Friday, August 22, 2014

Admitted to a Mental Asylum for Disbelieving

I can’t remember what convinced me to trust my father when he claimed we were going to go take a walk, just days after we had a fight about me wanting to take off my veil. Before I knew it, I found myself in front of an insane asylum. Three large guys shoved me inside as I kicked, screamed, and cursed. Hours later, I met Dr. Ashraf, a rather stern-looking shrink with hatred written all over his face, which was covered with a messy, bushy beard that resembled a small, furry creature trying to devour his head. It was strangely amusing seeing him in a lab coat. It was like seeing a Neanderthal in a suit attempting a more civilized look and waiting for him to snap and reveal his true barbaric nature. “You will room with her” he said, pointing at an old skinny lady with heavy makeup and sticky semi-dyed hair who glanced from the Neanderthal to me, then back to the Neanderthal, “oh don’t tell me she’s crazy!” She said laughing hysterically. “My, what a pretty young thing! Tell me child, have you ever been eaten?” She asked as she stared at me hungrily. I pictured her tearing my flesh and consuming me till I vanished into thin air. “Oh no, you get me out of here! You get me out of here right now! I am not rooming with a cannibal!” I said fiercely to the Neanderthal. “Cannibal?! Damn it, the child really is crazy” shrieked the old lady. “You will do as you are told”replied the Neanderthal smugly. I gathered every shred of strength I possessed and punched him. Seconds later, I was surrounded by an invasion of injections that made everything turn dark.

I woke up and started observing the women in the ward. Apart from a schizophrenic girl named Marwa, I was the youngest person there. “Marwa! Marwa!” shouted a nurse while Marwa gazed into space. “Marwa you bitch, I am calling you!” said the cruel creature. Marwa fiercely locked eyes with the nurse, and said quite assertively, “My name is Maryam (Mary).” She then claimed she was the Virgin Mary while the nurse burst into laughter. I wondered what it must be like having little connection to reality. I thought it must be the worst thing in the world. I felt sorry for her not only because of her mental condition, but also for being thrown into such a vile and useless place. Instead of getting the treatment, she needs,she's turned into a form of entertainment for the sadistic nurses. The nurses tried to pick on me a few times, but every time they did I’d hit them with a clever comeback. They hated me, I ruined their fun, and I liked it.Desperately trying to hurt me one of the nurses said, “Wipe that smugness off your face. Tomorrow is your electroshock appointment.” It was painful pretending her words had no effect on me when in reality, I felt like she poured acid on my face. Breathing got harder, I told her that I was suffocating and that I needed a bit of fresh air.She told me to go back to bed with a cold indifference. I started screaming hysterically like a mad woman. Suddenly, I was attacked by what seemed like an army of nurses brutally injecting me with enough sedatives to put an elephant to sleep. But the sedatives had no effect on me, I was as sober and awake as I could get, and I continued screaming till they agreed to let me get some fresh air. I stopped screaming, and after awhile, the nurses were in deep conversation. They barely remembered I was there. I glimpsed the guard struggling to stay awake, so I quietly snuck off and went out the door. All of a sudden, the guard became as alert as a watch dog, and ran after me till he finally caught me. “Trying to escape, eh?!!” screamed the guard. “You know what I do to people who try to escape?! I break their legs with my bare hands” he said. He mercilessly started twisting my feet. The sound of my screams kept getting louder. He then pulled on my leg and violently dragged me back. I used my hand as a barrier between my face and the flesh-tearing ground. I was thrown into my room, and the nurse locked the door as she said with a glimpse of amusement, “You’ll never get out of here”. I struggled to move my legs, but it was too painful. I laid on the floor that night drowning in tears and blood.

