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Making space to write was one of the reasons behind my move to freelance.

So far, it hasn’t been working out too well. I’ve got a great method where I write down all the things I have to do, and then proceed to do none of them. However, today was a little different.

There’s been some talk of names abound and I feel I should share with you that the name Shaira means poetess.

Here follows what may or may not be part of my working draft for “The Daughter of No One Famous“.

The henna cleaved out of the brown cone.

On the trembling palm before her, Shaira worked adroitly to lay down the strokes. In one ambit of steady movement, she marked outlines and filled in the curlicues and flourishes.

Her work was intricate and ornamented but there was something about it that was not beautiful.
The paisleys and flowers were done as well as the virginal red patterns left on the hand of a bride, but these lines were too carefully thought out. The points were too sharp.The brown strokes; thick and assertive, were a puncturing geometry not at ease with the soft roundings of the mango leaves.

Shaira’s work was a command, not a beautification. Hers’ was a pen of destiny.

“You will find love in the period of time it takes for the mendhi to fade. He will be someone you already know. You will marry within the year. There will be moments where you find him fussy and somewhat cruel, but with him you will find much joy. You must be patient. This is the Will.”

With her left hand outstretched to keep from smudging the wet henna, the marked one reached into a pocket in her cloak. With a quivering right hand, she pulled out a bundle of crumpled notes and left them in the bronze ashtray at Shaira’s side. A hoarse gratitude emerged from her small mouth, but so silent was she during the marking, that her voice could only find the ‘you’.

A little fold of a person, the marked one bent down awkwardly to scoop up her bags and hang them from her unburdened shoulder. “The henna is dry now. You can use both hands.”

She was startled, and ran her fingers along the raised patterns, expecting her fingertips to be muddied. It was only a few minutes earlier that the pattern glistened with heavy moisture. She cleared her throat, “Jazakallah”, and with the henna crumbling off of her hand, she gathered up her things and left.

Shaira stretched out her arms and made circles from her wrists. She opened and closed her hands. The cracks from her joints snapped low in the warm and dark room. “Open the curtains Sakinah. These notes are so dirty and worn; I can barely make out the amount in this light.”

Sakinah got up from a chair in a corner shrouded by drapings and clutter. “You really need to clean this place up Shaira. Or is it all for atmosphere?” Shaira didn’t respond to Sakinah’s snideness. She counted out the notes as Sakinah drew open the curtains. Without the barrier of the thick fabric, the hooting and shouting from the street below rushed into the room.

“With this one’s R150 and the R300 from the two earlier this morning, we can do a round pass the Big House tomorrow hey Sakinah?” Sakinah looked out of the window and down into Church street. She could see the marked one getting into her car and tipping the car guard before driving off.

“Don’t you feel bad doing this Shaira? Fooling these people like that. That woman really thinks she’s going to find love and happiness. All because you scribbled on her hand with that coloured mud you got from Akhalwaya’s and mixed with pareloo paani. It’s wrong man!”

Shaira put the notes into an old saffron tin and packed away her henna-divining supplies. “How am I worse than some moulana who claims he can remove jaadoo by having you stand in a cat-litter box while he hacks around your feet with a butcher knife? It’s all the same Sakinah. People put their faith in a lot of things, they only believe because they want to. I just gave that girl a bit of hope. She probably will find someone now that she’s being active about it. So are we going to the Big House tomorrow or not?”

The anger was large in Sakinah’s eyes. “I don’t like going there. I lost all the rent money the last time. You know there’s no barakat in money won from gambling.”

“Hey, I’m just trying to make my own destiny,” said Shaira as she wiped dry henna flakes from the table into a cupped palm.

mendhi – henna
pareloo paani – water that has had a prayer read over it
jaadoo – black magic/curse

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I am a writer and photographer (look up my work on www.shootcake.com) based in Johannesburg, South Africa. I have an MA in Creative Writing from the university currently known as Rhodes. My writing accolades include winning the 2014 Writivism Short Story Prize and the 2020 Ingrid Jonker Poetry Prize for my debut collection, Zikr.

22 thoughts on “Shaira”

  1. This is beautiful, Saaleha. I would also love to read the ending.. or more of it. It was a definite surprise reading it.

  2. nice – although you would be remiss if the resof it did not contain more gratuitous violence and naked ladies (maybe or maybe not covered in henna). The latter interspersed with tons of adjectives…for dreamlife…not me…ok for me too 🙂

  3. Shaira is a lovely name indeed – looking forward to witness the unfolding of this minor character streaming poetic verse of clues unlocking the conundrums throughout your imaginative prose…

    it is time to stumble upon more time for creative writing and less time for freelancing!

  4. gripping stuff…..definitely want to read more…..may the Almighty Allah move u from strength to strength

  5. I’m just going to come right out and say it.

    You inspire and intimidate me.

    I should never read your stuff while I’m writing. You give my pen performance anxiety. And if I dont have an entire book of yours on my shelf some time soon, I will knock you out with an oxford wordfinder.

  6. Sounds interesting, I’d like to see the whole book when it’s eventually done, insha-Allah.

    It’s amazing how much u can pick up when u focus on something. Here at work (we write e-learning courses), i’m writing a topic on Adverbs and Adjectives, so i’m trawling the Internet trying to find a sentence that’s got too many adjectives.

    Not much – mostly just peoples’ opinions and advice columns (some very useful).

    Anyway, I came back to read your story and just noticed how packed with adjectives it is. They’re very precise – which is a good thing – but there’s a lot of them. It’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the story goes in terms of adjectives….

    Sorry to be geeky – i’ve never really analysed a story statistically like this 😉

    By the way, I’d appreciate any recommendations on sites that have lots of examples. It’s adverbs and adjectives for this topic, then I’ve got verbs next.

  7. Hmm… Hey lady.. I love what Shaira’s pen of destiny is revealing… and the words flow beautifully 🙂

    names are such things… poetess… and henna diviner and destiny-maker and all those tihngs tie together so nicely… character is felt out and developed almost as a foil to ‘the daughter of no one famous’

    ps: speakjin of names, I just read your doppelganger’s MS — (if shes reading this, read along further for my point) and now this! im thrilled to know two great writers and im beginnin to wonder even more seriously about this name thing 😉

  8. Shaira is just a minor character at this stage. The gambling angle will probably be edited out completely once the story gains a bit of weight. I just needed something to anchor this to a previous sketch.
    I haven’t read that one of Rayda’s yet, her Hajj Diaries were fascinating, so will add Confessions on to my list.

  9. I like it too. Especially the second half. Kudos! 🙂

    But why the gambling angle? Seems a bit Confessions of a Gamblerish to me.

  10. Right now I have the same feeling I get when the husband gives me one astro and hides the rest. 🙂

    I can already see it on the Exclusive Books Homegrown bestseller list. Kudos. Can’t wait to read more.

  11. You are all very kind and reassuring, and your comments are a great motivation for me to keep at this.

    @Fatima: sshhhhh…art imitates life.

    @Mash: You had to google “the henna”? 😉

  12. i want more! Keep writing. U make me feel like i want to know shaira, i want to sit in a corner n watch her n the people that come to her. Awesome read 🙂

  13. 🙂

    I like the idea that Shaira tells fortunes from henna 🙂
    I keep thinking of the aunties that walk down Church street as I read this, with their Akhalwaya’s and Khan’s shopping bags 🙂 Shaira reminds me of one those aunties.

    Lol, I remember the story of “Champal Moulana” and how he cuts the sand at your feet and the champal moves around by itself. I remember someone saying that they were looking for the string that pulled it.

    I can’t wait until you finish this 🙂 I really would like to read it.

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