BOOK ONE – Sikander Ali
‘You are a bloody buffoon, a red-assed bander, a monkey, who will not be anything once you grow up. You hear me, you idiot? Your mother should be satisfied if you make it as a barber!’
‘Bah,’ I resorted glibly, ‘Habeeb is a barber and his salon takes in thousands every week, more than you make in a month!’
Haroon’s face darkened in instant ire, a hand was raised and his palm connected to my fledgling face, making a sharp smacking sound that brought instant tears to my eyes and my mother running from the nearby kitchen with a terrified look on her face. I did not mean what I said as an insult, it just came out that way. But then, everything I said to my stepdad Haroon come out maliciously, as if my tongue had a mind of its own. Haroon was a big man, almost six feet tall, with a head that sat on bull-like shoulders that were huge. To me, it seemed that nature had forgotten to form a neck for him. He grew his hair long to hide this lacking feature but the strands were thick and coarse, so the effort was lost on most days. He had a square face that sported wide eyes with a seemingly permanent look of surprise. Although he was not ugly, his eyes made him look rather mean. They were beady and cold, enough to cause palpitations to anybody who was seeing him for the first time.
‘Saala haraami, you bastard, not yet nine and you have a tongue as filthy as your mother’s!’ He raised his hand in attack again, but Ammi dashed in and hustled me out of harm’s way, but not before taking a nasty whack on her rump herself. She shoved me past the flimsy curtain that separated our one-bedroom hovel into a living-cum-bedroom where Ammi and Haroon slept on a large, ancient, lumpy bed. She took me in a tight embrace and I could feel her tremble as Haroon spewed abuses at Ammi, me, my dead father and my ancestors, warning us of dire consequences if I did not control my dirty mouth, learn proper manners and improve my grades. Ammi held me at arm’s length and examined my face with teary eyes, caressing the smarting side of my face. I felt like crying on seeing her cry, but steeled myself not to, although this was so very hard.
‘Did he strike you hard, does it hurt?’ she asked in a whisper.
I shook my head, not trusting myself with talk; lest I began shedding tears and make her cry even more.
‘Aree Sikander, mere bachche, when will your grades improve? When will you start paying attention to your studies? Aree, how much of this abuse will you and I…?’
‘I will kill him, Ammi,’ I whispered, ‘I will kill your husband, sooner or later, I will…’
Ammi clamped my mouth shut, terror making her pupils go around in circles, like characters in horror movies that have just seen ghosts. She grabbed me in a tight embrace that made it difficult for me to breathe.
‘Shush, you fool of a child! Haroon will make mincemeat of you! Why are you defiant like this, mere bachche? Haroon is no ordinary man, Sikander, he will kill both you and me if…’
‘Then why did you marry the bastard?’ I wanted to scream, but did not say the words. Instead, I clenched and opened my fists, with thoughts of wringing Haroon’s bull-like neck one day giving me some consolation.
Desperation, of course. My biological father, Anver, worked as an assistant to Haroon. He died suddenly, six months before my arrival to this world, when I was still in Ammi’s womb. My dad was on a private errand for Haroon when his vehicle, a battered Maruti Suzuki, was struck broadside and he perished on the spot. The police recorded it as an accident, of course, but there were whispers, from neighbors and relatives, of a more sinister reason for the accident. Ammi was an attractive woman even then, very fair, with Bollywood-star-like features, pouting lips and wide almond-shaped eyes with a permanent kohl. I could tell she drew attention with men eyeing her as we walked along the bazaar streets shopping for vegetables and groceries.
There was vague talk, mutterings and glances, between adults in the bazaar, about how Haroon got away with murder and acquired a stunning beauty; not as a mistress, mind you, but as a wife, both at the same time. I kind of suspected what these people were saying but was too young to fathom the implications then. Ammi shied away from telling me too much about her second marriage to this beast, always attributing the will of Allah for the union.
