They told her it was time to circumcise the girls and she refused. She lifted that hard-boned proud head of hers and set her eyes narrow, pushed her shoulders low and folded her arms standing a head taller than all the women in the room, and said:
‘They’re my girls. I do what I want to with them, and none of you are going to touch them.’
The women clucked and stirred and shifted as they stood on their feet, jangling their gold bangles and billowing out in waves the smell of their incense-saturated skin. The louder ones hissed about that uppity wife of Ahmed’s, not just a foreigner but an Egyptian of all things, who’d come from Cairo to Khartoum acting like she was better than them, better than the flesh and blood of her own husband’s family. Did she think, they grumbled, that just because she was a few shades lighter and pinker and had that red-amber hair that fell sharp and shiny down her back, that just because she wore those European dresses that she could lord it over them? Did she really think that it was up to her to circumcise her girls or not, as if they were just her girls, and not their girls also? Her sister-in-law Nabila pulled her thoubover her shoulder with a jerk and glared straight at Heba, who glared straight back, then huffed across the room:
‘And since when do we leave our girls with their thingy as it is, without circumcising it as prescribed by our forefathers and mothers since as far back as anyone can remember? Didn’t I go through circumcision, and didn’t my mother before me, and didn’t my grandmother before her? And how can my brother’s children bear his name, the name of Abu Malik, a respectable family name, and not be circumcised as all respectable girls are?’
Heba just stood there with her eyes boring into Nabila while everyone held their breath and waited for her to lash out with some scandalous retort, but she just stared back for what seemed to be an hour, then turned and walked out, the hotness of her glare lingering in the room like a perfume long after she had disappeared out of the door.
Back at home Ahmed waited for the confrontation. He sat at the living room table across from his two daughters, who exchanged looks with one another, for the fava beans that their mother had set before them were not only hard and lukewarm but were also bare of olive oil and even cheese, and so they knew that something was wrong between their parents.
‘Those sisters of yours!’ began Heba, and thrust a loaf of bread in front of her husband and daughters. ‘I put up with them just for you, but if they want to meddle with my family, want to take some knife to my girls and expect me to stand by and let them butcher them–’ She stopped, her mind suddenly skipping back to her own circumcision years earlier. It had happened one summer when she was sent from Cairo to spend the holiday at her grandmother’s village. Her grandmother arranged Heba’s circumcision in her mother’s absence, knowing that she would not have allowed it had she been present. Heba would never forget the midwife with the black mole that looked like a beetle scuttling down her nose, the rhythmic screeching of the knife as it was sharpened against a stone, the taste of the rubber tube that her grandmother stuffed between her teeth to stop the screams. She would never forget that first hot slice of the blade that seared through her brain, the warm blood spurting against her pincered legs as the midwife worked, and later, right before she passed out, the bits of flesh lying bloody in a white ceramic dish.
‘Why do they want to cut us, mama?’ One of her daughters touched her arm and brought her back to the present. Heba glared at Ahmed.
‘Ask your father.’
Ahmed crouched over his food before pushing it away with a loud, deep sigh. That very afternoon his sisters had cornered him to admonish him about his wife, for they tried to put up with her because he asked them to, they said, but it was another thing when she crossed the line, they said, another thing altogether when she insulted them and their honor and their ways to their face. Ahmed had tried to mediate and to calm them down, telling them to be patient, that his wife was alone and that it was hard for her, that he would talk to her about the circumcision and that she would come around eventually. But then they began insinuating dark things, unpleasant things that he knew had been making the rounds among the family – about how she had him around her little finger, how her white skin had him so dazzled he’d gotten all muddled in the head about who was the man and who the woman, and what sort of a man was it anyway, they asked, who’d give in to his wife’s whims, when his honour and his good name depended on his children’s circumcision? That’s when he had reconsidered, for he did not want to seem like less than a man in front of his family. Ahmed looked at his wife then and stood up to his full height, the line of his jaw stony, his eyes stern. His daughters watched him, transfixed.
‘The girls are going to be circumcised. I arranged it today. The ceremony will be tomorrow morning, here in the house.’ He was a little frightened after he said the words. He half-expected her to slap him or hit his chest, as she did whenever she got really furious, or at the very least scream and admonish him at the top of her lungs so that all the neighbours could hear, for unlike him she did not care for people’s good opinion. Instead her eyes widened, and she just looked at him for a long time. Then she said:
‘You would do that to your children?’
He tried to stare her down but found it difficult, for it wasn’t anger that he read in her look but disappointment, a new unnerving thing he had never seen in her before and that now looked out on him strangely from her eyes, so that not only her eyes but all of her seemed alien to him suddenly. He looked out of the window then glanced back at her and said:
‘It’s done and there’s no going back now. Have the girls ready tomorrow morning. People will be here early.’ He turned and walked out of the room, relieved to escape her eyes.
‘Mama! What are they going to do to us?’ The girls pulled at their mother’s arm until she looked down at them, distracted, and told them not to worry and ushered them to bed. Then she went to get bed linens from the bedroom she shared with Ahmed, for she had made up her mind that she would not sleep there that night. She walked right past him with a rigid spine and unblinking eyes as he lay on the bed, while he watched her over his newspaper.
‘Heba,’ he said, but she did not answer nor look at him and walked out of the room with the linens.
The next morning the sound of drums and tambourines and flutes wafted down the road to the house long before the band itself appeared in their orange and purple costumes and their red hats, followed, in turn, by the sisters and the cousins and the aunts and the uncles and the grandparents who walked and sang and clapped their hands and raised a trail of brown dust as they made their way forward. Soon the little boys of the neighborhood deserted their footballs to run ahead of the band, thrilling in the excitement of the vibrating air and the shimmer of tambourines and the swing-swing of the band-player’s beating arms. Neighbours opened their window shades to see what all the fuss was about, and other neighbours abandoned their morning errands to the market or to the barbershop or to the butcher’s to join in the festivities. The sea of men and women and children arrived at the front door of the house and burst in in one torrent, to be greeted not by the family’s clamorous welcome as they had anticipated, but by an eerie silence that stopped them dead in their tracks. Then in a corner of the living room they saw the broken solitary figure collapsed into the chair. Ahmed lifted his head and looked up at the band with stunned eyes. He raised his hand and his sister Nabila pulled a piece of paper from it: a note from Heba. She opened it and held it up to the light, reading it, her eyes widening, her mouth opening. She crumpled the paper suddenly, balling it in her fist.
‘That strumpet!’ she said.
Ahmed’s chest heaved and his shoulders rose and he convulsed in a fit of weeping before the dumbstruck crowd.
This story was initially published in Friction magazine, Issue #3, (2011).
Read other articles in the series, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence 2012.