One day while at the house of the woman who bakes dough into bread, I ran into Fatima. I hadn’t seen her in many years, but she had kept in contact with my mother. The line for turning dough into nan was long, so amid the warm, comforting scent of baking bread, we began to talk in a corner of the room away from the ears of others. Fatima told me her story, which I repeat below:
“I lost my mother when I was 18 and was the only girl in my family, living with my father and seven brothers. I worked as a tailor earning enough money to satisfy any personal needs. My father, a civil servant, was kind and did not press me into accepting any of the many marriage proposals that came my way. I did not tell my father, but I had my own idea of the type of man I wanted to marry—my very own dream person. I was determined I would hold out marrying until I met the person who was exactly like the one I had created in my mind.
“My life was pleasant and relatively ordinary until one quiet evening; I was working on a special sewing job when there was a knock at the front door. Looking at the clock, I realized this was about the time that my second brother Farhad should be home from work. I was proud of Farhad because he had just completed his college education. I had no idea how the knock on the door would change my life. I was surprised to see Farhad standing at the door with a girl who was holding a suitcase. I couldn’t imagine why Farhad had knocked, but I did not want to be impolite so I invited the girl in while looking quizzically at Farhad.
“By the look on his face, I started to have an inkling as to what was about to happen but I did not want to believe it. Farhad asked me to go tell our father that he needed to speak with him, and to make sure all of our brothers came into the room. I guess my father had seen them from window, because he burst into the room in his bare feet. Farhad stepped in front of the girl and announced ‘She escaped from her father’s house to be my wife. She is now my wife.’
“That Farhad showed no shame to my father did not surprise me, knowing Farhad. But I could tell by the looks on my brothers’ faces that no one could believe it. Everyone in the family was frozen in their spots, not knowing what to say or do. While we were all staring in mute silence, Farhad went to his room with his new ‘wife.’ No one stopped him. We didn’t know what to do and there really wasn’t anything we could do.
“The first week in the house was strange and strained. Saleha, Farhad’s wife, did not speak to anyone but Farhad. Farhad did not seem to notice the unease that had fallen over the house. One day I overheard Saleha whispering to Farhad that she was afraid that her brother or father might find her. Farhad seemed confident that nothing would come of Saleha’s fears.
“One night about two and a half weeks later, the front door of the house burst open and Saleha’s father and her brothers entered like wild animals jumping out of a cage. My father welcomed them into the house and offered them tea. As I brought the tea, my father tried to calm them down. Saleha’s brothers were yelling so loudly I was sure that the neighbors were aware of what was taking place in our house. I had thought Saleha’s family might be a little respectful because Saleha had gone willingly with Farhad. It was not as if she was kidnapped or coerced.
“After bringing the tea, I listened at the door, becoming angry at the way they were talking to my father with a harsh accent. I wanted to go into the room and remind them that they were talking to a human being, he was my father, it was his house and they were being disrespectful. I was getting madder by the minute as I listened to the cruel strong voice of Saleha’s father. Then I heard Saleha’s father say: ‘Since your son has done this with my daughter, either your daughter should marry my son….’ I became absolutely still; I dried up inside. I thought I am like a wood that they use to heat the room, no matter what. They want me to marry their son, to bring peace. In the haze of my thoughts I heard Saleha’s father continue, ‘So it will be equal and I will be sure that you will not be cruel to my daughter, plus if you do anything to her I will do the same to your daughter when she becomes my son’s wife. The other option is that I will kill every single person in this house plus anyone who tries to defend you.’
“I fainted when I heard the last part of Saleha’s father’s threat. I did not know how my father or brothers responded. When they had gone, my father found me on the ground. He took me to the closest clinic. I came to after two hours. When I realized where I was, I began thinking about what had happened. I wanted it to be a dream but I knew it wasn’t. I didn’t know what the final decision was, but I knew I never wanted to lose my father or anyone from our house. I told myself I had to accept what had happened and sacrifice my life to bring peace. I didn’t expect this to happen to me in any point of my life. But I had to accept that you never know where your destiny takes you.
“When my father came into the room I could see the sorrow in his eyes. As he entered the room he paused. I said: ‘Salaam, padaar jan’; he answered very weakly: ‘Walekom bassalam dokhtarm.’ I tried to pretend that nothing had happened. So I said ‘Chetor hasty padaar jan?’ (Translation: ‘How are you dear father?’) He nodded his head as a sign of fine. I could read my father’s face; I knew him too well. He didn’t pick his head up during the whole time that I was talking to him. He told me the result of the conversation with Saleha’s father. He said he didn’t have any other choice than to accept the deal. ‘He would’ve killed everyone, because he is very powerful,’ my father said as his eyes filled with tears.
