The Fatima Jihad
Published in Nothing But Red* (2008)
Each woman wore a black robe that covered her from head to toe. Folds of heavy cotton hid their mouths and noses, only glimpses of shiny eyes could be seen. Impossible to tell if they were old, young, beautiful or plain. Their only difference lay in their height. Otherwise, all were identical. They filed past the coffin and dropped rose petals onto the black silk draped over it. Red and pink rose petals were all that fell. Tears stayed put, lining eyes with hot wetness that refused to budge.
Inside the coffin was a young woman. She was bound with rope and gagged with cotton. On her chest was a photograph. Her eyes were wide open. As each footstep drew near, she tried to cry out, to thump the sides of the heavy wood to let them know she was alive, but the footsteps drew near then faded. Afterwards there was a rocking motion, the sound of earth hitting the top of the coffin and then silence.
For hours she struggled, refusing to believe she had been condemned to die. Death finally came in the form of suffication and the dogs left the cemetery. They had whined and barked over her grave, but now that the sounds had ceased, there was no reason to linger.
The girl turned to bones and the photograph faded. There was no reason to think that the bones and the picture would cause strife, but fifty years later, someone dug a hole and found them.
A war monument was to have been built on the banks of a sluggish river. Permission had been granted. Permits were issued and contractors hired. Then a storm broke the dam holding the river and the building site was washed away. Not to be deterred, the company simply unfolded the map a bit more and pushed everything back fifty feet. Shovels were handed out; the ground was broken.
The first graves were found and their bones tossed into a flatbed truck. The bones were hollow, light, and tinkled like glass when they broke. Teeth gleamed like little pearls in the dust. There was no particular order to the graves, and some held three or four small bodies. This was the old children’s cemetery, there for centuries but unused now. Rye grass grew sparsely over arid dirt and scattered rocks.
The workers were hard put to dig in the hard ground: it was easier to dig up the graves. Some workers found beaded bracelets and little trinkets attached to slender bones. These were quickly tucked into pockets after a furtive glance at the overseer. He was a stern man, with strange jade-colored eyes. He had never fired one of his workers, but he was strict. If he caught someone stealing, there would be trouble. For this reason, when the man holding a piece of paper noticed the overseer looking in his direction, he raised his arm and called out, ‘over here, boss. I found something odd.’
The bones were greenish and still heavy. They were larger than the bones found thus far, and hadn’t been in the ground as long. Rope still held the arms and a gag was still wedged in the jaw.
The overseer stood staring for a minute, then he plucked the photo from the workers hand and he studied it intently. He drew a sharp breath.
“So it was true,” he murmured.
At first, Fatima hadn’t wanted to believe her mother was dead. Her father and uncles told her how it happened – she went to fetch a glass of water in the middle of the night and fell down the stairs. There was blood enough to prove it, as well as a broken tooth found nearby.
Fatima kept the tooth and only showed it to her twin brother. Then they celebrated their seventh birthday. She was confined to the woman’s part of the house and she never saw Jamal again. That was fifty years ago. Now she was an old woman, prematurely gray, wrinkled, faded by housework and childbirth. Her children were all gone. Three boys off to war, three girls married as soon as they were fifteen. The boys had been killed; an official from the army came to the door three weeks in a row and announced their deaths one after another. The girls were now members of another family, and she never heard from them. Illiterate, they could not write. Poor, they had no telephone. Women, they could not drive or leave their houses except accompanied by a chaperon.
Fatima lived in a three-room house with eighteen rugs and three empty beds. A milk goat was tethered to the tree in the back courtyard and Fatima gathered grass for it every day. At night she milked it and drank the fresh, sweet milk. There was a fireplace in her kitchen and water in a well, three blocks away. Water, grass, firewood – these were the reasons Fatima lived. Her husband had gone to war, but there had been no news from him in years. The war ended ten years ago and Fatima supposed he had stayed in the mountains or died.
The day Jamal came back, she was sitting in her courtyard watching the goat eat, and scratching a flea beneath her voluminous robes. The sight of Jamal stirred no memories. Her first thought was – it’s news from my husband. Then the jade-green eyes, mirrors of her own, met hers and she froze.
“Are you a ghost?” she asked.
Jamal was startled. He had been trying to equate this old woman with the memories he had of a willowy girl with a gap-toothed smile and long, teak-colored hair. “I’m Jamal, your brother,” he said.
“I know that. It’s good to see you alive.” After an awkward moment, Fatima stood up, sighed, and straightened her robe. “Would you like some tea?” she asked politely. The last strangers to come here had been officials. Her neighbors were all familiar, and sometimes they drank mint tea in the evenings in her courtyard.
“Please.” Jamal sat on a bench beneath the Judas tree and watched his sister build a fire in the clay oven and set a battered tin teapot on the stove. She cut mint from the herb garden and crushed it into a glass, then poured boiling water over it. She put the glass on a tray and held it out to him. He took it and said, “thank you.”
She watched him drink, sorrow in her eyes. “Why did you wait so long?” she asked, when he’d finished.
Jamal looked aver at the nanny goat, straining against its tether in its endless attempts to reach the meager herb garden. There was a bald spot all around its neck where the rope rubbed. Its eyes were yellow and mad. “Does she always stand on her hind legs like that?” he asked.
Fatima shrugged. “You can see the holes her feet have worn in the stone.”
Jamal took the picture from his pocket. “Look what I found.”
Fatima took it and held it close. Her eyesight was poor, but she could make out the two faces staring at her from fifty years away. Two six-year-old children with their arms looped over each other’s shoulders and their best clothes on in honor of the itinerant photographer. They had identical missing teeth and jade-green eyes. One had long hair and one was a boy. “Where did you find it?”
“In a grave near the river, where we’re digging the foundations for the war monument.”
“What was it doing there?”
“It was in our mother’s grave.” Jamal rubbed his face. “Her bones were still tied with rope. She was buried alive.”
Fatima was silent for a long time, thinking about that. “The women knew, didn’t they. I recall Granny nearly breaking my hand in her grip, and no one dared cry.”
Jamal said, “we knew something was wrong. I remember hearing whispers.”
“So we were right. All those lies they fed us, all the stories they invented.” Fatima spoke in a monotone. Her face, half hidden behind the veil, was pale. She glanced at Jamal. “Do you realize what this means?”
“She was going to take us away with her,” he said. “We would have lived in a different world.”
Fatima nodded. “How do you suppose she met him?”
“He came to study the ruins in the countryside, near our grandfather’s farm. I remember that he was tall, and had a golden moustache.”
“He ate dinner every night with the men in our house, and wrote on a notebook that he kept in his pocket. I asked him to teach me to write and he told me that he would, someday.”
Jamal was silent. “You still can’t write, can you?”
“No.” Silent laughter puffed the cloth in front of her mouth. “But I will learn.”
“You will teach me.” She stood up and took the glass from him. “Go get your affairs. You can live here with me. No one will think it odd. I have been alone too long, and the neighbors will approve of my brother coming so that I might take care of him. You should have come sooner. Go now, and when you come back, be prepared to teach me to read and write. I have letters to send.”
Jamal didn’t touch her. He saw her hand clench on the glass and thought it might shatter. He walked quickly through the purple dusk and thought about his young mother and a man with a golden moustache, a murder, and two orphans with crumpled rose petals in their fists.
The Fatima jihad started when a girl in the center of town was found reading a poster on a crumbling wall. She was reading aloud, which was unfortunate. The fact that she was only nine didn’t save her; she was tied to a post in the square and stoned to death by a crowd of men. The men went back home, some laughing, others shuddering, and ate dinner. The next morning, they were all dead of poison. There was a flurry of retribution, woman thrown into the river and drowned, buried alive, burned, stoned; but each death met with more poisoning until not one man in the country dared eat at home. Some solved the problem by having their children taste their food. These men died at night, their throats cut. Some left home, joining the groups of frightened celibates in the mountains. They thought to band together, to crush the women back into submission, but there was too much pent-up grief, too many women had lost their children to war and famine and poor medicine, so they were numb to pain. “Lose your child, lose your heart,” the woman chanted. They died by the thousands, but continued to crush glass into the men’s food and threw their male infants into the wells.
The women fought a silent war. Not having guns, generals, or any sort of organization except for their sex, they were simply cohesive in their rebellion. Men, thinking they could live without women, soon realized the folly of a war. Within two generations, with no children, a country would be annihilated.
Fatima was seventy years old now. She had been teaching the women to read and write for nearly twenty years. She was amazed and shocked by the war, especially when the name was announced on the newscasts.
“The Fatima Jihad!” she exclaimed. “I never meant to start any war! I only wanted to teach my friend’s children to write. I only wanted news from my daughters.” She turned to her brother, sitting cross-legged on a rug. “Do you believe we can win?” she asked. They had a radio and listened to it every night.
He tipped his head back and stared up at the stars. They were sitting on the roof, (the radio worked best up there) and looking over the peaceful city, you could never tell there was a war going on. There were no bombs, gunshots or screams, only the plaintive sound of the nanny goat straining against her rope. Jamal shrugged. “If you do win, what will you do?”
Fatima raised her eyebrows. “We simply want to be treated as equals,” she said.
Jamal laughed. He wiped a hand over his jade-green eyes and then quieted. “I think you will win,” he said. “Because life must go on, and because there will be those who will fall in love with the enemy. There will be change, and that is good. We have been stagnant too long and have come to resemble the ruins in the fields.” He stood up and made his way downstairs.
“Where are you going?” Fatima looked over the side of the roof.
Jamal didn’t reply. He only took his knife from his belt and cut the nanny goat’s tether.
* Nothing But Red – the anthology of literary and visual arts inspired by the impassioned plea of Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon in response to the “honor killing” of 17-year-old Du’a Khalil Aswad, is now available for purchase. Sales of the anthology, which is currently available in multiple formats athttp://www.lulu.com/nothingbutred, will benefit the international human rights organization Equality Now.