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I quit my room, laden with two suitcases: one was filled with some of our clothes – yours and mine; the other, smaller one had your first picture in it. There you were: a one day old creature of delight, enclosed in a frame. There was a photo album, too, recording the time when your days were indissoluble from mine, along with your teething ring, two feeding bottles, half a dozen containers of Similac formula, four packs of Cerelac with wheat and rice, four cartons of Milupa tea, a bag of nappies and four bottles of mineral water. Hanging off my shoulder was my leather college bag, filled with my first short stories, a file of papers, documents and certificates relating to me and my siblings and a little money for unknown times ahead. Queen of my heart, if only we could have packed our homeland and all my shattered feelings into Dad’s car too, the red second-hand Nissan which bore us off to Basra.
On that woeful journey to Iraq, Kuwait began to dislodge my hope of staying or returning, but I tried to muster what reserves I could. I felt dismayed because the soft imprint of its places, its faces, the long days I had spent there was dissolving in my tears. My father didn’t speak much on the journey and his eyes avoided mine. I still had those two pieces of paper with me, both bearing the name “Jihad”. Two first choices, no alternatives, no other name.1 I didn’t tell my father about that other name of mine I’d discovered.
The plan was that my father would take you and me to Basra, leaving us there. A taxi would then take us to the Saghman Hotel in Baghdad. The Saghman was one of the few which let non-nationals pay in Iraqi dinars, rather than the good old American dollar. I had got its name from the library manager at the school I worked at. Supposedly, he and his family would go on ahead and wait for us there, so we could all then travel to Jordan together. That was the agreement.
The week before we travelled, I visited Rania in her apartment in Salmiyah, to bid her and husband Alaa farewell. Rania was pregnant and they were determined to stay in Kuwait, whether war came or not. If Kuwait returned, they would stay; if it remained Iraq, they would live with that too. Rania had already stopped going to the bank, complying with the orders of the Kuwaiti authorities in exile. She did not want to anger those who owned the country, who might return and take their revenge on her. She had improvised a hair salon in her house. In the room she had set aside for it, she welcomed women tired of waiting and overdue brides-to-be who had decided to marry and not allow the probable war to come and disrupt normal life. So she did their hair and make-up and hired out her wedding dress to them.
On the orders of his Kuwaiti boss, who didn’t leave his villa, Alaa carried on with his job at the bank. He hid the papers and documents his boss asked him for, secreting them away in files in his apartment. If Kuwait returned, he would give his boss the files back; if it remained Iraq, he would burn them and work for an Iraqi bank. Rania apologised that she couldn’t give me money to tide me over until a job turned up in Jordan. I was taken aback – though I kept it to myself – as she hadn’t ever offered money to me or anyone else before and I had never asked her for any. I was mad when it dawned on me that Rania was earning – in wartime – more than any of us could imagine possible.
I gathered my books and your toys, and put them in cardboard boxes to keep the dust off. I piled them up in the corner of my room, with a large oilcloth over them to keep the humidity off as well. Everything was set for departure. All I had to do was trust in Sheila and her companions. Sheila was a Sri Lankan maid who first helped me out when my mother, brothers and sisters took a summer holiday in Jordan. She used to babysit you when I went out. After the invasion, when the Iraqi assault began in earnest and confusion reigned, I stopped going to the institute, which was effectively closed anyway. I apologised to Sheila for having to let her go, but I was now jobless and had no other money coming in.
