I wish I could start off by saying ‘my childhood was like the norm’ but unfortunately, my life was a brakeless roller coaster. When I was four years old, the civil war broke out, and I was told my father was a well known figure in the government, therefore he and my mother were both brutally killed during the civil war. Being the only child, I was taken by my aunt and her husband to the outskirts of the city to live with them. I never experienced the sorrow of my parents’ deaths, I was too young to feel such pain but the feel of loneliness remained
At the age of eight, my aunt taught me how to cook, and clean. She taught me a girl is born a woman, whereas men always remain boys. But unlike the other girls in the neighborhood, I was a rebel. I was a tomboy, who played football in pants with my boy cousins, and I was well at it. We had no girls in the house, except me. My cousins were three big boys, all in their teens. The oldest, Ahmed, was my protector, while the other two were always busy chasing girls in the neighborhood. I grew close to Ahmed, because he understood me better then anyone in the house.
At sixteen, I blossomed into a woman. My breast and hips were well developed, and boys started to notice me in school. I would be catcalled, and verbally harassed by older men, who used to shout ‘Adeer’ as I passed by. I became uncomfortable in my own body, blaming myself for being a woman, for being beautiful. I developed a habit, where I would dress ugly, so men don’t find me attractive. The silence of being not noticed, felt pleasant to me.
One day, my aunt called me to the living-room to meet my uncle and his family. His arrogant posh wife, and his two well-groomed, preppy sons. Jamal, the younger one, couldn’t stop staring at me. I could tell, his mind was curious and filled with unutterable queries about me. Mohamed, the older one, was tuned into the conversation, as the family discussed about politics and other tedious topics. The cookies my aunt made looked mouth-watering, but I was too shy to eat it in front of them, so I excused myself as I made my way to the kitchen.
On my way back to the living-room, I see Jamal, standing quietly in front of me with his hands in his pockets leaning against the doorway. I awkwardly greeted him, as I quickly swallowed the last cookie in my mouth. I asked him politely to stop staring. He chuckled, and said I was different. I found him harmless, he stood 5’6, and weight light on his feet. “Different” I asked, “how so…?” In search for words, he replied “…it is rarity that shapes this world, created unequalled, yet we chase after the similitude of what makes us simple.” In confusion, I
remained silent. “Barlin,” he whispered softly into the wind, it felt as if he was questioning my existence. “…what they know of you is certainly not the truth,” he answered himself. “I’m not sure what you mean,” I replied in curiosity. He chuckled, “nice meeting you, we’re leaving and I wanted to say my goodbyes,” he replied as he made his way back to the living-room, to only leave me baffled with questions. It wasn’t what he said, but how he said it that left me speechless. I felt safe in his voice, as his words cuddled with my beating heart.
Weeks went by, and I couldn’t stop thinking about Jamal. He frequently visited my dreams. I laid there with my eyes closed, as he comforted me with his charms. He was eighteen, in college and behaved unlike any of his peers, I often thought to myself.
For the first time, I took a liking to my body. I started to dress prettier, and comfortable. Wondering if Jamal could see me now, what would he say, would he still think I’m different? Would his eyes urge for more? Would his curiosity carry actions?
It was the last semester before my graduation. Feeling tired from exams, I rushed into the house, longing for my bed. As I entered the house, I heard my name being shouted from the living-room. Feeling irritated, I rushed to see who was calling me. It was my grandmother who came to visit us with an older man. I rarely saw my grandmother, because she lived in another city and not to mention, she wasn’t fond of my aunt. I sat there patiently, as she bragged about the wealth of this old man, and how he was respected in the community. I felt awkward, because the old man kept staring at me with a smirk on his red bearded face. I wanted to smile back, merely out of respect, but I was too tired to budge.
