My throat stays parched, and meek whispers reverberate through this box of a room. Flaky dried blood covers my bruised finger-tips, reminding me of the nails I’ve lost while scratching on the thick concrete walls. The scraping sounds comforted me as long as they lasted. Though silenced now, the crimson patterns stay faded into the walls forever. The silence surrounding me is both deafening and painful. At this stage of my life, even the acerbic remarks or the sound of those stinging slaps would be music to my ears. Right now, any sound would be a respite.
A thin ray of warm light filters in through the vent at the top, which means it is morning once again. I must get up from this cold cement slab, but I shut my eyes and curl my legs closer to my chest like before. I know if I start counting now, and by the time I reach 14400, a mis-shaped aluminum plate would be slid under the door with my meal of the day – a piece of stale pita bread. I could eat it easily before, but now I tear it in tiny bits, soften it with my saliva and then only I can swallow them.
I don’t remember how long ago I stopped tracking the day, date, or time, but I know why. It’s because of the smells. Not the nauseating stench of sweat, urine, or excreta. They stopped bothering me long ago. But it is the all-pervading smell of death, defeat and despair which has broken me down and tethered me to these walls.
Loud Arabian music blasts from the speakers. The beats frequently drown under the sounds of gay laughter, loud claps and hearty cheers. The male members of Al Hussainiya family have gathered for an evening of fun in their diwaniya, their ancestral home. I was scared the first time Madam had sent me here with Azlam, the Bangladeshi driver. I had never seen such a palatial bungalow, that too in the desert, far from the city lights, surrounded by sand, and nothing else. The first thing I noticed when I entered the large marble tiled hall was the fancy Sheeshas lined next to the low-seated cushions and the woody fragrance which emanated from the expensive bakhoor* burning in the corners.
But now, having come here many times over the past ten winters, the fear is gone, though anxiety and hope remain. Hopefully soon… I console myself as I focus on slicing the red radishes for the Fatoush salad.
A fresh wave of raucous cheer rattles the kitchen windows. Overcome by curiosity, I peek outside to find a swanky yellow car whizzing in, a cloud of brown fine dust trailing it. An Indian or Pakistani driver holds the door open once the dust settles down and a tall, well-built man wearing a spotless Dishdasha steps out, and is welcomed by a thunderous applause.
“Ate, can pass me the hummus tray? I cling-wrap it,” Joma, the new Filipina maid, calls out to me. Despite her small frame, she is more energetic than me; and more anxious and terrified, too.
“Ate!” she calls out again, louder than before.
“I no deaf! Why you shouting?!” Her eager to please attitude irritates me, but I regret my outburst the moment I look at her downcast eyes. “I am sorry Joma, I thinking something else. Here,” I pass her the tray and observe her as she cling-wraps it.
“I do right this time?” she shuffles from one foot to another, waiting for me to reply.
The memories of the previous incident are fresh in our thoughts. On her first day in the kitchen, she had received a tight slap from Madam. Her cheek remained swollen for a week. The poor girl was terrified to even breathe loudly. Her fault–she had never seen a cling-wrap before.
My heart goes out to her as she reminds me of a younger me – naïve, scared, anxious. I was just 18 when I left home and started working here. In my naivety, I blindly placed my trust in the wrong people. And as a result, slaps, lashes, humiliation and hunger have become a permanent part of my life.
“You do good!” I wipe my hands on my thread-bare uniform and squeeze her shoulders. “No need be scared. You learn all soon.”
“But how I manage when you…” a snot bubble blows from her nose as she tries in vain to stop the tears from falling.
“You’ll be-,” is all I can tell her before Azlam interrupts us.
“Asha didi, they want food. I-.” He stops mid-sentence and smacks his lips.
I see his gaze veering towards the trays lined on the marble-top. Joma and I had worked tirelessly the whole day to prepare a variety of dishes – labneh balls, hummus, grilled halloumi, falafel, shawarma, kofta, maqlooba, a variety of dips and salads.
