Chapter OneI Was in Flames
I am a girl. A girl must walk fast, head down, as if counting the number of steps she's taking. She may never stray from her path or look up, for if a man were to catch her eye, the whole village would label her a charmuta. If a married neighbor woman, or an old woman, or just anybody were to see her out without her mother or her older sister, without her sheep, her bundle of hay, or her load of figs, they would right away say charmuta. A girl must be married before she can raise her eyes and look straight ahead, or go into a shop, or pluck her eyebrows and wear jewelry. My mother was married at fourteen. If a girl is still unmarried by that age, the village begins to make fun of her. But a girl must wait her turn in the family to be married. The oldest daughter first, then the others.
There are too many girls in my father's house, four of marrying age. There are also two half sisters, born of our father's second wife, who are still children. The one male child of the family, the son who is adored by all, is our brother Assad, who was born in glory among all these daughters. He is the fourth born. I am the third. Adnan, my father, is not happy with my mother, Leila, for giving him all these girls. He is unhappy, too, with his other wife, Aicha, who also has given him nothing but girls. Noura, the oldest daughter, was married late when I myself was about fifteen. Nobody has yet asked for Kainat, the second girl, who is about a year older than me. I did overhear that a man spoke to my father about me, but he was told that I must wait for Kainat's marriage before I can marry. But Kainat may not be pretty enough, and is probably too slow at her work. I'm not really sure why she hasn't been asked for, but if she stays unmarried, she'll be the butt of the village jokes, and so will I.
It is a curse in my village to be born a girl. I have no memory of having played games or having fun as a child. The only freedom a girl can dream about is marriage, leaving your father's house for your husband's and not coming back, even if you're beaten. It is considered shameful for a married daughter to return home because she is not supposed to ask for protection outside her husband's house. If she does return to her father's house, it is her family's duty to bring her back to her husband. My sister was beaten by her husband and she brought shame on our family when she came back home to complain.
She is lucky to have a husband, though. I dream about it. Ever since I heard that a man spoke to my father about me, I have been consumed by impatience and curiosity. I know he lives three or four steps from us. Sometimes I can catch sight of him from the upper terrace where I lay the laundry out to dry. He must have a good job in the city because he never dresses like a laborer. He always wears a suit, carries a briefcase, and has a car. I'd like to see his face close up but I'm afraid the family will catch me spying. So when I go to get hay for a sick sheep in the stable, I walk fast hoping to see him nearby. But he parks his car too far away. From watching, I know about what time he comes out to go to work. So at seven o'clock in the morning, I pretend to be folding the laundry on the terrace or looking for a ripe fig or shaking out the carpets to get a glimpse of him driving off in his car. I have to be quick so I won't be noticed. What I do is climb the stairs and pass through the rooms to get to the terrace. There I energetically shake a rug and look over the cement wall, just slightly glancing to the right. If somebody notices me from afar, they won't guess that I'm looking down at the street.
When I see him, I realize I am in love with this man and this car! I imagine many things on the terrace: I am married to him and, like today, I watch the car go off into the distance until I can't see it anymore. But he'll come back from work at sunset and I will remove his shoes, and on my knees I will wash his feet as my mother does for my father. I will bring him his tea, and I'll watch him smoke his long pipe, seated like a king in front of the door of his house. I will be a woman who has a husband!
And maybe I'll even be able to put on makeup, get into this car with my husband, and even go into town and into the shops. I will endure the worst for the simple freedom of being able to go through this doorway to go out and buy bread! But I will not ever be a charmuta. I will not look at other men. I will continue to walk fast, erect and proud, but will not watch my steps with lowered eyes, and the village will not be able to say bad things about me, because I will be a married woman.
It is from this very terrace that my terrible story began. I was already older than my older sister was on the day of her wedding. I must have been eighteen, or maybe more, I don't know, and I both hoped and I despaired. My memory went up in smoke the day the flames engulfed me, but I have tried to reconstruct what happened.