I woke up, alarmed by the broken buzz of the door bell. It was gone one o’clock in the morning. Sheila stood before me startled and crying, looking over her shoulder to make sure no-one had secretly followed her. She was barefoot, in a dress all skewed at the hem, a thin jacket over. This was month two, week one of invasion and anxiety. I understood, from her mix of mangled English and even more mangled Arabic, that Sheila had been staying in an apartment block near ours with a group of Sri Lankan and Indian maids. They worked on daily or even hourly rates and some of them were fugitives from their Kuwaiti sponsors, having lost their livelihoods when the Iraqis invaded.The apartment block janitor had begun, after a few days, demanding money from them. Otherwise, he’d procure them for the Iraqi army unit stationed at the bottom of the airport road, so that they could have their way with them for cash. When he came after Sheila, she gave him a gold necklace she had bought for her daughter, which she had put aside some time ago for her marriage. The janitor gave her a few days’ grace, but kept sniffing around her for more hidden treasure. Sheila swore to him she had given him all she had, but Padmavati, one of her Indian flatmates, told him that Sheila had gold earrings stashed away where no-one else could see them. The janitor let Padmavati off and went straight after Sheila. He knocked her to the floor and pinned her down like a rabbit trapped in a snare. He pulled her pants down and yanked the gold earrings from between the cheeks of her backside. He didn’t just satisfy himself with gold earrings. Sheila’s chocolate-brown bottom stirred something in his blood, and he bit into it, making her scream with pain. He thrust his manhood into her violently, brutally, as he tore at her flesh. A day later – Sheila still prostrate on her bed, sweating and bleeding – the janitor took fright. He was scared a maid nursing her wounds would be a liability, so he threw her out of the apartment, threatening to hand her over to the Iraqi battalion himself if she ever came back.
Sheila begged to stay with me. When I asked her for her passport, she took it out of her bosom, gave it me, then collapsed on the floor. Dad carried Sheila over to the bathroom and then shut the door tight behind both her and me. I slid off her clothes. Her pants were bloody and stuck to her backside. I put the plug in the bath and ran it half full, mixing a packet of salt into the water. I turned Sheila over onto her injured side and told her the salt would cleanse the wound. I bathed and dried her, dressed her in a pair of my pyjamas and laid her on one of my sisters’ beds. Dad made her some instant chicken noodle soup, with bread broken into it, and I gave her an aspirin and some antibiotics. The dawn call to prayer sounded and Sheila fell asleep. Dad prayed and I sat beside him, waiting for him to finish his full-voiced professions of faith, prayers and blessings. Once he had finished, we could have coffee together.
A week later, after Sheila had recovered slightly and put some flesh on her bones, the doorbell rang in the stillness of eight in the evening. Three Asian women stood at the door, asking after Sheila. They had been her flatmates, all of them Sri Lankan, one from Sheila’s own village. They introduced themselves – Nimali, Chandrika and Shanti – each of them clutching a bag of clothes. Sheila was so pleased to see them and asked how they had got away from the janitor. The women glanced at one another, but left it to Chandrika to speak. It seemed the janitor’s conscience had been suddenly awoken. He had cried over what he had done, making them cry too. Afterwards, he had let them be and gone away, even returning the gold he had taken from them before he did. Chandrika opened her bundle of things and took out the necklace and earrings. Sheila recognised them straight away and hugged Chandrika tenderly. The women remained transfixed by Sheila, who was showing the positive effects of our food and hospitality.
I invited them in to have their dinner with her, so they left their sandals by the door and followed their friend in, heads lowered and backs hunched, to my sisters’ room, which had temporarily become Sheila’s. They ate and they talked. When the time came for them to leave, they lingered by the door. Nimali said everything they owned in the country was in those bundles of theirs. Their apartment was miserable, without food or water. Many a time, someone or other would bang on their door in the night to intimidate them. Sheila begged me to let her friends stay with us a little while. From behind me, I heard my father’s voice: “We’ve plenty of food. Let them in.”
Sheila and her companions took comfort in cleaning the apartment, a futile daily ritual that I tried, in vain, to discourage. They seemed happy, chatting all the time and laughing for no obvious reason – at least as far as I could see. I had already asked them about their passports and they replied without hesitation that they didn’t have them. Their Kuwaiti sponsors, who had abandoned them and fled Kuwait, still had them.
They lived in our house like it was their own, wandering around it as if wandering in homes built in their imagination in their faraway villages, though unthreatened in our home by monsoon rains. They carefully flicked the fine layers of dust off the furniture and opened the curtains as they closed them – gently. They cleaned the windows meticulously, scrubbed the dishes with gentle care, fetched down the disused aluminium pans from the kitchen cupboards and scrubbed them clean with the utmost thoroughness. They pampered you with the love they would have shown their own daughters, whose photos were folded away in their bundles. In the evenings, they would sit in my sisters’ bedroom, which had become their own, eating a great deal and talking even more. They were confident that, even if war broke out, they were safe and secure in our apartment, with their bundles of things and trinkets of gold. There they were, in their other homeland, semi-permanently, wrapped up in what seemed a sweet dream they lived in wide-awake daylight.
