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I stand now, before the mirror, passing the backs of my fingers over my soft cheek. My skin is brown, like the skin of most people in this country. My eyes are beautiful. My curly hair lies calm beneath the headscarf. My nose is straight as a sword. My bottom lip is thick, not much of a match with the one on top.
Yet, all in all, I am a beautiful woman. I am a half-breed.
Every door is open to me. I can go wherever I want without anyone being able to see the blackness inside me. I am not like the ‘slave girls’, but nor am I like Mona, ‘free-born’ and free in every little detail of the snares that lie across my path from time to time, that catch me out like someone who falls, to her great distress, between two stools.
I wept for a long time in my mother’s arms when my friend Hanan told me to my face that I was not free. At the time, I was in my first year of primary school. There was no difference between my skin and hers, no difference between our noses, just my hair, resting beneath the white school headscarf, and my plump lower lip. I could almost swear that Hanan was a little darker than me, but during our break periods she and the rest of the girls in class freed themselves of their hijabs. Hanan would let her hair down at the back and a soft curl cascaded over her brow, like a waterfall of light.
My mother said to me: “You’re no slave, Amal, but nor are you completely free.”
Dear God, what could be more vicious than this vicious circle, this constant circling over red-hot coals of doubt, this crime for which we’re held to account, without having committed it? Now, as I take my first steps into life, I discover that I am a female of partial qualities.
I tried hard to do well at school, but my academic records were always below average. My aunt Zayoun, who married a man from Zanzibar against the wishes of her family, acquired a large library just as she was coming to terms with losing the affections of my mother and other aunts. She conquered her own inner weakness when she joined fortunes with a man of another blood, who gave her the opportunity to learn and read. Though she began her education at a late stage, she soon excelled, and became a lover of books and of reading.
One day, she confided in me and told me the little secret she kept locked up inside. I remember gasping at the time, though I did not fully understand what she meant when she told me, quite contentedly: “I have rid myself of the woman’s burden, Amal.”
Now I understand her secret perfectly. What a burden it is! This load which pushes us to compare ourselves to others, leaving us feeling how costly the label is and how little it suits us.
This is what reading did for my aunt Zayoun. It made her see that life was less harsh than it had seemed in the village.
My mother and father took a more relaxed view and would always tell me that it was what God had decreed for us and we could not defy our God-given lot. But I was never able to believe them, nor could I accept that my fate should be so very bleak.
It was with considerable difficulty that I managed to visit Aunt Zayoun in the summer, when she would lend me beautiful books. With her help I was able to learn to read very well. Despite being darker skinned than me, her sons don’t feel the same discontent and gloom that I do, a complicated balancing act that astonishes me. I try to free myself, to appear like a normal girl untroubled by such petty concerns, as if I were not full of insecurities, like lumps covering the surface of my soul. But it was in vain. I try to shrug off my unhappiness, but despite my efforts the pain would seek out any small chink through which it could devour me.
I remember the day Hanan got onto the bus and found a black girl sitting in the seat behind the driver. She flew into a rage, picked up the black girl’s bag and threw it to the back, screaming: “When are you going to understand that slaves sit at the back?”
I felt a sharp pin pierce my breast, rising up slowly through my throat, like a thorn. I thanked God I wasn’t so black as to be subject to such abuse. I thanked God too that, unlike all the others, I always chose to sit on the back row without having to be told to by anyone. Mona also liked sitting at the back. That wistful, naïve girl, good for nothing but daydreaming, yet who, despite all the nonsense she came out with, was nevertheless straightforward and kind. I was aware of how important retaining her friendship was, of sticking to her before she could flee and leave me to tumble into my fragile loneliness.
Mona was forever melancholy. Listless, sitting in her seat one row from the back to sketch the faces of boys from the alley. I would sit down beside her and tell her about the alternative existence I wanted us to discover together, feigning an assurance that made me seem like a girl who knew everything. I faked delight and affection for the world around us and Mona, hugely gullible, believed me. She defended me whenever Hanan tried goading me by raising the hateful subject of my being a “half-caste”.
That word caused me more hurt than “slave”. It doubled my losses: I am not free, nor am I a slave, but a mix that falls in the middle. The words would cut me up, coming from her gullet sharp as a scalpel, while her face remained as impassive as if she were telling a hollow joke. No one laughed and no one shared my tears. The other half-castes in the class treated the term with astonishing docility. They used it to refer to each other. They believed it to be true. They resembled my mother and father to a terrifying degree. I alone would dissolve where I sat, melting into tears as the word pricked my senses and fed on my frazzled nerves.
