And years later, when her mind had finally evolved to be able to examine itself, she wondered how such concepts as fear of her thoughts, shame of her own body–the vessel that nature fashioned, and her soul adorned–had arisen at all. When had her body become something alien, separate from her? How could it be something that threatened the honor of the family, something about which she had to be vigilant? Yet at the same time, it was supposedly sacred, meant to be cherished, to be covered, protected, something powerful enough to reduce male devotees of God into lust-drooling fools poised for attack?
When did her form become something that stripped her of her humanity? A thing to be used for the pleasure of others, but never begetting her own. How else could she explain how a man can grab an unknown woman, force himself into her and not allow the woman a voice? The act ruins her for life. Her family wants her dead, yet the man is free to live unashamedly, mostly unpunished for his terrible deed.
Awareness had come suddenly, like flashes of lightening, illuminating those dark un-traversed regions of her mind, revealing ideas, forms and images hidden amongst reminders to clean this and shop for that. As she sat calmly behind the stage waiting her turn to speak, knowing full well it could cost her her life, she recalled those days when alien concepts like liberty and choice sauntered brazenly past the most pious of thoughts : 'Remember to keep every strand of hair corralled'.
She recalled the years she had navigated the world cloaked in a long black shroud, as if mourning her own womanhood. But all that came many years after her family's antiquated beliefs about honor led to the nightmare that would haunt her dreams for the rest of her days.
Basma was only eleven then, and Nature was still the laudable piper leading her young on journeys of endless discovery...
The land was parched that day, like it had been every day that summer. Before long, the fact that water could pour from the sky seemed a myth. Yet coffee beans thrived on terraced plateaus, and rugged mountain ranges, the color of muted earth, sprawled out lazily beneath an azure sky.
High up on one of the slopes overlooking a small Yemeni village near Al-Hajjarah, a sheepherder watched his sheep graze on tufts of dried grass. Well, he was supposed to be watching, but he had long since dozed off.
About a quarter of a mile below him, three children sat around a large tree stump giggling. Basma Al-Goul was eleven years old; her cousin and best friend, Aisha Rahim, and Rafiq, a neighborhood boy, were thirteen. Both girls wore the traditional covering called hijab, the head scarf, and the abaya—a dark brown robe-like dress. Each child broke off tiny specks from a piece of unleavened bread and watched a team of ants carry the bread into crevices along the stump.
Later, Basma, Aisha and Rafiq, who always remained at Aisha’s side, walked along the dusty road back toward their individual houses. It was close to dinnertime. Basma gazed up at the blushing sun sneaking behind sienna hills. The magenta sky was streaked with iridescent ribbons of gold. Jasmine shrubs and the white flowers of coffee plants infused the air with their rich fragrances. She smiled broadly and inhaled.
The children continued to giggle and chat softly as children often do.
Suddenly, Basma spotted something lying on the road right at their feet. It was shiny, and she pointed to it. Aisha immediately sprang into action. With her wide curious eyes, she squatted down for an inspection. It was a jagged four-inch wedge from a broken clay pot. Bright red, black, yellow and teal glass stones surrounded what had probably been the brim of the pottery. She picked it up, and all three children examined it by running their small, sunburnt fingers over the glass stones.
“It’s so pretty. The black ones look like momma’s eyes,” Aisha commented.
She then handed the pottery wedge to Basma, who smiled happily and clutched it to her chest, as they continued walking.
For Basma, this was a particularly good day. She had been to school— one of her favorite things. When she was asked by her teacher to write a few lines of poetry, an integral undertaking of the tribesman, she was elated. Poetry had become a recent addition to her list of favorites, along with eating lamb fatah when her mother, Sumera, could afford it, or honey and butter fatah that had become more frequent after her father, Murjid, had passed away.
Then there was playing with Aisha. That thought made her glance over at her cousin, who was now grinning broadly at Rafiq. But what really made the day a particularly good one for Basma was the lack of pain in her right foot, usually caused by the head of a protruding nail that held her shoe together. Sometimes the nail would loosen, bore right through the inner sole and scrape the skin off her heel sending a shooting pain all the way to her head. One time, her foot bled.
