Opening Pages of Jacqueline St. Joan's THE SHAWL OF MIDNIGHT
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Islamabad, Pakistan, 1996
The hundreds who rallied on the mosque’s lawn that day were only a peep of dissent in the body politic. Dominating the skyline was the Faisal Mosque where the people of Islamabad surrendered five times a day. Its four minarets pointed with certainty to the promise of heaven. Set against loden pines, cedars, and palm bushes of the rolling Margalla Hills, the modernistic mosque bewildered—as if it were an eight-faceted diamond laid in an emerald, or a heavenly tent for one hundred thousand worshipers. Perhaps it was a spaceship preparing for liftoff, or a giant bug trapped on its own back. Its front yard entombed the despised General Zia, who died almost eleven years earlier in an exploding airplane, and people still joked that the relics in the grave were not Zia’s at all, but the tailbone of an ass.
Human rights lawyer, Faisah Ehtisham, hid along the side of the crowd, away from the stage, with her dupatta pulled across one side of her face. Beside her a family friend, journalist Yusuf Salman, was fingering a pistol out in the open. Faisah quickly scanned for police. “Put that away!” she ordered and, for the first and only time, Faisah saw the rage that her authority and insistence caused in him. For just a moment, his eyes glared, then, without a word he returned the gun to his pocket and turned away.
Up on the platform, Meena, her younger sister, introduced the speakers, and one by one each ascended the few steps, spoke for five minutes and descended. After one local politician finished his comments, he handed the microphone to a Catholic nun from the Peace and Justice Commission. She wore the white veil made famous by Mother Teresa.
“Whether legal or not, Baji Ujala’s actions to save those girls were just,” she said softly. “They were destined to live tortured lives or to be killed by their families. Baji is a model for all who seek justice. She should be released from prison at once! May God have mercy on Pakistan.” The nun returned to her chair as the crowd politely pumped their homemade signs that they had tacked onto sticks.
At the microphone again with her fist in the air and her pregnant belly high and round, Meena roused the chanting crowd: “Free Baji! Free Baji! No honor in honor crimes! No honor in honor crimes! Free Baji! Free Baji!” The crowd responded, loud and intense, as if the volume of their voices alone might spring open the prison doors to release their Baji or change the social conditions they protested.
Mynah birds with white-tipped feathers were feeding on seeds in the expansive lawn. At a distance a line of police formed a wall and pointed the gun barrels of their Kalashnikovs into the sky. Beneath a cascading orange jacaranda, a group of thirty women in black burqas watched the protest from afar. Bearded men from Islamic University milled around two idling motorcycles. Several wore the green turbans of Jamaat, the Islamist political party. They looked hostile and seemed to be shouting at the protesters in front of the mosque.
Yusuf watched the Islamist students but could not hear what they were saying. He saw Meena lift her chin in his direction, signaling that Yusuf would speak next. He climbed the stairs and stood at the podium in a white caftan and skullcap. He riffled his notes and brought Ujala’s face to his mind. Adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses, he looked out over the crowd.
“My statement today reflects jihad,” he began, “meaning struggle, the struggle I have engaged in, as a Pakistani, as a Muslim, as a man. I come from an old family, from the hills above Karachi, where my father’s father built the first mosque of this century in his town. Many years ago, I left this country to work in America as a journalist. But today in Pakistan I have found a story I cannot stop telling—one that was invisible to me when I lived here. It is the story of the suffering of women under the harsh rules of our society, an injustice that contrasts with the compassion of the Q’ran I learned at the tables of my grandfathers.
“It is because I am a human being and because I am a Muslim that I will tell these stories. To be a Muslim is to surrender to the will of God by living in such a way that one can always know what the will of God is. Then one can act on that will, even at the risk of losing one’s own freedom, or reputation, or even one’s life. It is not hard to be a good Muslim when we have models of goodness such as Ujala Ehtisham—a teacher who has followed the path God directed her to. May the light of Allah bring peace to those who are persecuted.”
