It’s 6 am in the morning; freezing air blows through a window covered with blue plastic bags, to the small crowded room. It fails to change the heavy smell of farting, breathe mixed with the smoke erupting from the burning junk put in a small tank for warmth.
It was a quiet night; only two mortars and a missile hit nearby, so all are having a good uninterrupted sleep, except for Nisreen.
Nisreen was lying down on an old flowery mattress along with her five children and their father, on the other side of the room lay the mattresses of her mother and sister in-laws.
She finally decides to get up, she passes over her two boys to Fatimah, she pokes her, “Wake up, your father is getting up in 10 minutes and you are still asleep! Come on get your self up and prepare the warm water for his wudoo”.
Fatima rubs the sleep off her eyes and speeds up her steps to the kitchen, Nisreen quietly prepares the breakfast, covers the metal tray with a white transparent cover, and then puts on her bright purple long dress, high heel matching shoes, takes a look to make sure that no problems are delaying her escape. Fatimah comes in and interrupts it all:
“Where are you going mam”.
“I am taking a training today”.
What training? It’s still early? Did you get father’s permission for that ? Who is going to make the launch for him? What training?
“Whispering” A woman journalist came from outside to our village yesterday and she is doing a journalism training in our women center, so I am going to see what is that and how do the outsider women look like”.
-“Jooralism What? What you are talking about mother, wake up!?” yells Fatimah while her surprised features turn into shocked ones.
-shush “This is between the two of us, your father will beat the hell out of me if he knows, shut up your mouth and tell him I am in my hair dressing class as usual when he asks” Nisreen orders her daughter firmly.
What if he discovered the truth? He will kill me with you! You are ruining our reputation, where is your honor? Are you also going to go on TV shamelessly revealing, laugh loudly and mix with men? What’s happening to you mother?
Nisreen slaps Fatimah in the face before saying:
It’s just a training, and I won’t be moving further than 100 meters away from our home, I want to see what outsider women do, and how she could come to our town on her own despite being a woman! I certainly won’t be a presenter; hah your father would not only divorce me, but also marry other two women and bring them to my room to punish me for even thinking about it.
I don’t understand why you are taking this risk, go quickly now and I will try to cover your absence.
Nisreen speeds her steps up to avoid being asked by any of her curious neighbors about her destination, while uttering all the Quranic verses she memorized in her life for protection and help.
Finally, she arrives; Nisreen looks around for the last time before running down the stars to the dark basement where other fourteen women with intermittent breathing are laughing their stress off.
Side discussion going on:
Did you know that the journalist woman doesn’t put a headscarf despite being from our province? Maybe she is a Christian! No she is not! How could that happen?
I heard she was living abroad; maybe her family was too, so they allowed her to go scarf-less.
The trainer comes in, everyone stares at her silently with wide smile, Abeer, the oldest trainee, a mother of 10, elbows her friend “I told you she is a woman like us, there are such a thing as a Syrian woman journalist”.
All the women take off their bright shoes and sit on a grim color carpet in an “open box” position looking up to the standing trainer.
I am Zaina, I am from a nearby town, I studied journalism in Damascus and did my master in Britain, some “haah” and “I told you” murmurs were heard then in the room.
She goes on: Before we do a proper introduction, let’s please agree on our security plans:
-If there was bombing or shelling that room is the safest, please grab your children and run toward there.
-If Nusra Front, Alqaeda affiliated group, decided to attack our women center yet again, we will claim that we are doing illiteracy training so I am an Arabic teacher and my name is Ruba.
-If one of your husbands brought an armed group to take revenge for participating without his permission, we’ll claim that we have permission from Nusra to do the training and he is violating their role. Until they discover what happens we’ll all be gone.
The training started and Nisreen felt she was listening to a Chinese class at the first couple of hours, then she became actively involved, and first to raise her hand for examples and answers, when the lunch break came she realized she has completely forgot about all her household problems, for the first time in her life she gets that much involved.
At the end of the first day, Nisreen heads to the hairdressing training nearby, she puts some hair dye on her figures and fixing spray on her cloths before she leaves.
Her husband, Abo-Ahmad, is sitting on small armless chair in front of the house smoking his heavy tobacco, watching her getting closer.
