A Short Story
By Haafizah Bhamjee
Its 08:30 on a Monday morning. I can see the time on the clock that hangs in the passageway. The baby is crying again. He is not hungry, I know because I fed him just an hour ago. He is bored. I am his sole entertainer, and he wants entertainment. Papa is in the living room. I know this because that’s where he is all the time aside from when he is in his room. He is calling to me. Baby’s crying is irritating him. I can hear him calling my name: “Fadhoua! Come and see the baby.” I do not move. I couldn’t move even if I wanted to. Sometimes I become limp like this. I forget how to exist. Tonight, Papa will tell my husband that I am lazy, and that I neglect the children. My husband will forgive me. I am grateful. Other women have it bad. The neighbour, Suraya, gets nightly beatings for burning the food. For taking too long to do things. For neglecting the children. For being convenient when her husband feels like beating someone.
My bedroom is painted a light blue shade which makes the dirt on the walls all the more visible. There is no money to repaint the room. I know because I’ve asked twice. Each time I am told that there is no money. So, I have taken to washing the walls every other day. I move the scarce furniture to the centre of the room and I scrub the walls with a wet cloth. When I see the brownish coloured water in the wash-bucket, I feel a wave of relief come over me. The feeling of contentment never lasts. The mattress I am lying on is on the floor. It’s the bed I share with my husband. We are the only people in the house, minus Papa, who have our own room. I am grateful for this. My husband’s three brothers all share a room. They are grown men. It must be uncomfortable to share the same space without any privacy.
In Amran I feel far away from the rest of the world. For days and days no news will come. My house is my whole world. I feel detached from reality. I feel as though I live in a void of information. I feel separated from the world, but also from other people. Even those I live with.
Sometimes though, I feel too close to others. It feels like we are living on top of each other. No-one has the space to be on their own. The house is too small and cramped with inhabitants. Sometimes I also feel too close to the world. Too close to the things that are happening all around the world. The wars particularly, and world leaders. I feel like anyone who wished could easily reach into my home and touch me. They could reorganise my cupboards, move my furniture around, dirty my walls.
I never felt this way when I lived in Lahj. In Lahj, my world was smaller, manageable. Perhaps I was simply younger and had come to know less of it. I sometimes wonder if returning would bring back my contentment. I need to stop thinking like this. I need to work on being content here too. I have so much to be thankful for. I’m one of the luckier ones.
My children are beautiful and healthy and safe. Most importantly safe. Not all children are safe. In Lahj, parentless children walk the streets barefoot in dirty rags. They beg for money, for food. They sit on street corners, and sleep in the hollows of what used to be buildings; homes bombed to dusty grey silhouettes of a place. I know this. My in-laws remind me daily. My children have a backyard to play in. They have food and clothing. They have a T.V to watch. They have both parents to love them. I am thankful for this.
My family still lives in Lahj. My mother, sisters and brothers. They come to visit sometimes. My sisters and brothers returned to school this year after four years of staying away. They had stayed away because the school had been shut down on account of the bombings. The authorities had said it was in the best interests of parents to keep their children at home. Now that it has been re-opened I long to be there. If I had stayed in Lahj and in school, this year I would be in grade ten. I was made to leave school just when I was beginning to enjoy it. This was even before the school was shut.
But here in Amran, I have been taught many things. I am grateful for this. I cannot say that I have not learned. For example, there is a bookshelf in the living room. I read whenever I find the time. No one has ever tried to stop me.
The baby has stopped crying. I can hear him making soft noises as though he is falling asleep or as if someone else has endeavoured to entertain him. I know that this can’t be because Papa and I are the only adults in the house. My husband and his brothers leave for work early each morning and don’t return until late in the night. Papa is blind and cannot walk without a walker. I take care of Papa, the baby and my four-year-old son. I feel incredibly lonely at times, but I also feel overwhelmed. I have little time to myself and no one to have a conversation with.
I love my children. Don’t get me wrong. I just wish there was a way for me to break the daily routine of childcare. Its hard work even though it might not seem to be. When my mother visits from Lahj, I am grateful because she helps with the children. She encourages me to be the best mother I can be.
When I became pregnant with my first child I felt miserable. I felt that I might die at any moment. I was always sick. I could hardly keep my food down most of the time. In addition to this, I had moments of panic where I would try to rip the child out from within me. But I survived. This, I am grateful for.
Strangely, after giving birth I thought about killing the baby. I also thought about killing myself. I sometimes find my mind considering that every bad thing that has happened to me since has been a punishment from god. A punishment for my being ungrateful for the child and the blessing of being a mother. I try to refrain from having such thoughts. They only succeed in making me feel unhappy with myself. I need to remind myself all the time that God has been gracious with me. He has overlooked all of my faults. That he has kept me safe. That even this life itself is a result of god’s mercy. I could be dead or homeless, but I am not. I am here in the quiet stillness of rural Amran.
I wish I had lived during peace-time, but I know I should not wish for those things. I should wish only for contentment and success, for the victory of the fighters. I can picture Lahj before the war. My mother and father had met at a party. My father, college graduate, handsome in a suit and tie. My mother, in a long summer dress. Yellow and white. The night air warm. Music dancing in the soft breeze that cut through the stuffy night. Dancing. Drinking. They fell in-love and were married soon after.