I came across one of the neighbours in the lift one day. I still only knew her by sight, not by name or by anything else much about her. My mother had been keen to avoid dealings with newcomers on the block, beyond establishing relations on a ‘good morning, neighbour – you mind your business and I’ll mind mine’ footing. This particular neighbour, however – who lived at the top of our apartment block, on the fifth floor – used to collar me in the lift every time and keep me talking, even when we got to the third floor, where our flat was. She would hold the lift door open and carry on yapping, and my face would pretend interest in her ramblings and zigzags. After the invasion, our encounters in the lift became more frequent, either on the way up or down, and the talk – her talk – went on and on and on. She told me, once, the tale of a renowned Palestinian gynaecologist gunned down in a car chase in the streets of Kuwait City, just like they do in the foreign movies. Something to do with him getting mixed up with a woman married to one of the PLO’s top men. It was said that her husband was behind it all. He had taken advantage of the crisis in Kuwait to take revenge on this doctor, who was well-known for liking two types of women: married ones and Filipino maids.
This particular day, however, it was me who kept the lift door open when she asked me if I had heard about an apartment block janitor in our neighbourhood killed recently. Found dead in his room, stabbed several times in the heart, apparently. It was said the killer stole all his valuables – “His life savings, ya haram!”2
She paused, as if to underline her words, so I responded, distractedly: “Ya haram.”
She then said, a little resignedly: “You know, if it can happen to one of us in times like these, then whatever next? Once the law’s at bay, only trouble’s on the way.”
Chandrika was nursing you in the living room, your head resting on her shoulder as she lulled you with her harmonies, a luminous tint to their coda. Her eyes were bathed in a sea of sweet feelings as I stood in the doorway with my carrier bags of bread, gazing on. She turned to me, saying joyfully: “Malekah always falls asleep to my songs.”3
I bought Sheila and her companions some small suitcases in which they could place their bundles. I opened my own and my sisters’ wardrobes and told them to take whatever clothes they needed. I gave them a few tins of food, which they crammed into the corners of their cases. When I offered them a little money, they refused. They hugged me tenderly and kissed you with the deep fondness of four long-suffering mothers. They leant towards my father’s hand to blow it a kiss, but he pulled it away. Then they bid farewell to the home – their home – and left with me, in my Mazda. We headed straight for the Sri Lankan embassy. It had opened its doors to its compatriot workers – most of them maids – in order to get them out of Kuwait by bus. Sheila sat next to me and her companions took their places in the back. Chandrika begged for me to let you come in the car with them. That’s what you wanted too, since you jumped out of my dad’s arms into Chandrika’s, when she held them out to you. You hugged onto her tightly and curled up in the car in her embrace, while she stroked your soft hair with her chin. Sheila sobbed all the way and when we arrived at the embassy building all their faces were veiled in tears.
My own tears were dammed behind dark glasses, as I surveyed Kuwait’s vanishing geography. The tears would well up behind the frames, then spill over in torrents down my cheeks. I turned my face to the window, while Father sank into his silence. We were stopped when we entered the Al-Metlaa’ border check area. An Iraqi unit asked for our papers and sent us on our way, not bothering to check our meagre luggage. It clearly didn’t contain the spoils of Kuwait. In Basra, Dad scrutinised the taxi drivers heading for Baghdad, looking for a kind-hearted, older one. He found one and paid him 200 Iraqi dinars to take you and me to Hotel Saghman in Baghdad. Then came the farewell, one I hadn’t reckoned on or ever wanted. My father took you in his arms and kissed your head, your face, and your heavily-powdered neck, then put you in the back seat of the taxi. The driver sat behind the wheel and put the car in gear, ready for the off. I removed my sunglasses so our eyes could meet directly. Disconsolate, he said: “The moment of farewell, then.”
“Yeah, time to go.”