I woke up to the sound of a loud nurse dragging me to get electroshock. I limped my way into the rape room.While lying and awaiting the lab coat wearing monsters to ruin my head, the most private and intimate part of me, the only thing that calmed me was how close I felt to Sylvia Plath. Instead of screaming or shouting, I recited “The Hanging Man” to the sounds of the nurses’ ignorant laughter. “By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me. I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet. The nights snapped out of sight…”and suddenly everything went blank.After regaining my consciousness, I spent hours staring at the ceiling trying to think but not being able to.I felt someone’s presence in the room; I turned my head and saw a nurse standing there. I never really knew her name. Her face and figure were forcefully hidden under layers upon layers of thick sheets of cloth, and her actions for the most part, revealed no identity whatsoever. She followed the orders she was given, and remained silent and opinion less. I thought there would be no possible way of distinguishing her from any lifeless object in the room, but to my surprise she gave me a glimpse into a trait of her personality. “You haven’t eaten anything in days”. Even though, I couldn’t see her facial expressions, I heard a crack in her voice that revealed concern. “The food here is nauseating, I wouldn’t eat it if they paid me” I mumbled. As she was about to speak, I felt that she was about to unmask her true nature, and lose her robotic exterior. I wondered if she would turn out to be no different from all the other nurses, and say something along the lines of, “you ungrateful child! You should be glad you’re being fed a tall!” But to my surprise, all I heard was her saying, “I will buy you a bean sandwich” (in a soft, mother-like voice). I hated beans with every fiber of my being. Under any other circumstances, the idea of a bean sandwich would make me sick. But compared to the hospital food, a bean sandwich sounded like caviar.

That nameless nurse was the best thing that ever happened to me in that asylum; she befriended me and often to took me outside for fresh air. One day while we were outside she pointed her head to the direction of a woman and told me that creature named Amal was the head of the Asylum. Amal was the text book definition of a mid-life crisis, her gigantic figure struggled to rip through her blouse, which was obviously a few sizes too small, and a few generations too young. I saw a lady walking up to her who wore a Turkish scarf like my mother always did. As I took a closer look, I realized that it was, in fact, my mother. They both walked towards me, I was taken into Amal’s office. My mother told me that she had no idea where I was until she blackmailed my father into telling her. “Amal, the child doesn't belong here, and I am taking her home “yelled my mother. “If you do I will be forced to call the cops, your daughter has a bizarre form of mental illness. I am afraid it might be months before she’s even qualified for the evaluation which determines her eligibility to leave our institution” replied Amal. “You know she’s fine, it is no wonder you were always called a bitch in college” said my mother as I remembered who Amal was, she was a classmate of my father in college and rumor has it she had quite a crush on him which is enough incentive to do him whatever favor he asks even if it is to lock up his daughter. “Momma give me the phone” I said, I called my father and made up an elaborate story about how I met an angel who showed me apart of heaven, and that I will wear my veil again because I wouldn't want to miss the opportunity to go to such a wonderful place. Fifteen minutes later I was released from the Asylum. I was ecstatic and started skipping in the street. I felt a huge sense of freedom until I stopped in front of a scarf kiosk and I realized that I wasn't free. I wondered how much longer my spirit will remain shackled.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Pretty Dresses and the Evil Eye

It was Eid morning and through Facebook I was able to look at pictures of all the stunning Eid caftans my friends posted. I opened my closet and tried on my caftan and a couple of dresses that I had bought this year. It was quite lovely seeing my clothes neatly folded, taking up considerable space in a closet that was always empty when I was a child. Not in a million years did I imagine owning so many clothes, many of which look new. Growing up, I was used to hand-me downs from the older boys in the family. I dreaded wearing them because many of those same boys bullied me, and it stinks to get beaten up in your bully's castoff shirts.  

It wasn't like my parents never bought me new clothes, they bought me one new outfit once a year before Eid al-Fitr. Mother, being profoundly superstitious, lived in fear of the evil eye; a sinister look usually caused by envy that has the power to cause great misfortune. It was a superstition shared by many, and everyone dealt with it differently. Mother preferred that I wore hideous clothes so that no one would ever have any reason to envy me and thus I would always be protected. 

She always bought me my Eid al-Fitr outfit from the back of carts and not stores. Those outfits always bled into my skin and for days after Eid my skin would be blue or red or purple or whichever the colour of the outfit was.  Father, didn't share Mother's fear of the evil eye. He believed that people must always look presentable when meeting family members and that having his daughter runaround in clothes that bled colour everywhere reflected poorly on him in front of elders in the family. On my sixth Eid al-Fitr, I asked my parents for a new outfit that came from a store and not a cart. Father agreed while Mother remained against it.   

