I’m Lujain Assaf, a communication major at Northwestern University in Qatar. Writing is a passion I have had for years growing up, specifically writing short stories and (attempting to write) novels. My writing has always been to write authentic stories that raise awareness on different social issues while also providing readers an escape from the real world.
The Lucky One
I had never seen so many babies crammed in the tiny room. There was no escape, no peace, no quiet, nothing.
It had been a few years since I had visited Amman, so it made sense I would have some new cousins. However, it seemed like there was something in the water because all six aunts and nine uncles had new babies. Some of them only had one, others had two after each other, and one of my aunts even had triplets. I already had a long list of reasons why having a big family sucked, but I didn’t think babies would make it to the list. The worst part was that I had to look after them since I was the only teenager among my cousins. I was nearly eighteen.
Thankfully, the tiny room was filled with toys for the babies to play with – from big teddy bears to playhouses to multiple action figures and dolls. Lego pieces covered the whole floor, acting like a very painful carpet. It was just a matter of making sure no one swallowed a lego or chucked a Fulla doll at someone else. To be fair, not all of them were babies. Some of them were toddlers who spoke better Arabic than I could, while the other kids that were babies the last time I saw them were now around six to nine years old. Yet, there was something about their toothless smiles and tiny hands that made it hard to see them as anything else but babies. It might also have to do with the fact there was a huge age difference between myself and the second oldest cousin, who was eleven.
Manal –one of my cousins– came up to me. She was about eight, with short curly hair and a mole on her cheek. She opened her mouth, but nonsense sounds only came out. It took me a second to realize she was trying to talk in English.
“I can talk in Arabic,” I told her while doing so. I hated how my voice sounded when I spoke in Arabic. It was as if I was talking underwater, sluggish and slow.
Manal replied back smoothly in Arabic, like she didn’t even have to think about it: “Mama told me you didn’t.”
I kept smiling, but my chest felt tight and I had to bite down on my tongue to release the rage somewhere. I had only been gone for a few years, but they seemed to have already forgotten the fact that I had been born and raised here. That I had been one of them. But now I was an outsider that they could laugh at and call a foreigner, that I had become too western. I pushed away those thoughts and reminded myself that it didn’t matter what Manal’s mum said – no one in the family even liked her.
“I need someone to play Fulla,” Manal ordered.
“Why don’t you play with the other kids?” I suggested sweetly, an attempt to get out of playing with her. I was already tired from the long flight. My parents and I had arrived in Jordan a few hours ago and we had immediately taken a taxi from the airport to Teta’s house for a family reunion dinner. I had tried to convince my parents to delay it, but Baba insisted we had to go because it was his family and he hadn’t seen them in years. Which would have been a sweet sentiment if his shoulders weren’t squared up and his hands weren’t in fists, as if he was already prepared for a fight.
“Because everyone else is busy!” she squealed and dramatically stomped her foot on the ground. I raised my eyebrows and surveyed the room. There were around fifteen children in the room. Fifteen. I can’t even imagine having that many cousins to play with. I didn’t have a playmate growing up. It had been just me.
Before I could point out someone for her to play with, she had already grabbed my index finger and dragged me to the corner of the room that had all the “girly” toys. I wanted to pull my hand away from her, but I was scared she’d throw a fit and then it would have a domino effect on the other kids. Next thing I would know, I’d be the one in trouble. So, instead I let her drag me. We tiptoed between the other girls, sitting on the floor with their own dolls, cooking sets, and play make up. In the center of the toys was a big dollhouse that Manal had seemed to claim for herself.
She sat down behind it and I followed. She pulled out two identical Fulla dolls, one dressed in a jilbab and the other in a long dress.
“Take this,” she said, giving me the Fulla doll in the jilbab. “They’re sisters. You are the mean one and I’m the good one,” she explained seriously, like a mini film director.
Reluctantly, I took it. It was strange to have someone tell me how to play with the Fulla dolls. I had my own dolls when I was younger, and because I was the only kid old enough to play at the time, I was the one in control of the game. Sometimes, the adults would play with me out of pity, which was why they let me dictate the rules.
