Featured Prose | November 17, 2020
“Triumph” by Sahar Mustafah
In her richly textured story “Triumph,” Sahar Mustafah employs the setting of a women’s clinic in contemporary Palestine to address issues of gender, power, and domestic violence. The story appeared in our summer issue (TMR 43:2). Recently the author talked with TMR staff about the story and about her writing on women’s issues and Palestine. You can read that interview here.
by Sahar Mustafah
It was harder than she expected. Some of the patients at the women’s clinic refused to give Intisar their full medical history, as though it were gossip she might turn loose around the refugee camp. They only reported their immediate ailment or injury, scoffing at her clipboard. It’s only a headache—just give me something for the pain.
They were guarded and suspicious, calling Intisar “amarkaneeya,” though her Arabic was sound. Her parents had made sure of that. Sunday school at Izzadeen Mosque in Chicago until she turned fourteen, Miss Sawsan standing at the front of a small classroom, a ruler in her hand, pointing to words on a whiteboard:
She knew it would take time before the women warmed up to her. They would see how she hadn’t given up after five months and returned to the States, how the mass of hopelessness that had formed in her throat the first week upon her arrival had now hardened into a lump in her stomach. The clinging stench of the sewers, the burning heaps of garbage outside cinder-block shacks, and the pro-Hamas graffiti smearing retaining walls and storefronts no longer shocked her.
Every morning, the women clamored behind her when she unlocked the clinic door. More than one had pulled her aside and in a hushed tone asked if Intisar could help with a delicate matter: I want to pull it down. What am I to do with another child?
At first, Intisar had not comprehended; then her face flushed, and in a low voice she told these young women that the doctor didn’t do that here. They’d storm out of the clinic, weeping, children clinging to their hips. Intisar hated those days the most.
This morning was comfortable and cool. Soon enough, the heat would seep inside the unadorned building and stifle the two minuscule examining rooms and the small room for breaks. There were frosted hexagonal windows ensuring patient privacy that were never opened. The women’s clinic reminded Intisar of an animal shelter back home in Illinois.
The buzzer sounded, and Intisar checked the security camera. She watched Amal, an assistant, come through the clanging metal door, then through a slight entry, carrying a steaming paper bag. “Salam! I’m sorry I’m late!” She was a slender woman with small shoulders. Today she wore a lavender headscarf. “My daughter had a fever last night. Elhamdullilah it broke early this morning.”
Three of the meagerly compensated volunteers had come and gone since Intisar had started at the clinic in the spring. Amal was the best one they had. She knew most of the women in the mokhayam, and they respected her. Her husband was being held at Nafha Prison in Israel, had completed his second year of confinement without a trial. Amal had been pregnant at the time they raided her home and dragged him out in the middle of the night. He hadn’t seen their firstborn, had missed his daughter’s akeeka, when the imam blessed the baby and the extended family ate from platters of broiled lamb and yogurt-soaked rice. Once a month, Amal traveled a half-day between checkpoints and detours to visit him. The drive to Nafha alone could take up to five hours each way.
Intisar had soon discovered that the third question on a form she fastened to the clipboard for new patients was necessary, if not surprising: Is your spouse or any member of your family in prison?
The second question was Has your spouse or any member for your family been killed? It was as casual a question as the seventh one: Do any congenital diseases run in the family? If yes, please list them.
Intisar found Amal’s sense of optimism boundless, her smile never faltering, as though the absence of a husband and father was not the worst thing to happen to a family.
It made Intisar ashamed of her own father, living in the States with his new wife. Seven months ago, he’d taken Intisar to a restaurant, trying to avoid a spectacle, afraid she might throw a temper tantrum like a child. He’d never given her enough credit.
“Why are you leaving? You have a career here,” he’d said.
In Cook County, she’d been working with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital had offered her a managerial position, but she’d turned it down.
“I want to go where I’m needed,” she flatly told him.
“Life is difficult in Palestine,” her father pressed.
Life is difficult everywhere, she replied evenly. “For some of us, it’s almost unbearable.”
“You’re doing this to punish me?” He’d said it like a question.
“Punish you for what?”
“Your mother is a wonderful woman. We married young, habibti. We aren’t”—he’d fumbled with the words in English—“the same people.”
“Isn’t that what marriage is about?” Intisar had wanted to say. She’d thought it inevitable that married people changed, but couldn’t these new selves be woven into the fabric of their original bond? If their love was strong enough? Instead, she’d kept her mouth shut, poking at her chopped salad.
“I will always take care of her, Intisar. And you.”
That had meant helping Intisar with her nursing graduate loans and paying the mortgage on the house she’d grown up in while he lived in a new one with his young wife. It meant finishing the payments on Mama’s SUV while the other woman drove around in the latest BMW series.