He made the pretence of looking everywhere except in my direction, but our eyes couldn’t help but meet in the end. I gave him a look of reproach which made his whole body tremble, and he raised his palms to his face and covered his eyes. “I have to confess something,” he said, pressed into tears. I took him in my diminutive arms and he shrank so much within they joined together behind him.
“I know what it is you want to say.”
He looked at me quizzically, imploringly, then seeming as if he wanted to withdraw his offer of confession, before it had even been made. I said: “I know you’re scared for me, but don’t worry. I’m the man of the house round here, right?”
On the road from Basra to Baghdad, there still loomed before me, on the taxi’s windscreen, the image of my father’s face, besmirched a little by his wrongdoing. When the car eventually stopped in front of Hotel Saghman, my father’s face faded away and my heartache relented a little. Kuwait withered away and my soul threw off a little of the weight of its days. At the reception desk, I was greeted by a pretty young girl, with wide, honey-coloured eyes, who – I learned later – was from Mosul. I asked for the room number of Rasim ‘Ayyad, who should have arrived the day before with his wife and two children. As if she already knew me, the girl said: “You’re Jihad Na’im, aren’t you?”
I felt a sense of relief and gave her my passport, but the girl didn’t need documents to confirm my identity. She opened one of the drawers in front of her, and gave me a letter folded inside a little white envelope bearing the name and logo of the hotel. My name was written on the front in distinctive handwriting. I opened it, crestfallen even before I started to read. I had interpreted its likely contents from the sadness on the face of the girl who had given it to me. “Sorry,” Rasim had written, “I couldn’t wait for you. I had to go. I hope you understand and wish you all the best.” The girl told me that the man had been so courteous and considerate. She got up from behind her desk, sensing I was on the verge of crumbling there and then. She took you off my hands, asked one of the staff to bring me a cup of water and sat me down in the leather chair in the hotel lobby. I learned that Rasim had left the morning before. His wife had been moody the whole time, not ashamed even of berating him in the lobby in front of other guests. She had been insistent they travel straight away, threatening to take the kids and leave him behind if he didn’t agree, so he had given in to her. The girl asked me if I intended staying at the hotel. The taxi driver had helped me take what few possessions I had from the car and had gone. I didn’t know where else to go. When she asked how long I intended staying, I replied, looking lost: “I don’t know.”
The room was small and comfortable. We bathed, you and I, and made ourselves wobbly crowns of foam to wear from the soap, oblivious to what awaited us. I made you up some milk, a plate of Cerelac and gave you a little of the mineral water, none of which we’d used on the journey. I sipped some water myself and ordered a cup of tea from room service. I took a packet of salty white cheese from my suitcase and some bread from a bag I had brought originally for the journey, but had saved. I ate a quarter of it with a little cheese and put what was left of both in the minibar fridge, the other contents of which I didn’t touch. We slept, then, on the wide bed, your gorgeous face right next to my pale, hungry one, your slender arm stretched out towards me. You sank your fingers, with their little pink nails, into my neck and dozed. When your breathing became heavier on my cheek, I dozed off too.
In the morning, a handsome, clean-cut young man greeted us at the reception desk. I asked after the young girl who had been there last night. “You mean Ghasoon?” It was her day off. He asked me, very considerately, if I needed anything and I thanked him, no. He pointed me towards the buffet breakfast, but I said I wasn’t hungry and preferred to go out. (I later discovered from the bill that breakfast was included and that I hadn’t needed to go hungry at all.) I walked around the vicinity of the hotel, went into a shop and bought some plain cake. Sitting on the pavement, I ate half of it and gave you the other half. We spent the rest of the day in the hotel lobby, watching the faces pass by. In the evening, we watched an old Egyptian film on the TV in the room. I made you up a bottle of milk, a plate of Cerelac and some water. Then I ate another quarter of the bread with some cheese and ordered up a cup of tea, which I drank unhurriedly, very unhurriedly. On the fourth evening, the packet of cheese was empty and I soaked what was left of the bread in tea, with sugar sprinkled on top.
