I have been in love my whole life with different men, but they never knew anything about it. First loves, loves at first sight, unrequited love, these are the labels within which I confined the expansiveness of human love since I was 15. Most of my life, love was a place of illusion, a detachment from real life. I longed for love and have been in love dozens of times. I spent years wondering about the other party’s feelings or waiting for a sign. However, I was too shy and inhibited to express my feelings or initiate a relationship. I also was scared to find out how minds other than my own experienced life and how complex it would be to live a true love story.
For many years I lived in a land of dreams. Love was a self-consoling fantasy, a way of dreaming life instead of being actively engaged in it. I was afraid to find out just how much hardship and pain I could stand. I invented love, often from scratch, to make life look easier and more attractive. Those flutterings of love, their unlived potential, scarred my soul very deeply. But after decades of heartbreaking and perplexing experiences, I finally decided to stop telling myself lies and to strip my definition of love of its fictional and romantic aspects. It is hazardous, psychologically, personally hazardous — that is, for an Arab middle-aged woman to talk about love. But I have reconciled myself to being single and no longer care about all the stereotypes that society inflicts on unmarried women. I am freed from the numerous urgencies of earlier days, free to explore love.
For some years now, I have stopped automatically linking love with romance. I am no longer haunted with the idea that love is a mysterious, indefinable and inevitable feeling that suddenly happens to you and gives sense to your life. I secretly laugh at the idea that love is a fusion between a lover and a beloved. Love is not a state of forgetfulness where you put aside yourself and melt into the self and life of the loved one. I know I am real, and I do not need to be fused with another self to exist. I am real and love is the discovery of reality. Love is what helps me know who I am.
No life is really a single and linear story. There are many kinds of loves because there are many kinds of lives. But those loves are sometimes lost because of the urgencies of daily life. What I did not find in romantic love, I found in intimate experiences of a different kind. Love is a cat. Love is the secret noises of the dawn. Love is a car, headlights glinting in the afternoon sun. Love is the thin hibiscus hair gathered in a sparse wispy knot at the back of my mother’s head. Love is the blue ablution bucket my father uses to prepare for prayer 5 times a day. Love is the smell of pale yellow mehrash my mother sometimes bakes through her osteoarthritis when she is fed up with supermarket bread. Love is the mantle of aromatic warmth morning coffee spreads all over the house.
Love is what enables us to see the real world in a new light and to join it as it really is. It is what makes us forget the boundaries that separate us from other people and other living beings. Love is “an occasion for unselfing” — as Irish philosopher Iris Murdoch puts it in The Sovereignty of the Good — and acknowledging the existence of other beings. To love is to be alive. To be intensely alive, we need to detach ourselves from the unnecessary things that fill our lives. Love is to step outside of oneself and clear the self of our selfish obsessions with illness and old age and death.
Love is vulnerable and superhuman but impossible to put into words, yet language is necessary to help us understand what it is and how it shapes our lives. Emily Dickinson’s poem about hope might as well be about the robust, enduring nature of love and the difficulty to offer a single definition of it.
Love is “the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —”
I have buried my romantic feelings very deep, but I do not think all those unfulfilled experiences degenerated into desperate and futureless misery. Those heartbreaking experiences made my life livable and worthy of living and made me what I am. They changed the way I think about myself and about life. I have become a detached observer of my younger self, ready to dismantle the old picture of the ‘self’, and of love that I have concealed inside me for many years.
To talk about love is to explore one’s own temperament, to unmask the truth. My picture of myself was erroneous. I have isolated and identified myself with an unrealistic conception of love and I have lost the vision of a reality separate from myself. I am finally able to look back at those intense irrational feelings. I am more conscious of transience. I know what it means to love and what it means to live with our imperfections and fragilities.