This is my gift to you daughter; you shall suffer as I’ve suffered, bear it well.
Mist hung within the house, infused with the smell of sandaliya, bakhoor, sighs of the dignified with their crisp toubs and flowing chatter of poisonous rivalry and envy. Each sat with her ghost of a past, a hint of her innocence; lost, confused, angered, and ignored only adding to the haze of the house. They were not here to celebrate or consolidate the child, but to bear witness to the rite all had once partaken in. Some carried vicious glee, a sense of righteousness in their hearts for what was to befall the child, and others carried mere apathy, disconnected to the whole occasion, yet none offered remorse for the child’s upcoming pain. It was on this special afternoon that Little Laila’s innocence would be forcibly taken and vanquished.
Nadia climbs the last step to stop and stare at her eight year old daughter. Not seeing her mother Little Laila wears a screwed expression of concentration as she untangles her dolls hair. As if reaching to smooth her daughters curly head Nadia instead reaches for her flailing resort to carry out this task. Briefly closing her eyes she remembers, and upon opening them all she sees is her source of retribution. Kneeling she calls softly to her daughter. Seeing her mother Little Laila shines a carefree grin. Scrambling on her short legs she throttles herself into her mothers stiff arms. Little Laila giggles as she tries to snuggle into her mothers neck. Trying not to coil away from her daughters touch Nadia unclasps her daughters arms and instead places steady hands on Laila’s shoulders to squarely stare into her eyes. Trying to bring about her mothers lazy smile, Little Laila widens her eyes and bats her eyelashes, swishing her little body from side to side.
– Be still!
– Did you see my new dress mamma!
– And look at all my Jewelry!!! When I dance they make Music!!
– Please be careful with those, they are not yo….
– Mamma mamma! And my Henna!!! It’s just like yours!!
– 3amatu even called me 3arosa!!
Escaping from her mothers hold Little Laila puts distance from her mother and begins to spin and spin and spin as fast as her little body can manage, tumbling into a joyful heap of glittering gold and red henna. Nadia stands and holds out her hand. Bouncing to her feet Little Laila hops and accepts her mothers demand.
– mamma mamma did you see!
Walking hurriedly down the steps, Nadia keeps a strong hold on her daughter as they pass among the waiting women. She feels a tug on her hand, but chooses to ignore it. As Little Laila walks past the women, they pat her curly hair, slide candy into her pockets and try to pinch her cheeks, teasing her and complimenting her, filling her with a soon to be non-existant security. Almost reaching the main hall of the house, Nadia hesitates as she nears her own mother, but already her Little Laila has broken away from her hold to run into her grandmothers arms.
– An-na An-na! Look at all this candy I have!! Don’t worry I’ll give you one without telling mam…
– Come Laila
Regret fleetingly passes over Nadia’s mothers wizened face. Atop of Little Lailas head a look is shared between mother and daughter. It was a look that spoke a question and demanded an answer. It was a look that spoke misery and demanded obedience. Nadia retrieves her daughter and turns her back to her mother, already having answered, and obeyed. Finally they pause in the middle of the great hall, surrounded by sitting women, all mute and waiting. An old woman stands, so tiny it seemed her toub had swallowed her. In her hand was a shiny blade, glinting menacingly as she slowly approaches Little Laila and her mother. Instinctively Little Laila hides behind her mother, clutching her toub.
Her screams were not given a chance to echo among the walls for they were drowned out by the over zealous zgharit of the women. She pleaded and she fought, yet a sea of hands held her, positioned her as she was unforgivingly scarred, and brutalized by the blade. In vain Little Laila searched for her mother but she was blinded by her tears, horrified by her confusion, and terrified of the imminent loss of trust in all things.
– MAMMA…. MAMMA MAMMA MAMMA…. mamma mamma mamma…..
She chanted her name, hollered it, whispered it when she grew too tired. Too tired to fight, to question the pain that was enveloping her, so raw, so incomprehensible that she grew numb. They bound her legs like an animal, and began to apply henna on her thighs and legs, spreading it in soothing motions that were completely lost to her, all the while singing;
– Come, you are now a woman! You Became a Bride! Bring her the Groom Now!
