Initially, the plan was for the three of us to move in together. That way, my mom could live with this beast that she seemed so hell-bent on getting close to. But, since it was difficult to find a place, we settled for two different apartments in the same building. My mother was on one of the lower floors, and the beast and I were on the seventeenth floor, the top floor.
Within the first week of our marriage, he came home to find the curtains wide open on a bright sunny day.
“Are you a whore?”
“What?” I had no idea what he was referring to.
“You want to the whole world to see you parading around here with your hair uncovered?”
“I haven’t left this apartment all day.”
“The windows! You don’t think people can see you? Do you think it’s only one way? Are you stupid? Walking around here like a stupid, naked whore.”
“It’s the seventeenth floor!” I finally understood his issue. “No one can see seventeen floors up and in! Are you worried about someone in a helicopter flying —”
And then he hit me. I wasn’t completely surprised, as I’d become accustomed to being hit my whole life. It was more like disappointment, like oh great, this again. I didn’t think that marrying him would be an escape from my abusive life, but it would have been a nice surprise.
“Oh, you just wait ’til I tell my mother!” I said. “This marriage is over. How dare you put your hand on me!” I packed a bag as I told him my plans to go down to my mother’s apartment and never return. I was giddy with excitement on the elevator ride down. I had a great excuse! That was pretty easy. It only took him a week to mess up!
“So what?” she said nonchalantly. “Don’t you know Allah has made it halal, permissible, for a man to beat his wife? You don’t know your own Quran? How are you a Muslim and you don’t know this? He has done nothing wrong.”
“He’s a lunatic! He thinks someone will be able to see me on the seventeenth floor without my hijab on! I am not going back up there ever again!”
“Oh, yes, you are. You have to. You can’t stay here.”
“Why are you doing this? Why won’t you protect me?”
“Protect you from what? Your husband? You are his, he has every right to do whatever he wants with you.”
“I don’t care what his rights are. I am not living with him.”
I stayed in my mother’s apartment for days as she tried to mend the fences. There were no fences to mend. He refused to apologize, because he was within his rights. My mother took his side entirely. According to the Quran, Surah 4:34, Allah instructed men to beat their “arrogant” or “disobedient” wives.
I was outnumbered and scared. How can I fight against clear directives from Allah? I still refused to go back upstairs, though.
“Okay,” my mother said. Since her bullying tactic hadn’t worked, she went with her tried and true emotional blackmail. “Just go live with him for a little while longer. If the marriage ends this early, everyone will think he divorced you because you weren’t a virgin.”
“I don’t care what people think!”
“I do! I am respected in that school. Do you want to drag my name through the mud? Do you want me to be disgraced? After everything I did to reach my status in this community? Don’t you know some people would love to have something bad to say about me? Just stay with him for a few months, so that there is no suspicion.”
And again, my mother’s persistent coercion wore me down. Putting her needs before my own yet again, and with a broken heart, I reluctantly told myself I had no choice but to go back to living with that beast. I was terrified to go back. I might lose my opportunity to leave forever. I was terrified that this would be my last chance. I was terrified that I would get pregnant and then be forced to stay married to him. I told my mom all my fears.
“Don’t worry, it will be fine. No one gets pregnant that quickly.”
“Well, I won’t let him near me. Just in case.” I mumbled as the elevator doors closed behind me.
“You can’t do that.”
“What do you mean?”
“You are not allowed to refuse him. It’s haram. You are his. If you refuse him, all the angels will curse you ’til morning.”
I felt trapped in that elevator. Like there was no air left in the whole world. Everything about the laws of Islam are clearly arranged to entrap a woman in a forced marriage with a man who beats her and rapes her. All sanctioned by Allah.
After twenty years of guilt-ridden angst over impure thoughts, twenty years of “saving myself” for my husband, twenty years of build-up, the climax could not have been more anti-climactic. My first kiss was no beautiful, majestic Disney moment. It was forced and scary and gross. I did not like this man. I did not want him touching me, but my religion made it clear: I had no right to resist. A woman must not deny her husband even if she is atop a camel. I was sad and disappointed that this was the naseeb that had been written for me. I wished I had kissed my high school crush that day in his car. Then at least, I would have experienced one decent kiss before I died. But I wasn’t used to getting good things. Allah usually dealt me a rotten hand, so I was used to it. I didn’t complain. I endured. This sacrifice would bring me closer to paradise and further from hell.
Then, the unthinkable happened: I got pregnant. I was stuck. But I was adept at resigning myself to just accept my fate, so I focused on how wonderful it would be to have a little baby to love, who would love me back. I hoped she’d be a girl. I knew I’d be a single mom one day, and it would just be easier to deal with a girl. Less of a mystery. My baby girl and I would be the best of friends.