Ammi once told me she married my biological father out of love; it was not an arranged marriage. She said she was from a well-to-do family in Pune, some one hundred miles from here in Bombay. With a faraway look on her pert face, my head on her lap, her fingers playing with my unruly hair, Ammi talked about her past. Haroon was away on many of his mysterious trips so I got to sleep on the large bed with Ammi, breathing in the comforting odors of her sweat and of masalas she used in her cooking; of coriander and turmeric and hing. But nestled deep in her skin pores, were other shifting scents which were hard to identify. The wonderful scent of oriental oudh, with which she perfumed her body and hair on rare occasions, when she had extra cash or when she wanted to, strangely, please Haroon.
Aaliya, my Ammi, had met Anver at a restaurant where he was a waiter, working his way through college. Ammi described my father as very handsome and tall, with free flowing, abundant hair and pale eyes, unusual for a Maharashtrian. They had a clandestine affair that did not remain secret for too long among all the siblings. It was busted, and they eloped to Bombay and registered a court marriage after getting a roadside nikkah performed by an unemployed and eager to please mullah. Much of what she said did not make much sense to a nine-year-old me then, but I got the gist of it. Anver abandoned college and went to work couriering contraband stuff for Haroon; he had a newly pregnant wife to support. A few months into the unofficial employment, my biological dad was dead, leaving behind an inconsolable and devastated Ammi. Her parents turned her away when she sought refuge in Pune, after the burial and rites, questioning my legitimacy in her belly; was I a haraami, a bastard? No, yelled the father, and her brothers agreed, Aaliya brought shame to the family; she was lucky they did not have her killed. At her wits’ end, Ammi contemplated suicide but the life inside her was now kicking and demanding attention. So, she returned to Bombay and Haroon, who was expecting her. He gave her shelter and a name to me. But, at a steep price.
Haroon was kind and attentive till I was born, but tired of Ammi’s body soon afterward. Having married twice already, a father of three and divorced, he did not fancy wailing, barfing and napkin soiling babies again, so the relation went nowhere, but south. But Ammi prevailed, through the constant taunts and drunken rages and occasional beating and infidelity and rigid house rules and tight-fisted money, keeping me out of Haroon’s radar as much as she could; she overcame. She began sewing clothes for the neighborhood; repairs and alterations mostly. The rewards were paltry, but every rupee helped.
I was born a rebel. Haroon and I loathed each other from my earliest memories. I resented the nights when Ammi left me alone for long periods when she went to share Haroon’s bed. Then, as I got older, I hated him for mauling my mother in my presence, slapping her around in drunken rages and making her massage the legs that Haroon claimed hurt because he had to work hard to provide for us. I hated going to school and would do anything to be sent home. I fought with my classmates and even kicked my teacher a few times, an act that brought me painful retributions at school, and at home when Haroon was called in by the principal and admonished about my awful deviant behavior. The only respite I got from all this trauma was when the beast was away on business trips. I relaxed and got to play with the neighborhood kids without having to worry about Haroon tormenting Ammi.
Ammi found out she was pregnant a week after I took a beating from Haroon, when I taunted him about Habeeb, the barber. I could tell she was scared silly when our neighbor from three houses down the road, Najma Aapa, advised Ammi to seek medical counsel because she was throwing up so much, especially early in the mornings. The bazaar doctor, an ancient woman who operated a busy charitable clinic out of a dingy hole down the alley from our hovel half-heartedly examined Ammi and promptly confirmed the pregnancy, prescribing several prescriptions and further tests. Ammi threw them all away, of course, for where would the money come from? Haroon threw a tantrum, accusing Ammi of a conspiracy, even claiming that he could not be the father. Ammi, weak from all the barfing and changing body hormones seemed to wither away after this affront. She slept and slept and slept, and barfed, violently infuriating her husband and irritating me as well. Her few sewing customers trickled away. Haroon stopped coming home. I heard Ammi groan that he had a new woman in his life, somewhere across the stinky nullah that separated the slum of Govendhi. I had to fend for myself, eating hard-crusted rotis for breakfast and depending on Najma Aapa to feed me lunch and dinner, if she had some left over, that is. My tummy rumbled endlessly. Ammi survived on weak tea and cheap Glucose cookies.
