The Ashes Of My Freedom

Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

woman cooking fire

As soon as I stepped out of the cool, air-conditioned car, I felt the blast of hot, humid air hit my face like a splash of scalding water. I felt beads of sweat materialize at the side of my temples within minutes of stepping out into the sun. It has been 25 years since I had last set foot in my village. I was very young, almost too young, when I left. I moved with my new husband to Karachi, then to Kuwait, and then finally to America where it became my home for the past 15 years. I felt the thin fabric of my shalwar kameez cling to the outline of my skin, as I began walking towards the gates of my old home. As soon as I reached the gates, I stood there, gazing up at my past that I was forced to leave behind. I longed to kiss the soil beneath my feet — the soil of my homeland; the soil of my beloved father’s land.

Baba.

Fresh tears welled up in my eyes, slid down my cheeks, and dripped off my chin. He was such a great man. He was unlike any Pashtun man ever known. How many times had he asked me to visit him, and how many times had I told him, “Soon, baba. I will come soon.” Soon never came, however, and now here I was, back in my village, only to come the day after his funeral. I wiped my tears, took a deep breath, and pushed open the gate to be greeted by a swarm of loud, mourning women.

***

I was only 14 when I got married and left the village. I clearly remember the day I was asked to be betrothed. My husband-to-be, who also happened to be my first cousin, sat nervously across my parents on the hard, hand-woven cot. He grabbed the cup of tea with shaky hands, took a sip of the scalding liquid, grimaced, and quickly set it back down on the table, almost spilling it.

“Sit up straight, boy!” My father barked, clearly annoyed. My father was a very big man, and stood close to seven feet tall. Everyone in the village was afraid of his strength and never dared to fight or challenge him. My mother once told me how he tackled, tied, and dragged a large tiger that had wandered, unwelcome, into the village well before I was born. He was even dubbed sher[1] khan because of how big and powerful he was. My mother, on the hand, was a very tiny and petite woman; she was barely five feet tall. But she was mighty fierce; she had a voice that could cut through the sharpest glass. While my father was big and strong, he was a quiet and gentle man. My mother, however, was petite but she was loud and far from gentle. Nothing I did was ever good enough for her. She nitpicked every little thing, which would then quickly follow with a slap to the side of my head.

“How do you expect to get married if you don’t cook properly? No man wants to marry a girl who wants to study and go to school. Learn to cook first. That’s more important!” She would scream at me, each time she’d see me with a copy of one of Baba’s Pashto books. I could read a little, as baba was slowly teaching me, but it made my mother fume. “Look at your sisters. Look how good and proper they are. Learn to be more like them. Watch, they will be married well before you. They will get great rishtas[2], while you will die a spinster with your silly books!”

My mother hence found every little opportunity to hit me. It was the times I dreaded the most, because her blows were quite hard. I was also very close to my father, and being the first born, my father, too, made no secret of his favouritism and affections towards me, which further added to her anger and envy.

“You have two other daughters too! And six beautiful sons!” She would exclaim, each time she saw me sitting in my father’s lap, as he read to me verses from Ghani Khan’s Latoon.

“Yes, but none are like my Angeza. She is smart and sharp. She will go far in life. She will make me very proud some day. I know it.” He’d then kiss me on the top of my head and continue reading to me, to which my mother would respond by huffing angrily, swearing loudly under her breath, and storming out of the room.

My husband-to-be, upon hearing my father’s loud bellowing voice, quickly straightened his shoulders and sat up straight. From a room, adjacent to the living room, I peered at all three of them through the curtains, trying to stifle my laughter. It was quite a sight watching my husband-to-be, who was a significantly smaller man than my father, sit there, scared for his life as he tried to find the courage to ask for my hand. After a few moments, he quickly blurted it out.

A brief moment of silence passed, before my mother suddenly burst out laughing.

“That’s it, boy? This was the reason you came here? To ask for Angeza’s hand? Good heavens, child! Take her! We are so sick of her and,…” my mother’s voice was suddenly cut short by my father’s exceptionally loud, “NO!”

“But Dilawar Khanna…,” my mother began, when my father held up his hand, palm facing her to stop talking, to which she sighed loudly, and looked away angrily. He then turned to the man who was to be my husband and said, his voice softer and calmer now:

“My daughter is too young. Barely 14. I can’t have her married yet. She wants to study and go to school. I love her too much to deny her this wish.”

My husband-to-be nodded quickly, and rather than plead with my father, he quietly got up and left the room. My mother was not at all pleased and she made no secret of it that same night as she lashed out at my father, screaming and yelling for letting go of such a good “rishta,” who also happened to be her favourite sister’s son. And to villagers, he did appear to be a good catch, as he was university educated and lived in one of the major cities in Pakistan. He was more than just a good catch, according to my mother, he was the jackpot.

