Saving the Sheikh
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What are you up to, Hadia?
Zhang stood along with Hadia to greet the woman who entered the café and approached their table. She was average in height, but her beaming smile lit the room around her. Zhang instantly remembered the woman. Who could forget the vibrant Haitian woman whose confidence had matched her boldly feminine business attire? Today, Caroline’s clothing was more subdued, but her energy wasn’t. Her beautiful black hair, which proudly displayed a few gray highlights, was partially covered in a fashionable scarf, most likely donned out of deference for Hadia.
She bowed slightly before Hadia and warmly shook her hand. “Your Majesty, this invitation is a real honor, thank you.” She shook Zhang’s hand enthusiastically and said, “Miss Yajun. Princess. I’m not sure how to address you.”
Zhang couldn’t help but return the woman’s warm smile. “Please, call me Zhang.”
Hadia sat, and the two younger women joined her.
Hadia said, “Caroline is here with a video team. She’s documenting how the focus on education and technology is already changing the conditions of the women in our rural areas. Rachid’s passing laws that require young women to stay in school until the age of eighteen. He wants to see more of them studying at our universities.”
Zhang sat forward. “I didn’t realize that was one of Rachid’s goals.”
Hadia said, “Perhaps you have more in common than you know.”
Uncomfortable with that truth, Zhang directed her comment to Caroline. “The last time I spoke to you, you were living in Canada and raising funds for an empowerment project in Haiti, am I right?”
Caroline ordered a coffee before answering. “Yes, I still am. It is an amazing program. We teach the women the basics of a business and guide them toward the resources needed to support it. For example, making purses from old cereal boxes is a way a woman can create income for her family while recycling what would be trash into something valuable.”
Suddenly Zhang regretted that she had not followed up her initial donation to the woman with additional monies. She’d rectify that in the near future. For now, she asked, “Are these videos part of your fund-raising?”
“No, I’m not actually making the videos. I merely joined the team because I had heard so many wonderful things about what is going on here. Sometimes I visit success stories to reenergize. When you look at women’s issues on the global level, it can be overwhelming. They aren’t contained by borders and aren’t specific to cultures. Everywhere I go, I meet women struggling with poverty, abuse or simply the belief that they can’t improve their own situation. Places like Najriad are a reminder that we are making progress, but it’s never easy.”
Hadia added, “Abuse and tradition can sometimes be woven tightly together. It takes a delicate hand to tend to one while not shredding the other. Caroline, I have heard good things about you and how you walk that line.” She looked across at Zhang and said, “I believe you do the same with your own programs in China, Zhang.”
Zhang nodded. “I still meet resistance at first. Initially, many parents believe that I advocate discarding our ways and adopting those of the West. Over time, they see that education doesn’t threaten one’s morality. Being able to read doesn’t make a young girl promiscuous, but it may help her feed her children if her husband dies young. The belief that the men of your family will care for you only holds true if you have a family. I’m extremely passionate about the power of education to strengthen communities.”
Caroline said, “You are an inspiration for women around the world, Zhang, and what you’ve done for the women’s movement in China is what legends are made of. I can only imagine the hope you will bring Najriad when you become queen.”
In the face of the woman’s compliments and enthusiasm, Zhang felt a bit of a fraud. She almost announced that the likelihood of her becoming involved in local issues was slim. She and Rachid would most likely divorce long before he took the title of king.
Unless I stay.
Zhang’s mouth dried and her stomach churned at the thought.
I’m not staying.
Impulsively, she asked, “Caroline, are you married?”
The woman flashed a brilliant smile. “Yes. Twenty years.”
“And you still travel the world? That’s not a problem?”
Caroline seemed to sense the importance of the questions Zhang was asking. “My husband isn’t always happy when I leave, but what I am doing is important to me and he knows that.”
Oddly, it felt safe to share her inner fear with these women. “I fought for my independence for so long, the idea of marriage scares me. I’m afraid that I’ll lose myself somehow.”
Hadia smiled sympathetically and Caroline said, “I’m sure I felt the same in the beginning, but my husband knows that he married a strong, independent woman. Sure, it’s difficult sometimes, but we work it out. I love him and he knows that. He loves me and he proves it by accepting the good with the bad. I can’t always go everywhere I’d like to because he needs me or the children need me. Marriage is a compromise for both involved. Anyone who says that it’s always easy is lying, but I’ve never regretted choosing love.”
Zhang couldn’t help but be moved by the woman’s commitment to both her husband and herself. “It sounds like your husband is a very lucky man.”
