You start with 2023, the first one in “All Photos”. She’s smiling, at a heww, her cheeks positively glowing. The heww isn’t hers – it is a friend’s. But you think she looks more beautiful than even the bride. And you think, in their photos together, the bride knows this too – there is something missing from her smile.
You swipe left.
She is sitting on the beach in this one, artfully posed, so the setting sun is directly behind her, the sky a fiery orange and purple; with her at its centre, a queen holding court. She looks so relaxed, her smile so intimate – you wonder who’s behind the camera, and what they are to her, and how that smile was earned.
You swipe left.
Dayyum. Above: a top that reveals – everything she wants revealed; but also conceals – all the things we are forbidden to see. Below: tights that hug and hide, suggest and promise.
And in between: a waist adorned with multicolored bin-bin – you can almost hear the “chekess” sound they will make as she walks.
You swipe le… Actually no, wait – swipe right take in that pic again. Wow.
You swipe left.
She has kids – they are in all her photos during this period. She adores them, and documents their childhood every chance she gets, shares their achievements with great pride, even as they shrink back into babies as you swipe backward.
But it is always just her in the photos with them. In the captions she refers to herself in the singular, as a parent. But in the omissions you can make out the silhouette of a man, one who left with prejudice and who needed to be exorcised from her life, cut out and tossed into the past, as if he never was. You wonder who he is, and how he hurt her; and how she had endured, and survived him.
As you keep swiping left, deeper into her past, you start to notice her patterns. The anniversary of her father’s death, a single photo of him she shares over and over again, as if it is a ritual that will dull her aging yet still throbbing grief.
Then the religious changes. Only muuru photos for the duration of Ramadan, of course – kaala and kurus – captioned with increasingly stoic Qur’anic verses. Starting out with gaunt cheeks that become fuller as you keep swiping left to the beginning of the month. Until the start of the Ramadan: looking well-fed, welcoming in the holy month and proclaiming her readiness for it and her unshaken belief in Allah.
Then that time she tried out ibadu, her comments morphing from the future “the epitome of beauty” turning into “mashallah sis! May Allah reward us all!” and then back to “yaa hotal hot pants janha!”, sometimes from the same people, always ready with a comment no matter what.
And Valentine’s Day, when she always puts up a post mocking the holiday and those who observe it. But beneath her contempt there is a touch of bitterness you can feel; that makes you wonder what the story is there, what trauma she associates with the day, that she cannot let go of.
You keep swiping left.
Time now for the period of questionable fashion choices, right after high school. The messy wigs before they changed into the more expensive human hair of the earlier photos. Her every outfit a mishmash of colours, not so much coordinated as thrown together, like njahass, and hope for the best.
The “black rouge” phase. That time she was trying out a shaved head, her scalp starting out bald and getting progressively more hair as you swipe left, as if undoing a bad decision.
Her life during this period is like an experiment she conducts on herself. And you can watch it all, only in reverse. The end of something she has tried; either given up on or adapted; then going back to its start, when she first made the decision to try it. Her photos thirsty for validation, acceptance, perhaps even praise…
And then before that, before the idea had occurred to her at all, her body still unmarked and unchanged.
You keep swiping left.
And here is one with her father when he was still alive, sitting on his lap with her arms around his neck. He has said something funny and while he grins at the camera, her full gaze is on him, filled with such complete adulation you begin to understand the roots of her grief; and why she is in so much pain every anniversary of the day when she lost him.
You sigh, and swipe left.
Now she is in high school. She is diminished in these photos compared to the earlier ones, as if she has aged backwards: smaller, her skin spottier, her face still growing into its set form, her smile not as certain. She looks straight into the camera, at almost the same practiced angle she will always use, later; but her eyes are different now. Her expression is timid, and not as confident in the world.
The girl in this photo knows absolutely nothing about the road her life will take, and what she will become. Only you do, watching it from her future, backward: tracking her changing identities; the passing of her seasons; the waxing and waning of the fire in her eyes.
You keep swiping. As she grows younger, her pictures are filled with less artifice. Before IG, before Snapchat, before filters. Camera-man at the heww, taking photos for D25 a pop, moments frozen on film to hang on a wall. Scanned later and uploaded.
You swipe left. It is the final one, the oldest in her collection. It is a photo of a photo from an album, the kind that used to decorate saals and start conversations.
She sits on a stoop: a cute little girl dressed in a red and white-spotted dress. She is smiling the way only little girls can; the way that makes you want to pick them up and hug them and do anything and everything to keep them safe, and happy, and keep that smile on their faces.
And for a moment you understand: that little girl is who she has always been, who she is in all the photos. The only difference between them all is
merely the accumulation of the years and all the burdens she has gathered to her, as she has aged.
You started swiping because of a hint of bin bin, shapely hips flowing beneath them. But you leave knowing her in a way you’ve never known any stranger. Perhaps you’ll message her…