Habibi Love is a collection of contemporary stories about Arab love and relationships, and an exploration of the nuances of love in the Middle East and North Africa.

I’ve always wondered what comes first, the love we feel for a person or their scent. At a certain point, the two feelings may become inextricably linked, which makes it difficult to discern which provoked the other. Maybe all emotions are chemically driven, wherefore love and memories are derived from olfactory sequences entirely out of our control. 

Ilyas and I met at the cusp of adulthood, when life’s enjoyments were radically simple, and a heartfelt connection could set off hours of languid daydreams. We took our time and savored discrete tenderness, like the quiet gesture of grazing hands or the warmth of a lingering glance. We spent afternoons in cafés, drinking tropical fruit blends with puckered lips rounding striped plastic straws. Under the dizzying sun, we’d loosen our body language ever-so-slightly, just enough to expose our budding love — a love that requested timid displays of affection held in delicate pendants of touch.

Ilyas had a distinct smell of sweetness and perfumed sugar, which signifies perfectly ripe fruit. It was a delicate yet opaque scent that left a trail. Our love was deeply scented too. I’d take advantage of a hug to inhale the curve of his neck and suspend myself in time through fragrant pleasures. In those brief moments, I’d get a clear trace of his scent and the strongest indication of my love. I melted into him fondly as I silently built worlds around my feelings.

On warm summer days, Ilyas and I sat under the pear tree in his mother’s garden, seduced by the heat and comforted by the shade of nature’s humble carrier of sweets. The grass was wild and soft, but when we would get up, it always left Ilyas itchy, and he would curse the tiny little green swords. We lay on the grass for hours, talking sometimes but never feeling the need to. The birds chirped enough for all of us. Before we lay down, he would carefully select two fallen pears to enjoy under its bearer. The voluptuous fruits were weighty with juice; he always found the perfect pears. Ilyas would press his finger at the top where the stem meets the fruit, trying to find one with just enough yield. Then he would check the rest of the fruit’s flesh for signs of softness because that would indicate over-ripeness. 

“In the end, we must all be like the perfect pear—only show your softness to those who make an effort,” Ilyas would say joyfully every time he found a perfect pear. 

He ate the tumbled treats with the impatience of a child, entirely oblivious to the juice running down his chin and knuckles. It annoyed me how quickly he ate and the way he scanned the pear with his eyes, planning his next bite with a mouth still full of fruit. He would wipe his face and chin with his clean and wrinkly t-shirt. Sometimes I wondered if Ilyas smelled the way he did because of all the pears he ate and the nectar that permeated his skin. Maybe he smelled of the perfect pear.   

During one of our long afternoons in the garden, Ilyas told me his mother was selling the house and moving back home to Morocco at the end of the summer. He was worried that after all those years away, she would feel like a familiar stranger in her own country. He tried to get her to stay, but she was adamant that her soul belonged where it had begun. 

“I can’t imagine another family living here, sharing their lives in a place that my memories own. It’s ridiculous, I know, but I can’t help it. I can’t help how I feel.” His throat tensed at the thought of saying goodbye to the house, and he was worried that his memories of being there would fade with time. 

He loved how the house smelled, and I did too. I remember faint notes of olive oil, cinnamon, and castile soap. On Fridays, the scent of yeast and fresh mint flooded the hallway into the kitchen, where the smells were almost enveloping. His mother made tea and bread on Fridays, and Ilyas enjoyed sitting at the kitchen table with her as she malaxed the dough. His mother was tidy and loved to cook and tend to her garden. She kept an impeccable home and a tight hold on her emotions. Her name was Lamia, a woman with a flow of blonde, nourished hair. She had loyal blue eyes and naturally thick eyelashes protecting her from frivolity. She was the type of woman that never looked dishevelled, even on a bad day. She wore dainty necklaces that rolled over her collarbone when she moved and made her clavicle look like the structural branches of a tree. She was thin and had a defined jawline. Lamia was described as effortlessly beautiful by the women who wouldn’t openly spoil their feelings of jealousy. She was slightly taller than me, which made her just under 5’7″. I found her height to be the most elegant thing about her.

His father had left many years ago, leaving Lamia and Ilyas to fend for themselves while he built a new nest. His mother’s initial attraction to his father befuddled him. “I think she liked him for his entertainment value,” he would say. I had met Ilyas’ father a few times and quickly built a distant aversion to him. He smelled strongly of cologne, a balsamic musky scent you could almost taste. He knew how to work a table, a room, an entire stadium if he had the occasion. He was imposing but made sure everyone felt important. Making people feel special was his cheap gift, and nothing was more vital to him than attention. He was quick on the uptake and had an insatiable yearning to be desirable to many, which Ilyas later found out was his way of muffling his fear of being truly loved by one. He incessantly touched his beard when he spoke. Perhaps it was the insecure gesture of a balding man clinging onto the remains of social masculinity. His laugh was loud and ostentatious; it aggravated Lamia to hear him cackle at his own jokes, but that was before she had feelings for him — feelings that became so strong she had built a life around them. 

Ilyas eventually told me he would be leaving too, and couldn’t bear the thought of his mother living alone, without the comfort of a familiar home and a son she’d given life to, his and her own. I didn’t dare tell him that I wished he had considered my aloneness and hoped he couldn’t bear my pain and anguish at the thought of a life without him. I said nothing about my feelings. My eyes packed with tears, I told him I understood the inevitable responsibility of familial love and that I would have done the same.

We spent one last afternoon under the canopy of the pear tree before they handed over the vacant house, where the empty walls carried the staining patterns of a pre-loved home. We lay on the grass and covered our bodies with shade one last time. The air was thick and syrupy; we both felt the enormous weight of this moment, and the melancholy that was heavying our hearts. 

Maybe it was the fact that time was turning a page on this chapter in our lives, or the way we had laid in that very spot so many times that the soil must have imprinted our shapes, because at that moment, I felt that I was already living in a memory. It was a memory driven by a fifth sense, induced by the smell of soft fruit and lingering love.

Feature images were photographed by Nadine Muhtadi. 

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