Encased

By Ali Eteraz

At her seventeenth birthday party at the Bandu Khan restaurant on Airport Road in Mobile, Alabama, Saba Muhammad went up to some of the ladies in attendance and casually said, “I have more than one mother.”

This statement, before it got twisted by the ladies in the community and before it caused her mother Misra and her aunt Mehvish to suffer a nervous breakdown, had been made with the best of intentions. Saba had simply wanted to tell the world that her younger aunt Mehvish, who was unmarried, nearly blind, and who had played a large role in raising Saba, deserved recognition for her assistance in raising her. Secretly, Saba hoped that on the strength of the compliment maybe one of the aunties would find Mehvish, who was now approaching forty, a suitable and traditional Pakistani husband.

However, the community did not interpret Saba’s statement in a generous manner. The predominant reading given by the aunties was that Dr. Murtaza Muhammad, Saba’s father, who nearly twenty years ago had gone to Pakistan and brought Mehvish over to come stay with his family, had actually impregnated her on the trip and then the whole family—husband, wife and blind aunt-mistress—had conspired to cover up the affair.

The aunties believed this to be the most likely scenario for two reasons. One, because they thought that it was against the nature of the Punjabi man to feel empathy for anyone in his wife’s family and therefore any act of concern had to have been driven by “ulterior motivation”; and two, because many of the women in the community had themselves engaged in affairs with Dr. Muhammad and so could only presume that when he was alone with his wife’s far younger sister he must have slept with her as well.

At the time of the Bandu Khan comment Saba had not been aware of the turbulence it would cause. She had just graduated from Baker High School and was on her way to Oglethorpe University in Atlanta where she planned on studying medicine. For her, the throwaway statement was merely a final chance to publicize the unnamed and unrecognized sacrifices that were made inside her house. Instead, the whole thing became an unwanted lesson in learning the degenerate nature of her community, as well as a shocking insight into her father’s character.

The latter discovery, far more than her mother and aunt’s deteriorated health, was what shook Saba the most. Her whole life she had looked at her father, Dr. Murtaza Muhammad, near legendary pediatric cardiologist and head of the local Friends of Pakistan chapter, as if he was something vintage, from among a special collection of self-made men that Allah no longer put in America, these kind of contemporary Crusaders, who had risen from the alluvial lands far in the distance, answering the call of the God of Capitalism, and ridden out to the American frontier and made it their home, their domain. The suddenness of her changed perception, a change which had to take place inside of her without a singular opportunity to verbalize or accuse or chastise, caused her a great deal of anguish. She could no longer see him as the saint of success, but something far more powerful and sinister, like an Emperor, whose purview is always built upon some kind of violence. Within three weeks of being in Atlanta she stopped attending classes, and spent most weeknights going out to Trip-Hop clubs and popping E, while using the weekends to go off with various “friends with bene’s” to Miami, Montreal and Paris.

The partying came to an end in the spring semester of Saba’s freshman year when her periods suddenly stopped and she found out about her ectopic pregnancy. In a state of desperation and panic, it was Dr. Muhammad to whom Saba turned for the painful and complicated abortion. Because he was a pro at discretion he kept his daughter’s secret from both Misra and Mehvish, as well as the medical charts. He set her up at a clinic in Pensacola, paid for a private nurse and made nightly trips on I-10 to check up on her. Then when she wailed and moaned from the medication he held her hand and asked her what he could do to make her feel better.

“Tell me about the women, daddy,” was what the daughter whispered. “Just tell me all about them.”

Confession was not something Dr. Muhammad had ever contemplated; but pity got the better of him. Partly to help Saba pull through the pain and partly because of the desperation in his daughter’s voice Dr. Muhammad started his story at age fifteen, with Sadia the maid at the bungalow in Lahore, and confessed his way to Mrs. Siddiq from Houston whom he was currently seeing at hotels at various medical conferences. He told Saba everything. Why he went for the married ones (“they are more ashamed to reveal”). Why he operated inside the community instead of the white women (“because I need the smell of Islam”). Why he didn’t think he would ever be able to stop (“I am a lover at heart”). In between hallucinations featuring dub-step DJ’s and conversations with Islamic angels Saba listened to her father, accepting it all, passing judgment upon nothing. Most of the time she pretended to be asleep to keep him talking.

