Lost in Thyme
Sami Amara has been plagued by visions of a mysterious red-haired girl that he just can’t place. When his father suddenly dies, he is confronted with a past that he never knew existed: a mysterious girl, now woman, and promises unfulfilled.
Single mother Petra Haddad has grown accustomed to a life of routine, predictability and…loneliness. When a lawyer calls her up to discuss the last will and testament of a man she never even knew, her world is turned upside down.
This must be a mistake. He was not the one who should be here.
Sami Amara eased onto the backseat of the black Mercedes-Maybach S600. He studied a lost luggage receipt and gritted his teeth. He couldn’t bear being caged in this car for long, no matter how luxurious the interior. The driver’s slow exit from the airport added to his misery. Stuffing the receipt into the breast pocket of his suit jacket, he stretched his legs as far as he could in the limited space.
Several car horns blared from behind.
Everything around him objected to his presence. He buckled his seat belt, freed his trapped tie and loosened it.
His mobile phone buzzed. He searched his pockets until he discovered the phone had slipped out of his trousers and lay on the seat beside him.
He eyed the caller ID and answered his brother’s call. “What’s wrong, Fareed?”
A red Ford truck in the farthest lane to the right cut sharply into the left lane and screeched ahead of the Mercedes. Sami’s driver slammed on the brakes. Sami’s seatbelt locked and dug into his chest. The Ford sped off. Cars in other lanes honked, burying whatever Fareed said. Sami unlatched his seatbelt and fumbled to adjust it. “Say that again?”
“We really need to get to work.”
“Hell, I just landed.”
“I can’t sign or do anything in Houston until you finalize things with this Haddad woman in Kuwait.”
Sami’s eyes followed the Ford squeezing its way between cars. A bright yellow Maserati speeding up from the left sprayed sand onto his window. He shuffled to the other side away from the dirtied glass and latched his seatbelt. “Don’t worry. I’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Fareed exhaled into the phone. “Who the heck is she? Where did she come from?”
“I have no idea. Haven’t seen anyone yet.”
“Vaughn didn’t meet you at the airport?”
“He sent a limo service. I’ll call you as soon as I have something.” Sami ended the call and braced himself.
Once they reached the highway, the limo driver surprised Sami with his skill, weaving away from careless motorists who drove as if they owned the road.
Sami’s sight adjusted to the yellowness of his surroundings. Small patches of trees and sand-dusted shrubs sprinkled sides of the road that cut through the desert—a black ribbon floating on a sea of sand. Villas and houses, some the colour of dried mud, dotted the horizon in the shimmering distance, their architectural designs varying in degrees of complexity. Lonely palm trees poked their heads above high walls. A concrete one-story cube with small windows stood out. The car turned into its parking lot and cruised to a stop.
Sami planted his feet on the hot ground and gripped the door’s inside armrest to keep his balance. The asphalt under the soles of his leather shoes felt viscous. His sunglasses fogged, and he took them off to check he wasn’t sinking into the molten surface. He used his necktie to clean his lenses, adding smudges with the sweat-soaked silk. He slipped his glasses into his shirt pocket and took in a long breath, inflating his lungs despite the heat, tolerating its swift burn.
This hostile environment did not matter. He could take it. He could take anything but being confined in that car for another minute. He watched the Mercedes drive off and shook his head. His torturous ride was an oddly fitting way to top-off a miserable twenty-three hour trip from Houston.
Sami entered the office building, noting the big sign overhead that spelled Amara & Sons Construction Company in bold red letters. The same was written in Arabic next to the company emblem. Walking into the chilled interior, he faked a cough to hide a shiver brought on by the sudden temperature drop. Where were the restrooms? He felt a sudden urgency.
“Mr. Amara.” A stout, white-haired man met him in the lobby and offered his hand. “Allan Vaughn, chief legal counsel. We spoke on the phone?”
“Right.” Sami matched Vaughn’s strong grip. “Everyone calls me Sami.”
Vaughn clasped Sami’s elbow with his other hand. “Wish we’d met under better circumstances. Your father will be greatly missed.”
Sami gave a curt nod and freed his arm. He had no desire to waste a single minute on small talk. He needed to finalize this business as quickly as possible. He shrugged off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and told his bladder to calm down. “I’d appreciate an update.”
“Of course.” Vaughn led the way to his office.
