"Al-Walad,(The Boy)" by Lena Zaghmouri
Uncle Nasser and Auntie Samia never announced that Auntie was pregnant. Auntie just started showing really fast; she hadn’t gained much weight, but she was so thin before that her protruding belly contrasted against her skinny arms and legs. As she entered her second trimester, she looked better than she had before she was pregnant, her body and face filling out, her straight chestnut hair coming in thicker, her skin showing some color.
And she became even lazier when pregnant. I used to only have to clean and cook, but now I had to bring her wet washcloths for her to put on her forehead and bring her food up to her bedroom when she was feeling too tired to get up.
“I want to have a little sister so I can be like Isra to her,” Hanan said one day while she rested her head on her mother’s belly, watching an Abdel Halim Hafez movie. Amtu’s up and down hormones from pregnancy gave her an excuse to watch all the Hafez movies she owned.
“A son will be better,” Auntie told her daughter. “There are too many women in this house.” She glared at me.
And she got her wish: they were having a boy.
And that’s when Uncle’s interest in the baby awakened. He spoke about his plans about where this son would go to an Ivy League school, which was Uncle’s childhood dream, but he ended up only going to Berkeley. He said that this boy would follow in his older brother’s footsteps, but he didn’t seem to believe that part of it. Rasheed was just about to start eighth grade, two years older than me, but he had been getting into a lot of trouble and his grades were dismal.
When Uncle wasn’t telling me to keep an eye on Auntie, he would lecture Rasheed about how he had to act now that he was almost a man. Uncle would look at his son’s quarterly report cards and nag him his son about them. “Do you want your little brother to see you this way, see you with these bad grades and at a community college?” he would say.
Rasheed shrugged. “What’s he gonna care about my grades? Babies don't know anything.”
Uncle gave him countless lectures about how he had risen up from a poor family in Jerusalem and worked his way towards Berkeley, where he got his law degree. “I had no money. I never slept more than three hours every night. I studied five hours each day and attended class and worked.” He would continue by bragging about his job, his salary, and his two houses. “This is what hard work brings you. If you are lazy, you will end up like Isra’s father. He was my cousin, so when he graduated, I got him a job here, but what does he do? He uses drugs, and he gets fired and acts crazy and leaves his daughter behind with me.” Whenever he spoke to us about one of his clients who was unsuccessful, he made sure Rasheed knew he could not follow in that man’s footsteps.
But Uncle Nasser did not enforce his rules. When his son got terrible grades, he never took away video games or banned use of the TV or the computer. He might give him an ear pull or criticize him, but he never gave him any idea of what it was like to be a poor loser: no video games, no spending money, and no new gadgets that Rasheed seemed to get all the time.
Because he couldn’t bear to make his oldest son, his father’s namesake, the continuation of his branch of the al-Shadi family, have to suffer for poor performance.
Even if it would make him a better man.
Everyone was excited about this new baby. Relatives called from Palestine and Jordan, friends came over to give their congratulations, and Auntie walked around with her back straighter though she had a lot weighing her down in the front, proud of herself for having two sons. I couldn’t believe that the flurry of attention had been greater when Auntie was pregnant with Rasheed; back then, Amu and Amtu had been a young couple and felt blessed that they had a boy the first time around. Nothing could match that, Auntie assured Rasheed, but this was a great excitement to have the second time. Another boy to be Rasheed’s companion.
Hanan was left out of all the celebration and not given any reassurance. She was the baby of the family, used to Uncle Nasser coming home and blowing raspberries on her belly and giving her candy on the weekends. That abruptly stopped when everyone found out Amtu was having a boy. Her parents were too busy talking about the boy, buying things for the boy, and talking about what they were going to name the boy (they had a wider selection of names with a second son; the first son had to be named after his paternal grandfather, and Uncle and Auntie were not ones to blatantly break with tradition). The boy, the boy, the boy. Al walad, al walad, al walad. Hanan became convinced that when her parents had this baby, they would forget all about her and even leave her in a grocery store like her friend’s mother did one time.
I found Hanan’s complaints irritating, but there was no way to stop her whining and tears. I didn’t really care what gender this baby was; I was just pissed that there was going to be a baby at all, which I would have to take care of even more than I had to take care of Hanan. At least she was out of diapers when my father left me here three years ago.
But I realized that Hanan’s concerns were more than the woes of a spoiled little girl. We had something in common now: we both were treated like we were invisible. The only difference was that I suddenly morphed into visibility when something went wrong, and Hanan just remained invisible. I had an ally. A very little and naïve one, but I had to take what I could get.
Sometimes I read Hanan a picture book from the big collection that was handed down from Rasheed; her parents added to it once in a while, buying her a book to go along with her birthday present or for Eid or some other holiday. She barely knew how to sound out words, but her parents rarely ever read them to her or helped her get through them. These books usually made Hanan fall asleep faster, so I read to her to stop her incessant questions while I was trying to get some sleep myself, but the only ones I thought were half decent were the educational ones and the ones about animals. The other ones were always about some problem that a “normal” kid had, like getting in trouble at school or being put on a timeout. None of these kids worried about where the next meal would come from, if Daddy would come back home, if Mommy and Daddy would have a huge fight that day and call each other horrible names.
I made up stories myself to tell her when these books couldn’t soothe her new worries. We lied side by side, and I told her about a girl who was trapped in a land of snails, toads, and rats; the only way she could get out of this land was to kill the monster that lived in the enormous ocean that separated her from the rest of the world. The monster lived in the ocean and regularly fed off the land’s inhabitants, but, still, if this girl tried to kill the monster, all those snails, toads, and rats would try to attack the girl because they believed the monster was what kept them safe from the rest of the world.
