“Only by living absurdly is it possible to break out of this infinite absurdity.”
I met her under one of the footbridges in Sarba, a coastal suburb north of Beirut, on a January night of the year 2017. I was returning from work downtown to my home in Jounieh, and it was pouring cats and dogs, when my car decided to break down. It was quite fortunate that I was driving on the right side of the highway at that moment, but my car was nonetheless on a travel lane, and thus, subject to many accident risks. I quickly turned the hazard lights on, put the handbrake lever down, got out and confidently tried to steer the vehicle far from the main road on my own, when I heard a pleasant giggle. I looked to my right and saw her, in her fake white fur coat, black fishnet stockings, blonde wig and red pumps. She was the pure embodiment of the legendary cliché, immortalized in countless photos and movies, and I immediately understood what she was doing there.
“Do you really expect to be able to push that car all by yourself?” she said. She was right: it was totally ridiculous of me to even try, but my initial reaction to any mishap has always been to attempt to solve it on my own. I smiled back at her, shook my head self-mockingly, took my cellphone out of my purse and called the tow-truck service.
While I was waiting for the operator to arrive, I invited her to sit with me in the car. “It’s too cold out there.”
“Fine. It’s a slow night anyway,” she said grumpily as she got in, with a cute, almost childish grin, which made her face and her outfit contrast strikingly. “But I must warn you: if anyone hits us from behind and I get hurt, you’ll have to pay me a million dollars in damages. This body is a money-making machine.” She giggled again and I burst out in laughter. “There’s an unusually cheerful prostitute!” I thought. It felt like I was in the presence of an urban legend. How little did I know then, ya Souad.
When she found out I was a writer, she gasped and said: “I should tell you my story one day. Maybe you’ll write it in a book.” And that’s exactly what she did, as candidly and bravely as humanly possible, during several get-togethers we planned out after that first fortuitous meeting under January’s unyielding rain. The text below is a literalized account of her narration. Forgive me, Souad, if my words have failed you in any way.
This is the story of the day I died.
It all started on the 5th of February of the year 1995. My mother (before she was my mother; before she even knew what a mother was, or suspected that she was ever going to be one) was a naïve and frail 12-year-old girl planting spring potato buds in the countryside of Aleppo. An orphaned and homeless 12-year-old girl, I should add. Another worker — let’s not, if you please, refer to him as my father — drew her to a remote spot of the field and raped her (he had told her that someone was distributing oranges and candy “over there; you see? Behind the haystacks! Yalla come, I’ll show you!”).
When Layl (I never knew my mother’s real name; I just call her Layl in my head) started having contractions nine months or so later, she was, again, in the fields. It was the beginning of the autumn potato harvesting season, and as she was leaning to dig up yet another spud from the ground, she felt a sharp pain in her lower belly. It is relevant to mention that Layl didn’t know that she was pregnant, or what being pregnant meant. It is relevant to also mention that no one had told her, and that, in fact, no one cared. She slept on the streets of Aa’zaz and took whatever small job she could find every morning in order to eat that day. During those nine months, she thought she was gaining weight. Moreover, she felt relieved when her period had stopped, because when she had started bleeding regularly, barely six months earlier, she thought that she was slowly dying. She didn’t tell anyone about it, though. She had no one to tell, no one to confide in. She was encapsulated in her cruel darkness.
When Layl went into labor that early November morning, her survival instincts led her to drag herself to one of the orphanages for girls in the city. One of the supervisors found her on the ground, by the gate, contorting her body and screaming in pain. The employees immediately knew what the matter was, and they delivered her baby, with the help of the in-house nurse, three hours and much heavy bleeding later.
The orphanage staff were all already acquainted with Layl. Many times, they had tried to convince her to stay there, but she always refused, or ran away when they took her in by ruse or by force. I like to think that she was like a wild animal, and not even the promise of a regular meal could lure her away from her precious freedom. They, too, didn’t know her name. Did she even have a name? Does someone like her deserve a name? It was a miracle they gave me one. “Souad.” From “saa’dah,” i.e., happiness. Can you imagine? You couldn’t find a name out there that didn’t live up to its namesake as much as mine didn’t. What a cynical bitch destiny can be.