We went to a clothing store, and I tried on a few different dresses.  I felt girly and princessy and happy. He bought me a beautiful dress. As soon as Mother saw it she begged me not to wear it, "something awful will happen to you if you do," she said. But I promised her to recite prayers at the Eid party for protection. I was in love with this dress to the point where thinking about it consumed most of my day dreaming time, every chance I got I would peek into the closet to look at it, and it made me euphoric. If I could've I would've played and slept and eaten in it, and never have taken it off. Similar to Miss Havisham in Great Expectations or my cousin Alaa, who cried with excitement when her mother bought her new slippers and wore them everywhere all the time until they got muddy and torn and fell apart. Eid began and ended as beautifully as I expected. I tucked my dress neatly in plastic and hung it in the closet. I was happy. 

School started after the holiday. There was one crucial thing that I loved about school; uniforms. In my uniform, I felt somewhat equal to the other girls and it was quite a comforting feeling. Asides from getting to wear uniforms, I disliked school. I got picked on and beaten quite a bit and was given an odious nickname "white girl" by teachers and students—who probably had no idea that my unusually fair complexion was partially due to anemia and malnourishment—The teachers were always angry and yelling. 
"What is this? Why are you spelling girl without an e?" screamed the English teacher while shoving my notebook in my face,
"There's no e in girl," I said.
"No e in girl? I told you there was. I wrote it on the board last week. Do you think you're the teacher?" 
"No ma'am."
"So is there an e in girl?"
"There isn't."
"That's it! Put your hands on the board, someone get me a broomstick!"
She took the broomstick and whacked me with it four times, each time asking once more "is there an e in girl?" Each time I gave her the exact same answer. 

As soon as I got home, I coiled up in the fetal position on the couch. 
“Why are you still in your school uniform?! Go change!” said Father, oblivious to my being coiled up and sad. 
“I’ll do it in a minute,” I said. 
“No, you’ll do it now.” 
“I can’t do it now; I am too sad to move.” 
 “How dare you talkback!” he said, lifting me in the air.  "When your father tells you to do something you say, yes I will and go do it!” he yelled and threw me against the wall with all his might. 
I landed on my left arm with a popping sound and sharp pains that got me screaming and crying. Mother heard the noise and ran in. 
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Your spoiled brat of a daughter doesn’t listen and when she gets the punishment she deserves, won't shut up!" said Father. 
As they were arguing, I tried to move my left arm but couldn’t so I used the other arm to carry it.  
"It’s not moving it’s dead,” I said. 
“What do you mean it’s not moving?" she said with concern. 
“Don’t indulge her; she is obviously making this up to gain your sympathy and avoid being punished,” said Father. 
They went to argue in another room, and I fell asleep in that position. The next day, I woke up to hear both of them screaming at each other.
“I’ll take her to the hospital,” said Mother.
“You know you can’t do that,” said Father.  He was afraid of what people would say. Father, who worked as a physician, built an amiable image of himself outside of our home, and something like lifting his daughter and throwing her would hurt that pleasant image of a kind, calm, and very together doctor. 
“I’ll tell them she fell,” said Mother. 
“What if she blabs?”
“She won’t, I promise!”
After doing X-rays at the hospital, they found out my arm was broken. Father was becoming more and more apprehensive. While things like this aren't taken that seriously in Egypt, in a small city like Port Said, breaking his child's arm could damage his medical reputation. 

Mother came with me to school and talked to my teacher. “You know how weak and pale she is; so simply rolling off the bed at night just broke her arm," she said to my Arabic teacher. At school, I wasn’t just too pale anymore; I was bruised and in a cast and even the meanest of the girls who used to bully me looked at me with sympathy. A third grader walked up to me asked what happened. 
“I fell,” I said. 
“You fell?” 
“Yes, I fell; now leave me alone!” I said.  I attempted to run away but lost my balance and fell in the mud. I expected the girls in the yard to laugh and mock me as they usually did but instead everyone was silent, and I heard an older girl say “that poor kid!” Nothing is worse than having your own bullies take pity on you, like you've become so tragic and feeble that even the cruelest of children can't justify hurting you anymore. "I'm fine, I'll be moving my arm in no time, so you shouldn't feel sorry for me or anything," I told the girls as I got on the bus. 

