“Wake up! Your highness! It’s time. Wake up!”
I can barely make out the words, snugly cocooned under the heavy quilt. Intending to catch a few more winks, I pay no heed to Shahida’s coaxing. I hear her footsteps recede. I know she will be back in a while. It is a luxury. Yes. A luxury. To have someone wake me up patiently. Without fail. Every single day. A luxury to have someone care for me. I drift back into a deep slumber.
“Wake up! Your Highness. It’s time. Time to wake up to the truth.” You receive a heartless snide from your mother. All of sixteen, you are helping her wash clothes. You appear gloomy. As gloomy as the grey tiles of the washroom you are toiling in. You mull over a dreary future, as dreary as the chilly winds outside. Lost in thought, you dip a bright red Shalwar with your father’s pristine white Perahan. You hold the Perahan up, all pink and blotchy. Before you can react, you are drenched by a bucket full of freezing water. A thousand pins and needles prick your skin at the same time. But they are less painful than your mother’s piercing gaze .It burns your being even as you shiver and your teeth chatter. You wince when she screams again, “Wake up!” .
I feel cold and sit up with a start. I calm down on seeing Shahida at the foot end of my bed. The twinkle in her eyes betrays her stoic stance.
“Do you have to pull off my quilt? You know I hate it the way the moist cold creeps up my body.” I grumble.
“Well, would you rather have Madame come and pull it off?” Shahida retorts. “It’s seven -thirty am and we need to get everything in place before she arrives. I am off to start the baking. Clean up. Get ready. Quick!
I blow her a kiss. She rolls her eyes upwards and leaves.
A little later, the unmistakable aroma of freshly baked Bakhlava greets me. Once irresistible for me. Now, just a whiff. A whiff of my roots. My unceremonious uprooting hasn’t left me any scope to revel in fragrances of nostalgia. In fact, it is just the opposite. Scents from the past ignite my fury. It takes Shahida an ample amount of effort to protect the crockery at the shop whenever a fresh batch of Gosh-e-fil is being fried.
“It seems as if it’s not the pastries, but you who’s been put into the burning oil!” she had mentioned once. I had gazed into the distance, unable to speak.
“This is my truth. It may have been a lie for Baba and you but not for me. I am what I have been all these years.” You plead with your mother as she prepares for Iftar in the family courtyard. Your pleas seem unheard and you find her focusing on the elephant-ear shaped pastries in the frying pan. You hold her wrist to grab her attention. Your hand is pushed away ruthlessly and it gets scalded by a generous splattering of the hot oil. You scream in agony.
“Serves you right! That hand will remind you not to defy Allah’s way,” Your mother’s harsh words sting you. You know the inflamed skin will heal soon but you doubt if your broken heart will ever stop aching.
I examine the puckered scar on my right hand as I offer my morning Namaz. It doesn’t instil any fear of Allah. It reminds me of the courage that the Almighty has bestowed me with to fight my battles. Someday, I might get the scar inked. Yes. A tattoo. A tattoo praising Allah. I smile.
I start with my daily chores at the bakery. We usually do not get any customers before Madame arrives. So, I am surprised to see a little girl with long curly locks walk in with her mother soon after I unlock the front door. The lady seems happy to see the myriad of freshly baked traditional fare available. As I take her orders and begin packing the sweets, I can’t help listening to their banter.
“I want to keep long hair. Long. Like Rapunzel!” demands the girl.
“You can. Once older. Not now! You can’t manage them!” the mother replies.
“I will look like a boy. Everyone will tease me,” the girl wails.
“Don’t be silly. Short hairstyles look smart. And guess what? No one will pull your hair to tease you in school,” cajoles the mother.
I can feel the beads of sweat on my forehead. I fidget with the woollen cap covering my cropped hair. That is how it had all started. I pause. I reflect. I remember.