Then suddenly, Ammi was up early one morning, clear eyed and calm. She actually smiled, hugged and cradled me. We both stank badly, since none of us had bathed in days. Najma Aapa had offered to bathe me but I would have none of it; at nine, I had my dignity to consider. So, Ammi made me scrub myself silly and then bathed and smoked her body with oudh. This made loud alarm bells ring in my mind. Was Haroon coming back? Ammi sensed my anxiety and assured me Haroon would not bother us anymore, ever. I was instantly relieved and happy. This was one of the happiest days in my life.
Ammi took me to the bazaar and bought me brand new t-shirts, a pair of pants, shoes, underwear and a fancy new cricket bat. I was surprised, at first, and then became worried. Where was the money for all this coming from? Ammi’s face clouded for a moment, but she smiled radiantly then, disquieting me even more. She told me not to worry about money; she was spending from her savings for a rainy day. So, I smiled with her and we had a field day. We ate lunch at a proper restaurant, sitting at a table where a waiter arched an eyebrow at us suspiciously, wanting to see if Ammi had the means to pay for the meal before he served it. Ammi did something very much out of character. She cursed the waiter, using some uncivilized words. The waiter looked as if he’d swallowed a fly and retreated with his tail between his legs and served us without further comment. I had a full plate of chicken biryani, washed down by a super cold bottle of Fanta and topped it off with an ice cream falooda; I could hardly breathe from all the eating. Ammi helped herself to a few morsels of the biryani, busy feeding me like the infant I was not. Although her seemingly overnight change in health and vigor puzzled me a bit, all the new clothes and good food clouded this wariness.
At home, Ammi locked the door and shuttered the windows, turning the hovel darker, muggier and hotter; I complained. But she forced me to sit still and taking me in a bear hug, she cried and cried and cried. Scared and hot and bothered and bewildered at yet another sudden change in her mood, I joined and bawled as well. Ammi grew tired after a while, blew her nose and beckoned me to a corner of the shack that served as a kitchen pantry. She dropped to her knees and jerked open a bin lid. Puzzled, I watched her scoop loads of uncooked rice into another container. She then reached into it and pulled out a small bundle covered by a handkerchief. Flicking the remaining grains of rice away, she opened the folds, revealing a small pile of one thousand rupee bills.
‘Ten thousand rupees,’ she breathed, ‘all yours.’
My breath caught in my throat. I had no idea how much ten thousand rupees was or what it could buy, but I knew it was a colossal amount of money for a poor person like Ammi; my heartbeat accelerated and I looked at her sharply.
‘Where did…’ I began but she shut me up with a fierce look.
‘Shush!’ she commanded, ‘Do not speak a word!’
‘But Am…’ I protested, but she glared me with such furiousness, it terrified me; I closed my mouth in a hurry.
Ammi then peeled open the notes and my breath caught in my throat again, violently. A bar of gold gleamed at us in the dark. I knew nothing about gold then but could tell this piece of metal was the real thing. Ten ounces, I was to later find out. I reached out and caressed the shiny top. It was smooth, marred only by some inscription carved into the metal. Shivering, I picked it up to look at it closely; it was bright yellow and beautiful. For a tiny ingot, it felt heavy. A bead of sweat from my face plopped on it, jarring me to reality. I looked up to see Ammi studying me closely, a mirthless smile on her sweaty face.
‘It’s pure gold, Sikander. Worth a lot of money, a small fortune. For you. It’s yours. Listen Sikander, I took this stuff from Haroon, I stole it. Now, I realize I have taught you never to steal, bete, and you should never, never steal. I will never be happy if you steal, okay? I have stolen these from Haroon because he stole them from his employer. I do not have time to explain. Just remember, Haroon stole this money and gold he was supposed to deliver for his employer, who is also a crook like Haroon, only a bigger one. They are all first class crooks. So, I just took my share from Haroon, the share he never gave me all this time.’