I told Mother about what had happened at school and asked when I might be able to move again. 
"Reem, we just don't know yet, you might never be able to." 
"Oh." I saw how sad that made her and wanted to cheer her up. "Well, Mother, if I can't move it again, I think it's only fair you buy me a robotic arm." 
"You know, like, in grendizer, those things are cool!"

We both laughed and then she turned serious. "I think someone saw you in Eid al-Fitr and gave you the evil eye because of that damn dress," she said.  She fetched a pair or scissors and began to cut my dress into small pieces. "It must be destroyed and rid of its evil,” she said over and over again, while I sat there with my broken arm, watching the destruction of the only source of joy I had that year.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Zainab-Tragic Life of a Muslim Girl

Written by: Kareem Amer 
Translation by: Reem  Abdel Razek 

"4:32 And do not wish for that by which Allah has made some of you exceed others. For men is  a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned. And ask Allah of his bounty. Indeed Allah is ever, of all things, Knowing. 

4:33 And for all, We have made heirs to what is left by parents and relatives. And to those whom your oaths have bound [to you] - give them their share. Indeed Allah is ever, over all things, a Witness.

 4:34 Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.

4:35 And if you fear dissension between the two, send an arbitrator from his people and an arbitrator from her people. If they both desire reconciliation, Allah will cause it between them. Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Acquainted [with all things]." Quran, Surat An-Nisā' 

She dumped her skinny body on the wooden chair after setting it by the table, then opened the Quran to these verses of Surat An-Nisā' (The Women Chapter) that she'd marked with a small piece of paper. She began reciting these verses repeatedly out loud in an attempt to memorize them before her father came back from work that night.  Peeking at her wristwatch every now and then, she felt time tighten its grip on her as the watch did on her wrist. She felt a surge of adrenaline rushing through her veins as her recitation pace got faster, dominated by anxiety, restlessness, and panic, and her brown cheeks turned red. If she made a mistake with one syllable of those verses, her father would mercilessly punish her with the plastic red hose that left its usual marks on her frail body, the hose that had become so familiar since he decided to "protect her morals from corruption" by pulling her out of Azhar Elementary School and ending her education at a very young age. She reiterated those verses, then closed the Quran and tested her ability to recite them from memory. Mistakes made her face more anxious and red as she breathlessly revised with the ghost of that red plastic hose hovering above her Quran, showing her fear of what awaited her that night.

Though her mind roamed in distant memories, she had to remain focused on her current reality; all time meant to her was measuring how much of it was left before her father came from work and tested her every night.  He assigned her verses every day and if she failed to recite them correctly by even a syllable it would be a catastrophe. All her memories since early childhood had been dominated by her father’s physical and psychological abuse; memories devoid of abuse were a rare exception to the rule. Her father's brutal punishments were always accompanied by excuses, the most frequent being that he did this to teach her.  She had reached the point where “teaching” had become a word with a bad reputation; whenever she heard that word she knew that it meant a beating, a brutal merciless beating. Whenever he said, “I’ll teach you…" to any of his children, they knew that what he really meant was, "I’ll beat the hell out of you”. To her, there were no other meanings of that word which had left its marks on her body since she was an infant. Zainab's head reeled and her exhaustion came between her and the assignment as she surrendered to sleep, lacking the luxury of resilience. The red hose hovered in her mind and the conscious and unconscious blurred as her memory flew back five years to the day she remembered as if it were yesterday, when her mother had decided to end her marriage to the monster with whom she had lived for so long and had children. That spring, at the beginning of the new millennium, twelve year old Zainab, whose life like the rest of her family's had been full of suffering, inadvertently brought about the end of her parents' marriage.

A year before, Zainab’s father had decided to pull Zainab and her younger sister out of school and forced them to wear a burqa just like the one their mother wore every time she went out.  At first he did not think it essential to make this decision because his two daughters attended Azhar Elementary School, which specialized in the teaching of the Koran. Although the school was not gender-segregated, he did not mind very much while his girls were very young, although deep down he wished boys and girls could be segregated from birth. He was always anxious and afraid of what might happen otherwise. Zainab's devoutly religious father worked for the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture, and volunteered at the nearby mosque, the keys to which always remained in his possession. He was proud of volunteering because he believed, as in a statement attributed to Muhammad, that service to the mosque would lengthen his neck on the Day of Judgment. The rest of his time was mostly occupied with obsessions about the “moral corruption” that he believed had infiltrated Egypt. To him, this “moral corruption" boiled down to the behavior and clothes of the girls he saw while taking public transportation on his way to and from work. 

