You Drive Me Crazy, from “Bride of the Sea”

14 December, 2020

The Verse Boat by sculptor Julio Lafuente, Prince Sultan Street, Jeddah, 1981<

The Verse Boat by sculp­tor Julio Lafuente, Prince Sul­tan Street, Jed­dah, 1981

Bride of the Sea
, a nov­el by Eman Quotah
Tin House 2021
ISBN 9781951142452 

New from Tin House in Jan­u­ary, Bride of the Sea

Dur­ing a snowy Cleve­land Feb­ru­ary, new­ly­wed uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents Muneer and Saeedah are expect­ing their first child, and he is har­bor­ing a secret: the word divorce is whis­per­ing in his ear. Soon, their mar­riage will end, and Muneer will return to Sau­di Ara­bia, while Saeedah remains in Cleve­land with their daugh­ter, Hana­di. Con­sumed by a grow­ing fear of los­ing her daugh­ter, Saeedah dis­ap­pears with the lit­tle girl, leav­ing Muneer to des­per­ate­ly search for his daugh­ter for years. The reper­cus­sions of the abduc­tion rip­ple out­ward, not only chang­ing the lives of Hana­di and her par­ents, but also their inter­wo­ven fam­i­ly and friends—those who must choose sides and hide their own deeply guard­ed secrets.

Eman Quo­tah’s Bride of the Sea prof­fers a sto­ry of col­lid­ing cul­tures, immi­gra­tion, reli­gion, and fam­i­ly; an inti­mate por­trait of loss and heal­ing; and, ulti­mate­ly, a tes­ta­ment to the ways we find our­selves inside love, dis­tance, and heartbreak.

You Dri­ve Me Crazy

excerpt­ed from Bride of the Sea


By Eman Quotah


Han­nah pulls the Fine Young Can­ni­bals cas­sette from the shelf and remem­bers she has noth­ing but dol­lars in her purse. She should go ask Muneer for riyals. Put the tape back and walk from the music shop to the Safe­way, where he and Lamees are buy­ing gro­ceries. Or bet­ter yet, come back anoth­er day with her own mon­ey, con­vert­ed into the cor­rect cur­ren­cy. Either option should be easy, as send­ing a let­ter to Malik or call­ing her moth­er should be easy.

Ever since she arrived in Jid­da less than a week ago, leav­ing Cleve­land a month and a half into the fall semes­ter at the art insti­tute, she’s felt rest­less, list­less, rud­der­less. She’s ques­tioned whether it was a good idea. She needs to grab onto something.

It’s not that she expect­ed to feel instant­ly at home. She’s moved too much with her moth­er to think she’d set­tle into a new place, like putting on a spiffy new out­fit and lov­ing how she looked in the mir­ror, how the clothes made her feel. No, she’d known she would need time to accli­mate to this place her par­ents “came from.”

The cas­sette tape is sol­id in Han­nah’s hand. She slips it under her abayah and into her jeans pock­et. Keep­ing her hands hid­den under the black robe—which she can’t get used to wear­ing, but is use­ful for shoplifting—she pats the lit­tle rec­tan­gle. It feels like a piece of home.

The whole tape shop feels famil­iar, with its smell of plas­tic, though the tapes are not the same as the ones in the Unit­ed States; they are cheap and black-mar­ket­ed, in thick, soft, unfa­mil­iar pack­ag­ing with typos on the song lists. The shop is dark­er and small­er than the Sam Goody in Ohio, too. Instead of car­pet, her foot­steps land on black and white tiles, mot­tled like birds’ eggs. But the place is full of music she rec­og­nizes. FYC and the Smiths and Kate Bush.

To take that famil­iar­i­ty out of the shop with her, she is abscond­ing with a buck or two worth of mer­chan­dise. So what?

She feels her female­ness con­stant­ly here in Jid­da, in a way she occa­sion­al­ly does in Amer­i­ca. For exam­ple, though she isn’t the only woman in the shop, she’s the one woman alone. The one per­son alone. Two teenage girls with fuch­sia lip­stick and teased, frost­ed bangs pok­ing out from under their black head­scarves brush past her and gig­gle. Two young men in jeans and knock­off-look­ing Lev­i’s T‑shirts hold hands in the M sec­tion. She’s curi­ous: Are they Arab or Indi­an? Are they gay? Up at the cash reg­is­ter, a group of Amer­i­can sol­diers in desert cam­ou­flage and brown com­bat boots nego­ti­ates with the shopkeeper.