Visiting my aunt Zayoun’s house was no easy matter, because my mother had not spoken to her since she had married the man from Zanzibar and fled to the neighbouring village. I would take advantage of my cousins visiting their fields in the village to collect the delicious ripe dates and water their crops, hopping on the pick-up and sitting at the back without my mother noticing.
My aunt was delighted when I came over. She would offer me the nicest things to eat and then make some reference to her huge library. I used to ask myself how my aunt had shrugged off her sense of inferiority and a peculiar feeling would flare in my chest to think that it was the books she read that had done this to her.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the first novel I began to read after the children’s stories and young girls’ tales we had at primary school. The book stayed in my mind for many years afterwards. I never managed to free myself from the sadness that consumed me after reading it.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Stowe, was one of the most famous novels in American literature, my aunt informed me.
“Please, aunty! I’ll read it and give it back to you next time.”
“But it’s too advanced for you.”
“All right, Amal. I promise that if you finish it and show you understand it I’ll give you a reward, and whenever you return a book I will lend you another.”
I hugged her tight. I felt as though she had thrown me a line to drag me out of a stinking swamp to the heavens, where the rays of light sparkled.
I hurried outside, unable to contain myself. I sat on the back of the pick-up and started to read the opening lines, even though I leapt in the air every time the tyres struck one of the stones that were scattered here and there. I tried hard to keep my eyes on the page.
When we arrived I slipped into the house the same way I had left it. My mother did not stop me going off to the distant village shop or staying out late in the fields, as Mona’s father did with her, but she would have strung me up if she sensed that I had been visiting my aunt. One good thing was that she was always distracted and rarely kept an eye on me or paid me any attention.
I entered the room I shared with my eleven siblings and sat in a far corner to continue the pleasure of reading. I was extremely slow. I was not good at reading yet, but I tried hard. It took me a whole half-hour to finish the first page. I didn’t understand a lot of it. The novel was huge. A feeling of frustration grew inside me as I realized I would need an entire year to finish it.
Nevertheless, despair never entered my heart. I recalled my aunt’s face, free of the burden of multiple disappointments. I must read! I am fortunate because I went to school and my aunt is fortunate because she married a man who taught her both to read and to love. I remember how my mother, speaking irritatedly about Zayoun, the sister who had broken the family’s sacred laws, made me feel as if she were talking about my own thoughts and ambitions.
My aunt, who had fled that hurtful phrase “half-caste” when she was young and had refused to work as a maid for the neighbours, or to demean herself by kissing their hands. My aunt, who refused to marry her cousin, so that her children would never peel the scab from her wound by asking her every day about that word – the one everyone around them was always repeating.
I sighed with relief. I had finished the second page faster than the first and I felt optimistic. The more I exerted myself, the better my results. As I got more caught up in the details, my eyes welled up. My heart went out to the man’s wife who ran away and to Little Eva, who wanted emancipation for the slaves but died before she could free her friend Tom.
My mother came into the room as I rubbed my eyes over and over again, wiping away the streaming tears. I felt a searing sensation there, as though a thorn was sprouting in my eye.
“Amal,” my mother said, upset. “Why are you sitting alone in your room? Why are you crying?”
I held myself in her arms for a long while and wept. I could not tell her about the thing that had been lodged in wretched Tom’s gorge like a bone, because he was guilty simply of being a poor slave who did not even own himself. I could not tell her that I was much like Uncle Tom, since I could not defend myself before Hanan’s bullying.
* * *
Dear God. What might reading do to me? Aunt Zayoun slipped money in my pocket whenever I returned a book and talked about it. She was amazed by how quickly I studied, how I instinctively picked up the smallest details. More than my mother had, she noticed the sadness nestling behind my exuberant personality. Once she asked: “What is it, Amal?”
“Are you sad?”
“What will happen if I read a lot, Aunty?”
“You will discover yourself.”
“Will I really?”
She gave me a tender smile and told me that knowledge turns a person’s life on its head, transforms them into somebody with the skill of discrimination, who can tell things apart, someone able to make their own decisions, without consulting anybody else.
Her words were beautiful, extraordinary; whole sentences I scarcely understood, yet when she said “reading is freedom,” she sent such pleasure coursing through me it was as if the words were cool water.
