You’re fifteen. You finally get your first period. Your aunts congratulate you on becoming a woman. “Alhamdullilah,” they say, as if the tender breasts, moody dispositions and carbohydrate cravings are things to celebrate. You wonder how they can disregard the pimples, crater-like monsters that materialise around your chin like clockwork every month; too deeply rooted to pop, and impossible to disguise with your mother’s concealer.
You feel it all seems like a nuisance – womanhood – but you’re thrilled when you find out you can skip a month of fasting during Ramadan and a week of prayers every month. You and your father develop a code.
“Salaitee?” he’ll ask as usual.
“Later,” you’ll respond.
You still have to go to Qur’an classes with your brother, Khalid, but you’re not allowed to recite anything when you bleed. You can only hold the edges of each page – your fingers can’t touch actual scripture. You’re a little offended by this but you’re mostly happy to get out of it. You take great pleasure in Khalid’s annoyance that he has to do double the work.
Your body starts to change rapidly. Your nipples start to show from underneath your t-shirts. Your mother buys you trainer bras. You’d grown used to plucking the four wispy, fine hairs that appeared around your pubic area. Now there are too many coarse, curly ones to keep track of. When you shower, you start to notice that the warm running water feels good in between your legs, creating an even warmer sensation that runs to your toes. You don’t dream of telling anyone about this – even though you sense that your body is no longer your own. You feel it becoming a communal concern.
Your father starts to take more interest in your clothes. You’re about to leave the house one day to go to your friend Nada’s birthday party – he makes you change out of your skinny jeans into a looser pair. When Coach Sarah has her baby, and Coach Ahmed starts to help your team, he stops letting you play basketball.
“It’s not right,” he says. “For you to wear those sports clothes in front of a grown man.”
Your father is a short man who wears bold agarwood perfumes and has a big reputation in Shamal Town. “Remember who you are,” he reminds you constantly. “You are the daughter of Ahmed Salman Al Majid.”
You become quick-witted. You master the art of storytelling. You realise it’s in your benefit to make him feel like he has control. It’s not deception, it’s protection. You tell him you have advanced English classes after school every Wednesday so you can go to basketball practice. You learn to replace male names with female ones, even saving them on your phone that way. Salman to Safia. Ali to Aliyah. Luay to Leila.
You’re sixteen. You become captain of your school’s basketball team. You notice a tall boy with light hair staring at you at one of your away games. You become conscious of your body and miss a shot. Your team still wins and on your way home, as you walk to the bus, he stops you.
“You dropped something,” he says. He looks into your eyes for a full three seconds as he leans towards you to hand you a hair-clip. You focus on each second’s passing and forget to breathe. You eventually inhale. You draw in the smell of his sweat mixed with a fresh yet spicy fragrance. The hair clip is not yours, but you take it, say thank you and run to your bus.
You sign into MSN that evening. You get a friend request from o.·´¯`·->мσhaмєd<-·´¯`·.o – I’м α $trαight яidαh, yσu dσn’t wαηηa fu¢k with мє (email@example.com). You know it’s him and accept immediately. You begin to chat every day after school. Soon you start talking on the phone.
Your mother starts to ask, “Who are you talking to every day?”
“Just my friend Mona,” you say.
You talk and talk for hours and discover you both have a shared love for George Clooney, Michael Jordan and Chips Oman. You also learn that both your mothers are English, but his father goes to a different kind of mosque from yours. When you discover this – that he’s not the right kind – you feel a weight on your chest you can’t seem to fully ignore.
You decide to meet a few months later in person. You spritz on a fruity, patchouli cologne and go to the cinema. No one will see you together there. You tell your parents you’re meeting your friend Mona. By now you’re a pro, practically method acting. You do have a friend called Mona and checked with her beforehand to confirm she’ll be at the same mall as you. You’re watching Syriana but you can’t focus on the actors attempting to speak Farsi because you keep trying to find hand positions that seem natural. You suck on each popcorn flake one at a time, waiting for them to get soft before chewing so you don’t make a loud munching noise. Your pinkie finds Mohamed’s and you finally relax whilst getting excited, but you get a text.
It’s your mother.
“Where are you?” she asks.
“I told you, I’m at the cinema with Mona.”
“I need to pick you up now, your father’s car broke down, and he needs to use mine later.”
