Iman Bassir

After I left the village that April spring morning, I didn’t know for how long you stayed kneeling there, mother, praying for me at the doorstep. I watched you and my little sisters fade into the distance as the car moved me further away from home. Father held my hand and whispered into my ear: “He is the head of the monastery. Kiss his hand.”
I was surprised by how the priest simply put his hand to my mouth and how I kissed it. Unconsciously, and irrationally, I just kissed it.
It is a deplorable convention that I had learned in my earliest classes and which I was trained to practise every time I entered the church and every time I was met by the priest with his frowning face and grey hair. It is similar to the convention that said I had to kiss the hand of grandfather, and the oldest in the group. But why did I have to do it? Is it merely because I was born into this world?
It has to be that because what other reason could there be? It’s a paradox that makes me laugh . . .  I should have just assassinated him!
I don’t know how many times I told myself that I would . . .  if he ever put his hand to my mouth again. But I am a coward. I never do what I say and all my talk is chatter.
I swear that the next time it happens, I’m going to . . . Yes, I am going to bite his hand so he’ll never dare hold it out again.
We reached the monastery in the evening. I stole a wide glance at the world as if I wanted to take it all in before they closed the iron gate behind me. The grass called out to me to toss and roll all over it, but I postponed the idea for another time and entered. For a few moments, I felt that the myths of nostalgia and stories of Santa Claus lay sleeping over chimneys and sand paths. I had the sudden feeling, as I dragged my feet inside, that I would never return to our home again and that I would never play on the grass again. I missed my grandma who died five years ago.
I ran towards the door, calling for my father . . .  I yelled so he would hear me. But only a few young girls heard me, playing at the end of the street. I saw them through the little opening in the gate. They ran towards my voice and listened. I listened to them too but nobody spoke.
When I turned around a horrific scene was awaiting me: old nuns wearing black dresses with no form or colour. There were dark hallways, stone seats all around and the graves of clergymen lying awake inside them. I thought I could almost hear their pleas.
Several times I tried to run away and later I would realise how despicable my actions had been. One day, I went to the priest to confess my sin so the Lord would forgive me. A transparent black veil separated my face from his as I whispered: “Bless me, O Father, for I have sinned.” I heard his voice respond, hoarse and dignified, echoing throughout the church.
“What have you done?”
“I confess that I tried to run away from the monastery and that I ran in the alleys and chewed gum during mass. Also, Father, I like to . . . to look at . . . at boys on Sundays.”
His tone of voice changed and it seemed to me that he was pressing on my throat with his thick fingers, and I thought of running away again.
“What else?”
I felt that I had forgotten all the words that I had learned during my entire life. I forgot the language completely, the letters, and the shapes, and it seemed to me as if my voice was coming out of someone else’s throat.
“I cried when my hair was cut and I cursed the seamstress who took my measurements to make me a dress.”
I fell silent for a moment. I drew back, crying, in fear of what he was about to say. He mentioned a few words in prayer and said:
“Go and pray to the Lord the prayer of remorse a hundred times, and stay close to the sisters until you learn some piety.”
After my last confession, I told myself that I would not try to run away again, that I would not look at boys on Sundays, not chew gum, or run in alleys. I would keep my face buried in the prayer book like the pious sister Mary. I would not look at the worshippers who came and went without asking me whether I had parents or if I wanted to visit them.
A few days later, a sharp pain pierced my head and joints and some red pimples appeared on my forehead. This made the Father in charge of the monastery order that I be expelled because, according to him, I would never be able to learn piety for as long as I lived. He said that in his whole life among monasteries he had never heard of insolence such as mine. That is because Father Philip, the priest to whom I had confessed, complained to him and Sister Katrina that I had tried to trick him and that I did not go to see him with any intention of confessing and being penitent.  He whispered to them both, away from the ears of the pious sisters, that I gave off the smell of a fiery fiend. So he said his morning, evening, and other prayers, asking God for forgiveness and protection from the evil of that smell.
