Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2015  v14n1
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A Cocoon That Would Break

Beirut circa the civil war is a city bound up in patriarchy and sectarian strife, those twin cords woven with threads of honor and shame. Women bore the shame of their families at their hips. Men guarded the honor of their families with guns. Rabih Alameddine wrote, “One's first response is that these Beirutis must be savagely insane to murder each other for such trivial divergences. Don’t judge us too harshly. At the heart of most antagonisms are irreconcilable similarities. Hundred-year wars were fought over whether Jesus was human in divine form or divine in human form” (An Unnecessary Woman, 2014). What in the West would be viewed as hyperbole over minutia is to a Beiruti nothing more than due attention to the grand significance of words reflecting matters of the soul, of mores keeping family legacies intact. Things small as greetings and glances exchanged—with men strange to the family, with people other to the family’s sect—are enough to bring shame to a woman, unravelling her family’s honor. Often, nothing short of blood will wash away that shame.

On a Thursday in May, a few years before the civil war began to rustle the tiles of every building in Beirut, Leila took the tramway from Tareeq Jdeideh to The High House of Teachers for her afternoon class. She sat with her fists pushing mounds of pleated skirt over her knees. She let quiet tears drop into the chrysanthemum that rose and bent on a flimsy stalk through her fingers.

A young man sitting across from her stood, adjusting the swaying of his hips to the rattling of the tramcar beneath them, and came over to her. He stood above her and she looked down at the teardrops that ran together from red petals to her thumbnail almost as red, and sobbed less silently.

“I am sorry if something bad has happened to you in your life today,” he said slowly, and his shadow retreated.

Leila lifted her head to see him seated like he had never moved. She held her eyes below his, looking at the shadows underneath them, because shame was a beautiful thing. They weren’t like shadows at all, but like mellow light that wobbled.

Surrounded except for when she was on her way to and from the university, he was the first young man to speak to her outside her family, the first she could sit across and look at without being shut away by people who had the power to move her body and will. She was afraid.

The forbidden was beautiful.

His name was Ibrahim Habib and he wrote her letters that he tucked between her fingertips on Thursdays on the tramway. He bowed and—a bit louder than he had to—told her his employers sent their regards to her esteemed father. His fingers never touched hers. They never held each other’s gazes. Even though the Thursday tramcar heading to the city outskirts was seldom densely populated, a single witness was enough to tout the shame of love across the streets of Beirut in those prewar years.

So Leila allowed their eyes to meet only in crossing, like the trains that pushed past each other on the metal railways along the Mediterranean coastline, winking with their whistles. In passing this way, it was easy for her eyes to blur over his tremulous lower lip and the worn edges of his brown suit. In later years, during the civil war, the trains would stop running and all the steel would be torn up and looted, but when Leila and Ibrahim sat across from one another in the Beirut tramway, trains were regular and familiar and Leila thought of how they ran straight, true courses.

He wrote to her of his work and his life. He was a carpenter, of the kind trained to build houses, but Beirut even in the ’70s was a conglomeration of concrete, and houses were razed to make room for apartment buildings. In those prewar years Ibrahim made doors and cabinets surrounded by concrete instead of hanging from rafters and feeling high with clean air. He told her that he was a laborer and not an artisan, and did practical things, but Leila saw beauty in the work he described. He could take a chunk of wood so roughly hewn that its curves and lines looked humped and malformed, and with measured force he’d turn it into a smooth board, green with newness and with right angles immeasurably sharp. She imagined he made it look as easy as drawing a brilliant golden thread from a lump of clay. Then, folding his sleeves up, he would sand and lacquer, sand and lacquer until each board was invincible and soft and a glowing burnished thing, until his arms stung with the rawness of chemical up to his elbows. “It is beautiful,” she wrote back to him. “You have beauty. Your hands do beautiful things.”

She wrote to him in the way of her language, in the poetic lilt of this colloquial Arabic where lamentations were more common than questions; where hearts and livers and eyes trilled in and out of sentences; where the most prosaic sentiments were wrought with earth and sweat and blood. This was the commonest of speech, so she told him he was beautiful.

She said it and she believed it, because how could she not? When he was the only young man she ever saw, the only one who dared listen and receive, and who took her words into his palms on paper and gave them sound through his actual blood-and-flesh mouth, framed with a mustache.

You are beautiful,” he wrote back to her. “I would be honored to be one of the minds you teach. I wish I could go to school, but I am only a poor boy who works with his hands.”