When his eyes twinkle and he comes closer, I know he has a secret to share. The ground beneath me shakes when I feel his warm breath on my ears, “Madam tell to take you to Airport after guests leave.”
My knees give away and I fall with a thud.
“What happen?” Joma squats down next to me. Her fingers tremble as she wipes my tears.
“Joma… it’s time. Finally!”
Finally, the day has arrived… The day when I leave this wretched country and go back home, to my country, to Ma, Bauji and my siblings. Ten painfully long years of imprisonment over. No more beatings, no more humiliation, no more starvation!
And just like that, in the vast kitchen, in a tiny corner, the three of us hug and shed tears of joy and sadness.
Tears roll down my hollowed cheeks as I step out of the minivan, clutching on to my headscarf, which threatens to fly away. Azlam slams the door shut and wipes his tears with the back of his palm. “Too cold and windy. My eyes water,” he giggles, trying to mask the quiver in his voice.
We both know the reason behind the tears, and we leave it at that.
Azlam touches my feet before handing my bag. “I happy for you, didi. Pray for my freedom.”
“Insha-Allah you be home soon too.”
My hands tremble with a feverish excitement as I pull out my precious passport from the bag. The last time I had held my passport was on the day I had landed on this foreign soil. I had cried to sleep, craving for freedom every single night… but the empty stomachs back home had held me here. And now when I have been freed, the same faces float in front of my eyes, reminding me of my responsibilities.
It was over 6 months ago when madam had called me to her room and said “I don’t need you anymore.” Though she stopped paying me from that very day, she refused to sign my release papers. Should I have pleaded with Madam to take me back? Should I continue to suffer for the sake of my family? How will I take care of my parents?
The realization of reality begins to shatter my initial excitement and with great effort I drag myself towards the entrance gate. But the moment the glass doors slide open, cold air gushes out, welcoming me in a sweet embrace. I pause and take a deep breath, soaking in the sights and experiencing the newly found freedom – The sparkling lights, aroma of pine floor cleaners, non-stop announcements, loud chatter of excited travelers, colourful blinking boards, smartly dressed staff and endless check-in counters.
“Go there!” a heavily built security guard tuts at me with impatience while pointing towards a serpentine queue.
“Are you alright?” a lady stares into my eyes, emphasizing each word, as if she is repeating the question.
I had been lost in thoughts and failed to notice that someone had occupied the vacant seat next to mine.
“Please take this,” she pulls out a paper napkin from her expensive looking leather bag, and whispers in a soothing voice, “for your tears.”
It is only then I realize I have been crying, that too in a public place. But none apart from this kind lady had noticed me or my tears. I cannot see her face, but her green eyes sparkle as she speaks and the spotless skin around her eyes crinkles when she smiles under her niqab; pointing to my passport and boarding pass resting on my lap. “Where are you going? India?”
“Yes,” I offer a hesitant reply.
“Beautiful country. Beautiful people.”
Exquisite diamonds sparkle on her slender fingers as she takes my palm in hers. My dark, calloused hands in the well of creamy hands is a sight I had never imagined. “Everything will be alright dear.” My stiff shoulders relax on hearing her soothing voice.
A couple of curious onlookers look at us with disdain. A house-maid in her faded uniform and an upper-class woman sitting next to each other is not only unbelievable, it is unacceptable too. I squirm in my seat, but the lady pays no heed to those judgmental stares. “So, you didn’t answer my question. Are you alright?”
“Yes, madam. Sorry for trouble. Thank you for tissue.” I ramble nonstop, looking away from her kind eyes.
“Relax. Don’t call me madam. I am Sophie. You can call me by my name.”
“But… how… I-i just a maid.”
“Uh-uh. No, you are not just a maid. You are a human being who deserves to be treated with respect. Think of me as your friend.” She asserts in a loud voice, waving her manicured index finger in the air.
“Thank you, madam.”
“What now?!” She chuckles before squeezing my palms tighter.
“I… thank you S-Sophie.”
“What time is your flight?”
