When she danced, Alia felt mother nature dance along with her; lost in a trance and uncaring of the world, swaying gently to the symphony of chirping birds and rustling leaves. Who needed music when you held the music of the universe within yourself?
A soft smile played around the curve of Alia’s once full-lips, as she moved gracefully from one step to another, flexing her once nubile form into elegant poses.
This was what she had always wanted; always dreamed about, as she had lain in the mustard fields of her hometown, gazing in admiration at the uninhibited dance of the vibrant yellow flowers in the wind and the swirling of the cotton white clouds in sapphire skies.
Alia, The Dancer. A title bestowed upon her by her mother; a wish, a silent prayer of hope for her daughter. A title Alia had craved for, ever since she was four years old and her tinny, delighted squeals had echoed in the tiny expanse of their humble hut, as she had performed an ungainly two step with her beloved father.
Alia opened her eyes and the comforting memories of her parents shattered. Thick tears rolled down her cheeks and into her ears, as if they had been waiting for her to return to reality; waiting for her to realize, yet again, how different her life had turned out to be. Tears that had stubbornly, steadfastly refused to dry up.
She glanced at the pockmarked, bearded face of the old man on top of her. The weight of him threatened to crush her ribs, as he thrust inside her. His eyes were closed and his face averted to the side. He never looked at her while he raped her.
His naked, hairy belly flopped on her midriff with every thrust. Alia felt nauseated by the ugliness of his body and the stink of sex emanating from him.
She wondered if she should tell him that she didn’t feel anything down there. Sometime in the last year, unable to bear the pain any longer, her lower body had just given up. She was numb from her waist down. She must have been the only woman alive who felt happy while she was being raped. At least there was no more pain. Thank the god for small mercies.
“Haaaa…” He plopped on her chest, his mass crushing her tender breasts.
Alia screwed up her eyes in pain. Think of the children, she told herself as he grunted loudly and came inside her. Another wave of revulsion passed her body as she felt his semen inside her.
“You enjoyed that didn’t you my little bird?” He whispered in her ear.
He slipped his flaccid penis out and wiped it with Alia’s bed sheet. She curled into a ball and watched him dress into his spotless white kurta pajama. Once dressed, he offered a prayer of apology to his god and turned to her, his expression transforming from the ecstasy of orgasm to the red hot boiling rage of righteousness.
Alia steeled herself. He slapped her hard on her face.
“Bitch!” he shouted. “You have led me to sin again! Shayṭān! You seduce god-fearing men and make them lay with you without their knowledge or consent!”
He slapped her again. Alia lowered her eyes in what she hoped was a sign of submission and shame. “Wash up and cover yourself, witch!” he roared, pointing a fateful finger at her nakedness.
Alia nodded and he departed from her room in a huff.
She wiped her tears and stumbled into the cubbyhole that was the attached washroom. Glancing into the tiny handheld mirror, she wondered what part of her had seduced him?
Her eyes were too large for her face; liquid black, protruding from her sockets. Her face resembled more a skeleton than anything else, and the rest of her body even more so. Her ribs stood out against her chest like the sharp outlines of an embossing. Her stomach looked as if it was stapled to her spine. Her legs were thin, stick-like, pale and blue.
She splashed water between her thighs and washed away the slimy stickiness of his seed. At least there wouldn’t be any unwanted pregnancies. He had taken care of that. The unpleasant memory of the dirty hospital room where the surgery had been performed, flashed in front of her eyes.
She shook her head. She mustn’t let herself wander away in useless wonder. There were chores to be done; food to be cooked, kids to be fed and clothes to be washed. She sat down on the bathroom floor and proceeded to take her bath.
Alia could still remember the fateful day five years ago when she had first stepped onto this foreign land with her uncle. The starlight of the numerous opportunities of a big city had dazzled her. How happy she had been at the prospect of finally being able to dance for a living. How happy and how utterly naive.
