The Interview

by Ares Demertzis (Feb. 2008)

 

In memory of the Muslim teenagers Aqsa Parvez, Amina Said, and her sister Sarah; three of an untold number sacrificed on the altar of ignorance.

 

(i)

 

“May Allah curse the day we set foot on infidel soil!” exclaimed the thin voice of a shriveled old woman.  She was dressed in black, with the hijab held snugly in place over her hair.  A stream of spittle inadvertently pushed through two remaining yellow teeth concealed behind parsimonious, flaccid lips, the saliva trickling leisurely to form an erratic, moist streak across her coarse and bristly chin.  We were sitting cross-legged on frayed carpets, high on a rock-strewn promontory under a deformed and twisted olive tree whose coiled roots grasped with an implausible tenacity the parched and unyielding stony earth.  I was taking notes on the few remaining blank pages of a rectangular pocket notebook.  The dull, metallic clank of goat bells drifted in our direction.

The old woman’s cloudy eyes gazed out at the unbroken expanse of a calm, unstirring grey sea, which in the far distance dissolved without a perceptible horizon into an identical grey, cloudless sky.  She lowered her head to purposely spit at the hard earth with earnest vehemence in an expressive display of profound condemnation.

“May Allah curse the day we set foot on infidel soil!” she repeated.

Assala´am Alaikum.”

It was the shepherd’s voice addressing us in greeting.  He was an ancient man, his leathery features severely creased by insistent exposure to the merciless environment, his back stooped with unforgiving age, his goats carelessly roaming and bleating about us.

Walaikum as Sala'am,” the old woman courteously responded.

“There are no longer young people among us,” she whispered in complaint, “only we ancients waiting impatiently for an end to our suffering.  All our young people have left for the cities, some also to the lands of the infidel; there they will regret their foolishness, as I also weep for my folly.”

Many years ago, as the first crimson streaks of a new day painted the edge of the earth, she had helped her husband pack the donkey with their meager possessions: cardboard boxes wrapped in thick twine to withstand a long and arduous voyage.  Then the three of them initiated a steep descent from their mountain village to an insignificant town whose only reason for being was the protective harbor that connected this insular society with a foreign outside world.  Her husband led the way along a narrow path guiding the burdened animal; she followed with her infant daughter cradled to her bosom.

“I named my daughter Aasiyeh, screaming with the pain of my first childbirth.  I named her as I was pushing her unwilling body into the world, the midwife pulling hard, tearing my flesh, “Aasiyeh, you will be called!  Aasiyeh, the disobedient one!”  I cried.  It was an error; my terrible blunder, for it is written that a name is meaningful.  One’s life is determined by their given name, and the Holy Qur´an says that Allah will call you by your name on Yaum al-Qiyamahthe, the Day of Resurrection.”

“I promised my daughter at her birth that she would not marry a poor man.  Something better was to be her destiny; a worthy husband, a superior gentleman of quality, an educated person; a man with smooth, unscarred hands, without broken fingernails, without calluses, whose palms would not scratch the skin of those he touched.  For that something better, for the love deep in our hearts for our child, we abandoned our home, our village, our friends.  We traveled to the Dar al Harb, the land of the infidel, for our daughter.  May Allah curse that day for all eternity!”

 

(ii)

 

The bus roared away from the curb, leaving Aasiyeh, now a teenager, on the crowded city sidewalk; her head covered with a hijab, her legs hidden under a long, black skirt.  She stood seemingly confused, undecided, surrounded by a multitude of unbelievers; rushing non-Muslim pedestrians sweeping indifferently past her motionless, uniformed presence.  Hesitantly, she made her way to a corner of the chaotic intersection, determined to find succor in a still more alien environment in order to amend her fixed destiny, but the traffic signal blazed a bright crimson, impeding her further progress.  She turned and strode resolutely to a different crossing, urgently seeking a solution to what she intrepidly revealed in a hushed voice, only to her most trusted girlfriends, as an undiagnosed schizoid crisis of identity.  On that corner she again vacillated, reconsidered, turned about and scurried away in abject defeat.

“You come late again!” her father admonished in their native language as she walked into the store.  It was forbidden for the family to communicate amongst themselves in the idiom of the infidel; the language, traditions, and rituals of their ancestors were to be maintained as if they had never departed from that hallowed soil they were obligated to forever consider their home.

“I’m sorry, Baba, I had to read from some books in the school library.”

Her father grunted; an unconvinced, suspicious response.  “Go help your mother,” was his laconic command.

Aasiyeh, timorously slipped through a heavy curtain that separated the front of the store from the shadowy recesses within; a long veil whose purpose was to conceal the interior functioning of the business.  Her mother and numerous female siblings were busily preparing pans of baklava, graibeh, mammul, and other Middle Eastern pastry delicacies that her father and brothers sold from a refrigerated showcase at the front of the establishment.  Accompanying her mother were two younger women with their infants, Aasiyeh´s half brothers and sisters.  As the business prospered, her father had arranged with their relatives in the village to wed other women.  They were known to the infidel authorities and the non-Muslim neighbors simply as relatives: aunts and cousins.  The Muslim community and the officiating imam at the mosque correctly identified them as her father’s legitimate wives.