My father just kept quiet, shaking his head from side to side, muttering more to himself than to her, “No, I can’t. I just can’t. She’s too young. Too young.”

Over the course of the next few weeks, my husband-to-be tried everything in his power to convince my father to allow him to marry me. Apparently, he would not take no for an answer; he was determined to marry me, before someone else — someone more ‘worthy’– snatched me as their wife. It made me feel uncomfortable that men were competing for my hand in marriage, like as if I were a trophy of some kind. I wished I could discuss this matter with my father, but despite my closeness to him, I knew this was something even my father could not answer for me.

“It’s the way things are, dear daughter. If it were in my control, I would change a lot of things. I would change everything,” he would often reply, each time I asked him a difficult question.

One day, my mother’s elder brother — Dawood Khan — came to town. Word had reached him that someone was desperate for my hand in marriage, and that the person who was seeking it was his own dear nephew. Like my father, he, too, was a deeply loved and respected man in the village. However, since he was older than my father, he was often viewed as the ‘village elder’, and lived in the village next to ours. Even my own father wouldn’t dare to defy whatever request or orders he made. As soon as he came to our village, the first stop he made was my father’s house. It didn’t take him long to convince my father to allow the marriage to happen, though on my father’s one very important condition, that my husband-to-be ensured that I continued with my studies, no matter what. My husband-to-be, who had also accompanied Dawood Khan, nodded vigorously and promised that he would treat me no differently in his own home. My father shot him an indignant look, feeling doubtful of the young man’s promises, but he couldn’t say no because of Dawood Khan, and within less than four weeks I was married, and off to start my new life, far away from the only man I ever loved.

***

Most of the women stopped crying as soon as they saw me, standing there, struggling to hold in my tears that were threatening to spill out.

“Oh my god, it’s Angeza!” My youngest sister squealed happily, amid the mourners. She quickly got up from the floor and rushed to embrace me, burying her rough face in my neck. Soon, more women followed suit, until almost all of them surrounded me, wide-eyed, touching my face, my hair, my clothes, like as if they had never seen me before.

“Tell me, khoray[3], what’s Amreeka like?” One woman kept asking, her bright eyes twinkling with curious interest.

“What are the speenaan[4] like? Do they treat you well?” Another asked.

I struggled to answer the questions, quite overwhelmed with all the attention I was getting, when through the swarm of women, I suddenly saw my mother, sitting further away, glaring at me. She was the only one who didn’t bother getting up to greet me. I decided to excuse myself from the women, and walked slowly towards her, as she kept glaring, not batting a single lash.

“Pakhair moray[5],” I said softly.

I saw that my mother had aged quite significantly. She was barely 55, but looked close to 80. Age lines outlined every nook and cranny of her weathered face. Her hair had turned completely white. Her skin, too, had become leathery and turned a very dark tan, due to the heat from the sun. She looked nothing like the young, vibrant, beautiful woman I had left behind all those years ago.

“I see you’ve come back home,” she snapped, rather than returning my greeting. “Took you a long while, didn’t it? How many times has your poor father asked you to visit him? You knew he was sick. You knew his heart was failing, and yet you never even bothered to visit? Some favourite daughter you are!”

Her harsh words felt like sharp knives to the heart. How could I tell her that I planned to visit many times, only to be held back by my husband, who had full and complete control over me and my life? How could I tell her that I wasn’t allowed to go to school or work, so I could earn my own money and find the independence to travel? How could I tell her that the night we left the village, my new husband had turned to me, harshly, slapped my face, and told me that I was never to utter my father’s name or ever go back to my village again as long as he was alive.

“You call that man a father?!” He had screamed, slapping me again. I had innocently asked him when we would visit again, as I would really miss baba, and my husband began responding very violently to the request. “He made me promise me to have you attend school. School! That old man must be out of his mind! If you go to school, who will feed and take care of my children? Who will cook for me and make sure my clothes and shoes are clean and well-polished? Your father has lost his mind. I forbid you to ever see him again. I hate him. I hate him!”

How could I tell her these things without making it seem that her nephew — the man she saw as a ‘catch’ for me — was in fact a monster?

Instead, I remained quiet and nodded, my head bowed. Suddenly my mother noticed that my husband wasn’t with me.

“Where is he? Why didn’t come?” She asked, suddenly, her small eyes narrowed curiously. I stood up straight, straightened my shoulders, and cleared my throat.

“He’s gone,” I replied, calmly.

“Gone? What do you mean gone?!” She shot back, sitting more upright from her leaning position.