She still woke up in the middle of night, her heart hammering, the screams surrounding her, threatening to overwhelm her; her screams.
‘Please let me out! Please! What is going on!’
‘Please don’t leave me!’
But Doud chacha had not come back. He had taken the money the men at the Private Employment Agency (PEA) had offered him, and left Alia behind in the serene countryside of Bu-Dhahd-Bu, the richest province in the Middle East.
There had been other girls at the ‘shelter’. Girls and women who had been lured away from their home countries with promises of employment and steady income. There were at least fifty of them being kept in a room that was as large as Alia’s hut in the village. Numerous bunk beds had lined the cramped space. They had been given a handful of blankets, which they were forced to share, if they wanted any respite from the bitter cold.
Alia had spent 15 days in that shelter and watched with increasing apprehension and terror, as the girls were marched out one by one; either to serve as prostitutes or to work as domestic help in rich families. Some of them returned in the early hours of the morning, bloody, beaten and bandy legged. Others never did.
Time had worn away the horror of those days. But the odour of unwashed bodies, urine and the iron tang of the menstrual blood that had stained their threadbare mattresses, still pervaded the pores on Alia’s body. No matter how hard she washed herself, that stink of captivity would not leave her.
Alia, The Dancer, served The Elamins as housekeeper and caretaker. The first few months had been the worst. Taking care of the entire household had been exhausting; especially because Alia had never learned to cook or wash clothes at her own home. But she had to learn, and learn fast. The Elamins had been ruthless in their instructions and demands. And the punishments were brutal.
The first time Mr. Elamin had raped her, she had been nineteen. Alia had tried to fight him off. Swatting away her thin limbs, he had thrust inside her with such force that her entire body had contorted in pain. She had felt the flesh around her vagina tear and her screams had died inside her throat.
Scared and confused, Alia had even attempted to escape. Unfortunately, she had been caught by the local police and handed over to Mr. Elamin. He had been furious. When Alia had screamed the truth of her rape, Mrs. Elamin had refused to believe her, instead blaming her for seducing her faithful husband.
They had beaten her and bound her to a pipe in the broken down bathroom. She had howled and pleaded; all to no avail.
She was left there for five days, without food or water. Alia remembered scooping up the toilet water with her bound hands to quench her thirst. Overcome with disgust and self-pity, she had prayed for death to come.
Instead, Mr. Elamin had come, with a plate containing two slices of bread and a cup of watery soup. As he raped her, Alia had concentrated with all her might on the plate of bread and soup.
Kishna’s loud sobbing brought her back to reality. Alia picked the child up and rocked her.
“When is Ammi coming back?” Jina, the elder daughter of the Elamins, demanded.
“Soon honey. Finish your homework.”
Jina bent down to her notebook, pencil scratching away at the paper.
“What is the point?” The harsh cackle came from the other corner of the room.
Hridaan was the eldest son of Mr. Elamin, from a previous marriage. His mother had died in childbirth. And whether it was because of this, or because the current Mrs. Elamin didn’t seem to be too fond of him, Hridaan had grown up to be a young boy with an angry countenance; particularly towards Alia.
He yanked the sheet of homework from Jina’s desk and threw it away.
“They will be married as soon as they are of age. That’s all they are worth. To have good rich marriages. What is the point of wasting money on education?”
“Hridaan sir!” Alia admonished. “That is not true. So what if they are married? Education will help them manage their household even after marriage. Just like your mother.”
“Mother doesn’t manage this household. You do! And you are not educated.” He said with a malicious grin and stomped off.
Alia sighed. She picked up the sheets and handed them to Jina.
“I don’t ever want to get married!” Jina wailed.
“Then don’t my dear. Study hard and become a strong independent woman. You can do whatever you like then.”
Jina nodded, her tiny resolve shining through her tiny eyes. She took the sheets and started writing.
Alia had just lain down after an exhausting day of work, when the door to her room opened and a dark figure slid inside. Alia’s heart dropped. This was unexpected. Mr. Elamin had paid her a visit just the day before. She sat up in her bed and switched on the lone bulb.
