Her name is Hooriya. Her father named her so for the freedom of the nation, given her birth shortly after a war had ended when such words were in the air. And he named her so also after item number two in the party-state slogan: Unity, Freedom and Socialism.
He was a professor of economics, a highly educated man, and he walked past bus stops and through markets with his head raised and tilted back so as to view humanity from a greater distance, so as not to sniff its filth too closely. Although almost always he drove. He was a man who made a show of being irritable and snappy in public, though in reality the public eye always kept him calm and reasoned, but who in private, in the cockpit of his German car for instance, a car far too wide and clean for the alleyways, would erupt in paroxysms of purple fury, spitting, punching the steering wheel, screaming Pimp! and Whore! He was a man who had struggled to arrive at his station. A man who wore glasses years before he needed to. A man who spoke of his dignity often.
She was surrounded by speech. Shouting teachers and chattering students. Patriotic songs from the schoolyard speakers and Friday screaming from the mosques. Sermonisation and pontification. Building and demolition work. Drills and hammers. Clashing pipes. The gas bottle man. Cars in convoy.
It was noisy outside and noisy in. The TV blaring. The maid clattering the dishes. Hooriya’s mother on the phone – clucking, sighing, tutting. Her father shouting at her brothers to say their prayers. Sometimes they dared each other to call back: Why didn’t he say his prayers first? Then her father raised his volume. God understood he was busy and tired from his work, not like these lazy failures who he would disown, who he would thrash first, let them see if he wouldn’t.
The five of them plus the maid lived in a flat on the fourth floor of a twelve-storey building in a respectable area of the capital city. There were cracks in the walls of the stairwell but the walls of their home were decorated by curling plaster embellishments, like cake icing. Chandelier-style electric lights were hung from the ceilings. The little kitchen and the larger living room both led to a balcony closed off with folding plastic walls to prevent people looking in or out. It was a place for hanging washing to dry, not to enjoy the view. The maid slept there when the guest room was occupied. Hooriya wished she could sit on the balcony and watch the street and especially the sky like the people she saw when she walked to and from school. Some of the balconies in the neighbourhood were still open, and the people sat on them singly or in family groups, drinking coffee, smoking, talking, staring out.
The sky was hazy blue in the daytime and darkly red at night. It was red on account of pollution and dust, so her elder brother told her. He said the sky stretched upwards for only about a hundred kilometers, which was three times less than the distance to their father’s ancestral village. If there were a good motorway laid up there vertically a car could drive it in an hour. After that it was outer space: stars and silence, unimaginably vast distances across which no sound could be heard. Sound is a vibration travelling through the particles of the air, but space is a vacuum, airless.
The atmosphere at ground level, meanwhile, was highly pressured. Every move she made was under heavy observation. As there was sound here, so were there ears. The only ones who laughed in the flat were her brothers, and only sometimes, only briefly. Her mother didn’t smile except scornfully. Her mother didn’t care for her, it seemed. It seemed in fact that she found Hooriya immensely irritating, too irritating to engage directly. Instead she alerted her husband:
Have you seen your daughter?
Which was enough to provoke a fierce slap across Hooriya’s face, a flaming brow and cheek.
She didn’t understand it. Her mother’s notifications and her father’s slaps were unaccompanied by any explanatory discourse. There were never arguments, as such. No accusations; no answering back. Occasionally she deduced her crime by context. Sometimes she’d spilled something, or forgotten something, or put on the wrong coat for the weather. Other times she hadn’t. The aggression was unaccountable, as impenetrable as a law of nature or the will of God.
Her friends spoke of their mothers with an easy, unforced love. Why couldn’t she speak thus of hers? There was no answer to this question, unless she’d done something bad she’d then forgotten. She thought she must have. Some badness in her early history, at the root of her, some kind of moral disease.