“Gone as in gone, moray. I divorced him. Talak[5],” I said, putting emphasis on the last word. Upon hearing the word, my mother took a sharp breath, and her eyes widened in disbelief.

“What?!” She screeched, “You can’t divorce him! He’s your husband. Go! Go bring him back this instant, you shameless woman!”

“No, moray,” I replied firmly. “The word is final. We have been separated for almost six months. There is no going back, and I don’t want to. He made my life miserable, and when he attacked me for the last time, back in America, it was the last straw. Our neighbour called the police, and they took him away. I was then advised to file for divorce, and that was the end of it. I haven’t seen him since, and I don’t care. I am finally a free woman.” As I was speaking, I saw the horrified look on all the women’s faces, as I relayed the details of what happened to me shortly after I got married and left the village. It was certainly no happily ever after for me. I told them of the endless abuse I suffered: the beatings, the lock-ups, his forbidding me to ever see my father or visit my family or village again, and the never-ending emotional and mental turmoil that both my children and I had to endure the 24 years I was married to him.

“They are all so backward; why would you ever want to go back to them? I certainly never want to see them again. I am educated and I have my own money. Soon, we will be going to Amreeka. Forget them, Angeza. They are all jaahil[6],” my husband would often tell me.

When I relayed the exact words to my mother, she suddenly stood up, wobbled because of her weak legs and slumped down again, her face turning bright red in anger.

“Jaahil?!” My mother exclaimed, fuming. “How dare he call us jaahil! Good thing he hasn’t set foot here. This is what I get for cradling him and putting nice clothes on his back. What an ungrateful, despicable boy he turned out. And you…,” she turned to me, wagging her index finger, “you are just as despicable for leaving him. We, good proper Pashtun women, don’t leave our husbands no matter what happens. If he hit you, there was a reason for it. You provoked him, Angeza. You dared to send your daughter away to university. You dared to learn English and driving when your husband strictly forbade you. You dared to give too much freedom to yourself and to all your daughters when it didn’t make your husband happy; you did everything wrong. Your husband was never at fault. You are!”

Upon hearing those words, I felt the heat rise to my face. My mother had crossed the line. If my father were alive, he would have never allowed her to speak to me this way. I walked up to her, as close as I could get, but because she was so much shorter than me, I had to look down to confront her.

“It’s easy for you to say this, moray, because baba never raised his hand, nor his voice, to you. It’s easy for you to say this because baba treated you like a queen. It’s easy for you to say this because God gave you a great husband. You were lucky, mor janay, for men like baba don’t come around too often. If my husband was even half the man baba was, I would have never left him. But he wasn’t. He was a cheap excuse for a human being, who saw women only as slaves and objects. My husband did not love nor respect me. He never cared for me.

Yours did.

Baba could have given you all the freedom in the world, but you didn’t want it. He was willing to educate you, but you refused. He was willing to take you out of the village, so you could explore the world with him, but you refused to leave. Baba was a progressive, intelligent, and a very kind and loving human being. He always saw you as his equal, and never beneath him.

It’s easy for you to say that your daughter was at fault, because you refused to understand what it feels like to be free.”

With hot tears blurring my vision, I spun on my heels and ran out of the house, past the gates, and towards my father’s grave. I buried my face in the fresh dugged soil and weeped till I had no more tears to shed. After a little while had passed, I felt a soft hand on my shoulder, I looked up and saw my youngest sister. Behind her were two more women but I couldn’t make them out through my tears and the dirt. I quickly wiped my face with my dupatta[7] and looked again. In the near distance stood both my mother and my middle sister. I watched as my sister held my mother’s hand, as she slowly and shakily walked towards me. In all my 40 years, my mother had never once shown me any love or affection, but everything changed in that one single moment when she, with the help of my sisters, walked towards me, cupped my face, wiped away my tears and kissed my forehead. I looked up into her face and suddenly saw the deep love and admiration she had for me.

“You make me so proud, looray[8]. I can see why your baba loved you so much; you are an example for all our present and future daughters,” she whispered, stroking my tear-stricken face lovingly. “Come,” she reached out her weathered hand for me to grab, and pulled me up to my feet. She put her short arms around my waist, and with both my sisters, we slowly walked up the hill, towards the setting sun.

© Samar EsapZai, April 20, 2015

[1] Lion
[2] Marriage suitor
[3] Sister
[4] White/Caucasian people
[5] Mother
[6] Illiterate/Classless
[7] Piece of cloth worn with the shalwar kameez
[8] Daughter

One response to “The Ashes Of My Freedom

  1. Beautifully written pièce.
    The same story happened n real n m’y life.
    M at m’y own now struggling fr a better life wd m’y 2 kids

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