He disapproved of their dress, which he described as “naked clothes,” and of any social contact between boys and girls before marriage. He stated that school girls were a living example of the moral decay of society for they laughed out loud, talked shamelessly and openly about their relationships with the opposite sex, rarely left school without walking with a male who was not their relative, and did not observe the proper hijab, instead wearing clothes that defined their bodies. One could only marvel at how much time such a devout and religious bearded man (in his view, the beard symbolized his strong adherence to Islam’s principles, for which he gained respect among his like minded friends) spent observing and talking about these schoolgirls. He was keen on keeping his daughters from mingling with members of this “morally corrupt and religiously ignorant” Egyptian society. They never mingled with anyone outside the family. The moment Zainab turned two, he asked her mother to design a headscarf that would fit her small head and did the same with Zainab’s younger sister when she turned two. Even though he knew that girls were not religiously obligated to wear headscarves at that age, he believed that by enforcing the hijab when they were too young to make conscious decisions about what to do and wear, he ensured that they would wear it for life. These happy little girls were unaware that this small piece of cloth covering their heads would abort their dreams and murder their childhoods, that they were wearing their own coffins.

Their father believed that a virtuous woman went outdoors only twice in her life, once when she moved from her father’s home to her husband’s, and once when she left her husband’s home for the graveyard. He believed that raising his daughters according to this principle would ensure his entrance into heaven— having girls was a huge ordeal, but by enduring this ordeal and raising his girls the way he did, he erased his sins. He often quoted Muhammed’s wife Aisha, saying that whoever faced the ordeal of having girls by being good to them would be protected from the fires of Hell.The two little girls did not mingle with any other children, even relatives; they lived secluded within the boundaries of their home. Once, when Zainab was five, she shook hands with her Seven year old male cousin in front of her brother; he was then brutally beaten by their father for “lacking in manhood” because he had done nothing to prevent this shame.

Their father was always anxious, mistrustful and suspicious even though the only thing his little girls did besides household chores was play with the toys that he approved of (he believed dolls and stuffed animals were forbidden). They never stepped outside the home unless it was absolutely necessary and even then they were always escorted by either him or one of their brothers. When Zainab turned eight, her father became overwhelmed by anxiety because a new law issued by the Ministry of Health prevented doctors from performing FGM; this new problem echoed in his head, giving him constant headaches. He would frequently say, “If the girls walking around outside now are already at this high level of immorality even though they have been circumcised, then what will a generation of uncircumcised girls look like?”  He saw FGM as an essential protection of morality and honor, which to him, consisted entirely in avoiding premarital sexual relations. Still at the table but no longer able to resist sleep, Zainab surrendered to it and dreamed haunting memories of the day she inadvertently caused her parents' divorce. That day, her father had called her upon returning home from work and asked her to recite the verses she was supposed to memorize. She couldn’t recite them word for word but made mistakes. He calmly asked her to go and get the red hose to so she could be punished. She went but couldn’t find it. After looking long and hard, she finally saw her mother using it for some household chores in the kitchen. Zainab asked to borrow the red hose and when her mother asked why, Zainab answered innocently, "So Father can beat me because I did not memorize the verses which he assigned me.” 