One sol­dier has mir­rored sun­glass­es, a crooked smile, and a black crew cut. Lat­er, at an under­ground par­ty up the coast, Era­sure in the back­ground, she’ll learn his name is Zee. Sur­round­ed by drunk and flir­ty Euro­pean and Arab expat high school­ers, and a few Saud­is thrown in—pretending, like her, not to be Saudi—she’ll tell him, “I had a feel­ing I’d see you again. I had a feel­ing we would meet one day soon.”

He will tell her she’s mak­ing it up, and she’ll try to con­vince him. “No real­ly, it was like a wak­ing dream. I saw you in my mind with­out those glass­es. I knew it was you. I knew I would see you again.”

She can’t see his eyes the night she steals the tape, but she can tell he’s watch­ing her. What’s with the sun­glass­es? she thinks. Don’t you know it’s night­time, bud­dy? As though he has heard her, he gives her a lit­tle salute. Is that kosher? Kosher isn’t the word. Is that reg­u­la­tion? She salutes back and regrets it. She shoves her hands beneath her abayah to keep them from steal­ing or salut­ing anymore.

The female sol­dier next to Zee elbows him hard, and it occurs to Han­nah that they don’t know she’s Amer­i­can, like them. Han­nah’s stom­ach twists. She thinks they noticed her steal­ing. Will they report her to the shopkeeper?

She con­sid­ers return­ing the tape to its shelf—the right thing, the hon­est thing. She thinks about say­ing some­thing to the sol­diers in Eng­lish. “Thanks for your ser­vice” or “How long you guys been here?” or “Whad­daya think of this place?”

Her father appears at the door. Three years since their reunion and he is almost as much a stranger to her as the sol­diers are. She came here to get to know him bet­ter. It seemed like the fastest way.

“Lamees is in the car,” he says. “Yal­la.” Prob­a­bly the word slips past his lips invol­un­tar­i­ly, with­out him think­ing about whether she’ll under­stand. Yal­la is one of a few words Han­nah has picked up so far. Yal­la: hur­ry up. Ahlan: wel­come. Akhuya: my broth­er. Abuya: my father. Ummi: my mother.

She’s learned the words’ mean­ings, but she has­n’t spo­ken them.

As they walk to the car, the humid night air warms her face. Her head­scarf press­es against her hair and sum­mons her sweat. She hates wear­ing the scarf, but she does­n’t want to break the rules. The park­ing lot and streets are crowd­ed with honk­ing cars. Why do men dri­ve angri­ly here, as though cut­ting some­one else off is the only out­let for frustration?

Han­nah’s father keeps his eyes on the Amer­i­cans, who have fin­ished their nego­ti­at­ing and are pil­ing into a Jeep. He seems espe­cial­ly to be watch­ing Zee, who among the tall Amer­i­cans is the tallest.

Or maybe it is Han­nah who is espe­cial­ly watch­ing Zee. She touch­es the stolen tape again.

“The king asked them to come, but they walk around like they own the place.”

“They’re my age,” Han­nah says. She does­n’t know enough about the pol­i­tics to under­stand any of it, or enough about her father to guess the true sen­ti­ment behind his words. Does he oppose the Amer­i­cans com­ing here, or is he wary?

Her own rea­sons for being here seem triv­ial com­pared to young sol­diers “fight­ing for freedom”—if that’s how they see them­selves. If she were being hon­est, the rea­sons she has come to Jid­da are, in order: to piss off her moth­er, to meet her sib­lings, to avoid a semes­ter of art school and her job at the art sup­ply store, to see her father.

“You don’t have to work, Hana­di,” her father said as they sat in a car out­side her Cleve­land Heights apart­ment a lit­tle over a month ago, an inter­na­tion­al air­line tick­et on the arm­rest between them. If she were a bet­ter per­son she would have argued with him. But she’s been low on mon­ey, and her moth­er found her num­ber over the sum­mer and start­ed call­ing her sev­er­al times a week to tell her to come home.