Then there was a mysterious event that many would try to describe later, but no one would ever succeed in doing. First, there was a commotion in the back of the crowd, then a migration of crows began—tens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of black wings silhouetted against the hazy sky. Magnificent, they raced from the void with great intention, and fast, as if the kernels of their hearts might pop open. The crows swept by the crowd for many minutes, blackening the day, and the experience itself carried the people away to something they knew, something they needed to remember, something older and even larger than the courage it took for them to demonstrate their beliefs in public. The ground to one side of the mosque became a carpet of crazed, calling crows. One tree was so full of birds that it blackened and tilted forward from their accumulated weight. Only the sound of overhead jet planes drowned the birds’ complaints. Then, as quickly as the spectacle had appeared and cast midnight into the midday sky, the last bird sped by, and the mystery dissolved like an image on film.
Faisah, Baji Ujala’s younger sister, waited for the effect of the birds’ drama to subside before she mounted the platform. Over one eye a hospital-green patch was fastened by an elastic cord tied around her head. She wore round, plastic sunglasses for protection. When she reached the top step, she tugged her dupatta down onto her shoulder and faced the crowd, leading with her chin. The air emptied of words, as her friends saw—many for the first time—the extent of Faisah’s injuries from a recent acid attack. The scars on her cheek and neck were red ribbons of flesh welded to her bones. Someone in the back of the crowd began a cautious tribute to her—a slow, rhythmic clapping. Others joined in one by one, but Faisah could not bear the tentativeness of the crowd’s response, and she interrupted their nervous, ambivalent effort. She did not want them to linger on her face. She stepped closer to the microphone.
“Today in Islamabad,” she began, gesturing toward the mosque, “here in the shadow of God’s house, we are outraged by the crimes of violence committed against women everywhere, including in our own country. Last year, here in Punjab alone, nine hundred women were murdered in so-called honor killings. In Sindh, in the first three months of this year, over a hundred were reported—that is one per day. For many women the pain of being female is so great that they find their own relief only in suicide.” She lowered her voice. “People of conscience must continue the work my sister, Baji Ujala, has begun—and we must do it even if we are afraid. We must listen to our consciences, not to our fears. This is what we face.”
At the mention of the word face, Faisah hesitated. With her good eye, she could see that another crowd was growing near the wild jacaranda across the park. She inhaled deeply and continued. “And do not be frightened by what you face. This woman you are looking at is yourself. Yes, these scars are not mine alone; they were intended not only for me, but also for you. I was merely selected to receive them. We earn these scars together because we value our consciences more than our faces, our daughters more than ourselves, freedom more than security.” For the first time, Faisah smiled as she spoke. “You know, they say that a lion knows danger like an old friend. And a lion with one eye is to be respected—she’s tattered and a little crazy.” As Faisah grinned and Meena reached to hug her, the protesters broke into applause.
All at once a frightening popping sound split the crowd into pieces, as people ducked and hurried apart. If God had been watching from the minaret, He would have seen one body of people exploding into pieces, winging apart, a churning mix of movement and emotion. He would have seen people yelling and running to avoid a spray of bullets. But there was no spray of bullets. There was only one shot. If it was intended for Faisah, it missed its mark. A single, hot bullet drove into Meena’s chest, and, standing next to her, Faisah felt the impact, too. A numbing burn tunneled into Meena’s body. Faisah pulled her down to the platform. Meena gasped for air as her neck seemed to collapse and turn, and her quiet eyes calmly surveyed the blood pooling beneath her hair. The heat of Meena’s blood was saturating Faisah’s clothes, and she knew what it meant.
Meena! Not Meena! She curled herself around and over Meena, covering her with her body. The rustling sound of mass movement and the calling of people to each other continued in a lower range. The high-pitched war cry of police sirens came faster and closer and faster and closer and slower and closer and stopped. The pile of people protecting Meena moved aside so that Yusuf could lift Meena carefully and carry her from the platform.