Mama had told me once, you were the cutest baby people had ever seen, everyone wanted to play with you! I did have some memories of adults in my family playing games with me, usually under the watchful eyes of my parents. However, there were times when my parents hadn’t been there. Instead, I was in a bedroom that I didn’t recognize and I wasn’t alone. There was always the same person there – a man. I couldn’t remember his face nor his name, but his voice always sounded familiar. He would grin at me in an ominous way and say, “Let’s play a game!”
And that’s where the memories would stop. No matter how hard I pushed and forced my mind to expand on the memories, they always stopped at the same place – right before the game began. I had never told anyone about these memories. Speaking up would be pointless. My memories might have simply gotten foggier as I grew up and visited Amman less. That’s what happens to childhood memories. However, it didn’t explain the dreams that I had – the ones where I felt like someone was after me, trying to hurt me. They felt so real that when the person did catch up to me in the dream, I would wake up screaming because I had felt their hands on my body, in places where they shouldn’t have been. Even thinking about the dreams made my chest tight and had me so restless that I wanted to run around the neighborhood at least ten times, as if I could outrun the nightmares. At the same time, I felt frozen to my place, almost powerless to do anything. Looking around the room at my pure, innocent cousins, I wondered if they had the same nightmares as me.
“Okay, I’m ready!” Manal chirped excitedly, interrupting my train of thoughts. “What about other dolls? Are we only playing with these two?” I asked.
Manal’s eyes lit up. “I have pet dolls!” She exclaimed, pointing at the two dog figurines in the dollhouse’s living room. “But they’re both mine. You don’t have any.”
She sounded so much like her mum, with her shrill voice, but I continued to play nice. “But what about the other dolls? Like a Ken or something?” I suggested.
“What’s a Ken?”
“He’s a Barbie doll, but a man.”
Manal shook her head. “Mama says Barbie is haram.”
She’s a doll, I wanted to explain exasperatedly, but I decided it was better to keep that to myself.
“What about Fulla? Doesn’t she have a boyfriend or something?”
“Boyfriend?” She echoed. “What’s that?”
Shit. I had forgotten that any words referring to a romantic relationship before marriage was basically illegal in this family. To distract her, I smiled and said, “Let’s play!”
“What’s a boyfriend?” Manal repeated.
“Manal, play or I’ll tell Mama.” That shut her up and she immediately started waving her Fulla doll around and making voices, like her life depended on it. This relieved me for a moment, but then alarms started ringing in my head. She hadn’t said anything wrong yet I was able to shut her up because I threatened to tell her mum. It was a classic trick on kids that you could use on them about anything. Anything.
And that was the first time it dawned on me that maybe the memories did matter after all.
Because maybe, just maybe, I wasn’t the only one.
After a few hours spent playing with my cousins and breaking up petty fights, Manal’s mum, Khalto Layla, came to the room to announce that dinner was ready. She was the most outspoken one about my “foreignness” and treated it like a disease that the whole family could catch. I always suspected she did that to gain good points with other family members because even though no one liked her, they could all agree that I wasn’t one of them. However, seeing her brought me relief because I could finally take a break from the whines, shrieks, and screams. As my cousins rushed out of the tiny room, excited at the prospect of food, I stayed behind, trying my best to tidy up the room out of respect.
“That’s nice for you to clean,” Khalto Layla called from the doorway in broken English, almost making me drop the legos I was clearing away. I hadn’t realized she was still there, her arms crossed as she watched me suspiciously, with Manal wrapped around her leg.
“It’s no problem,” I replied back in Arabic, relieved that it didn’t sound weird. Then again, I had only said a few words.
Khalto Layla scrutinized me, as if trying to figure something out. Finally, she looked down at Manal and patted her head. “Go wait for Mama downstairs. I need to talk to Rawan,” she informed her in Arabic. Manal didn’t look happy at being sent away, but she reluctantly untangled herself from her mum. When she left the room, Khalto Layla closed the door after her, trapping me inside with her.
My heart dropped.
“Manal told me something interesting now,” she told me, still talking in Arabic. She paused and then asked in the fakest sweet tone I’ve ever heard: “You can understand what I’m saying, right?”
I nodded, too caught up in wondering what Manal had told her about me to defend my Arabic-speaking skills. Khalto Layla smiled and continued on: “Now, I know in London” – we didn’t even live in London – “it’s common to have boyfriends and throw yourself around, but in Amman, we don’t like that. We’d rather foreigners not tell our daughters about boyfriends.” She practically spat the last word out like it was something sour in her mouth. If she could, I bet she would have loved to literally spit on me too.