She was trapped, in any case. She’d leave if she could – her home, her life, her darkly flawed self – she’d happily abandon them all. But she didn’t know where else she’d go if she were free to walk out. Not knowing an alternative was the worst part of the imprisonment.
After school, sheltered in her bedroom, in the quiet, focused by warm lamplight, she wrote stories about a girl who studied hard and prayed to God. This girl was an orphan but God loved her and helped her. He made it possible for her to travel in many foreign countries, to meet kind people in each, to visit mountains and waterfalls and botanical gardens. On one of her journeys a wonderful man fell in love with her, a doctor, a man who cured children. She married and lived with him in a cottage by a lake.
She drew pictures to supplement the stories. Pencil lines and crayons to colour them in. The girl, with her long hair and lashes. The man in his suit. Trees and rivers and cottages beside a lake.
Every so often her mother ransacked her bedroom. One day she found the notebooks in which the stories and pictures were kept. Look at your daughter, she told the professor. What will people call you. The father of the novelist.
He came to her room with the notebooks in hand. He tore each sheet into thin strips, carefully. The strips rained from his fingers like confetti. Shouts issued from his open mouth. Then he raised his empty hand and let it shudder above her head. She cowered and quaked. He left the room, slamming the door behind him.
She wept for a long time. Afterwards she washed her face in cold water. She leaned against the bathroom door breathing into a towel.
Guests arrived. The maid was away on her annual holiday.
Bring fruit, her mother commanded. Sliced, on the crystal plate. Or are you busy writing novels? She grabbed her wrist and pinched it hard. Wake up now. One mistake and I’ll kill you.
Her fingers shook as she washed and sliced the fruit. The segments were clean and neatly proportioned. She reached for the crystal plate from the highest shelf but nudged it too fast. It fell, almost in her fingers but not quite under control. It bounced on the table top and cracked, and then as she watched and breathed the crack fissured and spread, until at a critical point of damage the plate shattered in her horrified hands. Silently it broke. She gasped. Please God. She screwed her eyes shut, bit her lips, drove her nails into her palms. Show me you are here. Show me you are with me.
She opened her eyes. The plate was intact. Not shattered. Not even cracked.
As she served the guests a spaciousness surrounded her. Her steps were tranquil. It was as if she were viewing herself from above, from an angelic perspective.
This happened. She has interrogated the story. She hasn’t made it up.
She grew up; she left school and went to university. Her parents chose French as her subject. She’d have chosen art, or literature, or astronomy, if the decision were hers. She wasn’t much interested in French but she enjoyed the university’s broader horizons. It was here she met, or better, was noticed by, the man who would soon become her husband.
He passed notes and cards to his friend who passed them to her friend who passed them to her.
His name was Ameer. He was his mother’s prince and commander – though his father had educated him with fists. She didn’t know that then.
He loved her for her pure heart, he wrote. For her innocent eyes. For her modesty. Her religion.
He had contacts in a city in the Gulf where everything was clean and well-organised and anyone who worked hard got rich. This was where he intended to take her.
He wasn’t rich. She knew this would trouble her parents but it didn’t bother her. On the contrary, she’d prefer to work alongside her husband, to build their future together.
One day outside the languages building he approached her directly. Under the statue of the president in scholar’s gown – the Supreme Student – he pushed his green eyes into hers. Unexpectedly, he seized her hand. His electrical touch. A little box pressed into her palm, as hard and angled as a star. For you, he said. The first gift.
Inside, nested in a bed of foam, was streaked lapis lazuli – ‘like your eyes,’ he’d written, ‘like the sky’ – on a silver chain.
She put it on in the women’s toilets, covered it up with her high-collared shirt. Nobody could see where it nestled, but she felt it. It burned against her breastbone and her cheeks burned into a high colour too. This is love, she told herself. This is love, thank God, and it’s my arrival into adulthood. Somebody loves me and I love him back.
When she arrived home her tingling lips were still curving, her cheeks still swollen with smiles.
Her mother glanced then glared. She drew in her chin and snorted.
