My siblings’ screams still pierce my ears; no matter how hard I squeeze my head between my hands, their screams persist, filling my head until it almost bursts.
I couldn’t see anything in the dark, the moon hidden behind the clouds, embarrassed by what it might see or hear. I felt my way through the willow trees, my father’s face coming into focus as he opened the back gate to our house. “Go, now,” he ordered. “We’ll be right behind you. I’ve got to get your siblings and your mother.” He shoved me out and shut the gate, but I didn’t budge. How could I leave knowing that he was going back to die?
We had been in the room, my father as usual transcribing something or other while I gazed curiously at a strange manuscript. “Leave that manuscript alone and finish your reading, Nardeen,” he scolded. Tugging on my bottom lip, I looked at the odd drawing, which resembled a human: it had four limbs that looked like arms and legs and a small circle that could have been a head.
“What’s this, Baba? Did a child make it?”
He cut me off with a sternness I wasn’t used to. I raised my book in front of my face, pretending to read the words, while my eyes stayed glued to that manuscript . . . but the next thing I knew, a powerful boom shook the room, causing the book to slip from my hands.
“Al-Rashid’s men! Al-Rashid’s men!”
The name of Harun Al-Rashid echoed in every part of our roomy house, a name that spelled our death. Strange, seeing how—just a few days before—it had meant the life we had always dreamed of.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around the fine line between life and death.
Sometimes it’s so fine you can barely tell the difference.
I rushed to the balcony and craned forward to see men with their swords drawn, chanting, “Kill the apostates! Kill the infidels!” They didn’t look anything like Al-Rashid’s guard. Terrified, I turned to my father, who had jumped up from his chair when he heard the word “apostates.” He grabbed my hand and dragged me behind him down the stairs, his eyes surveying the area before him. My eyes clung to the fear in his. What was fear? Fear was my father’s wandering look that night. I pulled on his hand and mumbled, “Baba . . . .”
He stumbled but didn’t stop. I pressed my small palm into his sweaty one. Fear, for me, was usually a bogeyman from my mother’s stories chasing me; he would melt away, disappearing completely, whenever I leapt into my father’s embrace. But this fear that had engulfed his eyes was uglier than any bogeyman. He opened the back gate and threw me out. I tried to open it again but Baba had locked it from the inside.
I stood on the doorstep, listening to the sounds of bodies and things crashing to the floor; my brother and sister yelling; everyone calling out for everyone else, but nobody answering, like they couldn’t hear each other; Bayan’s loud wail . . . I could pick her out in the middle of the storm of shouting. Usually her cries were loud and annoying, but now it was just a desperate wail that tore my heart up. It was a heavy wail, heavier than her tender age of five. Suddenly she fell silent, the quiet slithered slowly all over, and the voices fell away. I only heard the cautious, firm steps that Death itself took inside, searching, it seemed, for another life, the final one to snatch before it left the place. My grip on the door handle loosened and I pushed my ear up against the door.
“Sire . . . I’ve looked for her everywhere.”
“She must be here, look harder,” Death ordered.
Fear rushed through me. I backed up a few steps. My foot slipped and I fell. Are they looking for me?
“I told you, keep looking!” Death yelled.
I stared at the shut door and imagined it opening. I sprinted outside the garden, not looking right or left, terrified that if I glanced back even once, Death would swallow me whole. I ran without knowing where I was going, my feet leading me to a nearby mosque. I steadied myself against the wall and sank to the ground to catch my breath, my heart pounding so wildly it felt like it was going to run out of my chest. I caught sight of the ink that had drawn a line along the length of my hand. It looked like henna, actually, just like the henna of the Bedouin women! I remembered the face of that woman Anan, the dark Bedouin soothsayer, whose hand was dyed with henna—she had visited Mama a few days before. A cold shiver traveled through my body, without me knowing why. Was it the cold night wind or what she had said?
“This land is no longer for the likes of you all, everything that was for you will be against you, Bani Yahya. All of you will drown in blood.”
Qasma raised her hand to stifle the gasp that nearly slipped out. Catching herself, she rose to the bed to check that little Bayan was still sleeping soundly. She didn’t want her daughter to hear what awaited her, what awaited the Baramkeh people in the coming days. She returned to her spot facing Anan. “Oh God . . . have mercy,” she whispered under her breath. Out loud she added, “But the Baramkeh in the caliph’s entourage have already been severely punished, and my husband’s friends promised that they would protect us.”
“If only devotion could stop death, then the most devoted of us would never die, my lady. But the final hour is victorious, and the appointed time isn’t in my hands. I’m just sharing the message to the best of my knowledge.”
Qasma’s chest tightened, her face grew pale.
My mother had thought, as my father did, that disappearing from the angry caliph’s sight—and that of his entourage—would protect the family from any danger. She didn’t understand why the soothsayer was all doom and gloom. Even if we were of the Baramkeh family line, we were as far as we could possibly be from its politics and all that went along with it. Baba had chosen the medical profession, studying at the Permestan medical school in Baghdad, and no other like him from the Baramkeh had served the Abbasids, one caliph after the other. All that tied him to the family line was his last name and the wealth he had inherited from my grandfather.