Her mother, Sumera, had promised new shoes months ago, but Uncle Khalid had come up short with their allowance. That morning, Basma had gotten the idea to fold up small squares of paper she found in the streets, and put them in her shoe. Remembering all this made Basma especially pleased with herself, so she swung her arm more deliberately as she walked alongside her companions, still clutching the chunk of pottery to her chest.
When they approached the town, the first row of shops was already in the process of closing. At the shoe stall, the shopkeeper was removing shoes from a display box. One pair was Mary-Jane style, made of canvas in bright pink with a purple pansy flower on the toe. It immediately caught Basma’s eye. She stopped to stare longingly.
“They would look so beautiful on you,” Aisha pointed out, aware of the loose nail in Basma’s shoe.
“Do you think your father will have enough money next month?” Basma inquired.
“I don’t know. Maybe. Let’s hope.” Aisha gently pulled Basma away from the shoe stall and they continued along the narrow sidewalk occasionally stepping to the side when passing an elder.
And then, one fateful moment later, Rafiq reached over, innocently, and, for the first time, took hold of Aisha’s hand, as they walked.
The following week, Basma, unhappily, missed several days of school to help her mother with her two younger brothers.
In the two weeks after that, it was so hot out that most of the children played indoors where the stone walls kept the air cool.
Basma began to miss seeing Aisha, who lived on the other side of the souq—an outdoor market—and had a later class schedule. She made a mental note to wait the extra hour for Aisha after school the next day. With that decided, she reached into her school bag and pulled out a book of Yemeni poetry given to the female students by one of the teachers. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she rested the book on a low rickety table her father, Murjid, had constructed for her. He was never very good with a hammer. Like Basma, Murjid preferred to wander, to daydream, and—if he had known how—to read. She paused a moment to reflect on her father, missing him, missing his attempt at crafting things for her and failing miserably. She missed his face, framed in that black, wiry beard, lighting up whenever she entered the room. Murjid had spent time with Basma. He listened to her incessant questions on hundreds of topics and, though illiterate, provided his own carefully thought out answers. But, mostly, it was Murjid’s love she missed. For that, no one else had even come close—not even her mother, Sumera.
Opening the book, Basma had settled into reading passages aloud when she heard noises in the distance.
The scream was electrifying. Heads turned every which way, trying to find its source. Then they saw her: little Aisha Rahim, running, her face stricken with fear. Alarm and fascination ripped through the open market.
People turned to see from whom Aisha was running.
Her pursuer was lean and fierce.
He chased her with an anger that reached far beyond his twenty years. He chased her with passionate determination fueled by insane loyalty.
People, goats, and everything else that moved scurried out of the way, as they passed. Mothers covered the eyes of small children.
A hundred yards away, Sumera chopped vegetables in her kitchen while Basma’s oldest brother, nine years old, squatted next to his mother, fiddling with a homemade toy. Her baby brother sat on the floor sipping goat’s milk from a metal cup. Hearing the commotion, Sumera rushed to the window and looked out into the courtyard. Astonished, she covered her mouth with both hands, turned frantically, grabbed the arm of her nine-year-old and pushed him to the front door, yelling:
“Go! Hurry! Get out!”
At the back of the house, little Basma gripped her book. The indecipherable sounds coming from the front made her look towards the closed door with curiosity. In the kitchen, Sumera scooped up the toddler. Milk splashed from his cup as she hurried out behind her other child.
Suddenly there was silence. Basma leaped to her feet and dashed to the window. She saw nothing from where she stood.
Not far from the house, Aisha continued her run of terror—her face contorted, her garment flapping wildly in the breeze. Dust balls swirled up like little twisters as her bare feet pounded the unpaved road. Her chest heaved up and down, her lungs struggling for more air. Her heart pounded more determinedly, as if sensing its own end.