The three of us moved into a townhouse, and my mom moved in with us. As soon as we arrived, he went around the house and taped brown meat packing paper over all the windows to block out the sun and prevent anyone from accidentally seeing me. Then, he covered the papered windows with a curtain, just to be sure.
I never left the house anymore except for prenatal appointments. Those outings became my only opportunity to smell fresh air — well, as much air as you can smell through a piece of cloth covering your face. Once a month, I would put on the ensemble that had come almost entirely from Saudi: thick black socks, a black abaya (cloak), a black hijab (head cover) and a black niqab (face cover). The niqab was basically a black square of cloth that had two layers, one that covered everything but my eyes, and another, thinner one, that went over it, to cover my eyes as well. The final part of the ensemble were black gloves. Once every single inch of skin was covered in black, I was ready to leave the house to visit my female doctor.
Of course it had to be a female doctor; it was haram to speak to males unless absolutely imperative.
“Like, for example, if a man is about to fall into a well, you can say ‘be careful,’ but not too loudly” — an actual, verbatim, quote from my mother, translated from Arabic.
I dreaded leaving the house. At home, I could watch Oprah to connect with the world. Even though it was unidirectional, it felt like interaction. I connected with Oprah and her guests. It was inspiring and made me feel like I was part of the world. I was learning from them all.
But out in the real world, as I walked in the summer heat shrouded from head to toe in black, I felt the most disconnected. I thought the hijab was a difficult barrier, but the niqab was another thing entirely. If the hijab said “approach with caution,” the full-face niqab said, “fuck right off away from me.”
Wearing a niqab feels like you’re in a portable sensory deprivation chamber. It impedes your ability to see, hear, touch, smell. I felt like I was slowly dying inside, slowly deteriorating. I was suffering both physically and emotionally. I wasn’t allowed to have any friends, as no one was up to his religious standard. I didn’t even know who I was anymore — if I even was somebody at all. My only actions were as a direct result of his. I would not dare to breathe unless he clarified in which direction I was to breathe. I’d say I walked on eggshells, but it would be more apt to say, I stood, tensely, on eggshells, waiting to see in which direction I was to turn. He was a textbook abuser. I realized later that he followed the cycle described in my Psych text like clockwork, as if he had studied it in school.
They were rare, but there were times when he made me feel like I was special. This was important, especially early on in the relationship, in order to hook me in.
“I don't want to go to work,” he lamented one morning. “I don't want to leave you! I wish I could shrink you and put you in my pocket so you could be with me all day. This pocket,” he said as he tapped his breast pocket, “so you can be close to my heart”.
Those positive crumbs were far outweighed by the famine in between, but I lived for the next feast. The next time he’d be kind or thoughtful or even just not cruel.
To complete the cycle, and in order to completely submerge me under his abusive spell, he would use classical conditioning. A fist to my face replaced Pavlov’s dinner bell. I thought everything was haram before, but I had no idea how many more things could be haram.
One time, I was looking up something in the phonebook and absentmindedly began to sing:
“What the hell are you doing?” he bellowed. The back of his hand hit my mouth. This was another one of those moments when I was just at a loss. What exactly had I done? What was my transgression this time? “Why are you singing in my house? Are you trying to bring the devil in here?”
“It’s in alphabetical order. I was just —”
“I don’t care about your stupid excuses!”
Up until then, I thought singing was okay and only music was haram, but nope — turns out singing the alphabet to help you look up something in alphabetical order conjures the devil.
As my belly grew, so did the constant beatings. I was so scared of him, I avoided him as much as possible. Even if he were in the bathroom, I wouldn’t knock on the door, because I didn’t want to interact with him. I never knew where the land-mines were. I never knew what would trigger a beating. At my lowest point, as he dawdled in the bathroom, and as my pregnant belly pushed on my bladder, I rolled up a bath towel from the laundry basket and sat on it to relieve myself. I chose to pee on myself rather than speak to him.
Though I never knew what would set him off, most of the beatings were over food. Those years caused me so much anxiety around food that over a decade later, married to a man I love, I still cannot cook for him. Those years caused me to hate cooking so much, the mere thought of preparing a meal for someone fills me with a sense of panic and dread. I eventually got over the anxiety of cooking in general, but I still will not cook any Arabic foods.
Back then, my days revolved around making meals just so. That entirely filled the day. He would buy cookbooks and leave sticky notes on the pictures that he liked, and I had to create those dishes. Of course, the dishes I made never matched the photographs to his liking, so his common response would be to throw his plate at me.
On the days he did eat the food I had prepared, he would give me a detailed rundown of how it could be improved for next time. He was very specific with his demands. It was obsessive. He didn’t like casseroles or anything in a sauce. He only liked finger foods or appetizers. This, of course, meant that whatever thing he ordered would be tedious to make, as they would need to be created individually. One time, as I spoke to a friend on the phone, she asked me why I sounded so sad.
