Baba’s name was Mohammed Ali, and Mama’s was Sadiqa. I got used to our peculiar life in Riyadh. It wasn’t like anyone else’s; we weren’t like anyone else. Our apartment had just two rooms, without even a formal sitting room; the outer door opened onto the room that was my playroom and Mama’s cooking space, our dining room and bathroom, and the second door in the inner wall led to our bedroom and TV and the legless plastic wardrobes with their cloth covers that zipped closed. This was what people found if they got lost and came knocking on our door: me and Mama, in the very heart of our daily life.
On another wall, there was a third door, a short one that no grown-up could fit through unless they stooped: the roof door.
Passing through it, we would go to a spot where we could see the other rooftops; we would open the door and take a single step, avoid looking at the terrifying drop to the ground below, and then turn and climb the wooden ladder nailed into the wall until the sky appeared, then the whole world. I never expected it to be like it was.
The roof was barren except for the satellite dishes and the bodies of the pigeons that couldn’t fly or that died of sheer exhaustion, whose feathers had stiffened and turned dark and whose necks were crumpled. On happy days, we would open the door and climb the ladder. Baba went first, scoping out the area to ensure it was empty of other curious neighbors, with me right behind him. If I stumbled, Mama, following in our steps, would rescue me.
The world appeared in stages with each rung of the ladder I climbed. After being shut up in the box of our boring apartment, I could see the wide, limitless sky. I asked Baba where it ended.
“It takes us all the way to Egypt.”
“And where after Egypt?”
“I dunno, I haven’t checked.”
Sometimes, on chilly days, Baba and Mama would busy themselves gathering rocks and bits of scattered wood to make a fire, more for the pleasure of it than for warmth, and I would busy myself trying to imagine what Egypt looked like, that country I wasn’t born in, though I spoke its dialect and would have to return there soon.
Those were the days I would ride my bike in circles around them, occasionally losing my balance and screaming with surprise and disgust when I landed on a dead bird; those were the days I talked to God, who lived in the sky, asking him to send me love, a sister, or a giant horse, or to ship me a great wide sea “every bit as big as your sky” that would be all mine and no one else’s. I would repeat my requests to God like he was writing them all down, to be sure he’d grant them in the future, because, as Mama said, “he doesn’t forget.”
I didn’t know he’d send you, Arwa. Tell me: Can God take back the sea once it’s been given?
But those days ended—that is, the rooftop days—too quickly. The climb wasn’t for us, not really; we were inmates like everyone else, possessing nothing more than the narrow prison square below. As for Baba and Mama, they knew better than I did that they had few moments of happiness, that their quarrels had become a natural part of life that could occur anytime, like rain, like loving you, habibti. If reality intruded, we all went back down the ladder, silently praying, to the hole we called our home. I would’ve preferred to stay alone under the sky to watch the pigeons, when they flew or even when they died, so I could keep talking to God, I wanted to skip listening to Mama’s stories, which always started after Baba went to sleep and became more intense as the night wore on.
Mama’s stories were filled with uncontrollable natural and divine forces. She would sit just in front of the roof door inside the apartment, leaning against the wood, and begin: “Those were dark days . . .”
She talked more to herself than to me, or to herself through me, wandering off toward nothing and no one, then returning to me and saying, “You have to know the story of Monkey Island.”
“Eat first, or I won’t tell the story. Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was a big island. The island was in the middle of the ocean, and the ocean was a thousand seas all flowing into each other. And in this ocean was a single island: Monkey Island. A thousand monkeys lived on it. And every monkey lived by itself under a tree.”
“They didn’t have homes like our home, Mama?”
“No, God broke the mold with ours . . .”
“And they didn’t have a roof, Mama?”
“No, they didn’t have roofs, either.”
“And no baba or mama?”
“No, and no baba or mama. Eat first, or I won’t continue the story. The monkeys had trees, and nothing else. And every monkey had a friend or neighbor. At night, they would stay up late talking about the ocean. How it drowned everyone who tried to get close to it. But they were happy in spite of everything. And their dreams made up for everything they lacked.”
“And then what happened?”
“One day a monkey said to his friend that the ocean was starting to rise; it was higher than normal, every day about an inch.”
“What’s an inch?”
“About the size of your little finger.”
“What did that mean?”
“It meant that the island might sink, and the monkeys might all die.”
“Can we get them to walk away, Mama?”
“They can’t walk on the ocean.”
“So can we ask the person who owns the ocean to do something?”