Aasiyeh was aware that this situation was, unlike in Islamic countries, anomalous and illegal.  However, her foremost concern was the likely reaction of her non-Muslim friends at school who undoubtedly would consider this state of affairs preposterous, perhaps even ludicrous, provoking them to publicly humiliate her by verbally expressing overt amusement.  The unbelievers, also called infidels and heathens, were more commonly known to the Muslim community as kaffir, a discriminatory term much like “nigger,” which in English speaking societies is considered an unacceptable label for the black race, as is “honky” and “whitey” an improper, descriptive expression for Caucasians.  Her embarrassment caused her to never divulge her address, fearful of her father’s reaction should a kaffir classmate visit; she refrained from inviting non-Muslim friends, a circumstance that elicited much satisfaction from her parents.  It was a strict obligation for her people to avoid forming friendships with the kaffir.

Her father would habitually open the Qur´an, and point with a rigid finger to verse 5:51.  He would then order sternly: “Read!”  Aasiyeh did not have to read, she had, as all Muslim children, memorized through countless hypnotic recitations all of the verses of the Holy Book at the madrassa.  Nevertheless she would obediently hold open the book and intone solemnly: “Do not take the Jews and Christians for friends; whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them.”

A smile of satisfaction would cross her father’s features.  “The exact word of Allah!  Not a comma, not a period can be changed!”  He would gently kiss her forehead with abrasively mustached lips.  “You have spoken well, my daughter.”

“I love you, Baba.”

“Where have you been?” her mother inquired accusingly as Aasiyeh passed through the curtain into the back of the store.

“Ummi, I have good news!  My teacher says I am one of the finalists for a college scholarship.”

“Your father will decide this,” her mother answered somberly.

“I want to go to college, Ummi.”

“Your path in life is to marry and have children, not to be smart.”

“But, I want to get an education!”

“Oh, Allah!  Stop wasting time and get to work!  You are late, and there is much to do.”

 

(iii)

 

The sun was still hidden behind thick clouds.  The old woman scratched a flaccid breast through the shapeless, black material of her dress, shiny from countless hand iron pressings.  Respecting the rules of Adab, the Muslim etiquette of good manners and courtesy, a woman approached from a crumbling mud brick house with a tray of delicacies.  She invited us to share a pot of steaming sage tea, hummus, baba ganush, tabuleh, and warm pita bread with which to scoop the food from their individual plates, exclusively implementing the right hand.  It was a generous display of traditional Islamic hospitality.  Muhammad imposed rules for everything; submission to precise regulations governs every aspect of Muslim life, including how to sit, urinate and defecate.

“My daughter began frequently to come late from school.  I suspected her excuses to be no more than lies,” the old woman continued.  “I asked my eldest son to accompany me one afternoon; a Muslim woman does not walk alone on the street, as is the custom of corrupt Western females.  We two went together to spy on Aasiyeh outside her school.”

They watched hidden from across the street as Aasiyeh, shockingly flaunting a short skirt, her long hair cascading without restraint across her shoulders, laughed and frolicked with her classmates, boys and girls, in the schoolyard.  A pale teenage boy touched her hair as he whispered into her ear; Aasiyeh burst into elated shrieks of youthful delight.

“He touched her hair!  By Allah!  He touched her hair!”  Even after all the intervening years, the old woman was visibly distressed by the recollection.  She continued narrating how she and her husband waited impatiently for their daughter at the store; how after the young girl arrived he furtively locked the door to the business and placed the “closed” sign in the window.  Aasiyeh´s father then strode angrily into the work area.  Seizing her by the hijab covering her hair, he forcibly pressed his daughter to the floor, face down, straddling her shoulders with the full weight of his body to immobilize her.  It was nightmarish for me to imagine this fragile old woman now sitting before me, the mother of the struggling, beleaguered teenager, as a younger woman seizing her daughter’s legs to assist her husband in accomplishing their prearranged aggression.  The old woman admitted that Aasiyeh´s desperate resistance, her forceful thrusting and kicking, was so vigorous that she was unable to restrain her daughter.

“Help your mother, you stupid donkey!” her husband shouted to their eldest son who was indifferently observing the castigating spectacle along with the rest of the extended family.  “And you, ignorant filth!” he shouted to one of his wives, “put a cloth in her mouth to silence the screaming!”

Her husband slipped the leather belt from his trousers, he tugged at the end of Aasiyeh´s long skirt until the hem reached her waist; he then also pulled up the shorter immoral garment she had hidden underneath.  The leather belt cracked like a whip across the white nylon covering Aasiyeh´s buttocks; muffled howls of pain issued from her open mouth stuffed with a dishrag.  Slender rivulets of crimson unhurriedly stained the thin material.

I initially assumed their objection to be a consequence of Aasiyeh´s age; she being an immature teenager engaging in a flirtation unacceptable to what I uncomfortably was obliged to acknowledge as the vestige of an antiquated provincial morality. I attempted to justify the appalling behavior against a defenseless minor by refusing to subjectively judge their venerable culture and traditions by my ignoble Western values.  I was loathe to succumb to a prejudice that considered their aggression as deriving from convictions intrinsic to an obsolete, fossilized, and dysfunctional society. My intellect insisted that there must be an equivalence between our two radically divergent societies; a relativism that compelled me to embrace their culture as simply one more example of the limitless diversity of the human species. 