Intisar wanted him to stop calling her that. She’d heard him on his cell phone call his new wife, Khitam, the same. “Habibti, I’m on my way home. Do you need anything?” A young woman only three years older than Intisar. Young enough to be his daughter, young enough to be her sister. Intisar knew Khitam’s brother, had gone out with him and a group of college friends. He was blithely pleased to see her at the wedding, a lavish affair that deeply embarrassed Intisar. She hadn’t wanted to attend, but her mother insisted. “Don’t let them know they’ve hurt you.” Her father was dressed in a tuxedo with a yellow carnation pinned to his lapel, one meant to be worn on the day he would walk Intisar down the aisle, if that ever happened—not to be married in himself, to a young woman in a sequined, sleeveless mermaid dress. Her brother had referred to Khitam as “Kitty” during his reception speech. She’d also been married before, had a son twenty-five years younger than Intisar.
Would it have been any different if it’d been a woman her mother’s age? Would that have stung less? She’d pretended she hadn’t cared, packed up her clothes and books, and flew across continents to leave it all behind. She was thirty-one years old, could call the shots in her own life.
Amal placed the bag on her reception desk. Dorit Borja, the clinic’s sole gynecologist, poked her head out of the examining room. “Do I smell falafel?” She drew the syllables apart in a charming, unobjectionable way. Dorit was fascinated by the Arabic language, particularly names; she had asked Intisar what hers meant.
“‘Victorious,’ I think,” she’d told the exuberant doctor. “Triumphant”
“Ah, the Triumphant One!” Dorit had gleefully declared. “I like that. You’ve determined our destiny here.”
Amal waved the grease-soaked bag. “I stopped on my way. Fresh batch.” She carried them to the small break room. “Abu Yasser asked about you again, Dr. Dorit,” she teased over her shoulder.
“I told him I couldn’t be his second wife,” Dorit called back. “My Lutheran father would never allow it.” Dorit Borja was a young Norwegian gynecologist. She’d worked with Doctors Without Borders in Syria before enlisting with UNRWA in the West Bank. The patients were enamored by her, perpetually awed by Dorit’s naturally platinum hair. Her eyes were frigid blue, deeply set in a lightly freckled face. To them, Dorit was ajnabeeya. A foreign woman. She beguiled them.
The first patients arrived early as usual. Their mornings were busiest when mothers from the refugee camp sent their children off to school and squeezed in an exam between cleaning and cooking. Amal spoke with the women in a soft voice, her tone kind and patient like a teacher’s. Intisar had developed a habit she found rather disconcerting: she imagined what Palestinians like Amal would be in life if not for the occupation. Would Amal have pursued a professional degree in education, or perhaps become a pharmacist? Would her husband be her husband, free and present in their daughter’s life?
A large woman toddled into the clinic with a nylon bag in her hand.
“How are you, Um Nabeel?” Amal smiled. “How are the migraines?”
“Same. I brought you all some tomatoes.”
Other women brought them green almonds and sour plums. Sometimes they brought jars of pickled turnips and pressed olives.
One girl, fifteen years old, came in with her mother, an overbearing woman, a noticeable mole on her upper lip. They rarely saw young daughters—virgins still.
“She can barely move when she gets her period,” her mother loudly declared. She looked at the other patients for affirmation. They nodded their pity. “Inshallah khair,” went around the waiting room like a spark.
The girl’s face flushed, and she kept her eyes on the floor. Intisar felt sorry for her.
“Bring her into the examining room,” Dorit instructed, waving the girl in.
“Lah, lah, lah!” the mother intervened, an arm blocking her daughter. “She’s still a binit—I don’t want you prodding inside her.”
Intisar explained that the doctor would only be examining her on the outside. She patted her abdomen to demonstrate.
“I’m going with her,” the mother asserted, ushering her daughter through the door with a hand clamped on her shoulder.
“How old were you when you got your first period?”
Dorit nodded. She gestured for the girl to lie down. Her eyes, fearful, flitted from her mother’s stern face to Intisar’s then to the doctor standing over her.
“She’ll need an ultrasound. Might be early endometriosis. I can prescribe an oral contraceptive for the pain—though I know the mother will refuse.” Dorit spoke as if the woman wasn’t present. Intisar smiled reassuringly at the girl. “Let’s give her turmeric and ginger vitamins in the meantime.”
By late afternoon, they’d seen a dozen women. Amal cleaned the waiting room and Intisar had begun sanitizing the equipment when the door alarm sounded. She buzzed in two women who appeared to be mother and daughter. They both had reddish complexions—a’la hamar, the women called it—disarming spatterings of freckles. Their eyebrows were the color of brown, turning leaves.
Amal immediately recognized them. “Ahlan, ya Um Hussain!” She kissed the older woman on both cheeks. “How are you, Muna?” The daughter smiled, the apples of her cheeks rising.
“It’s her wrist,” the mother said, holding her daughter’s arm for them to see. The mother’s body was shaped like a ripened fig, narrow at the waist, her hips straining against her abaya. “It’s hard to get to the hospital, you understand.”
