowed a tear. What if they were caught? In that, she couldn’t imagine a worse fate for him. She feared more for his life than she feared for hers. In just a few days, he had been transformed into a fugitive, a runaway and the most wanted person of their region. Life would never be the same for them.

She was Sarah, the sober, beautiful and beloved daughter of a renowned Hotelier of the Al-Janubi clan, and he was Ahmad, the indisputable champion in all off-road desert rallies and the only son of one of the most reputed family, the As-Sehri’s from the province of Janub-as-Sehra which is located at the southern end of the Nafud.

For as long as they could remember, the Nafud had been coloured crimson by the unmatched rivalry between the two clans, and each stayed at a distance further than the farthest root of a date palm tree. They tried not to cross paths, and when they did, it would always be with suspicion, for none trusted the other.

It wasn’t an unusual love story. It was like one of the many in its beginning that she had so often heard from her friends, or maybe it was not.

Chapter One

Hala, how are you doing?” inquired a vivacious voice at the other end of the phone that Sarah knew as that of her best friend, Malak.

“I’m good, though I was wondering that we haven’t caught up in quite some time,” she replied.

“Yeah, and that’s exactly the reason that I called you. It is little sister’s birthday bash, and we are throwing a grand party at the Istaraha,” Malak gushed.

“Who else is invited?” Sarah asked her.

I have invited all our friends from the good old days, and guess what; I outdid the list that little sister had of her friends,” she chuckled.

“That is so like you,” Sarah added with a smile.

“I realized we wouldn’t have another get-together for years to come; I’ll be leaving for the UK, and everyone else has plans as well,” she continued.

“True,” Sarah sighed. “Time has really moved fast for us. Don’t you think so?”

They had been friends since school and had finished college together a month before. All her friends had plans for their future. Malak’s was to get married and settle down in the UK.

“Yeah, right, let’s catch up then. Be an early bird, though.” Malak told her.

“Sure thing, I’ll see you soon.” She hung up.

*****

It is always a gender-segregated get-together in the province of Janub as Sehra, and free mixing between men and women is prohibited by law, but a party is fun nevertheless. You are free to do your kind of stuff.

“Don’t be late,” Sarah’s elder brother Hisham told her as he dropped her outside the high-fenced corrugated iron gate of the Istaraha. Women weren’t allowed to drive a car as per the province's stringent rules, which put an extra burden on the men of the family. It was their responsibility to drive their women around, or they could hire a taxi, but late-night travels were solely the guardian’s domain.

Sarah nodded in the affirmative, pulling the heavy black veil a bit further over her already covered hair.

“I’ll call you when the party is over,” she said, stepping down from the gigantic maroon and silver GMC car.

“Little sister, I have to wake up early the next morning. Your brother has a job to attend to,” he added lovingly while patting her gloved hand.

Sarah smiled beneath the veil, a smile that would not be visible, though.

She watched him back up the car, and then he bade her enter the gate before he drove away.

She was used to such scrutiny, so she didn’t notice it at all.

Malak had been right. It really was a huge gathering. Two female security guards at the gate scanned her from head to toe before letting her inside. She removed her abaya, headcover and gloves and handed them over to an attendant, who then showed her a locker. All her belongings, including her cell phone, which had a camera, would be safely stowed away there till she stayed inside. You weren’t allowed cameras at women's gatherings. It was prohibited lest someone clicks a picture of women and shows them to the men in their families. Women covered up their faces in public.

Malak, a fair and sturdily built young woman, looked dazzling in a bright blue dress that reached up to her knees. She had paired it up with an off-white pearl necklace and matching earrings.

“You look amazing;” Sarah almost yelled, trying to drown the voice of the blaring music

Malak hugged her.

“Hey girls, look who is here, viola, the queen of the desert,” and most of her friends turned around. It was a name that her friends had given her years ago, and it was simply apt.

“Wow, don’t you look gorgeous?” Rowdaina, her friend of eight years, gushed.

Girls in the province never shied from bestowing compliments on each other. It was considered the right thing to do, maybe because no men ever would.

“Look at you,” chirped Rawan, “you precisely know how to use that dusky complexion to your advantage,”

Sarah smiled.

She had chosen a sandy brown off-shoulder gown that reached up to her toes. She was wearing small diamond-studded circles in her ears, and they imparted a strange shimmer to her dusky skin that resembled the setting sun at dusk. Sarah had ice hued streaks in her dark wavy hair that added to the mystery that surrounded her. She looked exquisite.

She wasn’t milk and rose complexioned like most girls in her friend circle or, for that matter, in her family. She had acquired her exquisite complexion from her grandmother, who had a mulatto ancestry. She was a darker shade of cream with big brown eyes and thick long lashes, and Sarah was beautiful in her way. She reminded you of the desert, and hence her friends often called her the desert’s queen.

Sarah returned the compliments with enthusiasm. Everyone had dressed up elegantly, for they might not be seeing each other very soon.

The food was terrific. Malak’s sister, Zara, cut the cake among loud cheers and music, and then they started dancing.

Malak had an announcement to make, but it was done discreetly. She had sneaked in a camera!

“Sarah, let me take your picture,” she said.

“Malak, you will get us into some serious trouble,” Sarah responded, always that prudent girl that she was.