“Master Hridaan!” She gasped. “Is there a problem with the girls?”
Hridaan screwed up his face in disgust as he looked around the small room and Alia’s meagre possessions.
“Abbu sent me.”
His eyes shifted to her mattress and he sat down next to her.
“It’s.. It’s my 18th birthday tomorrow. Abbu wants me to..,” he faltered.
Alia felt perplexed at the strange vulnerability in Hridaan’s demeanour. He had always been callous to her. What had brought on this crack in his personality?
“Abbu wants me to… be with you.” Hridaan rattled off without looking at Alia. “As a rite of passage. He says that this is how a boy becomes a man.”
Alia’s breath caught in her throat and tears of rage sprang up in her eyes. She had raised Hridaan like a son! Loved him like her own brother! And now, that pure bond of love, the only maternal instinct she could ever feel in her life, was going to be violated and made impure. She felt utterly and completely defeated.
God.., she squeezed her eyes shut and prayed, please take me away now. If there’s one mercy you show me, in return for the pain that I have borne, kill me now. Please god. Kill me now!
But the assault she had been expecting, never came. She opened her eyes. In the moonlight that filtered through the grubby glass of the window, she saw silent tears run down Hridaan’s cheeks.
His body shook with the force of his sobs.
“This is what he does those nights he comes here, doesn’t he?” He asked thickly.
Alia didn’t say anything. What could she say?
“And here I was, thinking it was you,” he turned to look at Alia. “All these years. I hated you for it!” He shook his head.
“Why do you take it? Why don’t you run away?” He grasped her shoulders. “Why?”
“I…,” Alia searched Hridaan’s face, trying to figure out if this was some new trick to torture her. She found only pain reflected in his eyes.
“I can’t,” she said. “Mr. Elamin has my passport.”
Hridaan’s eyes widened as Alia related her dire situation.
“Besides, your father would find me, and punish me. Or he would sell me to another family where my life would be equally bad, if not worse. If I did manage to escape, he would just file a police report, fabricating some lie, and the police would definitely find me.”
Alia shook her head. “I can’t escape even if I wanted to.”
“But you do want to, don’t you?”
“I… I don’t know. There was a time when I wanted to, desperately. But now… I cannot imagine my life beyond this room, this house.” She indicated her tiny cell. “Sometimes, there is nothing to do but to accept the suffering that life throws at you and try to find meaning in the suffering.”
“There can be no meaning in this!” Hridaan hissed. “This is hell!” The look of indignation on his face was palpable.
“You are my meaning master Hridaan. You, Jina and baby Kishna. Maybe my life did not turn out the way I wanted; but maybe there is something that I can do to make sure your life turns out to be a little bit better. You are my hope now. When I am with all of you, life doesn’t hurt as much.”
In the silence that followed Alia felt her heart unclench and realized that she had meant every word. They sat in the silence for a long time, looking into each other’s eyes.
“I am sorry Alia,” Hridaan murmured. “I had no idea.” He shook his head. “No. I had some idea. But I never bothered to find out; never cared enough.”
All of a sudden, Hridaan broke down completely and sobbed into his hands.
“You are so brave! And I am a fucking coward! I couldn’t even tell my father that I can’t… with you. That I wouldn’t, in any circumstance!” He looked at Alia with swollen eyes.
“I am not the sort of man he wants me to be. I am not even sure if I am a man. And I am so scared. The holy book says that I am evil. But I am not Alia! I swear I am not! I am just different!”
Alia reached over and smoothed Hridaan’s hair out of his eyes and wiped his tears.
“You are not evil,” Alia said. “You are just you. Allah has made me, just as he has made you. We are all his children.”
The intensity of the pain in Hridaan’s eyes, pulled at Alia’s heart. Poor boy.., oh my poor boy.
“Do you want to help me master Hridaan?”