“You are late, where were you?” He asks tightly.
“I was in the women’s center as usual, we had two ugly brides today with awfully scattered hair, we had to work on them to look fine for more than five hours. Above that they had a dark skin too, so I put more than three layers of the whitening cream for them to light their faces a bit, the grooms should thank me for the magic I did today”.
“I made it” Nisreen says to herself while seeing a gesture of a smile coming from Abo Ahmad’s mouth, her humor and changing the topic techniques fruitful and the day have passed safely.
When the morning of the third day came, it was Fatemah who waked her mother up, “Mam, please don’t go today, Assad forces are bombing us heavily, I am afraid we might be hit and die while separated, please stay, we all live together or die together, no one has to go through the painful mourning journey, stay mam”.
It took Nisreen couple of minutes before asking Fatimah to wake all her siblings up to take them all along to the training center with her. The training center is than their house because it’s a basement and today she is waiting eagerly to learn about planning for the article, so she just can’t miss it.
“What about my father?” asked Fatimah, “God doesn’t take devil men, he won’t be harmed” answered Nisreen while getting the little boys who are half asleep dressed.
The six family members went all to the women’s center, Nisreen was not the only trainee to do so, fearing that their families might be harmed while separated, more than 5 women brought their children along as well to the training.
On that day, the distraction caused by the twenty-five kids running around in the basement, beside her own five repeated requests made it very hard for Nisreen to focus on planning her first ever-journalistic piece.
She made sure to write down every single point mentioned by the trainer to work on it at night when all are sleep. She has two plans to work on, one for the story itself and the second to hide what she is doing form her husband and extended family.
It’s nine pm, the generator is turned off and finally all are asleep, Nisreen has already finished cleaning the house, hand washing a hill of laundry, she set the mattress, blankets and pillows for Abo Ahmad and all with the help of Fatimah. Now she is too tried and sleepy but this is her only space to work on the training assignment.
She made a big cup of Arabic coffee, turned the LED Light-emitting diode, using the extra battery they have, she squattes in the corner of the room next to the window so she can have some fresh air and wrote:
The topic: domestic violence increases after the revolution
-Om Ali who claimed that the blow marks on her forehead are caused by shrapnel but it’s an absolute bunch mark. Nisreen stops writing and whispers to herself “she want to sell a rotten apple to a framer huh!”. If she refuses to give me a quote, I can ask Om Hadi, all the town know her story so she has nothing to hide, even my little boy heard in school how her husband whipped her hours after she gave birth to another girl. He was too angry that the baby is not the long waited male son who is going to inherent the family’s name.
After punshing her for giving birth to a girl, he left the house and married his cousin the next day.
And there is Marwa, whose husband crushed her thighs because she was bleeding for three months after getting married; he accused her family of “selling him a ruined good”, and..Oh I have too many sources here, will pass it so I can finish before the exhaust beats me.
-Dr.Rasha, the town’s gynecologist to speak about the cases she knows about, how the numbers have changed before and after the revolution, hopefully she can give some statistics, as no one is keeping records of this at all, who dares! It’s a privet domestic issue; no one would interfere between a husband and his household.
-Ok then I can also interview Ms.Hala who runs our local women’s center, she would speak about the reasons and factors of this raise in the domestic violence rates in the last six years, and how their organization are trying to help the victims, beside campaigning against it in privet and publicly.
-Ms.Rawan, used to be a lawyer will give an overview about the Syrian regulation about domestic violence and the penal code…
The pen fell of Nisreen hand and she gave up to her tire until Abo Ahmad waked her up in the morning asking her why she hasn’t slept on their mattress.
“I was waiting for the electricity to come at down to dry your socks with iron as you don’t have any clean ones to wear for the mosque prayer” she answered immediately, when he gave her the “good wife” motion, she suddenly admired herself and realized that her ability to make up stories quickly and flawlessly is impressive.
“But journalism is about facts not lies” she lectured herself decisively, while getting ready for the fourth day of the training.
Nisreen puts on her precious occasions’ orange dress under her black outdoors coat, takes her new notebook and heads vigorously to the training center.
Her energy faded away when the trainer told her that only one thing is missing from her powerful plan.
