RR

Shattered Visages

It’s jammed, once again. The iron gate’s lock is get-ting rustier as the days pass. I gather all my strength (what’s left of it) and kick the bottom of the door while pulling the handle towards me. All the while, I am covered with chips of sloughed off white paint that reveal a dark auburn surface. Maintaining pressure on the bottom edge, I push in the key, and turn it around three times before getting the door to open. That worked surprisingly fast today. Alhamdulillah for everything, praise to Allah. All is well.
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As I walk through the entré – a fancy name for the one-meter-squared space between the kitchenette and the bed-rooms – I am greeted by a thick and heavy stench of sweat. Mohammad dashes by me in a flash, causing me to trip and drop the mango juice bottle I carried in onto the cement floor. It shatters into so many pieces that the entire entrance is now covered with thick juice, and shards of glass glimmering under the dangling light bulb. I just bought that bottle from Abu Rabih’s dekkene on my way here, and for a very special price too – 500 L.L. Zein would have enjoyed it.
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As I approach my nephew, with an intensifying anger bubbling within, my brother Khalil enters the room. “Not a word,” he tells me, an unflinching glare gripping his rugged face. Although he is rela-tively young at thirty-four, his wrinkles burrow deep into his forehead. That’s the signal. I turn around to see Mohammad, snickering quietly, looking at me with an air of looming superiority. I know my place. I hurriedly run into the kitchen and fetch a small rag and the tiny Dettol bottle under the sink, which is almost empty.  It’ll do.
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As I discard the shards of glass, one of them pierces my hand and causes a stream of blood to flow down my arm into the puddle of juice. I quickly run into the bathroom, and wash the rag and my hand under the running cold water. The bleeding stops, but the old rag is useless. Nonetheless, I wrap it tightly around the palm of my hand, and gather a few paper towels. The scrubbing motions – dunk, squeeze, wipe, repeat – have become a part of me. Today’s job was very tiring.
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I stood in front of a large wooden door, embellished with intricate golden accents and quotes written in an outlandish font protruding from the walls. I knew the drill. I had commuted all the way from my apartment in Afif el-Teebe to this lavish duplex in Verdun. The servees driver was particularly rude, and spit multiple wads of tobacco out his open window – one wad barely missing me. I estimated each floor in this building to be about 400 meters squared in size, and I had twice that amount to clean. It would take about 5-6 hours, if I worked fast enough. One of the three Filipina nannies, Tessie, opened the door for me. There’s one nanny per child, and all were too busy running after them to assist me. Might take a little longer then. Madame was nowhere to be found, and the only contact I had with her previously was through the WhatsApp message she sent me a few days ago. Apparently, she was looking for a laffeye and I was recommended to her by one of her friends. Probably because I work cheap. Truth be told, I was hoping for a good tip.
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I went through the process: I removed all the carpets from the rooms, mixed two caps of Dettol into a bucket of water, then proceeded to wash all the marble tiling on the top floor. I used soapy water, as opposed to bleach, for the wooden parquet, so not to damage it. One doesn’t make that same mistake twice. The house has three salons and an extravagant dining room table equipped to serve twenty-two guests, at least. Elaborate paintings and tapestries of scenic landscapes adorn the walls, with a small electric fireplace nestled in between the two rooms. As for the bottom floor, it is the kids’ domain, with a living room, a playroom, and three bedrooms. The nannies all share a tiny half-room with three bunk beds, stacked like pickled makdous.
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Halfway through the sweep, I asked Tessie for a glass of water, and she led me towards the kitchen. Something very peculiar struck me: a thin chain dangling a large golden lock on the refrigerator. Tessie’s thin frame cast a dark shadow over it as she fetched the water. Her pale face radiated fatigue. I could feel my own sullen face sink, along with my heart. So much for a good tip. I kept my mouth shut and finished the job. I should have said something. Her house was more than double what I usually clean. I should even increase my wage, though its meagerness is what attracts people in the first place. No one will hire me then. I withdraw into our small room, and find my Zein sitting in her usual corner, perched over her favorite picture book. I’m so proud of her, she’s learning how to read. I recently enrolled her in a nearby public school, and one of her teachers, Miss Nadine, took a particular interest in her. She sent after me a few months ago, but I could not meet her until earlier last week, for I had quite a few households to clean; after all, it was Ramadan and gatherings were very common. And very messy. Miss Nadine was young, and though her salary as a public school teacher was meager, she offered to pay the 50,000 L.L for Zein’s bus commission. I couldn’t afford it myself, and I often had to go to the school by foot and pick Zein up after work – which could sometimes leave her completely alone in the courtyard until after maghrib. But she never complained. Miss Nadine said that in her school work, Zein seems to be advancing, but she never participates in class or even utters a single word. She has to know what we’ve been through. I explained our situation to her, and she claimed to understand our circumstances; but in fact, few truly do. I told her how we escaped in the darkest hour of the night. I told her about the voices that were following us. I told her how we slept under a tree for a while. I gave her glimpses of that fateful day. It sounded absurd. She had nodded, her eyes wide.
