The story follows May, a young Egyptian girl about to take her place in society, and her family’s conservative community. But when she begins making her own decisions including the most dangerous one of all, walking the street without her veil, she finds herself entangled in a series of storms coming her way from her neighborhood, her friends and family, she sets on a quest to gain her autonomy.
*Autonomy is due to be published October of 2019.
*Read the first chapter here or on wattpad
“Imagine a simple yet strong woman, a goddess if you will. She is lifting up a torch, she is lighting the path towards Liberty, and will be called “Egypt Carrying the Light to Asia” And she will stand victorious right at the entrance of the newly-built Suez Canal.”
Frédéric Bartholdi described her as if she were standing right before him, with passion and conviction, he relayed his vision of this simple yet strong woman. She had appeared to him, wearing her robe and slippers, standing in her radiant glory, demanding to be brought to life.
It was on a trip to Port Said, Egypt, that he encountered the strength of her presence, and it was there that he strived to bring her to life. But his proposal to the growing city, his vision for the giant woman’s dwelling place, was ultimately rejected by both the khedive and du Lessups, citing lack of finance as the reason.
Strong women don’t dwell on rejection for too long, and so lady liberty ventured on a long journey to America. She crossed the roaring seas, disassembled in crates onboard French steamers, and finally arrived in New York to the warmest welcome, the welcome she had always craved.
America had to provide a pedestal for Liberty to stand, and with economic strains of the time, it seemed lady liberty would be destined to turn back. After all, the issue of money resurfaced once again putting in jeopardy her plans to stand among men.
But a strong woman perseveres, a strong woman inspires, and so she paid a visit to a young poet by the name of Emma Lazarus, and she whispered in her ear;
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Lazarus spread her words across America, and as Liberty spoke to her people, they accepted her, they gave to her pedestal, and they received her. And so Lady Liberty received them and stood amongst them, and her words which she whispered into Emma Lazarus, lay proudly on the foundation where she stands lifting up the fire ever since.
Port Said, a young city at the time was said to be unrivaled in its beauty, charm, and prime location. The city that brought the trade miracle of the Suez canal reveled in being the toast of the Mediterranean. But as the winds of time stripped its crowns and glories, the city cried out for Liberty.
I was born in Port Said in the early nineties, decades after lady liberty sailed the seas. And I’ve gotten to know it as an old forgotten king. His spirit roams through the city on a seemingly endless search for his one true love.
The king, robbed of everything he had and was, realizes the only thing he sincerely mourned is Liberty. Bits and pieces of her electric presence still roamed in the air, they helped people breathe through mourning and gather enough faith and courage to believe in the promise of its glorious return.
Still, I encountered undeniable energy in the air, and It was a subtle vibrancy that steadily flowed throughout its streets. My earliest memories of it take me back to my first day of primary school. As I looked out the school bus window, I saw that magical spark bounces off of one person to another, I saw it light up their faces with smiles with hopes, and I saw it walk them through the many hardships and daily inconveniences of life.
The spark ran through a little girl selling matches on the sidewalk. Then, it bounced to the farmer and his wife pulling their produce cart into the market. Then, to a young woman in a colorful dress as she balanced a giant basket of strawberries on her head. Then to an entire family on a motorcycle, and the contagious smile of the child in the back made me smile. As the family whizzed past us and vanished in the smoky traffic, I could feel that magic spark flow through me, looking for the next person to visit.
It was that magic spark that kept the bitterness, cruelty, and injustice from completely taking over the people of the city. In retaining and harnessing that spark, the weakest man in the eyes of the authorities is strong and can further draw strength from a source that is untouchable by any other man.
My first day in primary school started out dim. The bus arrived very late, and a skinny and shriveled man behind the wheel told me I had one second to find my place inside before he drove off with or without me. He’d packed the vehicle three times beyond its human capacity, and swelled with pride as he bragged that he’d never run out of a place to fit one more child. He had stacked the students one on top of the other with no inch to spare, and when he ran out of space on the seat rest or top of the seats or the floor, he came up with new places to put one more child. I made my way through a maze of bodies struggling to breathe, and with my face squished against the window, I focused on how much color and joy I could see and gather moving through the city.