I waited for my grandmother to finish her story, so I can excuse myself to my room, but she continued to tell me, “he has a fancy home, and drives a fancy car, and knows fancy people…” she gabbled. It was then, it hit me. Like a brick, thrown from the ninth floor. It knocked me to my knees. I felt sickened by the thought. My heart started pacing, my mind questioning the unquestionable. Are they trying to marry me off? “Barlin! Barlin” I heard my grandmother shout across the table. “What is it my child? Why do you look so horrified? Is it something I said?” she questioned in worry. She must have seen the hurt, the shock, the idea of marriage piercing through my heart like a sword thrown by a knight. “No, grandmother, I’m just tired” I replied with a cracking voice. And then the red-bearded man, finally broke his silence, “you must be exhausted, go ahead and rest,” he mumbled in an unfamiliar voice.
I couldn’t sleep that night. All I thought about was the idea of marriage, and how it would ruin the future I had planned for myself. I felt betrayed by my aunt. Was she waiting till I graduate high school, to marry me off. She knew I wanted to go to college, and become a teacher. She sat there, as grandmother was selling me off to an old man. I knew the signs. It happened too often in our neighborhood. Young girls were married off to older men. Fatima, 17, who lived two doors down, was married off to her fathers’ best friend. Amina, 16, who lived across from us became the fourth wife of the store owner across the street. Ayaan, 17, was forced to marry her dad’s business partner to settle a deal gone-bad. It was becoming a trend. A nightmare for some girls, but I never thought I’d wake up to that nightmare.
Feeling sick to my stomach, I went to school the next morning. I couldn’t focus on my work. My reading became dyslexic, and my writing disoriented. I scribbled on an empty piece of paper, as my thoughts wandered. My teacher noticed I was distant and pensive, so he approached me after class. “Barlin, are you okay? You seem a bit off today?” he enquired curiously. “Yeah, I just feel a sudden worry, teacher. I think my family are preparing to marry me off to an older man,” I painfully expressed. “Barlin, there is nothing wrong with marriage, you are turning seventeen soon,” he uttered. I felt annoyed with his reply, but how could I blame him for not understanding my pain. He was cultured not to worry, not to feel the pain of a woman.
Although I was hesitant to go home, I wanted to confront my aunt. Maybe I was making a mountain out of a molehill, and needed to cool off my mind. Upon approaching the living- room, I heard my grandmother from the corridor, “Barlin, child is that you?” I knew, my grandmother wouldn’t come and visit twice in a week merely out of pleasure, so my worrisome grew. “Yes, grandmother,” I hesitantly replied. “Come here, and sit next me,” she spat as she reached out for my hand. The room appeared cluttered, there were cookie crumbs and candy wrappers on the floor. My aunt was a compulsive cleaner who obsessed in keeping the house neat and clean, so I knew we had visitors. “Your father, and mother would have been very proud of you, had they been alive today,” she grinned. It wasn’t until she spat those feign words, I realized how lonely my heart truly was. “Today, your hand was requested by an honorable
man,” she continued to pierce her untrusting words through my fragile heart. I closed my eyes, holding back tears from coming down. “I’m not interested, grandmother. I want to finish college and become a teacher,” I replied abruptly. She stared with a disappointing gaze, and murmured “woman is the bearer of life, your responsibility in this world is greater then becoming a simple teacher. You ought to bear a child, and teach HIM life!” Silence filled the room. Though her lips continued moving, I couldn’t hear her voice anymore. It was in that moment, I realized the absence of my aunt. I was once abandoned by my parents, and now by the woman who dedicated her life in raising me.
I felt the room shrinking. In a fragile state, I watched my hopes and dreams slowly exit the room, as I sat there with a heavy heart. I slowly turned to my grandmother, “please, don’t do this to me. I’m smart. My parents would want to see me go to school, and have an education, grandmother,” I pled. Confound by the idea, she kept silent. I wasn’t sure what she was thinking. Maybe, just maybe there was a heart underneath that rugged exterior, I thought. “You will get over this, child. It’s fear for the unknown that stirs the heart, but you will find peace with him,” she divulged. “It is in him, my peace will die,” I cried back.
