Areej Asad

Zainab sat there, numb and distant. While her overall appearance was unremarkable, her eyes gave her away. The eyes are a reflection of what one feels within, although sometimes they reflect what can be seen around them. Zainab’s dark, darting orbs just bled fear.

She wrapped herself tighter in the khaddar shawl that had once belonged to her mother. She clutched the edges closer to her broken heart with one hand, and with the other held the wooden bracket of the coffin where her mother now lay.

She wasn’t afraid of death. She was bred around it.

10 years ago:

Manzoor, her eldest brother, was killed in a suicide bomb attack during Friday prayers. Zainab was 10 years old when this incident occurred. She had washed his clothes with her tiny hands, watching a crimson river flow out of it, into the gaping mouth of the sewer.

When she had sat there, looking at her mother, she didn’t know what to feel. There were no tears. That night, her older brothers Raza and Hassan sat with their parents. She couldn’t remember the last time both her brothers had visited at the same time. Her parents never allowed them to visit together, as her father, Yousuf Ali, said it was too dangerous.

After the burial, when Zainab and her mother, Fatima, had finished clearing the table, Raza called her to come sit with him.

“Do you know what has happened?” Raza asked, looking into her eyes.

“Yes” she replied in a small voice.

“That’s good” Raza replied, looking down at his feet.

She was startled, and so was her mother. Everyone fell silent and Raza looked up. He met his mother’s gaze openly and rebelliously, saying in his low, forceful voice “It is good because every Hazara should know why they are being killed and every little Hazara girl should learn to live with death, to meet death as a welcoming friend, every Hazara mother should see death in her children’s faces, every Hazara father should know he sells death with every sale he makes. And every Hazara should be proud of…”

“Enough!” Fatima said.

Zainab got up and went to her parents’ room. Her father lay on the bed, his back towards the door. She jumped on the bed and hugged him, like she always did, every night before going to bed. He raised his bony arm up and cuddled her neck. But he didn’t look back.

“Babai (father), where’s my hug?” she complained.

He turned towards her and hugged her. And as he did, Zainab sensed that his face was wet. He wasn’t going to read her any quotes of great men today. Today, she anticipated a story that would make her sad instead.

“Once upon a time there was a naughty little boy who liked to study. He made friends wherever he went. Sometimes he helped his class fellows learn their lessons, and at times he played tricks on them. Wherever he went, he would bring smiles to people’s faces”. Her father smiled a sad smile as he told her this, and then grew silent.

“What happened next?” Zainab asked impatiently.

“As he grew older, the people in his village became unhappy. This was because their sons were being killed. The boy didn’t know what to do. Every night he would go to the funeral of one of his friends until he just had five of them left. He didn’t know how he could keep his other friends happy. He decided that he must meet the people who were killing his friends and tell them off. So he sneaked out at dawn, and went to the market one day. He waited outside his father’s shuttered shop, knowing that the people who broke the harmony of the morning with gunshots, hunted at this time. He heard the motorcyclist roar in the distance. He had rehearsed his speech and recollected it. When the motorcycles came within view, he waved at them. He saw a gun in the hand of the second masked man. The boy began to shout. “Just tell me why are you killing my friends? I won’t harm you. I just want my answer”.

The motorcyclist came to a halt in front of him. The second man aimed at him but the boy repeated what he had said earlier. Hearing him, the man put his gun away and said “Because you are the roaches who have been infesting our pure faith. Because…” And then the boy’s father came from across the road, shouting at the men to leave his boy, to let him live. Surprised by the intruder on the scene, the masked man shot him instead. The driver revved up the motorcycle and they fled. The little boy saw his father bleeding and ran to him. He screamed for help until people nearby came running. The little boy clutched his father’s hands as he whispered his last words “Don’t let them take away your heart. Stay strong.” And the little boy did. Until today.

Zainab had been mesmerized by the story. When her father stopped, she felt the room getting heavy. She didn’t know what to say or what to ask. She felt, for the first time, that her father was sad. Silently, she removed herself from his embrace and crawled into her own bed.

In the morning, she helped Raza and Hassan pack. They were both going to some far off country seeking asylum.

“What do you do, Raza Lala (brother)?” she asked.

“I try to open people’s eyes to the fact that it is wrong to hunt our kind because we believe in different things”.

“Do they listen to you?”

“Some do. Some don’t. You should”, he smiled.

“I do! I respect everyone.”

Raza touched her face and said “Make sure you respect them even after none of us are left behind and when all you want to do is inflict the same pain – make sure you respect them then. Because that’s the trial, the whole world is a jury and that’s the trial that you should win.”

When they left, Zainab took out the book Hassan had left behind called ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee.

She knew that the book was too advanced for her, but she opened it and tried anyway. Her mind kept drifting to the little boy in her father’s story. Zainab started twisting her straight, dark hair – a habit her mother was trying to break, and a habit that always crept back when she was thinking hard. Suddenly, she let go of her hair.

“The little boy is my father!” she gasped. Her small eyes widened and she looked at the beam of light peeping from the wooden window. Zainab felt ecstatic, like she had solved a big puzzle.

Fatima entered the room, carrying plastic bags with coriander and potatoes. Zainab hugged her and said “I’m going to respect them all my life”.

“That’s good”, said Fatima, as she walked towards the kitchen to prepare lunch. Fatima didn’t think much of anything now. She had lost a son, just as she’d lost a brother before. But she never expressed her fears aloud. She wondered, sometimes, what her life would be like if she was born in a house with a different faith, for faith was all that it boiled down to in the end. In her heart of hearts, she was a proud Hazara but she knew that she would never be able to be a proud mother, a proud wife. Life wasn’t going to give her those chances. Her faith took care of that.

8 years ago:

The television blared with news of a blast in Quetta. The blast had taken place during the Eid congregation. Zainab’s brothers had come home after years to visit their family, and they were among the 11 victims of the blast.

Fatima and Yousuf Ali had wept silently, but not in front of her, as she didn’t know that she had lost her brothers. The house, once again, turned quiet. Her father had stopped selling vegetables and would lie on his bed for hours. Her mother grew depressed as well.

She found out about the deaths when two charred bodies, one missing a right arm, were placed in wooden coffins and the villagers came to weep with her family. There were whispers about protests and the lack of support for their cause.

As the ladies sat around the coffins, Zainab crept closer to Raza’s face and said, “I still respect them” and sat beside her mother.

Present Day:

Zainab was woken violently by her mother. Her father wasn’t well and she was going to take him to the doctor.

“I will come too!” she said, springing out of bed.

“No! Somebody will have to do the chores. You can stay home and do that. Don’t go to school.”

Three hours later, the whole neighborhood seemed to have congregated at her house, telling her what to do. Her mother and father lay in the same wooden racks that she had seen her brothers in.

Today she reflected the fear that she saw around her. A fear of the many orphans this community had left behind to grow up on their own. But the fear she felt was not for her own fate. It was a fear of beginning to lose respect for the ones who had taken her family away from her.

Zainab sat there, twisting a strand of her straight, long hair.

(Published in The Laaltain – Issue 8)

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