While I tried to decide whether to nod politely or just throw formalities outside the window and give this woman a piece of my mind, the door suddenly threw open and it slammed Khalto Layla right in her ass.
“Sorry Layla,” Mama said, but she didn’t look apologetic. Her eyes narrowed when she saw that I was in the room too. Her gaze returned to Khalto Layla. “What is going on?”
“Nothing,” Khalto Layla cooed, “I was just helping Rawan clean up.” She glanced at me to back her up, but I just stared back at her defiantly. I knew she wouldn’t snitch on me to Mama. Not that Khalto Layla was scared of Mama, but she knew that Teta liked Mama more, despite the fact that they had both married into the family.
Mama gave her a hard look before looking at me, in case I wanted to confirm or deny this. When I kept quiet, Mama sighed. “You guys can clean later. The food is ready,” she said. However, Mama didn’t leave until Khalto Layla had moved past her. When I neared Mama, she wrapped her arms around me and didn’t let go until we were both downstairs.
Teta was a 71 year old woman, had a hunched back, and she was probably the meanest person I have ever known. While her heart was softer towards her grandchildren, she had no mercy nor patience for the people around her, especially her family. Dinner was a perfect example. She was ordering people to sit down and start passing out plates and drinks while insisting that only she will be scooping the food, which was sweet of her, but she was very slow. However, no one dared to tell her that. In fact, no one usually objected to her or fought back. She was the boss. Even Baba, who was such a traditional father figure and head-of-the-house kind of man, became an obedient follower around Teta. That was why he was clearly Teta’s favorite among her own children. They rarely ever disagreed or fought. There was only one time that they ever argued – when my parents made the decision to move to the UK a few years ago. I still remember her shouting at Baba, Rawan is still growing up! If you take her there, you’ll ruin her!
And Baba had screamed back, She’s already ruined!
My train of thoughts got interrupted when I felt the chair next to me move. It was Manal, clambering onto the seat and when she noticed me, she gave me a big, giddy smile that would have warmed my heart if I had not just spent the last three hours playing with her. Before I could tell her that she wasn’t allowed to sit at the adult table, Teta made a clicking noise with her tongue.
“Habibti, eat in the kitchen. There’s no room for you,” she told Manal in Arabic (the only langauge Teta knew) with her beautiful, authentic Palestinian accent.
While the rest of my family now talked in a strong Jordanian accent or a mix of both accents, Teta had preserved her Palestinian accent. In fact, she was annoyed by the whole family for adopting the Jordanian accent because we weren’t Jordanian by blood, just by passport.
However, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. My parents, aunts, and uncles had been born and raised in Jordan, but Teta didn’t understand that and saw it as a betrayal to Palestine.
Manal shook her head. Teta sighed and glanced at Khalto Layla who was too busy chattering with the other women.
“Layla, see your daughter,” Teta snapped harshly, which brought a smirk to my face. While Teta hated all that was foreign, I knew she at least preferred me over Khalto Layla, who was always too absorbed in her own bubble to notice anything.
Khalto Layla sighed, used to Teta’s anger and disapproval, and turned to Manal. “Yalla, go eat in the kitchen with the kids,” she ordered uninterestedly, waving her hand at her dismissively like she was a dog. I rolled my eyes discreetly, but Khalto Layla still caught me and sent me a pointed glare, as if I was still a kid she could still scare.
“But Rawan is sitting here!” Manal crossed her arms and lifted her chin defiantly. My parents, who had been silent the whole exchange, suddenly chimed in.
“What if Rawan went and sat with you in the kitchen?” Mama cooed at Manal from across the table. I stared at Mama, trying to make her understand that this was a bad idea, but it seemed Mama had gone blind.
Manal thought about it for a second before nodding. Everyone looked relieved at Manal’s cooperation, not once taking my feelings into consideration. I opened my mouth, ready to remind everyone that I had already spent three hours with the children, immediately after arriving from the airport with my parents, but my parents shot me a look across the table that clearly translated into Don’t you dare argue. Baba, especially, looked desperate for me to listen, wanting to avoid upsetting Teta.