“Yay! They won’t be able to pull me by my braids anymore!” You rejoice as the scissors snip off the last bit of your long wavy tresses. An uneven black stubble covers your head. Your mother crowns it with a colourful cap lined with dazzling mirrors. Your father pats you on the back. In the five years of your existence, he has never done that. You are elated.
“Azeez!” He announces with pride. You feel special as everyone cheers you. You are told that you will bring good luck to the family. You give side-long mocking glances to your other three sisters who watch on.
You get a few new Perahans and Tunbans to wear. You are happy to pack your Hijabs. You always found them cumbersome. You never really liked being Azeeza. You like being Azeez. It’s fun.
You are thrilled to know that you will be going to the local school while your sisters are tutored at home. Every morning, you strut past your sisters like a peacock who’s just grown its colourful plumage.
Because you are now the son. Their son. The son they didn’t have. Their pride.
I fling the woollen cap on the counter after the mother and daughter duo leave. I chuckle at the irony of it all. I am no one’s son anymore. Not anyone’s daughter either. I am neither their pride nor their honour. I live each day for myself. And for the love I believe in. With pride. With honour.
“Why the frown, dear?” Shahida asks, bringing in two tiny cups. I cherish these few sips of chai that give us five minutes of peace before Madame waltzes in in her flowing robes, throwing things into a frenzy.
“Is anyone even bothered to make this place look decent?”
“Can my aching knees ever get some rest?”
“”Uff..those days of me sitting and sipping my kehwa, looking out of the window..are gone.”
“Allah, when will I return to my tranquil abode?”
I cannot resist giggling as I catch Shahida lip-sync all Madame’s utterances to perfection. We hear them every other day.
An elbow in my ribs apprises me of Madame glaring at me.
“And the dust settles everywhere. While I refuse to settle with it,” she chides, swiping the counter with her finger. “Unsettle it before I unsettle you.”
She stomps off into the kitchen, Shahida at her heels.
I pick up a duster and try to ‘unsettle’ the dust. Dust. I recall becoming friends with it long back. It stopped bothering me from then on.
“Your father asks you to accompany him to work . You do not want to miss school but you are excited about the new adventure. You trudge alongside him for miles, braving the heat without complaining. Swirls of dust and smoke welcome you at the brick kiln. You embrace them as you labour alongside your father. On the way back, your father shows you the extra money you have helped him earn. He asks you to join him again the next day. You hesitate for a bit, then nod. You want to be a worthy son.
And so, you make peace. With the dust . With the sweat. Your calloused hands and sun-burnt skin do not bother you as much as your absence from school does. You also miss the cricket matches where you outshone most of the boys. You somehow convince your parents to let you attend an evening school for working children. You now know how to make five hundred bricks in a day but you forget how to make runs on the pitch. By the time you are ten you accept the dust as your playmate.
I tell myself that I belonged to a land where dust-storms were a part of life. Until a storm brew inside my being and blew me out of there. And I settled wherever I could. Like dust. Settled. Yet unsettled.
When Madame comes back from the kitchen, she is beaming and humming her favourite melody. Shahida follows, smiling. I am not surprised. Shahida has that influence on people.
“Shahida dear, just add a bit of lemon juice to the Baklava syrup next time and you will see how the taste changes from ordinary to extraordinary,” Madame advises in the sweetest voice ever.
“Since it’s winters, we could get some fresh orange juice and use it too. That would make it exceptional, wouldn’t it?” Shahida suggests.
There is silence for a minute. I try to decipher Madame’s expressions. I know she likes her things her way. I know she doesn’t appreciate interference.
Madame grins and shakes her head from side to side. I expect her to say something sarcastic. But she remarks, “That’s a brilliant suggestion. Why didn’t I ever think of it? Shahida, love, this place needed you earlier.”
I make a mock- face at Shahida. She winks at me. She is everything that I am not. Calm. Collected. Yet, resilient. One hardly hears her complain or fret. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t stand up for what is right. Who would know that better than me?
