Taylor's back - must have gotten settled into her new home. But Adam's decided he likes having me do all the work, so he's letting me write the introduction. Sucker!
I always hated moving. I did it as infrequently as possible. Of course, that comes with its own problems, like lowlifes knowing where you live when you'd rather they didn't...
But this isn't about me, it's about Taylor.
She's got a new chapter from her modern drama for you this week. Ready to dive in?
Then I'll shut up now.
A Good Man
"Open up!" Waleed yelled.
Baba, sweet gentle Baba, slammed his shoulder against the locked door. He kicked it with his heavy boot.
"We're activists!" he called out. "Let us in!"
It all started when the owner of the house told them to prove who they were or go away.
"How do I know you're not with the Mutawa?" a male voice had asked.
This infuriated Baba and for good reason.
The Matawa, or religious police, had only one job: to observe and enforce public morality. If a woman went out of the house without her abaya or a little girl without her hijab, they intervened. If a couple, young or old, were caught holding hands, kissing, or sharing a hug outside of their home, they intervened. If a man played his flute or any sort of instrument in a public area, they intervened. Sometimes these interventions involved yelling and a stern warning. Other times, they involved a beating, especially when it came to women who were brave enough to step out without a male guardian. Clothes would be torn. Bones would be broken. Personal items would be scattered around the bleeding individual.
Breaking into family homes, blindfolding men, and leading them away in front of their wives and children was a common occurrence. Leaving those same men at their doorsteps hours later covered with bruises and welts was common practice as well. Flogging too, was an acceptable punishment.
Baba exposed all of this and other abuses in his books. His writing was despised by the Matawa and deeply admired by those who dared to view things differently.
The door still didn’t open and Waleed was growing angry. After everything they'd been through, after they'd finally found safety, they were being denied it. The children were tired and hungry. All they wanted was a bed.
"We have children!" Waleed cried, taking Amal from Baba's arms.
The door unlocked and a pale face peeked out. The man's eyes darted to Little Raif standing beside his father, then to Amal with her arms wrapped around her uncle's neck. The eyes, black and deep, softened. The door opened and they were let inside without any more questions. Waleed counted on this, a common reaction when children were involved. People often let their guard down and accept greater risk to keep the little ones safe.
The house was small, dimly lit by several candles. All of the curtains were closed. No hint of light could be allowed to seep through. The furniture was old and rugged, like the man, the floors were dusty and cracked. But there were pictures. Framed photographs, dressed in a thin layer of dust and sitting on a mantel, caught Baba's eye. As he paused to look at them, at a child on a beach with flecks of wet sand in his dark hair, at a man in a dashing black suit standing happily beside a smiling young woman in white, at all three of them together cuddled on the couch, looking happy and carefree, he thought of the life he had been living. Had it only been a month before? Before releasing his book, with no regard for the Islamic laws of his homeland, before his life, his family's life, spiraled out of control and broke apart at the seams?
Looking at the man in the photos, the husband, the father, was like looking in a mirror. The way he wrapped a loving arm around his wife's shoulder, the way he held his son so tightly in his lap, the way he beamed with pride as he sat with his family. Sure enough, this man was a writer. Sitting on the mantle was a book of poems with a man's name written in gold letters on its tattered spine. It was the only book not on one of the two bookshelves that dominated the sitting room. The book in front of him wasn't just any book. It was a trophy. Baba shivered, then he wondered.
Had they killed him too?
He was still holding his son's fragile hand in his own. He squeezed it gently and swallowed his questions.
"It's not much," the man, who had introduced himself as Fady, apologized, opening the door to a basement and breaking Baba's train of thought.
He lowered his eyes. Slowly, his head followed. He sounded ashamed, almost small as he admitted that there would not be much food, his voice trailing off as he spoke like a frightened boy. Baba, who'd stripped himself of the abaya, placed a hand on Fady's arm. He spoke softly as if he was soothing one of his children.
