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Al-Remal ("The Sand"), late 1960s
Even against the molten noonday sun, al-Masagin prison loomed dark and forbidding, its massive iron gates reaching skyward. A second look would reveal a jagged dent in the right gate a few feet from the ground. It had been there for as long as most people could remember.
According to stories Amira had heard, it had been made by a young woman whose husband had been imprisoned for life. Maddened by grief, or so the old village women said, the wife got behind the wheel of her husband's car (an act forbidden by law), drove it to the prison--and crashed into the gates. The guards had opened fire, and the young woman was granted the speedy entrance to paradise she craved, there to await her husband.
It was a romantic story, a testament to the power of love, and thirteen-year-old Amira Badir believed every word. Love made people do strange and forbidden things.
Now she waited as Um Salih, the village midwife, rang the heavy brass bell in front of the prison. It made an oddly melodic sound for so somber a place.
A moment later, as if he had been waiting for the summons, a khaki-clad guard appeared. The gate swung open, revealing the dark maw of al-Masagin. The guard beckoned Um Salih to enter. Amira followed close behind her. The cheap flowered rayon dress peeping from beneath her black abeyya rubbed coarsely against her skin; the crude leather sandals chafed her feet.
She was accustomed to the finest of fabrics; the shoes she wore were made by an Italian boot maker who served only the most prominent of families. But today she was supposed to be someone else, not the daughter of Omar Badir, one of al-Remal's wealthiest men, but the niece of the village midwife.
Amira had played at masquerades before, gone into the souk wearing boy's clothes--white thobe, white ghutra, with sunglasses for added disguise. Dressed like that, she'd even driven her father's car, the first time with the help of her older brother, Malik. Malik did it for the sheer pleasure of breaking the rules; Amira did it to enjoy, if only for a few minutes, the freedom even the poorest male in al-Remal took for granted.
But this masquerade was no game. Life and death were the stakes here and, even more important, her family's honor. If Amira were to be discovered, she knew that even her father's wealth wouldn't protect her from the consequences--consequences she shuddered to imagine.
"Stop dragging your feet, laziness," snapped Um Salih. "There's nothing to be afraid of here."
The impertinence, thought Amira--then remembered she was supposed to be a poor girl assisting the midwife. Lowering her eyes, she murmured an apology.
The guard, a heavy man with a wheeze, coughed out a laugh. "Nothing to be afraid of in al-Masagin, Mother? Don't you fear being flogged as a liar?"
"If all liars are to be flogged," Um Salih replied, "who will do the flogging?"
The guard laughed again.
How could they talk and joke in this place? Amira wondered. As a young child, she'd tried to imagine what the prison might be like, but not even a nightmare could have prepared her for the cold, the dankness, and worst of all, the stench: sweat, blood, vomit, urine, shit. The smell of utter despair. The smell of impending death.
Ever since her best friend Laila--the daughter of her father's good friend--had been arrested, Amira had made this trip regularly, disguised as a male servant bringing food and carrying messages between Laila and Malik. But this deception, this would be the hardest of all. The life of Malik's unborn child depended on it, and perhaps Malik's life as well.
The women's wing of the prison was quiet except for the crunching of the guard's heavy boots and the rustle of the two women's garments. A piercing scream bounced off the rough sandstone walls. Amira flinched, biting her lip to keep from crying out. She wanted to turn and run, to leave this terrible place and never return. But she had made a promise, and she would keep it no matter what.
"You see what I'm saddled with by my worthless sister?" Um Salih complained to the guard. "The girl wants to be a midwife, yet cringes at the cries of a woman in labor."
"It's not exactly music to my ears either, Mother," the man answered uncomfortably. Stopping in front of a barred wooden door, he turned a heavy key in the rusty lock, pushed the door open, then stepped well away to let the midwife enter.
Laila was half sitting, half lying on a mat of straw, her flowing robe stained with blood and birth fluids. For an instant Amira didn't recognize her. Barely nineteen, Laila looked twice that. Her eyes were glassy with pain, her breath a series of short, ragged gasps.
Um Salih set down her basket and rolled up the sleeves of her dress. Calling out to the waiting guard, she demanded boiling water. "Boiling, not just heated, do you hear? And hurry--this child will not wait while you drag your feet."
When the guard's footsteps could no longer be heard, Amira removed her veil and put a finger to her lips. "Don't say my name, Laila," she whispered. "I'm supposed to be Um Salih's niece."
"You're really here?" said Laila hoarsely. For the first time, something like hope lit her eyes. "Save my baby," she pleaded. "Don't let him be given away. Please. Please, you must make sure he has a good life. You must."
"I promise, I promise," Amira whispered, gently stroking her cousin's forehead. "It's all taken care of. Malik has seen to everything. But don't say his name, Laila, I beg you, don't say his name!"