Have you seen your daughter? She’s plastered in make-up. Everyone will be talking. The professor whose daughter is painted like a whore.
Her father whirled from his study, flapping his hands. Whore! he repeated, and slapped her hard. Hot cheekbone throbbing, not smiling, and a salve of sticky tears. Of course she wasn’t wearing make-up. She never did. The injustice was terrible.
But it didn’t matter now. Her freedom was coming.
Three months after graduation, once he was sure of the job in the Gulf, Ameer and his parents visited the flat to formally seek her hand.
‘What kind of family is it?’ her father asked when they’d gone. ‘We’ve never heard of them. No reputation at all.’
Her mother rolled her eyes. ‘Who else would take her?’
So she was taken.
The wedding night went wrong. She was tense, certainly. And he wasn’t kind. She didn’t understand what was happening, or what wasn’t. There was the overwhelming sense of an obstacle to be overcome, a mountain hidden in shadow.
It’s your fault, he said in the end, getting up.
And he swore. And he slammed the door – reminding her of her father’s door slamming and of the day the notebooks were torn. Much later he came back. He stared through grainy darkness at her firmly shut lids. And then he climbed into his side of the bed, careful not to touch her. After a while she felt him fall into sleep.
She was living on the twenty fifth storey of a forty-storey tower. You could call it a skyscraper. The twelve-storey block she’d lived in at home had been one of the highest blocks in the country, which is what made it so modern, so respectable. In this city, however, twelve storeys was really nothing much. And in this respect her life had improved. She’d gone up in the world, literally. The elevator was fast and weightless. She experienced the luxury of expansion. Before she’d had one bedroom as shelter – now on these heights she had four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dining room, a kitchen, a salon. If it was she who owned them – which it wasn’t – though in the daytimes she was alone in this realm, a solitary elf flitting spontaneously from chamber to chamber. Just her and the air-conditioning droning.
The balcony which attached to the third spare bedroom, unlike the balcony of her youth, was open to the air. To the white glare of afternoons and onto a purplish curtain at night. She stood out there whenever she had a free moment, clutching the rail and gazing at every angle. The sky downwards was soon tangled in aerials, dishes, balconies, terraces, streets, intersections, shops, petrol stations, schools and car parks, but upwards it reached on forever – first through the atmosphere, then outer space. She’d jump if only she could fall upwards, she thought. If God thought to reverse gravity for a moment, if the natural tendency of things were ascension.
The heat of the day in the car parks was suffocating. The car interior was icy cold, the shopping malls were cold, the flat was cold, but the car parks were unbreathable.
He said he needed money. He said he couldn’t afford to keep a princess like her in such a big flat. But she’d never asked for a big flat. She said she’d be happy anywhere so long as he was comfortable. She suggested they move somewhere smaller but he said no, it was too late, they had to stay.
She gave over her dowry to show how she loved him, that he could trust her and relax. She sold her gold so he could invest.
I could work, she offered.
You wouldn’t be able.
I could teach children. I could work in a shop.
No wife of mine is working in a shop.
Anything, then. In an office.
What she’d like to do actually is be an astronaut. She laughed at the thought, though her face remained immobile, her eyes steady, though she made no movement or sound. She laughed inside a hidden room he didn’t know existed.
Anything, she said. You choose.
You can’t work. You wouldn’t be able.
She heard this phrase often. Other things she wouldn’t be able to do included: driving, taking a taxi, choosing her friends correctly, flying home by herself, remembering names, managing a bank account, interpreting scripture, understanding business, telling a joke.
He brought her maids, one after the next. She learnt their complicated names, and then the names of their children so far away, before he found fault with them, after a fortnight or a month, and sent them away, each in turn. She didn’t know why.
She asked him not to bring any more maids, she’d rather do the work herself.
In her dreams each night she arrived at solutions which when she awoke were immediately forgotten.