Port Said’s preparatory language school was not an encouraging sight to behold: its graffiti-splashed walls stood tall and uninviting. Barbed wires spiraled above it, like the ones you find in a battlefield. And dangling like trophies from the wires were the torn uniforms of children who tried to run.
Inside, the hallway was littered with glass bottles, and cigarette buds and several mice scurried out of the empty chips bags on the floors. Our class door had no knob, it was wedged in, and as I tried to push the door open, bits of ceiling paint fall into my hair. I tried the light switch, but no there was no light, just barren and moldy yellow walls, and stacks of wooden desks covered in a thin film of dust.
I was just relieved I hadn’t seen Hana’a. She is the daughter of a wealthy family friend whose hand me downs kept finding their way to me, and who never tires of pointing it out. There was the talk that she is to join this school, but she has made no appearance so far, and I was relieved.
I thought that even if she did show up, she’ll see that I am wearing the school uniform now, and not one of her dresses, and she’ll leave me alone. I sank blissfully into my brand-new clothes, my crisp white cotton blazer, and navy-blue skirt. Uniforms are your best friend when all you have is one or two other outfits. They let you blend in and disappear in a sea of other students.
As soon as I sat down, my brand-new skirt ripped. A girl in the seat next to me told me I had to be careful of the nails; as often they stick out of the desk and chair. She introduced herself as Sally, and I told her my name’s Maysoun, but everyone called me May. Sally had a round flushed face with a sweet disposition, and her massive curly hair was pulled back into two braids at the back of her head.
She told me her mother had prepared her for this sort of thing and took a large piece of gum from her mouth and stuck it onto the nail that had ripped my skirt. Then she took out a couple of newspapers and spread them on the desk and chair to cover the bumpy wooden parts. She advised me not to worry about the skirt, as the tear wasn’t too visible and could be sewn back, and I was grateful.
“It’s… the… teacher!” an echo reverberated through the hallway and in a dense cloud of anxious frenzy, we all scattered back into our seats and stood frozen behind our desks like toy soldiers.
With every tap of her shoe, electric shivers pierced our spine, and her shoes got louder by second. She walked into our dead silent class, and we immediately sprung up to relay our rehearsed greeting in a united, dim, and monotoned voice.
She introduced herself as Ms. Basma, and as she spoke, she revealed her lipstick-stained teeth, which gave her an uncanny resemblance to a vampire. She meandered towards the chalkboard with fixed and focused eyes and picked up a wooden stick.
“Don’t be fooled, and don’t expect that I’ll use this on you,” she said, lifting the stick.
“Because this thing, is flimsy!” she broke it in half, then grabbed a boy by his collar and told him to go fetch her a broom from the janitor’s closet, which he did.
“Alright, listen up! You come late; I’ll feed you this. You forget your homework; I’ll feed you this. You get distracted, or you give me attitude, what do I do?” she said, raising her hand to her left ear.
“You feed us this,” we said simultaneously. I pondered the odd choice of words; “to feed us, a beating,” like it was some vital nutrient we were lacking. Ms. Basma took a piece of chalk and began writing on the board; the screech her hands made across the board came to a sudden halt. Her head rolled to the other side, and her hawk-eyed stair scanned the classroom and zeroed on to our desk.
She walked across to, leaned in and whispered, “What did I just say?”, then she grabbed on to one of Sally’s ponytails and dragged her by it to the front of the classroom.
“I told her to pay attention, and what does Miss Ponytail do? She fiddles around with the skin on her bratty lips. Isn’t this what you find so fascinating? So, distracting?”
She said as Sally burst into tears, then she ripped off Sally’s chapped skin till her lips bled and flung her back to our desk.
Sally’s face was blood red, and she fumbled to pick herself up as she chocked on her tears. I helped her up, and I tried to comfort her but the teacher glared at us and said if she heard one peep from either of us, she’ll put us in a dark infested room where giant rats would gnaw our fleshy ears off, and Sally looked at me to be quiet and stare at the board. She then put her hand on her mouth, quieting her whimpers into a couple of inaudible hiccups, and gave the board a fixed, blank, and robotic stare.
“You, come up to the chalkboard and fill in the missing alphabet. The word is girl,” Ms. Basma said, pointing at me.