From her basket, the midwife took a clean linen square. Upon it she placed the tools of her trade--a tube of antibiotic ointment, a tube of lubricant, packets of herbs, a needle and surgical thread, a pair of stainless-steel scissors.
Into a small drinking glass she emptied the contents of an herb packet, then added some pure drinking water from a large bottle she carried.
"Here," she said, handing the glass to Amira. "Give her a little at a time. Not too much, mind you, or she'll vomit it up."
In spite of the admonition, Laila gulped the herbal mixture greedily, desperate for relief from her suffering.
A moment later her back arched. From high inside her throat came a long, keening wail that raised the hairs on Amira's neck. It was the sound of pain and relief and unspeakable sorrow. She took her cousin's hand. "Squeeze it," she said. "When you feel pain, let me take some of it." With her free hand, she wiped Laila's face with a wet cloth, cooling her parched lips.
Amira had seen a baby born once before, when the Sudanese servant, Bahia, had her son. But that had seemed a joyous occasion, even with the cries of pain.
Laila's suffering seemed so much more intense, brute agony unalloyed with even the least atom of joy--as if there could be joy in a hellhole like this. "Can't you give her something, Um Salih?"
The midwife glanced towards the door. The guard, having fetched the water, had vanished again. Like all men, he considered all things female--birth, menstruation--unclean. "Yes, I could give her something. But with drugs women say things. They call out names. Of their husbands. Of others. Sometimes they call on them for help. More often they curse them for the pain. But they are always loud--loud enough to be heard all over this prison."
Laila's back arched again. She squeezed Amira's hand, the nails digging hard into soft flesh. She screamed. "God have mercy, God have mercy on me!"
"Hush, hush, everything will be all right," Amira crooned, understudying the soothing voice her mother used when she and Malik were ill. But her eyes pleaded with Um Salih: Do something, please do something.
"The herbs will help a little. But this one will have to endure what God meant for women to endure."
As the contractions grew stronger, Laila seemed to weaken. Her skin turned the color of ivory.
"Is she going to die, Um Salih?"
"Not tonight, child, not tonight."
No. Not tonight, Amira thought. Tomorrow. Laila would die tomorrow, die by stoning in the dirty little square in front of the prison. All that was keeping her alive was the tiny other life within her body. Once that was taken from her, so would her own life be. And for what? For loving Malik? For not loving the cruel and crippled old man who happened to be her husband through no wish of hers? Why?
"Don't cry, child. You must not cry now. We have hard work and a long night ahead."
And still the labor went on, Laila's torment worse than anything Amira had ever seen or imagined. With the cell's single bare bulb dimming and glaring as a generator somewhere outside sputtered, then throbbed to life again, Amira more than once felt that she was caught in a nightmare, that soon she would waken and everything would be the way it was.
* * *
For as long as Amira could remember, Laila was her heroine, more like an admired older sister than a friend. And Amira was Laila's favorite despite the difference in their ages. They spent more time with each other than with anyone else. Malik was there, too, more often than not.
Were Malik and Laila in love even then--not like a grown man and woman, of course, but in the way the poets describe it, love written on souls and in the stars? Certainly it never seemed to matter to Laila that Malik, too, was younger than she, nearly two years younger. But even as a boy, Malik had always seemed old beyond his years.
None of it counted for anything beyond the childhood gardens where the three of them played and laughed and made secrets and dreamed. When Laila was fifteen--with little time left to waste, in her parents' view--her father arranged her marriage to one of his close business associates. The man was fifty-two and noted for his devotion to the Koran, hunting, and money--although not necessarily in that order.
For a time after the wedding, Laila contrived ways for her and Amira to be together. The first time she showed up unexpectedly at Amira's house, she announced with a mischievous grin: "My husband thinks I'm at my mother's today."
"But won't he be angry if he finds out you've lied?" Amira asked, aware as always of the many rules that governed a woman's existence.
"Probably." Laila yawned, as if her husband's anger were of little concern.
Amira marveled at her indifference. "But why couldn't you just say you were coming here? Our parents are good friends, after all, and surely your husband--"
"Amira, Amira," Laila sighed impatiently, "don't be such a child. A wife soon learns when a lie will please her husband far more than the truth. For example, why should I tell Mahmoud I'm here--or somewhere else--when it makes him happy to believe I visit my mother dutifully and often?"
As Amira frowned thoughtfully, her friend smiled sadly. "After all," she continued, "when he comes to my bed at night, when he pokes and pinches and grunts and groans, shall I tell him he sounds like an old donkey--and smells like one, too? Or"--she paused for effect--"do I pretend that he honors me with his attentions, no matter how vile and disgusting they are?"
Amira had no answer.
Despite the veiling and the walls that separated men from women, sex was no secret in al-Remal, not even to children. But Laila's talk of married life made it seem unnatural, even sinister. Still more unpleasant was the assumption that in this matter, as in all others, a wife owed obedience to her husband.