She believed this, too, because women believed the things men told them, because to hold disbelief in your heart when your hands and body were forced to comply to the whims of fathers, brothers, sheikhs, and lords was to be torn in two, and the women of Beirut in the 1970s were already breaking at the knees.

On the days Ibrahim did not ride the tramway with her, Leila hoped he would show up anyway, and she held daisies and chrysanthemums and gardenias in place of his letters in case he did. A chrysanthemum was her favorite, because red was so calmingly offset by its supporting green stalk, because it made her look more beautiful, more modest and clean to the other passengers, and it helped regulate her smiles and downcast glances. But Leila could not get chrysanthemums every day because Beirut was turning to stone, and she had to steal her flowers from a graveyard on the way to her tramcar stop. In the days that she couldn’t, she learned to keep still and quiet by composing new letters to Ibrahim in her head.

She wrote to him of her life. She was training to be a teacher, and wanted to wake up every morning and press skirts and scent her collars with jasmine to make herself fresh and bright so that her face and the words of learning she spoke would be one and echo in her schoolchildren’s minds. Her pen almost didn’t stutter as she wrote with this much hope. She told him, too, about her secret china cabinet where she kept bits of her childhood before they could decay: china doll’s arms that would otherwise be lost, spools of thread used down to the last few feet whose colors would otherwise be forgotten, progressions of crochet and needlework, small and lumpy bits of them, sprawling creations with large holes organically evolving into love-tied lace. She told Ibrahim she kept them because otherwise the way in which people learn and grow would go unmarked.

She did not tell him that she kept them because they were decayed, broken, ugly things.

She told him, too, why she cried, as much of it as she could without needing him to turn in her mind from the only man she knew to the only man who could pick up her pieces. She needed to find him beautiful, always.

“Baba thinks it is not a good thing for a woman to work outside the home,” she wrote to him. “It is important and a matter of pride for daughters to be educated and have degrees, but to work in a place where there are many other men who have authority over me is not something he thinks even teaching the children is worth.”

“He wants to make me into an ornate vase in a glass case,” she wrote. She trembled at her own poeticism. “One that is too immaculate to touch or to be dirtied, even if it were more useful handled. But I am useful and handled at home with him and with my mother. Why does that not make me happy?”


Some Thursdays on the tramway, Ibrahim would say something more after sending imaginary regards to her father and placing a new letter between her fingers.

“I hope today will be a good day in your life,” he would say. And she would hold the warmth of his voice in the same way you hold the steam from a teacup between your lips and your chin: with your eyes closed because you would tremble if you tried to look at it and feel at the same time.

He wrote to her of his own family. “I was only twelve when Mama died and my sister left school to clean in other people’s houses. She is as beautiful as you are, but I can’t make her life any good. My father does not want her to go to school—even if we could afford it—because she could never work with her diploma and we need her hands now, while she is young. Somehow it is okay if she works in other women’s homes, where her bosses are Madames and not Monsieurs.”

“You work as hard as she,” Leila wrote back. “But the difference is that you make strong and beautiful and useful things, and grow while you do this, because you move from this type of wood to that one and then boards and cabinets and doors and floors and larger and greater things. This is how people become happy. You turn your work to art that never stops going further. You do not fill your palms with grime that comes again and again in the same exact place.”

She did not say anything about how few in number they were, the items of wood concrete apartments needed, and how limited the designs in demand. If she dwelled on such thoughts, how could she make herself believe that Ibrahim was more than he was?


Thirty years after the civil war began to rustle the tiles of every building in Beirut, Dalilah sat in her flat and destroyed wedding dresses. She frayed their hems and tore them into strips, dipping them into vats of black dye. The strips turned dark as the blinds that blocked the sunlight from her veranda doors. She pinned them to the laundry lines spooled taut between her windows, and they fluttered like cruel banners and sucked the hope from girls who eyed them from the street.

Dalilah had arms and legs as sturdy as telephone poles. Her fingers webbed and gloated through the gowns that lined up at her door, careful and clean in plastic bags. She commissioned the prostitutes of Beirut to bring her dresses to destroy and let them think what they willed of her reasons. They had nails that scarred the bags with runs like their panty hose. This was good—the first defilement of each gown's purity. The next sped to the tune of Dalilah's jaws working, cracking mastic between her teeth, clack-clack, clack-clack, like a freight train. She ripped, stripped, dyed, and dried, and snapped each bit of cloth taut before hanging it. Her jaw was grim enough to chase away whispers about the sort of women who hang out of windows in Beirut daylight.

