Aicha Zoubair

Jessica Bell

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Refuge by NG Osborne (Excerpt)

Her father takes a sip of his tea. She knows he isn’t buying her explanation.

Why should he? I don’t buy it either.

“I had the strangest dream last night,” her father says.

Noor waits patiently. Listening to her father’s dreams is another indulgence she’s never deprived him of.

“It was raining, in a manner you could not imagine, and there we were, you, Bushra and I huddled up inside the hut. Water started seeping under the door, and soon it was so high that we resolved to flee. We waded outside to discover the whole camp engulfed by a flood and everything and everyone being swept away. At that moment all seemed lost, but then, right ahead of us, was a boat with your mother at the helm. It was so tiny she only had room for one of us, and do you know whom she chose to go with her? She chose you.”

“I wouldn’t have left you.”

“But you did, and as I watched the two of you drift away, I do not think I have ever felt happier. It is a sign, my love, I think your time in this camp is coming to an end.”

“You always dream of Mamaan around her birthday.”

“I do not deny that, but this felt different. Truly it did.”

Noor kisses her father on the cheek.

“I love you, Baba.”

“I love you too, my dear.”

Noor pulls her headscarf over her hair and heads for a nearby alley. Noor read once that the Eskimos had twenty words to describe snow, and she wonders why the Afghans haven’t come up with a similar number for mud. Everything in the refugee camp seems to be made of it; the huts, the walls, the alleys, even the latrines. She comes to a wider lane already crowded with men making their way towards Jamrud Road, and crosses over the footbridge that spans the concrete storm channel. Shirtless boys are cooling off in its sewage-filled waters. She enters a ramshackle market.

“Water, miss,” a boy, standing next to a melting block of ice, calls out.

He thrusts a metal cup in her direction.

“Most refreshing, one rupee only.”

Noor puts her head down. She passes the kebab cooks twirling their skewers in the air like swashbuckling swordsmen, and the barbers shaving their early morning customers on the sidewalk, and joins the throng of refugees at the bus stop. She is the only woman. A Pakistani policeman lounges against the side of his rusted pick-up, smoking a cigarette. She catches his gaze and turns away.

“Hey. You,” she hears him say.

She squeezes past a one-legged man and strains up onto her toes. The next bus is a hundred yards away.

“Woman, I’m talking to you.”

A hand tugs on Noor’s sleeve. Noor swings around to find the policeman staring at her like a lascivious uncle.

“You traveling alone?” he says.

“I’m with my husband.”

“Where is he?”

Noor looks around as though he might be in the crowd.

“He was here a minute ago,” she says.

“You can wait with me.”

The bus pulls up, and the crowd begins to surge.

“There he is,” she says pointing behind the policeman.

The policeman turns, and she rips her arm away. She uses her slender frame to squeeze through the throng and onto the bus. She hears the policeman blow his whistle, but it’s to little effect. The bus pulls away, and Noor looks for an open seat. There are none to be had, and all she gets for her efforts are a couple of goons wiggling their tongues at her. She fixes them with a cold stare, and they turn away. She pulls her headscarf tighter and looks out of the window at a sparkling Land Cruiser ferrying a Western aid worker across town.

What I’d give to experience air-conditioning. Just once.

The bus arrives at her stop, and she wriggles her way off. The school is no more than a two hundred yard walk. In the courtyard the janitors are assembling the stage for the day’s performance. She slips into the kitchen and searches for some naan: she finds none. The janitors must have eaten it all. She closes her eyes.

“O Allah,” she says, “You have power, and I have none. You know all, and I know not. On this day I ask that you give me strength and kindly look upon me so that I may finally escape my present circumstances. Ameen.”

Noor opens her eyes. A janitor stands in the doorway ogling her. She gathers her books and pushes past him. She looks up at the heavens.

Surely, Allah has to be listening to me.

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Genre – Literary Fiction / Romance

Rating – PG13

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