And so this happened.
Here's the story, obviously edited so it'd fit in the ten-minute time frame (and that ten minutes included my introduction by my friend Bethany Ruthnick).
Barcelona is raining. The early morning shower. Streetlights gleam through the mist and slivers of liquid. The stony pavements cold and wet. But Aïcha doesn’t know all that. All she knows is that it’s pitch black and she’s bleeding.
It was fun and games when the man shoved his tongue inside Aïcha’s mouth, tasting her, tracing her. It was fun and games when the man unclasped her bra strap and caressed the delicate skin of her breasts. But the fun and games ceased when his left hand landed on the damp spot between her legs and he discovered that her real name might be something less feminine than “Aïcha”. He paused.
The last thing Aïcha saw was the man’s fist slamming into her nose, after he had given her the look, the look one gives when one bites a juicy apple only to see that a fat, slithering worm has made its home there.
The last thing Aïcha heard was her own voice asking the man, “Porque?” Why? As he repeatedly pushed and beat her.
Her face and body pulsate with pain, then fear and panic grip her as grogginess slowly unclutches its grasp. Her question rings in her head. Like an alarm, it raises dormant memories. Memories of a childhood as an Afghan boy in Sangin named Mehrdad who kept being asked, “Chera?” Why? Why don’t you go play with the other boys, Mehrdad? They’re building a mud castle. Why do you always bring that rag doll, Mehrdad? Why do you speak so softly, Mehrdad? Why are you standing in the girl’s line, Mehrdad? Why why why. Chera chera chera.
Mehrdad was twelve when he saw his older sister, Karida, taken away for marriage. She was thirteen. They both cried when the women dressed Karida in a turquoise silk dress, heavy with shisha mirrors, swirled with indigo and cerulean and gold and fuchsia embroideries, and drew mehndi on her palms and fingers. But the women, especially their mother, only scoffed and said, “Stop crying. He is a good man from a rich family.” But neither Karida nor Mehrdad had ever met the man who lived in another village. Karida told Mehrdad, after the women had left, that their parents had traded her for mahr of clothes and jewelry and tobaccos and goats. They didn’t have the significant dowry to match the groom’s mahr. But Karida was the fairest virgin in their village. “You are lucky to be born a man,” Karida said to Mehrdad, but they both knew that he did not feel that way.
Then in the morning two days later, as the rooster crowed, his mother splashed cold water all over him and it erased all traces of tears from his face, he had cried when Karida appeared in his dream that night. His mother said, “It is against God’s will that a daughter does not listen to her mother. It is against God’s will that a wife does not listen to her husband.” And Mehrdad knew Karida was dead.
It is at this moment that Aïcha remembers the new God, the God of the people whose country she is in. She thought this God would be different, that this God would not condone cutting off hands and noses and making women walk steps behind the men, leaving them to their own discussions, leaving them illiterate and imprisoned. Aïcha tries to get up. She wants to pray. But how do you fold your hands in front of your chest when your wrists are bound behind your back? Her long nails dig into the membranes of her palms. She wobbles up, her ankles are also bound, but she kneels. Still, she’s afraid this new God will not be able to listen to her. After all, she’s only a stranger. She remembers how Mehrdad ran away, how he considered himself lucky that at the time, crossing had been easier, how he traveled half the Silk Road, sticking to deserts and mountains and coasts and plains with nothing but his body as means of trade. As currency.
Everything Mehrdad endured was for Aïcha. Every thrust, every grunt, every thank you and even every insult became a pretty penny. It took him six years to arrive in Barcelona seeking asylum, two more years to become a legal citizen of Spain, and four more years to become Aïcha. She was born on Mehrdad’s thirtieth birthday, the day he received his breast implants. The skin around her chest and ribcage and the alien weight felt tight and new, but it was more than natural for her. She wore the scars underneath her breasts proudly, like a soldier and his dog tag, a mother and her stretch marks, Jesus and his wounds.
She remembers the girl of about eight years old whom she sometimes sees on the train home in the early morning. The mother, who looks like she has crystal meth for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, just slumps herself down onto the seat and the girl has to wake her up before they reach their stop. Aïcha thinks crystal meth is even more murderous than the Taliban. Sometimes, when there were just the three of them in the car train, she would give the little girl bonbons. She would rub her palms together and clasp the warmth over the girl’s small, cold cheeks until they glowed pink. She learnt that the girl’s name was Natalia. Aïcha yearns to see her again.
But she still doesn’t know to which deity she should pray for her life tonight. She pushes her wrists apart against the straining bond. No luck. She doesn’t want to die. Not like this. She considers the names of the Gods, from Allah to Zeus, names that had escaped the lips of men who had their way with her. Too many Gods. She considers crying, she considers giving up, but as her chest is about to heave, she hears the sound of metal grating – a key is being inserted into a slot. Her whole body contracts.
A door creaks open. Aïcha knows she has to escape. She can almost see herself as some light seeps in. She’s kneeling on dusty cement floor, red bricks scattered, her red dress tattered. And the sounds of footsteps. Aïcha thinks of what she’s going to say to plead for her life. Then Aïcha swears, in swirls of dust the light and wind capture, Karida appears before her, her copper skin glows and her green eyes luminous and Aïcha remembers that dream of her, the dream that she never received again. Karida says, in the language of their childhood, “Ba halwa goftan dahan shirin namishawad.” The mouth can not taste sweet just by speaking sweetly. “Ba solha-goftan dunya aram namishawad.” The world will not find rest by just saying “Peace.”
“I can hear you,” a man says. It’s the voice of the man whom she’d met at the bar. The man who had asked her if her green eyes were real. The man who had listened to her Silk Road tale, not as an Afghan boy, but as an Afghan girl. The man who had brought her to his home and his fist to her face.
Aïcha’s breaths quiver, but she lifts her head and stretches her arms behind her and tries to pull in her lower body. And as her bound wrists reach under her, she slumps down to her side and slide her hands under her lower back, past her thighs, behind her knees, her calves, and finally over her naked toes, until her arms are now in front of her. Then, with her long nails, she cuts the duct tapes that bound her ankles, freeing them, and bites the bond around her wrists.
The man appears as Karida fades away.
“Who do you think you’re trying to trick?” He asks as he stands in front of Aïcha, hovering, garden scissors in his hand. “You want to be a woman, don’t you? A real woman? Allow me to help you. See if you enjoy it. Then I’m going to put you out of your misery.”
But Aïcha bites her tongue and waits, she waits until the man is near enough, and as he lunges toward her, Aïcha swings her foot upward with all her might, kicking the man between his legs. He yelps and curses and stabs her thigh with the garden scissors. Blood seeps out. She kicks him again on his stomach. The scissors fall. Aïcha grabs a brick and swings it to the back of his head. The yelps and the curses stop. And Aïcha runs, up, up, up, toward the light, to a brown wooden door that opens to rain and soft thunders, to wet muddy earth, to cold and slippery stony pavements, to streetlights that gleam. Aïcha runs, to life, to Karida, to God. And Aïcha swears, that when she sees Natalia on the train again, she will take her, she will be her mother, and she will not sell her, not even for the most exquisite, most expensive mahr in the world.
The story was inspired by the National Geographic's picture of the green-eyed Afghan girl.
Also, a note on what I wore. This was my first ever public reading, and it was so terrifying that I just decided to wear my war paint and armor. And so I wore a quarter of my dance costume and accessories. Plus, they fit in the "Silk Road" theme!
Also, my family obviously couldn't make it to the reading, so I invited my extended family.
Afghan Girl photo by National Geographic.
Other photos by Shelly Swanegan Hamalian.