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“Before Dawn”

It was 5:00 a.m. in the neighborhood. Aman was refreshed. Tent shaped within the larger dome of night. Except for a slit showing her eyes, she was blackened in veils. Aman’s hair was still wet. Doing as her superintendent dictated: a shower for the little discard. She got past the aluminum gate of their building. The drop zone was the masjid three blocks away. A vrooming sedan disturbed her peace. With her arms hefting the infant, a thought popped up: Why not keep the child?

It had been five years since Aman’s last child. Vulnerability had given way to empowerment. She couldn’t see herself jettisoning a white child, but neither did she feel other mothers’ endless devotion to diaper changing, breastfeeding, and sleep-deprivation. These women were natural products of a balanced social system, completely fulfilled by their partnership. An empty water bottle hit Aman’s back; her jaws quit chewing her favorite EXTRA gum. She turned to face Hanifa’s distant rage, peering through a third story’s window. Hanifa, pointing to her counterfeit golden watch, beckoned Aman to hurry. Aman nodded and turned a corner. One block far from Hanifa’s sight and two to the masjid. She drifted eastward toward the second block, avoiding the monitoring minaret and teetered.

The masjid was directly across the street from the bakery, which produced only Tameez, an enormous circular bread with a distinctive dotted surface made by Afghanis in the early dawn. In front of the masjid, however, was a spacious, uneven, arid bit of land, so sterile that it was the mustering point of the districts’ cars. Aman staggered towards the lumpy land—a patch in the center of a cluster of buildings, desert-like, except for a dozen vehicles. She stumbled on a brick. The child clutched her tighter. She felt it as a pinch, but unlike Hanifa’s disciplinary one. She had her first pinch at the age of eleven when she shaved her eyebrows in rebellion to their ugliness, defending her position with “I want thin ones like yours.”

Now she flinched, not in pain, but from an indecipherable fear.

Intersecting the bakery boulevard, the path now seemed wider, so wide that it provided space for her mind to think of the exact time the Afghani would start his baking. Hanifa didn’t promise a festive breakfast upon completing the abandonment mission. Giving too many promises would make a meal bland, Aman thought. She was partly starved. Her breasts felt ready to burst, and in her throat the sob of their recent quarrel stuck, the one in which Hanifa said the breastfeeding was debilitating her and she should drop the child at once. This time, she was hurt. She’d countered by accusing Hanifa that she was stonehearted, and Hanifa in turn had said, with a ferocious gaze that has long kept Aman on track every time her virtuous whims erupted, “You will regret it and not be welcomed in the house again.”

Which was harsh. Entirely cruel. Because Hanifa was the only person she trusted, and without her she was doomed, penniless, houseless, and unloved. Such was the usurious pay of dependence.

Aman’s breasts dripped. The baby would cry soon, she knew. A skeletal calico raced past her, dashing into a curved alley. Aman toddled after it.

The alleyway was a stout tongue squeezed between musty buildings, seven to nine stories high. Rectangular air conditioners were the only protruding objects. In the dim silence, she could barely read the unlit signs of the sparse shops. A single functioning light bulb dangled from a store’s defunct neon. She felt watched.

Aman headed to the end of the alley. No sign of the cat. She moved away enough from the bulb to avoid bringing her any curious notice. Finding a less grimy ground, she sat cross-legged. She was at the shop’s threshold, maternity insisted. Above her, a mistranslated sign displayed words arranged in a confusing order. The pleated stripes of the storefront made her conscious once again of her untended backache. She drew her double-layered face veil to canopy the child. The fragrant wave of her damp hair made her lean in joy. She recalled how the shower enlivened her, how the water fell like salvation on her filthy locks, spiriting away dandruff. The way she shampooed her hair nearly to the extent of scraping her scalp. The way she roughly massaged her head in big circular movements, forming a foamy, unified mess that breathed cleanliness. She needed it so badly that she repeated the shampooing three times before a final conditioning treat. The clunk of cockroaches reverberated through the alleyway, adding more anxiety. She darted her eyes, looking for the cat.

Where the alley ended there was a large brown plastic vessel. The cat loped to the rim of the fetid garbage and looked Aman in the eye, spine straight, stern and vigilant. In response, Aman lowered her gaze and fastened her grip on the child, becoming mother shaped. The cat started scavenging—a sea of cardboard boxes half-obscuring it from view. It bobbed and dived; rising empty-handed except for an orange peel on its shoulder, and then plunged again.

