After the baby died, Sanna began cleaning. She washed the dishes and the linens, and at night, the windows at the shelter. She scrubbed the floors until they became a whiter shade of gray. She needs to scrub because she never feels clean. Scrubbing keeps her hands busy.
She beats a soapy worn cloth against the corridor floor. Sometimes the floor is speckled with dirt, sometimes with shit, sometimes with blood. She washes the floors twice a day. No one tells her to.
“A woman wants to see you,” a security guard says. Sanna wrings the soapy water from the rag, lets the suds dribble over her knuckles and wrists.
“Why?” Few people visit the shelter.
Western-made heels click onto the tiles and into Sanna’s field of vision. Sanna’s eyes travel the length of the slim cut trousers to the short hair unabashedly uncovered. The woman hunches down and introduces herself in unaccented Arabic. She sways slightly and Sanna resists the urge to steady the stranger.
The woman holds out her hand to Sanna’s soapy one. “My name is Rashid. I am organizing a gallery show of artwork by women in shelters. I understand you are quite clever with your hands” — Sanna flicks her eyes directly at the woman’s — “I want you to make something for our show.” The woman’s self-confidence expands her smile. Sanna ignores her outstretched palm and returns to washing the floor.
Sanna finds the request incredulous. Most local people view the shelter as haram and would prefer its inhabitants to be below, rather than above, ground. Because it protects the dishonored, the shelter receives no public support from the community and has few resources. Sanna can’t imagine what kind of “artwork” (here she permits herself a small smile) she could create from the plastic forks and knives she washes nightly. She rubs vigorously at a permanent spot on the tile.
“The show is part of a conference to raise awareness about violence against women.” This explanation is greeted by the dunking and dribbling of Sanna’s rag.
Rashid tentatively covers Sanna’s hand with her own and they wash the floor together. The soapy rag makes patterns on the tiles. “It’s like painting. Covering and uncovering, exposing the underneath.” They silently work together and Rashid does not seem to notice the water and dirt staining the knees of her trousers. “I have done this type of show before. Would you like to see some pictures?”
Sanna thinks the artwork is humiliating; there are collages made from marker-colored plastic forks, crudely beaded jewelry, glittered Styrofoam sculptures. Abruptly backing away, she upturns the bucket. Suds gleam opalescent as they flow freely across the floor. Sanna envies their movement.
“I am also a lawyer,” Rashid says, switching to Kurdish. “I could counsel women here while I work on the show.”
Sanna silently inventories the number of beds at the shelter. Some are double-occupied. There is one part-time legal advisor and too little grease money to help all these young women.
“Can you get me clay?” Sanna tests, thinking about the power she feels when she molds the milky, muddy substance.
Ten months earlier Banu entered Sanna’s bedroom window, bloodied and crying. As Sanna’s best friend, it was not unusual for the two to share a bed, a flashlight between them, but usually at Banu’s house. Sanna’s brother, Mohammad, had a temper that flattened his eyes and disappeared his lips. When left alone with him at home, Sanna usually kept a chair wedged against her bedroom door handle.
Wordlessly, Sanna cleaned Banu’s split lip, her crusted and swollen eye, the dried blood between her legs. With Banu’s honor stolen, she couldn’t return to her family. The girls mimed sleep until daybreak. Neither knew where she was going.
Like a magician, Rashid produces the clay, along with a laptop, scanner, and printer. Sanna abandons her floor washing to marvel at the technology. She wants to surf the art world on the Internet, which is usually forbidden to her. More primal is her need to squeeze the clay, to form something out of nothing. Instead, she takes Rashid on a tour of the shelter, doing what is expected of her.
The girls’ dormitory is eerily quiet; its current inhabitants contribute to its feral air. Used to being neither seen nor heard, they assume their solid forms as shadows and remain invisibly visible as Rashid walks from bed to bed and consults her notes. Wordlessly, Rashid’s movements are tracked by moist round eyes that plot her progress through the room. Sanna wonders what Rashid is thinking as she observes what could have been Rashid, had chance and circumstance conspired together.