That’s how I ended up squished between two of my baby cousins while the rest of them got their hands and mouths covered in food and drooled everywhere. For tiny humans, their mess was endless. A bloody massacre couldn’t compare to the state of this kitchen, with rice and juice splattered on the table, walls, and floor. While I tried my best to eat without losing my appetite, I overheard bickering in the corner of the table, but ignored it. However, after a few minutes, one of the baby boys –Yasser, aged six– came over to my seat and tugged at my elbow. His hand felt strangely cold until I turned around and saw his hands covered in laban and my sleeve stained with it.
“Yasser, what the fu–” I stopped myself quickly, and forced a smile, despite the fact he had just ruined my favorite blouse. “What do you want?”
“Aya is going upstairs to eat with ‘Ammo Wessam and Teta told us not to bother him,” he told me in very bad Arabic, which cruelly pleased me. Yasser had grown up in Amman yet his Arabic wasn’t that great either, though to be fair, he was only six and I was eleven years older than him.
I was too busy enjoying this realization that it took my brain a minute to process what he had said. “ ‘Ammo Wessam?” I echoed, frowning. “Who is he?”
Yasser looked at me like I was stupid. “He’s our ‘Ammo,” he stated, as if that was a useful explanation. I had to remind myself that he was only six and didn’t know much or else I would’ve snapped at him harshly to give me a proper answer. He tugged at my other elbow, staining my other sleeve in the process. “You have to go stop her or else Teta will be mad.”
I turned back to my plate. “I don’t think I’m allowed upstairs either–”
“Rawan, please.” Something about his desperate voice made my heart stop and when I turned to look at Yasser, his bottom lip was quivering and his nails dug into my elbow.
Something is wrong.
I pushed away that thought. The kid was scared his cousin would get in trouble and Teta was a scary woman. Plus, if I didn’t listen, he would probably smear more laban onto my blouse.
“Okay, I’ll go,” I assured him and his grip on me loosened. It wasn’t a thank you, but at least I could feel the blood returning to my elbow.
I went to the bottom of the stairs and called Aya’s name quietly, but I got no response. I glanced around to see if any adult was watching, but I only found Yasser’s head peeking at me from the corner. I gestured at him to go away, but he ignored me and stared at me stubbornly, in case I decided not to listen to him after all. Sighing, I made my way up the stairs.
The lights were all off upstairs, which freaked me out, but Teta was probably trying to save electricity since it was expensive here. I opened my phone’s flash to guide me and I nearly screamed when I saw Aya at the end of the long hallway, standing eerily with her plate of food like the twin girls from The Shining.
Aya screamed too and dropped her plate. It caused a loud crash and the food was all over the carpet. I immediately sprinted across the corridor and planted a hand over her mouth while praying no one had heard the commotion. However, we had bigger problems because the laban was all over the carpet, which would be hard to clean up, which meant Teta would kill us. What was with kids and their obsession with laban?
“Don’t scream or we’ll both be in trouble,” I hissed and Aya nodded. I removed my hand from her mouth and knelt down to try and salvage the situation when the door next to us swung open.
“What’s going on Aya?” a deep voice growled, slightly annoyed. In that instant, I felt my heart drop to my stomach and a horrible shiver sweep down my spine. That voice, that freaking voice, the voice from my nightmares.
“It wasn’t my fault ‘Ammo Wessam!” Aya squealed, almost sounding like a pig. “It was Rawan, she scared me and I dropped the food!”
Silence filled the hallway, except for the chatter downstairs. I could hear Yasser’s voice from the dining room talking to the adults, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying because my heart was drumming so loud in my own ears. Finally, Wessam spoke, with an amused and creepy flirtatious tone, “Rawan is here?”
My hands began shaking uncontrollably when he said my name. My whole body couldn’t move, frozen in familiar fear that I hadn’t felt in such a long time. When I didn’t respond, Wessam talked again: “Stand up and look at me.” Like magic, I found myself standing and facing him as if I was a puppet he controlled.
His face was chubby under his untamed beard and his short hair. He was of average height and he was dressed in an undershirt and sport shorts. Wessam looked like he was in his early to mid thirties. Under different circumstances, like if I had seen him on the street, Wessam wouldn’t have scared me. He looked like a typical Arab guy, but my body didn’t seem to understand that. My hands were still shaking and my heart was pounding so hard. Staring at this man’s face made my stomach twist into a knot and the burning feel of bile raced up my throat. It took everything in me not to throw up, especially when I noticed how he looked me up and down hungrily. I finally remembered exactly who he was –he was Baba’s brother and Khalto Layla’s husband.