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As I start to take off my hijab and amta, I notice that my dusty compact mirror, the one I use to check if any stray hair is poking out of my veil, is broken. Mohammad. There is nothing more I can do. My brother doesn’t even allow me to reprimand him, “He’s my son,” he constantly grunts. This house is suffocating. Our Lebanese landlord, Abu Kareem, was kind enough to offer me low rent, a widow and her children, and allow me to rent this room for 350,000 L.L. per month. Maybe that’s why Khalil has a grudge against me. I truly am grateful, Alhamdulillah, but the lack of privacy in this neighborhood and the constant bellowing from my brother and sister-in-law make it unbearable. There is no proper separation between our two rooms. The door fails to close properly, it has no functional lock, and there is a large window of textured glass in the middle of it, behind which you can see shadows of people passing.
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My fingers are getting thinner by the day, and there’s an empty imprint around one of them. The ring. My wedding band must have fallen somewhere. Of course, it must have been while cleaning. I quickly start to change my undergarments when my sister-in-law Zahra barges in and hands me my beautiful ten-month-old daughter, Nur. She practically threw her into my arms. I hide my half-naked self behind the broken wardrobe door. Mohammad and Anas follow behind her and scramble to the cement floor in front of us, shouting, their limbs entangled.
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“What do you think you’re doing? Take her. It’s more than enough that I’m stuck with her all day when I have my own children to feed. Uff. Ba’ed na’is.” She turns around, snatches the boys by their arms, and drags them forcefully out of the room. “Oh. One more thing. Abu Kareem called for you. He will call again tonight.”
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I place Nur in her flimsy crib before she wakes up. It used to be white, but the layer of paint has started peeling off and we’re just left with the wood-en frame and rusted nails. One of the charities I’m enlisted under, Ibad al-Rahman, gave it to me when I went there in search of a few amenities last Ramadan. I look at Zein, but her melancholic eyes are fixed on a page in a picture book with an image of a large shoe filled with smiling children inside it.
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As I’m heading towards the bathroom to make wuduu’ for the Ishaa’ prayer, I sob silently. I cannot. I must not. I rush into the toilet and close the door behind me, ever so quietly. My lips start to bleed from the incessant biting, and I quickly apply a damp tissue on them. It’s forbidden to cry. The entire neighborhood will find out. My brother will yell at me again. They will talk. They will call me ungrateful.
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I know what Abu Kareem wants. I’ve heard about this. I could see the grin on Zahra’s lips, the glimmer in her eyes. The opportunity of getting rid of me. I wash my face three times, say the corresponding supplications, and exit the bathroom, my face drip-ping with a mixture of heavy tears and salty water. They’ll never know.
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After I’ve completed the prayer, along with the duaa’ to Allah to keep my family safe and healthy, the phone rings. My heart starts beating vigorously, and tears start to form in the corners of my eyes. I brush them away with the scruffy sleeves of my thawb. Even Zein peels her eyes from her book temporarily, and looks up towards the door.
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“Alloo? Good evening Abu Kareem. How’s your health?” My brother says, nodding his head and walking slowly to me. “Alhamdulillah, alhamdulillah, that’s good… I’m well, my family’s well, getting by…I know! The prices are skyrocketing… Such a world… Yes, Mariam is here. I’ll give her the phone,” he shoves the telephone into my lacerated hand. I wince with pain.
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“Yes, hello Abu Kareem. How are you? How’s the family?” my voice quivers. “Good, good, that’s very good… May Allah give you all health and prosperity…” an awkward silence overtakes the conversation.
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“— and for your generosity, I am truly grateful. But, please think of us, Abu Kareem, I beg –”
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You have absolutely no idea how much I work, what I do to keep living, to keep my children living.
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“Yes, Abu Kareem, I understand. Yes, yes, the prices in Beirut are inflating, but surely you can – Abu Kareem, I’m currently giving you my entire salary for the room, in addition to a little extra money from my widow’s pension just to pay for the rent. I can’t pay more, and I have nowhere else to stay.”
