PART I: Where Missing Girls Go
Blankness is a language I've been writing in for years. Where I come from, girls are only called girls because they weren't born boys. There, they teach you how to drink water, but never to address thirst. Or to take more than you need. To want, my mother says, is to poke holes into your own dress; to bring shame onto everyone you've ever met.
So the mornings are spent praying; learning to avoid eye-contact. God is everywhere is recited but it sounds more like a threat than a safety pin. In the afternoons, I'd blend into the damask couches and listen to the things women were supposed to speak about. I'd sit big-eyed and gape at the kohl-caked eyelids; at the silver anklets. I'd close my eyes and slip into a version of my future where I sit right here, draped in reds and blacks, the bracelets around my wrists made only of gold. My husband this and my husband that, I'd say. Their crystal plates full of baklava and a sense of entitlement that I recognized even at the age of eleven. These were women who did not wish to compare their grass to anyone else's. Their pockets were green enough. They breastfed and boasted of new furniture and avoided reading at all costs.
Sometimes, an aunt or some other woman would find me perched on a countertop, and tell me to go play outside. But why? I'd ask. And Why do you have to cover your hair, Auntie? And Why can't I stay here? I had a thousand questions. I had no interest in throwing pebbles at other kids or spending whole winters eating oranges straight off the tree branches. I needed to know why weddings were celebrated for weeks, why if you said the word pregnant, your mother would pinch you until skin turned purple. I had to figure out why we prayed like we've already sinned a thousand times,
And who exactly we prayed to.
I remember the first time an orgasm rippled through me; the phrases Touching Myself and Shaming Myself interchangeable.
That day, I decided I was hell material.
(Years later, my mother would get on her knees and howl. Where did we go wrong? she'd shriek, and I'd almost feel sorry for her.)
But that day, I wore my hair in a ponytail and meandered to the school gates; the principal hinted that I was a slut; the boys actually said it. I was sent to the office for twelve days straight. Every morning we went through the same conversation. Are you not a believer, the principal would ask, his hand already on the piece of wood that was his conviction whip. I'd shake my head. He'd ask me to cover my hair. I'd say no, I can't, I don't want to. That was his cue. He'd take my hand and I'd feel the wood splintering against my skin and the welts wouldn't even have time to bloom before he'd strike again. I almost never cried.
Still, I went to the classes and got the highest grades. I was the only pianist in the school. The teacher said my voice was half-honey-half-husky, so I got to read the national anthem every morning, voice so poised it made the other girls squirm. I got to mast the green flag as the whole school watched. I competed across the country, wore short white skirts and stood on stages; recited poetry and received bouquets of red flowers. Best Voice Award goes to this doomed girl. The people with pre-booked tickets to heaven sat in their scarves and clapped.
Once, I was walking down the school passage and two boys decided their hands deserved a little treat. One stood in front of me, the other slid his hands down my ass and squeezed my hips, my breasts, my neck—slut he spat. He pulled my hair. Said, This is why you don't cover it, isn't it? Said this is what I had coming. Said he'd get me alone soon enough. The other one just watched as I stood there, muted.
I think I must've known I was leaving. I think I was already gone then. This slut fled the borders one autumn night. This slut is sipping tea, sitting in a town eons away, where the mountains flirt back and the sky is overeager to shower her in tomorrows. This slut accidentally found your obituary on Facebook and grinned so hard her lip split. Nineteen-year-old fatally wounded, the post said. This slut hit Like. Maybe all those prayers didn't go to waste after all.
Before a girl is born, the parents sit down and spend weeks, sometimes months, trying to decide on a name for her. They look up meanings and practice the names that make the cut; see what sounds sweetest. And fair enough, when a girl is two and begins to recognize her own name—what it means to possess one—she responds. But do you know what happens to the girls whose biological names no longer stir them? What happens to the ones who are called sluts-immodest-hungry-shameful so often they forget that their passports say something else?
They chew their way through dictionaries.
They go missing.
PART II: Homeless Households
A girl is born and then a girl dies. That's the orderly manner in which one is expected to exist. But the sliver of something in between these two states—the thing we call living—now that's the shit worth writing about. Living. What a word. How light and lethal.
The place of which I'm about to speak is a distant one. Let's call it Nowhere for now. In Nowhere, things happen in slow motion—so slow the rest of the world thinks it imagined the movement. Children are born and olive trees are picked and houses are built and siestas are taken. A few million people living on the coast, harmonious for the most part. The women wear the same brands and flaunt them; the men smoke their cigarettes and are allowed to raise their voices, and the children do their mysterious children things.