Then she did something that shocked and surprised me, sending my heartbeats into a wayward spin again. Returning the rice back into the bin and putting it carefully away, she walked to one corner of the room and moved some folded clothes to one side. Grunting, she got onto her knees, her breath coming in short bursts and with excessive effort. She carefully pulled one end of the dirty rug that covered half of the kitchen and formed a boundary between kitchen and living room; it revealed a narrow gaping hole. She folded the wad of bills, covering the ingot, wrapped it all back quickly and dropped the small package into the hole. Water supply to our hovel was sporadic at best, so Ammi always filled a few spare buckets and stored them in a corner of the room, covering them with a thin drab discarded dupatta, to ward off insects and dust. She jerked this off now; revealing three pails of water, except one was full of dirt. She tried dragging this one toward her but failed. So I helped her and we covered the hole with this dirt. She compacted and leveled the area and flipped the rug back into place; the area looked undisturbed. She got up, jerked me to my feet and opened the windows, giving the room immediate relief from the stifling heat; we were both sweating buckets. She sat me on her bed and gingerly lay down.
‘Sikander, say not a word of what you witnessed now, you hear?’
I did not say anything but stared at her warily. She had lost color again and her eyes were large and sad.
‘Sikander! Did you hear me? Keep your mouth shut about this, you hear? That money and the gold are for you; you hear? When I am gone…’
I startled violently and tried getting up in a hurry but she gripped my arm and pulled me back to bed. Hurt and terrified at her behavior, I began crying. Ammi held me to her bosom and quieted me down. She told me I was a good boy, a product of pure love. That I needed to be strong and I could be anything I wanted in life. She told me not to be afraid of Haroon under any circumstance but not to confront him either. She then instructed me not to worry about the gold and money buried in the ground unless and only when I was very desperate.
‘It is only and only for an emergency, you hear? Only when things seem hopeless will you approach the hoard. Do you understand me, Sikander?’
I did not answer but gawked at her in bewilderment. I saw a look of anger cross her face, something I had seen very rarely on that pretty face in all my nine years. Ammi had never disciplined me, never yelled at me and never laid an angry finger on me. I had seen anger at times, directed at Haroon, anger that was controlled in dignity and forbearance. She had never yelled back at her husband, never fought back at his cruelty or hit back at the slaps he liberally dished out whenever inebriated. Now, she took hold of me and shook me violently, jarring my teeth and rattling my head until I began sobbing again, uncontrollably. I was more hurt by her anger at me and afraid at this rapid turn of events than anything else. She gave up then, for her arms fell away and her body slumped. All remaining color from her face faded and I saw her dark brown eyes contract dramatically. She sighed deeply and fell back onto the hard pillow and closed her eyes. I sat with her for a while, sniveling and sniffling. I thought of going to Najma Aapa or to the local masjid mullah for help.
I almost did, but Ammi opened her eyes once again and with tremendous effort, raised an arm to beckon me to her. I laid my head on her bosom for a while, until she groaned in pain and indicated for me to get up. I lifted my head to look at her. Her lips moved, but no sound came so I leaned forward. Faintly at first but then more forcefully, she instructed me to go out and play with my friends. Confused, for I had a lot of questions I wanted answered, I hesitated. But she pushed me away sternly, not with her hands, but with the look in her eyes. She ordered me out. As I was about to leave, I noticed the salwar, under her bum, was blood red. There was so much blood, it had seeped through and soiled the dreary bed sheet underneath. Shocked at seeing all the blood, I opened my mouth to point it out, but Ammi suddenly found her voice, perhaps from utter frustration and screamed at me to leave. Sobbing, I fled the hovel. My Ammi and the baby in her womb were dead when I returned at sunset.
