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The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes

Parched Land
• Donia Varghese
Their padded feet touched the scalding sand for a brief second before they were up again, racing toward a destination they were not quite sure of.

Camel racing

They just kept running along the race track, the sting from the whips making them gallop like war horses. Sometimes they would go on for miles after the finish line, not realising that the trophy had been won and the faraway spectators were cheering.

Camels and the women in Arabia had something in common, 17-year-old Madina thought as she watched the race from the back seat of her father’s GMC Denali – no one knew what they were thinking.

She clapped as the victorious rider was congratulated with a medal and pats on the back while the bewildered camel had some berries shoved into its mouth.

After the race, some of the men formed small groups and chuckled over discussions on the latest cars and exchanged dirty jokes while the others simply went back to their dreary lives.

Madina and her family went to dinner at a newly opened restaurant near where they lived in Al Olaya street. Twice a month, her father treated his family of eight to camel races and dinners at fancy places, playing his role as a father from a safe distance.

On the way, they passed signboards with pictures of camels on them. It was important to watch out for them while driving along the roads in Riyadh city, especially on a night after a race when the camels and their cameleers headed back to their tents to rest awhile before beginning yet another day of races, whips and trophies.

With her sister falling asleep on her shoulder during the drive back, Madina’s thoughts kept drifting back to the camels at the race and how she found their characteristics similar to that of the women from her country. They were graceful yet submissive and never really cared about what lay ahead. Even if they did care, they hid it quite well.

Madina felt the same way most times, often having to give in to the rules laid out by her father and elder brothers. She had it pretty easy but most of her friends were still forced to follow strict religious customs and weren’t allowed to go anywhere without the men from their families accompanying them. That meant no sleepovers, unsupervised shopping or flirting around on their visits to the malls.

Nancy Ajram’s ‘El Donya Helwa’ was playing on her iPod. The song was about life being beautiful but was it really?

Some things are better left unsaid, Madina thought as she imagined herself in a faraway land dancing away into the night without a care in the world.

Once at home, Madina settled into bed and opened her diary which she also used as a scrapbook filling it with newspaper clippings and other things she found interesting. Extinct grape gum wrappers also found a place in her book, next to drafts of articles she’d written to send to a local newspaper.

Madina always made it a point to watch the ten o’clock news on television before bedtime since she believed that a young woman should stay well-informed about current events and politics in order to keep up with a fast-paced world.

Within her was a small spark of feminism which only grew stronger with the taunts of her brothers.

“What’s going on in Bosnia, Madi? I hear they have a post for women who want to sit and watch the news and dream of a better tomorrow at their embassy in London,” Saleh, her elder brother would sneer, encouraging the other siblings to join the discussion they named ‘The Invasion of Madina’.

Madina cared little about what they did or did not say. ‘The dogs bark but the caravan goes on,’ she’d sometimes mutter when the jeers became unbearable. On hearing this, her brothers would make gagging sounds and retreat to their rooms or go back to playing football in the garden outside.

Today, Madina had some work to do after the she watched the news. She took out a few papers from under her pillow and leafed through the brochures. Folded in between them was a ticket to Armenia.

A month ago, Madina had joined an online forum which included important activists and leaders of womens’ liberation groups and their views on various topics surrounding voting rights and tackling harassment against women.

She found their discussions fascinating and felt elated when one of the mediators of the forum said they were holding a huge event on womens’ rights in Armenia and invited her to talk on behalf of the women of her country.

The only problem she knew she had to deal with was her family. Abba would flip. Ummi wouldn’t say anything, she knew. But her mother, like the other women in her extended family wouldn’t dare go beyond what their husbands decided upon. Their word was final. Her brothers would probably stop talking to her altogether, which could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

“Well, it’s worth a try,” she thought. She called up Sadia, her best friend since school, to tell her what she’d planned.

“Don’t risk it Madi, you could get grounded for life you know. Remember what going to the barbeque party with Mohsin and Rafia did to me? My parents almost stopped me from getting into university. Don’t let that happen to you,” Sadia whispered from under the covers in her bedroom.

Late night calls were banned at Sadia’s house, so she had to keep her voice down if she needed to use the phone.

“Don’t worry, I’ll handle it. Just wish me luck,” Madina said, her voice brimming with confidence.
“I think Ummi’s going to bed. I have to go. I’ll let you in on the details later. Bye!”

Madina placed her cell phone on the side of the desk and looked at herself in the mirror, rehearsed a few quick expressions and ran into her parents’ room.