“I was engaged within a week. Fortunately, my engagement lasted for two years. During those years, I tried to spend a lot of time with my father. When we were alone in the house, he would talk with me about my future with my in-laws. I would begin to cry and my father would cry with me. Sometimes we would talk and cry for hours and not realize it. My father tried to give me confidence for the day when I would leave his house. He assured me that I would not be treated badly because their daughter would be in our house. But I could tell by my father’s eyes that he did not believe what he was saying. We both knew that bad days were waiting for me. Sometimes my father would come home and find me crying. He would leave again to avoid my crying, which would make him cry. During those two years I watched my father grow old with sorrow. He became as old in two years as he would’ve been in ten years. He suffered a heart attack from the sorrow that surrounded us.
“My engagement time ended and I had to marry. During the marriage ceremony I tried to look happy for my father. I had a strange feeling that if people live for better, I was about to begin living for worse.
“My first week of marriage did not begin well. It seemed as if my new family had made a list of my weak points. They pointed these out and teased me about my brothers and their lack of income. I was determined to be tolerant and accept what was doled out. I told myself that I believed that ‘When a girl marries and goes out of her father’s house, she should come back with a shroud,’ or only after she is widowed. I wanted to be strong for my family.
“If I thought the first week was not going well, it was heaven compared to what waited for me during the second week. My husband’s family told my husband lies about me. My husband never asked for my side of the story. When he came home, he would enter the room and begin yelling at me. Then he would hit me with his belt. He hit me so much that I was not able to stand for three days, and I couldn’t talk for one full day. Beating me with the belt was to become part of our marriage. My beatings averaged about once a week. Afterwards I would be unable to stand for at least a day, sometimes for two.
“I never told my father about the beatings. I always told him that everything was fine and then would cry for hours afterward. I kept everything inside, way down deep inside. I would dream of going into the desert and shouting very loud letting it all out. But I didn’t, I couldn’t, I had no one to share my sorrows with. I had no way to get the grief and turmoil out of my mind.
“My father passed away after five months of my marriage. I felt as if I lost everything with him. I had no one in the world except for Allah. I started talking to him more and more. I would often ask him about my father.
“One day a few months after my father’s passing, my husband entered the room. He asked me why I didn’t listen to his mother? I told him that I hadn’t seen his mother during the whole day, but he didn’t listen to me. He hit me so hard with a thick piece of wood that blood was pouring out of my legs.
“The next night my husband and his family went to a wedding. Reshad, one of my husband’s brothers, was left to guard me. I told Reshad I needed to do some grocery shopping. He didn’t want to take me, so I suggested that he go. I promised to stay home as I had a lot of housework to do. At first Reshad was hesitant, but I was so insistent and could point out all the chores that needed to be done, so Reshad finally gave in and left, saying he would return in a few hours with the groceries.
“When Reshad had been gone for a safe amount of time, I left the house. The moment I stepped out of the house, I felt as if I had become free from jail. I headed for my father’s house. I knew that my husband’s family would come to take me back to their home. I did not care. At that moment, I was free. As I made my way to my father’s house, I looked up at the sky, breathing deep breaths of air, and spoke with Allah.
“About 10:30 the next morning, there was a knock on the door. My heart pounded but I did not let it show. I sent my brother to open the door. As I expected, it was them, wanting to take me back to their house. I stood tall and calmed my pounding heart. I said: ‘I will never ever return to your house.’ So they took Saleha to their house, whether Farhad wanted it or not.
“After they left I asked myself: ‘What should I do now?’ then decided I would live in my father’s room. In this room I can remember my father crying when I was sad, laughing when I was happy, telling me that I was his angel, and a princess. I asked Allah to take me to where my father was, but he would not.
“It has been twelve years since I returned to my father’s house. My brother Farhad has nine children now, but he doesn’t have a happy life. He doesn’t like his wife and he doesn’t trust her. He likes another girl and wants to marry her. I work in their house—my father’s house—like a servant. I’ve had many marriage proposals since I came back from my husband’s house, but I don’t have any good memories from my first marriage. I will never marry again.
“I see my father in my dreams very often and I talk a lot with him; now he knows everything that happened to me in those six months. He says that he didn’t believe me when I told him that I was happy there. He says that he knew everything even when he was alive. He always says that he is ‘proud’ of me, and those are the words I am living with.”
Fatima had come to the end of her story. Her beautiful face belied the last twelve years as she handed the woman her dough for baking.
By Fatima A.