@ @ @ @ @
When I opened my eyes again, it was totally dark; I assumed it was after sunset. What had disturbed my sleep was a sound. I was confined in a room that had no noise whatsoever, so my hearing senses were at their zenith, ready to pick up any sound. There was a faint but definite scratch on the floor, next to my head. Then, something hairy and wet brushed by my ear and I leaped into the air, screaming, my heartbeats in complete disarray, the hairs on my hands and elsewhere standing straight up. I am sure I would have easily spotted my elusive armpit hair then, but I was more concerned about retaining my marbles at that point. It was a rat, of course, but I could not see it. I was so petrified and shaken then, I was ready to give in and ask Muchia for forgiveness; he had broken me. I sat in a huddle, hugging myself, my ears seeking any indication of the rat nearby. I am not sure how long I sat in this position but I did not move until the cell filled in with enough light for me to see and make out objects in the chamber. When I did finally move, I was so sore from sitting in one place, my body froze for quite a while until I could get the blood circulating again.
I spent the entire day in a state of stupor. Shanta brought me food and water but I was not hungry, so do not remember eating anything. He said something about my stinking body and cleaning up but I did not look at him or pay attention; I did not care anymore. I used the pail to pee a couple of times and did not feel the urge to poop. When the cell became completely dark, I covered up from head to toe with the filthy stinking blanket, even though it became oppressively hot in a few minutes. Although I dozed off now and then, it was in a sitting position. The rat I was afraid of did not materialize. It had better alternatives. Or perhaps he got scared of my fright and scream?
I saw them as soon as the cell changed from utter dark to strained light from above; they were two of them; the size of kittens, black and loathsome. They were busy scavenging the daal and rice I had abandoned from yesterday. Strangely, I was not afraid. I was sickened, yes, but not scared anymore, so I let them be. They bolted when I stood up to use the pail, disappearing into a drain hole on the far side of the cell.
Shanta came for me soon after. He was in a foul mood, I could sense, as soon as he entered the cell.
‘Suun chootiya,’ he cursed at me. ‘Let’s go. You have ten minutes to go to the toilet, brush your teeth and bathe. Jaldi jaldi, fast-fast! I want you to be finished and down here, before any of the kids finish classes and return to the dorm.’
He roughly grabbed my wrist and yanked me toward him, up the stairs and through the quiet dorm and toward the toilets. Even with Shanta manhandling me, it felt good to be walking and under bright lights.
‘Maather chod, behen chod,’ he cursed again. ‘What did you say to the bitch Sangeeta? Why is she asking so many questions about you? What’s she to you? Saala ghaandu. Now I have to babysit you? Chootia saala. First I had to treat Karuna like a butterfly, now I have to pamper you! What do they think? I am a bloody nurse? Go, go pee and shit all you can now only. I am not bringing you up here until tomorrow. And if you shit or pee in your cell, you clean up!’
His anger thus vented, he shoved me toward the line of toilets and I almost crashed into the door of one. But I was elated, once inside. I squatted and peed, but could not shit, even though I strained hard. There was not much food in my system to digest and I had not taken any water for almost a whole day. A surge of excitement and happiness surged through me nevertheless. Sangeeta Madam must have been asking about me and making a fuss knowing I was sent to the gallows. Hope gushed through me and I was back to resolving not to give Muchia the satisfaction of my defeat. Invigorated, I brushed my teeth and had a quick shower. Shanta would not wait for me to put on my clothes completely, so I hobbled down to the cell with only one leg in my jail uniform, the other dragged along; my penis, unrestrained, swinging wildly. He threw me on the floor, collected the remains of last night’s rat contaminated food and slammed the door shut. I was puzzled by this violent behavior then, until later, when Faheem told me how Madam Sangeeta had exposed Shanta and lodged a complaint of cruelty with the juvenile court.