Early in the afternoon, thirty years after the civil war, Dalilah pinned crumbling lace to her windowsill to be borne by the breeze. She let a last length of lace entwine in her fingers as she lingered a moment to watch one young prostitute, who had just been to deliver a new dress, walk down the street.

“Ra’ed,” Dalilah said over her shoulder. “You might like that one. I should maybe ask her to stay for you next time.” She turned away from her window to look at Ra’ed, and her cousin Abu Faten and their other associates seated expansively across her living room, waiting for her to complete her daily window pilgrimage, which they did not understand beyond the way people understand the common cruelty of a bitter, loveless woman. Dalilah rent the lace in her palms with one broad outward thrust of finality and let its torn flowerets rain down over her toes. She roared at the fallen lace.

“Why are you so angry all the time, ’Lila?” Ra’ed’s legs jiggled on the rims of the clay flowerpot he used as a foot rest. He was the only one young and slim enough to bear his weight down on her woven pottery so recklessly. “I’m sorry we defile your living room with our man-skin. You know we’re here for you too.”

“Far more for yourselves than for me,” she said, and disappeared into her kitchen, stopping only to spit in Ra’ed’s general direction. She called backward with her throat voice to ask what flavors they wanted, but clasped her palms and rocked her hip while she waited for them to decide, rocked it where they could not see.

Lila, Lila, she hummed to her breast.

“Guava, and rose, if you have it.” Ra’ed called.

“Three apples. Honey,” Abu Faten added. “Don’t forget tea. Briquettes. Water. Yes?”

Dalilah snorted and crushed packets of thick fruity tobacco into her bust in reverse order, floating guava and rose up top, because green and red should always coincide. She used the efficient sweep of her wide arms to gather together clean pipes and water chambers and hookah hoses with fresh bamboo mouthpieces and turned back into the living room with loaded arms and wavering hips. She maneuvered around the legs of men on her furniture. She filled their hookahs with water and peeled foil from tobacco and arranged burning coals. She packed their pipes and passed around thick wicks that held a flame better than any lighter could.

She spoiled them, but lived exorbitantly off of their drug dealing, with commission for her accounting services and bookkeeping thrown into the draw. She and Abu Faten were old, old friends who had an understanding. He outwardly ran things and told his associates that she was bitter and old and a little insane, but to be handled with respectful caution because she provided first capital from her new war money that still reeked of gasoline. Abu Faten could never tell them that she, the woman, the angry, widowed, dress-destroying old woman, was really in charge.

When his associates left, Dalilah would fold herself into Abu Faten’s broad arms and they would let the tenseness run from their limbs like water, and he would let his voice run soothing as olive oil, and he would call her by her girlhood name, and touch all of her scars, and say his only family was her, Dalilah, and his daughter Faten, who he was called after because he had no sons.

But while Abu Faten’s associates camped in her living room, Dalilah ignored him and watched the quiet luster of Ra’ed’s lower lip. She moved like a pilgrim around the room replenishing drinks and relighting smokes. Patient, patient to their reckless trumpeting. Sometimes they broke the flowerpots she so carefully etched designs into, the same woven designs she crocheted for years, before her hands broke too badly to maneuver a needle, and after they healed enough to hold a knife. She could always etch more lumpy pots when they were gone, and turn off her lights and open the window for half an hour longer.

Lila, Lila, she said to her breast. Abu Faten was allocating districts for distributing hashish that day. Ra’ed was assigned Sabra refugee camp, and he groaned because, he said, the poor had taloned children and greed of mythical repute. His wit waxed brilliant, and Dalilah’s lungs expanded with the smoke around her. Lila, Lila. Later she would send Ra’ed something sweet and fresh with Abu Faten.

Drifting back toward her window, she felt the breadth of generosity in her breast. She let Abu Faten and his associates use her living room as a gathering venue at will. She let them, with the fumes of dye and hashish and hookah smoke deepening the darkness of her window blinds. They didn’t know it, but she let them, and she could end it any moment she wished.


On a Thursday a few years before the civil war began, Ibrahim handed Leila a letter that had words that were different than any he had ever written her before. “You are so beautiful,” he wrote, as he often did, and then Leila read: “Your hair looks like clouds and coffee all at once. When you take my letters your fingers close on the pages one at a time, tapping like raindrops or a series of musical notes down a scale. Your skin looks like it is just as soft as all of that. I would be honored to hold your hand. Will you let me?”

For the rest of the week, Leila held his letter in her hand instead of holding flowers from tombstones. She held it and imagined its folded edges were as straight and perfectly angled as a sweet-smelling slab of wood that shone. She imagined it was lacquered, and as soft and invincible as all that. She could feel it with her fingers.