A light knock on the door raised me from my gloomy repose. I stood up and almost fell back again from dizziness. I hid the tea and bread under the bed. It was Ghasoon. In one hand, she had a large covered plate and in the other three bottles of mineral water in a bag. I told her I didn’t need any room service, but she said the food was from home, from her mother. The water was the hotel’s, but they wouldn’t notice it was gone. She said there was a long road ahead of me and I would need the water, if only to make up your milk. She also told me she had met a Jordanian, who had come from Kuwait with his son. He was visiting some people he knew near where she lived. She had told him about my situation and he had agreed to come to the hotel in the morning to take me to Amman for 100 dollars. I had already left word at reception that I was looking for someone to accompany us there and had put something up on the notice board to that effect too. I used to study the faces in the hotel lobby, with all the comings and goings – thick and fast during the day, more sporadic at night – searching for potential travel companions. I had cut back on my spending, meanwhile, no longer wasting money on food and water when I didn’t absolutely need to, even when the pangs of hunger made me shiver. I had become emaciated and frail. I lifted the lid off the plate Ghasoon had brought to discover a mound of rice with strips of chicken on top. Two little plates were to the side of this big one, one with green salad, the other cubes of fried aubergine cooked in tomato sauce. I devoured it all like an animal.
In the morning, Ghasoon introduced me to Abu Aiman. He was of medium height, in his forties, his son Ammar – not yet thirteen – with him. I later learned that Abu Aiman owned a local clothes shop in Hawwali, Kuwait, and had three other sons as well as Ammar. He had travelled between Kuwait and Jordan via Iraq five times since the invasion, accompanied each time by one of his children, transporting stock from the shop to Amman in batches. Abu Aiman took my large suitcase and placed it among the collection of bags and boxes bundled together in netting on the roof of his Toyota Cressida. He strapped it all down with thick rope. I asked to keep my small case with me in the car, as it had your food and water in it. He agreed and asked me to share the back seat with another man who was coming with us to Amman and whom he addressed as “Mr Ali”. The whole journey long, Mr Ali puffed and blowed, stirring up the stifling air in the car. He found my suitcase irritating. When I asked Abu Aiman twice on the way to stop the car so I could change your nappy, he complained loudly and Abu Aiman had to endure: “This isn’t what we agreed, Abu Aiman”; “If I had known what I was in for travelling with you, Abu Aiman . . .”; “I’ve a right to comfort, Abu Aiman – I am a paying customer” and so on. It reached a point when Abu Aiman handed him his 100 dollars back and offered to get his luggage down and leave him on the side of the road. Mr Ali kept his mouth shut from then on, though his eyes still disclosed his fury. Ammar, who had played with you all the while, suggested sitting in the back seat next to me so that Mr Ali could sit in the front. So it was agreed, Ammar taking your milk bottle from me and nursing you in his arms, as though a little dad himself. As he began feeding you, I leaned back and fell straight into contented sleep.
It was heading for sunset when I opened my eyes to long columns, in both directions, of civilian traffic, most with Kuwaiti plates, occupying the desert terrain. I asked Abu Aiman where we were, and he said Trabil, on the Iraq–Jordan border. Ammar got out of the car with you, you gazing ecstatically at the tender evening falling over your face. Abu Aiman got out to see what the hold-up was. It seemed that the Iraqi leadership had decided to close off Trabil’s border crossing, for some unspecified period. Some of the cars had been queuing there for over a week. “What do you mean ‘unspecified’?” screamed Mr Ali from inside the car, “Are we going to be stuck here for good, or something?” Abu Aiman suggested he “eat shit and shut the fuck up”. And we found plenty of shit, that night, behind the little sand dunes where desert refugees had gone to do their business in the open, lashed by wind and dust from all sides. We dodged between faeces like playing hopscotch.
The cars gathered in random circles and their passengers slept. Some lit a fire in the middle with the odd bit of wood or cardboard retrieved from the desert. They sat around it, trying to judge how far away the cackles of hyenas and other wild animals were that shattered the night’s calm. The desert’s October cold prevented any of us staying outside all night, so we returned to our cars early, unwinding the windows half an inch or so, to provide at least a little ventilation.