She glanced back at her relentless assailant and, for a moment, it all seemed like a horrible dream. Surely it was. She would wake up when she got to her cousin’s house. It was just up ahead. She could see the open door from where Aunt Sumera had just appeared. Behind her, he was closing in. With sheer desperation, Aisha burst into the house, heading to the back. Basma, alarmed, ran across her bedroom to the door. As she reached for the knob, she heard someone else charge into the house... and the nightmare began.
Three months from that day, following custom, Basma’s cousin, Sirhan, was released from jail. The family gathered to celebrate his return.
On the top floor of the four-story Rahim family home, traditionally crafted from mud and reed and punctuated with colorful stained-glass windows, the atmosphere was dense and low key. About fifty men, all wearing their best white and green turbans, sat on cushions shoulder-to-shoulder along the circumference of the mafraz, a large rectangular room carpeted with goat hair rugs. As was the custom, also, they wore western-styled jackets over long white robes, and the ubiquitous jambiyah—a curved dagger with ornate handles signifying male honor and social class—hung vertically from the center of their belts. Down the middle of the room, several dozen platters of rich meat stews, millet and eggplant, prepared by Tayseer Rahim and her two older daughters, were being enjoyed communally as the men tore off pieces of flatbread and scooped up the contents of the platters.
While the men munched heartily and engaged in mundane chatter, Tayseer’s son, Sirhan, attempted to bask in the celebration of his homecoming. The occasion was fitting considering the filth and squalor he had endured during those months in a cell.
His father, Khalid, patted him on the shoulder proudly, as they stood in the doorway. After all, Sirhan did what had to be done for the family— for the tribe. To them, honor was greater than love. Without honor, how could there be respect? A dishonored family was not welcomed into respectable people’s homes. Their children would run away from your children. No man would ask for any of your daughters’ or sisters’ hand in marriage. Without honor, fruit vendors would claim to have run out of apricots, dates or pomegranates while you stood there staring at mounds of them. Even the butcher would refuse you the scraps of meat that had fallen to the ground. Therefore, a man’s family had to command respect. So today, Khalid displayed the utmost respect for Sirhan.
“You have saved our family a lot of torment, my son,” Khalid announced. “Now, people are speaking to us again.” He raised his voice so that all could hear. “…and selling to us.” A flurry of turbaned heads bobbed up and down, acknowledging the significance of Khalid’s words.
Sitting a few feet from where Khalid and Sirhan stood, a man with black bushy eyebrows above unkind eyes, with a thick solid body was biding his time. He was Shafal Abseh, a thirty-eight-year-old jambiyah merchant.
Like Basma’s uncle Khalid, family honor was primary to Shafal Abseh. He wore it on his face. The laceration that began at his left temple and ended just above the corner of his lip was the result of a fight he had with two boys who had looked unfavorably at one of his sisters. To Shafal, the scar was his warrior’s trophy—an instant reminder to any man to respect his sisters.
Everyone knew that Shafal’s passionate defense of his sister was more about his own standing in the community than any real concern for her feelings. Like many of the men in the room, Shafal had never developed any meaningful connection with any of his three sisters. In fact, he rarely spoke to the girls.
Feeling the time was ripe, Shafal got up from the cushion and approached Sirhan with clasped hands and bowed respectfully to him.
“And now there are plenty of work offers for you, too, Sirhan.” Shafal added with penetrating eyes, hooking his thumbs on his belt.
Sirhan smiled back and returned the bow and, as Shafal had hoped, Khalid took extra notice of him and the expensive dagger on his belt with a handle made from rare rhinoceros ivory.
The international ban placed on the export of rhino ivory many years before had elevated Shafal’s status in the village since all jambiyahs were now crafted from bullhorns, or the bones of animals—including the ones that Shafal sold in his popular shop.
Meanwhile, in a darkened corridor that separated the men’s side of the house from the women’s, little Basma squatted on a mat in the corner nibbling absently on a piece of flatbread. Her ghostly eyes with their blank stare watched the scene before her. While the smaller children ran between the rooms having great fun, her baby brother, bored and restless, began to cry.
