Excerpt from ‘The Ostrich’ by Leila Aboulela
I had forgotten how small the flat was, how thin the walls were. Student accommodation. The cleanliness comes as a surprise, this clean land free of dust and insects. Everywhere carpet and everything compact like boxes inside boxes, the houses stuck together defensively. September and it is already winter, already cold. The window, how many hours did I spend looking out of this window? For two years I looked out at strangers, unable to make stories about them, unable to tell who was rich, who was poor, who mended pipes and who healed the ill. And sometimes (this was particularly disturbing) not even knowing who was a man and who was a woman. Strangers I must respect, strangers who were better than me. This is what Majdy says. Every one of them is better than us. See the man who is collecting the rubbish, he is not ravaged by malaria, anaemia, bilharzia, he can read the newspaper, write a letter, he has a television in his house and his children go to a school where they get taught from glossy books. And if they are clever, if they show a talent in music or science, they will be encouraged and they might be important people one day. I look at the man who collects the rubbish and I am ashamed that he picks bags with our filth in them. When I pass him on the road I avert my eyes.
And now that I am back, the room rises up to strangle me. The window beckons and it is already dark outside. I was wrong to return. All the laughter and confidence has been left behind. What am I doing here? A stranger suddenly appearing on the stage with no part to play, no lines to read. Majdy points out the graffiti for me, look, ‘Black Bastards’ on the wall of the mosque, ‘Paki go home’ on the newsagent’s door, do you know what it means, who wrote it? I breed a new fear of not knowing, never knowing who these enemies are. How would I recognise them while they can so easily recognise me? The woman who sells me stamps (she is old, I must respect her age), the librarian who could not spell my name while the queue behind me grew (I will be reading her books for free), or the bus driver I angered by not giving him the correct change (it’s my fault, I must obey the sign on the door). Which one of them agrees with what’s written on the walls?
There are others, Majdy’s new friends, so and so is good, he says, friendly. He invites them here, men with kind eyes and women who like the food I cook. But I must be wary; there are things I mustn’t say when they are here. I mentioned polygamy once, saying we shouldn’t condemn something that Allah had permitted, remarking that Majdy’s father had a second wife. When they left he slapped me and, fool that I was, I didn’t understand what I had done wrong. Why, why? I asked and he slapped me more. It’s worse when you don’t understand, he said; at least have a feeling that you have said something wrong. They can forgive you for your ugly colour, your thick lips and rough hair, but you must think modern thoughts, be like them on the inside if you can’t be from the outside. And what stuck in my mind after the stinging ebbed away, after the apologetic caresses, what clung to me and burned me time and time again were his comments about how I looked. I would stand in front of the mirror and, Allah forgive me, hate my face.
You look beautiful in blue, the Ostrich said, and when I was cruel he said, But I can be a judge of voices, can I not? I didn’t ask him what he thought of my voice, I walked away. It must have been in the evening that I was wearing blue. It was white tobes in the morning, coloured ones for the evening. The evening lectures were special, leisurely; there was time after lunch to shower, to have a nap. To walk from the hostels in groups and pairs, past the young boy selling peanuts, past the closed post office, past the neem trees with the broken benches underneath. Jangly earrings, teeth snapping chewing-gum and kohl in our eyes. The tobes slipping off our carefully combed hair, lifting our hands putting them back on again. Tightening the material, holding it under our left arms. I miss these gestures already left behind. (Majdy says: If you cover your hair in London they’ll think I was forcing you to do that. They won’t believe it is what you want). So I must walk unclothed, imagining cotton on my hair, lifting my hand to adjust an imaginary tobe.
The sunset prayers were a break in the middle of these evening lectures. One communist lecturer keen to assert his atheism ignored the rustling of the notebooks, the shuffling of restless feet, the screech of the Ostrich’s alarm. Only when someone called out ‘A break for the prayers!’ did he stop teaching. I will always see the grass, patches of dry yellow, the rugs of palm-fibre laid out. They curl at the edges and when I put my forehead on the ground I can smell the grass underneath. Now that we have a break we must hurry, for it is as if the birds have heard the azan and started to pray before us. I can hear their praises, see the branches bow down low to receive them as they dart to the tree. Feel their urgency; they know how quickly the sun slips away and then it will be too late. We wash from a corner tap taking turns. The Ostrich squats and puts his whole head under the tap, shakes it backwards and drops of water balance on top of his hair. I borrow a mug from the canteen and I am proud, a little vain that I can wash my hands, face, arms and feet with only one mug. Sandals discarded, we line up and the boy from the canteen joins us, his torn clothes stained with tea. Another lecturer, not finding room on the mat, spreads his handkerchief on the grass. If I was not praying I would stand with my feet crunching the gravel stones and watch the straight lines, the men in front, the colourful tobes behind. I would know that I was part of this harmony, that I needed no permission to belong. Here in London the birds pray discreetly and I pray alone. A printed booklet, not a muezzin, tells me the times. Here in London Majdy does not pray. This country, he says, bit by bit chips away at your faith.