Come the morning, I swapped a bottle of mineral water with a woman for a loaf of bread, a couple of tomatoes and cucumbers and a green pepper. I wiped the vegetables on my blouse and cut them up with a penknife I borrowed from Abu Aiman. I broke the bread into three and made sandwiches for myself, Ammar and his father. I still had two bottles of water stashed under the seat. I sneaked out of the car and asked Ammar to stand with his back to the window to screen me from view. I made up your food and secretly fed you. When the women noticed how healthy you looked, they asked about your milk. I pointed to my skinny chest and they shrugged their shoulders, unconvinced. Abu Aiman and Ammar were drinking from one of the two big water canisters they had brought from Baghdad. Mr Ali had got out of the car, clutching his case festooned with zip pockets. He had walked a little way off and taken some biscuits and chocolate out, eating them furtively, away from hungry eyes. Then he had opened another zipper, extracting a little bottle from which he skimmed a measure of water.
The second day was even more torrid and the night more bitterly cold. I gave a woman a box of wheat-flavoured Cerelac in return for two flatbreads. Ammar ate one of them himself and I shared the other with Abu Aiman. In the evening, we laid some cardboard on the ground and sat down, leaning back against the car. Ammar walked further than he had the day before, gathering wooden boards and sticks to light a fire with, to take the edge off the desert night. We sat around the fire until it died, then slept slumped in the car seats. I tried to stay out of the car as long as possible to stretch my legs, which got cramped from sleeping sitting up. Mr Ali got out of the car and walked over. Abu Aiman offered him space to sit with us. “What do they call you? Abu what?” Abu Aiman was asking him about the name he was known by, but Mr Ali, hogging the fire with his huge forearms, replied: “Call me Abu nothing. I don’t have kids.”4
Then a scream rang out from a woman in great pain, the night having been hitherto silent but for the crackle of dry wood which the fire devoured rapaciously. That scream was followed by a series of jagged howls and people rushed towards where they came from. A woman was sitting on the ground, legs wide open, her seven-month-old child lying dead between them. “La hawlah wa la qawwah illa bi-llah. Al-biqaa’ li-llah.” Our voices mingled with one another. “La hawlah wa la qawwah illa bi-llah. Al-biqaa’ li-llah.”5 The woman had taken off her shawl and had heaped sand all over her face and hair. She had scratched her neck bloody with her fingernails. I clutched you tightly to my chest, making you squeal with pain. I kissed your hair, your cheeks, your neck, held your palms and counted your fingers over and over, crying all the while.
Abu Aiman and a few other men dug a small grave in a place well away from all our faeces. The woman still clutched the infant to her chest, refusing to hand him over to the men, who were trying to console her that her child’s life was like a bird’s in paradise. They took her little bird away from her by force when they could not convince her to give him up. He was wrapped in a thick woollen blanket. I went over to the woman, kissed the sand in her hair and begged her to give me her baby’s blanket for my own child. The woman stopped crying, stared straight into my eyes and then spat in my face.
Ammar climbed onto the roof of the car and loosened the netting. Then, with his father’s guidance, he cut the binding around one of the boxes, in which there were two dyed-black woollen coats, the sort schoolchildren wear. I put one of them on myself and wrapped you in the other. When the fire could find nothing more to devour, it consumed itself. We got into the car and slept. Ammar couldn’t sleep sitting up, so he rested his head on my lap and raised his legs onto the back seat. Abu Aiman lodged my little case in the gap between the front and back seats to turn it into a mattress and covered it with a cloth for you to sleep on.
On the third day, we found nothing more to eat. I still had threequarters of a bottle of mineral water. I made a half cup of rice Cerelac in the lid of your milk bottle for Ammar to eat. I saved the rest of the water for your milk. Abu Aiman gave me some water from one of his jerry cans to wash you with. I had tried to save on nappies by leaving them on you for as long as possible, such that your skin started peeling between your legs. I said to Abu Aiman that it was as if you had got bigger in those three days; I could no longer bear your weight. Abu Aiman replied: “You’re exhausted.” I stayed in the car most of the time, fighting off the pangs of hunger and fatigue. As if the screws which kept my limbs attached to my emaciated body had loosened, I slumped into the seat. I was like withered leaves fighting autumn’s shedding. I couldn’t respond to your attempts at games any more and, when your ever-busy hands patted my slackened face, I raised what vital force I could to press them to my dry, cracked lips. That afternoon, Ammar’s shouting filled the space of our waiting: “Malekah’s walking! Malekah’s walking! Hey, Malekah’s walking!”