“You see her at the evening school everyday. You know she lost her family during ethnic clashes some time back and that she works for a living as a house-help. You name her ‘the quiet one’. Probably the only girl who doesn’t trouble you. The others giggle and smirk whenever you pass by. Sometimes they pass comments on you. You ignore them and busy yourself in the classes. You are inspired by the young volunteers who have managed to coax many kids including girls to attend school.
You are made aware of the changes hitting you at puberty during one of the classes. You are uncomfortable with the idea. After the class, you overhear a few girls discussing you.
“Wonder what changes Azeez..err Azeeza is undergoing?”
“Haha…I swear his Perahan is getting tight for her!”
You are upset. Not sure of what to expect, you go home and ask your mother for loose fitting Perahans . She declines, citing monetary issues.
You become self-conscious. You avoid the girls and the boys. You enter the class first .You exit last. Until the day they corner you. A few older girls.
“Tell your mother it’s time.”
“Why don’t you accept it? Your days of freedom are over.”
“Whom are you deceiving? “
“We won’t let you come to school like this.”
One of them flings a hijab over you, and you cower. That’s when you hear her voice for the first time. The quiet one’s voice. Composed. Firm. Authoritative.
“Leave Azeez alone. She is not the first “Bacha Posh” that you have seen. You all are lucky that you are getting to attend school as girls. Not everyone is. Now make use of your education and change others’ thinking so that we do not have to resort to bringing up our daughters as boys. So that we are as proud of our daughters as we are of our sons.”
As the others leave, the quiet one addresses you, “I am Shahida. I like you Azeez. Can we be friends?”
And you nod. You like Shahida too. A lot.
I cannot say for sure when the liking turned into love. A love beyond the boundaries of friendship. But it felt just right. Shahida is the anchor to my rocking boat. She is the shore that the tumultuous waves of emotions within me seek time and again. She is the lone star that guides me to safety whenever I am lost in a desert of despair.
I am brought out of my musings by a loud , emphatic clicking of the tongue. I see Madame examining the window panes at the front of the shop. I wonder if there is a crack in the pane and walk upto her.
“Stains? On the front window? Am I paying you for this? Allah, have mercy on me! Who will come to a tarnished bakery?” she rattles off.
I take the cue and rush off to get the window-cleaning spray. I return and get down to scrubbing the panes thoroughly.
“It’s so embarrassing. What will people say?” Madame cries.
I cringe at the histrionics.
“What will people say?” Your mother asks with vehemence.
You have just admitted to her that you would prefer to dress and stay as a boy. You get the courage to do so from Shahida. You had been warned by her the first time you complained of cramps in the lower tummy. A couple of months after that, you are informed by your parents that you will have to return to ‘being a girl’. No explanation. No empathy. No concern. Nothing.
Your sisters give their old clothes to you. You hate those.
You do not pay heed to anyone and continue to dress up like a boy. You are scolded, thrashed and punished. You maintain your stance. When the stick doesn’t work, you are enticed with carrots. You are told you can go for higher education if you listen to them. You take the bait.
You have a hard time accepting the ‘new’ you. Or is it the ‘old’ you? You realise that it is just not your cup of tea. You cannot behave or feel like a woman. You feel suffocated. You go into a shell. Your only solace is in Shahida. You both become very close. Always together. Inseparable. You find your happiness with her.
But it is short-lived.
“We are getting you married.” Your heart sinks as soon as the gravity of your father’s words hits you. You feel cheated. You understand that you have been played. You ponder. You plead. You persuade. Nothing helps. You encounter fire. Fiery words. And ice. Icy looks. You get toughened. You decide to rebel.
Madame leaves. I rub hard at the stains on the glass. Some of them come off. Others do not budge. They have been that way for years. They are part of the glass now. They give it character. I don’t think the glass can go back to being what it was ages ago. I stop trying. I decide I like them. I let them be.