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“Those aid organizations cannot cover the cost of living here… they’re struggling to – I can’t be dependent on them… Allah ykhalleek, please Abu Kareem have some mercy –
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The phone goes silent, emitting only the characteristic beeps at the end of a call.
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My face flushes with an overwhelming heat. My ears and eyes are burning. But it’s only Thursday. I could feel the blood tracing up the sides of my inflamed cheeks all the way to my small forehead, where a distinct vessel throbs between my eyebrows, characteristically patchy and thin. I am trying to fathom the strange speech my ears just transmitted. I can’t go back to the camps. I am transfixed on the blank wall in front of me. I notice the faded children’s stickers, Disney princesses, on the bottom right corner. Must be from the previous tenants. Zein used to watch their movies on the Disney channel every Sunday morning. Used to. I would have been in the kitchen, preparing her labneh sandwich, if it even deserves that label, the yogurt barely makes an appearance. My husband would be asleep, May God protect him, having had just returned from the morning prayers. I’d “surprise” him with slowly brewed black tea, his favorite. The leaves, initially in cold water, had to simmer over a double boiler with as low a flame as possible, creating an intense deep flavor — the type that engulfs your tongue before trickling down the back of your throat. We would sit on the sofa, locked in a tight embrace. I would even fall asleep on his chest. I don’t want to let go.
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Nur’s sudden screech wrenches me out of my trance. I quickly run to the crib and hold her, rocking her back and forth until she quiets down. She must be hungry. I go to the kitchen and take out what’s left of this morning’s mashed banana. This shouldn’t be called a kitchen. The room consists of a thin and narrow strip of counters and cupboards lining one side. A few of them wouldn’t even open when I first arrived to this apartment, and I had to scrape away all the rust from their edges. The compartment under the stove is a sad excuse for an oven. It too is very rusty, and will not even turn on properly. When it does, it emits the pungent smell of octane gas that permeates through all the rooms. I continue re-mashing the banana, but it quickly turns brown, emitting a sickly sweet scent. That’s all we have. It’ll have to do.

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Preparing the girls for bedtime, Abu Kareem’s voice resounds in my head: Till the end of the week. I unroll the thin mattress my brother bought us from Ouzai, and strike it to release the dust before laying it on the floor. Zein knows the drill. She has already worn her nightdress, and goes to fetch the blanket from the bottom drawer of the closet before spread-ing it across the mattress. I get the rigid long pillow, place it on top, then turn off the light. Total darkness. Her father would usually weave her a bedtime tale by this hour. The heroine, Zein, of course, would be on her latest adventure — outsmarting the most cunning of genies, battling the toughest of dragons. Only once did he ever refer to an actual picture book, the very one Zein is cuddling right now.
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As I lay next to her, stroking her soft brown hair, I sing an old lullaby my mother sang to me as a child:
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Go to sleep, Inshallah
Go to sleep, Inshallah
This white Dove will be sacrificed

                                           But, O Dove, don’t shudder                                            Zein’s asleep under the cover

W hé, w hé, w hé, liyye
Zein’s now a real beauty

W hé, w hé, w hé, lallah,
Zein’s protected by Allah
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I can hear her breathing deepen, tense body unwind. That’s my Zein. It has been so long since the last time I had embraced her so closely. I pull her closer to me, and nestle her between my arms. How will we ever forget that day? The day ISIS took our village. The day the young men began “teaching” our children lessons about the various consequences of disobedience — all of which included spilt blood. The day they used village members, our neighbors, as examples. The day a corpse was found by our door.
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I can’t force my eyes to shut. I haven’t been able to get a good night sleep for a while now, but on this night specifically, both my mind and heart are abuzz. I start to think of the worst possible alter-native to my situation, other than homelessness. The camps.

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I should call her. Khalil had referred me to this young lady, Miss Ferial, who arranged the transport process and makeshift tents in the Bekaa valley for refugees, such as myself. The van we were in was so crowded that I was forced to seat Zein on my lap, my swollen belly acting as both an insulator and a cushion. My frail legs were crushed to one side, as our bag occupied the tiny crevice of space in front of us. It could be worse. Be thankful. The trip from the northern Lebanese borders in Akkar to the Saa’dneyel area in Bekaa was a lengthy one, and the overpowering silence, melancholic. The journey took us the better part of a day. Bearable. The atmosphere was rife with a sense of desperate hope. Each one of us struggled to imagine a new form of existence – a better life, a safe home surrounded by kind people, a steady source of income, freedom to express our thoughts and wishes. Regardless of the ostensible similarities to Syria, from the lush green plains to rolling mountains and the familiar Mediterranean terrain, it was still a foreign land far removed from home. Thirty minutes after we crossed the Dahr al Baydar mountain pass and descended into the valley, the driver took an abrupt right turn into a constricted alleyway. The van squeezed its way through the winding roads, before emerging into a dirt track in an open field. We started to feel an aggressive juddery while on the gravel road, reminiscent of darker times. Zein tightened her grip around my waist, closed her eyes firmly, and attempted to cover her ears with her shoulders. We’re almost there, sweetie. Almost.