You stood warily, as if judging the extent of your bravery. Ammar held onto your arms to keep you steady, then let go. I opened the car door to come to you but found I couldn’t stand. You stopped a few yards from me and I called out to you. You flapped your arms in the air and I stretched mine out towards you. You took the first step towards me, in between Ammar and Abu Aiman, who were standing by the car door, cheering you on. Your second was a bigger stride, followed quickly by a third and a fourth. Before your little bare legs gave way, Ammar rushed over and helped you again. Only three steps separated us. You flapped your arms even more heartily, swiftly covered the ground between us – part walking, part running, part dancing, part flying – and threw yourself into my lap.
When darkness fell, I realised that I hadn’t been to pass water yet. Whenever we heard a car start at night, we figured out that the people waiting there, the women particularly, were answering the call of nature and the men were making sure their improvised toilet was safe from others cars coming out of the desert. They would drive some distance away and park, with car doors open, front and back, like breakers against the embarrassment and the elements, their front lights on to ward off predators. I couldn’t ask Abu Aiman to drive me then, in the middle of the night, to some far-off ravine to relieve myself. I was desperate to empty my bladder behind the dunes, before the desert night, the bestial cries and the threat of ambush descended. I was actually shocked my bladder was full, given my belly was empty. Abu Aiman’s and Mr Ali’s snores mingled, while your breathing was slow and regular on your makeshift mattress and Ammar rolled around in his sleep. I tried to think of anything other than the fact that I was fit to burst. I forced my eyes shut and saw, absolutely distinctly, the man who had been my husband grip me by the arm and yank me out of bed, then drag me across the wide landing between the bedroom and the lounge. He then dragged me down an even longer passageway between the lounge and the door of the apartment, the place where we had lived when we were married. I tried, when I could, to grab hold of anything on the ground to stop myself; other times I tried to bite his hands to get free. But he kicked me in the stomach so my teeth soon lost their grip. He opened the door and slung me out onto the ground, closing the door after me. I was barefoot in a nightdress, staring at three blind apartment doors before me. It was approaching dawn. I raised my arms over my shoulders and bare chest and curled my legs under me. With only a light chiffon nightdress and my flesh exposed, I curled up into the smallest space possible, crumpling up in the doorway, waiting for daylight.
One of the cars parked behind Abu Aiman’s started up its engine several times and turned its front lights on. A thread of light streamed into our car and I distinctly made out my face in the front rear view mirror. The face was haggard, lips cracked and dry, cheeks gaunt, eyeballs sunk into their sockets, forehead protruding, jaw jutting. It was a face melting into its skull. The car’s lights receded as it drove off to look for a valley in the brutal desert to meet nature’s call. Though the stream of light relented, my image still loomed before me, staring back at me in the obscurity. It was a face that was crying ferociously and from bitter depths.
When dawn glimmered, my queen, and the desert had shaken off some of its black, bestial shroud, I realised I was drenched in my own piss. I had pissed myself and was wet through, my queen.
1 This refers to the lots Jihad’s father, Na’im, had previously prepared to decide which of them would travel to Jordan. Jihad subsequently discovered her father had written her name on both lots.
2 A conventional expression of disapproval at a sinful or wrongful act or situation, similar to “God forbid”.
3 Malekah is an Arabic girl’s name, meaning queen.
4 The name Abu (meaning father of) plus the first born child’s name is often adopted as a moniker by new fathers in the Arab world.
5 This fixed expression, commonly called the Hawqalah, is often uttered in the Arab world at times of calamity. It can be translated as “(There is) no transformation or power except by God. Survival is with God.”
Selected from Qabla An Tanam al Malika, published by al-Muassassa al-Arabiya lil-dirassat wal-Nashr, Beirut & Amman 2011
Translated for Banipal 44 by John Peate
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