You need to do an interview with an Imam/sheikh or a local religious leader, to add the Islam point of view on the domestic violence and the Shriaa take on it, especially as those Imams are still the opinion leader of your town and you know that.
Yes I know, but you are coming from outside, you don’t know.
I don’t know what Nisreen? Tell me? What’s the matter?
I can’t even mix with my male cousins to meet and interview an Imam! It will be a scandal in the town!
Even if you wear the head cover?
Yah, I will still be a woman meeting a strange man! And where should I meet him? In the men’s space in the mosque where he gives his speeches? In the butcher shop where only widows go to?
Can’t you do it over skype? So you don’t actually mix with a man.
What is that? A new organization in town?
Hum, I am sorry Nisreen, but it’s an important interview.
Like trying to awaken after a surprising slap on the face, Nisreen was taking weighty steps toward her home; the 10 minutes she used to take to reach it became more than 20.
“You are too busy to cook Yabrak – wine leaves stuffed with rice- to me today too?” asks Abo Ahmad as soon as he sees her approaching.
Oh look you are thinking about your stomach while I am thinking about my big very important article, may God have mercy on my parents souls for putting me in your bed. Nisreen says soundlessly then answered him “I will cook it to you this Friday.
She just bought his silence for couple of hours so she can focus on the dilemma of hers, and while she was mobbing the floor to set the mattress for sleep, an idea lighted her head, wow! How I didn’t think about this earlier? She couldn’t wait until morning, she wrote the questions she needs answers for from the Imam on a piece of paper and she went with her older sun Ahmad to his house, she had a coffee with his wife and told her that she needs these answers by the morning for something she is working on.
For Abo Ahmad, it was yet another waste of time women chatting visits, and for her it was the burden flying away, an article coming true!
It is the last day of the training, Nisreen has a mixed feelings, she really loved all the details about writing articles, reporting events, finding new angels for stories and expressing the actual people views independently, but part of her felt as if she learnt to swim while living in the desert.
This morning, Nisreen collects the answer from the unaware shiekh’s wife and goes to the basement, she takes an isolated corner trying to focus on writing her story, and whenever she finishes a paragraph she invites the trainer to check it out for her, and as she hears her encouraging comments she gets even better in writing the second one and that goes on until the last line of it.
In that last line she writs “Om Hadi ran out of her bright foundation powder, she is not planning to buy a new one, there will be no dark marks to be covered ever again. Her plan has succeeded. Last week she wore a black dress and white headscarf then she asked her husband to remove a metal junk from the balcony, she knew it’s a left over of a cluster bomb fell on last night from a Russian airstrike, and that was it, she chose to become a widow because no one protected her from the daily beating and humiliation”.
When her story published on the Syria Stories website with the help of the trainer, for the first time in her life Nisreen earned money on her own, and it was a huge amount compared to the drowning Syrian pound currency Nisreen got a one hundred US dollars for just a story. It was actually double of what her husband gets as monthly salary.
She knew that she can hide her name, her new career and her new personality but she just can’t hide her money, so she decided to confront.
As soon as she received the 50.000 syrian pounds she went to the second hand market and bought new shoes for all her 5 children and to Abo Ahmad, “maybe if he has a comfortable trainer one he would walk away a bit from the house and I can do something useful” she thought when choosing his.
On her way back she also brought all the kinds of vegetables and fruits she could find in their local market, the shop keeper who knows her asked sarcastically, “did your husband find some gold ruins under your house?”. She smiled and responded calmly “no, I found the treasure in me”.
After couple of months, Nisreen was seen riding behind her husband on his new motor bike hitting the roads of their town and the nearby ones, Abo Ahmad was wearing expensive black leather jacket with full pockets, an eye witnesses says whenever seen he would take a piece of paper from his pocket and start writing the answers. The husband has got a new neck name in the town, he is known now as “the questioner” because he keeps harassing people for answers for different topics and matter, and they see the answers in articles published under the name of “Shamaa Modeia (Lightening candle)” in the Syria stories website.
This story published in Arab Women Voice New Realities Anthropology
The anthology features 27 stories written by 27 Arab women from the region and the diaspora. Their stories are endearing and enticing.
Publisher: Turning Point Books, November 2017
Co-Editors: Roseanne Saad Khalaf and Dima Nasser