An alarming thought unexpectedly occurred to me: deference to thoughtless, uncritical relativism provokes irresponsible confusion.  There does indeed exist a chasm separating the primitive and the instinctual from enlightened, rational logic; the abyss alienating a feudal, medieval civilization from the twenty first century.  Closed, narrow-minded mentalities, the product of tribally nurtured customs, are undeserving of obsequiousness in the name of multiculturalism.

I snatched a page from my notebook and quickly scribbled these thoughts, stuffing the memo into my shirt pocket for later inquiry; they seemed significant concepts on which to later elaborate.  

But age was not the issue with Aasiyeh; the Prophet Muhammad married his favorite wife, Aisha, when she was six years old, and penetrated her at nine.  Muhammad, the model of Islamic conduct, uswa hasana, the Perfect Man, al-insan al-kamil, he who must be emulated by all Muslims, religiously compelled the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the close of the twentieth century to legislate nine as the legal age for a female to be given away in marriage.  In reality, the reprehensible, unpardonable offense was that Aasiyeh´s person had been defiled by the touch of a flaxen haired kaffir, which she calculatingly provoked by exposing her uncovered, naked flesh.

Later that evening, as her mother tenderly smeared olive oil across the scarlet welts, Aasiyeh confessed in a whisper:  “It was not Allah’s will for me to be a Muslim.” 

“Quiet!  If they hear you, you will be killed.”

“Stoning is illegal in this country, Ummi.”

“Your father will send you back.  You will be made an example for others not to follow your wayward path.  You dishonored your family.  Your grandparents, your relatives, they will make a deep hole to put you in, then they will throw stones to burst your head like a watermelon!”

Isa ibn Maryam in a different Holy Book said: Let him that is without sin cast the stone at her.

The blow was so swift and unexpected that only the blood gushing angrily in a thick cascade from Aasiyeh´s nose bore witness to the violence; her mother’s hand still hovered threateningly in the air.

Shaitan!  You whore!  You have blackened our name, and you dare speak of the infidel faith?  Who taught you their deceptions?  By Allah, that surely is a sin deserving of death! Have you forgotten what the Prophet Muhammad, peace be untu him, said? Baddala deenahu, faqtuluhu!

“I love you, Ummi, I’m sorry I can’t be an obedient daughter.  Please don’t hurt me any more.”

 

(iv)

 

“The kaffir harbi who lived in the apartment house across the street told the police that my daughter climbed over the railing and jumped to the street.  They were lying.  They detest Muslims and will make up ridiculous stories to shame us.  Aasiyeh was cleaning the terrace when she slipped and fell.  It was an accident.  It was not suicide; do you understand?”

I finished my tea and looked away on the pretext of setting the empty glass back to the tray, eager on avoiding her incisive, questioning look.  I was awkwardly reluctant to share the old woman’s grief, devastatingly exposed by the silent, copious tears bursting from her eyes.

“Oh, Allah!  There is so much pain that fills this mother’s heart!  All she was asked to do was submit.  She threw away her life by disobedience.”

We sat silently for what seemed a very long time.  I was hesitant about leaving her at this critically poignant moment, not wanting to be uncharitable, although there was no expression of consolation I felt comfortable in communicating; no words of solace that I could convey with any sincerity.

I closed my notebook and slipped it into my jacket.  I returned my ballpoint to its customary place in the breast pocket of my shirt, untidily bulging with receipts, a used bus ticket, a pencil with a broken point, and pieces of indecipherably scrawled folded papers that at their writing I considered to be significant observations.  There was also a four leaf clover in a transparent envelope that my girlfriend gave me for good luck on this assignment; superstition is another of our tenacious, domineering tyrants.  “That’s his office,” my colleagues at the magazine would laughingly declare, mocking me good naturedly. 

The old woman was my last interview for a feature story on a covert phenomenon within the Muslim world and the Islamic Diaspora known as “virgin suicides”; young girls who take their life in lieu of stoning by their relatives.  Somehow, I suspected that my editor wouldn’t publish what I was going to write, fearful the Muslims would consider it an affront to their culture. 

“Are you Muslim?” the old woman asked.

“Yes,” I lied.

Alhumdulilah!  she shouted jubilantly, and continued:  “Then of course you will understand.  Everything we did for our children we did out of love for them.  Aasiyeh should have made us proud by choosing to be a shaheed, as her brother who martyred himself years later.  He killed many infidels and is now content in the gardens of Jannah.  Not everyone living on earth will be so rewarded in the afterlife; only a shaheed is granted the pleasures of Paradise immediately.”

Then she added with determined conviction:  “Aasiyeh should have put on the belt to strike terror into the hearts of the unbelievers; to slay them wherever they are found, until they believe in Allah and his Messenger, as it is written in the Holy Qur´an.    La Ilaha Illa Allah.”

  

END 

 

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