He’d overcome his initial sexual reluctance, even if she hadn’t. This aspect of their life was now managed as a monthly encounter. It was another monthly biological necessity, a duty paid to her embodied nature – that is, to God or the fate that had designed her as a woman. It always hurt. And after a while she became pregnant, twice. Two long stretches of nausea, fear, alienation from the body. But she bore two children, which justified almost everything.
A boy then a girl to serve, to pour herself into, to cherish and protect, to laugh with and hold to, loving them as she’d always wanted to love, with energy enough to create a new world of warmth, colour and kindness, a weighted world of the deep and the real – and these children, these in particular, were kind, the boy and girl both, because kindness births kindness, and because God is kind.
But as for the other world, the one she couldn’t yet escape:
It was during the first pregnancy that she discovered Ameer’s disgusting DVDs. One was in the machine so she switched it on. It made her face hot; she’d never seen anything so obscene. Never heard anything as ugly as those cries.
She didn’t plan to mention it but it coiled in her chest and throat like an indigestible worm, and as soon as she saw him, as he threw his keys skittering across the table top, it retched its way out of her mouth.
He wasn’t ashamed, only paused for a moment, rotating his head in surprise.
What do you expect? You think I’m satisfied with your ugly face? Your flat body? I need more than that.
The words were like a whip. She reminded him of God.
I’m a man. God knows that. I can’t help my instincts.
He shook his head more violently, lips parted, eyes staring in shock at the stupidity which didn’t allow her to recognize this.
Nor could he help leering after women in the supermarket. He followed the most vulgar women, all strap-pressurised busts and buttocks, painted eyebrows and black-lined lipstick, the kind who sometimes returned his gaze and even outdid his ogling, as if she, Hooriya, were invisible to them. Such monstrous types – though she knew that wasn’t her business, that wasn’t the point.
Tearfully, trembling, she requested he respect her dignity just a little bit. Why did he have to humiliate her so?
I’m a man, was his usual argument. I’m a man and you are ugly. Women like me. What can I do?
Past an obstruction in her windpipe she asked: Why did you choose me if you don’t like me? Why did you love me if you think I’m ugly?
He cracked a mirthless laugh: You think I ever loved you? You think that’s what I needed you for? You don’t understand how the world works.
She stumbled weeping through the sliding balcony doors. The sun drooping low in the sand-coloured sky, sweat bursting prickling from all her pores, and a sadness so deep, more profoundly vertiginous than the drop to the concrete below. She’d have followed his orders happily if he had only loved her. She gasped, fought the soupish air for breath.
Water was dripping from the air-conditioning, and domestic air was wafting from the flats below – a misplaced staleness, the exhalations of these bitter interiors – and there was faint noise rising from the city, car engines running generators humming alarms bleeping, but the sounds denatured and swirled together, their edges cut off by distance.
She tried for silence. As if to focus on something, but she didn’t know what. As if to hear a whispered answer. She didn’t know even what the question was.
The more she tried the less silence there was. The more the sounds that entered her awareness. Amplified music dulled through space, screeching tyres, a policeman’s whistling. An upward river of human noise.
She whispered a prayer. Give me silence, my God. No human love is necessary. Just peace and quiet, please God, if you are with me.
Silence is the most precious of possessions. It’s what the rich buy. The richer you are, the bigger the sound buffer you wrap around yourself, in the form of multiple rooms, thick walls, vast gardens, security-enforced exclusion zones. Conversely, the poorer and weaker you are, the more you must live in noise. Prisons lie at the furthest extreme of this spectrum. In prison you’re forced to hear the clanking of bars, the slop of buckets, the cursing of guards, the screams of your fellows as they’re beaten and raped. She’d heard whispers about it. She could imagine it.
In the absence of silence, she used the Quran. And if not the Quran the TV. At least she could choose the sound that filled her ears.
