BY SEEB DURAZI [U.K]
The dim, smoky flame from the paraffin lamp flickered slightly in the salty night breeze wafting in through the open window. It was a warm night, but Noora lay shivering on her right side, battered and bruised, with her back towards him. Her left side throbbed, especially where he had kicked her above her hip and near her mouth, where her lip was torn and swollen. She had a huge bump right above her left eye. Abdullah, her husband, flung his heavy arm over her in his sleep, and her body involuntarily stiffened.
It was past midnight, but Noora knew that her neighbours had their ears cocked for more. It was tough to keep any secrets in these narrow alleys and tiny two-roomed dwellings of a crowded Old Mombasa neighbourhood. By midmorning all the women would be talking about yet another bashing in Abdullah’s household, she thought bitterly. They were all familiar with Abdullah’s volatile temperament. All he needed was the flimsiest of excuse to get violent, and when they frequently saw the telltale signs on her pale brown skin, the women sympathized with her, but kept their distance too.
“You are such a beautiful girl,” Mama Huseini would say, “so frugal and hard working too. It is a shame that you ended up with this brute. It is His Will, you just have to be strong”, she’d sigh, rolling her huge eyes heavenwards.
Mama Huseini’s submissive approach was a far cry from Kate Donohue’s feminist fury. Kate, a retired nurse, ran a small missionary establishment near Abdullah’s little kiosk. Noora could mentally picture the red-faced woman, hands on hips, shaking her disheveled grey head vigourously, telling her for the umpteenth time, “Noora, my dear, you can’t possibly allow this to go on, have him arrested. You need to leave, before he kills you!”
Noora’s heart skipped a beat. Soon, Kate would be gone too. Her only real friend in the neighbourhood, whom Abdullah despised. Kate’s landlord had issued her an eviction notice a month ago and she had found a bigger house to set up her clinic and refuge for orphaned girls. Kate would be gone in the morning and they would probably never meet again.
You hid my ‘milk’! You think I was drunk?
Tonight, he had cornered her over a bottle of mnazi – local palm liqueur, which he had supposedly brought home the night before and she had supposedly hidden while he was in dozing.
“Daughter of a witch!” he had abused, when Noora denied having even seen the bottle, let alone hidden it. “You hid my ‘milk’! You think I was drunk? I know you woman!”
“You might have left it where you went last night,” Noora pleaded fearfully, “please calm down, the neighbours can hear you.” She painstakingly avoided implying the fact that he was drunk.
“To hell with the neighbours!” he shouted back, hurling the dishful of mutton pillau that would have been their supper, all over the floor, “Do they buy me the liqueur? Do I beg your rich father for it?”
He rummaged through the almirah, scattering her few clothes and personal belongings all over the tiny room that served as a sitting-cum-dining room. When he saw no sign of the bottle, his anger mounted. Abdullah reached out for her neck, but since he was very tipsy, she deftly escaped his grasp and ran out of the front door and on to the narrow street where some neighbours were beginning to gather. Her black headscarf dangled in Abdullah’s hand, and he threw it aside, charging after her menacingly. The inquisitive onlookers quickly dispersed, as soon as Abdullah clumsily darted after her. No one had the courage to interfere in their ‘home affairs’. He pulled her by her henna-hued hair and pushed her into the house, and shut the door behind him. After that, all one could hear were thumps and muffled cries.
Presently, Abdullah began to snore, but sleep evaded Noora. As she lay next to him, broken in both body and spirit, she berated herself. She shifted slightly, and now lay on her back, his arm a heavy unwelcome weight just beneath her bosom. She dared not remove it, lest he should awake and resume the beating. She dared not defy him in any way, or she’d have nowhere to go. If Abdullah divorced her, she wouldn’t even have a roof over her head. She felt scared, stifled and helpless.
He let out a whistling snore
This had become a way of life now; she cringed guiltily when her conscience ridiculed her lack of self-respect. She often asked herself, should she be mourning at her own folly or submit to the suffering in repentance for it? Or may be ending her life was the only way out?
“It’s your own fault, Noora,” sneered her inner voice, “you rebelled against your own people to lie beside this heap of rubbish.”
Noora stole a glance at the man, trying to find the Abdullah whose love had blinded her, in the outlines of his bloated features. He let out a whistling snore, the reek of his stale breath hitting her full in the face. She felt nauseated, though her stomach was empty, and turned away, focusing on the peeling roof above her. Hatred simmered deep within her chest, she bit her lip to fight the tears welling in her eyes again.