When Al-Rashid’s relations with the Baramkeh turned sour, things got so tough for Baba in Permestan that he had to leave his post and stay at home. During those troubled days, his main concern was to protect us from the caliph’s outpouring of anger that had crushed Baramkeh lives without a second thought. Maybe the caliph himself hadn’t ordered their slaughter, but he left them up for grabs for whoever wanted to attack them. Baba tried to calm Mama’s fears, but her heart told her that the soothsayer’s words were our inevitable fate. A fate that opened its arms, called out to us, waiting for us, a fate that became our shadow, staying with us until it scooped us up once and for all into its arms.
I used to eavesdrop whenever Mama invited one of her soothsayers over. I liked listening to the web of lies that they were so good at spinning, so that I could share them with Baba when he came home in the evening. Not for one second did Baba believe what they came up with. “The soothsayers are lying even when they’re telling the truth,” he’d say, his eyes never leaving the book in his hands. But he couldn’t get Mama to drop the habit that was so popular with the Abbasid women, and their men too, with soothsayers reaching the courts of kings and caliphs. The strange thing was that this soothsayer wasn’t like the rest: she didn’t dress up her prophecies or fill her lies with dried-up hope. Instead, she snapped her vision out like a whip, the crack in the air more painful than where it actually landed. Like this, her words were terrifying long before they might have come true. She scattered her stones on a patch of black fabric, which was meant to show the way forward, shaking her head, listening for the evil spirits that had just fled the heavenly kingdom, arriving with stolen bits of news. She swatted the air as if trying to get rid of something and opened her eyes as wide as they would go, trying to see what was hidden behind the screen of the unknown. Hugging herself, she murmured, “A sea of darkness will drown everyone, a black fury is coming.”
“How can we all be punished for one man’s sin?”
“Family is a necklace; if it comes loose, all its beads will fall, O child of Yahya.”
With a trembling hand Qasma wiped the sweat dripping down her forehead. The Abbasid caliph was raging against the Baramkeh, the same people who had grown up alongside him, provided stability, supported him, shouldered the burdens of the nation, advised him, defended him; those same people were now his worst enemies, and his first victims. Why? A question that was out of place, it seemed; politics has a beautiful, charming side that seduces men who fall into her clutches and worship her, giving her everything they have, but she’s a woman with secrets too holy to divulge, desires too ugly to speak aloud, promises like sandcastles crumbling under the waves of her fury. If she showed them her true face with all its adornment, their souls would be the sacrifice.
“Soothsayers tell the truth even when they’re lying,” I repeated to myself while a lantern’s shadow danced on the mosque wall. “The soothsayers told the truth, Baba, they told the truth even when they were lying.”
I hugged my legs to my chest, rested my head on my knees, and cried. Damn that prophecy that had come true, that had scattered my family, stolen our peace of mind, and driven us into hell. In the few days that had passed, my life and that of every Baramkeh descendant had been turned upside down. Just a few days had been enough to either humiliate everyone or drag them to an awful death. My parents had been worried about me, telling my siblings and me not to go outside the house. Even friends no longer dropped by, afraid prying eyes would get them in trouble with the caliph. One by one, they all slipped away, leaving my father and his family to face death alone.
Allahu Akbar . . . Allahu Akbar . . .
The dawn call to prayer rang out, announcing the start of a new day. Why, then, did I still feel like it was yesterday, my feet still stuck there? Why could I still hear them yelling? I looked at the men starting to gather at the mosque. One of them leaned over me. “What’s the matter, girl?”
I looked up at him, staring into his face, darkened by the lantern’s dancing shadow. As I tried to make sense of what had just come out of his mouth, my eyelids grew heavy. I didn’t answer him, his words not meaning anything. Was he speaking a different language? “Have you come to pray?” the man pressed.
I jumped from my place as if bitten by a rattlesnake. His words seemed strange. Pray? What about those I had left behind? Had they prayed? Baba didn’t like it if we were late to pray. I rushed toward home. Mama’s face came to mind, biting her lip as she always did when scolding me: “Look at your clothes, Nardeen! It’s not right for a Baramkeh girl as beautiful as you to go around in dirty clothes like these!”
I dusted the dirt off me and smiled. Mama must be waiting for me at home, ready to tell me off for how I looked. “You’re a woman now,” she always insisted. “You won’t get anything out of those books, binti. If only you put some kohl around your eyes, you’d drive the men crazy. Men were made to use their brains and women to look pretty,” she would say as she combed her long brown hair to rest on her shoulders. “Your lovely eyes will waste away for no reason. You know Baramkeh girls don’t belong in medical school!”
© Djamila Morani. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Sawad Hussain. All rights reserved.