“Mine is at 1300. If you don’t mind, can I sit with you until then? I get anxious at airports.” Her eyes twitch as she casts a worried glance behind her shoulders, but heaves a sigh of relief soon.
I can’t believe my luck. Finally, good things are happening. First, madam let me go. Second, I had never imagined someone like her would actually sit down next to me. And most of all, her treating me with kindness feels surreal. I can’t think of a single rich woman who treated me with kindness here. “I going back after 10 years.”
Her eyes widen in horror and soon droop with sadness. “Oh… your employer held on to your passport!”
I am glad Madam decided to let go of me. I gave her the best years of my life and received only humiliation in return. Now I am leaving as an empty shell – drained of energy and dreams, with meagre savings to call my own. Nevertheless, I am free. Nothing else matters.
“I hate these people. Who are they to treat others like this?” I see flashes of fury in the deep lake of her eyes and it comforts me, and makes me feel like a human being once again. I had forgotten that feeling…
“You very kind,” I can’t believe I am opening up to a total stranger, but there is something about her which helps me break the walls I have built around myself. “My agent say he bring me here for school helper job. But after I come here, I find I a house maid. He take my 1st year salary also. I very scared of madam. She very bad.”
I shudder at the memory of those stinging slaps and sarcastic remarks. Immediately, I caress the bald spot in my head, mourning the missing chunk of hair, the one she had pulled out in fury. There’s so much more that I cannot tell Sophie, or anyone else. No one would know about the nights I spent locked in the toilet, or the days when madam used my palms as an ashtray or when she made me walk in skimpy clothes in front of male guests or spat on my face. Those memories will haunt me till my very end…
“Oh dear! Did they at least feed you well?” Her question pulls me out of the abyss I was sinking into.
“Once a day.” I feel my cheeks flush when my stomach roars at the mention of food. Thankfully, the rumblings are loud enough just to reach my ears.
An uncomfortable pause lingers in the air as she shuts her eyes and rests her head against the cold metal chair, massaging her temples furiously. I wonder if I should get up and sit somewhere else, but for some unknown reason I remain seated, watching the passengers coming in pushing trolleys piled with luggage of various sizes, designs and colours. A few single passengers. Many families – quite a few with small kids and hassled maids running behind those boisterous children.
A young maid stops near me. Our eyes meet and we share an unspoken message–we understand each other’s pain and struggles. She mouths, “Your employer?”
“No,” I mouth back, “friend.”
Her bony shoulders jiggle up and down as she laughs in disbelief, and soon runs behind the kid who is now climbing over some other passenger’s luggage.
Sophie shifts in her seat before getting up with a sudden jerk. “I’ll be back.”
Her heels click-clack against the polished floor and soon she vanishes from my vision, leaving her suitcase with me. My heart starts thumping when there is no sign of her. I look around in all directions, but she is nowhere to be seen. My uniform sticks to my back despite the cool interiors. What if the police think I’ve stolen someone’s luggage? Will they believe the truth?
Shoving my passport and boarding pass in my handbag, I prepare to get away from this area, only to be greeted by her smiling eyes.
“Please take this,” she offers a fully loaded tray to me.
My hands freeze mid-air, “I cannot…”
“Please, I insist.” She places the heavy tray on my lap and settles down next to me like before.
Burger, fries, chips and cola.
The salty aroma makes my mouth water and my stomach grumbles even louder in response. “Thank you,” a soft whisper escapes my mouth and at the same time, a tiny teardrop drips onto the tray.
“It’s nothing,” she squeezes my shoulders, “eat up and then we can chat again.”
My tongue tingles with excitement as I rip open the paper and take my first bite. The burger melts in my mouth, and in no time, the tray is as clean as new. “Thank you,” I beam wide at her, my stomach filled with food, my heart overflowing with gratitude.
“Unfortunately, it’s time for your flight. Otherwise, we could have spent some more time together. This is for you,” her voice lilts with love and affection as she thrusts a glossy packet in my hands. A sugary aroma from the packet fills the cool air.