Layl’s heart stopped fifteen minutes after my birth from lack of blood flow. Her hips were still too narrow to handle childbirth and she bled to death. But the staff had meanwhile had the time to ask her a few questions and understand how it had all happened. It was the orphanage’s old cook, Amina, who gave me the whole gloomy account on her own deathbed, when I was about seven or eight.
So, there you go: this is the story of the day I was born; that is, of the day I died for the first time.
Then there was the day I died for the second time.
I was raised at the orphanage, and it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. There was no love lost there, no motherly warmth, no genuine affection, and we all grew up like cacti, with the ability to survive drought. But at least I learned how to read and write; I had a roof over my head, and I had food, albeit always meager, in my tummy. I also had friends, other kids who were like me, either orphans or abandoned, the refuse waste of this world. My BFF was a girl my age called Amal, and we did everything together. As soon as we hit three feet tall, we both started helping out in the kitchen. Amal enjoyed washing the dishes, while I most loved cooking, and I often prepared all the ingredients for the daily meal by myself.
It was my ninth birthday that day, and the new cook, Raneem, who had a kind streak, had promised me we’d bake a cake together in the afternoon. Amal had just finished washing the dirty breakfast dishes, and was taking a nap on the bench in the pantry, like she always did. As for Raneem, she was out shopping for groceries. I started preparing the ingredients for my cake: the flour, the eggs, the milk, the sugar, etc., when suddenly an idea took hold of me: Why don’t I surprise everyone and bake the cake on my own? I heated the oven like I had seen Raneem do a hundred times, whisked all the ingredients together, greased the baking tin with a few drops of olive oil and poured the batter in it. Then I put the tin inside the oven and sat down waiting for it to bake. I remember I was pretty proud of myself.
Suddenly I heard a scream coming from the big hall. I ran out of the kitchen and down the corridor to see what was going on. One of the two younger girls had fainted, and the supervisor was trying to bring her back to consciousness, in vain. “Call an ambulance,” she yelled at me, so I rushed to her office on the first floor to use the phone. 110: That was the number. Our Arabic teacher had made us learn it by heart in case of an emergency. As soon as the Red Crescent truck arrived, I rushed onto it and sat near the stretcher holding Mariam’s hand, along with the supervisor and the other little girl. There was no one else but us at the orphanage. There was a big outing for the teachers and the children to Aleppo’s national museum on that day, and only the two little ones were left behind with the supervisor. I didn’t want to go because I had been there twice before, and Amal decided to stay with me.
On our way back from the hospital many hours later, we heard the recognizable sirens of fire trucks as we got closer to the building. There was so much smoke in the street that we couldn’t figure out what had happened at first. Then we understood. The orphanage was half burnt down. The firemen couldn’t identify the cause of the fire, but they told us they suspected it had started in the kitchen. They retrieved one cadaver from the debris: that of Amal. “You’re lucky that everyone was out on this day, or else many more people would have died.”
We were “lucky,” indeed.
Amal, my sister, my mother, my daughter, my best friend, was gone. And it was because of me. I had killed her. I never admitted to the staff what I had done; I never told anyone that I was the reason why the orphanage was so severely damaged and Amal was dead. I was a coward, and I still am, honestly. Can someone like me afford not to be a coward? After that day, I begged the director to find me a job somewhere. I couldn’t stand living in that house anymore. A year later, a family from Raqqa offered to take me in as their maid. A 10-year-old maid. I instantly said yes, I’d go.
So, this is the story of the day Amal died; that is, the story of my own second death.
Then there was the day I died for the fifth time. (Let’s not go into the details of the third and fourth times. You only need to know that my employer was a pig, his wife a ruthless witch, and that war, ISIS and displacement happened in Syria).
It was the early summer of the year 2015, and I had by then forged my way to Lebanon’s capital, after a year and a half in the Bekaa where I’d been living off the charity of people and NGOs. I had finally found a job at a cleaning company in Beirut with the help of a refugee relief center and was starting to feel a bit “normal,” in the small normal room I had managed to rent in Bourj Hammoud, with my small normal job, and my small normal dream that one day I’d make enough money to start my own small business. I had been employed at the company for seven months when this particular opportunity came up.