“Khair inshallah,” Amal said. “Why don’t you have a seat, and I’ll speak with the doctor?”
Mother and daughter sat side by side, silently regarding Intisar. She brought over a clipboard.
“Your left wrist?”
The other patients didn’t disguise their curiosity and leaned in as Intisar wrote on her clipboard. The girl nodded.
“How did it happen?”
The girl answered in a soft voice, eyes darting around the room before settling on Intisar. “I fell.”
Intisar looked closely at her young face, freckles like tiny date palms. Beneath her black head scarf, Intisar imagined spirals of thick red hair.
“Can you show me how it happened?”
The girl glanced at her mother. The older woman said, “It was my fault, you understand. I asked her to bring down the laundry, and she tripped over a sack of clothespins.”
“You were on the roof?”
The girl nodded.
Intisar might have believed them if their faces hadn’t turned red. The daughter appeared nervous, and her mother clasped her left hand and patted it. “May our Lord reward her. She’s a helpful girl to me. I haven’t been well lately myself, you understand.”
In Cook County, Intisar had counseled American women, some whose faces had grown gaunt from opioids, sores on their foreheads and chins. Victims tended to offer her very little information, humiliated and scared, their cuts and bruises speaking for them, telling the stories of brutal attacks by men they typically knew. Then there were those women who’d been forthcoming with every detail. One named Amber had reported to Intisar that her boyfriend had shoved her head in a toilet. The motherfucker waterboarded me.
Intisar turned back to the mother. “Who lives in the house with you?”
It wasn’t precisely the next question on the form: How many people reside in the home?
Um Hussain said, “My sons and my youngest daughter.”
“How many sons?”
“Twenty-one and twelve.”
The girl shifted her body and kept her eyes low. She permitted her mother to gesture with her hand, their fingers interlaced. It looked as though they were performing a strange kind of dabke dance in their chairs.
“If there’s a problem in the home—” Intisar said “mushkala,” stepping around the word “abuse,” which she couldn’t quite summon at the moment. She was learning how easy it was to be proficient in euphemisms in this country. “We’ll have to investigate.”
“I fell,” the girl quietly said again.
Amal gestured to the mother and daughter to follow her to the examining room.
On the veranda, Intisar and her friend lounged on a long, cushioned bench set back from pedestrians walking below them on the narrow road. They had the privacy to smoke and wear shorts. A bowl of shelled watermelon seeds had been lazily set beneath their feet.
It was still hot, hours after she’d left the clinic, but a constant breeze from the wadi reached her great-aunt’s two-story villa. She’d been staying with Amti Farha, an invitation that had shocked the rest of Intisar’s paternal family. The old hajja had a reputation for orneriness and a fierce independence. But she’d insisted that Intisar reside with her instead of in the dormitory in Ramallah, where young single working women found cheap housing. Many had managed to leave Gaza on a work permit and vowed never to return.
Amti Farha’s villa sat atop Jabal al-Taweel, across from another mountain range, where a settlement rose, surrounded by barbed wire and a watchtower. The old hajja cursed its dwellers every morning as if it were an addendum to her obligatory prayers. Intisar had never seen them, and there was no life stirring as far as she could tell, aside from the drone of generators and the barking of dogs. When she’d first moved to Palestine, it was an ominous sight to her, like a prison compound. She’d wondered if they were under surveillance.
“Of course we are,” Amti Farha had spat. “The bastards don’t want us out of their sight. There will be retribution, inshallah.”
The villa had been built by Farha’s husband four decades ago, on a few dunum of land he’d purchased from a family who’d fled after the ’67 war. She and her husband had stayed, while ugly tanks rolled through Ramallah and her village. Others had long been driven from the coasts of Haifa and Jaffa and later from Jerusalem, feeling to Lebanon and Jordan.
From the veranda, a spectacular view of the village had stunned Intisar the first morning of her arrival. She’d descended after sunset, and the valley had been mostly dark, except for the lighted homes scattered below her. The refugee camp was located to the west of Amti Farha’s home and temporarily hidden from this vantage point.
Intisar’s toes grazed Ummaya’s thigh as her friend puffed from a hookah. Amti Farha hated girls smoking. She was in the vineyard behind the villa selling her grapes; they were temporarily safe from her scolding eyes.
“Have you ever had to report abuse? To the police, I mean?” Intisar asked her friend.
“You need to know how to finesse them to really get anything done,” Ummaya said, passing her the tube. “A little flirting doesn’t hurt.”
Intisar nudged her thigh. “Stop it. I’m serious.”
“I am too.” She took another long drag and exhaled, a ribbon of smoke obscuring her face for a moment. “Be careful when you go to them. You don’t want to be on their shit list. They can help your cause or pull the rug from under you.”
Occasionally, an officer from the Palestinian Authority would show up with a reporter and take photographs outside the clinic, respecting the privacy of female patients inside. “Attempts to show progress,” a volunteer had once snickered. Sometimes they asked Dorit to pose with them, but she adamantly refused. The officer would then attempt to hide his embarrassment, unaccustomed to being denied.