She knocked on the door. “Ummi, are you awake?” Madina said quietly, playing the lines in her head over and over again.

“Yes Madi, what’s wrong?,” her mother asked as she brushed her long black hair with a wooden hairbrush.

Madina explained everything in a flurry and the words seemed to escape her mouth like bees from a disturbed hive.

She said she had an important university project coming up for which she to go to Armenia for a mentoring programme.

“Well, I’m surprised why you never mentioned this before, Madina,” her mother said tapping the hairbrush lightly against the palm of her hand.

“I’m sorry, Ummi. I found out last minute. Can you please tell Abba?”

Madina wasn’t sure if she could lie when her father was around. He was a burly man with a beard and silver rings on his fingers. He spoke with a thick accent and chewed on bits of a special tree bark, a packet of which he would always carry in the pockets of his thobe.

“I’m not sure if I’m the right person you should be asking this to. Look, here he comes. Go ask him yourself before he goes off to sleep.”

Knowing her mother had cleverly washed her hands off the issue, Madina had no choice left but to talk to her father and find out what he had to say. She kept her fingers crossed, hoping he wouldn’t see through her lie.

“Madina!” her father said when he met her in the hall. “Aren’t you supposed to be sleeping?”
“Abba, I have to ask you something. It’s about a project for university. I have to go to Armenia...”

Madina then went on to explain the intricacies. She always did that when she lied. It was her way of convincing the listener, something she picked up effortlessly from all the soppy movies she and her friends watched when their parents weren’t around.

Her father seemed least bothered. He was busy typing out a message and sealing a business deal while Madina rambled on.

“Yallah! You get to bed. Maybe we’ll think of something in the morning. Project in Armenia..hmm,” her father said not looking up from his phone and closing the bedroom door behind him.

“Was it that easy?,” Madina thought to herself. She went to bed but was too excited to sleep. Back in her room, she kept looking at her ticket and read up on the best places to visit in Armenia.

Her father was reading the Saudi Gazette when she approached him the next day. Next to him was a cup of tea, cold and ignored.

Madina cleared her throat, hoping she could ask her father about formalities regarding the trip she had no clue about.

Her father asked her to sit next to him and gulped down his tea in one go. That wasn’t a good sign at all. Sure he liked his tea cold, but he always sipped it, enjoying every drop.

Madina always found it amusing to observe the quirky side of people. It makes them more human, she thought and people around them more at ease. But this time, Madina could feel her throat getting dry and her heart hammering a nail into itself.

“Armenia.” Her father said slowly, stretching each syllable like you would read to a child. “Well, I don’t think you should go,” he said, folding the newspaper away.

Madina thought she was dreaming. “Abba?” she asked quizzically.

“Yes, you heard me. Don’t think I don’t know what you’ve been up to Madina. You and your late night news analysis, your scrapbooks with articles about women and how to fight for rights. This is your home and the women here do not need any kind of freedom that they don’t already have. Womens’ liberation indeed. Rubbish!”

He pounded his fist on the dining table, making an orange shift position in the fruit bowl.

“But Abba,” Madina’s lips trembled. She could not believe what her father was saying. He seemed to have agreed to every word she told him the previous night. Worst of all, she couldn’t believe he’d been spying on her. He let her down like he did many times before. But this time, even more so.

All she wanted to do was speak on behalf of the Arab women and make them realise that keeping quiet is not an option anymore. She’d always had a compulsion to fight for what she felt was right.

All of a sudden, she felt fragile and vulnerable like china dropped from delicate hands. It was as if her confidence had descended the stairs. Dejected, she went into her room, hot tears streaming down her face. She looked at her ticket, shred it to confetti and lay in bed for a long time.

On her wall was a painting of a camel. It was as if its big, beady eyes spoke a language that consoled Madina as she nodded at the painted animal through a curtain of tears.

She remembered the camels from the race and winced at the thought of the whips striking their backs again and again like an annoying song on loop. A few minutes later, the silent conversation between animal and girl was over and Madina somehow became stronger and more at peace with herself.

Very little was spoken during dinner and strangely, even her brothers were quiet, eating their lamb kabsa quietly, chewing with closed mouths.

Madina was nowhere to be found the next morning. Her bed was already made, perfect with no creases. There was no note, nothing for her family to conclude what had happened. She seemed so peaceful at dinner and didn’t even bring up the Armenia topic.

And yet, she was gone, vanished into thin air, like the neighbours would say in the coming weeks when news of the disappearance spread like wildfire across Olaya street.

© Donia Varghese April 2013

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