I found out later that, strangely, what had sent Father Philip’s life into irreversible mortal sin was that very smell, which stuck to his robe and moved on to other robes, then on to the sheets and the blankets, and the carpet in the hallway, and then on the monks’ shoes and to another carpet in another room. Then the smell moved through the monks’ rooms like an epidemic but the effect was not as visible on others as it was on Father Philip. The smell became everything he wore and ate and breathed, and it awoke in him an old ache that he had always tried to ignore. He felt guilty because he did not tear away the veil that separated my face from his, that he did not break down the wall and capture the smell that caused him to have insomnia and hallucinations. That would have been his only way to true salvation. But as soon as the fever of that smell dissipated and he regained his strength for just a few minutes, he cried and thanked the Lord for intervening with His mercy before he could commit the ultimate sin. But this feeling of comfort was soon followed by another feeling of guilt that contradicted the first, and he could never decide which was his true feeling.
What made the Father, head of the monastery, despise me was that the Mother Superior, Mother Katrina, told him I would not sleep alone in my room like the rest of the sisters. It was also said that I told the Mother Superior I wanted to go with Sister Mary to her room with the excuse that I was scared of the dark. And one of the sisters reported that she had seen me running in the alleys chasing a bird and that I had opened the locked windows, including the upper ones, and that to do so I stood on the dining table and the beds of the sisters, laughing and jumping around as if I had been touched by a satanic spell.
Sister Mary was the one chosen by Mother Katrina to teach me piety through weekly visits. Sister Mary proposed to Mother Katrina to prepare me for nunhood by giving me lessons about God and the wickedness of the Devil and his evil deed on the day of creation when he invited Eve to eat from the forbidden tree, thus depriving Man of heaven. With these guidelines, Sister Mary started off on her new assignment. But sometimes she would get distracted from our religious lessons and we would start talking about what was happening at the monastery, especially the hysteria which had afflicted Father Philip and which finally got him dispatched to an asylum.
Also, Sister Mary did not hesitate to sing along with my little sister an anthem she had just learned at school. She also enjoyed teaching my other sister to make dresses for her doll and she started helping my mother in the kitchen and going out with her to buy groceries from the market. One day she whispered to my mother that she should take me to a doctor, telling her the pains in my joints and my head had nothing to do with what they said at the monastery. But my father refused to believe this and insisted on locking me up in my room until the Lord had exacted my just punishment, even though he knew I was scared of sleeping alone. He would lock the door from the outside and forbid me to see Sister Mary since, according to Mother Katrina, we had a sinful relationship.
The red pimples spread further and some of them became filled with pus and were repulsive. The mirror surprised me. I was shocked by the shape of my face, my protruding eyes, and the continuous pain in my head and joints. All of that confirmed my sin and the anger of the Lord. I accepted the wooden cross which my mother hung over my bed and I knelt before it, whispering in humility: “I confess, O Lord, that my sin is great. . . very great, but I am remorseful with all of my heart. . .” My prayers were interrupted by the sound of someone fumbling with a key in the door lock. I knew it was my mother. Lately, she has been taking the risk of opening the door and letting me walk around the rooms after my father has gone to bed. When I’m out of my room, I always look at the oil painting hanging on the wall with its tearful, innocent faces of children and saints, or faces that feigned innocence. I don’t know where my father found the painting, it seemed that it could only belong on a church wall.
Dim yellow lights glowed, like summer wheatstalks strung over the walls. It occurred to me either to make their light a phosphorescent red or to put them out forever. Rugs with patterns of faded stars covered the floors of the house. I hated them and refused to walk on them. I lifted the eternal rugs from the floor of the hallway. Exhausted, I struggled to move one aside, to enjoy, just for once, running barefoot on the cold tiles. The dreamy white squares of tile astonished me as they awoke from a deep slumber that had lasted a century or more. As I dusted the surfaces, I found them sadly scattered in designs of circles and triangles.
I saw the moonlight as it seeped through one of the windows. The moon, also, was taking advantage of my father being asleep. My father kept it out by impatiently drawing the curtains. I don’t remember my father laughing once in his whole life. He thinks that laughter brings calamities and misfortune, so he decided to frown eternally. Our music records have never sent out anything more than dust. I wanted to open the upper window and throw them out, like flying discs landing from another planet, while my mother burns incense in the morning all over the house. Ha, ha! It’s been a long time since I laughed. I felt similar dust leaving my sinewy inner body. . . Am I a deserted sinewy body?