Caroline’s easy smile flashed. “He is. I have given him two wonderful children: our son, Patrick, and our daughter, Sarah, and we don’t fight for who is in control. I understand that he needs to be the man in our house, and he understands that a happy wife is the best nurturer for both him and our children. Marriage doesn’t have to be a tug of war. Compromise is a gift you give the man you love and, if he is the right man for you, it is a gift he returns tenfold.”
Tears filled Zhang’s eyes as she realized that she and her mother had never discussed this topic, and she doubted they ever would. Had these women always been so comfortable with themselves or had someone guided them?
As if sensing Zhang’s downward turn in mood, Caroline lightened the conversation by saying, “That about sums up my marital advice, except that you should never underestimate the power of keeping passion alive between you. Many couples push each other aside for the children or for work. A hungry man is never a happy man. Keep your husband well fed and you will have a marriage your friends will envy.”
Zhang said, “I don’t cook.”
Hadia and Caroline exchanged a look and laughed. Hadia said, “My future daughter-in-law has a dry sense of humor. A wise woman is not afraid to please her husband.”
Zhang turned three shades of purple.
Caroline rushed to say, “I hope I didn’t cross any lines, sharing as I did. I’m not shy when it comes to discussing love and marriage.”
Zhang regained her composure and said, “Some of my best friends are oversharers. It’s a trait I’m beginning to value.” She turned to Hadia and said, “I’m also beginning to admire the fine art of manipulation.”
Unabashedly, Hadia accepted the assessment of her actions that day. “You have done so much for your own country, Zhang. I wanted you to see that your work is far from over. Caroline came to meet you today because she admires you, but I wonder if there isn’t also much that she could teach you.”
Suddenly humble, Caroline said, “Oh, I would never suggest that I –”
Zhang spoke over her and said, “You are one clever lady, Your Majesty. Caroline, would you return for a visit in a few weeks? Perhaps you could stay at the palace. I would love to speak with you more about what you do with your global programs.”
“I would be honored to, Your Highness.”
For the first time, Zhang didn’t baulk at the title. “The honor would be mine,” she said.
She smiled at the two women who sat across from her and marveled at the wisdom of the universe.
Two very different women who shared many fundamental beliefs and had found happiness.
Hadia might be right.
I still have so much to learn.
A knock on the door of the palace’s main office interrupted Rachid’s phone call with his team at Proximus. Rachid put them on hold, turned in the leather seat behind the large desk and said, “Enter,” in Arabic.
Basir, the royal advisor, entered and bowed slightly with respect. “Your Highness.”
“If you’re looking for my father, he and Ghalil have gone out for the morning. They should be back for dinner.”
“My apologies for interrupting, Your Highness, but it’s you I wish to speak with,” the old man said.
“One moment, then.” Rachid switched to English to inform his team that he would continue the call at a later time and issued a short list of what he wanted done before they spoke again. “Please, sit,” he said to the royal advisor, not realizing that he continued to speak in English. Another tap on the door announced the delivery of a pot of coffee. The house staff maintained proper etiquette, smoothly covering for Rachid’s shortcomings. Rachid refused the beverage, but Basir took one of the small, handleless cups the manservant offered, sipped from it and smiled at the servant, who quickly departed.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Basir said, “There was a second attempt on your father’s life this morning. His private motorcade took gunfire.”
The first attempt had occurred shortly after the announcement that Rachid was returning home. Security had been increased in all areas. A second attack was upsetting, but expected since the attacker had not been caught the first time. “Was anyone hurt?” Rachid said, standing and crossing to where the advisor sat.
“No, it was a decoy. Your father and brother are safely visiting with Sheikh Hamad bin Dani al Butrus at the palace in Sasiah.”
“Does my father know?”
“Not yet, but his security has been informed. Protective measures will be taken on their return. The fewer who know about this, the better.”
“Who did this?” Rachid paced the room angrily.
Basir lifted a thin shoulder and said, “Some are saying that it was our people protesting against your upcoming marriage to a foreign woman.”
Rachid stopped midstep. That would be an unfortunate complication. Basir, however, hadn’t sounded convinced. “But you don’t think so?”
“I have no proof, but my instincts tell me that this is being used as a smokescreen to distract us from something much more sinister that’s being set into plan. I know the leaders of the communities well, and there was no buildup to this.” He gave Rachid a long, steady look. “Also, I find it suspicious that neither attack put your father’s life at risk.”
“What are you saying, Basir? Someone is trying to make it look like my father’s life is in danger without it actually being so? Why would anyone do that?” The answer came to Rachid before the advisor said a word. “To discredit me.”
Basir inclined his head. “Exactly. This enemy is more dangerous than the ones who test our borders. This is a snake hidden in the grass – not bold enough to attack you yet, but just as deadly.”