She is twen­ty. She can live wher­ev­er she wants. Go wher­ev­er she wants. She does­n’t have to go “home” to her moth­er’s lies.

Her father picked up the tick­et with his index and mid­dle fin­gers and held it in the space between them.

“Your broth­ers can’t wait to see you.”

The idea of broth­ers nev­er occurred to her.

She always want­ed a sis­ter, some­one to share in-jokes with, to repeat lines from movies with, to be the oth­er per­son in the world who knows what it was like to be her moth­er’s daughter.

She ran away. She looked up W’s name in the Tole­do phone book, which they had at the Cleve­land library, and called four peo­ple with the same last name until she heard the famil­iar Pol­ish accent.

“Of course I remem­ber you,” W said.

So Han­nah bought a Grey­hound tick­et to Tole­do with her pay­check from the con­ve­nience store where she worked at the time. She fin­ished high school in Tole­do, liv­ing with W and W’s boyfriend, Tod.

When Han­nah got into art school in Cleve­land, but not in New York, Rhode Island, LA, or DC, W told her not to go back.

“Your mom will find you.”

Han­nah did­n’t lis­ten. She moved back to Cleve­land, into her own apart­ment. She gave Muneer and W her new address. But she did­n’t tell her mom.

Being here, she has a weird, admit­ted­ly vin­dic­tive urge to tell her moth­er where she is. “Here I am, in the place you kept me from, with the father you said was dead.”

Han­nah slides into the crim­son-vinyl back seat of her father’s white Chevro­let sedan. It smells like some sort of woody incense. Sit­ting in the front, Lamees turns her veiled face toward Han­nah. “Did you find what you were look­ing for?”

Lamees and Han­nah’s father are the first peo­ple Han­nah has ever met who sound like her moth­er. That thin mem­brane of accent that makes her moth­er a mys­tery is nor­mal here, is how Eng­lish comes out their mouths. This place—this bride of the Red Sea, as her father calls the city—is the ori­gin of her moth­er’s phonemes. The blue sky like a vat of dye, the air like steam in a bath­room, the promise of sea to the west and car­pets of sand to the east, some­where over there past the city lim­its. These things gave birth to her moth­er’s p’s that are not quite p’s, her v’s that bear pass­ing resem­blance to f’s, her insis­tence on open­ing lights rather than turn­ing them on.

And so there is a strange famil­iar­i­ty she feels with these two, while at the same time she finds it dis­con­cert­ing to speak to Lamees in pub­lic, to speak to some­one whose eyes and mouth she can’t see. Dis­con­cert­ing to speak with her father, who was dead, who claims one day Han­nah dis­ap­peared with her moth­er in a poof. Like I was some sort of five-year-old genie, she wrote to Malik in the let­ter she’s been work­ing on since she board­ed the plane in Cleve­land. She’s already writ­ten five pages, front and back. Is that what hap­pened? What­ev­er the truth, she blames her moth­er for lying about her father’s death, which sug­gests she lied about so much more. Some­times Han­nah blames both her par­ents, but most­ly her mother.

“They did­n’t have what I want­ed,” she tells Lamees. It’s a white lie. Han­nah is not an incur­able liar like her mother.

The neon ads of the city are reflect­ed in minia­ture in her car win­dow: tires, soda, fur­ni­ture, fresh juice. Her father stops at a shawar­ma shop, the spit direct­ly out­side manned by a guy with a carv­ing knife and a chef’s hat and patch­es of sweat on his back and under his arms.

Alone with Lamees, Han­nah starts to hum. She’s ruined things for her­self; she can’t lis­ten to the tape because she’s lied. Why did she lie?

“I stopped lis­ten­ing to music,” Lamees says. “I used to love it, but the Prophet told his fol­low­ers only the human voice and drums are halal.”

What kind of per­son does­n’t like music? About her step­moth­er, Han­nah wrote: It would be weird­er if my father and I had any his­to­ry togeth­er. As it is, she’s some stranger. She can’t fig­ure out what to make of me. Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe that’s my prob­lem. I want to get to know her. Really. 


Eman Quotah is the author of the novel Bride of the Sea. She grew up in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, and Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, The Toast, The Establishment, Book Riot, Literary Hub, Electric Literature and other publications. She lives with her family near Washington, D.C.

Arab Americansliterary fictionSaudi Arabia


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