Two years into their marriage Laila's husband was thrown from his horse while hunting. The accident crushed a bone in his spine and left him paralyzed from the waist down. Though Laila publicly wept and wailed as a good wife should, privately she seemed almost to welcome his disability--shocking Amira again--because it would mean the end of some of his husbandly demands. But where previously he at least had been a vibrant figure, now Laila's husband was merely an ill-tempered, whining old man who demanded her constant attendance as nurse and body servant.
The following spring, when Malik came home on holiday from Victoria College, the exclusive British-style boarding school in Cairo to which he had been sent, Laila used Amira as a go-between to arrange a secret meeting with him. Amira knew that this was forbidden; despite their childhood together, the two should not now be alone without the knowledge and approval of Laila's husband. But how could such a thing be truly wrong? It was the first of many such meetings, and though Malik was two short months from graduation, he found one reason after another to make weekend visits to his family.
Then, for no reason that Amira could fathom, there came a time when Laila grew more subdued than ever before. And one morning when Amira went to visit in hopes of cheering her cousin up, the servant who answered the door turned her away with the icy announcement that Laila's name was never to be spoken in that house again. Unable to learn anything further, Amira had no choice but to raise the subject that night at dinner.
"Has she died?" she asked timidly.
Her father's ruddy complexion flushed crimson. "She is worse than dead!" he thundered, "although she will certainly die, too. That woman"--he would not use Laila's name--"is with child. Not her husband's! She has shamed herself and dishonored her family! There is only one rightful end for such a woman!"
The punishment for the act Laila had committed was death.
* * *
"Push," the midwife commanded, reaching a gloved hand inside Laila, her fingers probing the birth canal. "I feel the head. A little longer, and it will be over."
"I pray it's a boy," Laila gasped out. "I pray he never suffers like this, that he never endures what a woman must endure."
Amira searched her mind for words of comfort. What could she say to Laila that would drive the specter of death away, if only for a moment? "Courage," she murmured, "courage, Laila dear." But would she have the courage to endure this--a filthy jail cell, cast out by her family, abandoned by family and friends? Knowing the child she gave her life for would never even know her?
Amira blinked back tears; she had no right to cry. She wasn't the one whose life was over.
"Another push," the midwife commanded, her hands pressing on Laila's abdomen. Moments later a head appeared, then shoulders, expertly guided by Um Salih. It was over. A tiny baby girl, wet and slippery, with a thatch of black hair and dark, almond-shaped eyes.
Just like Mama's, Amira thought, caught up in the wonder of this new life, forgetting for just an instant the circumstances, wishing her mother could see the child. But that could not happen. The secret was too dangerous. Outside of this room, no one but Malik would ever know whose child this was.
Um Salih cupped her hand over the baby's mouth to keep her from crying, then handed her to Amira. As she'd been instructed to do, Amira slipped a ball of cotton into the tiny mouth, praying this precaution would cause no harm. She wrapped the infant in a blanket and placed her in Laila's arms.
Laila held her child, fingers tracing the features of her face--the forehead, the tiny nose, the cleft chin and delicate ears--as if to imprint the image of the baby she would never know. It was only a moment; it was all there could be.
At a signal from Um Salih, Amira gently took the baby back. She removed a small bundle from the midwife's basket, and put the newborn in its place.
Quickly and skillfully Um Salih delivered the afterbirth and cleaned the young mother.
"Save her, Amira. No matter what happens, you must save her." Laila's eyes were feverishly bright, her voice almost inaudible.
"I will," Amira promised. "I will." She held her friend in her arms, knowing that it would be for the last time. "Good-bye, Laila. Good-bye. God be with you."
"Good-bye, Amira. Don't forget."
"I'll never forget you."
Closing her eyes, Laila sank back on the straw, exhausted.
Um Salih unwrapped the bundle from her basket. It contained an infant, its skin purple-blue, dead since late that morning. Among the poor of wealthy al-Remal, death often followed closely on birth. For Um Salih, it was not difficult to find this lifeless baby boy. It had been born to her niece, and it took only a few small coins and a little persuasion to buy its body.
The old woman wet the tiny corpse with water, then smeared it with blood from the afterbirth. Placing the baby beside Laila, she covered it with a white linen square. "Guard!" she called. Footsteps were heard approaching from far down the corridor. "My work is finished," Um Salih told him. "The child is dead. Allah took him early." She drew away the handkerchief.
The guard looked for only a moment. "Just as well," he said, not unkindly.
Um Salih signaled Amira brusquely. "Bring my things, worthless."
Leaving the prison, praying that the baby would be able to breathe but would not cry, Amira wanted to run. But Um Salih moved slowly, the picture of an old woman whose hard task was completed and who had no need to hurry. Of course, as long as they did nothing to attract attention, no guard would want to look in the basket: unclean things in it, female things. Amira matched the midwife's pace, and the gate clanged shut behind them.
Copyright © 1996 by Soheir Khashoggi