“He’s pissed off at the dinner I made.”
“What did you make?”
“Roast chicken, rice, and salad.”
“That sounds wonderful!” she said. A university student, her meals usually came in a packet.
She’s right. He should be grateful that he has a good meal in front of him. Fucker. I tried to reach him from an Islamic perspective. I told him that he should be grateful for what he has, for what I had made for him. But I ended up with a bruised face, because he took my words to be demeaning. He said I was accusing him of being weak in religion, a bad Muslim.
I asked my mom for this big plaque she had in her apartment that said, alhamdu lillah (thanks be to Allah). I hung it up on the wall right in front of his face where he sat to eat dinner. If I couldn’t talk to him about it, I would try to send him this subliminal message instead.
I also tried to introduce him to “exotic” Canadian foods. I hoped he would be sold on the novelty of it, and of course, they’d be a billion times easier to make than Middle Eastern foods. He never did like Canadian food, but, periodically, I would try to slip a dish in.
One night, as I was preparing the “ancient Canadian delicacy” chicken noodle soup, I realized that he would be home soon, and I still had a lot to do. I was busy separating the boiled chicken from the bone and the cartilage and skin and everything else. I had to make sure I didn’t add anything but the purest chicken meat to his soup. Even the bits of chicken that were too dark would send him into a rage. I was scared to rush through the process, but I still had to clean up the house, shower and get dressed.
Timidly, I asked my mother for help.
“Please be careful. Only put the cleanest bits of meat. I’ve already chopped up the breast, so if you can’t get a lot, don’t worry. You know how he is, if the first thing he sees isn’t meat, he loses his mind. Just add the chicken to this pot.”
“Okay, okay. I’m not stupid. Just go.”
“I know, but please be careful. Actually, forget it, there’s enough chicken in it already.” I was too nervous to leave her with this task. Messing up his food always came with dire consequences.
“I said I know. Just go clean yourself up before your husband sees you like that.”
I was nervous to walk away; I had never trusted my mother to help with any meals before, but I was too strapped for time, and every simple task is magnified when you’re pregnant, so I left her to finish the soup and waddled away.
Later, as he sat down to dinner, I dipped the ladle into the pot to serve him his soup. As I lifted it up out of the broth, I was completely stunned to see that the ladle in my hand was filled with chicken bones, fat and skin. I dropped it quickly before he could catch a glimpse.
“What’s taking you so long?!”
“I …” My brain wasn’t connecting.
“Why is she so stupid?” he asked my mom.
My mom giggled in response.
I dipped the ladle in again. And I was met with the same mix of chicken carcass waste. I wasn’t sure how all that garbage could possibly have got in there by accident. It wasn’t just a bone or two. It was as if the strainer full of the discarded chicken bits had been dumped directly into the pot.
He was getting impatient.
“I’ve been working all day!” he yelled. “Can’t you even get a decent motherfucking meal on the table on time? You sit at home doing nothing all day!”
I glanced over to the strainer that used to be full of bones and other waste; it was empty. My eyes quickly darted to my mother, in shock. She seemed to be too interested in the pattern on the tablecloth to meet my eyes.
“What is wrong with you?” He jumped out of his seat and was standing beside me in one leap. “Serve the fucking soup!”
I had no choice to dip the ladle in again as he watched me. It emerged as it had twice before.
“What is this?” he whispered menacingly.
“I … er … had so much to do. This pregnancy makes me tired. I asked Mom to help with the chicken.”
“What? You’re going to try to blame this on me?”
Blame what? How would she know what I was going to say? She was still sitting at the table. How could she see what was in that ladle? Up until that moment, I had thought it was an honest mistake. I wasn’t sure how she could possibly have dumped all that in by accident, but I just couldn’t fathom the alternative. Now, I had no choice but to see the truth.
All those years of making excuses for her. Thinking I misunderstood. Accepting her rationales. Continuing to give her my trust. Continuing to vie for her love. Blaming myself. Hating myself. Accepting that I was a failure. Struggling to appease her. Putting her wants and needs before my own. It all came crashing down in this one clear incident that I had absolutely no way of denying. I looked up at him, expecting him to finish me off. But no physical blow to the head could compare to the inner pain I was feeling.
And then, the weirdest thing happened. He said, “It’s okay. Let’s just skip the soup. What else is for dinner?”
He took pity on me. He knew that my mother had done this. He understood that she had fucked me over. He saw in my eyes that I knew, too. He knew her hope was to witness yet another beating. And as I would scream for her, as he pulled my hair and punched my face, she would say, as she always did: “Shut up! The neighbours will hear you! Do you want him to go to prison?”
This evil man, who I would later learn was involved in bombings that killed hundreds of people, a man who had been involved in the biggest terrorist court case in Egyptian history — second only to the court case around the assassination of President Anwar Sadat — had more of a heart than my own mother.