I finished dressing and planned my day but try as I might, could not think of what I’d do. My spirits dipped, and I felt like crying again. Just as my eyes clouded over, I felt something amiss in the cell; I became instantly alert. The mattress had moved, for sure, and there was a something on the blanket, covered up by dark piece of clothing, a shawl perhaps? My heartbeat lurched and accelerated. At this frequency of assaults to my heart, I was sure I would have a cardiac attack soon. Was it the rats hiding under the cover? But the mound was huge; the rats I saw earlier were not so big. Cautiously, very, very guarded, I inched toward the blanket. The hidden thing, whatever it was, did not move. It couldn’t be the rats and two rats don’t think alike. My heartbeat steadied and in one quick movement, I tugged at the heap and jumped back, just in case, scattering the contents.
It was a gift basket! I stared at it, my mouth dry, not able to grasp what was happening. I looked around wildly, expecting to see Muchia or Shanta, or both, ready to pounce on me for falling into their trap. But there was only me in the cell. And the rats, somewhere, perhaps. I peered at the scattered contents and stared at them unbelievably. There was a clean white shirt, folded, two thin Cadbury chocolate bars, two packets of potato chips, an apple and three brand new comics that I loved to read so much; I almost jumped in joy. Perplexed, I wrenched my brains, trying to figure out where this bounty had come from. Surely not from God, who had finally woken up and decided to have pity on me? I looked up to the heavens and nearly jumped out of my skin. There was Faheem, and someone else I did not recognize peering down at me, waving feverishly. They had somehow lifted the cover off the opening of the roof that had been cut out to allow light and air. Faheem had a finger to his lips, cautioning for me to be quiet. He indicated a swinging receding rope with a tail hook to show me how the gifts had been delivered. Then he made an unmistakable gesture of a pretty woman teacher that I immediately caught on as Sangeeta Madam; she was the donor. He then indicated he would return tomorrow and they both disappeared.
‘Eat shit!’ I cried, hopping up and down, still looking at the heavens and deliriously happy. ‘Eat shit, shit, shit! Eat shit Muchia, eat shit. Shit Shanta, eat shit. Shit, shit, shit…’
I turned around and faced Shanta, who was staring at me, his mouth gaping open, in as much shock and astonishment as me.
BOOK TWO – Ayesha el Bardaawi
I was born at the Dubai Rasheed Hospital on Monday, October 20, 1980 at 2:00 PM, via a Cesarean vertical cut through my Umi’s belly. The hospital, named after the then Ruler of Dubai, was the most modern hospital in the city, built by funds donated by the man himself. My mother, Basma, was admitted to the wing reserved for the Royal family, where she half-heartedly attempted to push me out of her womb after much coaxing from the attending Pakistani lady doctor and a bunch of Asian and Arab nurses. At first surprised, then exhausted, and then livid from all the pain and pushing, she fell back on the pillows and screamed at the doctor to get rid of me from her womb that very instant, or else she would make the doctor’s and her progeny’s lives living hell until the Day of Judgment, and past that time as well. Harassed and scared silly, the doctor spot-opted for a Cesarean delivery, although the situation did not technically qualify for the procedure.
I came out hollering and protesting; Umi did not feel any pain. She did not even know I was out. She fell into an induced deep sleep, snoring the ward down. The head nurse cleaned me up and wrapped me in a tight bundle before feeding me tepid Nido milk. When Umi did come to, she claimed she felt groggy and was in pain, and did not care to see or hold me. The senior nurse, more out of habit than love, hugged me and made sure I was comfortable. When Umi refused to breastfeed me the next day, the nurse felt vexed but said nothing. She was, however, deeply perplexed. Most mothers she cared for couldn’t wait to cuddle and breastfeed their firstborns. Much later, when a Keralite nurse timidly shook my mother awake and urged her to feed me, the nurse got an earful of insults and profanity in Arabic. Then, Basma promptly fell asleep again. I was fed Nido milk powder mixed in warm water again, cuddled and pacified to sleep by a different nurse, an Egyptian this time.