It was all a set up on her part. Her patience was designed to lead up to one singular moment many days later. It came when her father drove her up the winding single-lane road that led to their house, the warm sunlight piercing through the shortleaf pine branches only to die futilely upon the tinted Benz, the late September sky a hazy purple. “What about Mehvish khala,” she asked in a near inaudible whisper. “Did something happen there?”

Dr. Muhammad brought his left hand to his mouth and coughed, then straightened his arm to lower the window and let in the warm breeze until the air conditioned car became humid.

***

Saba only spent three days at the house—a mere three days in the house in which she was raised, the beloved two story house located in a sub-division called Enchantment Lakes; its front lawn bejeweled with her mother’s jasmines, her aunt’s gardenias and Saba’s own pink roses; the house that under the influence of Lollywood films during her childhood she had referred to simply as “jahan” or universe.

Every time Saba came down for a meal, finding her mother and aunt in their faded floral shalwar kameezes and gauzy dupattas fidgeting over pots of steaming basmati, hips bumping into each other’s as they drank chai on the veranda, their fingers inadvertently touching over trays of chilled fruit in the living room, their paths intersecting across the sunroom, the clinking of their bangles in constant competition, she felt a hot flush develop at the pit of her stomach, pass through her body and then creep up the back of her neck and into her head. She couldn’t speak to either of them any more and the method she used each time she was spoken to was to switch from Urdu to rapid fire English and the conversation quickly died down.

Her first attempt to quiet her thoughts was by way of the Quran. She retreated to her room, wrapped herself in a black chador with white crochet flowers and then on folded feet sat upon the prayer rug with a copy of the book. Reading the Arabic in a muted singsong murmur did nothing for her. The inability to melt away the cobwebs by way of hypnotic recitation made her begin reading the translation of the verses—which was an even worse idea because she started seeing things she didn’t like: punishments that seemed anachronistic, wars against infidels that had no meaning in today’s world, and mentions of polygamy. The last reference, in particular, made her shut the covers with a harsh snap. She wondered if her father had ever conceived of having more than one wife. She wondered if the world would have reacted less harshly towards him if he had hidden his weakness for women by way of religion. She wondered if it was even allowed in Islam for a man to be married to sisters simultaneously. At the end she concluded that none of it mattered. The issue before her wasn’t one of religion, or morality, or even the dictates of society.

The issue was about love—and that was something that God and all the Prophets had left to poets to speak about. Within moments she was rummaging through the old ghazals in her father’s study that she had picked up on her last trip to Lahore. The CD she withdrew from the stack was Iqbal Bano, the one in which the old crooneress sang the poetry of Pakistan’s greatest poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Gripping the CD case to her chest as if she was a child clenching a schoolbook, Saba ran upstairs and let the stereo play. Within moments she was lying on her stomach, awash in tears, through blurry eyes writing verses in Urdu onto tiny little pieces of paper and throwing them around her body to make a protective encasing. Eventually she settled on one particular line as her motto: “We, for whom there is no idol, no god, beside the way of love.” She folded the yellow sticky note seven times until it became an oblong square. Then she stuck it inside the leather casing of a taweez and wore it around her neck.

Back in Pakistan most people put Quranic verses in a taweez—but the blatant blasphemy of her act somehow improved her mood.

That night, as her mother and aunt slept in their respective rooms, Saba packed her bags and walked to the Greyhound stop on Government Boulevard. It was a four mile walk and she was breathless and sweaty by the time she reached.

“I am never coming back home,” she texted her father after she had bought her ticket.

The reply—“Ok”—came but a few second later, but Saba didn’t see it. Since the phone was in his name she had tossed it in a ditch.

***

Saba could’ve gone back to Oglethorpe and borrowed her way through, but she figured getting in debt without a safety net was probably not a good idea, so instead of going up to Atlanta she took a bus ride to Birmingham and enrolled at the University of Alabama, where she could get in-state tuition. The Dean was so impressed by her grades in high school, and by the prospect of gaining a gifted minority student, that he let her in after an interview and then awarded her a scholarship that was enough to cover tuition and board.

When it came time to pick her major Saba chose chemical engineering because it seemed a good way to secure her financial future. The other reason she liked it was because as a child she had wanted to be an alchemist and this seemed like the closest thing to that the world had to offer. Chemical engineers could turn one thing into another.

During college Saba applied that same principle to her persona, engaging in a series of alterations to herself.