She cursed silently, and reminded herself that he wasn’t worth crying for. He had violated not just her trust, but every dream she had nurtured of building a happy home when she had eloped with him against her father’s will four years ago. It seemed more like four lifetimes since she had known real joy. Through misty eyes, she looked back through time…
“Watch your step, it’s muddy outside,” shouted her brother, Salim, warning his wife and bedecked sisters, as he parked the old van at the entrance of the tent that was aglow with decorative lights.
Their cousin Rukiya was getting married and weddings were the only time when Mohammed Sudi’s daughters were allowed to wear high heels and make-up. They could also remove their hijaab in the presence of the extended family and show off their specially tailored clothes. As they entered the tent, which was divided into two separate sections for men and women, the music and friendly chatter seeped into their mood.
Rukiya and Noora were the same age
“Mmm. The food smells so good,” Noora had muttered a little too loudly.
Her sister-in-law, Mariam, had slapped her arm and glared. Noora’s eyes met with those of the handsome young vendor, grilling kebabs over a smoky jiko. The chap couldn’t help staring at the dainty 16 year old, in the prime of her youth. He had obviously heard her and smiled. She blushed and darted after her sisters, joining her mother and aunts who were fussing over Rukiya. The bride had looked stunning in her bright green embroidered wedding finery with real gold jewelry.
Rukiya and Noora were the same age. Noora had been grateful for her father for allowing her to continue going to school when most of the girls her age were getting betrothed, but that day, she had felt a tinge of envy seeing the beautiful Rukiya as she softly voiced her approval to her marriage to Sayid.
In the joy and jubilation of the marriage, Noora had bumped into the same handsome vendor and he was introduced as Abdullah, Sayid’s friend and the caterer for the occasion. Noora was enamoured by Abdullah’s obvious attentions and his rakish good looks. By the end of the evening, they had exchanged quite a few snatches of conversation. Naturally, it would have been impossible for Abdullah to visit her, but he had mentioned in passing where she could find him.
After that, Noora couldn’t stop thinking about Abdullah. Her mind conjured up idealised images of his nature and demeanor, since it was impossible for her to escape her mother’s hawk eye to go and see him. After several days, Noora finally mustered the courage to check Abdullah out. She had taken refuge in her buibui and visited him at his kiosk on the way to the mosque. No one suspected them and the charade had gone on for several months before Abdullah presented himself to ask Mohammed Sudi for Noora’s hand in marriage – hell had broken loose.
Sudi had unceremoniously evicted Abdullah from his mansion, telling him that there was no way his beautiful, educated daughter would marry an orphaned food vendor. Her father had always prided his family’s heritage, which went back to the time the Omani Arabs ruled the coast. Noora’s pleas had been met with a couple of sharp, stinging slaps from her mother.
She was extremely lonely
“How could you even think of marrying that urchin?” Hasina Sudi had screamed. “You wanted to study, and your father generously allowed you to, and now you want to ruin that by liaising with someone who isn’t worthy of you? Besides, your elder sister has to be married off before you!”
Thereafter, Noora’s activities had been closely monitored. Her brothers treated her like a pariah and she was ridiculed at every chance. After the school exams were over, she wasn’t even allowed to leave the house unaccompanied. Meanwhile, love pangs had strengthened Noora’s resolve to be with Abdullah. One day, she had slipped out of the house and made it to Abdullah’s kiosk. He had been overjoyed to see her and insisted on their getting married immediately.
“You father will come around once we are man and wife,” he had reassured her, and she had naively sat beside him in the mosque day dreaming about a big homecoming party for them, once the dust had settled. That was never to be.
The Sudi Family had announced that they had disowned her and never wanted to see her face again. Her brothers swore that they would kill her if they ever laid eyes on her again. Noora was heartbroken and remorseful, but was preoccupied in the potent throes of newfound passion for the first few months of her married life. She was actually quite content, until Abdullah began to come home drunk every evening.
As all her family and former friends had cut off their ties with her, she was extremely lonely. She found it difficult to interact with her neighbours because she knew that they all gossiped about her. She would clean the tiny house, cook for the evening and say her prayers, and then she would lie pining for her mother and sisters. When Abdullah came home sober, they would go out or chat and she would forget her woes, but he was like a monster when drunk.
Gradually, Abdullah’s few slaps became full-fledged beatings. In the beginning, he would apologize and try to make up for it, promising that it would happen again. However, the physical and emotional torment escalated after Noora miscarried her first child following a brutal beating. He simply denied having harmed her.