Armored vehicles circled the patch of grass. Uniformed police streamed out of their vans and lined the street between the protesters and the Islamic University students. Police pointed their weapons in the opposite directions, alternating one by one—half at the protesters, half at the students. Several officers began a foot-chase around the mosque, searching for the shooter; others followed on motorcycles, and their sirens split the air.
Meena lay on a pile of shawls both women and men had spread on the lawn. With her head in Faisah’s lap, Yusuf scanned the crowd for an ambulance. Meena groaned as she bled. “I’m here, Meena,” Faisah whispered through her tears. She could see the entrance wound where Meena’s shalwar kameez was ripped apart. Her flesh was seared, a gash, open like a pocket. Meena swooned with pain. “The ambulance is coming. The hospital is nearby. Hold on, Meena. Breathe with me. Look at my face.” Meena’s eyes gripped Faisah’s, as the sisters inhaled each other’s desperation. “Here,” Faisah said. “Watch me again. Just a little breath, like this.” Meena may have tried to follow Faisah’s lead, but she could only cough and cough. Faisah pinched Meena’s cheek. Meena’s lips stuck together, but a teaspoon of air slipped through one corner of her mouth. “Stay with me, Meena. Oh, stay with me.”
“Here they come!” shouted Yusuf above the crowd, waving his arms to the hospital truck.
“Call Zeshan,” Faisah whispered to Yusuf, as she climbed into the truck with Meena, “and Abbu and Amir.”
Two porters lifted Meena onto a gurney. “Ammi,” she whimpered, calling for her mother, staring at a distance.
Faisah looked where Meena was staring. In a flash under the blazing jacaranda, Faisah imagined she saw the ghost of their mother there—a silver-haired woman in black with a scar at her hairline. Faisah froze in that moment, utter sadness filling every pore for the motherless children that they had been for so long. “How has the world come to this, Ammi?” she asked.
And her mother whispered, “It has always been so.”
Faisah snapped out of it. “And tell Baji what has happened,” she instructed Yusuf. “You have to tell Baji.”
The ambulance sped along the brick wall lining Airport Road, past rows of simple signs attached to the wall and extended like open hands. Each sign bore one of the ninety-nine names of Allah. Faisah read them to Meena as they flew by: Allah, the Merciful. The Wise One. The Only One. The One Who Brings Good News. The One You Can Expect Something From. God of Our Ancestors. The Giver. The Omnipotent. The Greatest One. The Innocent One. The Righteous One. The Alpha and the Omega. The Inner and the Outer. God of the Orphan. One Who Talks About God. The Friend. The Just. The All-Seeing. The Protector . . .
Meena died at midnight. Minutes later, surgeons separated her baby from her womb. Meena’s final act in this world was to give birth to a daughter.
“You are Nafeesa,” Zeshan said to the infant when he first held her, “named for your mother’s mother, as Meena wanted. Welcome to the world and bid goodbye to your mother.” He curled the squalling baby into Meena’s neck, between her cheek and her shoulder. “She has given her life for you. She is a martyr for all the daughters of Pakistan.” Then Zeshan placed his face next to his wailing child and they wept together. The room filled with the pain of birth, the pain of death, and all the suffering of life between the two.
Akram, Kashmir, Jammu and Kashmir, 2014
Eighteen years later, two men are meeting inside a dark teahouse, a place like any other, a place for men to share their memories, their plans, their gloom. The journalist and the publisher of The Convoy, an Indian magazine, are meeting to discuss a story Yusuf has submitted for publication. Before this story can be told, he must let the editor know how the story ends. Yusuf sits in a single ray of sunlight across a small table, explaining to the man with the note pad: “My beloved is gone,” he says. “My wife died last winter.”
“Baji Ujala? My condolences,” the editor counters coldly as steam rises from their cups. He pauses and then pursues what he wants. “But, Yusuf, now you must tell the world about the infamous prison break in 1996 and how you two escaped.” Then Yusuf hands him this manuscript: