A Silent Prison
By Sarah Badr
Another day come and gone, and nothing.
The night’s black sky finds me sleepless once more as Hala lets out a cry in the darkness. The echo is harrowing, engulfed by the sounds of gridlock sirens fading into the throbbing hollow of my abdomen. My threadbare galabiya, pungent with sweat and dust, provides little consolation while I try to keep warm by a fire fed weak from yesterday’s remaining garbage. And as I sit and contemplate my will, the cold winter digs into the beds of my fingernails, midnight blue and numb from the pennilessness that holds me firmly in her grasp.
Inside, more vile desolation. In the shadow of the hampering air shaft, I find no more comfort here than I do on the stoops and street corners. The dirt-ridden floor is painted myriad with cockroach skeletons and the detritus of sewage overflow. The only source of light we have shines dimly from a small bulb hanging outside under the stairs, illuminating the corner at the end of the entrance hall as I peer through a wide crack in the corroded wooden door to watch 5A or 7B take the elevator up beyond my reach. Such happy distraction in my routine days endlessly awash with Hala’s runny nose stains and clumsy bruises. It was in this very space that she was conceived just two years ago, a time before my husband left us for Monofeya to seek work. Or perhaps a life away from here…
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In the lukewarm comfort of tradition, unquestioned and routine, I grew up on a farm in Mansoura. Helping my mother carry out her duty of the hefty upkeep of raising seven children, it was the only way of life I knew. And so it went, one harvest after the other. But at some point, somehow somewhere, an inexplicable craving crept up on me. I became increasingly aware that my existence was relentlessly monotonous. And as I grew older, I couldn’t shake that feeling, the sense of being deprived from something else — something so much more — only I didn’t know what.
No matter. That awareness dominated my sight at every turn, and I was determined to get out. Soon, upon turning sixteen, I was to be married to my cousin Ali, and I could not wait for the day. He wasn’t from Mansoura, and I remembered clearly from brightly coloured childhood memory how he would frequently come down from the city to spend summers on the farm, an extra pair of hands to till the earth. I fondly thought back to those ambitious prophesies shared under the night sky as we snuck out into the fields with my older brothers to enjoy a distant world of daydreams and infinite possibility.
Our marriage translated into the very escape for which I had been looking, and eventually that day came, as he and I set off in a run-down microbus filled to the brim with hands flapping hot faces streaked with sweat, flies landing all about, driving slowly into the sunset beyond that confining image of bean fields and grazing cattle. Not for one moment did I turn around to see what I was leaving behind.
I had never been to Cairo before, though my mother told me I had joined my father and eldest brother many years ago on a trip to pick up a delivery from the city metals market. But I had absolutely no recollection. And certainly very little could have prepared me for the new-found chaotic landscape of grey concrete buildings, short and bulky standing over rivers of narrow roads: Pharmacy, corner shop, pharmacy, pharmacy, tea house, corner shop. The fresco of flashing lights, beeping horns, people flooding paved streets, bustling out and in of stores displaying clashes of shapes, sizes and colours was beyond nauseating but exciting nevertheless. And with the pita-thin envelope of dirty bank notes and a few gold coins Ali and I had been given by our family in wedding dowry, we strolled amongst the city-goers feeling the warmth of the summer night breathing down upon us.
Time passed quickly, and the winter arrived. We spent the short days of greyness in lethargic smog helping other newcomers and some veterans sell worthless goods to self-consumed drivers who couldn’t be bothered in impenetrable midday traffic. We lived our first year sleeping on the stoops of apartment buildings across the city, becoming increasingly disillusioned, but still hoping that change would be sent to us by the following sunrise.
I don’t think that the homelessness was as big a problem as the hunger was. Left desperate from just bread and water, we were driven to ransack dumpsters during the night, searching for scraps leftover from meals had throughout the week. And as the seasons rolled by, we gave in to the realization that door-keeping would be the only way to temporary sustenance until we actually found something else. Better a home and hunger than nothing at all, I would say.
One night, while selling our boxes of tissue and threaded buds of jasmine, Ali was approached by a man we knew named Abdurrahman, sharing the latest news he’d heard from a friend of a friend across town. The doorkeeper of an apartment building recently passed and his position was open for the taking. Since Ali had earned a reputation for being a good, decent man — he said — he was the first person who came to mind. Would you do it?
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And so it was that Abdurrahman’s words, marking a new chapter in our poverty-stricken lives, led us to the front of an old run-down eight-storey apartment building on El Mahrousa Street in Mohandiseen.