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For the upcoming weeks, we stayed in a single room with another two families. Twelve in total. Our room was one out of many in an abandoned apartment building. We were surrounded by thin metal columns covered with multiple layers of green fabric, distinctive of construction sites, but with no construction workers. In fact, it seemed as though the entire building complex had been untouched in months, as dust and other debris started to accumulate. At the end of the day, Zein and I slept on our small mattress in one corner of the room next to the sobya. For that we were fortunate, for even the faintest heat emitted could make the frosty night endurable.
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A few weeks after we began to settle in, the weather took a shift for the worse. Dark clouds formed above us, and they seemed to almost kiss the ground beneath them. Little did we know that they were about to shower us with continuous rain for three miserable nights. On the second night, a cold watery sensation crept up my legs and engorged my belly. Instinctively, I grabbed Zein’s arms and wrapped them around my neck before lifting her into my own. I tried to salvage what I could, but the stream of muddy water was soaking what was left of our belongings.
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Nowadays, it is nearly impossible to find a simple room to rent, even in the cheapest districts of Beirut. I wake up early, just in time to pray salat al hajah, a prayer of need, before the Fajr prayer. It’s already Saturday. Surprisingly, I don’t have any house calls. For the rest of the day, I relentlessly try to find a simple, humble place to stay, to no avail. We don’t ask for much, even for a temporary transition period. Not the camps. The neighbors are either too busy to answer me, or just as clueless as I am. They really do try to help sometimes, especially if I bring Zein along. Coming across a decent offer is no small feat by any standards, especially in light of my nationality and gender. We are looked down upon in this society as some sort of burden, and being a woman only makes it worse. In such situations, one comes across all sorts of people. Some landlords are strictly after the money, and a few have even tried to take advantage of my vulnerable position and charge an extra hefty fee. I asked Khalil if he could intervene, but after reminding me of a spiteful disagreement he had with his previous boss and (racist) landlord a few months ago, he strongly rejected.
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Disagreement? The landlord threatened to cut his ear off if he didn’t pay extra.
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I could try to appease some of the richer Beiruti ladies whose houses I clean on a regular basis. I’ve seen them go to their routine brunches and sobhiyat, checkbooks at the ready in their fine leather bags. They often bring back some of their friends to the house, and continue chatting for hours. I usually can’t keep up with the conversation. Some of them are truly modest and even try to help me out with some of the cleaning. I only hear about their donations from the public mouth – word gets around fast in Beirut, among all circles. On the other hand, some women boast about their immense charity donations to me specifically, as if vying for my seal of approval. I just nod my head and proceed to finish the work as early as possible.
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Abu Kareem’s words are still resonating within me. He will come knocking any second now. Today could be the end of the week. Or tomorrow. Or the day after that. Did he mean next week? My stomach starts to turn, eagerly searching for any scraps of food left undigested. I haven’t eaten in days. Days? Really? I simply cannot keep anything down – except coffee and water. No tea.
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I hold up what is left of the compact mirror, and notice that my ebony hair is now striped with wires of grey frizz. My face is a tattered blank canvas, mimicking the rag still bound about the palm of my hand. I have about six minutes to take my biweekly shower. The water is limited and briny. I am getting sick of this. What am I paying for then? While attempting to foam the morsel of shampoo I dispense on my scalp, I could feel a strange sensation crawling down my spine – and it isn’t the cold water. I turn to the floor of the bath to see a snake-like wad of hair running along with the water flow. I frantically touch parts of my head in an attempt to locate the exact source of the hair. There it is. Above the upper left side of my forehead now lies a distinct fuzzy area. I look down at the collapsed hairs, trying to find their way to the drain and away from this place. I quickly pat myself dry, and put on my undergarments and cotton nightdress. Making sure to cover the spot, I wrap a small towel around my head and hurry back into the room to prepare the girls for bedtime.
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That day, they left each and every one of us bruised. On my inner thighs, on my wrists. They left my husband by the door, waiting for Zein to open it — an early birthday present. And open it she did.