It felt wonderful. She felt it with all of her fingers and her lips too, because she thought she would never feel another one like it again, and she wrote back.

“When I was a very little girl,” she wrote, “my mother taught me to be good by beating a sense of shame into my body. With metal hangers, with belts, in my underwear. She scored my skin and made it rough and ugly, and then uncurled my body and lifted me to face the mirror, so I would breed feelings of being ashamed of this ugly body and never desire to let anybody see it.”

She wrote nothing to him of her father because it was easier for even men like Ibrahim to blame women than to blame other men. She wrote nothing to him of her father, and instead wrote to him of her mother.

“Because,” she wrote, “it was the only way Mama knew how, because there was fear when I was born because daughters are a shame and a burden, and because it is how she had been taught virtue.

“What is virtue? To bear pride in your skin because it has done no wrong. But I wonder how we can be proud of our skins when they do good or even great things if the shame comes first and we are so preemptively frightened.

“I wish I knew how it felt to think my hands were music, or my hands were the rain.

“Sometimes I feel my body is full of toxic energy. There is lightning in my clouds of hair that seem so soft to you, and it shocks me before shocking anybody else. But sometimes, when I read your words, I feel so light that I think you could pierce through me like sunlight. I feel open, transparent with you. Shame is a heavy thing. You cannot hold my hand on the tramcar. You must find us a place to meet. Leila.”

On a Wednesday in September a few years before the civil war began to rustle the tiles of every building in Beirut, Leila took the tramway from Tareeq Jdeideh and got off her car before she reached The High House of Teachers near the outskirts of the city. She got off and waited until she saw a young man with shoes and hair so bright she could have sworn they were lacquered, and wandered down the street two meters behind him, letting the tips of her shoes kiss the tip of his long shadow.

He led her to a workshop unfolding from a larger warehouse like an organic growth. “I work alone today,” he said to her. “Nobody will see you come or go. I’m sanding boards. Boring, monotonous work. Back and forth.”

“Not boring,” she said.

It was the first time she could answer him with spoken words instead of a smile hidden by her collar.

Leila and Ibrahim sat on a worn redwood bench with piles of perfect wood and rough wood and disintegrated wood surrounding them like a knee-high forest. Every length of red-gold board drying with solemn patience glowed harder than Leila could ever have hoped. Ibrahim traced his fingers over Leila’s wrist bones and collar bone and ran them over the ends of her hair. She could smell the lacquer on them. She pulled a circle of new crochet work from her pocket and pressed it to his palms. “For you.” He took it and hid it in his own pocket.

Their hands danced like rain or music through the afternoon.


Abu Faten and Ra’ed were seated in a chocolatier in the midst of a transaction when the power fizzled out, marking the hour. Abu Faten heaved his bulk through his back door to crank the generator into motion. Every day in larger Beirut the power failed for three hours, one of the more merciful relics of a civil war that had ended decades before. Every day, Abu Faten contributed feral rumbles to Beirut’s noise pollution, and billows of diesel smoke to the Beirut skyline so he could power his business for those three hours, and came back to sit in his shop enveloped in tinsel and cotton batting and sweet things, the front of his honest livelihood, the job his neighbors and children thought was his life and career. Every day he lied.

Every day his knees rocked and swung behind the counter, too weighted to rest.

Every day he gave more sweets to children and cats than he sold, and ordered more to replace them.

Every day he yearned for his cousin Dalilah, who touched his skin and made it warm when they were alone; every other moment it was grainy and heavy as alligator skin.

Every day he did her bidding because she was always working and moving, and if he did not help her, she’d let her hands run until they broke again. Thirty years later, he no longer had the ability to set her bones with splints while she screamed.

Every day he visited brothels and spoke to prostitutes, recruiting more and more of them to buy wedding dresses for Dalilah, helping her with her project of funding the whores of Beirut.

Every day, too, he talked to Ra’ed, and inched him closer to where Dalilah wanted him to be. Every day was some plan, new and more desperate, to bring Dalilah closer and closer to Ra’ed. Today, Ra’ed was going to say yes to the most momentous deal Dalilah had ever struck with anybody, and Abu Faten was only inwardly tremulous.

At that moment, Ra’ed was lounging against a glass display case examining his fingernails. When a cat screeched outside, he jumped and ducked his head outside the door, looked both ways, and ducked it back inside, relaxing against the counter again with a smooth, long shudder.

“Anyway,” Abu Faten said, picking up the conversation where it had left off. “It will take some maneuvering of phrase, but I think she’ll do it. Worst thing we offer her a larger commission. That will work for sure.”