Twenty minutes later, a man in his mid-thirties appeared, a bulging garbage bag throwing him off balance. He could have descended one of the buildings’ staircases while Aman was busy buttoning her blouse from under the veil. The child was still on her lap, hidden. Aman watched the man, cone-shaped beard hanging from his chin. There was something heavenly about him. His thobe was five inches short, crisp white—whiteness was what Aman missed this night. Not only this night, but throughout her pregnancy and in her childhood. The only dressed-in-whites were escaped magnates laden with disquiet, drugs, and consumption. The dress of the men in her life was mainly national except for the latest tea-colored Kamiz Shalwar. She lacked the essential, pure whiteness of a reflective kindness that seemed hard to spot in this white-wearing country of men.

“Bismillah,” exclaimed the man at seeing who seemed like a beggar at such an early hour. Her splayed-out posture on the asphalt gave an indication of neediness. Aman was silent. Such an hour was known for the pious to walk to the masjid in pursuit of praying or reading Quran. She wasn’t any of them. A breeze of insecurity contained her. The man bowed with a 500 riyals note. “Go ahead, may Allah sustain you.”

The note was doubled, hiding the King’s photo. In doubt of its authenticity, Aman unfolded the note, scrutinizing the silver belt whose palm and swords symbols shone with her swaying. There also was a picture of the Kaaba with two minarets hovering behind the black edifice. The sight of minarets resurrected her quest. She slid the note inside her blouse and clasped her dependent.

Back on the main road, the flow of worshippers increased. Their purposeful steps gave rise to Aman’s fear. Overseers, they seemed to her. She cursed her ungloved hands. If covered, her brown complexion wouldn’t be a target to social gaze and virtue gauge. In a blink, she slid her hands inside the wrist slits, adjusting the baby’s blanket to cover an exposed ear before leaving the alley.

Aman wouldn’t have believed this fair child was hers had not Hanifa herself helped to bring her into the world. She came suddenly, that they could not make it to the hospital. She remembered how Hanifa recklessly placed the newborn on her chest and was busy pressing her bloated belly. “White . . . is he truly white?” Aman asked, squinting at the child’s fairness. Her fatigue was augmented by Hanifa’s silencing, “How, by Allah, can you have a white kid?”

She was so occupied with the cleaning that she did not look at the child. “Wash him first,” Aman pleaded.

“Her” Hanifa grunted, lingering on the newborn’s private parts. Aman patted the child. Her hands were covered in grease and maternity gushed. She pulled the child closer, sliding her bra aside for the first maternal contact. The sight of Aman cradling the child made Hanifa snatch the infant. “Don’t corrupt her,” she glared.

For the first time, Aman sounded less dependent and more of a mother. “What do you think you are doing?” A pause. “She is my child.”

My child was not part of the domestic vocabulary. She was too weak to snatch the baby back but willing to scratch Hanifa with her long, well-manicured nails. She wept. Before Hanifa filed out of the room, Aman shouted, “Don’t cast her. Please.”

Hanifa was turning her back. “I won’t,” she growled and resumed her walk.

* * *

She was twenty-seven. Ten years in the business. Bore four children at intervals. Big Nose, Dark Coffee Bean, Frowned Monkey and Pumpkin, as Hanifa named them. She and Hanifa would be taxied to the hospital as contractions were twisting her, flown to the emergency, and cast the newborn. Casting, not delivering or receiving, was the right word. Hanifa would attend the delivery, make sure of the wound suturing and accompany Aman to the room. Meanwhile, the child was looked at, bathed, and tucked in with tens of others in the nursery they would flee.

* * *

Back on the road, she seemed the sole pedestrian walking against the flow. Heading back to her neighborhood’s masjid, her steps got heavier and the throb of her heart accelerated. Determined, masculine steps walked in reverse. A clammy drip of phlegmatic spit blotted the asphalt. She felt sick. The last time she spit was on the newspaper last week. The front-page picture featured news of males from her nationality accused of riots and killing in the capital: a spit of doubt, disbelief, and journalism-loathing. She paced forward. The vivid green lights of the minaret came into view.