It was only later, in the evening the next day, when the delivery ward was taken over by my mother’s unruly Al Majeed clan, that Basma took me to her bosom and curiously examined me closely. When she looked in my bottomless remote black eyes, the motherly instinct in her stirred and she hugged and planted bright red lipstick marks all over my face. I did not appreciate this gesture, I wanted a nourishing teat instead, so I wailed in protest. Basma promptly lost interest in me and handed me over to a hovering nurse, who whisked me away and fed me more Nido milk.
Both, my father Hussein Al Bardaawi and Basma’s mother, grandmother Jadda Asma, exchanged knowing glances but said nothing. They both knew it would be futile to complain or chide the new mother. If anything, a troubled but safe birth would disintegrate into a family feud that neither wanted to initiate. Umi’s legendary temperament was not something to confront unscathed or take lightly.
My Abuy, father, Hussein Al Bardaawi, unlike Umi Basma was a Palestinian, not a local Emarati. He had met my mother in college in London, England, and both had fallen madly in love, meaning that they would gaze into each other’s eyes before classes every morning and swoon. Abuy would then follow Umi to the gates of the school at the end of class day. There, Umi, surrounded by friends, would turn around, fake indifference to onlookers, look longingly at Abuy and be reluctantly whisked off in a BMW, driven by a male chauffeur and an armed woman guard. Abuy would sigh deeply and take out his frustrations on a Benson Hedges cigarette. Religion, tradition and wealth disparity played a huge and important role in what love meant for the two.
Abuy was born in the village of Battir, in the West Bank of Palestine. The fourth child of twelve, he somehow survived poverty and the Israeli occupation, struggling to get excellent grades even though the school he went to was closed half of the time due to violence, and managed to secure a scholarship in London, funded by wealthy Palestinians in exile. His life in London began mired in misery and homesickness for the first few months. He yearned for the warm sun from back home, rarely seen in the autumn of London. He longed to be carefree and run barefoot, pick olives and citrus under the warm Mediterranean sunshine on his family farm, the only one of four that had miraculously survived Israeli usurps. The cold winds and snow of London stung him, even through the layers of clothes he put on. Paying for food and heat to keep his room warm on a shoe-string budget was a constant challenge. He almost gave up and packed his bags, but meeting Umi changed his mind.
He had met her at a conference at the school. The Arabs in Solidarity with Palestine group had called the meeting, to decry the current violence by the Israelis in Palestine. Abuy, not a political man, did not want to go but the free food promised afterwards was reason enough. At the meeting, Abuy’s stomach growled with hunger as speaker after speaker stood up to rant, repeating what the others had already said; it sounded like a stuck record. He was about to nod off when he sensed a pair of eyes scrutinizing him. Those eyes belonged to Umi, who was present and equally bored with the proceedings and wanted to leave, but couldn’t. She had to write a paper for her Political Science class, so she had to stay until the very end, and meeting the professor and classmates for a critical discussion afterwards was mandatory.
Umi looked at Abuy, exposing her eyes only. A piercing and fiery uncustomary Arab stare, while the rest of her face was covered by her checkered keffiyeh. She knew she was being very rude and doing something that was totally taboo. But she also knew that Abuy could never tell who she was and the fact that she had the courage to defy an ancient custom thrilled her to no end, so she kept staring. She didn’t know why it was Abuy she stared at, except that she was bored and found solidarity in Abuy’s apparent boredom. Also, Abuy seemed the only fresh and innocent face among hundreds of ordinary ones; she liked the face. After a few perplexed moments, Abuy smiled at his future wife, a wide joyful grin, exposing deep dimples on both cheeks, as deep as the Persian Gulf, that lit up Umi’s face and touched the part of her soul that was yet virgin. Umi blushed scarlet and her heart palpitations took off to the skies.