"Don't doubt your kindness, my brother. What you're doing is right. What you're doing is Allah's work."
He called this man "Brother" though Fady did not share their family blood. A half-smile spread across Baba's face. He patted Fady's shoulder.
"It is enough, " he said, reassuringly.
Little Raif stared up at Baba, his little mind working hard.
Was this the same man who tried to break down a door just moments before, who'd yelled and kicked and let his anger overtake him?
He'd seen his Uncle angry before. He'd even heard Baba raise his voice just a little when he wasn't happy. What he didn't know or understand was that Baba had acted out of desperation more than he'd acted out of anger.
Baba crouched down when he saw the look of confusion on the little boy's face.
"It's okay," he said, picking up his son. "We're okay."
His lips briefly touched Little Raif's forehead and Little Raif smiled happily, believing his Baba. They followed Waleed, who was still holding Amal, down to the damp basement.
It was warmer under the house, warmer than it had been outside. Those who were able flocked to Baba as he came down the stairs; those who were unable simply stared at him. Baba was startled by the attention. Though he shook hands and accepted compliments about his writings, it wasn't those people his eyes were drawn to. It was the others; those who held bloody cloths against their heads, their faces, their knees, those who were too exhausted to rise and greet him. They all had been inspired by Baba's books. He knew this. Waleed beamed with pride as he watched his brother interact with admirers he never knew he had.
When the people dispersed, the children were finally set down. A young couple abandoned their mats and offered them to Baba, who gratefully accepted. Little Raif was asleep almost before he lay down. Amal, badly frightened by the day's events, stayed awake.
Lamps were lit, clean blankets were laid out, the floor swept, and a basin of water brought down for anyone who needed it. Baba crouched and washed his hands. Waleed did the same. They washed their arms and faces. They washed their aching feet. Others joined them; men and women, who'd also missed the fifth and final prayer of the day.
A boy no older than twelve moved across the room to lay his blanket next to Baba’s. He smiled at Baba and faced the west. They raised their hands and whispered the phrase, "Allahu akbar,"
Amal whispered it too, though she didn't stand. She sat back against the cold concrete wall and recited the prayer in her heart. She'd participated fully in the mosque with her Mama and the other women. She knew when to raise her hands and when to bow and when to place her forehead to the ground. Baba was never with them during these times. He prayed downstairs with the men. It had been that way for years.
Here, in this close space, women and men were praying together. It was a sight so shocking that Amal didn't know what to make of it.
Should she join them?
What would happen if she did?
Would the men hurt her, treat her badly because she was a little girl?
She had no idea. Segregation of the sexes had always been strictly enforced, even in school. And yet Amal was jarred by the sight of men and women who were strangers to one another washing and praying so close, then sitting on their mats to discuss the terrifying troubles they'd endured with the same closeness.
The twelve-year-old smiled again at Baba before picking up his mat and retreating to his corner. Waleed patted Baba on the back, then walked away to lay down on a mat under the stairs. Baba sat down, leaning his back against the wall with a groan, and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. His shoulders fell as he sank a little further into safety. Fady came down the steps with a tray of cakes and apples and nuts and passing them out to those who hadn't eaten. Baba thanked him, taking his share of food. When Fady left the basement, closing the door behind him, Baba gave the four apple slices to Amal, and put the nuts in his shirt pocket, saving them for Little Raif. There was nothing left for him.
Amal watched Baba fish his notebook out from his jacket pocket. He took the pencil from the side and examined it sadly. It wasn't sharpened enough. A woman saw this and made her way across the room to Baba, holding a fussing baby in her arms. From her coat, she pulled out a knife.
"Everyone has been talking about your books," she said, offering the knife to Baba. "You've inspired all of us."
Baba took the knife with a forced smile. As he sharpened the wood, he listened in on the soft chattering around him, and all at once, he heard bits and pieces of praise.
"Can't believe it's him!"
"I wonder what he'll write next."
"His writing changed my life."
