“Fatima, are you with us?” Mrs. Anderson’s smoky voice pulls me out of the spaceless void I was sinking into.
“Yes, yes I am” I replied meekly, I could hear snickering and soft laughs behind me. I slowly re-adjusted my hijab and asked Mrs. Anderson to repeat her question.
“I asked for the square roots of 81 and 121, Fatima” she replied sternly, I heard more giggles behind me, as I searched my brain for an answer to the question.
“Nine, Elev…” I began slowly, but my voice was lost in the roar of laughter that erupted from behind me before I even completed the answer. It took me only a heartbeat to think, then I realized what just happened.
“Quiet down class! I didn’t quite hear that Fatima, could you repeat yourself” Mrs. Anderson probed, the sternness of her voice a constant as she stared with a gaze that melted right through me. I affixed her solemn stare begging her with my eyes, to let me be. I could already feel the back of my throat burning with tears, I was shamelessly losing my battle to retain my collected demeanor. “The square roots of 81 and 121” I closed my eyes and took a long breath in.
“Yes?” Mrs. Anderson perused
“Are 9 and 11” I replied sighing but keeping my eyes shut for fear I might cry. Then I hear Jason’s voice from the back of the class
“9-11? You planning another one?”
“Didn’t we kill Osama already?” I hear another voice, I suspect belonged to his partner in crime Todd.
“Maybe Allah is not the greatest after all” He replied with a long grunt as the class erupted in another roar of laughter. I lost my battle with the tears, as they effortlessly streamed out of my eyes, grabbed my books and ran out of the class. I hear Mrs. Anderson’s voice from behind me threatening with detention if I didn’t return to the class, she yelled another word, I couldn’t really make out, but I was sure I could give a wild guess.
I continue running.
I feel my textbooks slip from my hands too, I didn’t stop to pick them up either, I just continue running. As I breeze through the hallway, despite my Hijab covering a major fraction of my upper body, I could feel goosebumps on my neck and literal chills run from the back of my head to the base of my spine. The hallways felt oddly colder than it should, even for a snowy mid-January day.
The snow still felt too strange for me, not because I didn’t understand the science behind snowing but because until the previous December when father decided it was no longer safe for us to stay in Syria, I had lived in the heat, sand, and parchment of Tadmur desert all my life. It rarely rained and sometimes the borehole dried couldn’t reach the water in the ground, so we didn’t always have running water. I remember we always had cold desert nights, yet I don’t recall the cold ever being as severe as the American winter. I continue running through the hallway, which was beginning to seem longer than it should. I don’t mind running through, the rhythmical beating of my heart almost perfectly synchronized with each new footing, it soothed my nerves.
I used to run.
I used to run in Tadmur, memories of my childhood self-happy and breathless in the desert sand with my childhood best friend, Aisha flashes briefly into my memory. Beautiful Aisha, I loved her like a sister, maybe even slightly beyond that. As we grew together, I spent most of my mid-teenage years trying not to think of her in that manner, I didn’t even know if she felt the same way. Besides, I was certain even if she did, we would be stoned to death for it was haram before man and Allah. Yet, I remember crying myself to sleep for many weeks after Brother Habib, a fond family friend to both our families came for her hand in marriage on her fifteenth. I could barely eat for many days and since mother rarely came home from her volunteer work as a relief doctor in Damascus for the rebels, there was no one to monitor my poor feeding habit, hence lost a lot of weight.
My sickly look worked to my advantage, however, when Brother Ismail an older teacher from my childhood Arabic school came to my parents to ask for my hand in marriage. He wasn’t handsome like Aisha’s Uncle Habib even though I now bore strong hatred for that one too. Brother Ismail especially smelled like rotten dates and his beard had a shade of brown I was certain was caused by dirt. Although my father was an educated university professor and liberal in many ways, he was a conformist to a lot of the traditions of his Islamic belief and culture and he would still have allowed me to marry him. Luckily for me, however, I didn’t have to, because I looked too frail. My health, ability to bear children and manage a home was put into consideration by the families and after especially considering the fact that even my family couldn’t explain why I was suddenly so frail since nobody had caught me pouring my meals through the window of my room. A few weeks later, news reached us that Aisha and Brother Habib were victims of an airstrike in the Aleppo war-ridden region of Syria where they lived. I hated myself, living in the guilt and conviction that Allah took Aisha to punish me for all the times I lusted after her and wished Brother Habib dead. In the same month, Mother died in a similar airstrike incident in Damascus. I sank deeper into a dangerous depression for many months. Still, in mourning, father got a job at the United Nations that year and moved us both to America.
I was getting tired but I could see the school’s main exit in sight. With tears effortlessly still streaming down my face, I am momentarily blinded as I wipe my eyes with the back of my hands. I don’t see the person walking across the hall as I run into her, neither did I feel the floor as we fell to the ground with her body cushioning my fall. For a brief moment I buried my face in her clothing, she was scented like Aisha’s Nashwa, and almost immediately I was thirteen again rolling in between beddings with Aisha indulging myself in playful touchings and safe kisses, that meant a lot more to me, but were platonic enough for her parents to allow me continue seeing her.
I wanted the scent to consume me.
“Urrm Fatima, you plan on standing up anytime soon” she spoke softly. I jerked off her body like I had been caught stealing. Standing up to dust the creases off my dress. She stood up also watching my gaze as I scanned through her form. I could tell she was not a student as she was a seemingly older woman but she looked younger than the average American high school teacher. I was slightly shocked and almost happy seeing as she had a hijab on too. But I suddenly remembered where I was, and I froze.
“Excuse me” I attempted to push past her. Pondering how she knew my name in the first place as I walked away.
“Fatima wait” she called behind me. “I know what you’re going through, let me help you”
I slowed down, still headed for the exit, “How do you know my name?” I replied softly under my sobs.
“I am the school counsellor, you’re the new transfer student from Syria, you’re not that hard to find” she said in slightly accented English as she speed walked to catch up to me. “I can totally relate to what you’re going through, you have to let me help you”
“How? They are so mean!” I replied heaving, trying to pace my sobs.
“So you want to run?” She probed, in an almost understanding tone. “I was coming to ask you to see me about your absenteeism, for how long can you keep doing this?” I don’t say anything, her smell was wafting into my senses and doing too much to distract me.
“Let me help you” she repeats. A fresh stream of tears rolled down my face.
“Oh, Poor Child” she pulls me into a warm hug. “You know what? I know a great cocoa shop around the corner. Let’s talk over hot cocoa eh? It’ll be our secret” I slowly nod my head. A sudden warmth washes over me, spreading itself through me, from the tip of my hairs to the end of my toes even though we were walking into the snow as she pushed the school’s exit door open.
Haram – Forbidden
Nashwa – An Arabian Perfume
Tadmur – An ancient city formerly known as Palmyra. It is located in central Syria, administratively part of the Homs Governorate.
Damascus – Syria’s capital city.