Must I believe you, Aunty? Knowledge only increases my sense of the baseness of things. I have yet to learn how to scream in Hanan’s face and tell her: “You and I are one and the same. My frizzy hair does not excuse your vindictiveness towards me. I have yet to reconcile myself to that word, which I hear every time someone proposes to a girl in our neighbourhood. The first question the groom’s family ask is about our bloodline. A half-caste girl is forbidden from marrying a free man and she would refuse to marry a slave to save her descendents from falling any lower.
I remember now that old story, the story of the half-caste girl with the face of a princess, her hair flowing softly down and a body trim and yielding; a girl adored by half the young men in the village. She gave her love to one man who was completely devoted to her, the son of one of the sheikhs. This father of his performed wonders – charms and sorcery – to keep his boy out of the path of this beauty. Then the sheikh intervened to marry her off to a black man and the boy lost his mind.
As a little girl, I once saw the madman, running out of the room where his father had shut him up, repeating a phrase that made my heart ache, that rings in my ears to this day: “Why did the flower choose a crow over me? Why did the flower choose a crow over me? Why?”
Reading emboldened me. I did not feel the same shyness that peeped out from the faces of most of the neighbourhood girls. I was not satisfied with setting my dolls out and kissing them. I did not spend my time like Mona, staring and sketching. Luckily, my brother Saoud was two years younger than me and couldn’t exercise his muscle against me. I was very gentle with him, so he would often seek my protection when the neighbourhood boys were bullying him. My other, more academically challenged, brothers, worked various menial jobs and only came to the village on their days off. My sisters had all been taken care of by being married off. There was no one to bother me, therefore, or to submerge my life in a deluge of commands and warnings.
Mohsin was the only person who filled my heart, even before my body had started to blossom. He was calm and uncomplicated, a few years older than me. Ever since he was little he hadn’t liked playing with us. Instead he would observe from behind his thick glasses. Once, seeing that I was reading a book, a collection of world stories translated for children, he sat down alongside me.
“Do you like reading?”
“My aunt says that reading is like eating.”
“And you. What do you say about reading?”
“She also says that reading is freedom.”
The surprise was clear on his face. At that time I was doing my best to seem like a grown-up; to talk like them. I was trying to dazzle him, to make his mouth gape in awe at this miracle child who spoke as if she were much older. But he quickly said: “Read for knowledge, for pleasure, in order to nourish your little mind, but never read for freedom.”
I lost my temper. I felt I might punch his face with my fist. He was deliberately belittling me. I was sure of it. Then he went on: “I really liked what one of the professors said to me one day. He said: ‘Whoever seeks knowledge is free inside.’ That’s why I say you don’t need freedom; you are naturally free.”
I nearly cried, nearly cast all my woe into his lap as he sat there beside me. My mother had never said that to me, my father neither. Even Aunt Zayoun had not told me that when I was at my weakest. Not one person had ever uttered it to me, not even as a joke or a lie.
But Mohsin said it. It came from him calmly, without any fuss, without my asking it of him. It came like light and on it I hung all my incomplete dreams. In that instant I decided to believe that Mohsin was the only messenger who would bring me the truth. I would cling to those words. I would plant them like a red rose in my heart and water them with great love.
Yes. I will not read to win my right to be free. I am free, just as Mohsin had said. He had no cause to flatter me with that admission, which shook every part of my being. He was not waiting for me to give him something in exchange for the words that altered my mood and relieved me of my sorrow.
A short while after this incident I became addicted to reading. The books and novels that Aunt Zayoun loaned to me were no longer enough and I borrowed from the school library as well, in addition to the books I was given by the school’s Arabic teacher, who had noticed my passion for the printed word.
Khallouf Walad Shouana, the school drop-out whose tongue disowned him for using it to utter obscenities, would bring cheap magazines from his cousins in town. Several times he offered to let me take them and told me they were enjoyable. I declined his offer repeatedly, at first because he was a waster, of dubious morals, and the only boy my mother did not want me going near on the grounds that his whole family were from a degenerate class. Truth to say, it wasn’t that the magazines with their scandalous pictures attracted me so much as my desire to get to know my own body.
No one paid me any attention as I unfurled like a butterfly from the cocoon of childhood. Even Mohsin, on the few visits he made from university, failed to notice me. I was waiting for the slightest word from him so I could tremble in his arms; I needed to experience what it was like to make love, like the romantic heroines in the stories I read.
