Show caption The real deal … Saima Mir on her wedding day, with her best friend Sabena Sultan. Photograph: Courtesy of Saima Mir A moment that changed me A moment that changed me: I met my soulmate at Istanbul airport security As a recently divorced British Asian Muslim, I didn’t expect anyone to understand my mix of culture, faith and life experiences. But the woman who became my best friend saw past my aloof exterior Saima Mir Wed 11 Aug 2021 07.00 BST Share on Facebook
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“I was going to take out the wire from my bra and hand it to her!” whispers an annoyed voice from behind me. I turn to see who it is, and in that moment, my life changes.
I am at Istanbul airport. It’s 2004, a few years after 9/11, and there is still heightened security around air travel.
I have been through the metal detector countless times, emptied my on-board luggage, and am standing barefoot on the cold vinyl floor. I don’t know it yet, but I have just met the woman who will save my life.
I’m trying to put my breeze-block of a laptop back into its case, along with my other prized possessions, when the owner of the underwired bra joins me at the security table, chattering away happily.
This never happens to me. People assume I am aloof – partly because I am introverted, partly because my head is full of stories, ideas and a to-do list at every given moment, and also because of what others have described as my “resting bitch face”. The woman clearly hasn’t had the memo, and carries on asking questions. Taken aback, I answer, and the universe sings.
We often ask people about the day they met their romantic partners. We rarely ask them about the day they met their soulmate. Celtic wisdom speaks of “Anam Cara” – soul friends, who share their innermost selves without judgment. Muslim scholars say that souls are soldiers; those who enlist for God’s love recognise each other on the Earth plane.
I wouldn’t have believed either of these things until I met Sabena Sultan. I had been through a difficult arranged marriage, and was recently divorced, culturally alienated and trying to find where I belonged. I had seen little kindness outside of my family in years, and I didn’t know anyone else like me.
I had flown to Istanbul from Manchester, and was en route to Karachi to spend a couple of weeks with my grandmother. Sabena had boarded at Heathrow to catch the same connecting flight. The universe decreed that we walk through security at the same time, fly the same airline, and be booked on the same flight back.
“You told me you were going to seek solace at your nani’s house and write,” Sabena says, when I ask her what she remembers about that day. She is a scientist, and, characteristically, she sends me a detailed list of memories of that day. “You were wearing Converse, jeans and a pink scarf. I’d just changed out of jeans and into a shalwar kameez, but you told me you couldn’t be bothered with that and that is why you wore a kurta with your jeans. I thought you were really cool.”
Crossing cultures is like being at the pick’n’mix sweet bar, it is a little random, and two people rarely get the same bag. As a second-generation British Asian woman of Muslim heritage, I had never met anyone who had picked the same bits of culture and faith as me, let alone had almost identical life experiences.
To be a conservative Muslim and a liberal seemed a contradiction to most people, but not to Sabena. She was warm and open and really liked my answers to her questions. Especially when I told her I was divorced. “Me too!” she said, with more joy than I had expected. The deal was sealed.
I had never had a best friend before. Something about the phrase had always felt childish and constrictive to me, but there was no other way to describe what we became to each other.
We were two independent-minded Muslim women navigating our lives post-divorce in a culture that didn’t understand us, and, out and out, judged us. We gave each other a safe haven to talk about lost love, squandered potential and the youth we had sacrificed to intergenerational trauma and cultural acceptability. But it wasn’t all heavy. We laughed at ourselves. We talked about poetry and classic Indian film tracks, and we understood each other’s cultural references.
When I was the victim of racism at work, I would call her every day after leaving the office, saying: “I’m too old for this bullshit.”
She coached me through my vulnerability issues when my current husband proposed, and nudged me to stay when I was tempted to cut and run before the wedding.
After I became a mother, she told me truths that made me feel seen, at a time when I felt most invisible. And, having navigated parenthood a few years earlier, she keeps me going with words of experience and wisdom, and the kind of advice that comes from unconditional love.
“No, you don’t look big at all,” I had told her, when she was heavily pregnant with her first child. “I was the size of a house!” she reminds me. And I can’t disagree. But what good would it have done to tell her? This is what our friendship is built on – the knowledge that the other person can handle whatever life throws at them, but that they just need someone to believe in them.
Sabena has celebrated my highs, and held on to me through the lows, like the rope that holds a climber to a cliff. On the days I have wanted to jump, she has pulled me back up. She is the keeper of my secrets, and a voice of sanity in my otherwise tumultuous life. She is the best friend a woman could hope for, and more.