Intisar’s friend Ummaya interned with an international organization that worked with victims of posttraumatic stress disorder in Gaza. These were mostly kids whose daily lives were rattled by artillery and bombings, buildings gutted in their neighborhoods. They couldn’t sleep or play normally, and some refused to go to school anymore, terrified they’d come home to a pile of rubble, their parents killed while they were away. One little girl had told Ummaya, “I want to be killed with my family. I don’t want to be left behind.” Funding had eventually run out for the program, though, and now her friend would be going back to the States to finish up research on her PhD. Intisar would miss her. She was the closest connection to America she had.
Ummaya tapped Intisar’s leg with her toe. “Why are you asking? Who’s in trouble?”
“It’s a teenage girl from the mokhayam,” Intisar said. “Her brother is beating her.”
“That’s fucked up.”
Intisar reached for the tube. “Do you ever feel like you’re wasting your time?”
“What do you mean?”
“Not wasting your time, but—I don’t know.” Intisar hesitated. “Not making progress, I guess.”
Ummaya shrugged. “It depends on how you define progress. Once you learn to lower expectations, you won’t be so disappointed.” Her friend took a drag and exhaled, the smoke hanging on the air, then disappearing without a trace.
Intisar found her great-aunt asleep under the fig tree; the late-afternoon azzan hadn’t stirred her. It was the only thing that still astounded Intisar every time the melancholic call to prayer echoed from the minaret. It felt almost anachronistic: a human voice booming from a period when muslimeen traveled the desert, searching for truth and humanity.
A little boy was waiting with an empty nylon bag, staring at Amti Farha. He looked afraid, not daring to wake up the old hajja. Intisar didn’t blame him. Even in her sleep, her great-aunt appeared formidable. She dozed with a meaty fist under her chin, her seventy-six-year-old body still upright like a sentinel nodding off for a moment. Her lips were set in a straight line, as though she were formulating a verbal lashing that would burn your ears for days. Her father’s aunt, a widow for twenty years now, was like a matriarch in a house empty of its descendants.
The small vineyard was a wonder to Intisar. She like to stroll through it, cigarette in hand, a canopy of leaves forming a reprieve from the heat. “Imagine the killing she’d make if folks drank around here,” Ummaya had once joked. At the end of the season, her great-aunt permitted the villagers to pluck piles of dawali to roll and stuff with rice and ground lamb.
Intisar leaned over the old woman. “Amti,” Intisar whispered in her ear. “Amti. You have a customer.”
“Aywa, aywa,” her aunt grumbled. “Who’s come?”
Intisar nudged the little boy forward.
“Hajja, my mother wants one kilo of the green,” he said, encouraged by Intisar’s smile. He held out his bag.
“All this way for a kilo?” Amti Farha muttered. She knew every child, woman, and man in the village and nearly everyone in the mokhayam. She straightened up, pulled a bunch of grapes from a crate beside her, and set them on an old-fashioned scale. She placed a one-kilo disc on one tray, added another smaller bunch until the scale evened out. The old woman’s keen eyesight amazed Intisar.
“How’s your mother? Has her foot healed?” Amti Farha asked the little boy.
He shook his head. “She can’t walk yet. Or cook for us.”
“Don’t despair. I doubt any of you will go hungry,” she said huffily, handing him the bag, now heavy with grapes. “I’ll send her a tray of fatayer tomorrow. I know she likes the spinach ones.”
Amti Farha was prickly on the outside and soft on the inside, like the cactus pear the old woman ate every morning with a slice of goat cheese. She sold her grapes at a price to cover the labor of the Bedouin family who helped her till and harvest the vineyard each fall. There was no profit. Her husband had left her with the land, and her sons in the States made sure her other expenses were handled. For years, they’d begged her to move in with them—they were Intisar’s second cousins in Louisiana and Georgia—but Amti Farha refused to leave Palestine. Her mother had once told Intisar the old folks were afraid of dying in another place, far from home.
“Try to convince her, ya Intisar,” her cousins implored her when they called to bid Intisar farewell and make sure she’d packed all the items for their mother that they’d shipped to her a month before her departure. A small suitcase of slippers and robes for the winter, denture glue, insulin monitors (accompanied by a notarized letter from a US pharmacist to avoid confiscation at Ben Gurion Airport), and ibuprofen. Amti Farha had sneered at the robes she believed had been the frivolous idea of a half-witted daughter-in-law.
“I plan on staying for a while,” she’d told her cousins.
“Yeah, right,” they’d quipped on the phone. “You won’t last, Intisar. You’ll see.”
The little boy grabbed the bag of grapes and scampered out of the vineyard.
“How about some shai, Amti?”
“In a little while,” the old hajja said, re-draping her headscarf. Strands of gray hair framed her wrinkled face. She withdrew a handkerchief from the breast pocket of her embroidered thobe and blew her nose. “I’ve missed asr prayer. How were things at the clinic today?”
