Exerpt - By Bruce L. Cook (USA)
The sound of the early morning Fajr prayers drifted upward as the surveillance drone swished overhead. Oblivious, a steppe eagle became visible. This raptor gracefully descended on coo-cooing doves and sparrows exploring a gushing stream in the first light over Badshahstan. Sensing the attack, the doves scattered into the shrubbery. Ever patient, the eagle soared over the scene and returned to his perch, waiting again.
A lad appeared and stooped with his water jar. Today, as every day this week, he carried containers from the family compound. He was thin and athletic in his robe. At 15 years he was bordering on adulthood.
Normally water jars would be carried by a younger sibling, especially a girl, but Faheem was performing the task this week. He was the only child and his mother’s vision was too poor. This left the task to his aunt Lina, but occasionally she would visit another village. Yet he collected water from the valley stream without complaint. He felt embarrassed about performing a girl’s task so he tried to avoid observation by coming to the stream immediately after prayers. The village girls usually came later.
His eyes dark and downcast, he remembered that his father would walk the mountain trails today – without him. It wasn’t his fault. Carrying the jars and doing other household tasks tied him down. Because of this he sometimes would miss the adventures he should have by walking with his father. In this way he would lack knowledge he should have acquired – familiarity with mountain paths and nearby villages.
Now he nodded his head, recalling that his situation did offer some advantages. For example, he had learned to read and write Arabic script in the dusty local school for young men. For this reason he could wear this turban to indicate his level of education. In any case, he humbly accepted his lot. Such was his role, and this could not be changed.
Earlier this week, while fetching water, he had noticed Hanan, a young girl who lived on the opposite side of the stream. She was bounding down the hill from her compound, grasping empty jars and racing ahead of her younger sister Nafasat. The two giggled when they saw Faheem, but tradition compelled them to stay private, never mixing with a man. On reaching the stream they held hands and romped around with laughter. One morning they even splashed water on each other before plodding back up the hill with jars that were heavy with water.
Sometimes he could imagine how Hanan’s eyes might look under the screen of her light blue veil. His heart would skip a beat when he felt the she was seeing him. It was true, he thought. She was noticing him for sure. For one thing, she had begun to visit the stream for water without her sister, earlier in the day than her customary time. Faheem was fascinated with her. At 14 years old, she was still unmarried, so Faheem could legitimately think of her.
Soon after she began coming early, Faheem imagined how her face might appear without covering. On these occasions it seemed she could sense his inappropriate thoughts, for she would abruptly turn away, trudging up the hill with her family’s water jars. Sadly, as with the other girls, her face was properly shrouded in her burqa’s light blue screen. It was unthinkable for an honorable woman to appear in public without complete covering.
The sight of Hanan had left its mark. It fired Faheem’s imagination. In the evenings he would imagine her fair skin and dark eyes, dreaming that his family would arrange marriage some day. But it was a fantasy. Surely a beautiful woman as Hanan would have to marry one of the wealthy elders. The only question was, which one?
Faheem thought of other questions too. If she married a wealthy man, her life would be miserable. Such men would think nothing of disrespecting their woman. It was a method of establishing control. So his question was - how much would Hanan’s husband abuse her? How long could she live in abject servitude? This left a bitter taste in his mouth. No doubt she would have to submit. She would do so in respect for her father and for the traditions.
Faheem tried to guess whether she might fear such a future. He imagined her delicate frame shaking when she lay on her small mat every night. She must have terrible dreams of the future and sleep must be impossible. Perhaps, instead, she would dream of Faheem as he dreamed of her. He wanted to marry her. He would surely show her the respect she deserved. But dreams were dreams. She was powerless and his family had too little wealth.
One day Hanan’s powerlessness became apparent. Perhaps she was conscious of Faheem’s casual observation. In any case, she dipped her family’s blue plastic buckets into the water as usual, turned, and stepped up the footpath. Sadly, her left foot wedged between rocks and she twisted her ankle. She moaned in pain.
Falling to her knees, reaching back to rub the ankle, she waited, breathing heavily until she could become accustomed to the pain. Then, setting her jaw, she pulled herself back to her feet, refilled the buckets, and limped up the path. She could have made the hill easily if the buckets weren’t full, but their weight tugged at her shoulders and now her back had become bent like an old woman’s.
Involuntarily, Faheem found himself rushing up the slope to her side. He grasped the buckets and helped her move ahead. She stopped, surprised, looking into his eyes. His heart filled with excitement as he shared her gaze. Gradually they both realized that everyone was watching, probably imagining what might have happened to bring Faheem to her side.
Faheem raised his head and continued. Hanan followed, thankful for his help. Even without the burden she grimaced in pain. She had never imagined how difficult this kind of task would be for someone with an injured ankle.