Noora, you’re a beautiful girl
It was around this time, when she met Kate Donohue, a middle-aged American missionary who ran a small clinic and home for orphaned girls a couple of plots away from Abdullah’s shop. It was Kate who treated Noora’s physical wounds and offered her advice and motherly comfort every time Abdullah’s insanity cropped up.
“You really don’t have to go on like this,” Kate had said when Noora lost a tooth, loosened by Abdullah’s vicious blows. Noora had told her all about the charade and her elopement, but Kate wasn’t convinced that her parents could totally turn their backs on her.
“Tell me where your parents live, I will go and speak to them,” she pleaded. “I am sure Abdullah will stop behaving like this once he knows that your family is standing up for you.
“No, no,” Noora had protested vehemently. “They will only scorn me further. And if Abdullah finds out, he will surely kill me.” She couldn’t tell Kate that she knew that her father would never, ever forgive her.
“Noora, you’re a beautiful girl, and you deserve so much more,” Kate had implored, “the world doesn’t end here. Everyone makes mistakes, but that doesn’t mean that life stops there. If you’re convinced that you can’t go back home, you could come and live with us and help in the Home. I will pay you reasonably, and you will be safe and free.”
Kate’s support and kind words had brought tears of gratitude to her eyes, but Noora was uncertain, largely due to her fear. What would people say about a young, runaway girl living in a Christian establishment? She was also a little wary of Kate’s ‘feminist way’ as Abdullah termed it – she was unaccustomed to the kind of freedom Kate depicted.
The call of the Muezzin to the Morning Prayer brought Noora back to the present. Though she hadn’t slept a wink, she wasn’t tired. This had to end one way or another. An uncharacteristic restlessness drove her out of the bed. Abdullah was still snoring. She filled a bucket-full of water from the rusty tap in the tiny bathroom and dunked the immersion heater into it. As she waited for the water to heat, she slowly brushed her teeth. She could taste fresh blood as she swirled sips of water around the lacerations inside her mouth. Today she did not flinch as the warm water ran over her bodily wounds. This morning would be different from all the other mornings after a thrashing.
In contrast to all the times she had been hit previously, Noora’s hands did not shake as she donned her clothing and covered her head in readiness for prayer. Ignoring the smell of the souring rice and meat that still lay scattered on the floor, she unrolled her pale brown coir prayer mat and knelt down. Today, there were no tears in her eyes as she ended the prayer with a plea to God to alleviate her troubles. Noora fumbled for her tattered purse in the dark cupboard, but abandoned the search, telling herself that she wouldn’t need the single hundred shilling note in the purse where she was going. She rolled up her prayer mat and tucked it beneath her arm.
It was forty minutes past five, when Noora, enshrouded in her black buibui and hijaab silently let herself out of Abdullah’s house, without so much as a backward glance at her slumbering husband. The streets were still dark and deserted, but if anyone had seen her, they wouldn’t mistake her for a ‘fugitive’, for her confident stance exuded righteousness. Treading carefully over the shaking cobblestones, she walked towards the old harbour. From the clearings between the old buildings and swaying palms, she could make out the distant figures of fishermen, preparing for the day’s job. She walked past the palm-leaf shutters of Abdullah’s little kiosk, and hesitated slightly near the entrance of the Mosque. By now her heart was beating really fast.
Let’s start getting into the bus
“What if they had already left?” She wondered silently. She couldn’t go back to Abdullah. Driven by anxiety, she paced faster and turned the corner. When she saw the ramshackle minibus parked outside the ‘REFUGE OF CHRIST’, Noora let out a slow, deep breath and almost tripped on the broken steps, rushing through the weathered door.
“Okay, girls. Let’s start getting into the bus.” Kate was getting the group of girls together. Each of who carried their few individual belongings in small bags. Then, she looked in the direction the girls were staring and saw a buibui-clad figure coming towards her.
“It’s me,” mumbled Noora, pulling the veil away from her face. She smiled despite the tears that glistened in her eyes in the early morning light.
In one glance, Kate took in everything relayed in Noora’s expression. The older woman quickly covered Noora’s face from the bus driver’s prying eyes and said nothing as she hugged her warmly. There would be plenty of time to talk on the journey, and thereafter. She had made it just in time. The two women and a dozen girls of varied ages piled into the minibus and the driver sped up the bumpy road. Noora glanced back towards the harbour. Dawn was just breaking across the horizon. Feeling an immense weight lift off her soul, Noora closed her eyes and felt the rays of the sun warm her whole being. She let out a deep sigh. Freedom at last…