Zainab’s father was her mother’s older first cousin; they had been married twenty-four years. Both had graduated from Alexandria University during the seventies. Her mother majored in history and her father majored in agriculture. While they belonged to a socially conservative family, like most families from the countryside, they had no inclination towards religious fundamentalism in those days. Old pictures of Zainab’s parents leaked by relatives showed her mother unveiled and wearing a short skirt, while her father was a slim clean-shaven man who showed none of the facial expressions his children were accustomed to seeing all the time. He looked so different, his children doubted these were really pictures of their parents. When he was in college, her father did not want to study agriculture; he wanted to study stage directing, but his father saw this as trivial and threatened to cut him off financially if he majored in theatre.Unable to rebel, Zainab's father attended Alexandria University's Faculty of Agriculture, which accepted the low scores he’d obtained during high school as other university faculties would not. With other students, he formed a drama club that put quite a number of plays on the school’s stage. Some members of that club moved on to become well known in the Egyptian art scene, but Zainab's father left the drama club, retired from all theatrical activities, and became strongly opposed to art and theatre, claiming to have received a divine calling. While in college, he was known for his multiple relationships with women, which may be partially responsible for his insane suspicion of all women, including his relatives, wife and children. He made many unwise decision that he claimed were to protect his wife and daughters from falling into the sins of ex-girlfriends who had fancied him and had sex with him. 

Immediately after graduation, Zainab’s mother worked as a high school English and history teacher while her father worked for the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture. This job required him to constantly move and travel.  After marriage, he and his wife settled in a village in the province of Albuhaira, an hour and a half away by train from Alexandria, where they had their first child. Due to the contractual obligations of his employment, he had to leave to work in Italy. One day, months later, he got a vacation from work and decided to return to Egypt to visit his family, whom he had been missing. He boarded a vessel from Milan to Alexandria, then took a train to the village.  It was raining heavily but his yearning to see his wife and son made him forget to take his umbrella out so his clothes got soaking wet. He walked into the village and saw a group of about ten people walking together and holding umbrellas. He got a little closer and saw his wife walking next to a male colleague and sharing his umbrella. His veins popping and his blood boiling with rage, he put down his suitcase and headed towards the group. His wife was delightfully surprised to see him but he knocked her down with a slap and started dragging her by her hair while she cried and screamed, unable to comprehend what was going on. He told her to follow him home and on the way showered her with curses, insults and accusations of infidelity. This incident was always brought up in their house, told and retold during every fight; Zainab’s father told the story as evidence of his wife’s immorality and his own “manhood." He used it as an example when teaching Zainab’s brothers how to treat their wives in the future, stating that if "they (women) are not treated like garbage they will bear no respect or appreciation or submission to you.”

This was not the first nor last time her husband treated her with such violence; during their engagement, he often yelled at her and sometimes slapped her in public, but she loved him to the point where she would constantly forget, hoping that he would change after they got married. These hopes were mere illusions that destroyed her own life and the lives of her children. There’s an Egyptian saying that describes her husband: “A dog’s tail won’t straighten even if you put it into a mold.” She realized this too late, after living for more then two decades in the same home with a monster who never hesitated to hurt her or her children with or without a reason, even if that reason was simply cutting her hair a tiny bit. He had different levels of expressing his rage, starting with curses and insults and ending with throwing pots and pans, or threatening to burn down the place with them in it with the gas used for cooking.On the day in question, Zainab's mother asked, “Could you repeat what you just said? The child replied in true innocence, "So Father can beat me because I did not memorize the verses which he assigned me.”  The mother couldn’t take it any longer.  She put down the plate she was washing and went to the room where the father was sitting, pushing the door open loudly and yelling, "Who are you? Satan?  Why are you doing this to her?  Do you want to ruin her life like you ruined mine?"

The father acted confused for a second then said, "What’re you babbling about you, crazy woman?" She told him what Zainab had asked of her, and he said, “Do not to interfere with the way I raise my children! God knows I am the only one who knows how. Your interference will corrupt them!” He insinuated that she herself was immoral and badly brought up.  She began to scream and before anyone could figure out what she was saying, he got up and began to beat her. The boys interfered, trying to calm things down before this fight got as bloody as they often had before. She walked away, yelling, "That is enough! My life with you is over and you will never touch me again! I want a divorce."