“Busy.” Intisar sat on her haunches, passed her great-aunt a water bottle. “Amti, do you know the Hussain family?”
“The redheaded ones? The father used to help out my husband—Allah have mercy on his soul—in his furniture store in Ramallah. A shame what the Israelis did to him.”
Unlike most of the women in Intisar’s life, arabiyat who’d give you unsolicited advice in the same breath as the latest rumor, her great-aunt needed constant nudging. And if she were willing, she’d parcel out the information, not freeing it all at once. It was a quality Intisar had come to admire, a form of restraint she figured had formed with being alone for so many years.
“What happened to him?” she asked.
“Shot dead,” Amti Farha said impassively. “During a protest in Jerusalem.”
Intisar was silent. Her knee-jerk reactions of outrage had dissipated since her arrival, and she’d quickly learned to swallow her expressions of sadness, which were as useless as the husks of watermelon seeds she and her friend had tossed in a bowl.
On Fridays, the women’s clinic was closed. Intisar used those mornings for home visits with Amal. Some women in the mokhayam still refused to come for regular checkups.
They walked down a road strewn with discarded water bottles and plastic bags. Graffiti covered the dented and rusted doors: Freedom for Palestine. Oslo Failed Us. The stench of rotting vegetables prickled Intisar’s nostrils. Amal walked on, unperturbed.
At the first house, a ramshackle structure with a corrugated roof, the young woman held out her crying toddler to Intisar. “He’s been constipated for days.”
“Maskeen!” Amal cooed, patting his chubby cheek.
Intisar held the toddler on her hip and fished out a pamphlet on how to perform a breast self-exam. “Sister, you’ll need to take him to a pediatric doctor.”
Amal took the toddler from her. “I give my daughter a spoonful of honey.”
The young mother nodded, listening intently. Her child’s crying had turned into a low moan as Amal rocked him. Intisar stood by, the pamphlet in her hand.
At the next house, a middle-aged woman allowed Intisar to check her blood pressure. “It will be my heart that gives out, worrying over my son. The Israelis revoked his license to work in Al Quds. He’s been unemployed for a year. His spirit is low. Can you speak with him?”
Portraits of martyrs hung in the sitting rooms of the cinderblock homes, taking up most of the wall. Head shots of young men with serious faces, dark eyes shining, the black-and-white checkered keffiyeh draped around their slender shoulders. Intisar been told they took professional photographs in case they were killed or imprisoned. She found the women—their mothers and wives, sisters and daughters—still cheerful. The same hopeful gaze in their eyes as Amal’s, as constant as time passing. They listened politely as she went through the motions of an exam, lifting her arm and pressing two fingers in a circular motion over the fabric of her shirt to demonstrate.
They approached a structure like a shed. Inside, a mother and her six children lived. Cushions lined the floor, dingy pillows propped against the wall. In one corner, there were a portable stove and refrigerator. Scratched steel pots hung from the ceiling.
“How are you, Um Ribhi?”
“And how are the children?”
Intisar noticed a boy on the floor, drawing circles on an old newspaper with a broken red crayon. He hadn’t lifted his head to acknowledge them.
Amal stooped to his level. “How are you, habibi Emad?”
“He only permits me to touch him,” his mother was saying. “Screams when his brother Nasser tries to play with him.”
“How long has been like this?” Intisar asked. She thought of her friend Ummaya and the work she’d done with children just like Emad.
“His father—Allah have mercy on his soul—was killed a year ago. A sniper. Emad was with him. Saw his father choke on his own blood.”
Intisar kneeled down on the floor next to the little boy. “Hello, Emad. I’m Intisar. I’m a nurse. How are you today?”
He refused to look at her, started rocking back and forth, his crayon creating a deep ridge in the paper. The lump in her stomach rose up into her throat again.
“He’s stopped speaking and won’t let anyone near him. His brother Nasser can’t stand to see him this way. He’s acting out, giving me a hard time. The school threatened to kick him out. They say Nasser fights the boys in his class. Disrupts the teacher’s lessons.” Um Ribhi pulled a handkerchief from her breast pocket, sniffled into it. “What do they expect? He’s already lost a father and now his little brother. Allah, give me strength.”
“God bless you,” Amal said, patting the mother’s back. “Inshallah khair. And how are your daughters?”
“Iman wants to be a doctor,” the woman told Amal, perking up. “She says, ‘Yamma, one day I’ll cure Emad.’ She loves school. First in her class, mashallah.”
Intisar smiled at this.
“Habibti, mashallah!” Amal beamed. “She sounds like an ambitious one. And what do you want to be, ya Emad?” She leaned down toward the boy. He ignored her, pressed the crayon harder, the spirals no longer distinct, turning into a red mass.
Outside, Intisar lit a cigarette, took a few discreet puffs and snuffed it out.
“It’s hard, isn’t it?” Amal smiled.
“How can she care for all of these kids?”