The owner of a big villa in the mountains, a Lebanese expat, was planning on spending the summer in the country, and wanted a temporary live-in cleaner for the whole period. I hated to stay in other peoples’ houses, but my manager told me there was a special bungalow for the help (the female cook and I) outside the villa, and that the driver slept at his own place since he lived nearby. Besides, I only had to work until 7 p.m. every day, except on weekends when I was expected to stay longer, because the owner loved to host parties for his friends. It didn’t hurt either that the job paid extra — twice more than my usual daily pay. I surely needed the money to cover the cost of a new small fridge, since mine had broken down, so I said yes.
“One. Two. Three. No! No! No!”
The first day was rather fun. The villa was empty, except for Huda, the temp cook, and I. The owner — “a charming single man,” as Huda, who was a distant relative of his, and who had temped for him the previous summer too, told me — was only due to arrive two days later, and I had to get everything ready by then. The furniture was covered with large white sheets, and the small items were all bubble wrapped. I enjoyed popping the tiny plastic bubbles and returning the place to life, corner after corner, room after room.
“Seven. Eight. Nine. This. Can’t. Be. Real.”
Soon it was the end of the fifth day of my first week there, and I had just finished polishing the toilets in the villa (seven, there were seven of them) when I first stumbled upon my temporary boss, Mr. F. He had arrived two days earlier but we hadn’t met face to face. I recognized him on the spot; he was a famous TV personality.
After greeting me respectfully and asking me my name and where I came from, Mr. F. told me he was hosting, exceptionally, a party that same evening (it was a Friday), and asked me if I could stay even though it wasn’t required of me. He said I’d get big tips. He also dropped a few alluring names of guests who were coming, movie stars and such, and a singer I had a big crush on, so I agreed. The prospect of seeing those people up close was too tempting. And even though Mr. F. was pompous and affected, he generally seemed like a decent man. “Go get some rest now, and you can come back around nine to start serving and dishwashing.”
“Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. Please. Someone. Make. It. Stop.”
I came in from the kitchen entrance at about a quarter to nine, and I immediately felt something was wrong. Huda, the cook, was nowhere to be seen, and the kitchen was too tidy, just like she leaves it at the end of a working day. I snuck towards the huge living space and tried to eavesdrop: it was all too quiet for a party. I felt an overwhelming urge to turn around and leave; to run away from the whole place even. But how and where to? We were in a remote area of the mountains and there were no nearby houses or shops. I did have a cellphone but was out of calling minutes, and I wasn’t given access to the wifi network in the villa. I tried to calm myself down, convincing my mind it was just my usual paranoia because I’d never learned to trust other people. After a few deep breaths I gathered my courage and went into the salon. It was empty. I started panicking again.
“Twenty-two. Twenty-three. Twenty-four. Why. Am. I. Not. Dead. Yet.”
That is when he showed up, and before I could say anything, he expressed his surprise that no one was there yet. “So strange,” he said, faking a smile. I knew he was lying. I told him I wanted to leave, but he acted deaf. Instead, he poured me a glass of whiskey from the bar cart (whiskey, me?!) and asked how many ice cubes I wanted. “I don’t want whiskey, and I don’t want ice cubes. I want to leave!” I repeated vehemently. “Come on, why the rush? Now that you’re here, we can spend a nice evening getting to know each other,” he said while walking towards me. “You’re from Aleppo, right? I’ve been there. What a majestic city, and what a shame what’s been happening there.” It was the exact same sentence he’d said to me that morning when we met.
“Thirty-one. Thirty-two. Thirty-three. I. Am. Not. Here.”
I was standing with my back against a wall, cornered between a couch and a big glass coffee table. I couldn’t run anywhere without having to go past him. He was a big man. As soon as I tried to escape, he stepped towards me, held my arm with one hand, squeezed it beyond the threshold of pain, and forced me to sit down on the nearby sofa. I tried to scream but his other hand was quicker to cover my mouth. “There’s no use in screaming. I sent Huda and Fawzi away on an errand and we are completely alone.” I was trapped on the couch while he was on top of me, fondling my breasts and trying to open the buttons of my blouse. I fought back as much as I could, but it was useless. He managed to rip my shirt open and lie me down, while sitting on my pelvis, one knee to my left, on the sofa, and one foot down on the floor, holding my chest with one of his hands. His other hand was struggling with my jeans, and he soon succeeded in pulling them down. I was scratching and biting and kicking, but this man was not made of flesh. He finally unzipped his fly, took his penis out, tore my panties off and penetrated me.