“No – no. You give enough already.”
“This is for your family back home. I was taking some Arabic sweets for my friends, but now I want you to take it. A remembrance of our friendship. Please don’t refuse.”
“Thank you, Sophie. I promise, I never forget you.” I want to tell her how much her kindness means to me, but the words refuse to come out.
“Oh, I never asked your name.”
“Asha,” I reply, picking up my handbag, “It means hope.”
She waves her slender arms as I enter the immigration gates with a renewed bounce in my steps.
The tray screeches against the floor as someone slides it under. As always – pita bread.
I reach over to the rusted wall sink and struggle to twist open the corroded tap, which gurgles furiously and a few drops trickle down. I wet my index finger under it, to use as a brush to clean my teeth. There used to be an age-spotted mirror here once. I don’t know if it was weeks or months or years ago, but one day, a guard took it away. “For safety reasons,” he had said. And that was the last time I had seen my face. I couldn’t recognize the person with deep hollow pits under her eyes, white matted hair, cracked lips, bony cheeks, and papery skin.
“Asha…” I whisper to myself. To remind me of my name. And to remind myself that there’s hope for me.
“Bags here,” a uniformed officer informs in a flat voice and points to a blue tray. I leave my belongings on it and walk towards an officer. She pokes and prods, rubbing her hands all over me for a while before ordering me to leave.
Beyond the clear glass windows, aeroplanes are lined up. My heart races as I see the once familiar logo. Just as I am about to reach for my bag, rough hands push me to the ground, shouting, hurling abuses. I squirm and struggle, too stunned to even scream.
Someone pulls me off the floor, “is that yours?” he points to my faded brown bag and the packet.
I nod even as tears blur my vision.
I watch in horror as he turns the packet upside down. My gift… The cheesy kunafa falls with a splat on the floor. He rips open the other box. The ground underneath my feet shakes and I shudder at the sight. Tiny packets filled with white powder. Not sweets.
I hear someone mention drugs.
My heart hammers in my chest. “She gave it to me…” I scream in desperation, mustering as much courage as I can, pointing towards the seats I had occupied a while ago. The seat is vacant, but before I collapse, I see Sophie’s eyes dissolving in the sea of black abayas.
The water in the steel bucket is now cold. I should have been happy at the prospect of taking a hot water bath after ages. I could get rid of the grime coating my body.
But I know what this hot water means.
It’s my final bath before I leave this world.
Before I am executed in a land which, even after decades, remains foreign.
I shed my clothes on the cracked floor and pour a mug of cold water on my head. My teeth rattle and my body shivers in protest. Immediately, I pick up the clothes I had just shed and wipe my body with them.
I glance at my dress of the day – stiffly starched cotton shirt and clean pajamas. It hangs loosely over my shoulders and keeps slipping down, exposing my jutting bones. A loud knock on the metal door signaling the end of my time brings me to my senses.
A uniformed officer comes in and I stretch my hands forward while she handcuffs and shackles me.
Trust is fragile, and now I know better.
In all these years, not a single moment has passed when I haven’t blamed myself. I wish I had not blindly trusted strangers. Now when I drag myself out of the isolation chamber, the shackles scrape against the cold floor, echoing in the long lonely passage; all I can think of is my promise – I never forgot Sophie.
I want to ask the officer if they will send my body back home. I don’t know if anyone is still waiting for me. I am sure my parents would have died waiting for me… wish they had gotten to know the truth. They deserved to know I am innocent. I want to know if I have been sentenced to lashes or would people hurl sharp stones at me till I breathe my last. Or will they hang me till my body falls limp and lifeless?
Or will they believe my innocence and release me? I wonder if the benevolent King would grace me with a pardon.
But once again, I cannot find the words to say anything.
My lips tremble as cold air rushes out of my mouth… Asha…
Ate – Elder sister in Filipino
Bakhoor – Arabic name given to scented bricks
Kunafa – Middle Eastern dessert made with spun pastry, soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup, and typically layered with cheese.