LiteratureWomen & Gender


This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

The sun, at its peak over the dusty, barefoot boys playing on the street before lunch, felt like it was pulsating waves over their prepubescent bodies. No amount of heat or sweat was going to stop this group of boys from finishing this match – it was the tiebreaker that determined which group would be paying for their internet cafe binge this weekend. Hakim was the youngest of the group so he was constantly having to prove that he was not just an extension of his older cousin, Kinan, and that he was just as mature as the rest who were only older by two years. He made an excellent goalkeeper, his eyes effortlessly following the ball moved with ritual, back and forth between the team with the occasional swift interception by the other side, which caused a rush of adrenaline each time.

His feet nimbly danced to the rhythm of the match, focusing on the ball, when something caught his attention from the window of his house. In a matter of seconds, he went from watching the ball with every inch of his body to standing up stiff and shielding his eyes from the warm blindness of the sun. He stared hard at the window, and felt rage creep up to his face, overpowering the heat he already felt. He heard his team mates calling his name and snapped back to the ball that was coming his way; he jumped to the right and scooped the ball into his arms as it hit his chest. Easy block, he thought. He turned around, facing away from the game, and kicked the ball as hard as he could into the sky. The boys, confused and weary, started shouting angrily at him as they ran past to get the ball, some of them shoving him out of their way.

Hakim darted as quickly as he could toward his house, hoping the distraction would last long enough. His feet were raw against the scorched pavement and the rocks, but he didn’t care to take the slightly longer, paved route. He ran into the old, brown, four-story building, black tiles surrounding each window, that stood out against the more expensive villas on both sides. He ran up to the last floor and pushed the door open, bringing in with him all the dirt from outside.

“What’s wrong with you”, his mom asked, startled, but he just answered, “Where is Reem?”

He passed his mom who was sitting in the living room meticulously arranging the washed leaves of qat on a towel to dry for after lunch and walked into the large dewan where Reem would have been. He quickly turned around on one heel as he heard the toilet flush next to the dewan. “Come out now!” he shouted as he kicked the door. His mom asked him again, but this time she pushed his shoulder which only made him angrier. He kicked the door again and shouted, “I swear I will break your arm if you do that again.” His father and mother were now both at the entrance of the bathroom.

“Calm down boy. What did she do?” his father asked. Reem opened the door, alarmed.

“What is wrong with you?” she asked, staring him straight in the eyes, even though she was much taller than him given the six year age difference. She pushed him out of her way, and he started kicking and punching and screaming inaudible threats.

His father grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back. “I said what’s wrong”, he shouted, “I’m standing right here and you disrespect me like that?”

Hakim was fighting back tears – but some managed to escape and make their mark rolling down his dusty, tanned cheeks – as he blurted out, “She was half naked sticking out the window while she was cleaning them in the dewan. I saw her from half way down the street. What if the other boys saw”, he said, his tone gradually getting angrier.

His father, with one eyebrow up and a stern face, turned to look at Reem who was dumbfounded. “How were you cleaning the windows”, he asked.

She stuttered and said “Like mom and I normally do”, hoping that including her mom would take the edge off, “we sit on the ledge and stick our arm out and wipe the windows from the outside.”

“Dressed like that?” her dad asked, referring to her dress with the sleeves that fell right above her elbows.

“Yes, but I was wearing mom’s long gloves and I had my hair wrapped up in a scarf”, she replied more defiantly, with more stress on her mom this time.

“Liar”, Hakim shouted.

“Enough”, his father responded, staring his son down. “Go wash up and change your clothes”, he said to Hakim. “And you, be more careful. He didn’t run all this way for nothing”, he said to Reem.

Reem nodded yes and looked at her still heaving brother with contempt, his eyebrows were still knotted together and his fists still at his side. It took everything she had to not break down and cry. This wasn’t their first row, and somehow she always ended up in the wrong alone or in the wrong with him; he was never to blame. Her pride would not let her lose her composure now and she looked at him as cooly and calmly as possible knowing that he wanted a reaction.

His mom pulled him away, urging him to his room as she asked Reem if she would finish drying the qat leaves so she could finish preparing lunch. Reem, still angry, agreed, and walked into the living room, the towel on the floor waiting for her to continue adding leaves and flipping over the already dry ones. Her dad walked in as the sun poured over her outstretched arms. He sat down on the navy blue dewan only a few inches higher than the beige carpet and picked up the tv control. He idly changed channels a few times, then turned to his daughter, “With your arms stretched out like that, your sleeves go up. You should know better, you’re old enough to be married”, he said calmly but sternly.