The mother thought she could protect her daughters from the violence and cruelty of this man if they separated. The father tried to "calm things down" as he had in the past, but she had reached the end of her endurance and patience; this was the last straw. She rejected all mediation and reconciliation initiatives by relatives and held to her position. The family lived in an apartment she had inherited from her father.  He had no other place to stay, which is the reason he was always hesitant when she asked him for a divorce. Now he began looking for an apartment to rent, and moved his belongings there.  The whole time he kept trying to get things back like they were before, but she rejected that with unprecedented strength. All her life she had been docile and submissive, but now she had become a woman nobody knew, someone else. The wounded female had awakened in her pride and dignity, and made the only right choice for the first time since she had been with him. He asked her if her menstruation period was over, she nodded. He asked, “Have you changed your mind?” She said, “No, I no longer want us living under one roof.” He waited in silence for a few minutes, serenely looking from her to the children and back. Then he got up and looked at her a last time before uttering the words she had been waiting for "… I divorce thee.”  Zainab's mother got up quickly and put a piece of cloth on her head since he was no longer her husband from the moment he said so.  After the divorce he insisted on taking the girls to live with him in his new apartment, stating that he feared his immoral ex-wife would corrupt them.

A nagging voice woke Zainab.  Lifting her head, she found her father standing in front of her.  She was frightened because she had fallen asleep before finishing her memorization; now there was no time left. He stared at her for a long time before asking in his rough voice, "Did you memorize or do you go get the hose?" Zainab nodded in terror and gave him the Quran.  He sat in her place, opened the Quran and ordered her to sit on the floor and recite what she’d been told to memorize. The girl began to recite from memory while he distributed his looks between the verses and her eyes, which were filled with unmistakable horror and dread.  She began reciting, "And do not wish for that by which Allah has made some of you exceed others. For men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned. And ask Allah of his bounty. Indeed Allah is ever, of all things, Knowing. And for all, we have made heirs to what is left by parents and relatives. And to those whom your oaths have bound [to you] - give them their share. Indeed Allah is ever, over all things, a Witness.  Women are in charge of men by….” He screamed at her before she finished the verse in which she had inadvertently exchanged the position of men and women, saying, “Changing the Quran? You will be punished, you heathen!”  She wept, trying to explain, “ I didn’t mean to, I was just tired and fell asleep while revising what you’d asked of me.”  In a rage he yelled at her, “And you dare talk back!” then began to slap her. She burst into tears but that didn’t stop him from yelling some more and accusing her of blasphemy for "changing the Quran" and of immorality for talking back.  He ended his screaming with, "Go get the hose, bitch!” And, as usual, Zainab went to get her tool of punishment while tears rolled down her cheeks. 
(such stories have no ending)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Fiery Red Locks

Black, Brown and Navy were the only three colors I was allowed to wear, and I’d occasionally wear bright colors but always accompanied by stern criticism. For the majority of my life, it seemed that the colors I wore were everybody’s business, but mine. Bright colors always attracted trouble, so I avoided them. I pretended it didn’t bother me, it seemed trivial and shallow even to care about wearing bright colors. I started defending my colorless wardrobe and even proselytizing the colorless lifestyle. It was all part of the “Hijab package” I bought into; dress, in a way, that captures no attention, and people will respect you and listen to you for you… Then I discovered it was nothing short of an elaborate lie, that what I wear and how I wear it is a non-trivial part of who I am and my right to free expression.

I read psychologist Dr.Nancy Etcoff’s Survival of the prettiest, a book which answered so many lingering questions I had about appearance, attraction, and expression as explained by evolutionary psychology. There was a whole chapter on makeup, one which I read and re-read. One bit in particular caught my attention. "Red, the color of blood, of blushes and flushes, of nipples, lips and genitals awash in sexual excitement, is visible from afar and emotionally arousing,” and it hit me that by being forbidden from wearing certain colors I was being censored from expressing certain things that are associated with dis-honor in the patriarchal and misogynistic culture I was raised in.

The first time I dyed my hair, I dyed it fiery red. It represented a new, exciting, beautiful, censorship-defying stage in my life. Since then I’ve been experimenting with colors, painting my lips different shades of red and pink and purple and accessorizing with chunky yellow and orange necklaces and always colorful Betsey Johnson earrings. I realized that dressing this way I am by no means suggesting that I don’t take myself seriously but that I respect myself enough to not give into censorship, to fully explore a rainbow of possibilities, and to regain the excitement and awe I once had as a child.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Forbidden Sound of Music

In my Islamist family only one kind of music was welcome: war songs about the triumph of Islam. 