The industrial fluorescent lighting and low ceiling pressed onto Sami. He fought the need to hunch his shoulders and headed toward the only window in the room. If he opened it to this sweltering heat, he would look like an imbecile. His eyes sought the air-conditioning vent between the white ceiling panels, and he imagined the ventilation duct opening to the outside world at the other end. He willed his nervous heartbeat down a notch.
Over the years, he had mastered a couple of tricks to suppress his claustrophobia. Up to a point. And today was proving to be a hellish trial. He had endured the arduous flight on tightly-sealed planes to sort out the mess his father had left for him in this place. His control over his body slipped from his grasp.
“Kuwaiti heat getting to you?” Vaughn said in a condescending tone. “You’ve worked in harsher climates than this, haven’t you?”
Out in the open, Sami wanted to say. He clenched his jaw and let the snide remark roll over him. “Just a little tired from the flight. So, where are we?”
“I have the documents ready.” Vaughn produced a folder from the massive desk. “All you need is to have Mrs. Haddad sign them.” He motioned toward one of the leather chairs. “Drink?”
“Water’s fine.” Sami stayed rooted to his spot by the window. Heat radiated from the glass pane and gave him a strange measure of comfort. He took the icy water bottle Vaughn offered. “Have you contacted her?”
“We’ll meet with her tomorrow at nine. Thought I’d give you time to rest. Get over the jet lag.”
Sami decided against taking a sip of water, to appease his bladder, and placed the bottle on the windowsill. “We’re meeting here?”
“I advised her to hire a contract lawyer. Recommended someone I know. She declined and chose someone else.” Vaughn checked a business card on his desk. “Rida Al Faisal. He arranged for the meeting to be at his office downtown.”
“And she has no idea what this is about?”
“Only that it concerns her father. She asked me questions. I had no answers.” Vaughn tapped his index finger on the folder. “Do you?”
Sami shook his head. “I’m in the dark, too.” He pointed at the folder. “I’d like to see those sealed envelopes Dad left in his will.” He studied Vaughn, trying to gain the measure of the older man. Vaughn had come into the company two years ago to oversee the Kuwaiti branch. His eyes shifted like a ferret and landed everywhere except directly on Sami. Would he prove trustworthy?
Vaughn sauntered over, a white envelope in each hand. “Since your father stated you both need to be present to open them, I saw no point giving this woman a heads-up over the phone.”
Sami examined the seals and the handwritten names. Was this his father’s handwriting? Working on construction sites, his occasional correspondence with his father was through emails and typed documents. At thirty-two years of age, he struggled to remember what his father’s handwriting looked like. When was the last time they had spoken? Last summer when he was on assignment in Costa Rica. And what was it about? Nothing personal. He had discussed business details to assure his father the resort project was completely under his control. Ever since the Chile disaster early in his career, Sami scrutinized contractors and worked hard to regain his father’s trust. He had quickly learned to depend on no one.
Sami handed back the envelopes. “Did you find out who this woman is? Is she any relation to Dad?”
“Nothing I could find in any records. Her father Waleed Saba and your father went to the same high school before your father left Kuwait for America.”
“That was more than forty years ago. They didn’t keep in touch?”
“It doesn’t seem so.” Vaughn shrugged. “The school was destroyed during the first Gulf War. No records remain. And your father didn’t elaborate, told me to find Mr. Saba’s daughter.”
“Haddad is her husband’s name, I take it?”
“Therein lies the problem.” Vaughn raised his hand. “Her mother changed her name to Clayton when they moved to the States. When she died, a spinster aunt adopted Petra, and she became Petra Keats. Then she married and returned to Kuwait as Petra Haddad.” Vaughn shook his head. “I spent a number of billable hours searching for Petra Saba.”
“How much time?”
“Since March. Your father asked me to search for her soon after he was diagnosed.”
Vaughn finally looked Sami in the eye. He let his sentence hang in the air for several heartbeats.
Sami maintained eye contact and didn’t flinch, certain Vaughn had known long before he did about his father’s illness. Vaughn had watched his father draw his last breath. Here in Kuwait. Away from his sons, his family. What other secrets did this guy possess?
“And her mother?” Sami asked.
“Deborah Kirkwood was from Milwaukee. Died of breast cancer when Petra was seven. Like I said, the sister adopted her. That’s all I could gather.” Vaughn scratched his head. “As far as I know, Petra never met your father.”