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I begin to undress Nur on the floor mattress when I notice a layer of crust surrounding the edges of her eyes. After I take off her turtleneck, a red-dish-blue streak appears on her neck. What in the name of Allah is going on? I continue to remove all the layers of her clothing, and I discover a simi-lar bruise on her chest. Another on her shoulder. I move in closely to examine them. My Nur… My Nur! The bruise on her chest is terrifying. My own chest tightens. I move in closer, and closer, seeking to touch the wound to identify its nature, its cause, or anything I can.
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Zein is standing behind me, eyes open wide – not a word. I sit absolutely still, looking at Nur – trying to glue together pieces of seemingly different puzzles. How? Where? When? Who? In those fifteen minutes, I completely forget about Abu Kareem. I completely forget about the house, about my job, about my life. About my past.
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When my brother enters the room, with his two sons, no less, I glare at him. He feels threatened. He approaches me with a clenched fist. He probably wants to slap me or hit me. Let him go for it. I don’t care. Suddenly, he halts in his place. He stares down at me, then at Nur. Funny, he doesn’t seem as surprised.
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“What’s wrong with you?” he asks with a gruff tone.
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I refuse to answer.
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“Allah is my suffice, and the best deputy,” he mutters under his breath. After a long pause, he continues, “I asked – what is wrong with you?”
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“Have you seen Nur?” I whisper.
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“What? Raise – your – voice!”
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“Have you seen Nur’s bruises?” I’m careful not to raise my voice too much. The neighbors.
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His gaze shifts to Nur’s chest and neck. His eyes narrow, and he takes a deep sigh. A sharp frown overcomes his face, “Are you kidding me or something?”
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“No. What are these?” I quickly point to the bruises. “From where did they come from? I leave Nur alone with your wife all day every day, and now I come to see this?” My breathing quickens, and I could feel the tears starting to form inside my eyes, but I resist. Zein has retreated back to her corner, hunched over her book. For once, my nephews are silent, eagerly eyeing the conversation.
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“Mariam. Calm down. Mohammad, Anas. Go. Now.” His face resolves into a sharp stare, eyes flared, chest rising more quickly. He’s going to shout. The neighbors will hear. Everyone will start talking.
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“I am calm. Very calm. For God’s sake, tell me now.” Now I am the one clenching my fists. My leg starts to shake restlessly, and I try to look away from Nur. Don’t make a scene.
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“Every single time something like this happens, you overreact and … you’re not yourself anymore.” “What? What happened to Nur?” What is going on. What’s happening here.
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“Zahra quit her nursing class to look after Nur when you aren’t here. She takes care of Nur all day, and you’re responsible for her when you get back.”
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“Okay, so? What’s that supposed to mean?” I look down at Nur, then fix my gaze on the blank wall ahead of me.
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“The bruises weren’t here yesterday.”
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Silence overcomes the room. This is a new type of silence. Did any of the boys do it? Mohammad is usu-ally at work throughout most of the day, at a nearby clothing shop. Anas would be at school, and he’s far too young to inflict such a blow. Zein? No – not my girl. She wouldn’t do this to her sister. Zein doesn’t like to come close to anyone anymore. She barely even holds her sister, barely touches me.
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I feel faint. I start looking right and left – avoiding any possible sight of Nur. For once, my brother approaches me with an expression vaguely resembling that of empathy.
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“Mariam…”
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I look down into my hands. The world starts to thud.
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“Mariam… What is happening to you? Don’t you remember? The bottle? The mirror?”
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“What … what are you talking about Khalil … Mohammad dashed into me when I dropped the bottle, remember? The mirror was smashed next to the closet, and I was gone all day. I found the faucet to be broken just –
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“Mariam. Ya Allah… ya Allah… Give us patience. Please, Allah, give me the strength and patience. Mariam, you threw the bottle.”
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My mind is numb and dry. For the first time in a very long while, I cannot hear my own thoughts.
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“You threw the bottle after you found out that Abu Rabih cheated you – the juice was … It was past its expiry date.”
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I… uh... I can’t remember. Images of Abu Rabih’s sly grin rapidly flash in front of my eyes. I glance at Zein for any trace of affirmation, only to find her perched in her corner, staring at the book.
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Hisbi-Allah… Mariam, you better not be mocking me. Zahra saw you dropping the mirror on the floor when you heard Nur cry, and the fau—”
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My cries can now be heard all the way home. My tears hammer down just like the rain on that day. I lost my husband, my daughter. I lost myself. I can only see a blurry image of the blank wall ahead. Let them hear.  

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