The first substantive change was to declare herself a Shia. It was the idea of Hussainyat—to be sacrificed at the hands of heartless monstrosity—drew her in. She liked that the principles of martyrdom and mourning were so intrinsic to the faith. She wasn’t pious or conservative about it, nor did she attend the mosque; but she became well-educated on the theology. She particularly liked how so many Pakistani poets invoked Shia imagery. It seemed to her a good religion for a victim.

The second thing she did was to change her last name. She went to the probate court and changed from Saba Muhammad to Saba Fatima. She liked the name Fatima because it was central to the Shia faith and because the original Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, was a woman that despite having an immense father, had managed to leave her own legacy in the world through the men she loved in life, particularly Ali, Hasan, and Hussain. As Saba settled into the name she often imagined that like her namesake she too would overcome the shadow of her father.

What Saba Fatima quickly realized—being the only girl and only American amidst a bunch of Chinese and Indian guys in the engineering department—was that her studies would take over her life. She designed and invented processes, constructed instruments and facilities, planned and operated networks. She worked in atomic science, with paper, dyes, drugs, plastics, fertilizers, foods, and petrochemicals. She worked with raw material, with environmentally friendly polymers, and most excitingly, she brewed beer. What she was surprised to learn was that it was a socially portable degree: there was always a frat guy or young desi bloke trying to talk her into cutting him and his crew some form of mind-altering substance from household chemicals—and sometimes if she was in the mood she would go along with the request.

While she had many male acquaintances Saba did not make an effort to keep a boyfriend. There were a couple of times when she let a couple of guys grope her in the parking lot but getting molested made her feel so disgusted that she became concerned that if she continued with such behavior she might end up turning celibate for life. Another issue was that nearly all of the engineers were non-Americans and though many were quite intelligent, even geniuses, they socialized with her in an inanely submissive manner, as one might with a Dungeon Master in an online role-playing game.

The basic problem, though, was that many times the mere thought of sex sent Saba spinning back into reflections about the triangle that she had grown up with without ever knowing about it. Many nights Saba would lay in bed and try to figure out how her mother and aunt must have sat together and worked out the minute details of sharing a man. Many nights Saba would lay in bed and try to understand whether it was pity on the part of her mother or power on the part of her father or perhaps even manipulation on the part of her aunt that had ever allowed for such an arrangement to occur. There were so many questions that she had, so many times when she wanted to go back home and just demand that all the cabinets of memory be strewn open to her so she could…know. Yet each time she was assailed by the temptation she fought it off. She turned it into something else—mostly self-portraits.

The act of taking her own picture was an elaborate ritual that took place every few weeks. First she came up with the look she wanted to adopt, usually while she was in the shower, or in the middle of a workout. The evening of the act she decorated her hair—sometimes leaving the curly black tresses messy and at other times chopping off some length. Then came the part she liked the most, wardrobe, makeup and jewelry. The clothes she wore ranged from what the Pakistanis she once knew would have considered “extreme obscene”—skirts, halter-tops and booty-shorts—to extremely traditional shalwar kameezes, chadors and saris that were obtained from a budding Indian fashion designer named Sita. She then put on, depending on her mood, rose colored lipsticks, fiery green eyeshadow, and skin darkening foundations. Finally there was the jewelry. Big desi chokers with brass teardrops, golden kundan necklaces with red and green gems, and big chandelier earrings. In addition she sometimes wore studs and challas in her nose, toe rings, heavy anklets, thick bangles and even the bridal teekas on the forehead. She once saved up enough money to buy a jewelry collection called “Devdas” which were the identical pieces wore in the remake of the classic film. Eventually, all of these self-portraits, which were taken with a timed Nikon, lay strewn about her room or ended up on a secretive website where she could browse through them when she was taking a break from work.

The portrait taken during junior year finals, right after she cut her hair short, was her favorite. In it she wore a brown halter-top with a gold plated choker, a matching clasp on her arm and dream catcher earrings; her head was turned slightly to the right with one hand delicately rustling her hair; her brown lips were in a slight part and a look of supercilious venom swam in her eyes. Every time she looked at the picture she noted with delight how she could carry the contradiction of showing so much bare skin all while bearing so much traditional jewelry. It gave her confidence. It affirmed to her that while she could appreciate the good things of her family’s past, she was not, like her mother and aunt, and even her father, beholden to it entirely.