On the TV she watched protests spread from one country to another. This is what she was watching on the day she developed the power to control sound. People dancing on hope, singing, laughing, crying, chanting, presenting themselves for sacrifice. Something remarkable was happening. She didn’t watch the news channels usually but this something, this birth or becoming, she wanted to understand.
Ameer walked in clutching a phone to his ear. Yes… Yes… Yes… he told it. He stood so his body obstructed the screen. His face was expressionless. He fumbled for the remote with his free hand, and muted the sound. As if he couldn’t see her sitting there. Yes… Yes… he said. He laughed very loudly. Smileless.
She rose, left for the bedroom, lay down. Soon the volume was up again, but he’d changed the channel. She turned to the wall and visualised a switch.
In her dream he continued saying yes to his phone. Then he turned to her and barked. Mouth cracked open and yaps floating out. There was the switch. So she muted him.
Afterwards she found she could mute him in the waking hours too. More or less. Then when his mouth moved it made only a slight crackling. Noise without meaning. Words which drew no blood. He spoke and she smiled. She smiled until his speaking faltered. He gave a questioning look. Then his eyes hollowed and his cheeks lengthened into a shape which expressed something like fear.
She returned to drawing pictures. As in her girlhood but deeper she probed with her pencil point until she poked through a paper-thin portal and into their dimension. As she drew she was there, beside the lake, beside the lakeside cottages, crossing a bridge over a river, in the green fields and rolling foothills, on the sweeping jagged mountaintops, amid the swirling stars, the sky.
She passed him in the kitchen, or in the corridor. Sniggering into his phone. Sometimes cheap women’s perfume on his clothes. She saw the side of his face in the car, on supermarket trips. At the door, as she delivered the children to be driven to school.
Their monthly encounter was discontinued. The sacrifice of her body. It was she who ended it, with a withering look. One look on his approach so effective he raised no question thereafter. Next day when he was at work she shifted her clothes and notebooks into the spare bedroom, with its access to the balcony. In the evening she told him.
This is mine, you understand?
But that’s not quite the point she wants to make.
I mean, this isn’t yours. You have everything else, but not this. Here you can’t come in. You have no right.
His eyes widened. A dark hole where his mouth had been.
He withdrew, backing off, gaze down, hands raised.
He doesn’t pester her these days. In return she ignores him.
She floats up. Quieter, colder, the higher she goes. Flakes of silent snow.
On TV she has watched the crushing of the people’s hopes. The rejection of their sacrifice.
No TV in her room, but a bed, a chair, a table, a row of books. Love poetry from another planet. Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince. The perspicacious Quran, the beautiful words.
And tacked to the walls are decorations. The names of God. A picture of the Milky Way her elder brother sent. He’s a doctor in Berlin now. A photograph of him and his half-German children arranged before the dome of the Berlin Planetarium. Photographs of her own children. The boy who will work and the girl who will marry, she’ll pass them on to other people, each to their respective fates, unless God wills otherwise. Because they are not hers, the children. She doesn’t own them. These are the fatal facts. And it’s good she doesn’t own them – because, for one example, the girl is stronger than Hooriya was, cannier, wiser to the world. Stubborn, her father calls her. She makes her mother smile.
And there’s a photograph of her younger brother, who is in prison after protesting, ringed and enmeshed in bloody noise. And a photograph of her parents. Her father slowed by a series of heart attacks. Her mother who telephones on Thursday nights, who says she misses her…
It’s a long time ago, she thinks. It doesn’t matter to me now.
Nothing need matter. These days it’s as if her mind is multi-storey. While her hands are busy with slicing, chopping, washing, drying, ironing, folding, she takes the elevator upwards. Lips moving, vocal cords resonating, but she herself is in silence, far above the haze.
At night she closes herself outside on the balcony. She lies down on her back, on dust and air-conditioning spatter. Then she rises. Up through the ether. She finds the road of the drawings, walks past the lake, the lakeside cottages. One night not so far away she’ll resolve never again to descend.