She followed Faheem at a respectful distance. It was mid-morning and they passed four teenagers playing marbles in the sand beside the steep hill to the canyon below. She glanced at their sandals, lined up so carefully beside the sandpit. Saeed, their leader, was first to notice that Faheem was carrying Hanan’s buckets. He sneered and all four boys started giggling.
“What is wrong, Hanan?” asked Saeed.
“My ankle,” she started to explain, but Saeed had already started toward Faheem.
“So?” Saeed challenged. “Hanan should fetch her own water! Unless….” He turned to his audience, shrugging his shoulders and spreading his arms. “Unless, Faheem, you are her slave!” He noticed shocked expressions on his friends’ faces so he turned to Faheem, but it was too late. The water of the first bucket splashed into his face and down across his body. His shirt and shorts became so heavy with wetness that his pants almost slipped to the ground. He reached up but failed to prevent Faheem from dumping the contents of the second bucket over his friends and the shoes, fully destroying the game of marbles in the sand.
“Now!” Saeed challenged, furious. “Where will Hanan get her water now?”
Faheem had drawn himself up and was almost dancing down the hill for two more buckets. They would need to await his return for any kind of revenge. Meanwhile, all attention turned to Hanan, who held fast, facing the boys bravely.
Saeed laughed. “Your servant has gone for your family’s water?”
She crossed to the game area, kneeling in some pain, and carefully selected one sandal from each pair in the row of footwear. Then, fixing her gaze on each of them, she shuddered and tried to ignore her pain as she held onto the sandals. Saeed jumped up to retrieve them, but she held the sandals over her head in triumph. She knew he would never touch a woman who was outside his family. She watched patiently as Faheem trudged back up the path with new buckets of water.
Faheem looked ahead and saw her holding the sandals in defiance. Then, grinning uncontrollably, he saw her toss the sandals high into the air. Stopping, he looked at the lads as the sandals dropped deep into the valley. They would never be reclaimed.
“Thank you,” she said, pressing Faheem’s arm. She grasped the buckets and walked gracefully into her compound.
The boys braced themselves to retaliate, unsure whether to pursue Hanan or Faheem, when two women emerged from nearby compounds. One of the women scolded them for their wet clothing. “I will tell your father what you have done!” The boys froze in fear.
“Who did this?” demanded the other woman.
One of the boys shouted “Faheem!” The others shouted “Hanan!” The boys pointed to Hanan’s compound.
“Who?” the woman repeated aggressively, recognizing Faheem as the boy who was fetching water for his mother this week. Everyone respected him. She jutted her prominent jaw forth as she noticed the missing sandals. “And these sandals. Just one for each of you?” she continued evenly, “Just – where – have – they – gone?”
The boys pointed toward the Canyon.
“Go!” she commanded, facing Faheem.
Bowing respectfully, Faheem turned and returned to the stream where his family’s buckets still remained.
The event passed without repercussion. Each day Faheem and Hanan fetched water, bowing gracefully to each other from time to time. But the silence could not endure. Eventually Hanan took a chance and spoke to him, again in violation of the traditions. “Everyone says… your father takes rugs to market in Peshawar,” she had said. It was a long trek down from their Afghan village and across the Pakistan border to Peshawar.
“Yes,” Faheem agreed. “Our family’s rugs,” He turned away, imagining her eyes searching him from behind the forbidding blue screen of her burqa. It was unthinkable for a young girl to address him when neither of her parents was present.
“Doesn’t your father… does he have other work too?”
“Yes,” said Faheem. “At a hospital.”
She was trembling and Faheem wanted to comfort her. He wanted to reach out and touch her, hold her, but this was forbidden. Yet their communication continued, for they were alone. “Allah has favored you,” she said. “Your family… You may enjoy great wealth.”
“Yes,” Faheem said, his heart feeling an unfamiliar ache. He studied the stream to prepare a response. “Yes, but our wealth could never be enough to gain what I fully desire.”
She dropped her head, embarrassed but pleased that her comment had provoked his answer. She felt thrilled that he was thinking of her this way. Indeed, she felt the same way towards him. But she was uncertain. Could she tell him? At the same time, she felt depressed, realizing the truth of their situation. Her hidden eyes searched his face as she whispered, “I pray to Allah for you. May your family be successful.”
The conversation had crossed a barrier. There was no question what they both wanted. Both remained stationary, studying the other. Faheem glimpsed a small gleam from her eyes behind the screen. He knew it was necessary for him to finish the conversation. “I pray to Allah as well. Blessed be His name, and may He be pleased.”
He tried to stop speaking and walk proudly away, but his feet were rooted in place. He had begun, and now was his only chance to say it. He had to tell her. Faheem’s voice caught in his throat. “I … I pray my family can afford….” His eyes burned and a tear formed. Never had he felt so out of control. He looked down again and roughly caught his breath. A slight moan escaped from his lips as he felt the touch of her fingers on his robe. Not knowing what to do, he knelt.
Hanan joined him, falling on trembling knees.Both of these young people prayed, together, in the morning sun.