I was born in a tiny village that, I'm told, was somewhere in the West Bank. But since I never went to school, I don't know anything about my country's history. I have also been told that I was born there in either 1957 or 1958, so I'm about forty-five years old today. Twenty-five years ago, I spoke only Arabic; I'd never been farther than a few kilometers beyond the last house on the dirt road. I knew there were cities farther away but I never saw them. I did not know if the earth was round or flat, and I had no idea of the world in general. What I did know was that we had to hate the Jews who had taken our land; my father called them pigs. We were forbidden to go near them, to speak or come in contact with them for fear of becoming a pig like them.
I had to say my prayers at least twice a day. I recited them like my mother and sisters, but I only learned of the Koran in Europe many years later. My only brother, treated like the king of the house, went to school, but the girls did not. As I've mentioned, where I come from, being born a girl was a curse. A wife must first produce a son, at least one, and if she gives birth to only girls, she is mocked. Two or three girls at most are needed for the housework, to work on the land, and see to the animals. If more girls are born, it is a great misfortune and they should be gotten rid of as soon as possible. I lived this way until about the age of seventeen without knowing anything except that I was valued less than an animal because I was a girl.
So, this was my first life, as an Arab woman in the West Bank. It lasted twenty years, and the person I had been there died. She is no more.
My second life began in Europe at the end of the 1970s in an international airport. I was not much more than suffering human flesh on a stretcher. My body smelled so much of death that the passengers on the plane that was taking me from Palestine to Europe protested. Even though I was hidden behind a curtain, my presence was unbearable to them. As I write about it now, I relive that moment: They tell me that I am going to live but I do not believe that and I wait for death. I even beg for it to take me. Death seems preferable to this suffering and humiliation. There is almost nothing left of my body so why would they want to keep me alive when I don't wish to exist anymore, either my body or my mind?
I still think about that today. It is true that I would have preferred to die rather than face this second life that they were so generously offering me. But, in my case, to have survived is a miracle. It allows me now to bear witness in the name of all those women who have not had this opportunity, and who keep dying for this one reason, that they are women.
I had to learn French by listening to people speak and by forcing myself to repeat the words they explained to me with signs: "Bad? Not bad? Eat? Sleep? Walk?" I answered by making signs of yes or no. Much later I learned to read words in a newspaper, patiently day after day. In the beginning I could only decipher short announcements, death notices, or brief sentences with a few words that I would repeat phonetically. Sometimes I felt like an animal that was being taught to communicate as a human. In my head, in Arabic, I asked myself where I was, in what country, and why I hadn't died in my village. I was ashamed to be still alive, although no one knew this. I was afraid of this life but no one understood.
I have to say all this before attempting to reassemble the pieces of my memory, because I want these words to be inscribed in a book.
I remember very little of my earliest childhood, and my memory is still full of gaps. The first part of my life is made up of images that are strange and violent, like scenes in a film for television. I have so much difficulty putting these images back in order that it sometimes doesn't seem real. For example, how could I forget the name of one of my sisters, or my brother's age the day of his wedding, but yet remember everything about the goats, the lambs, the cows, the bread oven, the laundry in the garden, picking the cauliflowers, the squash, the tomatoes and figs ... the stable and the kitchen ... the sacks of wheat and the snakes? Or the terrace where I spied on my beloved? The wheat field where I committed the "sin"?
Sometimes a color or an object strikes me, and then an image will come back to me, maybe a person, or voices, or faces that all blend together. Often when I'm asked a question, my mind goes completely blank. I desperately look for an answer and it won't come. Or another image suddenly comes to me and I don't know what it corresponds to. But these images are imprinted in my head and I will never forget them. After all, you can't forget your own death!