When the pencil was sharpened, he wrote. Amal leaned into him. She watched his hands, his long fingers trailing gracefully upward and downward with the pencil. These were the warm hands that cradled her head at birth, the gentle hands that wiped away her tears, the strong hands that kept her innocent eyes safe from the terrors of the world. It was then she realized, as if for the first time, how important Baba was to her.
It was the intense spurt of sobbing that made Baba look up from the pages, sobbing and coughing. It was the boy. He sat curled up in the corner, knees drawn to his chest, sweating and shaking. He was sick. Baba could see it in the way the boy shivered in the warmth of the basement. He set the notebook on the mat beside Amal.
"Stay here, sweetheart," he said.
He stood and walked to the boy. He sat right next to him, knees drawn to his chest, arms wrapped around himself, hands clutching his biceps. He sat quietly and listened as the boy recounted the horrifying day. Amal tried to listen, but the boy's voice was so broken that she was only able to capture pieces of his words.
"They killed my father…. Left with my mother... Beat her with clubs… Couldn't stop the bleeding…. Forced to leave her there to die… Should've never joined that protest last week... They'd still be alive….. All my fault!"
Amal watched her Baba; watched him lean his nose and mouth into the sleeves of his jacket as his eyes pooled with tears. For the briefest of moments, Baba didn't look like her father. He was a little child, curled up and weeping silently, just like Little Raif did when he was upset. Amal looked down and away. It hurt her too much to see Baba like this. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted his notebook. He hadn't bothered to close it when he left to comfort the boy. His words were right in front of her, tantalizing and free for the taking. The page was yellowed and wavy with the passage of time. Perhaps all of the pages were like that. Amal swallowed hard and, reluctantly, she read.
"I am not a good man. My writing has not only endangered my family but other families as well. They sit around me now; bleeding, crying, praying for mercy. All because of what I've written. How can I go on with this knowledge? How can I keep it from killing me inside? Please, Allah. Tell me how."
Amal shivered. She looked up. When she did, she saw that Baba had leaned in and wrapped his arms around the boy. They buried their heads against each other and cried. The longer she watched, the harder it became for Amal to differentiate her Baba from the boy.
Her eyes beheld blood and fire. She saw the sign. She watched the buring bottle emerge from the crowd. She saw it light the man ablaze. Only, this man was no stranger. This man was Baba.
Amal awoke with a cry, waking Baba from his half-sleep. She lay curled into Baba weeping and sniffling with Little Raif snuggled against her. The darkness was suffocating. Baba's hands touched her hair. His fingers wiped at her tears and ran over her cheeks. Amal waited for Baba to say something, to soothe her with words as he always did when she was upset, but Baba had no words of comfort to give. Her Mama was gone and people were out to hurt her, her Baba, her Uncle, her little brother. Amal sucked in her quivering lip. A strange sound pricked at her ears. She held her breath, but the chattering teeth weren't hers. Laying inches away from her was the boy. Sweat glistened against his dark skin, but he wasn't hot. The drying sweat and relentless fever sent a chill down to his bones, despite the blanket that covered him. The child was freezing. Amal could see it. So could Baba.
There was the feeling of fabric sliding from behind her back. It was Baba's blanket. He'd stretched his arm to the boy, who grabbed the blanket, not unkindly, and wrapped it around himself in an act of desperation. In a matter of minutes, his body relaxed. Baba unfolded the abaya he was draped in when they'd come and wrapped it around his little girl. That, on top of the blanket she already had, bathed her warmth. Baba lay down, coughing softly.
"I will never let anybody hurt you," he whispered in her ear.
Amal relaxed. She closed her eyes and, guided by Baba's soft singing, her small mind drifted. Just before she fell into sleep, she heard the soft words of the boy make their way to Baba.
The words fled to Baba's mind and stayed there.
For the rest of the night, Baba lay awake. Within hours, his skin became clammy. He lay shivering in the warmth of the basement. His cough came and went. By the next morning, Baba was sick.