The street lamps light up and we prepare to call it a day. Shahida makes a list of things needed for the next day. I step out into one of the narrow gullies that are synonymous with the neighborhood we reside in. A few familiar faces greet me with a polite smile. Some strangers give me curious second glances. And yet others, who have come to know me, strategically turn their backs as I cross them. I do not blame them. Human beings everywhere on this planet find it difficult to accept those who act and behave differently than themselves. It doesn’t affect me anymore. When the mother who gave birth to me and the father who named me Azeeza could not acknowledge me for what I am, what can I expect from anyone else?
“The threat of your imminent marriage takes a backseat with the pandemic looming large over your country. The lockdown serves as a big blow for a nation already steeped in political turmoil and violence. The turmoil in your head and the violence at your home is another story altogether. The more you endeavour to plead your case, the worse it gets. They label you crazy. They delineate you. They ostracise you.
And then you hear the worst. You shudder to think of your fate as reports of a brutal, fundamentalist religious group taking over your land start pouring in. The future looks bleak to you. You feel trapped. You break down. You want to give up.
And as always, you see the light in her eyes. Shahida’s.
“The family from the embassy I work for promises to help us get out to a safer land.” She says.
“Why would they help you?” I ask her, suspicious.
“The same reason they let me attend evening school! They care. My employer knows someone who can give us work.”
“And why would they help me?” You ask, doubtful.
“Simple! Because I told them I will not go anywhere without you!” she shrugged.
You have tears in your eyes.
“M..my family?” you stutter.
“I am your family.” Shahida declares.
And so , a couple of days after your eighteenth birthday, you break free. You take the flight to your freedom. It isn’t easy to forsake your brethren, but it is easier than forsaking yourself. The flight does not promise you a castle in the clouds, but it lets you out of the dungeons of despair. And it allows you to live . To live as you.
Lost in thought, I take the longer route back. Shahida heaves a sigh of relief on seeing me.
“Where were you? Did you get into some trouble?” She inquires, her hands stained with orange juice.
“Took a detour .A long one. To the past.” I reply.
And I decided to return home.” I shrug.
A moment of deafening silence enswathes us.
“The home I have with you. Home is wherever we are together. Home is ‘now’.”
I hold her hand and we walk in to our humble accommodation behind the bakery.
“You know, when we came here, Madame told me that she didn’t mind us staying here together as long as we worked hard,” Shahida confesses. “I told her I would only work for her if she let us stay together.”
‘You didn’t?” I exclaim.
She winks and laughs out loud.
I am Azeeza. Or Azeez. The cherished one.
Born a daughter. Became a son. A good one.
The daughter. They wanted her again. I couldn’t go back to being one.
They found me a bridegroom. I preferred my soul-mate. The only one.
They made me live a lie. I chose my truth. An unacceptable one.
They hated me. I chose to be loved. For, I remain the cherished one.
In Afghanistan’s patriarchal, male- dominated society, where women and girls have to follow many restrictions, “Bacha Posh”( literally meaning ‘ dressed as a boy) is a tradition of sorts allowing girls access to the freer male world. Under the practice , a girl dresses, behaves and is treated as a boy. The Bacha Posh child can attend school, play sports and even work to earn for the family.However, after attaining puberty, the child is expected to return to her traditional gender role. The transition back, as expected, is never easy.
The above story is a fictional account based on this problematic practice. The intention is to bring out the emotional turmoil related to this tradition. The account does not intend to disrespect any culture, country or religion. Any resemblance to any person, dead or alive is purely co-incidental.
Shahida:- (here, name) witness
Shalwar: light, loose pleated trousers worn by women in South Asia, here , Afghanistan
Perahan:- wide, loose upper garment with sleeves worn by men in Afghanistan
Baklava: a dessert originating in the middle east made of filo pastry and nuts and sweet syrup
Gosh-e-fil: fried, sweet pastry shaped like an elephant ear, popular in Iran and Afghanistan
Azeez/Azeeza (here, name) cherished, precious
Tunban: loose and hanging lower garment worn by men in Afghanistan
Hijab:a head covering worn in public by Muslim women
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