I ran to my room, leaving her there. I sat on the edge of the bed, contemplating. I only knew one person that can put an end to this mayhem, I thought. I reached for my phone, and called Ahmed, my oldest cousin. He moved in with his best-friend after having a rowdy dispute with his father about getting married to his cousin, a year ago. Ahmed, was unlike the men in the city. He was handsome, and every girl threw herself at him. After completing his education in medicine, he found a well-paying job and decided to live his life, unapologetically.
After few trials of dialing his number with quaking emotions, I was accompanied with a dial tone. I knew where he lived, so I packed a bag with few essentials and made my way swiftly out of the door. Assuming by the humming tunes coming from the living-room, my grandmother was excited about this marriage, and wasn’t concerned about my feelings.
On Fridays, the city was lit with shoppers. I walked through shopping malls, and persistent salesmen who were yelling ‘come buy the latest shoes, latest dresses, earrings and bracelets!’ This reminded me why I didn’t like to walk much, because badgering was in the art of men.
Harassment didn’t need a reason to unfurl; it was in every corner, brazenly waiting for you. It had no sense of ‘…take it easy, she is just a little girl,’ because their heart was too selfish to consider, their minds too lazy to think.
After walking for thirty minutes, I made it to Ahmed’s home. I knocked on the front gate couple of times, each time sounding louder. Usually people don’t have work on Fridays, so I was praying to God, he was home. I heard footsteps approaching, the flops of someone’s sandals, sweeping the floor as it made it flops to the ground. Then the latch was opened, and in front of me stood a chubby faced woman. She sounded disturbed by my unannounced presence, because she greeted me “what do you want?” As I was asking for Ahmed, she suddenly walks away and leaves the gate open.
I closed the gate behind me, and followed her rude shadow into the house. She entered the kitchen, and proceeded mopping the floor not minding me. I walked towards Ahmed’s room, and lightly knocked on his door. It seemed like he was sleeping, so I slightly opened the door, not wanting to scare him with a loud knock. His unconscious body laying on the bed, unwary of the world, he laid there topless in his shorts. Then I saw a sudden movement. I soon realized, there was another body laying next to him. It was then, my worries for marriage was suddenly abandoned. My feelings of getting married was instantly forgotten. It was overpowered by the image in front of me. “Oh god, what is this?” I hissed with disgust.
I saw a similar image in a film on YouTube before. I saw it by accident, and I prayed for days to be forgiven. I ran to the living-room and sat on the couch, trying to catch my breath. I felt sick to my stomach. I could hear the crackling sound of my heart, as it was shattering into pieces. I tried to lift my head up, as I heard his footsteps approach me. His lips remained sealed, but his eyes spoke with guilt. We both remained silent, because words couldn’t carry the weight of shame.
He asked for the chubby-faced woman to bring me food as he got ready, and dressed up. I looked hungry, but I was filled with disappointments and despair. Throughout the day, we both avoided the elephant in the room. He asked me why I’ve come. I wept, as I told him about my dilemma, and how I was being set-up for marriage. Ahmed accommodated my feelings, and listened to my plea for help. “Barlin, you are young and bright and its truly unfortunate
that your future is not aligned to their plans,” he expressed. “There is not much I can do, except try to talk to mother and see if she will listen,” he continued. “But I can’t promise, Barlin. You know how cultured the society is…” he petitioned. “I know, but can I stay here in the meantime?” I asked. He stared at me with those eyes again, filled with guilt and shame. “Yeah, sure. I’ll tell Fawsiya to clean the empty room for you,” he muttered.
I trusted Ahmed, and I knew he would try his best to help me get out of this predicament. He was right, it wasn’t easy to undo what has been done for centuries. How could I win a battle, I was cultivated to loose?
Still feeling sick by the image I saw earlier in Ahmed’s room, I remained silent. The rest of the day, I avoided making eye contact with him. He said if I needed anything, to ask Fawsiya, the maid. She was too rude, and too lazy to accommodate my needs, so I finished my food and locked myself in the room.