“You’ve grown into a beautiful woman,” he whispered huskily, placing his hand on my cheek to wipe away the tears I hadn’t noticed before. “I’ve missed you.”
Before I could say something or release the bile from my throat, I heard Baba scream in Arabic, “Get your hands off of her, ya khara!” One second Baba was at the end of the hallway, the next he was at Wessam’s throat. I immediately grabbed Aya and pulled her with me into the corner of the hallway as we watched in horror my dad and Wessam engage in a violent fight.
What happened after that was a blur. All I remember was multiple women screaming, telling them to stop while the rest of the men tried to pull Wessam and Baba off each other. However, I wasn’t focused on them – I was too caught up by the memories that flooded my brain the moment Wessam had touched my face. All the memories that were locked up came back to me – the warnings disguised as threats if I told anyone, his burning touch on my body, the horrible pain that came with it. I especially remembered the games we used to play. Sometimes, it was the Doctor game, where one person had to be the doctor who does a complete, thorough, check up on the other person, the patient. He was always the doctor and I was always the patient. Another game we played was the House game, where each person had to pretend to be a family member. However, since there were only two of us, Wessam would say that we’d have to play the Husband and Wife game and do Husband and Wife things to each other.
It all flooded back, no matter how hard I tried to rebuild the wall that once held them back. It wasn’t until it was all over that I realized I was no longer holding a small, five year old Aya – she was holding me the best she could as I sobbed into her arms.
The ambulance pulled up outside the house while Mama and I waited for the taxi. Baba was still inside, supposedly getting our luggage. However, we could hear him and Teta screaming and shouting at each other. I tried to crane my head towards the house to listen better, but Mama pulled my head closer to her chest and wrapped her arms around my head, a hug disguised as protection from whatever hateful words were being thrown inside the house.
She’s already ruined! After years of wondering what he had meant, thinking Baba had been ashamed of how western I was, I finally understood what he meant. While I couldn’t remember, my parents did. It had haunted them so much that they fled with me to the UK, as far away from our family as possible, and it explained why we hadn’t come back in years. The pieces finally fell into place.
I involuntarily shuddered and Mama held me harder. “Just don’t look at him,” she whispered. It took me a second to understand what she meant when I saw Wessam being wheeled out, his face bloody beyond recognition, and Khalto Layla following close behind, whining and crying out her husband’s name dramatically.
Mama sighed and stroked my hair. “I’m so sorry, Roro,” she said, her voice heavy. It sounded like she was crying. “We didn’t know… We didn’t know he was here. Teta promised Baba he wasn’t going to be here or else I swear we would’ve never come.”
I grabbed her hand from my head and squeezed it. “It’s not your fault,” I said, the words coming out weak and croaky from all the crying. It had taken both of my parents to scoop me from Aya’s arms and carry me downstairs, away from Wessam, until I calmed down.
“The taxi is here.” We both turned around to find Baba, dragging the luggage. He was breathing heavily as if out of breath, and his hands were shaking, probably not from the weight of the luggage. “There it is.” He nodded his head towards the yellow car at the end of the street.
“Let me help me with the luggage,” Mama offered, but he shook his head.
“I got it,” he insisted. He moved past us, not once looking at me. Baba looked defeated with his head down and shoulders drooped. Part of me wanted to wrap him in a hug and tell him it was okay, that I was okay, but I couldn’t find the strength. Instead, Mama and I followed him silently to the taxi where it had parked.
While Baba transferred the luggage and Mama talked to the taxi driver about nearby hotels, I felt a pair of eyes watching me. Raising my head to look towards the house, I soon realized it was fifteen pairs of eyes watching me from the upstairs balcony. My cousins all stared down at me, with their tiny heads. Some of them waved their chubby hands goodbye at me. I waved back, taking in their facial expressions –fear, confusion, anger, sadness, and hope. Despite everything I had been through, I felt grateful. My parents believed me. I could escape. They couldn’t.
Somehow, I was the lucky one.