“How is it that Dalilah is such an insane train wreck yet we can never get her to budge a little bit without giving her exorbitant amounts of money?”

“She is shrewd and capable. So she’s eccentric, so what? She’s always been good to you.”

“She’s always been nice to me, but she gets the lion’s share every time. She’s always there. Anything we want to do, she already has some share in before we even get started.”

“We need her connections,” Abu Faten said.

“I should stop sleeping with the girls she gets me. It makes her feel like I depend on her and she can expect things from me.”

“But this one is different. This girl,” Abu Faten said, thinking about this girl he was selling to a young drug addict slouched against his shop chairs, this girl and how she was his darling, Dalilah’s darling too, the crown of his bald head. “This girl—you’ll be bringing her worth and more back to Dalilah. This is not a favor she is doing you.”

Ra’ed snorted. “Favor, my ass, with the commission she’s asking for.”

Ra’ed went to stand at the doorway to the chocolatier and looked out onto the street. Abu Faten counted to eight in his head and curled and uncurled his fists before Ra’ed turned around and said, “Okay. Yes. Talk to her today.”

Abu Faten would. He would tell Dalilah that Ra’ed had said yes, and lie to her and hide Ra’ed’s incisive words lest they hurt her, and her hands vibrate too fast and fall upon things that would cut and bruise them.


In Beirut before the civil war, Leila and Ibrahim rode the tramcars and exchanged letters and locked eyes for long minutes as they sat in seats that faced one another because the city was trembling with an oncoming recklessness and they felt it in their seats and were more daring. Once every month or two Leila would get off the car before she reached her usual stop at The High House of Teachers and walk eyes-to-ground to meet her lover, the scent of fresh-cut wood guiding her.

The tramways of Beirut ceased operating when the city was on the cusp of civil war. They were replaced by autobuses too wide for Beirut’s narrow streets designed for cars. The city was growing and moving. Routes that used to intersect intersected no longer. Getting places took longer and became more tiresome and difficult. Leila and Ibrahim saw each other less often and wrote each other longer letters.

Leila wanted to join herself to Ibrahim and smell his wood-scented clothes and the lighter musk underneath every day for the rest of their lives. It would smell better than any other future available to her, and he was almost as beautiful still as the day she first saw him. She wanted to teach children at school with a voice ringing with all her breathy femininity because she could, because her husband would not think it was anything but glorious, because she would be Madame Leila, somebody’s wife instead of somebody’s daughter.

“Is there no way around it?” she wrote to him. “Not a one you can think of? I have been reading up on scriptural law in the stacks at the university library. Maybe you can convert. You know I cannot. I do not want to cause you pain, but the truth is ugly and disowning is better than death. It is always easier for a man.”

“Dearest Leila,” Ibrahim wrote back. “At any other time I would be at your father’s doorstep reciting the shahada today. But the country is hurtling towards a sectarian war, and there will be no conversions for anybody, anywhere, neither women, nor men, or patriarchs, or sheikhs. No one will defect without ugliness on every side. I could perhaps bear to have my body dragged through the streets, but never yours.”

When Leila received that letter, she read it on the autobus and looked up across the crammed rows separating her from Ibrahim’s brown, mellow face. She turned her head away, and knew that she would gladly die right then by her own hand, die with the beautiful, delicate, half-breed child absorbing the lifeblood within her, die while it was still hers, and Ibrahim with his silly words was still hers, before her father and his clan ripped both of them away from her.


In the early days of the civil war, Leila’s fetus lived. He grew from his umbilical cord, desperate for the nourishment of light and touch, desperate for nourishment his mother did not need to starve to give him.

In the early days of the civil war, Leila’s cloud-soft hair was shorn and burned in a blackened pot with her crochet work, and her father’s hand gripped her roughened head and held her to watch her lover’s body rent apart and strewn in glittering bits across the streets.

She had thought the words “I swear on the Qur’an I was not raped,” when repeated like a mantra, could save the poor, ignorant boy who gave her his love.

In those early days, she lived in a shack-like room that was dark, and she shivered despite her fever. She was also like a fetus, throbbing and waiting and morphing. She grew rounder and thinner all at once. She was turning into a new Leila, growing a ripeness that was fueled only by her own self.

In those days, Leila’s hands were broken, smashed with the hooked end of a hammer. They were healing at the wrong corners. She pretended she had no hands, that the baby took those too, and used them to make something new and clean.

In those days, Leila asked herself questions in her father’s voice.

Why don’t you kill yourself?