“Oh, no! Is the monster a boy or a girl?”
“No, he’s a man.”
Her eyes widened and her mouth turned into an oval. “What’s the girl’s name?”
“Noor. Because she has to get up in the morning before the monster wakes up, so that’s her name. Morning. Noor.” Now that I had her name settled, I had to figure out a way she could conquer this monster. “So Noor gets up early in the morning, before all the light is out, and she goes into the water—it’s clean, so she can see through it—and she sees the monster sleeping. He snores really loud.”
She giggled. “Like my dad.”
I nodded. “He makes the water bubble up a lot with his snoring, so she has to go in there and take out her sword. She stabs the monster in the head, but he screams.” I did a muffled scream to illustrate what I meant as best as I could without waking Hanan’s parents.
Hanan gasped, her eyes riveted on my face. It occurred to me that this might be too violent for a child’s bedtime story, but I liked it too much to stop. “Then all the snails, toads, and rats in the land wake up because they hear the monster screaming, and they want to stop Noor. They all run into the water—they’re bigger than the regular snails, toads, and rats, you know—and they have swords. . . . ”
“Are they going to hurt her?”
“Well, they try, so they run into the water and try to beat her up, but she throws—” I didn’t know the name of much weaponry at that point, I had to think fast “—she throws arrows at them, but it’s not enough, so Noor’s cousin—”
“What’s her name?”
“Um, it’s. . . Zaynab.” I didn’t know the meaning of that name, but I figured I might as well give all the characters Arab names for the sake of consistency.
“Is she big like you?”
I raised my eyebrows and widened my eyes. “Bigger, and she has magic powers to stop all those gross things and the big monster.” Why didn’t Zaynab come at the beginning and save Noor all that trouble? But I figured Hanan was five, so I didn’t need to iron out that plot inconsistency. Besides, help always took its time to arrive. “So Zaynab shoots the magic out from her mouth, and the monster explodes. She picks Noor up and brings her over to where she is, a place that’s enchanted and none of the snails, toads, and rats knows where Noor is.”
“What happens to Noor and Zaynab?”
“Well, you have to wait until tomorrow night.” I was out of ideas.
“No, Isra, I can’t wait!” She whined and pouted.
“See, it’s way better than that shit that’s in your books.”
“Ooo-whoo! You said a bad word.”
“You know where they tell you can’t say bad words? In the land guarded by the monster. Because if you don’t have bad words, you can’t say bad things about them.”
“Saying bad things isn’t nice.”
“Yeah, but sometimes you need to say bad things.”
“Oh,” she said, but I could tell she was confused. She had a deep wrinkle between her dark eyebrows.
By the time I turned out the lights, I regretted telling Hanan that story. Hanan loved to talk, and she volunteered a lot of information. I was relieved when the next day she didn’t mention anything to her parents about Zaynab and Noor or a monster that snored loudly like her father.
But I doubted that anyone else in the house would be listening to her for the next few months.
So I continued the story every night, keeping her up past bedtime on the nights when I felt most creative. My stories didn’t have much of a point, or an ending, they were just scenes in the life of Noor and Zaynab. Sometimes a few snails, toads, and rodents would break through the land Noor and Zaynab now lived in, and they tried to steal the magic that the two girls shared; Noor and Zaynab had to find a way to fight off those creatures. They would create new weapons, hide in trees, or simply step on one of the creatures to kill it. If I was in a better mood, Noor and Zaynab might just sing songs like the ones Hanan saw on Barney, sometimes even the Arabic ones she saw on satellite television.
As her mother’s belly grew bigger, Hanan wanted to know more about how the snails, toads, and rats believed they needed the monster. I had no explanation; I told it was part of the mystery, and probably those creatures were just too stupid to really think about what the monster was. She wanted to know more about how the monster looked.
“It’s sort of like a crocodile, but it has bigger eyes and smooth blue skin. That helps the monster blend in with the water better. The water’s a clear blue, too; it’s not full of junk like the lakes here.”
“We should go and visit Noor and Zaynab.”
I laughed, picturing the two of us running hand in hand to visit the girls while on a high speed chase from big snails, toads, and rats, wheezing and red-faced. Maybe the monster would even find a way to make it into the forest to kill off the visitors. If we did manage to make it through and meet Noor and Zaynab, I imagined us in a shack deep in a sort of forest/jungle (I hadn’t quite decided what Noor and Zaynab’s land looked like) that was always damp and smelled like mold and mud. Hanan would probably cry nonstop, having to sleep in such a place. I didn’t tell her these things. I said I didn’t know how to get there, and if we found it, Noor and Zaynab would most likely run from us. After all, they didn’t know what sort of trouble we would cause them.
Hanan lied in my bed that night and pestered me past midnight with schemes she came up with for finding the Noor and Zaynab’s enchanted land without them being afraid. She suggested that we walk everywhere on earth until we found them, and when we did, we could tell them that we were nice and could help out with the snails, toads, and rats. I told her this was impossible, no one could walk everywhere on earth and still be alive, and my eyelids were so heavy that I couldn’t keep them open any longer.
She sat up and shook my arm. Her ideas had been keeping me up already. “Do you think my little brother will be mean?”
I shrugged. It was likely considering the kind of parents and brother he was going to have. “We can help make him not mean,” I said.
But we never got that chance to try.
Lena Zaghmouri has been writing fiction for fifteen years, and her work has been published in
Dampen to Bend and The San Joaquin Review.
Lena earned her master’s degrees in English
language literature; she wrote her master’s thesis on contemporary Arab American writers, and
she currently works as an English professor.