“No! Stop touching me. Please! Get your filthy hands off of me. Somebody, please! Help me!” I woke up screaming. My pillow was drenched in sweat. I felt a sudden breeze hovering over my body. I sat there, frozen. I had a nightmare that I was locked in a room with the old-red- bearded man. Tears dropped down my cheeks, I felt hopeless, weak and defeated.
I heard knock on the door, “who is it?” I worrisomely yelled. “Barlin, its me,” replied Ahmed. I looked at the time on my phone, only to realize it was ten o’clock at night. “Hey,” I greeted. He didn’t say anything back, but made his way inside the room, and calmly sat on the bed. I couldn’t read his face. He looked disappointed. “Sit down, Barlin,” he instructed. I sat down, feeling tired and exhausted. “What is it, Ahmed,” I grumbled. “They want you to come back. Mother is furious that you ran away from the house. She instructed me to bring you back now,” he voiced. My heart dropped, I could sense the dejection, the helpless sigh in his tone, the gloom in eyes, the empty words he spat, were not going to safe me. I dried my tears with a closed fist, and told him “I’m not going back, Ahmed.” He looked at me horrified, “you have to Barlin, I promised I would return you back home, safely,” he begged. He continued to plea, as I got up to grab my bag. “You are not going anywhere, Barlin!” he yelled, as he grabbed my hand from touching the door handle. “Let go off me, Ahmed. I understand you can’t help me,
but I’m not getting married. I rather die, before I give myself to that man,” I yelled back in tears. His grip was getting tighter. “I’m not letting you go wander off middle of the night. You are a girl, Barlin” he thoroughly expressed. At this point, I was too furious to hold back my thoughts of him. “You ran away too,” I sobbed. “You knew they would never accept your lifestyle, so you found a way too. But no one questions your disgusting lifestyle, because you are a man. It’s easy to run away, but when the world feels like a prison, where do you escape to?” I sniveled.
Feeling ashamed, he let go of my hand.
I felt an instant regret, he wasn’t my enemy. It wasn’t Ahmed, who betrayed my feelings. Yes, I wasn’t receptive of his lifestyle, but I had my own issues. I wanted to apologize, but words refused to emerge. I made my way to the exit of the house, holding back tears.
I saw a car approaching the house, as I made my way threw the gate. It stopped, and dimmed his high beam to regular light. Afraid it was the family; I quickly went the other way. “Barlin, Barlin,” I heard a voice call after me. It sounded familiar, but I was afraid to stop, so I continued to speed. “Please, Barlin stop. Let me talk to you,” he begged behind my shadow. I turned back to face him, but I was blinded by the light of the car. All I could see is a dark shape and outline of a man. He was short, with a gentle voice. My heart was beating rapidly, as he approached me with heavy steps. “Remember me, Barlin,” he questioned my memory. “Who are you, I can’t see you,” I replied impatiently. “Jamal, your cousin, the weird one who couldn’t stop staring at you,” he joked. I didn’t understand, why would Jamal come look for me? It didn’t make sense to me. “Why are you here?” I questioned. “Grandmother told us you were sad and ran away after she told you the news,” he mumbled. At this point, I was able to see half of his face, as the other half remained shadowed. “I’m not getting married to that old man, Jamal. You can go back and tell them that,” I replied. “What old man?” he chuckled. “The one grandmother worships, the red-bearded old man,” I replied with an animosity. “You are not marrying an old man, Barlin. It was me, who asked for you hand. I received a visa to go to the US, and I wanted you to come and study abroad with me,” he expressed. In disbelieve, I
dropped down to my knees. It was right then, I realized my prayers were answered, my worries abolished.
He grabbed my hand, and assisted me to his car. “Are you okay, Barlin,” he worrisomely asked as he started the engine. I remembered his warm and assuring voice. How it lingered with me for days. “Yes, I am now,” I replied with a sigh. He looked at me, with a warm smile, as he continued to drive.