Such a welcome change from what we had been immersed in for months since our marriage. Ali sat outside the main entrance through the days and evenings, monitoring those who entered and left the building. On occasion he would help people carrying bags to and from their cars, or for an extra tip he would wipe their dashboards clean or hose down their dusty cars with soap and water. I spent most of my time running errands for the tenants, going to the local market to buy ripe fruits and vegetables of the season. At night, either out of courtesy or pity, 5A and 7C would send down small portions of their home-cooked meals, by then cold but just enough to last us through till morning. The robust aroma of fava beans, molokheya and garlic would linger in the night air, slowly wafting up the shaft to mingle with the exhaust-filled sky hanging low above. We were still hungry, but a little less, and that was enough to feel a flood of joyed gratitude, mollified and decidedly full.
I became pregnant in the November of that year and gave birth the following summer in the month of July. Ali, slightly disappointed that it was a girl though he did not openly say so, continued being the doorkeeper and I the doorkeeper’s wife. Our financial situation failing to improve. Every Friday afternoon, I took his place in his chair and read the Qur’an while he went off to go and pray at the local mosque. Despite our savings from charity and petty cash earned since our arrival, he remained unable to find work or even an apprenticeship of some sort on his Friday evening job-expeditions. He found it difficult to take care of Hala, and he grew more and more distant from us both as the months passed by. He would smoke heavily and go out alone every night with a large portion of our money, not quite to return in full the following morning.
As time went on, our silent dismay with one another continued to accumulate as he proved to be an inadequate father, and our living conditions worsened along with the poor state of the building. Water would frequently flood out of the sewer beneath us and would leave the air shaft a shallow murky swamp, drying up to leave even more muck and dirt. The sour stench became unbearable to the point that 2B and everyone on the first floor gave us an ultimatum, as though it were up to us to find some sort of solution. Ali spoke to the owner of the building many times, pleading with him, even showing him the extent of the damage, but to no avail. Nothing was ever done about it, and the cockroaches had taken up their residence officially. With their shells like fresh dates and sexual appetites insatiable, their numbers multiplied, blanketing the ground of the air shaft like an erupting ooze of tar. At sunset, there was no space left to sleep, and the alien ringing of their high-pitched echoes left Hala wailing for hours on end in the darkness. Sometimes I would take her out with me to huddle in the corner outside the elevator door, tears silently streaming down my exhausted face, eventually growing so used to the sound that it was no longer audible.
I was now eighteen years of age, and already I had lost the vitality of a middle-aged woman who was terribly ill. The pollution of the city smog infested the cavities of my lungs, intoxicating my blood with poisonous venom that I was sure would eventually eat away the flesh of my mind. Ali, on the other hand, was the primary source of my emotional turmoil, which increased when he’d go out at night, leaving me with Hala alone, unaware of his mysterious whereabouts. He would come home in the early morning hours with bloodshot eyes and rancid breath. And it was then when he would fight with me, intermittent with my screams and his uncontrollable fits of rage, sometimes hitting me if the alcohol provided him with reason to do so.
But without Ali, I was virtually nothing — only an impoverished young woman with a child who was barely living the life of a human being. My body constantly ached, and I would sometimes go many days without closing my eyes to rest or sleep. In the aging glass of the wired first floor window, I was emaciated and feeble, my face dirty from the nauseating demise to which I was ultimately falling. And as the days went on, my depression froze me in, another winter passing by while I sat inside reading the Qur’an, Hala looking on.
Upon the coming of spring, there was no option left but to beg. Ali no longer compensated for me in his transactions and had long lost interest in me as his wife, let alone his lover. He left me in July on Hala’s second birthday, claiming his mission and obscurely promising that he would send for me upon any success. But I have heard nothing since, and can only assume that he continues to search. Surely he would return for an amateur beggar-woman, forlorn with her daughter by her side, continuing to live a life of sin and misery?
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Holding her in my arms, rocking to and fro to try to soothe her, I too begin to cry. In kindred desperation, my faith wanes as I wonder why it is that God has forgotten me, at nineteen, having already brought a child into this wasteland he has also somehow forgotten.
Six months later, the winter greets us once more, mocking. I have no more hope today than I did all those years ago, and now with the added humiliation of a family broken, it’s just far too much to bear. Hala, constantly made invalid by begging in street-squalor, has begun to piece words together only to frequently wake up in the middle of the night crying out for Ali. So I tell her stories to sedate her, if not for a moment to make imaginary her unending torment: Future-tense tales of little Halas in warm homes with warm food and warm beds, playful brothers and sisters perhaps, to share the shower of loving gifts from a dignified mother and father with only that much more…
Ahead, I see a flooded road filled with pairs of red lights, colliding into one another as each set tries to overtake the other, out of turn, and not a single straight line or sign in sight. I wonder, how would death feel after this time plagued by our tomb of deprivation: Relieving? Sublime? Such questions continue to invade my thoughts, as I try once more to pray. Still sleepless. Still nothing more than the shackles that incarcerate my body. Still in a catacomb of penurious extinction…
This is my silent prison.