“No one is ever gonna find out. Oh, come on, for old times’ sake, Sarah,”

Most of their close friends had joined them by now, and everyone was excited about this adventure.

Malak had sneaked a small digital camera into the Istaraha somehow. The girls took turns standing guard while the others snapped pictures and stood discussing, editing or deleting some of them. The adventure over, the camera was hidden inside a huge flower vase by the side of the door. Malak promised to mail them their pictures.

“I wanted this memory to last,” quipped Malak as they said their goodbyes.

They parted with tearful eyes. They had been close friends for years. They were going separate ways, and although they would be in touch, but college days were over.

*****

Little did Sarah realize that a harmless adventure would turn her life away from the path that she had chosen for herself, that it would be the moment which would turn into the biggest ‘what if’ of her life, for it so happened that as Malak left for home that night, she forgot to take the camera with her. It was left between the neatly arranged bunches of Juliet Garden roses by the door, waiting to be picked up by none other than Ahmed, the pampered son of the owner of the Istaraha who ran a chain of such entertainment houses all over the kingdom.

He was there, by mere chance that day. His father had asked him to carry out a detailed inspection of the place. On any other day, he would have given a valid reason for refusing to do so, but today, he agreed without qualms. Maybe he was destined to be there that day.

By mere coincidence, he accidentally tripped over the flower vase while chatting with a friend on his phone. The peach and pastel-coloured roses scattered in all directions to reveal a small digicam that had been hidden from prying eyes.

He hung up on his friend.

His first thought was about a spy cam.

‘Why would anyone want to do that?’

He locked the door and sat down on the couch. It was an ordinary camera, he noted. He switched it on. A low battery signal flashed, and then it switched off again. There was no way that he could charge the batteries there. He tucked the camera into the back pocket of his low-rise jeans, and then he forgot about it.

It was quite late in the evening that he remembered the camera as he was about to lie down at night. It hurt his thigh as he turned around. He pulled out the camera and looked at it thoughtfully. Somebody had probably sneaked it into the Istaraha, and if that was the case, it had to be a woman. This idea was enough to push him out of his bed. He searched for a charging lead. He remembered he had once owned a similar camera that lay unattended somewhere.

He searched frantically for the charger among the stowed away trash. It was there, wrapped up among his used socks in the cabinet. A smile crossed his face.

It was one of those old-style cameras that didn’t work while charging. Ahmed turned on the television and flipped through the channels. Half an hour later, he had the camera in his hand. He could feel the excitement. Women get-togethers in Janub-as-Sehra were as alien to him as the planet Mars. He switched it on with a certain tremble in his hand. He wasn’t a bad guy at heart. Should he be doing this, he thought. But he had to know.

The very first picture was that of a woman; no, a goddess would have been a more appropriate term. He found the face of a dusky-hued goddess in equally dusky attire staring at him as if she had chosen to cast her spell upon him of all men alive on the Earth.  Her curly brown tresses fell in waves over her sleek and bare shoulders up to her waist. He could feel dusk falling over him. Her smiling big brown eyes looked akin to Aphrodite when she must have beguiled men to eat the golden apple. He was bewitched. He held on to the camera for dear life. A strange sensation crawled throughout his body, but it was not like anything he had felt before.

No girl had ever had this effect on him. He had spent most of his youth abroad, and he was the only son of a multi-millionaire. He had met girls, but he had never seen a goddess before.

“No wonder they keep you all wrapped up and hidden. You could be the reason for a third world war,” Ahmed sighed, gazing at the picture with something akin to love rising within his chest. How could someone fall in love with a simple picture? He didn’t even know who the girl in the frame was. It was so unlike him.

He knew he was cursed, for he couldn’t even reveal it to anyone. What would he tell them? He tried searching the camera for hints. There were group photos of girls, sometimes with the dusky girl and sometimes without her. He searched for the date and time. The pictures had been clicked last night, and that gave him some hope. He could find out who had arranged the party but looking for a girl that he couldn’t even ask about seemed like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

He called up the manager of the Istaraha, who picked up the phone at the first bell.

“Yes, Sir,” he replied in a sleepy voice intermingled with concern.

Ahmed never called any of his employees, but when he did, it always meant bad news.

Strangely he spoke in a gentle tone this time.

“Who hosted last night’s party at the Istaraha?” he asked.

“It was a birthday party, Sir. Don’t you know the owner of the Al-Hazraani mall?  It was his daughter’s birthday party.”

“Oh, Okay,” Ahmed answered.

“Is everything alright, Sir?” The manager hoped that there had been no complaint.

“Let me know if someone inquires about some lost property. Let them get in touch with me,” he said and hung up to avoid further questioning. He couldn’t risk that. His only hope was that the rightful owner would be frantically searching for the camera, and in that case, things might get hopeful. But what if no one came for the camera?

The daughter of the owner of the Al-Hazraani mall, could it be his daughter? He wished it was, but his heart told him otherwise.

He couldn’t sleep well that night. Dark brown eyes stared at him from all corners of his room that had turned into a desert at sunset. He kept looking at her picture till sleep overtook him in waves, and then he dreamt about her.

Excerpt from The Mahzur, Copyright @ Dr.Henana Berjes