Sumera peered out through the partition that hid the doorway of the women’s quarters, and gestured for Basma to come in, get her brother and take him outside for a walk.
The moment Basma left through the partition with her brother in tow, her eyes met those of her cousin Sirhan. A shiver ran through her. Saliva caught in her throat. She looked away quickly without acknowledging him.
“How are you, dear cousin?” Sirhan called out. “Why are you acting so mysterious toward me?”
She did not respond. She couldn’t. Lifting the whining child in her arms, she hurried down the stairs.
Sirhan’s surprised expression soon turned to indignation at his cousin’s rebuff, especially in front of the jambiyah merchant. He started after her, but Khalid grabbed his arm and shook his head.
“She is young, she does not understand,” Khalid said, assuming this would explain his niece’s actions.
“And she just disrespected me,” Sirhan replied, unsympathetically.
Upon reaching the bottom step, nearly out of breath, Basma put her wailing, brother down, took hold of his hand and pulled him along the litter-strewn road.
Villagers smiled or nodded to her approvingly as she ambled timidly along. Yet, Basma was only able to return their greetings with her now habitual, vacuous stare born of shock and horror.
Two years later, thirteen-year-old Basma had grown more distant, aloof and virtually silent.
When she wasn’t being the obedient daughter running errands or cleaning to help Sumera, she kept to herself. She had long given up her love of books and poetry and watching ants carry bread.
Sumera tried everything she could think of to get Basma to at least smile again. She’d ask her, “What’s the matter with you? Come on.” Nothing worked.
It was times like these Sumera missed Murjid the most. His passing had been a major hardship for them all. He had taken the time to help feed Basma’s curious mind, as inadequate as he may have been, and a deep bond had grown between them. After his accident, Basma surprised Sumera by healing from it. Then, Aisha had to… How on earth, would Basma heal from that?
“You will grow to love him, Basma. He has ambition,” Sumera said, out-of-the-blue one afternoon, while Basma sat cross-legged staring at nothing in particular. Khalid, who was standing next to his sister, Sumera, walked over to her.
“It’s the best thing for you, dear niece. Be happy,” he said sternly. “This man could have his pick of young girls, but he wants you.”
Sumera moved closer to Basma as well and kneeled before her clasping her tiny hand.
“He is an honest man, Basma. If your father were alive, he would agree. He earns good money and someday he hopes to go to America!”
Assuming this last disclosure would cause a response, they both watched anxiously. Basma merely continued her stare into nothingness.
Exactly one month later, it was her wedding day.
For the village, a wedding was always a wonderful celebration that lasted four days. It was a time for music, traditional Bar’a dancing for the men, and the quat parties where women chewed a euphoric stimulant, drank sweet milky tea, and socialized away from the men. In their gender-separated and male-dominated society, this was the women’s only outlet.
Basma’s family had spent weeks preparing for the occasion despite having little money. Days were spent just in food preparation. The groom presented Sumera with two well-crafted jambiyahs to give to her sons when they each turned fourteen. He also paid her family the customary bride price, which was then spent to adorn Basma in lots of imitation gold and silver jewelry.
On the last evening of the four-day wedding celebration, Shafal Abseh, now forty years old, greeted his thirteen-year-old bride, Basma, for the first time. Around them, everyone nodded approvingly, including her cousin, Sirhan. However, Basma looked more like a doll than a bride in her traditional white wedding dress. In addition, she could barely look at this stranger, her husband, whose half balding head made him appear as a very old man to her.
Throughout the entire day, she had been despondent. So much so, that Sumera asked her several times:
“Basma, when are you going to smile, huh? This is your wedding day. I didn’t know your father either when I married him, but I ended up with three beautiful children. I had someone to take care of me for many years. All I had to do was be a woman to him. Today, you are a woman, Basma.”