My name is Souad. I am from the West Bank. As a child, with my sister, I look after the sheep and the goats because my father has a flock of goats, and I work harder than a beast of burden. I must have started to work at about age eight or nine, and I saw the blood of my first menstrual period at about ten. Among us, they say a girl is mature or "ripe" when this occurs. I was ashamed of this blood because I had to hide it, even from my mother's eyes, and wash my pants secretly to make them white again, and then dry them quickly in the sun so the men and the neighbors wouldn't see them. Two pairs were all I had. I remember the paper I used for protection on these awful days when you are considered to have the plague. I would bury it, the sign of my impurity, in secret in the garbage pail. If I had cramps, my mother would boil sage leaves and give it to me to drink. She wrapped my head tightly in a scarf and the next day I had no more pain. It is the only medicine I remember and I still use it because it works.
In the early mornings I go to the stable, where I whistle using my fingers for the sheep to gather around me, and then leave for the pasture with my sister Kainat, the one who is about a year older than me. Girls are not to go out alone but should be accompanied by someone older. The elder serves as safeguard for the younger. My sister Kainat is nice, round and a little chubby, while I am small and thin. We get along well. The two of us would go with the sheep and the goats to the field, about a quarter of an hour's walk from the village, walking fast and with eyes lowered as far as the last house. Once we were in the field, we were free to say silly things to each other and even laugh a little, but I don't remember any real conversation between us. Mostly, we ate our cheese, feasted on a watermelon, and watched the sheep and especially the goats, which were capable of devouring all the leaves of a fig tree in a few minutes. When the sheep moved into a circle to sleep, we fell asleep in the shade, risking having an animal wander into a neighboring field, and suffering the consequences when we got home. If an animal tore up a vegetable garden or if we were a few minutes late getting back to the stable, we got a thrashing with a belt.
Our village is very pretty and green. There are many fruits, such as figs, grapes, lemons, and an enormous number of olive trees. My father owns half the cultivated parcels of the village, all his. He isn't very rich but he has possessions. Our stone house is big, and is surrounded by a wall with a large door of gray iron. This door is the symbol of our captivity. Once we're inside, it closes on us to prevent us from going out. You can enter by this door from the outside, but you cannot go out again.
Is there a key or is it an automatic system? I remember my father and mother going out, but not us. My brother, on the other hand, is as free as the wind. He goes to the movies; he goes out and he comes back through this door, doing whatever he wants. I would often look at it, this awful iron door, and say to myself, I'll never be able to leave through there, never ...
I don't have a good sense of the village because I'm not able to go out when and where I please. If I close my eyes and make an effort, I can tell what I've seen of it. There is my parents' house, then the one I call the rich people's house a little farther on the same side. Opposite is the house of my beloved, which I can see from the terrace. You cross the road and there it is. There are also a few other scattered houses, but I don't know how many-very few anyway. They are surrounded by low walls or iron fences and the people have vegetable gardens like us. I've never been through the entire length of the village. I only leave the house to go to market with my father and my mother or to the fields with my sister and the sheep. That's all.
Until I was seventeen or eighteen, I had seen nothing else. I had not set foot a single time in the shop in the village near the house, but in passing by in my father's van to go to market, I would always see the merchant standing at his door smoking his cigarettes. The shop has separate entrances for men and women. The men use the one on the right to go in and buy their cigarettes, newspapers, and drinks, and on the left are the fruits and vegetables where the women shop. In another house on the same side of the road as our house lives a married woman with four children. She has the right to go out and she can go into the shop. I see her standing on the stairs of the fruit-and-vegetable side holding transparent plastic sacks.
There was a lot of land around our house that was full of vegetables we had planted: squash, cauliflower, and tomatoes. Our garden was separated from the garden of the neighboring house by a low wall that was possible to step over, although none of us ever did. Being closed in was normal. It would never have occurred to any of the girls of the house to cross this symbolic barrier. To go where? Once in the village or on the road, a girl all alone would very quickly be spotted and her reputation and the family's honor would be destroyed.
It was inside this garden that I did the laundry.