 Reem, with her back to the TV and already facing her dad, looked up, “It wasn’t like this earlier, it was more covered with the gloves, and the way I was sitting, and we’re on the fourth floor, and he shouldn’t shout and hit me like that! I’m 16!”

 “I don’t care if you’re 30. Be careful when you’re cleaning those windows is all I’m saying. You’re lucky it was Hakim that saw you and not Majd. He would have hit you and I am too old to stop him anymore. Why are you always provoking them? I’ll talk to Hakim but you be more careful.”

 Reem looked down at the qat leaves lined up on the pale blue towel. She stared at the deep red and green of the qat as she flipped them over, feeling the smooth, soft stems with her fingers. She knew better than to respond further, so she continued flipping the qat as her father went back to watching TV. He may or may not have seen her chin quiver and her eyes well up, but nothing more was said.

 Reem was the middle child, with Majd five years older and Hakim six years younger. They were the three siblings who lived, with a total of four miscarriages and one still birth in between the three of them.

Majd, who had married earlier that year, was a tenacious second-year pharmaceutical student at Sana’a University. Ever since he could remember, he wanted to be a pharmacist like his father and work with him – even before they owned a pharmacy. He was married to a beautiful woman, was a university student with a job lined up, and was well liked by almost everyone, because of his charming smile and mild manner. Yet Reem knew Majd before he became this likeable, she knew his angry side. Over the last few years, Majd seemed to have lost his hotheadedness – but she remembered. Reem couldn’t help but feel angry that she was yet again being yelled at by one of her brothers. She recognized that this was another altercation that took place around the same bathroom. There must really be djinn in there, she thought, only half joking to herself.

Reem had just turned 12, and after many months of pleading, her father agreed to throw her a party although they hardly ever celebrated birthdays. The celebration promised to be old fashioned, but she didn’t care. She just wanted finally to dress up like her mom and all the older girls when they went to parties. She had always looked at all the pretty glitter, sparkling jewelry, flowy dresses, and henna and craved having all of that draped over her. Her father bought her a cake from the bakery and her mom made some homemade pizza, finger foods, and Reem’s favorite yellow cake as well. She invited all the neighborhood women and their daughters as well as her relatives and their kids. The night before, Dunya, her cousin, slightly younger than Majd, slept over.

Artwork by Maha al-Omari

“Dunya, will you do my makeup and hair tomorrow”, Reem asked hoping her more experienced relative would say yes.

“Don’t be silly, you’re too young”, Dunya dismissed her, as she ironed her clean black scarf. She was distracted by the makeup stains on her scarf that she hadn’t been able to remove.

“My mom said I could”, Reem fired back.

“Swear”, said Dunya.

“I swear! You can ask her tomorrow. We can use her makeup too”, pleaded Reem. “I want to be beautiful like you”.

“You are very beautiful and you don’t need makeup, but I can put on a little for you,” responded Dunya. “Now go to sleep”.

Reem’s heart beat a little faster, it was just a tiny fib. Her mom said Dunya could do her hair and put on some eyeliner. She had stressed that was it. No jewelry, no lipstick, and no heavy perfume. But Reem knew that once her mom saw how pretty and happy she was, she wouldn’t be so angry, especially in front of everyone. She watched Dunya as she got ready for bed, with her big hazel eyes, pale skin and beautiful brown hair, she looked and moved like a gazelle –  although Reem realized she had never seen a gazelle nor knew what it moved like, but everyone says that about the pretty ones. Dunya didn’t need makeup, Reem thought, what would she know?

The next day, Reem followed Dunya to make sure she didn’t ask her mom too many questions, but in between making breakfast and lunch and all the party preparation, Dunya must have forgotten. At 2.00, her father and Majd had finished eating, taken their qat, and left the house. Her cake was in the refrigerator and her friends would all be there soon. Reem, with her wet hair still dripping and soaking her house dress, went into her mom’s room and grabbed the makeup chest and a bottle of perfume before her mom finished bathing. She ran into her room and asked Dunya to start doing her hair before the guests came. Dunya dried her cousins long, soft, dark black hair and put it up in a half updo with the long loose curls falling down her shoulders.