“Donations from the conservative groups, a little welfare from the sulta. They’re sometimes generous with the families of a shahid. May God protect and keep her children. They’re all she has, maskeena.”
By the noon prayer, they had covered half a dozen homes. At one shack, Amal prayed with a woman on a threadbare rug while Intisar sat with small children who’d gathered around her, covering their mouths and giggling. Intisar hugged them and handed out cherry-flavored suckers. Each woman absent-mindedly took a breast-exam brochure that Intisar held out and they waved it at her as they spoke hurriedly about backaches and canker sores. A few in the mokhayam refused to let them in, dismissing her and Amal through the heavy steel doors.
They walked slowly down an unpaved road, crunching pebbles. “Um Hussain lives in that bayt.”
A little girl with red curly hair sat on the doorstep, coloring on a drawing pad. She held a bundle of crayons in one hand, drawing with the other. Intisar remembered what Amti Farha had told her about Abu Hussain. Shot dead.
She tried not to think about Baba. She hadn’t lost to him to bullets or imprisonment. He had remarried. “There are worse things in this life,” her own mother had said, signing the divorce papers.
“Salam, habibti!” Amal called from the road.
The girl had the same spray of freckles as her mother and sister. She waved back at them. Behind her, a young man appeared in the steel doorway, the bars obscuring his face. He said something to the girl, and she quickly gathered her drawing pad and retreated inside.
“That’s Hussain,” Amal whispered. “The older son.”
He stood in the doorway as they passed, and Intisar could still feel his eyes on them as they continued down the road.
Outside the PA building, an old man was hocking his watch. “For a bite to eat,” he said to Intisar as she approached the steel entrance. The face of the watch he held out for her to examine was cracked, and the metal wristband had turned brassy green.
She dug inside her purse and handed him twenty shekels.
“Shookrun! Shookrun!” he waved.
Intisar climbed a short flight of stairs to the second floor and entered a suite filled with cigarette smoke and men in slacks and tie-less shirts. There were police officers who stopped their chatting to eye her up and down.
A receptionist in a black hijab asked Intisar to have a seat outside an office. She knocked on the closed door, poked her head in, then closed it again.
Ten minutes passed. Intisar said, “He knows I’m here?”
The receptionist’s eyes flitted from Intisar’s bare head to her designer purse—a gift her mother had insisted she take with her. “Yes. He knows.”
A police officer escorted a middle-aged man down a corridor. “If you can’t settle this privately, sir, you’ll have to take it up with the civil court.”
“I never promised her family that money! They stole it! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, ya zalama!”
At Cook County Hospital, Intisar had provided injury reports to the police. They’d usually showed up, a coffee in their hands, waiting for her to finish her examination. How many women had she seen in seven years? One to two per shift? Two thousand fifty-five women, give or take a hundred, on her off days? It seemed an absurd number. Their faces blurred now—a collage of bruised cheeks and blackened eyes. How much torn flesh had she tended, where their thighs had been clawed, handprints of the attackers left on their buttocks? And the sound of their voices. Soft, hoarse whispers; others loud and angry as they were made to sit in their soiled clothes while Intisar asked them preliminary questions. Then the examination and the whimpers of pain as she collected specimens of violation, assuring them she would try not to hurt them.
“Doesn’t it make you sad?” people asked her, their expressions really asking, “Doesn’t it disgust you?” Who would want to work such a job when there were other choices? “Have you considered pediatric care? I bet you’re great with kids.”
She’d believed in her challenging work, the reward being much greater than the easier jobs. Isn’t that why she’d come here?
The door to the office finally opened, and a man invited her in, gesturing to a single aluminum folding chair across from his desk. A fan whirred in the corner, but it did little to alleviate the heat. Intisar regretted the knit sweater she’d chosen to wear over a crisply ironed blouse. Her collar had started to wilt.
The office was small, and she could hear the muffled voices in the atrium and those coming through the adjacent walls. The despairing pleas of the old man outside floated through an open window facing the street.
“Ahlain. I am Chief Inspector Abdul Rasheed. How can I be of assistance, Miss?” His uniform lapel contained three service ribbons with stars. The golden eagle coat of arms was sewn on the opposite breast pocket. His top shirt button reached the bottom of his Adam’s apple. Behind him, a framed flag of Palestine hung with a plaque inscribed in Arabic: Atlanta, USA, Olympics 1996. She recognized it. It was the original flag carried by the first internationally recognized team at the opening ceremony. Intisar had been seven years old at the time, sandwiched between Mama and Baba on the couch, watching the grand entrance of each team. Her parents had never paid attention to the games before then or ever since. It had felt monumental to her, a young girl, Baba squeezing her hand and telling her, “This is history.” Only eight days later, a white man would plant a forty-pound bomb of nails and screws in Centennial Olympic Park, claiming a life and injuring over a hundred others.