You apologise to Mohamed, begrudgingly, and leave the cinema. You’re furious. You don’t know how, but you know she knows. Your mother adopts even the most trivial remarks from your father to lay down the law with an added vigilance. It annoys you because she’s not even from here. You say nothing as you sit in her car, fermenting rage.
You get home and your brother is smiling, coyly, “Where were you?” he hisses.
Your mother intervenes, “Go to your room, Khalid!” He heads to his room as you make your way towards yours.
“Not you, Latifa. Come with me.”
You follow her to her room in silence and sit on her bed as she gets ready to sleep. She puts on her emerald green nightgown. You watch as she rubs her amber and clove perfume oil onto her neck, wrists and the crook of her elbows. It reminds you of how she suppressed a wince and faked a smile when your father gifted it to her. She brushes her hair and wraps it up in a bun and finally says something.
“Your aunt Miriam’s friend saw you in the cinema with a boy. You don’t have to explain but listen to me when I say the next time something happens, I will tell your father.”
You don’t listen to her. You slam her door, run to your room and text Mohamed to tell him everything is fine – your mother’s just being stupid. You don’t have to meet – the constant communication continues, and you devour him in hypnotic bliss. Each revelation of his is intoxicating to you, no matter how small. You love that he sticks his tongue out when he dribbles a basketball, just like Michael Jordan did. You find it hilarious that he likes to dip his French fries in his McDonald’s ice cream cone. He tells you he loves your hooked nose which makes you start to like it a little. He teases you for saying tom-ah-to and says he loves your laugh. You feel loved and seen. You feel seen. That heaviness in your chest becomes lighter, it’s barely there.
You and your mother are sitting in your grandma’s house in Shamal Town one day while your father and Khalid go to Friday prayers. Your grandma goes through the usual motions, smoking her hookah whilst watching Noor, the Turkish melodrama that everyone you know is obsessed with.
“You’re so beautiful,” she tells you like clockwork. “The only good thing your mother gave you was fair skin.”
As always, your mother laughs so loud as if to ensure no one questions the genuineness of her humour, “You’re so funny, I can’t take it,” she says.
You ignore them, sipping your cardamom laced coffee, counting the minutes until your father arrives so it’s closer to leaving time.
You become deeply fixated on Noor, without realising. The show ends abruptly with a kidnapping and the three of you gasp simultaneously as your father bursts through the front door. Instead of kissing your grandma’s forehead and taking his usual spot on the cushion next to her, he scans the room with keen eyes, walks towards you, and grabs the remote from your side.
He switches off the rolling credits, looks first at your mother whose head tilts down, then at you. You’re nervous but you don’t know why. But you might know why.
“Is it true?” he asks you slowly, quietly.
“That you went to the mall with a boy, for everyone to see? And not just any boy,” he roars. “Someone from the Chehabi family.”
There’s a shrillness in his inflection of ‘Chehabi’ that makes the heaviness press down on your chest again.
You try to stay composed in the face of his burning gaze. Approximately thirty long seconds pass. Think, you tell yourself. Think. It can’t be that bad if you tell him you weren’t alone.
You play it cool, “Yes, Baba, but I was with Mona and other friends.”
“It doesn’t matter. You are the daughter of Ahmed Salman Al Majid. I can’t have people calling you a bitch.”
Your tear ducts fail you at the sound of bitch. You feel a wetness roll down your cheek. You look at your mother whose head is bowed and wonder what kind of sick pleasure she gets from this.
“Give me your phone,” he beckons. “I will block that son of a bitch. No Chehabi will ruin my name.”
“I’ll do it,” your mother intervenes, taking it from your side.
You hear the door swing open and see Khalid smile sheepishly as he tiptoes into the living room. Now you understand.
Your father proceeds to his usual spot and drinks his cardamom coffee before you all drive back home in silence. As you make your way to your room, your mother grabs your arm. “I told you to be careful,” she says in what you now recognise as a blunt kindness. “I’ll keep your phone until he calms down.”
You sign into MSN get a flurry of messages from o.·´¯`·->мσhaмєd<-·´¯`·..o.
“Latifa, hello? Where have you been? I’ve been texting you all night. Are you okay? Hello?”
“I’m fine,” you reply. “My phone died, but we can talk on here. OMG, did you watch Noor tonight?”