Only Khallouf took note of my budding body’s heat, and of my indifference towards committing a grave sin, so long as it would have no lasting effect on my reputation among the villagers. He kept suggesting we try it together, far from prying eyes. Khallouf, too, had yet to test out his body and he was aflame with desire. At first I refused, not because I was afraid of what people would say or that my mother would hang me by the neck until my soul left my body, but because I was scared that I would lose my chance to get Mohsin, the one who had given me freedom.
I tried tamping down the small eruption which released its perfume whenever I read a book that talked of love, of the untroubled longing that grows between two lovers. Yet I never pictured myself in the hands of Khallouf, always ready to pounce on any woman like a beast. On the other hand, waiting for Mohsin was not easy; he was unattainable, distant. No one could give me any guarantees that the day would come when Mohsin would pay me some attention. He was a man of mystery, whose innermost thoughts I could not guess; a man who perhaps could not see beyond his father’s example, beyond the wall encircling his house, beyond those thick glasses, that told you he was a hardworking student.
And then, what if I did try out my body with Khallouf? He had inherited his family’s immortality, and he was not to blame for that. What if Khallouf had been born into another family, a decent one with a good reputation in the village? Wouldn’t he be different? A different character, with different interests? Poor boy. Since birth he’d been imbibing his parents’ many errors, soaking up their neglect of him. While most children are learning to say “Mama” and “Papa”, Khallouf was becoming acquainted with savagery, pain and abuse.
My mother told me that one night, when his parents had quarrelled very badly, his father had taken Khallouf, a baby of nine months, and tied him to the leg of the cow in the pen, locking the door on his mother so she could not reach him. It was a cold night and little Khallouf cried until, by God’s mercy, drowsiness overcame him. The cow was more tender to him than they were; it did not inflict the slightest kick on his his tiny body. His mother was only able to get to him after the dawn call to prayer, when the neighbours heard her cries and rushed out to open the door.
Khallouf is more like me than Mohsin, because he was stamped with the character of his drunkard father and a mother who opened her legs for any man passing. I, too, bear the burden of a sin in which I played no part, but which I am forced to accommodate to, to tolerate, or else I will be driven far, far away from this society in which I live.
Khallouf cannot stand up to anyone in the village and say anything other than what already inhabits their brains. He cannot choose any other path other than the path that others have chosen for him. Ah! Only now do I discover just how much we resemble one another. I, too, cannot deny my hair and my coarse lip. I might conceal myself a little by putting on make-up or treating my hair with serum, but I am still black inside: that deep wound in my soul that I’ll never be rid of. My forefinger will never swell so large that it can stop up mouths primed for night-time gossip.
One night, after Khallouf had insisted that it was vital we take off somewhere far away to try out our bodies, to test our ability to become one with each other, to enter new worlds we had not known before, the curiosity grew inside me, sprawling out into rosy dreams, the like of which I have only ever seen in the pages of stories that gave things wings and scattered them with small stars like seeds from which nothing but love can grow.
Out I went, without putting on any make-up or bothering to prepare my body for this long awaited moment of intimacy perhaps because I had expected my first experience to be with Mohsin. But fate had driven me in completely the opposite direction. How my feet had carried me to this point I did not know, but I went. I went out when I sure everybody was asleep, that no one would walk after me, and I met him in the distant fields.
He was ready and eager. Lust leapt from his eyes. He devoured me without uttering a single word. Just like that, I suddenly found myself in a whirl of pain and dizziness. I closed my eyes, like someone who does not wish to unlock their memory, like someone who does not want to light a lamp and bestow other, more pleasurable possibilities, on the moment. I closed my eyes like someone who wants to press a tiny switch in the furthest corner of their soul, the switch that lets us forget and brings tears.
That’s all I remember doing that night. Nothing more.
* * *
I wept for a long time, like a child who had lost her favourite toy. I wasn’t weeping for the loss of that delicate covering; it meant nothing to me. Though the blade be bared over each of our necks we are still a tribe of women. Now I can say to any man who comes to take my hand: “I am a used woman. I am afflicted with a great flaw in my womanhood. Do not approach me.”
That thin film of flesh was a burden to me that I longed for someone to rid me of. I remember now the time my father beat me savagely on the back of my neck for riding Saoud’s motorbike. Subsequently I understood the desperate lengths girls went to for fear of losing their hymen. Mona was the only girl who had faith in my ideas, but she was powerless before the importance of her hymen, trembling at the very idea of even reading a book that talked of the relationship between a man and a woman.
Selected from Al-ashia’s laysat fi Amakiniha (Things are not in their Place),
published by the Cultural Department, Sharjah, 2009
Translated for Banipal 44 by Robin Moger