Vaughn went to the long row of metal filing cabinets opposite his desk and pulled out a manila folder. “Everything my detectives discovered is here.” He waved the file in the air, a faint smirk on his face, daring Sami to abandon his spot by the window.
Sami turned his gaze toward the dancing leaves of a lonely tree at the edge of the parking lot. “What line of work was her father in?”
“Partner in an import export company. Mainly household appliances. He inherited the family business as an only son.” Vaughn flipped open the folder. “Company records were destroyed during the war, and nothing else is registered in his name. In May 1990, Petra’s mother reported her husband missing to the American Embassy in Kuwait.”
“Wait, Petra’s father disappeared three months before the Iraqi invasion?”
“That’s right. His wife took Petra to her family in Milwaukee. She was four at the time.”
Sami leaned his shoulder against the window and folded his arms. “When did Petra return to Kuwait?” He stopped shy of asking why.
Vaughn checked the folder. “2013. She teaches at the American School. Math, I believe. One son. Her husband was a teacher, too.”
Sami arched his eyebrows. “Was?”
“Oh, I didn’t mention she’s a widow? Her husband died in 2014. Something to do with his heart.”
“Was he old? Could he be the recent connection to Dad?”
“He was thirty-four. A couple of years older than you. Odd, isn’t it?” Vaughn slanted his pale lips into a side smile. “My sources didn’t find a single connection between her husband and your father. I believe the woman is the common factor here.” Vaughn gathered the folders and slipped them into a leather briefcase. “You can go over these tonight after you’ve rested. My driver will take you to your hotel.”
Vaughn held out the briefcase for Sami. “Your father gave me clear instructions on how to do this. I don’t understand the reasons behind his decisions, but it’s my duty to see them through as he directed.” Vaughn placed his hand on Sami’s shoulder. “I know you were never involved in the logistics side of the company. Your father made it clear he wanted you to oversee this transaction instead of Fareed.”
Sami grabbed the leather briefcase. “What are you talking about?”
“You’ll understand once you read what’s in there.”
Showered and wrapped in the plush hotel bathrobe, Sami grabbed a bottle of Perrier from the room’s mini-fridge to settle his upset stomach. He lounged on the bed, leaned his head to the headboard and closed his eyes. Before he tackled the contents of the briefcase, he promised himself five minutes rest, only to awake hours later, his neck stiff and his feet cold. If it hadn’t been for the bellman delivering his lost-and-found luggage, he would have slept on through the entire afternoon.
He stretched and headed into the bathroom. His thick dark hair flattened at the back of his head and shot out on both sides of his face. He ran wet fingers through his hair.
The luxurious bathroom had no windows, and the marble walls seemed to move closer. Sometimes, his eyes played tricks on him. He lifted his arms to his sides, gaining a good sense of the empty space. To compound his phobia, his more than average height made him perceive enclosed places as smaller than they actually were. He waved his arms around and tried to shake off the illusion.
He checked his laptop for work-related emails. Nothing required immediate attention, and he went through his mobile phone messages. Six were from his brother, his tone escalating in levels of urgency.
He dialled Fareed’s number. “Did I wake you?”
“I’m already up,” Fareed whispered. “It’s five in the morning here.”
“Hold on. Let me get out of the bedroom. Don’t want to wake Lora.”
“You’re still in Houston? I thought you were going to Dallas after the funeral to seal that deal tomorrow?”
“Couldn’t. The twins came down with a cold. I didn’t want to leave Lora by herself.” Fareed yawned aloud. “Besides, everything is frozen until you settle matters.”
Sami spread the files on the table before him. He had to hand it to his younger brother. Fareed was a devoted father, never letting work come before his family. “You sounded more frantic than usual in your last message.”
“Did you find out anything?”
“I have in my hands the file Allan Vaughn prepared about the woman. You’ve dealt with him. What’s your read on the guy?”
“Dad trusted him. And you know how Dad was when it came to assessing people.”
Sami rubbed the bridge of his nose. He knew nothing about his father’s attitude toward people. He didn’t know much about his father’s attitude toward many things.
He scanned the file. “Let’s see. Petra Haddad, born in Kuwait in ‘86, moved to Milwaukee with her mother in 1990, master’s degree in accounting from UW, married in 2010, returned to Kuwait in 2013 with her husband. He died a year later.”
“Wow. That didn’t last long.”
“That’s about it. Nothing stands out.” Sami rifled through the rest of the file looking for a picture and found an old, out of focus image. Interesting.