Meeting outside of marriage was unimaginable; even Umi’s rebellious nature could not cross that boundary. But surging hormones and liberating London can change that. So it was Umi who made the first move, meeting Abuy at the school library where she exposed her face and talked to an unrelated male for the first time in her short life. Even so, the relationship was confined to talk; there was no physical touching. But when there was an accidental touch and they could not contain themselves, holding hands at a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop around the corner from the campus satiated the couple for a while. Until the driver and bodyguard spotted them and Mohammed Al Majeed, Umi’s father, and the patriarch of the Al Majeed clan was summoned from Dubai. Mohammed flew into London’s Heathrow airport in the dead of night, in his own aircraft and was cleared through immigration and customs without a word. Outside the airport, five men and two women from a top-notch personal security agency met him. They drove to his fully staffed five million British pounds worth secure massive mansion at Kensington in a silent convoy of darkened windows of black limousines. This is where his daughter stayed when not in school. He scowled at his aging trusted aunt, who was Umi’s guardian, where she peevishly stood by the opened door, but said nothing. Mohammed barged into Umi’s room, grabbed the petrified semi-naked girl by her arm, ordered her to don an abaaya and the motorcade retraced the way back to Heathrow where the aircraft was waiting, refueled and with clearance to fly out at their convenience. It took a total of less than twenty hours for Mohammed to accomplish his daughter’s rescue, door-to-door, from his seventy-plus room palace just outside Dubai, something only a person with his enormous wealth, power and social standing could accomplish.
Back home, Umi got a verbal thrashing, her father promising to have her married to a man of his choice in two weeks, and yelled at my Jadda, his first wife, Umi’s mum, to have his whoring first daughter ready for marriage in that time. But when Umi opened her mouth to claim she loved my father and would marry no other man, that she’d kill herself if forced to marry someone else, the penalty changed to Mohammed’s stiff and very painful igal. He grabbed it off his head and Umi got a whipping that brought a fearful chill to the extended household. Very few people in the family had seen or felt Muhammed’s very rare anger tantrums.
If my maternal grandfather was a hard-nosed, no-nonsense accomplished businessman with tremendous wealth and power, Umi was no less headstrong. She had complied with her father’s heavy-handed demands when he yanked her from London because Arab daughters are supposed to obey their fathers and other male siblings unquestioningly. But she resorted to the one weapon she knew her father could not defend himself from. Umi stopped eating. Everybody at home initially ignored her, especially her three brothers and a younger half-sister, happy to see their sister, Mohammed’s favorite and most privileged child cut down a peg or two, although they all felt the pain of her being whipped. It was only Jadda Asma who fretted and began beseeching Allah for divine intervention. She knew her husband, but she knew her first born even better. The two were linked by blood all right, but separated by a changing world and slowly but surely, shifting traditional values. Umi was spoiled beyond repair, her husband having given her everything under the sun, at the child’s pleasure and demand. It was one way Mohammed could atone for the extended abscesses from home while he grew and expanded the Al Majeed Empire. These excesses were now coming home to roost.
Day three of the hunger strike brought about furrows of worry on almost the entire household’s faces. Umi had shrunk a third of her size from the lack of water, food, weeping and the emotional wound that her previously doting and over-generous father had dished out. Umi lost consciousness on day five and was rushed to Al Maktoom Hospital in central Deira. Mohammed’s anger and resolve dissipated like melting ice outside Dubai’s desert in midsummer. Crying like a baby, the patriarch sobbed like a wounded animal and promised his daughter she could marry the Eblees himself if only she’d come back to life. He begged the attending harassed and bewildered Bangladeshi doctor on duty to revive his daughter. He promised the doctor gold and diamonds and all the money in the world, if only he’d make Umi open her eyes. He called Dubai’s Ruler and demanded the best royal medical assistance be made available for his daughter. The Ruler agreed and his office quickly arranged for the Royal fully equipped medical rescue aircraft to be available any time Mohammed needed. It was not used, of course. Sugar drips and modern medical attention revived Umi shortly and she opened her eyes to find a much-relieved father smiling and saying that Hussein Al Bardaawi was on his way to Dubai, flying first class on British Air. Umi beamed in her triumph but whispered into Jadda’s ears that Hussein was not to see her until she regained the depleted moisture in her body and the gleam in her haggard face.