When I had asked for an excerpt to be posted on Read Write Inspire, I was surprised to see one of my favourite scenes from the book. The anguish of a little girl in a patriarchal society, who still holds on to little hopes for a better future, is depicted beautifully in this scene.
The Excerpt follows:
The morning seemed so far away. The books I had brought home in my satchel, my school books, important at some point, now lay thrown and uncared for in a corner of the room. The desk I studied and doodled at had become a dresser, fashioned for the occasion by force. How long ago all of it seemed! Nothing about the atmosphere in the room felt unforced, anyway—a wedding was being planned for an unwilling bride.
I sat down restlessly, before the fake dresser, looking at myself in a mirror someone had propped up against the wall that my desk faced. On the way back home, I was persistent, crying, but unrelenting. I had to fight my way to drive home to Majid that he would have to keep the word he gave to Mudarrisah and the headmistress.
‘Ameenah, you know we do not wish to do this. But things are not safe anymore and you need to be protected,’ he said, not meeting my eye.
‘Protected? I am safe, I can stay safe by myself! I have four older brothers. You are one of them, do you not realise? Am I too much for you to protect?’ I asked, defiance forcing me to clench my fists and march alongside him, furiously.
‘Ameenah, you do not understand. A young girl like you is vulnerable in the hands of many. A brother is not half the protection that a husband is. Do you understand? The things they do to women, haram, all haram. No brother in the world is enough protection against that. Do you understand?’ he said, his voice aquiver.
‘So if you decide that one man can do those things to your sister, and you choose that man, it is not haram?’
SLAP! A thousand sharp needles must have been on Majid’s palm. My face stung, red hot heat radiating from the cheek he had slapped. My eyes stung with angry tears as I reached to touch my face. ‘I’m sorry,’ Majid said, trying to reach out to me. ‘I’m sorry, Ameenah!’ I pushed him away and walked ahead of him. The tears had begun to roll down my face. Rain, after thunder and lightning. He walked behind me, apologising.
‘But the war could come to Haleb too! Why is marriage the only option? Why can’t all of us shift to Haleb?’ I was not willing to give up without a fight. I turned around and faced him, my tears charting their own journey.
Majid did not meet my gaze, but I glared at him, willing that every ounce of my anger meet its target. His silence said much more.
‘Are they paying you a bride price?’ I asked, uncomfortable at merely having to say the phrase.
The silence between us had grown like an invisible djinn, with its elbow sticking right into my heart, making it difficult to breathe. At some point, Majid had realised that I was not going to say anything, and so he spoke up, his voice coming from a great distance. ‘Look, habibti, I don’t want to do this to you either, my sister. It is not my choice. I do not want to push you into this. We cannot all afford to go, Ameenah. You must understand.’
Habibti. The sharp contrast of kindness stung me, hurting me more than the slap or the prospect of being married did. I wept quietly, swallowing the sound of my sobs as they splintered somewhere deep within me, clattering along with pieces of my heart in the depths of my grief. ‘Why are you sending me away to Haleb?’
‘Haleb is peaceful, habibti. Things are no longer peaceful here. Last week, two bombs exploded at the military intelligence buildings, and innocent civilians were killed. Things are not the same anymore, habibti, and we cannot ignore it. Soon, the war will be at our doorstep and we cannot risk your exposure to danger. Cousin Karim brought the proposal. Your groom is his cousin on the other side of his family.’ He bent down slightly, his nose level with mine. His eyes glistened, like a sheet of glass had been drawn over it. I could see myself in his tears. ‘I know you dream of being an artist, and I have seen that dream a thousand times every time I have closed my eyes. I do not know if your husband to be will agree to my negotiating the terms for your education, but I will fight for you to not only study, but to draw like you love to.’
The weight of his words had hit me, colliding with the load of tears that stood at the cusp of my eyelids. I had turned around and rushed into him, hugging him with all my life. We walked the rest of the distance back home in silence. Months later, I would revisit this conversation with him, playing it over and over in my head, imagining alongside the scene that didn’t happen, where I would ask him how safe Aleppo was. And slowly, months later, the anger would give way to tears, as my mind would conjure images of him and the rest of my family, wondering where they were.
Just the thought of what was to come was daunting. Tears had welled up in my eyes, refusing to come out as I sat in front of the mirror. I was whisked away to eat a hasty meal of stale bread, and before I knew it, I was made to change into my wedding dress. There wasn’t much time left. It was a long white gown, with long sleeves and a wide neckline. Silver spangles danced around the top in swirls, while the skirt looked like icing in massive swirls with ungainly pearls lining their circumference. My room had become the dressing room. A collective gasp ensued from the assortment of women that had assembled—some family, some friends, some just there to poke their noses into our lives—as I walked in the dress.
‘You did a good job renting this, Um Ali,’ my mother told Khalti. ‘Perfect fit!’ Khalti nodded, as if critiquing herself and accepting the compliment as a favour to the giver. To me, it felt like layers of white had shrouded my body. Shroud. That’s not a nice word, is it? I remembered it from the dictionary I had seen it in. Shroud. A length of cloth or an enveloping garment in which a dead person is wrapped for burial.