But her hands did not work, and she could not kill Ibrahim’s only living skin.

Why don’t you die already, just die? And shame. And die. And shame. Just die.

Only virgins can be violated. A girl that is not a girl anymore cannot be proven to have been pure. Nothing that is done to her leaves a mark. She cannot die.

In her room in those days, Leila had memory. She had a swelling, booming child and she had memory of not hangers or belts but things with sharp turns that tore, and screws and teeth, and blunt crushing heads, twisting and twisting and crushing and burning until she forgot how it is that a person could feel a thing, and move to that feeling, or speak.

In her room in those days, Leila remembered tools that broke instead of building, and chemicals that seared instead of making something new and fresh.

In her room in those days, Leila could not die.

In her room in those days, Leila yearned over her belly and realized that the child she could not kill saved her life too, because he was innocent in a way that mattered, and his life depended on hers.

In her room in those days, Leila lost memory. She sprawled her twisted hands over her belly and tried to place pockets of blank space within chronological time, and to fill them with sense and objects and thoughts, but they stayed empty.

In her room, Leila lost Ibrahim’s voice, and remembered it again. “Khalas, khalas.” She heard his shouting laugh when she tickled him too hard, his voice round and full and booming towards the low workshop ceiling that was suddenly a cathedral.

In her room, Leila found her father’s voice, “Khalas, khalas,” cracking like dried and bleached wheat, rising and breaking—khalas—just as the bones of her hands cracked and broke too—khalas. “Why are you doing this? Why are you making me do this? Khalas, khalas.”

Khalas. Salvation.

Her hands cracked, why. Her hands healed, quiet.

In a workshop, where things were fixed and made whole and gleaming and tender and invincible, in a workshop next to a warehouse where men work and sweat and swarm.

Did those men hear you moan as he fucked you, bitch?

Did they come in later and smell your disgusting sweat and sex?

Did they think about tasting you?

Did you walk among them and show them your skin? Did they give you money? Did you sign any contracts with your beautiful, beautiful penmanship?

Did you write them letters full of crap and stuff too?

Did you let them speak your name? Did you tell them Leila, Leila.But not Leila—that is not yours. Did your name twist and morph into a seductress’s name, a whore’s? Dalilah?

In her room in those days, Leila remembered.

Did they hear your sighs as you felt the beauty of your own skin, and everything your hands touched fit into grooves that were right and round and perfect because you chose them?

Did they?


In the midst of the civil war, families sold their kin for blood or money or weapons. In the midst of the civil war, Leila’s father sold her as a bride for an uneven alliance and nothing but honor, because she was too damaged to merit a material price. Her cousin Abu Faten set up the barter.

He came to her father’s door with an offer in writing in one hand and his three-year-old daughter hanging onto the other. Leila was perched on the far end of her father’s living room couch, quiet and pale in white. Her twisted hands lay against the belly of her infant child. It had no name. Everybody knew this story.

He bowed first to her father, and then to her, and introduced her to his tiny daughter, Faten—to win her trust, he told her father over the phone earlier, because if she goes quietly it’s easier than if she goes fighting—and then himself as Abu Faten, a man who referred to himself proudly as Father of His Daughter, Father of Faten. Leila’s father would die before being called Abu Leila. He would not even look at her as she nodded and looked at the floor, her hands scrabbling suddenly to grip her baby’s belly, and gasping that she could not.

Abu Faten spoke on as if she made no sound, talking towards the ceiling. The terms were simple and clear, he explained to her father. She would be presented to the public as Dalilah, an honorable reformed woman, a queen rather than a seductress. Her son would be dropped nameless and with no denomination at an orphanage. She would marry a rich and influential man, who was generous and who they all ought to be grateful to, for taking somebody this damaged.

These words Abu Faten directed at the father, but he stroked his daughter Faten’s long locks and kissed her dimpled-cream hands and snuck apologetic glances at Leila, who was still again, watching him with a soft stabbing mournfulness.

“And her hands?” her father asked.

Abu Faten cleared his throat. “I was a field medic for a few years. I’d have to break them again, but I can set them right. I’ll need some supplies and a room where no one will hear her scream. I’ll need space and no crowding so I can concentrate. It’s tricky, but doable.”


In the midst of the civil war, a city tumbled and burned around a tunneled room with a man and a woman inside alone, gathered to heal shame. No one could hear the screams of the woman, and the woman herself could not measure the steadiness and sorrow in the man’s skin as he touched her hands and broke them where they budded in nodes and ridges.

In the midst of the civil war, there was aloneness in a tunneled room and a man with a daughter he never wanted hurt held his kin’s shoulders as she sobbed into him, and touched her skin like it was something that could fall apart and feel everything around it all at once.

In a tunneled room, a man and a woman thought of his daughter and her son, of Faten and Ra’ed asleep on a couch in another room less shrouded. The man held the woman like a cocoon that would break, even though it had been slammed with the most withering of substances and survived. The woman did not break but bent, softened and loosened by the oil in his skin.

In a tunneled room a man tried to speak to a woman.

“I’ll watch over him,” he whispered, “your boy. Every day. I promise. You will see him. I will put him in your life. I promise.”

The woman rocked and held her monstrous splinted hands where only the air could touch them. The women opened her mouth to speak, for a second time, to a strange man.

Watch him then. Watch him and make him strong. Test him andtempt him and make him something real. Make him into something, if you can. Watch him.

Watch him turn into every other man in this land. Watch him fall and fail. Watch him break everything he touches.

Watch me love him and despise him and yearn for him anyway.

Watch this sectarian war and the years after it as they change my body and his body.

Watch my new husband shut me away like a pariah and take on lover after lover as I grow sagging and fat with grief.

Watch buildings grow pockmarked with bullets and crumble with smoke, watch throats being slit in the streets behind corners, watch mothers trapped under fallen buildings pierce their wrists to quench their babies’ thirst for blood, watch children smash each other’s faces in to empty pockets and run, run, run.

Watch him through this war. Watch in hiding from behind windows, watch him so closely that your hands cover his ears after you’ve drugged him to sleep through it.

Watch him risk his life to wrench up bits of railroad tracks to sell the metal to weapons manufacturers. Watch him manage and thrive when you cut him off.

Watch the war end and watch me heal enough to make things with my hands again and deal with whores and weed, careful in committing the immodest and sinful.

Watch him in the street as he skips his classes and squanders your money and mine. Watch him tormenting cats. Watch him standing near the carts of fruit vendors begging for a handful while hashish nests deep in his pockets.

Watch him walk away from every good role model you and I send down his path.

Watch him with me, holding my hand, when my husband leaves me for good and lets me have the most rundown of his kitchen flats.

Watch him when my father dies and you stand with me to spit on his grave.

Watch him paw a girl in the rain when he forgets who he is and what he wants beyond the things all men are allowed to have.

Watch him. Promise.


It was a sunny morning in Beirut thirty years after the civil war began, and every person from the dark pasts of Dalilah and Abu Faten was dead and gone, or else converged in Dalilah’s flat. The terms of a contract were coming alive. Abu Faten and Ra’ed propped their backs against too many layers of cushions and placed their feet on a crate and a flowerpot while they smoked.

“Thirty percent is ridiculous,” Ra’ed said. “I paid you cash for the girl.”

“And it will come back to you tenfold.” Dalilah told him. “This is different. This is not a willing girl. The risks are higher, the stakes are higher, and when you’re done with her, I am the one who will be looking after her and renting her out.”

“But thirty? Come on, ’Lila.”

Dalilah hoisted her shoulders and let them drop. “Liability. And you’re getting more than money. She is unstable and abandoned by her family. It is a risk to us to let you use her before I train her. You know that.”

“Jealous, ’Lila, ha?”

“Hush!” Abu Faten trembled a little bit. “Enough. Thirty is thirty. I’ll bring her in?”

Ra’ed crushed his cigarette against the sofa arm and said yes. He pulled his feet from atop the overturned flowerpot they were resting on and looked towards the kitchen. Dalilah pushed her fists into her pockets, where she let her fingers trace the letters Lila for perhaps the last time.

Ya bint!” she called for the girl, and she watched Faten enter the room, her long hair curling and her skin like cream that dipped and peaked over the roundness of her bones.

Ra’ed blanched. He turned to Abu Faten. “Why is she here?”

Abu Faten looked at his daughter. She glowed with beauty. He almost could not believe she was his child, but remembered that Dalilah was his cousin—this was so often easy to forget—and had been this beautiful too in youth. He linked his daughter’s hand with Dalilah’s. The women’s fingers intertwined, tender with each other.

Why is she here?”

“What do you mean?” said Abu Faten, “We were just talking about this. This is the girl. Didn’t you want to buy her, to do what you want to her, and then make everything you paid for her back by trafficking her?”


“Is there something wrong with her?” he snapped. “She’s a girl, isn’t she? Exactly like every other girl. Are you saying there is something wrong with her? Here, touch her, talk to her.”