Her cries were belittled to hiccups and little gasps of disbelief of what had been done to her. Only of eight years yet she could already feel, taste the bitterness settle and consume her. She senses a hand on her temple, which she instantly recognizes… and fears.
– Hush child… Now you are a woman… and a worthy one
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Laila waits in dread. She stares intently into her lap, not sure how to handle herself in this predicament. Feeling nauseous from the smell of Bakhoor and Sandaliya, she stands and begins pacing. One question plagued her with each step.
– Will I be in pain?
She stops, and knows their will always be pain. Seething with frustration she wishes she could scrub the vile henna from her hands, tear the gold from her neck, and silence the zgharit of the women. But as always she calmed and returned to sit and wait. The door softly opens. Shutting her eyes Laila bends her head so that her hair would shield her face from his eyes. She is trembling inside, unable to stand and give a proper greeting. His footsteps make their way calmly around the bed to stop directly before her. Slowly she opens one eye, almost looking comical but could only see the end of his jalabiya. Will he demand her to undress? Instead he kneels and reaches to place his hands on her shoulders. Laila gives an audible gasp and flinches from his touch. A memory springs and attacks, so like this moment when instead it was her mother who had kneeled and offered her false comfort. He sees her agitation and slowly removes his hands. Laila bites her lip and stares shame faced at the other end of the room, feeling foolish for her childish behavior.
Her body begins to uncontrollably shake as she feels his finger tips steady under her chin.
Shutting her eyes she lets him pivot her face towards his. His patience was a solid thing, heavy, unmovable, ready to stay and wait. Finally she looks at him, and finds his eyes filled with compassion.
– Listen well, I will only say this once… Never Fear Me
Something in her broke. Her tremors subsided as she wept into this beautiful mans hands. With outmost care he places his hands upon her head, rises above her to gently drop a kiss upon the crown of her head. With that act, Laila weeps harder, and in disbelief she regains a hint of that obliterated trust and a serenity she hasn’t felt for over eleven years. This was her wedding night, and Laila was genuinely happy.
His words held no sound. Even though she tried to still them they were formed at a constant rate, determined to be heard and understood. She began to reminisce the days when she could clap her hands over ears, shout, sing, run to giggle and hide….
– Laila ya 7abeebty wain inty wain inty?
Laila my sweetheart where are you where are you?
A stifled laugh slips from the swaying curtains in Nadias room. In one sweeping motion Nadia grabs Little Laila and the curtains, tickling her unmercifully till she lay still in her mothers arms. Cloaked within the folds of fabric, Nadia rubs her nose against Little Lailas murmuring sunny ‘I love you’s.
Willing her eyes to open the first thing Laila notices are his hands. Gentle yet capable hands that are making broad motions, beckoning her to comprehend the dire situation. A slight chill crawls up her exposed back, yet she makes no effort to ward it off.
– …. what was practiced on you is what we call ‘Infibulation’ or more commonly known as ‘Pharaonic circumcision’….. not only was your clitoris removed but also your labia majora and labia minora….
Fidgeting in her hospital gown, Laila tries to find, with some dignity, a more suitable position without upsetting the overly-loud-crinkly paper beneath her bare behind.
– …. where you should have a natural vaginal and urinary opening you instead have a combined one, about the size of the end of this pencil….. cannot comprehend how you withstood not only intercourse and giving birth, but also the simple act of urinating or having a menstrual cycle….
Trying not to grin at his comment, she realizes she was blessed with the prized Sudanese trait of bearing not sharing misery.
Laila stares at the kind doctor, noticing a gleam in his eyes. Tiredly he removes his spectacles.