Sumera waited for Basma to show she was listening—any response would have been appreciated. But Basma merely stared back at Sumera with bewilderment. Because, for the past two years, Basma could not understand why Sumera, or anyone else, had not said one word about Aisha. It was as if Aisha had never existed. All references to her had been erased. Even so, Basma remembered Aisha well—especially her laughter and her generous spirit. Now, it was as though everyone had wiped her image from mind. Yet, some things could not be wiped away so easily. Sumera found that out. She had scrubbed and scrubbed the floor, the walls, the door, and Basma’s white hijab for days. Basma could still hear the sounds exploding in her ears; she could still see the images that caused her to wake up night after night in a cold sweat calling out to Sumera. And today they expect her to feel gratitude that a man she had never even seen before was now her husband?
Khalid watched Basma closely. Then he decided to offer his own words of wisdom for his young niece, lest she suffer a similar fate as her cousin.
He walked over to her and placed his large, hairy hands on her narrow shoulders, and made his portentous statement.
“Always remember Basma,” he said, in that thunderous sounding voice of his, “a family’s honor lies between a woman’s legs.”
Basma stared up at him, not comprehending what he meant, but the menacing glare from his proud piercing eyes was enough to assure that those words—whatever they meant—would stay indelibly in her head.
After, during the long walk on a dusty road to Shafal’s house, Basma felt her breath began to slip away. The layers of white fabric were too much in the oppressive heat. Sirhan and Shafal walked up in front of her. Behind, her family and guests followed. When they reached Shafal’s house, he turned and stepped ritualistically on her foot, a custom that meant he would rule the house.
She felt abandoned in the house of a stranger, never mind that this was her house as well. Sumera had left her.
For a long while, Basma stood at the grimy window watching her mother walk back to the village with the others, and away from her. When she could no longer see Sumera’s form beyond the glass, she turned her attention to the window itself. Its shutters were yellowing with age. She noticed that the wood of the sill was splintered, and a reddish-brown ant was crawling out from one of the crevices. She fixed her eyes on the ant. Shafal fixed his eyes on her. He knew she was trying to avoid the inevitable, but he was a patient man. He had spotted little Basma years before he had approached her uncle, Khalid, and asked to marry the child.
The ant seemed to have been searching for something. Suddenly, it turned and headed back into the crevice. Silently, Basma begged it to stay, but it had already disappeared between the sill and the window.
Her eyes scanned in search of something else to absorb them. She could feel the old man’s eyes on her back, but she couldn’t bring herself to face him. It wasn’t that she was afraid because she was too young to know what it was, she had to fear. She simply did not want to live with this old man. Why did she have to?
When his patience had run its course, Shafal calmly removed his jambiyah, belt, turban and robe, laying each on a cushion against the wall. He went to the window, took hold of the child’s arm and led her to his mattress on the floor.
She knew that husbands and wives slept on the same mat as her mother and father had done. That was the extent of her knowledge.
Sumera, against her sister-in-law, Tayseer’s, suggestion, decided not to make matters worse by educating her daughter on the duties of a wife. She felt it was best to keep Basma ignorant until the moment came. So, when Shafal pressed his thick body down heavily on little Basma, she panicked—pushing back at him wildly, to break free. But what match can a child be against a man’s strength? He yanked up her wedding dress. Basma once again found herself gasping for air. Something seared into her, ripping her flesh. She froze, paralyzed with fear—her body filled with such excruciating pain she thought she would die. What was happening? What had she done wrong?
She cried out for her mother, and then gagged from the scent of lavender water Shafal had used to slick back his hair. She felt something leave her—something vital—then her eyes glazed over and all traces of light in them, dimmed.
The next morning, to Basma’s amazement, she was still alive. Outside, she could hear the cackle of chickens and the hesitant hooves of sheep testing the hilly terrain. Then, the stranger ordered her to make him breakfast.
Sumera, her Uncle Khalid, Sirhan and Tayseer arrived and seemed pleased at the white sheet the stranger had hung on nails next to the bedroom door. At the center of the sheet was a reddish stain. And for the rest of the day, villagers paraded in and out to see the white sheet with the red spot.
Four years later, Basma Abseh was a mother of two boys, Abdel and Ahmed, and living in America.