“This first”, Reem said pointing to her mom’s powder when she realized it was time for her makeup.

“You don’t need that.”

“Pleeeaassee”, Reem tried.

“No. You’re too young. I’ll apply some eyeliner, a bit of blush and a light lip gloss”, said Dunya.

“No color on my eyes? Or shiny stuff in my hair”, asked Reem, frustrated. This was not the look she expected.

“No”, Dunya said with a chuckle. “You’re not a bride. You’re a child. And you’re too pretty for all that anyway. You’re lucky.”

“Then I’ll do my own makeup. I don’t need you”, Reem said pushing her cousin away.

“I don’t care. Less work for me”, said Dunya and she left the room to get her dress from her aunt’s room.

Reem stared at all the different color palettes and, not knowing exactly how to start, started anyway.

Dunya heard someone at the front door. Majd knocked instead of using his keys to just walk in, knowing his cousin was home.

“Give me a minute”, she told him as she went to throw on purple prayer clothes over her revealing dress, wrapping her arms and legs in the long, loose, flowy fabric before opening the door. He, in his traditional Yemeni white garment and light beige shawl draped over his shoulders, looked down as he greeted her “al salam alaykum”. She didn’t say much and just walked quickly toward Reem’s room, just as Reem walked out. Majd stared at his sister for a few seconds before speaking.

“What is all this?” he asked, staring at her face.

Reem stood silent as she contemplated what to say. Her face was too white from the powder, her eyes dwarfed by the green and blue eyeshadow with heavy, lumped mascara she had tried to mimic from her neighbor’s wedding pictures; her small round lips stained with red lipstick in a painfully inaccurate fashion, and small blobs of glitter in her hair that were anything but graceful. Dunya’s initial reaction was to laugh and poke fun at Reem’s embarrassing first run with makeup, but seeing Majd’s face, she realized Reem might be in trouble.

“It’s my fault, I let her play with the makeup but we’ll wash it off now, right Reem?” Dunya asked, holding part of her prayer scarf over her face to hide her own makeup from her cousin. Majd didn’t look at Dunya, he was staring at Reem.

“No I won’t wash it off. I like this”, Reem’s pride responded before she realized she should have said what he wanted to hear.

“You’re joking, right? You look like a street girl. Go wash it off now in front of me and don’t you ever dare play with your face like that again”, Majd responded, trying not to let his anger get the best of him.

“She will, she’s just a child. Of course she won’t receive anyone like this”, Dunya tried reasoning with both of them, her childhood best friend and her younger cousin.

“Now!” he shouted at Reem.

The tears in her eyes started to well up, then large drops rolling down her cheeks.

“NOW!” he shouted again, and this time Reem’s fragile body was startled.

“It’s not your business. This is women’s business. Why do you care? You don’t even use makeup and it’s my birthday”, Reem shouted back unconvincingly, knowing she would have to do what he said anyway. If she had seen the damage her tears had already done, she would probably not have put up a fight.

Majd stretched out his arm and grabbed Reem by her hair. “I’ll teach you”, he said, “you think because we let you have a western birthday party, you can dress like the westerners too?” Reem screamed as he pulled her into the steamy bathroom that his mother had already left. Their mother came out of her room to a screaming daughter and a shouting son and a niece who looked pale from fright.

“What is going on! Why is she screaming?” she asked, as she pulled a frightened six-year-old Hakim closer.

Majd held his sister’s hair tighter, careful not to hurt her too much, and splashed water on her face, then grabbed the bar of soap and rubbed it on her face. Reem was screaming and crying and trying to squirm away but he was too strong. With just one hand, he was able to hold her and turn her head whichever way he pleased. The water splashed all over both of them as he splashed her face again. He hadn’t intended to wash her face, but just to teach her a lesson. With the shawl over his shoulder, ignoring his mom who was hitting his back and attempting to pull them out of the bathroom, he aggressively wiped her face, getting stains all over his clothes.

At that point Reem was petrified and in pain. The soap and the mascara had blinded her, her body was controlled by every jerk of his arm and her legs were wobbling of their own accord. Still holding her hair, he pulled Reem out of the bathroom and swung her room door open. He threw her on her bed face down and saw the box with all the colors in it. Reem was scrambling to be able to pull herself up as her mom ran in to help her, and Majd picked up the box and opened the window to throw it out. He wasn’t thinking that he might hit his father’s car, and although he didn’t, the flying objects prompted his father to get out of the car. The open window and screaming hastened him up the stairs to his house.