“Yes!” He sat up straight, his soft grey eyes beseeching Alia to give him a chance.
“Tell me Alia. I will do anything!”
“Be a better man than your father. Be yourself.” Alia said.
Hridaan looked at her for so long that Alia thought he had lost himself. Then he nodded.
“I will.” He took her hands in his and squeezed. “I will Alia. I promise.”
Five years later
The drive from the airport to their destination was long, but Alia didn’t mind. She spent the entire ride, glued to the passenger side window, her eyes wide at the wondrous vista that greeted her.
Home. She was Home. Tears flowed freely down her lightly wrinkled cheeks and into her lap. God. If this is a dream, make it so I never wake up.
The cab stopped in front of a posh looking one storey bungalow. The roof was lined with red shingles and the front lawn picketed in an olive green fence. Hridaan opened the passenger side door and held out his hand. Alia stepped out into her new life, holding onto Hridaan’s hand tightly, lest it slip away and she be lost forever.
“Welcome home Alia. We are finally here.”
Later, as they sat in the new kitchen, holding mugs of hot tea, Alia looked at Hridaan and marvelled at his transformation from a scared, confused teenager to this strong, self-assured man. He was a lawyer now; a damn good one at that. Once he had set his mind, he had been unstoppable. She felt a fierce sense of maternal pride well up in her heart.
“Jina and Kishna?” She asked.
“They are safe.” Hridaan said. “Ammi knows the truth now. I will be returning shortly; thinking of bringing them all here.”
Alia’s eyes widened with delight. “Oh! You will? Surely?”
“Of course! They miss you. And Ammi can’t handle them without you. They can’t wait to be here.”
Alia thought her heart would explode with sheer joy at the prospect of being united with those remarkable young ladies.
“But..,” she faltered, “your father?”
“Father doesn’t know where they are. And he dare not try anything in my absence.” Hridaan’s face hardened.
“Doesn’t want to go to jail does he,” Alia said bitterly.
“No. Although I don’t think that’s what he is worried about. You see, he doesn’t want the world to know that his only son is homosexual. I think the shame of it would kill him.” Hridaan laughed disdainfully.
“If that’s his primary concern then he should kill himself! The bastard!” Alia said with unconcealed vehemence.
“I would be proud to have you as my son!”
“You do, and you are,” Hridaan said softly, “I know.”
Alia smiled. She breathed a deep sigh of relief and closed her eyes. The fear and pain that had lodged inside her being for the last ten years, started dissolving. She was home again; and life was good again. And someday, she would dance again.
Glossary of Hindi words used:
Kurta-pajama: A set of garments, comprises of a top tunic called the kurta and bottoms called pajama (or pyjama)
Shayṭān: Evil spirits in Islamic belief, inciting humans to sin by whispering to the heart. They always try to lead humans astray.
Chacha: Paternal Uncle
Human trafficking is an underground activity and the victims are referred to as a “hidden population.”
The trafficking of persons is the fastest growing and most profitable criminal activity after drug and arms trafficking. It is difficult to quantify how large the problem of human trafficking is because trafficked persons are usually kept out of sight and in inaccessible locations. In the Middle East, some of the most prevalent forms of human trafficking are forced labor of migrant workers, sexual enslavement and forced prostitution and camel jockeying of young boys.
A challenge in combating human trafficking in Middle Eastern countries is that the governments deny there is a problem. In her article in “Global Tides,” Stephanie Doe states that sex trafficking is a sensitive topic in the Middle East for various reasons. On one level, it suggests moral corruption, which implies the waning influence of Islamic values in society. On a more significant level, in most Middle Eastern countries, because the governments are responsible for preserving tradition and upholding Islamic authority, it challenges their ability to retain a nation unified by Islam. Consequently, if the government was to acknowledge sex trafficking as a problem, it could be interpreted as alluding to the state’s diminishing power.
* Prompt: Dancer; Trapped; Middle East
Connect with Penmancy:
Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!