On the lower tip of the child’s mouth, a white trace of milk spread all the way toward the chin, forming a thick tear-shaped clot. Her mobile whirred. Then a message scolded, “Where are you?” It rang again and seemed that it wouldn’t quit until Hanifa went back to her sleep. Aman envisioned her plump body resting on one side, her caftan pulled upward showing hairless fat legs and snores resounding. The incessant ringing quit. Aman lingered on, pressing the “off” button. Her feet were bolted to nowhere, her heart to no one, and the voice of Adhan anchored the start of a new day.

Guided by the luminous minaret, she straightened her back and firmly bound the infant to her sternum. Secured by the baby’s pinch and her determined steps, everything was lulled as it is before a sudden cry. Her satchel flapped back and forth in rhythm with her steps. An indigo line cut through the horizon. The Imam’s mellifluous voice amplified verses of the Quran. She strode toward the barren land. Sparrows churned the new day note. She reached the masjid: its white edifice rose, indifferent to the crude graffiti on its wall. Her gaze scanned the place. She spotted the corner arrowing the women’s section. The door was locked. Latecomer worshippers stumbled through the men’s entrance, their steps racing the prayer. The infant dropped her hand. She licked her forefinger and wiped the milk mark. The child, in her deep sleep, smiled.

Her guardian Hanifa’s advice was to leave the kid at God’s doorstep and she would be well-taken care of. An orphanage, a name, nationality, education, and monthly salary. Didn’t credulous people of this country worship everything at Allah’s door? And what if she was pretty as well? Adopting a white child is like choosing a marshmallow from a bed of almonds—Hanifa’s analogy—as the orphanage clutters with chocolate skinned kids, the product of locals and Chads.

Dozens of shoes were heaped at the doormat leading to the prayer room. To its left, an immaculate wooden shoe rack had been left unloaded. The time seemed just right. A late worshipper joined. His haste to catch up with the congregation kept him from noticing the peering woman. He agilely released himself from his sandals, flipped them onto the stack of shoes, and pushed the door. It clapped back to its place quickly enough to block any vision of the inside ritual.

Aman ran toward the shoe heap, bending to clear them away. A whiff of used leather mixed with sweat and dust stuffed her nostrils. She cupped away dozens of pairs. Large shoes seemed the size of peas, her heart felt grand as a dome.

When she knelt down to position the child, she opened her grey eyes.

Kissed no one but this. Diapered no one but her. Pinched by no child but her. Aman found the courage to prod for wisdom, to search for her own intentions. Was that how much beauty overtook one’s lifestyle, rectifying the wrongs and questioning the obsolete? Could she really become a mother?

No, she thought. Yes, perfecting her passions.

Aman lingered, facing the misplaced shoes long enough to be warned by the prayer pre-final ritual, the silence. The child wriggled in discomfort. Positioning her straight against her chest, a high-pitched burp sounded. She put her back on the creviced ground. Looking up the minaret, she saw grim, young faces appear.

“Bless you,” Big Nose shrieked.

“Why not us?” Dark Coffee Bean blamed.

“A girl deserves,” patted Frowned Monkey on the silent Pumpkin’s shoulder. The youngest grinned and the four of them vanished. A shaggy wisp descended to alight on a tattered sandal.

In the masjid patio, callous heels shuffled their way back to sandals. A hefty foot stomped the wisp. It seemed the kind of an ordinary day when nothing shocking could take place, nothing shameful could manacle a pursuer, the sky an inky sheet. Slumbered sun. Bashful breeze. Bakeries unlocked their steel doors. The aroma of Tameez rubbed locals’ and foreigners’ shoulders. A zephyr fondled fretful minds, in-debt pockets, and lonely souls. The kind of day when a woman of Aman’s sin might slacken off taking an illegitimate child, or feel intimidated enough to start over a chaste life imbued with travail. Among the waiters for the large circular Tameez, Aman called out “Biscuit-like crust, stuffed with cheese.” Men recessed. The sight of a fully veiled woman at such early hour stirred respect.

A woman with a child in hand.


Fatima Jamal is a Saudi writer. She gained her Bachelor degree in English literature from Taibah University in Madinah and upon her graduation, joined Taibah University as an English lecturer. Fatima is the graduate of MA in Creative Writing from Sydney University.She currently lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia with her husband and two children.

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