Artwork by Maha al-Omari

“Don’t ever bring that crap here”, he shouted at Dunya, assuming it was hers.

“It’s not mine”,  she said quietly, but he didn’t care and walked out of the room only to see his father run in from the hallway.

“What the hell is happening in here?” their father shouted.

“Your daughter thinks she can dress and talk like a street girl”, Majd said, keeping his voice loud enough to show how serious he was, but not loud enough to anger their father. His father looked around the room for a second to absorb what was happening. Reem was in her mom’s arms crying, Dunya still as the mahogany cupboard she was standing next to, a mess on the floor, and Majd in the middle – angry but less and less confident.

“Don’t you ever lay a hand on her again, do you hear? DO YOU HEAR?” he shouted. “I’m still the man of this house and you come to me when you think she’s done something wrong and I’ll show her. Who do you think you are?” his father scolded. Majd looked down to the ground again and nodded angrily before he walked out.

“Stop crying”, he shouted at Reem. “Next time your brother asks you to do something, you do it. Do you understand me? I don’t care what. Just do what you’re told and respect the age difference between you. If I die, he is your guardian until you’re married, then some other man is your guardian”. He left the room and told Majd to get in the car.

Reem had never felt so helpless. She was flung around like a rag and washed like an animal. Her mom, consoling her, kept telling her that she knew her mouth would get her into trouble one day but Reem never listened apparently. An hour later, the guests came, Reem was quiet and somber, while Dunya tried to cheer everyone up and her mom was being the best host she could be.

Reem never asked for a birthday party after that, and a part of her never forgave her brother. Even though they were now friends. Even when he tried making it up to her in small ways like giving her lifts to places she wanted to go or giving her some allowance from time to time. Even when she was dancing and singing at his and Dunya’s wedding.

The family gathered around the sufra in the living room. The blue plastic sufra was set out on the floor, dotted with bowls and plates of various sizes containing the main dish, aseed, a hot doughy mound with a heavy chicken broth in the center, the two tin plates of shafoot – a light bread drenched in a mild green yoghurt and herb mixture garnished with deep red pomegranates – the plates of steamy, fragranced yellow rice and meat, a light tossed salad, and chunkey red chutney and light whipped fenugreek in smaller bowls. As lunch was the largest meal of the day, the family usually ate altogether. Reem sat down – with one knee tucked beneath her and the other supporting her arm – between Dunya and her father. Hakim was still pouting and secretly hoping someone would bring up today’s incident.

 Majd, not knowing what had happened, said “so you lost the game, huh?”

Reem felt an empty, sinking feeling in her stomach.

“Yeah, but not because we sucked. Because Reem really thinks she’s a man.” Hakim let the words fall right out of his mouth.

“Hakim. I said enough”, his father said. “When she does something wrong, come talk to her like a man or tell me. What good did shouting and crying like a woman do.”

“They make fun of me already! The guys on our street already see her face. She should be veiled. And she told some of their sisters that she wanted to be an engineer.”

“Nonsense, so what if they see her face? She’s still in school. Maybe later on she’ll wear it”, his father replied. “And we already agreed she would be a pharmacist and work with us in our pharmacy.”

“Or she should study English literature like Dunya”, Majd added. Reem had always known that Dunya wanted to be a doctor, but Majd convinced her otherwise. “She’s pregnant now and she’ll stay home after she gives birth. At least she’ll be fluent in English, better than me even, and she can teach our kids another language.”

Reem knew her father would be upset if they had to discuss her wanting to be an engineer again. Women shouldn’t be engineers he said. They should be educated in fields that females are permitted in, like education or medicine. Like everyone else had always told her.

“Don’t get involved in my business”, she told Hakim, but also indirectly to Majd, as she added more chutney to her father’s side of the aseed. She was furious that they were talking about her as if she wasn’t right there.

“Whoever marries you is unlucky”, Hakim said.

“Be quiet, both of you”, her mother finally interjected. “Reem did you finish drying Majd’s qat?”

She nodded yes, but was strangely annoyed by the realization that she would soon be drying Hakim’s qat as well.

Photo Courtesy of the Author




Maali Jamil is an educator by trade and a writer by passion.

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