Artwork by Manzel Bowman
It was almost the same everyday.
In the dark she folds her blanket, places it in the center, then rolls up the mattress, hoists it to her shoulder and carries it to the storage room. Tucked in the corner is an old battered nightstand with two drawers that opened with difficulty.
All her belongings didn’t even fill one.
Within the second drawer, a skirt, long sleeved shirt, a scarf with a bundle of her savings folded inside & an eyeliner that rolled back & forth in the empty space. She only wore these on her off days.
Within the top drawer, a toothbrush, bar of soap, worn cotton dress, all generously lent by her employee.
Hairbrush, comb, a hand mirror with foggy glass, and a jar of hair oil.
Her hand pauses on the jar hesitantly at first. Impulsively she unscrews the lid, but just as fast screws it shut.
It smelled like home.
She grabs the dress and changes quickly, a habit that she had to pick up and learn.
There was no room for privacy.
Quietly she makes her way through the house, running her hand across the furniture she’ll be cleaning soon. It takes her exactly five minutes to use the bathroom. She didn’t have the luxury to waste time.
Before heading to the kitchen she draws and ties the drapes, noticing dawn creeping across the horizon. Donning her شبشب, also generously lent, she goes through the process of heating milk for شاي بل لبن, pours herself a cup and grabs one loaf of bread.
Pulling out a plastic stool, she uses the kitchen countertop as her table, eating and drinking quickly, another habit she’d had to learn.
Right on cue the lady of the house tiredly stands at the doorway. Thinking she wouldn’t notice, the lady of the house, ‘mama’, checks to make sure the شاي بل لبن was made to her liking and that only one loaf of bread was taken. She then turns and starts her practiced speech.
“Samira, I need you to dust the living room, sweep then hand clean the furniture, then use the wood spray, but not too much, remember in that order Samira, do it well & do it quickly, and use the right rag, don’t mix the خيشا for the bathroom with the one for the kitchen or the living room floor, use a lot of water and always change it, then the dining room chairs…”
The speech goes on, Samira nodding after every “فاهما (Understand)?”
ايوا ماما (Yes mama)”
They never exchanged goodmornings.
She lugs with her a bucket of water, and a faded mattress sheet on her shoulder. She then drags the furniture to the middle of the room. Gathering the corners of the sheet into her hand, she lunges it at the walls hard with a loud smack. Back and forth smacking away the dust. This used to hurt her arms, back and shoulders but with time her muscles grew accustomed to it, although late at night her body would cramp in protest.
But she never complained.
Living room. Dust, sweep, change the water, wipe.
Dining room. Dust, sweep, change the water, wipe.
Four bedrooms. Dust, sweep, change the water, wipe.
‘mama’ trails behind.
“Samira are you sure you wiped down this table? Samira don’t forget to change the water & always dump it in the toilet, never the sink. Samira this wall needs a bit more dusting. Samira…”
ايوا ماما (Yes mama)”
Lunch is a simple affair. A plate of فول or عدس, two loaves of bread, cup of tea, and if she was lucky a bit of honey. Dinner was usually the leftovers of whatever the house was having, but she was often too tired to eat.
She’d place her dishes in the sink.
She had designated plates. Designated utensils. Designated cups. Designated meals, and a designated place to eat them. A designated bathroom. A designated existence within the household of ‘mama’.
Samira finishes in a hurry because there were still the bathrooms.
‘mama’ in the background.
“Samira use a lot of water, make sure to scrub the tiles with clorox but not too much, I don’t want splatter marks on the mirror, last time you didn’t open the windows, Samira these toilets…”
There were rare quiet moments Samira would find for herself. ‘mama’ would be speaking on the phone, or out on an errand. She’d pause and let her hand idle from washing the dishes, or ironing, or polishing. Samira would stop and remember.
Her father’s eyes, her mother’s hands, her sister’s hair, her brother’s laugh.
Their smell. Their voices.
She shakes her head and continues.
It was when she heated the coals for بخور she knew her day was almost over. Sweeping her hands over the smoke, she walks leisurely throughout the house, wafting the perfumed air. After ‘mamas’ inspection of every room, she gives the nightly practiced speech.
“Samira, make sure all the lights are shut off except for the one by the kitchen, check the gas, and all the doors, the water faucets too, I noticed you didn’t dust the plants today, Samira don’t stay up too late…”
ايوا ماما (Yes mama)”
They never exchanged goodnights.
Samira is too tired to shower, instead she heads to the storage room and quickly changes. In the palm of her hand she dabs a small amount of oil from the jar which she rations meticulously. Massaging the oil into her hair, the first smile of the day blooms across her face and she remembers the pressure of her mother’s thighs as she used to sit between them, her head lightly tugged as her hair is braided.
She drops the mattress to the floor, unrolls it, unfolds the blanket, covers herself and shuts her eyes.
Every night she hears her mother calling her name.
When she first started work it was decided that she would be given a different name. Simrat meant ‘unity’, was too difficult, too foreign, too strong. So they gave her one that meant ‘of pleasant company’.
“Samira”, it just rolled easier off the tongue.