Saba wanted to be certain that not every one of the portraits be done in outright retaliation to her family. So there were many where she was in grungy clothing, torn up shorts, wearing big glasses; some where she was standing and looking at herself in a dirty bathroom mirror; some in which she had a zit or was caught in the act of blinking. These portraits, though, she stopped doing, because the spontaneity and simplicity of them had started reminding her of the house in Mobile, of her mother embracing her from the back in the middle of the kitchen, of her aunt humming a ghazal by Nayyara Noor, of her father smelling of cigar and pickled mangoes.

She missed all of them.

***

It was Budweiser that helped him find her.

After Saba graduated she decided that she liked the idea of making beer so much that she became senior chemical analyst with Annheiser Busch in St. Louis. Her new employer was so excited by the prospect of getting a pretty “ethnic” girl on the team—their first woman—that they plastered her picture and biography all over their website. Apparently the tech guy at Budweiser had used Saba’s name as it appeared on her Oglethorpe transcript instead of how it appeared on her current resume. Dr. Muhammad, who did not drink beer, ended up seeing the bio because four years earlier he had set up an automated Google search for the name “Saba Muhammad” and it sent daily deliveries to his email inbox that he checked before sleeping.

On her first day of work, Dr. Muhammad, wearing a charcoal three-piece suit, showed up at her office. She saw him before he made his way into the common area and retreated behind a wall to look at him. He appeared gaunt even as his paunch was more prominent. He had grown a beard and it was mostly gray with speckles of black. There was a weariness in his eyes that was less physical exhaustion and more panic. In that moment she tried to ask herself what it was about him, from a purely physical perspective, that women found alluring. The answer Saba settled upon was—nothing. Dr. Muhammad was below average.

Initially, this answer gave her a great deal of comfort, because it assured to her that in terms of taste she was different than her mother and aunt and all the other mistresses. But then she wondered that if it wasn’t his looks then it had to be something else—and that deviant turn in her thoughts caused her to close her eyes and force out a big long breath.

“Daddy!” Saba came out suddenly from behind the counter and without looking at his face pressed herself against his arm. “You found me!”

Then as he put his thin arms around her she closed her eyes and let herself cry. Secretly, ever since she had left, she had held out hope that he would seek her out. The act of looking for her would prove that he loved her more than he loved his weakness.

***

Saba took her father back to spacious apartment overlooking the Mississippi and heated for him a plate of kadu gosht. As she moved around the kitchen he, refusing to sit on the dinner table, sat with legs dangling on the stool at the bar, his heels occasionally hitting against the bar. He kept commenting how he could see the Gateway Arch, to which she simply nodded and smiled. She put the steaming squash and meat in front of him and apologized for not having any bread.

“How can you eat this without bread?” he said with unexpectedly severe dejection. “You get my stomach all excited then tell me you are giving me soup? That’s all our food is without bread. Soup! We don’t eat soup at home.”

She was sitting with a spoon in her hand, hoping to eat from the same plate as him, to share oil and vegetable and meat with him, but his comment caused all the softness in her spirit to dissipate. In an insurrection of rage she began hitting the counter top with the utensil. She hit the Venetian gold granite over and over and over, increasing in tempo and rage, until he was forced to reach forward and grab her wrist.

“What is the matter with you?” he said angrily, trying to restrain her.

“Let me go,” she shouted, struggling against him. “Let me go. You don’t deserve bread. You don’t deserve anything.”

Her flurry only caused him to try and control her further. He stood up behind her and tried to give her a pacifying embrace. But in the struggle her elbow jutted into his stomach and caused a wheeze of breath to escape out of his larynx—and then he stumbled.

She turned to him, suddenly, trying to reach out a steadying hand.

Much to her surprise, he actually reached for her, but instead of her hand or her arm he caught a hold of the taweez dangling from her neck. His fist closed around the black leather casing and as he fell to the floor the chain snapped and the square taweez ended up in his hand.

“I didn’t realize I raised a daughter who believed in this Sufi irrationality,” he said, now on the floor, splitting the taweez with the nails of his thumb, reading the verse she had scribbled long ago.

“Just let me have it back,” she demanded. “And please get up.”

“I am fine here,” he said. “I belong on the floor.”

She hovered over him, uncertain whether out of deference to sit down next to him; to simply walk away and out of spite let him wallow; or to sit down on one stool still standing and thereby be above him.