“Are these all of the girls residing at the shelter?” Rashid asks. At about three quarters of the beds are seated spectators; the rest are unmade or claimed by meager belongings strewn across blankets. Only one is pristine, as if guarded by a ghost.
“Some of the girls are watching TV. Some are in the reading room. We try not to move around too much during the day. Not all of the windows are heavily curtained. It’s like a prison to avoid prison or an ‘honorable conclusion.’”
“Or maybe a sanctuary. A place for divine metamorphosis.”
Sanna eyes Rashid. With her defiantly cropped hair and fitted trousers, Sanna didn’t think Rashid was religious. Now she wonders why Rashid has come here at all.
Five years earlier, in the evening of December 13, 2003, the evening Operation Red Dawn captured Saddam Hussein in a spider hole near Tikrit, Sanna returned home to her family’s modest apartment in Stockholm from art class with an invitation to the Royal Institute of Art’s Gifted Program folded inside her left mitten and a bag of Swedish gummy fish ensconced in her right. Snowflakes ashed the air as she gnawed a rubbery tail, debating which parent to entreat first. Opening the apartment door, Sanna was bowled over by the fragrance of biryani and dolma, food her mother usually prepared for traditional celebrations. Sanna’s mother stood while her brother sat, transfixed by the usually silent during dinnertime TV that had been temporarily moved from the living room to the kitchen table. Sanna could hear her father speaking Kurdish on the telephone in his office down the hall. An unkempt and disheveled Saddam emerging from dirty earth played in an endless loop scored by newscaster commentary. Sanna caressed the edges of the invitation before she withdrew her hands from her mittens and left her future possibilities behind in the foyer. With Saddam no longer killing Kurds, the family would soon be returning to Northern Iraq.
Rashid nods at the security guard as she exits the shelter. Her driver, Mazen, makes no move to extinguish his cigarette as she approaches the car. She opens the car door and sits in the backseat, the butt of the Mazen’s Kalashnikov rifle against her calf. She will not let the driver’s disapproval of her work at the shelter irritate her because he knows peshmerga, armed Kurdish freedom fighters, at every checkpoint from Baghdad to Erbil. None of them suspect Mazen used to provide security for Saddam’s personal pilots, one of whom was her father.
Rashid consults her notes as Mazen drives. There should have been 23 girls at the shelter, but Rashid had counted only 22. Rashid already knows that the missing girl is Banu, that Sanna knows Banu has gone and has deliberately sidestepped the question, and that no one sleeps in that meticulously made bed. Now she wants to know why.
After Rashid leaves, Sanna takes the clay into the bathroom, locks the door, and works at softening it. She hasn’t molded in ages and her fingers ache with the exertion. She thinks about the last time they throbbed this much, when Banu held them so tightly Sanna thought they would break. With her left hand wrapped around one of the metal bars and her right hand wrapped around Sanna’s fingers, it was the night Banu gave birth to a little boy, Sanna subbing as a midwife. Two other inmates supported Banu’s weight while a third massaged her swollen belly. The baby slid onto the cell’s mud floor amidst his mother’s insides. After that, Banu slept.
As Banu slept, Sanna held the baby to Banu’s breast. There was something familiar in the slope of his nose that leavened Sanna. Sanna held the baby close and described Stockholm, described the snow that purified the city overnight when no one was looking. Banu slept.
When Banu finally awoke, she stared at Sanna and the baby with contempt. How could Sanna play with it, knowing how it had been conceived? Sanna may not have known that it was Mohammed who had raped Banu the night Banu crawled into Sanna’s window, but looking at the baby, Sanna couldn’t help but realize it now. The baby had the slant of his father’s eyes, the prominent shape of his nose, the determined set of his chin. Plus, Banu reasoned, Sanna had run away with her that day because she knew what she didn’t want to know. Mohammed had been watching Banu for years, waiting. Before the rape, no one wanted to see Banu married to Sanna’s brother. The pressure to resolve a blood feud between their families and restore Banu’s honor would have changed that. Pregnant begging on the streets to avoid marrying her rapist led Banu to being placed behind bars. Sanna’s complicity made her collateral damage.
“Don’t you want to hold him?” Sanna offered.