Intisar smiled at the chief inspector. Her purse was propped on her lap, heeding her mother’s warning that it was bad luck to set it on the floor. She’d humored so many of her mother’s superstitions without thought. She could see the chief inspector studying it, and her face flushed. She quickly said, “I am Intisar Hassan. I work at the women’s clinic in Al Omari camp.” Not a flicker of acknowledgement across his face. She wondered if she should mention her great-aunt’s name. He kept his gaze steady on her face. Intisar continued, “I am concerned about a young girl who might be physically abused by her brother.”
“Do you have evidence?” The chief inspector lightly tapped his fingers on the edge of the desk. She noticed there were no papers or files spread across its gleaming surface.
“She came to the clinic with a sprained wrist.”
Someone laughed in the adjoining office. The chief inspector nodded and leaned back in his chair. The black eye of the eagle insignia on his breast appeared to blink at her. Her eyes traveled up to his face. There was a pockmark above his left eyebrow and a tiny cut beneath one nostril of his slightly crooked nose—from shaving, she suspected. “Did she disclose to you that it was the result of a beating?”
“No,” she said. “But she appeared frightened, and her mother made excuses.”
He nodded again. “So there was no clear admission of abuse?”
Sweat pooled in her armpits and trickled down the middle of her back into the seat of her khaki trousers. She thought of all the rape kits she’d administered, DNA she’d swabbed from the victims’ mouths. “Was it my fault?” some women had asked her. After all, they’d accepted a drink or let the man into their home. Others had never met their attacker before the incident, a stranger who’d forevermore stolen their privacy.
“No. There was no admission,” she told the chief inspector, shifting on the folding chair. “I’m convinced she’s vulnerable.” She had an opportunity to intervene before this innocent girl could suffer any more. It was too late for her other victims; she’d merely collected and cleaned off the criminal mess wreaked upon their bodies. She was a recorder of their battered limbs and broken spirits. But here she could speak up and circumvent the damage. Or at least prevent it from getting worse.
The chief inspector stood and turned the fan up a notch. His back to her, he said something she couldn’t hear above the increased whirring.
She leaned forward. “Pardon?”
He turned around. “We can conduct an unofficial visit.” He walked toward the door. “If there’s nothing else,” he said.
“You don’t want to be on their shit list,” Ummaya had warned Intisar. The chief inspector looked keenly at her as though reading her thoughts. She stood up. “Thank you for your time.”
When she reached the door, he said, “Sayida Intisar, may I offer you a word of advice?” For the first time, he switched to English, his accent like a British professor’s. The fan whirred behind him. “Beware of your boundaries.”
“I do not doubt the work you are doing at the clinic has been invaluable to the community. You do not want to jeopardize your reputation. Sometimes these folks lack education and a certain—what do you call it?—sophistication to adequately appreciate the intrusion of strangers into their private affairs.”
Heat rose from her collar. “Is trying to protect someone a private affair?”
“Of course not, Sayida Intisar.” He opened the door. “It is a pleasure to meet you. Keep up the good work in the mokhayam.”
In the atrium, the same men were still bantering and smoking. The receptionist gave Intisar a nod, and she headed to the stairwell.
Outside, the old man had moved on. A taxicab honked at her, and she waved him away. The sun hung high overhead. She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand and slowly walked home.
The electricity went out in the middle of night. She’d awakened at the abrupt cessation of her fan and couldn’t get back to sleep. Careful not to wake Amti Farha, Intisar grabbed her cigarettes and sat on the veranda. Though it was dark and most of the village was asleep, the absence of electricity allowed every other sound to emerge. She heard a breeze through the trees before it rushed her skin. A mosquito buzzed near her ear, and she swatted. Across the valley, she saw lights dotting the top of a mountain—the settlers were unaffected by the outage.
The stars hung closer here, not like the two-dimensional backdrop in Illinois. “Light pollution,” her science teacher had told them in school. She remembered being a child on a field trip to the Adler Planetarium and sinking back in her chair as the domed ceiling transformed into a spectacular universe. To be looking at it while actually living and moving inside it boggled her young mind. She wondered if aliens were just as awestruck. From the veranda, she could make out Pleiades, the Seven Sisters. Intisar gazed at them: a milky cluster that flattened like a heart. She remembered thinking that even the stars were luckier than she, who’d grown up an only child.
Her parents doted on her to a fault; friends had teased her, calling her spoiled, though she’d had no idea what it was like to demand and not receive something. It had propelled her belief that she could do anything, change anything. The reason she came here.
At sunrise, she unlocked the caged door of the generator and started it up. The whirring sound disrupted the quiet hum of early morning. Inside the clinic, Intisar turned on the large oscillating fan. She opened her laptop, checked her e-mail. There was another message from UIC Hospital: Do you expect a long tenure overseas? The job was still hers. Their offer would expire in six months. How did they imagine “overseas” to be? They were careful not to say Palestine or the West Bank, as if she were on some secret mission.