“God owns the ocean, Maryam, and he didn’t do anything.”
“So we’ll tell the monkeys to go to sleep?”
“They did sleep, and they didn’t wake up. In a day and a night, Monkey Island disappeared, and all that was left was a story. And since you didn’t eat all your food, I won’t tell you a second story.”
I slept, too, and when I woke up, I found that Baba had gotten home from work, like he did every day, but it didn’t change anything about the story when he came in looking hopeful and slammed the door behind him. He turned and examined Mama’s face as she sat against the roof door and could tell she wasn’t mad anymore after their quarrel the previous day, that she was better now. He didn’t usually ask how that happened; he would just sit down, put his feet on the table, and start up with boring, never-ending stories about work. They talked without taking notice of me as I shivered in the corner of the room, fighting a thousand imaginary wars to get off the island. Surviving alone meant betraying the monkeys, leaving them in the ocean and fleeing, and it wasn’t an easy decision.
When you’re a little girl living in a rectangular one-room apartment split into two smaller rooms, and that’s your whole home, when you rarely see the sun and have no friends or siblings, you can’t get away from stories all that easily. Or maybe you can, but only by means of a new story, and sometimes I would forget how to do that. I think people forget that a lot; they forget escape is even an option. But when the universe is feeling kind, it will remind you how to do it, before the new story gets away from you, and that’s what happened to set me free from Monkey Island.
When Baba and Mama went to bed, they told me they were going to sleep. “You, too—time to sleep.” I said, “Okay,” even though I was scared and knew from experience that sleep wouldn’t come when I was scared—the fear had to go first. But I held my tongue and went to the couch that served as my bed, lay down under the cover, and waited for them to say something: “Come sleep next to us,” or “Come sleep between us,” anything that would drive away the fear.
Mama stretched out on the bed first, with only the long pillow that looked like a worm between her and the wall, and allowed Baba to lie down behind her, imprisoning her between himself and the wall, which seemed to give her the giggles, and Baba started laughing at her laughter. All she said to me was “Go to sleep already,” and she didn’t add anything else. Her face was touching the wall, and Baba put his nose against her neck, fusing his belly with her lower back, his arms reaching into the gap, all the way around to her breasts. He said something I didn’t hear, and Mama gave a strange laugh, and I drifted off.
All three of us were trying to flee a high wave that pursued us, striking every time we moved away. We were just about to drown when I suddenly opened my eyes and stared up at the low ceiling. I got to my feet, sweating, and found the door of the room locked; I was alone, with Baba and Mama outside.
At times like these, I would think of the princess in the Mario game, a little princess with yellow hair wearing a red and white dress. Baba said the princess changed at every level of the game, but we didn’t see any other princesses, just this one. By “we,” I mean me and Baba and Mama when we took turns playing. Spellbound, I would examine every tiny detail of the virtual princess, and every single time, Mario would fall into the fire, get beaten by the beast, have his prize stolen from him, all because of my awful gaming skills, which refused to improve. When the television was switched off, the princess would slip out of the game and into my make-believe, and Mario was left alone in the darkness of the mazes, missing out on morning as it dawned on Earth.
Kind and silent, she never got sad or angry because of me. Her image was carved into the wooden door that hurt anyone who entered without permission; I was the only one allowed to see her. She leaned toward me, her eyes soft with affection. I could see her luminous face under the translucent veil that half-covered her forehead, and I blushed thinking about what we would do together, alone in the room; we had to do it fast, before Baba and Mama came back. The image came and went as I desired; I put my lips on her lips, I drew closer and said, “Don’t be shy, habibti. I’m your sweetheart, your little girl’s father. Come here.”
I held her and felt the monkeys come back to life and start jumping around in my chest. I gave a start as I tried to hold the princess, to control the image, I squeezed tighter and tighter, I didn’t want to leave any space between us. She was the love who understood me; I would follow her, and she would follow me. She was the love who saved the monkeys from drowning and restored their island, took the story back to its beginning.
How was I supposed to put this fire out? I didn’t know, and the princess never stopped smiling the same smile, modest beneath her veil, shy and far away, and the fire increased the distance. I hadn’t yet learned, Arwa, how lovers put out that fire, so I lost hope and banged my head against the wood, hurting myself, then went back to the couch and cried myself to sleep.
From Ana Arwa ya Maryam. Published 2019 by Dar Al Saqi, Beirut. By arrangement with the author. Translation ©2022 by Addie Leak. All rights reserved.