“Thirty-eight. Thirty-nine. Forty. I. Wish. I. Was. Covered. In. Bubble. Wrap.”
It took forty-eight seconds. Forty-eight thrusts in my vagina. Forty-eight stabs in my soul. Forty-eight eternities during which I felt I was in a morgue drawer. During which I felt nothing and everything at once. As soon as he ejaculated, he stood up and zipped his pants up again. “A taxi is waiting by the gate to take you back to Beirut. There’s no need to come back to work tomorrow.” That’s all he said. There was death in his voice. No sympathy. No shame. No recognition. Not even disdain. He disappeared into one of the hallways.
There’s this classic scene in the movies, after a woman gets raped, where we see her scrubbing her skin forcefully under the shower, as if trying to clean her insides, while she cries uncontrollably. This scene needs revision. I couldn’t cry. Not one tear came out of my eyes. I felt like if I cried, his semen would have come out. I felt like I was filled with his semen. As if I was a mere container in female form. I couldn’t get into bed either. I didn’t think I deserved a clean bed. Back in my room, I sat on the floor until dawn. It was only then that I managed to wash myself. But I didn’t feel clean. So, I took a second shower. It was as useless as the first one. From that day on, I never felt clean again.
Life is nothing like it is in the movies. But it’s not because “reality is stranger than fiction.” It’s because it’s crueler. Layl, I am indeed your daughter, for just like you, I got baptized by unwanted semen.
The next day, Mr. F. told the manager of the cleaning company that he wanted another maid, “preferably not Syrian.” She kept insisting to know why he’d sent me away. “Did you do anything wrong?” Obviously, I didn’t tell her what he had done to me. How could I? For one, I knew she would only blame me. Even I blamed myself. After all, I’ve been programmed to do so all my life. And most probably she would fire me. I couldn’t lose my job.
I wanted to forget what happened, to cut it out, to obliterate it. “I need a week off to visit my family in Syria.” As if I had something called “family.” During that week, I stayed in bed. I licked my wound every single day, but it wouldn’t heal. I finally opted for the fastest medicine:“Bury it and pretend it never happened.” The magic potion of denial.
When I came back to work a week later, the manager told me I’d been sacked. “Don’t bother coming back,” she said. “There’s no place for the likes of you in this company.”
The likes of me? What, who are the likes of me?
Upon her insistence to know what I had done wrong, Mr. F. told her that he had caught me stealing.
“Bubble wrap. I wish I was covered in bubble wrap.” People call it rape, but it should be called murder. What died in me on that night is irrecuperable. We are not “survivors.” Stop calling us that. We are cadavers.
Each feigning to be alive in her own way.
I will spare you the details of the day I died for the sixth time, but I’ll give you a hint: It started not long after the “incident,” as I taught myself to call it in my head. I was about to be kicked out of my shabby room and hadn’t eaten anything for three days. I needed a job, fast. I searched and I tried and I begged, but no one needed a cleaner in my neighborhood. My dear landlord, an enigmatic woman in her sixties, volunteered. “I know an excellent and easy way for you to make money,” she said. “Don’t worry, I’ll help you,” she said. And that is how I started my illustrious “career” as a sex worker, under the — let’s call it “guidance” — of Sett Zahra, as she calls herself. I thought to myself: ‘Why not? I am damaged anyway. Might as well make money out of it.’ She has someone take me to my spot every evening at 8 pm, and then pick me up from it at 6 am the next morning. If I’m late, her guy beats me up. If I don’t make enough money, her guy beats me up. Would you believe me if I said I didn’t feel anything? No pain, no shame, no sorrow. I’ve trained myself to become totally and utterly numb. These men that pick me up every night, they don’t know they are fucking a corpse.
You might think: Can all of this happen to one person? Yes, it can. A few in this world are blessed with good fortune, while the majority are stricken with bad fortune. And unlike good fortune, bad fortune is voracious. It likes to attack the same person again and again, until they are entirely drained of luck.
They say cats have nine lives. I don’t know how many I’ve still got, but one thing is sure: I hope I will soon find myself out of lives.
That is, out of deaths.