Intisar was filing charts when the buzzer sounded. In the security camera, she could see an older girl, her hijab-swaddled head looking down at her feet. She buzzed her in. Behind her a young man suddenly appeared and entered too.
Intisar stood up. It was Muna, the girl with the sprained wrist. “Good morning,” Intisar said, her chest tightening. It had been a week since she’d gone to the police.
“Salaam,” Muna replied, nodding at her brother. “This is my brother, Hussain.” Her arm was still in a sling, though it would have likely healed by now.
Her brother glanced around the clinic, then stood in front of her desk. His hair was reddish-brown and wavy—the same color and texture she’d imagined the girl’s hair to be. His boyish looks might have been disarming if not for the dangerous glint in his eyes. “Stay out of our business.”
Intisar held a pen, clutched it tightly. “Excuse me, I don’t know—”
He gripped the edge of her desk and stabbed a pile of medical charts with a finger. “Why don’t you go after the Israelis?”
Intisar tried to keep her voice steady. What if he lunged at her? She straightened up, held a solid stance, the pen still in her hand. “You’re beating your sister.” She hoped he didn’t hear the loud thumping of her heart.
He clasped his hands into a ball and shook it at her like someone pleading for understanding. “You think you know anything about me? Or my family? You come from America, and you don’t have a clue.”
“Hussain, please—” Muna said, holding one hand up like a meager offering, but she didn’t dare touch her brother. Her white-swaddled head and an arm in a sling gave her an air of defenselessness, like a bird with a broken wing.
“Shut up!” he hissed at his sister.
“I won’t be silent,” Intisar said, “when I witness violence against women.” Had she uttered the correct word? Was it “ashad”? Or had she said “shahid”—like martyr.
“And what about violence against men?” he spat back. “Young falasteeniyah?” He laid his hands again on the edge of her desk. She could see his fingernails bitten down to the quick. “Ha? How about the boys and men shot dead every day? Or hundreds tossed in prison? Can you save any of them?”
Intisar’s face flushed. “That doesn’t justify what you’re doing. How does that solve political issues?”
“‘Political issues’?” He snorted, took a step toward her. She gripped the pen more tightly but didn’t move. “This is our life,” he said bitterly. “Not a political issue. But you wouldn’t understand that. You haven’t lived like a rat stuck inside a wall, scratching away.”
“When I observe a vulnerable—”
“I am vulnerable too!” he swiftly interrupted. He had begun to shout. “Can you not protect me? You sic those police dogs on me, and you have no idea what’s it’s like for our family.” He pointed a finger at her. “I’m warning you. Keep away from my sister. Keep away from us. Or you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” He grabbed Muna’s arm and pulled her through the door, slamming it behind him.
Intisar stood there for a long time, her jaw clenched in fear, hands shaking. She sank back down in her chair, tried to file away the charts, but her fingers trembled so badly she had to sit on them for a few moments. She breathed deeply, exhaled. At Cook County Hospital, she’d never seen any of the attackers of the women whose bodies she salved and wiped down—just the evidence of their violence, their rage. She suddenly felt unsafe and began sobbing into the crook of her arm, muffling the sound.
An hour later, women gathered again outside the clinic and Intisar let them in, grateful for the distraction. She had somewhat recovered by the third patient, mechanically checking blood pressure and gauging temperature. The fear seeped out of her, leaving behind a heavy dread. She forced herself to stay in motion, to fight against the weight in her stomach. She waited until Amal took her break and sank in a chair across from Dorit.
“Muna’s brother came to see me.”
Dorit’s eyes shot up from her paperwork. “The freckled girl? What did he want?”
“He threatened me.”
“Intisar! I knew it. You seemed”—Dorit rolled her eyes, searching for the word—“off. You were off this morning.”
“I’m fine. Really.”
“You need to report it.”
“I did already, remember?” Intisar gave a bitter laugh. “That’s why he paid me a visit.”
Dorit shook her head, came around her desk and gently clamped Intisar’s shoulders. “You need to document it. This is a separate matter.”
“Not really. I mean, it’s because he beats his sister that I went to the police in the first place. And I made it worse.”
Dorit was quiet for a moment, her hands still on her shoulders. Intisar cupped the doctor’s elbows. “I’m not afraid.”
Dorit released her and smiled. “You must brace yourself, Intisar. Sometimes these people don’t always understand that we have their best interests at heart.”
Intisar nodded and gathered a chart from Dorit’s desk. Patients were waiting, and she registered the new ones, her clipboard in her hand. She bent down to speak to a young mother nursing a large baby, the fabric of her hijab draped over its suckling face. The woman whispered into Intisar’s ear.
“We don’t do that here,” Intisar told the woman, straightening up. And she moved to the next patient, trying hard to keep her pen from shaking.
Sahar Mustafah is a daughter of Palestinian immigrants, a complex inheritance she explores in her work. Her prizewinning short-story collection Code of the West (2017) is followed by her first novel The Beauty of Your Face (2020). She writes and teaches outside Chicago.
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