As Saba wondered about what to do, her father began humming the ghazal to himself.

***

When she was seven years old Saba and Mehvish khala had gone to the public library on Government Boulevard and rented a copy of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Saba had become smitten with the massive black obelisk. It was so quiet yet so amazing, capable of starting mysterious chain reactions, cause pacifist monkeys to engage in war, create electrical storms across the solar system. What she couldn’t understand, however, was what to call the object.

“What is its naaame?” she had repeatedly asked Mehvish khala, who, on account of her weak English could only shrug her shoulders.

“You should give it a name,” she had eventually said to her niece in Urdu.

“I can’t think of a good one!” Saba had complained.

Mehvish had bitten her lower lip for a while, looking at the screen until her eyes turned watery and then lifted Saba into her lap. “Let’s just call it Murtaza,” she had said.

“Like Dad!” Saba had smiled.

Now, as Saba watched her father cry on the floor of her apartment she kept thinking of that evening. Murtaza Muhammad was supposed to be the obelisk. He was dark and severe and secretly in control of everything. Weakness seemed so antithetical to his character. Thinking about the way Mehvish khala associated her father with power Saba felt that it was her duty to make her father stop crying, to restore his mana to him, if for no other reason than to send back to Mehvish khala the man that had given her protection when no one else would.

This burgeoning sentiment was interrupted, however, by the sudden appearance of another childhood incident about her father. This time Saba was eleven years old, on the same couch in the living room where she had watched the obelisk, except she was sitting with her mother. Misra was wearing a warm tan colored chador which framed her round face and matched her light brown eyes. She had just finished praying esha, the night prayer, and was now reading stories about the prophets to her daughter, specifically the one about Yusuf, to whom Allah had given ninety nine parts of the beauty of the world.

“A woman named Zuleikha tried to seduce Yusuf when he lived at her house but he told her that since she was already married he couldn’t be with her. It was this act of Yusuf that was most pleasing to Allah. Do you know what that is supposed to teach us, Saba?”

“No.”

“It teaches us that even if you have everything—like Yusuf had beauty—God values morality more.”

Saba now understood that her mother had been speaking about her husband who presumably had everything in the world but didn’t have restraint.

Thinking of those two episodes in tandem Saba felt she finally understood everything that had happened in her house.

Becoming aware didn’t turn into a moment of sublimation. Nor did it make her feel vindictive towards her aunt or feel pity towards her mother. It simply made her curious about her father.

“Why were the two of them not enough for you?” she said loud enough for him to hear. “They gave you everything.”

Her father looked up for a second and then, putting his face back in his palms, hid himself.

***

In the morning she let him drive her back to Mobile. It took two days and they drove mostly in silence, stopping at rest stops and gas stations to switch driving duties.

For the night they stopped at a Howard Johnson at the I-10 in Baton Rouge. The attendant recognized the doctor and looking towards Saba asked him if “you will take the usual room.” She whimpered in response and immediately ran out of the lobby.

“Saba stop!” Dr. Muhammad begged. “Please!”

“I don’t know what I was thinking!”

“We can stay somewhere else!”

“Aren’t all the hotels infested with your whores?”

She reached her father’s Benz and began kicking the passenger side door. Denting the black steel was the only form of abuse she was in a position to inflict. He stood back and let her kick. After five minutes, when she could neither see through the blackness in her head and her toes were thoroughly jammed and numbed from pain, she walked over to a bench underneath the hotel’s awning and let her black hair fall over her face. The noise in her head, the soft voice of her mother reading the Quran, the whisper of her aunt humming songs, the imagined moans of faceless women in Howard Johnson, prevented her from hearing the roar of a door opening and shutting, of a car coming to life, of tires screeching away. All she wanted to do was to have her hands turn into claws so she could grasp his heart and ask the palpitating mass if Dr. Muhammad respected anything, if anything was sacred to him.

When Saba opened her eyes she was all alone. Sitting next to her on the bench was the black taweez. Sticking out from one corner was the verse—“We, for whom there is no idol, no god, beside the way of love”—that belonged to Pakistan’s leading poet.

___

Ali Eteraz is an American writer from the South. He grew up in Alabama and attended Emory University in Atlanta. Many of his stories focus on the “New Southerners.” Previously he was the author of a book called Children of Dust (HarperCollins 2009). Find him at www.eteraz.net


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