The Voice Of War by Zainab Abbass

When she was first born, her mother had whispered in her ears, sprinkling down prayers and promises no mother knew how to keep. They warmed her eardrums, the spice of a language she did not understand teasing her skin as it descended down her body. The blessings vibrated inside her oesophagus, refracted inside her lungs and silenced the rising orchestra that boomed inside her tiny stomach. For now, she did not need a voice.

Basra was a city of promises; in the wistful years of the 90’s it was proclaimed for its wealth; its prosperous streets and villa’s and the long, extensive smell of expensive perfume that lingered in the still air. It was known for its wild flowers; the frangipanis and honeysuckles bruising the national parks. Arched shrubs and apple trees lined the outskirts of the city, and the young would bustle amongst the greenery, playing juvenile games. And when the winter rain came, they’d huddle inside with board games by fires that flickered and coughed up heavy smoke. For such adolescent minds, it was hard to fathom what war meant. What majestic affliction would come for them.

When she was 3, she had giggling friends that drew on each other with purple markers, trapping butterflies in golden skin and listened to ancient pop songs on the brass radio that lay high on her father’s bookshelf. For her, it had always been difficult to combine the power of consonants and vowels. She still succeeded in the art of babbling; of using her small fingers to request milk and biscuits. But she had been alive for what seemed a leisurely 36 months, and yet she still could not bring herself to engage in conversation; to ask instead of gesture and to let her teeth take over the job her hands had grown tired of. For now, she seemed to have lost her voice.

After an astonishing wait, she finally uttered the word “Mama” four days after her 3rd birthday. Her parents had let out a gasp of solace. Their daughter was not mute, she was simply a late bloomer; a flower that had trouble growing and behaving in the way society had planned. She had said it nervously, hoping they would not react as they had. Claps and congratulations and hoisting her up on their weak hips to spin her around, until her eyes were pinpricked with dizzy, crimson moons. She had known to speak, yet she just didn’t want to. For now, she seemed to be betraying her own voice.

She made her way steadily through her Father’s books. It was her only way of entering his silent world – of navigating his paradox by tracing the lines he had highlighted. He was deep in his work; in poetry and cigars and wide-eyed students at the university that took in every word that their Professor uttered. To them, he was a Literature genius. To her, he was a father. A battered, loving father always lost in the suburbs of his own worries. Her hands were a swamp of guilt and pain, reaching for his gratitude. And whenever she laid them out for him to hold, he would back away.

So she found him in his books instead. In Maria-Rilke and Amira Hess, she built herself a father figure. For now, her voice did not matter when could read from the moment the sun poked at her eyes until the night sank in.

When she was 10, her Mama accompanied her to the yearly parent-teacher meetings. She had gently powdered her smooth olive skin, lined her eyes with Kohl and clutched her only purse with one hand and squeezed her daughters hand with the other. Her Mama crossed her legs, tightened her cardigan and pursed her rose-coloured lips throughout the night. There was praise, commendations and smiles. And there were the insults that stung. “Please engage in class discussions.” Her Arabic teacher had said, his hairy fingers scratching at the evening sweat that formed layers upon his neck. “It’s important you do so.” It was only when they reached her Math’s teacher; Mrs Rabia, that a smile found its place upon the girl’s face. Her Math’s teacher – hair the colour of tangerine dreams – had spoke greatly of her. Had showed her exercise book off, her red fingernails tapping at the ticks. Mrs Rabia eulogized and complimented; gave her a golden sticker to place upon her blue school collar. The girl with no voice had been largely quite embarrassed, but bluntly proud, her chest rising up and down in time with the compliments.

But she liked it. She liked that her fingers were now made of symbols, equations and numbers. That once she knew the journey, she could determine the final destination. For now, she did not desire to have a voice when she could use her pen to establish sums and problems about buying apples at the market and measuring yards.

She turned 13. She started liking boys. Started to borrow her mother’s pearls in lonely dress up games, where she could impersonate people with large, booming voices. Started to use the arithmetic side of her brain to measure the span of her hips. She began to wander about life outside Iraq. One of her books suggested Paris, with its painters and churches, with bars that had no names and delicate, zealous lingo. Another suggested London – home to pulchritudinous people and great writers. Indecisive, she pinned up a map of Europe on her wall and let her fingers trail over all the cities. When she told Mama of her great plans, her mother had only smiled; her eyes illuminated with pain as if she had just walked away from a car crash as the only sole survivor. Her mother could not conceptualize a meaning of the word “Hope” but did not dare say that the future was beginning to look like a large, black hole. She reached out and touched her daughter’s mellow hands and gave her a weak smile. For now, it seemed her mother was disappointed that her daughter was beginning to yearn to speak. It was too late. It was always too late.

