CW: Sexual assault, references to suicidal feelings
I’m six years old
It’s my father’s birthday. Mum takes us to the supermarket to buy him a present. We get there and are reminded that the places we can afford do not sell presents, so we buy one red carnation. The seller wraps it in nylon and curls a ribbon with the back of his knife. I give the man my five dirhams, and my sister spends her five on a card. We walk home in the hot evening. We told dad we’re getting some bread. He won’t expect it. He will be so happy. I’m dancing around at the traffic stop and my mum tells me to behave, but I want to see my dress twirl. She says we can dance once we’re home with baba. My sister and I have a plan. Mum will cover his eyes and we’ll stand in front of him holding up our gifts. The crossing lights turn green and I move forward. A man in a long thobe and a ghitra, a big watch and black leather shoes walks towards me from the other side of the crossing. He stops in front of me. I move sideways but he moves with me. All I see is his knees. The cars are watching. I want him to go away before the green lights turn red, but he keeps intercepting me. He kneels on the ground so our eyes meet. He leans over the carnation I carry and smells it. He makes a sniffing noise and then an ‘mmm’. His eyes closed as his head dances around the flower I hold.
He shows his teeth now. Yellow and old, I don’t like them. His moustache covering his upper lip, his lower lip has black spots; his nose hair I can see.
‘I wish this rose in front of me would give me a rose.’
I run across the road and my mother chases.
I’m eleven years old
My sister wears a tweed skirt, folded frills at the end that cover her knees. Underneath there are knee-length boots. Black leather. Around one boot’s ankle she has wrapped a necklace. Beads and gemstones that match the dark tones of her tweed. She pairs this with a pink sweater, thick wool that adds a size to her figure. She’s not wearing makeup because we’re in Iraq. She doesn’t wear earrings either. She says she’ll keep it simple for Iraq so we don’t catch an evil eye. She doesn’t know the evil eye will look wherever it wishes. She’s fourteen yet she doesn’t know enough.
I’m wearing bootcut jeans. My sweater is light wool, sleeves extra long to cover the backs of my hands. My hair is a large ball of curls and I hate it. My boobs are two pebbles on my chest and I hate them. My nose is large and my eyes are small and I hate them.
We’re on the side of the road with dad looking for a taxi. The eyes of men shift towards us together, as if there is an announcement in their collective mind saying “two girls, on the curb, early teens”. I look back at them frowning my eyebrows: I don’t like you, but that has no effect My sister’s skirt is not fitted. My blouse is long enough to cover my hips, but there is still something to look at. Their gazes eat my flesh and they lick my bones.
A man beeps his car horn but it’s not a cab and he doesn’t pull over. Another car slows down but the man inside lowers his head so he can see through the passenger window. The third car carries four or five men. It beeps but it doesn’t slow down. The men poke their heads out the window and they say haaa beish el leiyla wiya hal asal. How much is a night with this honey. Then the driver pushes the pedal and the car goes past very fast. Too fast for my father to move his eyes behind him and shout. To chase that car into this busy street and threaten him. Too fast for me to lift my eyes from the ground or know where to put them, so I cry. My father tells my sister to never wear a necklace on one boot again. Here that’s for prostitutes. He tells me to flatten my hair and tie it back. These men are unstoppable, he says. Osotro ala nafiskom. Stay out of harm’s way. Women of the neighborhood tell us that because we’re beautiful, all men want us. We should be flattered.
I’m thirteen years old
My friends and I are on a group date. We’re not sure who’s dating who yet, but that’s high school. We go to a skate park at the mall we know our parents don’t go to. At the entrance is a man in his late twenties selling the tickets and wristbands. My best friend buys her ticket first.