This annoying bra is pressing on my breasts, choking them. I hear them crying out to me from under my dark woollen shirt. I twist my arm up behind my back and with difficulty break open the clasp that my mother fixed firmly as soon as I was finished taking my shower. After unbuttoning my shirt I sneak it out from under my collar, and throw it away as if performing a magic trick. It reminds me of a magician who takes out a scarf from his hand or a white dove out of his hat. Here is my dingy bra coming out of my shirt. It jumps like a fish leaping out of water. I have been transported into another world where ants and butterflies live for no reason other than to play or enter a friendly match. I discover my need for it . . . to be planted in an impoverished room without curtains, visited by the moon every night. I am going to bear the moon’s daughter, with his eyes and his unique presence.
But here I am sinning again, diving into sin, impersonating it. I am no longer good for anything but the forbidden, and penitence is no longer a possibility.
Whenever my mother became pregnant, she and my father would expect the child to be a boy, but she only bore girls. I got used to being called Samir since my mother always wished she could have a boy and name him Samir.
I often overheard people saying that I had a boy’s frame and that at first glance you would think I was a boy, since I was not as pretty as my sisters. I swore many times to my mother that no one would ask for my hand in marriage and that I would stay in her face forever.
Oh, if she could only see me now. I have the body of a woman, a body that I am afraid to look at. Maybe it’s not mine. Maybe it just appeared by mistake and it will disappear one morning but it is mine for now. And there is a mole, a mole at the bottom of my neck that I discovered while I was showering. I was embarrassed to look at my whole body. But the mole is temporary. I like it. I pamper it when I am alone, after closing the door. But I keep hearing Mother Katrina’s voice in my head “God can see you, He is everywhere”.
My stares break against the walls that wrap round the house and suffocate it. The tree branches remain in a silent and eternal embrace, blocking the sparkling stars and their passionate banquet at the moon’s lake.
On the windowsill, a butterfly is dying. I hold her with the tips of my fingers to not hurt her or increase her pain. I am sure that she has already suffered for many hours before she got to this point. I blame myself for being absent all that time. I sit her on my palm. I breathe clean refreshing air into her mouth. I try to move her wings in case she is numb or has some cramped muscles. She does not respond except with a lazy flap of her wings and leans against my palm, exhausted.
Her pained eyes are begging me to do something and this increases my pain. It occurs to me that maybe she needs music. I secure her in my palm and start circling the room to the melody of tunes coming from the speaker, as she lies there calm and secure.
Will this trigger her unconscious? Will she notice that these movements resemble the flying she used to do among flowers?
This is my body turning and turning. I rise and fall with her, hoping that perhaps I will create inside her the feeling that she can be prepared to fly once again. I stop turning, and the room keeps turning. Turning. She starts flapping her wings more forcefully, takes a few steps across my palm, then shuts her eyes and a fine fluid seeps from her sides.
Dawn is about to break, and the butterfly is a thin corpse on a book. I look closely at her, hoping she may still be alive. She may be asleep or drunk. Isn’t it said that some flowers are poisonous or intoxicating? Or maybe it is exhaustion, or sin. Sin is the biggest of all calamities. That’s what the Father, and head of the monastery, said and father agreed with him.
My head is a windmill that I cannot stop. Father stands close to me. I thought he was going to crush me. I was surprised that he didn’t. I am sure that I saw him wipe away tears. Has a calamity befallen our home? I wish I could find out. I wish they would tell me where I am!
I think I see my mother crying at my bed, and the kind Sister Mary praying and crying too. There are girls, too, in white dresses. Are they ghosts or angels? Their faces are familiar, as if I know them from other centuries or planets. They come and go laughing. They look at me as if they are waiting for the chance to snatch me away to somewhere else. But I won’t let them. I try to stop them. I try to lift my arm. I wish my mother would notice them and kick them out.
My father is here, and his eyes are red and kind as I’ve never seen them before. Is that my father?

Was that me?

Translated by Nirvana Tanoukhi

‘Khatiaa [‘Sinful’] is translated from the author’s collection Jassad min Bukhour [Body of Incense], Ramallah, 1997