On the last day of peace, her Mama and Father took her down to see the Shatt Al Arab; the long stretch of azure river and she stared, blinking systematically in confusion as she dipped her feet into the warm water. She tried to define the silence around her, why her Father kept scowling. Why her Mama had forgotten to make sandwiches. As the sky darkened, the silt crawled across her feet. She heard her Father shout for her, gruff in the piercing gloom and she pulled herself up. The bottom of her jeans were wet as she took one last look at the palm trees and listened one last time for the brawny, momentous sound of nature. Her hand wiped the salt from her lips; she wanted to reach inside her mouth, to seize her vocal chords and throw them into the river. She wanted the unspoken words in her mouth to go out into the ocean. To end up in Paris. London. To immerse itself in the exclusive delicacy of Europe that she could now not ever imagine of seeing. For now, she knew it was time to say goodbye to her voice. To her heavy accent that spoke of her dreams.

 

Then it began. The air became infested with threats of bombings. Killings. People dragged fingers across their throats at people they once called “Brothers” and drank tea with. The American’s came. The funny-looking soldiers offered the children sweets and pieces of chocolate. A grin plastered across their faces as they knelt down with their guns thrashing against their knees. Families not just torn apart but forcefully ripped from each other’s arms, with mother’s left throbbing for their havens of children. The city of Basra became known for its tears of anguish, for its roads that throbbed with pain and echoed with the sound of bombs, for entering a battle it could never leave alive. The city was in a rage of downfall. For now, her voice was propaganda for the suffering of humans and so she locked it in a box with polaroids and poems for the future. There was indifference cursing through her; long battlegrounds were plotted on the coat of her skin and on the inside, she could not find space aside the self hatred and discrimination for her voice.

Her first word was “Mama” and on the worst day of her life, she screamed it. Again and again and again. Until it became a ritual she had to follow. She couldn’t stop screaming it as the blue collar of her school dress was painted with the blood of her own, weaving itself inbetween the cotton.

It was a hot, searing Wednesday, when she returned home from school, her coal-black shoes walked down her street of ashes and found her once majestic house a pile of rubble at her feet. She was 15.

When the women with the white shirts and first aid kits came for her, they kept saying “Sorry” and she turned immune to false apologies. They scrubbed at her darkened face and wiped away the trace of her Mama’s kiss that had been stamped onto her cheek only this morning. They hid her face into their clothes as her parents were pulled from the ruins. Not allowing her to say goodbye. She believed it was because her parents were not parents anymore. But simply bits and pieces. Another plotline for a Western charity tale. For now, her voice left. Without a promise of returning.

She was shipped and carted, like a box of oranges, across cerulean oceans with lines of children accompanying her. Oh, how they had made her dreams come true! She flew on a large plane, mingled with clouds and arrived in London with a name-tag that spelt her name wrong. A suitcase with no belongings. Too bad, she was now simply a travelling corpse in a world that refused to put her underground.

That night, she sat with her new family and ate stew for dinner. Her English parents – Lola and Jack – gave her a book that was targeted for small children and had too many bright pictures of dogs. For now, they did not believe she had a voice.

When she was 18, she finally went to Paris, a week before she would begin studying a Math’s degree. Her English Mama, Lola, had taken her to the Notre Dame. She waited patiently for feverish couples to finish their kissing on the centre of Point Zéro; a star known to hold the weight of the world’s wishes. Her sandaled feet placed themselves in the heart of Paris. She spun. Twice. Let her camera hit her ribs as she took in the aroma of Europe. She closed her eyes and saw the lulling blue of Shatt Al-Arab. The blinking lights of rockets, coming to destroy her parents and her childhood and her friends.

Loudly, she opened her mouth and wished for equanimity and sweet peace and for her Mama to come back and kiss her cheek over and over again for all the mornings she had now missed. She wished for days with her Father’s heavy books and long nights of sleep where she didn’t wake up still in the midst of destructive nightmares about pieces of her parents laying under her bed. She wished for the past to come rushing back; for her to sit in the corner of broken classrooms, calculating her entire existence. She wished to not live in unforgiving limbo – trying to juggle both the weight of the world and the weight of her history. She wished to obliterate the land of grief. She wished to rewind and use her voice, to fight for what was right and for what was real.

She wished to no longer be the voice of war. But to be her own voice.