He takes her cash and hesitates with the notes, so he goes back to her hands and takes the notes he missed. He asks her if she has a tenner, and he puts the twenty back in her hand before she answers. She says no, so he touches her hand again and takes back the twenty. He pulls out a wristband from his drawer and puts it on her. He touches her wrist. Circles it with his fingers. His dark, hairy knuckles are enjoying their time. I look at her eyes and she’s looking up and down at him, from his arms to his face and then to the room around her and he waits for her eyes to look at him so he catches them. He makes eye contact with her and only one side of his mouth is smiling. But I’m standing on the other side and on this side he looks determined. Her smile is on only half her face too. She is waiting for her wristband to be banded. It was banded half a minute ago but he’s still touching her wrist inspecting how well-banded it is. How good of a job he’s done. He pushes his thick finger between her wrist and the band and pulls the band to make sure it can’t be broken. He does this eight times. I’m tapping my fingertips on my arms. The noise they make against my skin isn’t loud enough, so I tap the counter. When he ignores me I open my mouth.
‘It’s fixed. It won’t fall off. Let us go inside.’
One of his hands drops her wrist and he points it at me. He points a finger. The index. He takes a few moments before he says something. In those moments his head is shaking left and right in small movements and his greasy locks shake above his forehead. He squints his eyes. He’s looking at me with confusion. He gives me time to take in his body language and then he uses words.
‘What’s your business?’
His other hand drops her wrist and now both hands are pointed at me.
‘How’s it any of your business? I’ll take all the time I like. What do you want?’
‘Winti malik wi mal ommik?’
‘What do you want? How is any of your and your mother’s business?’
‘I don’t want anything we’re just gonna be late. Our friends are waiting.’
‘Your friends are faggots.’
He puts his hands away and starts to murmur. He doesn’t look at my friend again and he only looks at me now. With the same determination, but no half of his face is smiling. The thick bolts of his gaze goes through me.
My friend gets angry with me. ‘You’re jealous he wanted me and not you.’
I’m nineteen years old
I’m waiting for a car to pick me up. Two men stand by my side. I don’t understand most of what they’re saying. I’m on my own. I am surrounded. I hold onto my bag and I pray. I recite every bit of the Quran that I know at the top of my head. When I’m done with those I go through my memory for more, and I recite those too.
One of them leaves and the taller one stays next to me. I don’t know why, but I’m too afraid to object. I don’t want to make him angry. I suppose this road belongs to all and maybe he’s waiting for a ride too. He sits down on the curb and leans against the signpost.
I don’t look at him. I turn my back to him and I know he’s looking at my ass but I’d rather if he didn’t see my face because I am afraid. He is moving around in his place but I don’t look. I focus on the Quran in my head. By the time I’ve read al-Kursi seven times he makes a noise. He releases a loud, lengthy moan that’s pain and satisfaction intertwined. I won’t cry. I won’t turn around. I won’t look at him. Why is there no one else on this curb. Why are these cars not stopping. I get the thought out of my head and I go back to the Quran. I look at my phone and I look up the verses I can’t remember which are meant to protect me, and I read those. I tell myself I’m exaggerating. Maybe I should ask him if he’s okay. No. Don’t talk to the man.
The next noise he makes he’s talking to me. No introductions.
’You ever had a finger up your ass?’
I must have misheard.
‘You ever had a finger up your ass?’
Now I’m looking at him. His knees apart, one wrist on top of one knee, the other hand is underneath his shirt on his stomach. He’s not looking at my body. He’s looking at my face. I’m confused by what he’s trying to do or what he has already done. He doesn’t look like he’ll move so I start to walk away. I try to talk myself through the panic but words shake in my throat before they reach my tongue and they don’t reach my tongue. They gather where they are, and I can’t breathe. I stop crying and I start throwing up.
I’m twenty years old
He leans over and kisses me. I don’t like the cigarette on his breath. I lean backwards and he leans forwards further. I tell him to stop but he doesn’t. The cab driver pretends it’s not happening. I want to open the door I’m leaning on and jump out of the moving car. But we’re on an expressway and even though I’m looking out the window, turning my back to him he still kisses the parts of me he faces. I worry that if I scream the driver would join him, and not help me. But men respect the property of other men and maybe this is the best option. I am now calculating if the speed of the cars on the road outside my door is enough to kill me should I jump out. Maybe that’s what I want because I don’t know how to wash this man off if it isn’t with death; he continues to kiss me he does not stop. I think about death and the potential relief of unconsciousness and escape and having my soul exit my body and my soul he cannot kiss. I hate who I am because I don’t know how to hate who he is.