“We’ll never accept an occupied part of our lands…the Earth will burst in flames and burn them…on Earth, volcanoes are boiling…” 

These are lyrics to an Islamist war song that played over and over again at our family place in Cambridge in the late nineties; this and similar songs were also quite popular at the homes of my extended family. I, a child of seven years, hummed war songs while eating breakfast cereal and watching PBS. One day, just for a change, I started singing the theme song of the children’s program “Arthur.”  As soon as I uttered “believe in yourself,” my father looked at me and said, “Believe in yourself?  Believe in yourself?! You’re not supposed to believe in yourself; you’re supposed to believe in God. This is what Iget for letting you watch American TV!  Ridiculous!”

“China is ours…Arabia is ours…India is ours…All is ours…Islam is our Religion and the earth our homeland…”

So I hummed the songs he liked again, the songs that made me a “good girl,” the songs that he believed built strength and morality, the songs I secretly detested.I remember flipping through channels once while my mother was in the kitchen and accidentally coming in contact with opera for the first time. Even though it was in German and I had no idea what the woman was singing, I was enchanted by her vocals and her expressions. I stood there watching and listening until my mother turned off the TV and started yelling at me, “This is satanic, I don’t want to ever catch you listening to this again.”Once more I went back to humming“non-satanic” music…

“The garden of Islam and its trees…Your land is watered by our blood…O gardens of Andalus! Do you remember those days…When our abode was the nest on your branches…”

In 2001, Yusuf Islam (formerly known as Cat Stevens), a convert to Islam gave my father his new CD, “A is for Allah,” an album of islamic songs for children. Finally, I thought, real music that they will let me listen to. I put in the CD and the first thing I heard was Yusuf Islam saying the songs were not accompanied by any musical instruments.  I took the CD out.

In 2005, three years after we moved to Saudi Arabia, my parents enrolled me in Al-Rowad International School, a private Islamic school in Riyadh. During a random search, the majority of my classmates were caught with music CDs and punished. In an effort to save our class from the “evils of music,” our English teacher suggested we do our end of the year play on how easy it is to work out to Islamic songs instead of regular workout music. Not before long we were all doing jumping jacks to Sami Yusuf’s “Ya Mustafa”.

After some nagging, my father provided a bit of leeway when it came to music. He gave me a CD of Cat Stevens’ greatest hits, first deleting all the songs about love. He said this was the only music I was allowed to listen to. I didn’t complain. To me, this was plenty. I listened to “Peace train.”  This was perhaps one of the most joyful experiences of my childhood. I listened to that one song over and over again, absorbing the lyrics, the guitar strokes, the vocals. Feeling serene, calm, liberated, and peaceful.

But “Peace train” could only satisfy me for so long. I needed more. I went online and started downloading music of all genres. Back then, downloading music was a long and tedious process but I did not care.I listened to Johnny Cash, the Beatles, Bing Crosby, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Doris Day, Britney Spears, the Black Eyed Peas, Evanescence…Old music, modern music, brilliant music, mediocre music, meaningful music, meaningless music, music that made me blush, music that made me cry, music that made me dance. After listening to so many different kinds, I started developing my own taste. I became a regular music listener. It was wonderful and I hid it, not because I was ashamed of it but because I was afraid it would be taken away.

But inevitably, my parents found out I was a music listener, and I must say they took it much better than I expected. Other family members did not take it as well. My aunt, a pillar of the Muslim Brotherhood, took me aside and said, “Look I am hoping this is just a phase.  Your father went through the same phase when he was your age: of course he didn’t go as far as listening to love songs or sharing music. I heard you have been letting your friends borrow your CD player: is that correct?” I nodded. She continued disappointedly, “I hope you are aware of the amount of sin you’re accumulating. Every time you share music with someone you get their sins in addition to yours.” She acted as if I were a hardcore drug addict ,not a fifteen year old who listens to love songs.

That night her daughter, my six year old cousin, climbed into bed with me.  She had a terrified expression on her face and tears in her eyes.  She looked at me lovingly and said, “Please, please take Satan out of your ears.”  I thought, please don’t grow up to be like them: don’t let your world be filled with bitterness, blood, sorrow and the lost glory of Andalusia. My music isn’t evil, my love, that music is.”