My marriage has been quite different. I met my husband the day I had married him. There was no music at our wedding. No dancing. No disturbance of the night. We couldn’t make any noises; my mother told me. A martyr was killed the day before and the whole town was expected to mourn his death. Even the lights were dimmed. Lahj was in darkness that night.
I remember the morning of my wedding. I did not know it was my wedding at first. My mother, aunt and some of the neighbourhood women were all bustling around our small house. They gave me many beautiful things to wear. They all helped me get dressed. There were two dresses presented to me. A green dress with long flowing sleeves and a pink one made out of a shiny fabric. I tried both on and decided I liked the pink one better. I still didn’t know what was happening. I tried to ask but I didn’t want to get in trouble. I feared they would take the dress away, so I remained quiet. They gave me some Jewellery. It was gold in colour and a gold headband was tied around my hijab. I didn’t ordinarily wear a hijab, but it was made to match the dress and I thought it pretty.
The women put henna on my hands and feet. This was when I knew it was a wedding. Bridal henna for a bride. I am grateful for their effort. They didn’t have to come to our house with beautiful things. They didn’t have to try to make a difficult situation easy for me. They did it because they cared. They had all raised me as their own daughter. I had known most of them my whole life. I had spent days playing in their houses and taking food from them. Neighbourliness is the thing I miss most since I’ve come to Amran, to my husband’s home.
The baby is crying again. Papa is yelling for me to attend to him. Papa is my uncle. My uncle is my father-in-law. I close my eyes and shift so that I am facing the roof. I place my hands on-top of my chest. As children, my mother taught my siblings and I to avoid sleeping in this position. It’s the position reserved for the dead, she’d say.
The day I thought I had died, I folded myself into this position. Then I was found and taken home. It was the day after my wedding and the consummation of my marriage to my cousin. We were on our way from my home in Lahj to my new home in Amran. Me, my uncle, and my husband. I was so unhappy with my situation. So angry. So empty. I was contemplating my misfortune when suddenly, the car came to a swerving halt. The tyre had been damaged and was now flat. I got out of the car to look. Both men were engaged in fixing the tyre. Neither paid attention to me.
I turned around and began walking along the dusty road. I did not know where I was going just that I was leaving, I was getting away. I had been walking for some time when a car pulled up beside me. The man inside rolled down his window and asked me where I was going. I told him everything. I asked him if he had water. I asked him to take me to the police station.
When I was a young child I knew a girl named Aminah. Aminah was married off by her father when she was just ten years old. Her parents had divorced and her father did it to spite her mother. Although he denies this whenever he is asked. In her husband’s house, Aminah was locked in a room. After a day or two, she opened the window and saw that there was a family in the next building. There was a window facing hers. She began sending messages to the family to pass to her mother. Her mother had known she was married but did not know to whom or where she was. When she found out she called the police and rescued her. Perhaps this is what I wanted. For my mother and for home.
The man invited me to sit in the shade of his car. He gave me water in a dirty, plastic bottle. Then he drove off with me. I didn’t say anything because I was afraid and confused. When he stopped again it was dark. We were not far from town. I could see the twinkling of lights in the distance. The man turned to me and began touching my thighs and hips. Then he raped me. He told me that he was teaching me a lesson about obedience and that I ought to thank him. Eventually, he let me out of the car and drove away. I lay down on the ground in the position reserved for the dead. Later, I was found by my cousins and my husband who shouted at me for running away. I was grateful to be alive. I never told anyone what had happened.
My father loved me very much. This I know. I miss him each and every day. Shortly after my wedding he joined the liberation forces and left never to be seen again. My mother curses his recklessness: for leaving his family, for leaving her alone with children and no husband. I no longer curse. I have learned to forgive all the men swallowed by the loneliness of war.
It had been my father’s idea to marry me to my cousin. He told me this on the night of my wedding. After the celebrations, he held my hand and walked me to the house in which the marriage to my cousin would be consummated. I cried the whole way. I didn’t want to leave. I wondered why this was happening to me, but not to any of my friends. He asked me to be brave. He asked me to agree and be content with the marriage. He asked me to go with my husband that night. I agreed. I did not want to be a burden to my parents. Money in Lahj was scarce. My father was quickly running out of it. He had lost his shop in the chaos of the war. He was too prideful to get a job working for other shop-owners. I didn’t want him to worry about my safety. Unmarried girls get carried away by enemy soldiers, he said. I was grateful that he seemed to care. I was grateful that he made a plan for me to get out.
On the table at the far end of the room is a framed picture of my husband and I on our wedding day. I look at it and I am grateful. There is a sense of fondness in it. My husband is a lot like my father. He seems to love me in his disregard for me. Carelessly. Clumsily.
The baby has stopped crying which makes me suspicious. I can’t ignore the world forever. I get up to attend to him. This is how my body works. One minute I can’t do a thing and the next I can do everything all at once.
The baby is asleep. His brother is on the floor next to him, also asleep. I look at them and I am grateful. The one is twisted in what looks like an uncomfortable position. The other with a pink thumb in the mouth. They’ll be up soon, and I’ll be chasing after them.
In the next room, Papa sits facing the window. He has his back to me. He speaks to me loudly. He is deaf and as a result, he thinks everyone else is also deaf. I answer him loudly as well. I serve him coffee and bread as breakfast. I pluck a book off the shelf and sit down on the maroon coloured sofa. I am thankful for this.