“Could she be . . . family?” Fareed asked.
“Hell, I don’t know.” Sami flipped through another folder, scanning legal documents drawn up and signed by Vaughn.
“Can’t see Dad having a mistress, being unfaithful to Mom.” Fareed drew in a long breath. “That would destroy her.”
“Keep Mom out of the loop for now. Until I find out more.” Sami’s eyes landed on a particular document. He rose to his feet. “Oh, shit!”
“What is it?”
“Look, I’ll get a better idea after I meet this mystery woman and open the sealed letters.” He swallowed. “I’ll call you tomorrow as soon as we’re done.”
“Wait,” Fareed barked.
His raised voice must have woken the twins. Sami heard loud cries in the background and welcomed the interruption. He didn’t know how to explain what he held in his hand.
“Go take care of your kids, Fareed. I got a handle on this. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Sami set his phone on the table, reached for the grainy photo and studied the hazy image, which looked as if it had been cropped from another snapshot. Vaughn and his detectives couldn’t provide a better picture of this woman?
Sami flipped open his laptop and went online, searching for her name, in all its variations. The same goddamn image popped up on the UW website graduates’ list, showing her standing in a group. He searched social media outlets. Nothing. He slammed the laptop shut. Who in this day and age didn’t have their pictures plastered all over the Internet?
He flopped onto the bed and tossed the photo on the nightstand. Reaching for the lamp switch, he muttered, “Until tomorrow, mysterious Mrs. Haddad.”
What a gorgeous book this is – transporting in content and presentation both. I felt lost in the joys of shared legacies, adrift in savory fragrances, all sorrows of politics and injustices washed away.
– Naomi Shihab Nye
From the brilliant author of Bitter Almonds comes another beautifully told story of a Palestinian family still trying to gather the pieces of itself, generations after we were all thrown to the wind. Lost in Thyme is a page turner, and I was hooked from the first chapter.
– Susan Abulhawa
Author of Mornings in Jenin
Touching Hearts: An Engineer who writes from the heart, touching others.
Full Interview in Qatar Tribune
التاريخ والسياسة يحضران في هذه الرواية كسياق زمني يلقي بظلاله السوداء على المكان وشخصياته من دون أن يكونا صلب الحكاية. فسردية ليلاس معنية بالمقام الأول بما ينهش أفئدة شخصياتها ويؤرق وجدانهم وعقولهم من صراعات بين الخير والشر، بين الوفاء والغدر، الصدق والخيانة، المروءة والانانية
More on Al Hayat Newspaper جريدة الحياة
ومن جهتها قالت الدار الناشرة إن الرواية نجحت في “وضع أزمة معاصرة مثل أزمة اللاجئين في صدارة اهتمام عالم الأدب، وبطريقة تجعلها أزمة إنسانية يلمسها كل إنسان حول العالم حتى وإن كان لم يعايشها. ولا شك في أن موهبة ليلاس طه في رسم شخصيات تنضح بالعطف وتجيش بمشاعر حقيقية قد جعل الرواية تجتذب القرّاء الكبار والصغار على السواء
more on Aljazeera Arabic
Join me for a conversation with Georgetwon University in Qatar on January 24, 2018 at 6:00 p.m. For more information click here
Let’s help out Houston residents affected by hurricane Harvey. All proceeds will be donated to the Harvey Relief Fund. Starting date pushed to September 16. Let’s work together on Novel Writing at the Fig Writer’s Studio in Houston. For registration and more details click here
Had uplifting and deep discussions with the book club ladies of the American Association of University Women AAUW- Fort Bend chapter on July 3, 2017.
“وفي ثنايا الرواية تفيض الروح الإنسانية والنضالات المعقدة التي يخوضها الأشخاص العاديون وهم يحاولون التغلب على ظروف حياتهم الاستثنائية” – More on Aljazeera Arabic المزيد على
“A love story rooted in history and Palestinian culture, Bitter Almonds is inspired by the tremulous events in the Middle East and author Lilas Taha’s family history.” – read more about Bitter Almonds in the Gulf-Times
Proud to announce that Bitter Almonds won the 2017 International Book Award in the Fiction-Multicultural category.
Sincere thanks to the members of the American Association of University Women AAUW Fort Bend chapter, Texas for an enlivening and heartwarming discussion. Honored to have been invited and included, February 2017.