Yesterday and tomorrow differ only in that there's a today separating them. Time lies in a hammock on the beach and dangles between sunrise and sunset. The Mediterranean Sea is a three-minute walk from where I live. The tap water is salty; summer is always here. Air conditioners wheeze their way through long afternoons and my fingers are watermelon-sticky for the better part of the year. This kind of living is easy. Fishermen sell their catch and we buy; Mother prepares the food and we eat. I can still taste those July nights, where we rent a house even closer to the beach, because why not, because money is spent yet somehow never runs out, because smell the sea, because look at the sky, because privilege.
If I shut my eyes and squeeze hard enough, I can still see the rocks, the morning dew falling onto the wet waves just for pleasure. How unnecessary, I think now. But how beautiful, too. This is a safe place, I remember realizing. These people are harmless with their set ways and fuzzy futures. This is a place for palm trees and permanence. This is what it means to be sheltered.
I write in the hope that you will forgive my ignorance. That one day I will forgive my ignorance. Of course things would change; of course Time would wake up one morning and realize it's wasted enough years. Of course tragedy would track us down, eventually. At the age of thirteen, I was not what one would call a pessimist. I was destined to go to hell; that I knew and accepted, but I did nothing in the way of altering my fate. I neither prayed nor fornicated. So you understand why when the 13thof February creeped towards me, and the air reeked of burnt tires and change, I did not think much of it. Things happened, we all knew, realities were transformed, we agreed, but not here. Not now. I recall that particular Friday night, how I watched a bunch of boys not much older than I was set the Green Book on fire. They chanted irrelevant things, I recall thinking. Freedom? For all the space we had in this marble-floored house, we had no room for such concepts. Freedom. I remember tasting the word the way I would unfamiliar fruit. Sweet, but exotic, a luxury not missed when there were so many others.
Saturday morning was a messier affair. The sky did that thing it does, thrusting upon you the unlikeliest of situations then smugly sitting there, waiting for you to protest. And my, did the people protest. Within hours, there were hundreds of men on the streets. The Spring Revolution they called it. I? I wanted to call my dad. Tell him to come salvage what he could of us. On Sunday, I woke up to the distant sound of gunshot. No school today, said Mother. Indifferent, really. Her father was a grammarian, her mother a mathematician, and she had gone to medical school. So knowledge bored her, and she never once forced me to get up for school. Learning was a mere hobby here. You went to school to get through the long mornings. You went to school because the sun was too sloppy for you to go swimming. That morning I still sipped on almond drinks and ate pistachio cookies. I went outside and blinked begrudgingly. I walked into my bedroom and found my mother packing. We were to go to the farmhouse, a place far from open-fire, a place that was supposed to hide our breaths and protect our frail bodies. The TV was split into two halves, the national half said that a few scummy rebels had set out to disturb the peace; CNN wrote The People of Nowhere Rise and Dust off 40 Years' Worth of Injustice. We locked the house and left.
The first time I heard a woman wail, I threw up. Death did that to people. I stared at my vomit for a while before walking towards the sound. A woman was on her knees, howling. Youth trickled down her face, grief aging her before my eyes. She couldn't have been older than twenty-three, her baby on the floor next to her. Her husband was gone. All it took was a sniper and a body full of mortality. I stared at her, how the women surrounded her like flower petals as she sat there on the floor for days, a blooming anguish. I remember distantly wondering whether her mouth had always looked like that, whether she'd always had difficulty moving her tongue. I remember how she'd take five-minute breaks when her body refused to heave; how she'd sit unblinking, staring at the bag of clothes she'd packed for him not two nights before. I remember how we all took a step back, watching this wounded animal mourn her life in silence until another memory gushed through her. My husband, she'd stutter, her loss-mangled eyes unseeing. Mine mine mine. That was my earliest definition of love.
That night I didn't set the alarm for school. I stood outside the door and heard Mother tell the driver not to come back until further notice. There was no further notice. Nobody comes back when time is on fire. No tomorrow is close enough, I'd learn that years later; forget it, too. The next morning: more blood. More people on the street, their chants a little sharper now. Someone must have uttered the word revenge for the first time. Someone must have picked up the first gun. Someone fucked us over.
The hunger seeped in slowly and overnight. No breakfast today. Lunch was inedible bread dipped in olive oil, but the pomegranate was still on the table. I recall equating foods with levels of safety. As long as we still eat almonds, my foolish mind went, we are still okay. The bakeries started closing down. Dinner was whatever Mother found in the freezers she kept outside, the ones where she stored foods she thought we'd never need. Were these peas? Did it matter? Was Mother crying?
There were twenty relatives living with us now. One night I was Skyping Father—asking him how he was, what he had for dinner, whether I'd ever see him again—when the electricity was cut. I took that personally. And when I asked an older woman leaning against the fridge what we were having for supper, and she muttered, We are dining on patience,
I began to sob.