“I want it dead,” Banu whispered, turning toward the wall.
“Banu,” Sanna started.
“What?” The force of her voice reverberated inside their cell. “It was bad enough I had to nurture it inside me for nine months. Don’t ask me to do anything for it on the outside. The baby should have never lived. I should have never lived. Your brother should have killed me the night he took my life from me.”
Sanna crumpled over, dropping the baby. In an effort to catch him, she grabbed at his head and neck, crushing his windpipe. His lips froze into a blue “O,” but his eyes didn’t open. Sanna was never sure of their color. Robotically, Banu stood up, released the baby from Sanna’s grip, and held it at arm’s length. Next, she sat on her mat, assuming the position of a Madonna with the blessed child in her arms, shot Sanna an inscrutable look, and threw her head back and scream. She sounded like a wounded, wild animal. She did not stop screaming until she and Sanna were taken to the prison infirmary. A casually left-open window furnished their escape.
True to her word, Rashid visits the shelter almost daily to provide legal counsel and supervise artwork. Sanna doesn’t question how she manages to smuggle in carving tools or procure Western art supplies. At this point, she knows fortune is evanescent. She is determined to enjoy her luxuries while they last. She knows that Rashid, and whatever organization she works for, will lose interest in her and the shelter as soon as the attention the art show garnishes extinguishes itself.
Rashid watches Sanna sketch what her installation will look like. It’s up to Rashid to make sure that happens. Sanna has requested that a half-meter by two-meter black box be built to house her creative entry. She has already molded life-size scales of justice out of clay. Upon entering the black box, a viewer will step onto one of the scale’s dishes. This will invariably tip the scale, which Sanna has rigged to pivot. Inside the black box will hang dozens of glow-in-the-dark plastic knives adorned with the names of victimized women currently incarcerated because they have refused their attackers. On the floor of the black box will be tiny clay babies that are randomly crushed by the scale.
“It’s visceral and gutsy, Sanna. I understand why you were invited to the Gifted Program. Maybe you’ll get there yet.”
By now Sanna has learned not to be surprised by all that Rashid knows. “Maybe. Or maybe I’ll reach an ‘honorable conclusion’ when I step outside this shelter.” Sanna stops sketching and starts packing up the art supplies.
“Sanna, do you think I don’t know what you are feeling?”
“How could you possibly know? You, with your money, and your access, and your freedom. What do you know?”
“I know what it’s like to be forced into a marriage, in a foreign country, to a much older stranger who beat and raped me.” Rashid’s left jaw tendon visibly quivers. “I know what it’s like to be humiliated by a justice system that doesn’t count rape by a husband as rape.” Rashid drops her eyes to the half-packed art supplies. “Not until my mother was dying did I understand the marriage was to save me from something even worse. My father was one of Saddam’s pilots.” Rashid levels her gaze. “Saddam wanted me when I was a teenager.”
Rashid’s voice is as controlled as she finishes as when she started, but her eyes blaze. For several moments, Sanna hears the static noise of silence. Slowly, she becomes aware of the kitchen clock ticking. Then a manicured hand hesitates on her forearm. “Tell me what happened to Banu.” Rashid’s voice is not quite a plea.
“I don’t know,” Sanna says, as she shuffles out of Rashid’s reach. Rashid almost believes her.
Escaping through the infirmary window pushed Banu down the rabbit hole. She became emboldened. She stole food to keep them alive. She told lies to keep them alive. She pulled Sanna along to keep them alive, all the while thanking Sanna for killing it, for freeing them. Her singsong babble of being seized, of being taken, muted Sanna. It was the only time Banu talked about her rape. Sanna could only listen and wait. Eventually they found their way to safety at the shelter in Mosul. Safety in Mosul. The irony was not lost on Sanna.
After, at the shelter, Banu would laugh hysterically at nothing, then collapse, faking choking. She repeated unspeakable truths like a mantra. She bullied. She broke things. She tore at her hair. She slept all day and haunted the shelter at night. She stole small things from the other girls. She stopped showering. She stopped eating. Then one morning, Banu was gone.
Long after the gallery show has ended, Sanna will wait at the shelter for Banu’s return.