– I can say without a doubt that the operation was a success, we have removed the infection before it could do any fatal harm… but since the infection had reached your reproductive tract…. I’m sorry to say that you will not be able to have another child
Amusing. That was the only word Laila could conjure up for this moment. The doctor was an emotional wreck more than she. Staring down at her socked feet, she shares with them a broken smile. What now? Wail, cry, seize the hospital tray and fling it at the doctors head, pull out hairs and curse till one would be forcibly drugged and placed in an insane asylum? Staring past him, she wonders how she will tell her only child, her daughter Farah, that she wont have any brothers or sisters… and what a thing to tell to one named ‘Joy’. Shaking her head Laila inhales and exhales ‘Alhamdulilah’…. yet.
– Laila ya 7abeebty wain inty wain inty?
Laila my sweetheart where are you where are you?
Mamma, I’m here… half naked on this hospital bed, cold, tired, irritated. And here this doctor tells me am infertile… for life. Am I worthy enough now mamma? Have I appeased your definition of what a woman is? Has my suffering equaled and canceled yours? What sort of mother… monster are you? What gift… what love is this?
Her arm is shaken with urgency.
– mamma….. umeeee!!!
She never said umi unless it was serious. Immediately Laila opens her eyes, sitting up quickly to find her daughter kneeling near the bed with a troubled look. About to question her daughter in a clear concerned voice, Laila pauses when her daughter places her finger against her lips, motioning for silence. Behind Laila, her husband sleepily mutters concern. Staring back at her daughter, she sees a pleading look, almost begging her not to wake her father.
– I need water
Laila stands to follow her daughter to her room. Her daughter stops before her bed, unwilling to say anything. Confused, Laila reaches for the lights and upon switching them she sees the cause of ailment. Without sound, briskly she strips the sheets from the bed, rolls them and places them in a laundry basket. Heading to the closet for fresh sheets, Laila hides a secret smile. Returning to the room she finds her daughter sitting dejectedly at the far corner of her mattress. Placing the clean sheets on a chair, Laila sits close to her daughter, but makes no move to touch her. They sit in amiable silence.
– Do you know why I named you what I did?
Still no answer, only a slight shake of the head.
– The day you were born, you gave me Joy, you gave me peace, meaning…
Softly Laila taps Farahs shoulder so she would face her mother.
– You gave me… me. The moment you were put in my arms… Farah… I could’ve been the only being who spoke Joy… Literally! You embody what I’ve lost, but most importantly what I’ve gained. Farah?
Farah stares quietly back at her mother.
– You will not understand this now… but I promise you this… You are complete. You are beautiful… just as you are. No part of you, not one inch of you, will be touched….. Understand?
Having received the appropriate response from her daughter Laila sighs.
– Now…. this…..
Laila nods her head toward the soiled sheets.
– This, Farah…..
Farah hunches her shoulders as if readying for a blow.
– …. is normal. In fact… it’s splendid!
Placing an arm around her daughters shoulders Laila chuckles and hugs her daughter.
– Sweetheart… Mabrook! You got your period!
Farah looks embarrassed as she tries to loosen her mothers grip. The chuckle transforms into a full hearted laugh.
– I think it’s time we marry you to that cousin of yours! You have come of age technically…
Her laugh softens as she gently hugs Farahs head to her chest.
– 7abeeba Fear not.. You have experienced a precious thing… a wonderful thing. Rejoice daughter…. Rejoice!
– Laila open this Door!
A loud groan is given from inside. Nadia finds the key, unlocking the door to find her daughter sitting on the toilet, clutching her knees to her chest rocking from side to side. Lifting her tear streaked face Laila glares at her mother.
– Why do I Hurt so much…. all the time? Why!?!
Nadia offered no comfort to her daughters apparent coming of age. Hardening her heart to her daughters pain, Nadia wears her own past like a shield.
– Because I did…. We all did…. WE still DO!
Farah sleeps in content as her mother watches over her. Laila could not stop grinning as she caresses Farahs hair. Her chest stretches near to pain, wanting to burst with elation. Wallowing, reveling in this new found state of completion, Laila could almost forget her turbulant past, and almost… almost forgive her own mother. Timidly she kisser her daughter’s forehead and she cherishes her. She kisses her cheeks and she blesses her. She kisses her nose and she adores her. Whispering tenderly to the air…
– Now you are a woman, and a worthy one. This is my gift to you…