“Hello Ra’ed,” Faten said.

“No,” Ra’ed said. “You should not be here. Dalilah, let her go.”

Faten placed her hand on his arm, and ran her fingers down his chest. Ra’ed blinked and pulled away. “This is not for you. It’s not for you.”

Abu Faten spoke. “I don’t understand. You were just on board with this.”

“Ridiculous, this joke.”

“Please,” Dalilah said. “Humor us.”

Ra’ed turned away, disgusted, but then stopped, and spoke over his shoulder. “This isn’t for her.”

“Why are only whores good enough to love and be loved?” Faten asked.

Love? You silly, stupid, naïve girl.” Ra’ed was yelling and Dalilah and Abu Faten migrated closer to Faten. “You know nothing. You think you are like these girls? Their families are too poor to be able to hide their shame. If anybody cared about them at all, they would die. You know nothing.” Ra’ed turned to Dalilah. “Dalilah, you do business with all of these whores, you know what they’re like. Tell her.”

Dalilah shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. They are like my daughters, as Faten is,” she said.

Ra’ed stared at her for a second before leaning forward and slowly spitting at her feet. “Is this some legal thing? Are you trying to get me in trouble? What did I do to you, witch?” He turned to Faten. “Go home,” he said to her. “Go home right now.”

“But we’ve known each other our whole lives,” Faten said, holding her arms out to him. “I slept with you once on a couch when you were a baby,” she said. “I was good enough to sleep with you then.” She tried to touch him again.

Go home.”


“I said go home.” He lifted up Dalilah’s flowerpot and held it above his head. “Go home. Don’t let me see you here again or by God I will let the entirety of Beirut label you a whore.”

“Faten!” Dalilah roared. Ra’ed dropped the pot and it shattered to bits. Faten stood composed and unblinking. Only Abu Faten’s arms quivered with readiness in the still room. Dalilah’s voice softened. “Daughter, stay.”

“She is not your daughter! You can take street girls as your daughters if you like because that is all you are good for anymore, but not Faten. Faten, go home,you are not like them.”

Faten’s shoulders shook gently with her laughter. “Ra’ed,” she said, “I am over thirty years old.” Abu Faten took her hand, and placed his bulk between her and Ra’ed, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter too. Dalilah, hefty also, strong also, also mirthful, stood beside him.

“Faten has been a woman for a long time,” Abu Faten said. “She is not inexperienced.” He guarded his daughter’s body and he bit his lips in laughter at Ra’ed’s stricken face.

Ra’ed turned away and flung himself against Dalilah’s window sill with a snarl, causing the banners tied to its laundry lines to flutter chaotically, then quiet in tune with the quieting of his angry limbs.

Dalilah watched him standing there as she held hands with Abu Faten and his daughter, watched his fists tug listlessly at the pieces of cloth she had tied to her window, and thought of the girls whom she commissioned to buy wedding dresses.

Girls who nobody was kind to, who nobody would notice were gone if they were made to die or starve or bleed because they refused to feel anything other than fury and rebellion when their bodies were stolen and used without their choosing, because they refused to find shame in their bodies for being women. It was their clients who were ashamed, and would only see them in shadows because they were ashamed.

She thought of every wedding dress, gorgeous and floating, they brought to her door. White ones that virgins, the pure, the brides were told they were lucky to be allowed to wear. Dresses that wrapped girls up like trophies because they were cold and alone and were not allowed to be touched. Dresses she destroyed and hung at her windows for all the world to see, dresses she bought with the money of gangs and drugs.

And she looked at Faten, humble in her father’s arms, the girl that Dalilah herself should have been had Beirut been a different place thirty years earlier. Faten walked out into the street without fear of her family clan and used her hands and limbs and body as she willed, and nobody who loved her would think this would make her worth nothing, nobody who loved her would destroy her and the man who gave her joy.

Ra’ed would. Ra’ed, who was cold enough to try to buy and sell a girl whose body was stolen from her and to turn against a girl he knew for what she chose. Ra’ed, trembling against Dalilah’s window.

He spoke. “You can protect her from me all you like,” he said, his voice small against the window. “I can go and never come back. But you can’t protect her from all the world. She is worthless now. Nobody will want her.”

“Except—” and Dalilah put her lips to Abu Faten’s thick fingers “you forget, in your haste, that not all men are like you.”

She looked at the boy standing with a jittery palm tapping his thigh, his face turned away from her, the crest of his hair stiff and dull and broken as he looked out of her window.

She pulled Abu Faten and their daughter into her wide arms and told her son where he could find the door.  end  

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