I walked up to the board as she took out her blue chalk and scribbled the letters G-I-R-L. She handed me a piece of chalk, but I gave it back to her and said that no letters were missing.
“Are you calling me a liar you little brat?” Her eyes glared as I shook my head no.
“For your information, the missing letter is an e.”
“There’s no e in girl,” I said.
“No e in girl? I just told you there was and I’m the teacher. Are you, the teacher?”
“So, I am going to ask you for the very last time, is there an e in girl?”
“No, there is not.” Her eyes widened
“Someone, bring me that broomstick. Put your hands on the board.”
She grabbed the broomstick and beat me with it four times, each time asked me again, “Is there an e in girl?” and each time I gave her the exact same answer.
The day was finally over, and as soon as I went home, I jumped on to the sofa and sunk my head into its soft cushions. I relayed the events of the day to Mother and felt it slowly wear off as the cool breeze from the fan brushed against my skin. As bad as the day was, I am glad I had not seen Hana’a.
Hana’a always taunted me about wearing her hand-me-downs or those horrid dresses my parents picked out from the back of a pushcart. The cheap dyes bled into my skin, and for days after, my skin would be blue or red or purple or whatever the color of the dress was. Admittedly, I deserved more.
The annual feast of sacrifice was the only time of the year my parents bought me a brand-new outfit. As it was coming up soon, I asked my mother for a dress that came from a proper store and not a cart, and she said she’d bring it up with my father tonight.
“cheer up, sweet child. I believe today we’ll finally find out whether or not we’ll be moving to America. Over there, that teacher would get in a lot of trouble for doing what she’s done. You’re going to love living in Boston. You’ll see snow for the first time, seeing nature puts on that sparkling white gown is breathtaking!” she said.
“I think this exciting occasion calls for some music,” Mother said.
While that was strictly forbidden in our household by father, who believed that all music was detestable to God, especially music that featured a woman’s voice, and said it’s a source of great shame, Mother didn’t believe that. But she also found it pointless to argue with him, so hiding her favorite music tapes in her sewing box and taking out in his absence made more sense.
Palpable excitement and anticipation spread throughout our home. In the dining room, Mother and I set the table to the sound of music. As we placed the utensils in the napkin folds, we danced and occasionally used the spoons and forks as imaginary stage microphones.
Father’s arrival time drew near and life-changing news along with him. Mother lit some incense and prayed for America. Tendrils of sage puttered up out of the foggy glass bowl on the coffee table, and its smell warred with the thick, appetizing aromas coming from the kitchen.
She made kushari, Egypt’s national dish, which I called happiness on a plate. That heavenly mixture of lentils, rice, and noodles is then drenched in spiced tomato sauce and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions. She couldn’t have chosen a better meal for a coming celebration, but we had no idea whether there was anything to celebrate, and I worried about becoming too happy and attached when America could be little more than a pipe dream.
Father arrived, we gathered around the dining table. We were overcome with excitement and impatient to receive the news father had brought back. But he had a blank expression on his face and didn’t say anything, and I wondered if we got denied. Mother decided to ask him;
“So, what’s the verdict?”
“I don’t know yet,” he shrugged
“Did you even ask?” she asked; frustration and disappointment were highly visible in her tone. Father snapped, throwing his fork across the table, like an errant child and asking:
“What’s with the inquisition?”
“Calm down, I am confused because you’ve have been talking about this dream for a very long time. And now that it might actually be here, you don’t seem excited or optimistic about it,”
“Because I do not know if I am anymore. How do you know this is a good thing? How do you know we won’t to lose our daughter to homecoming dances and Christianity? This could be the biggest mistake we ever make.”
“Or the best decision. Maybe over there, May will get a much better education, and will excel and flourish in America,” she noticed she was losing him and decided to change her tune.
“Not to mention all positive effect it’ll have on you,” she said, he got more alert and asked her to elaborate.
“Just think of the prestige that comes with having Harvard medical school on your resume,” she said, and father seemed to brighten up.
“It would benefit us all. Perhaps, I could teach Arabic over there,” she said amid the excitement.
Father pounded his fist against the table, “Do you have any idea how that’ll make me look? We haven’t even gotten approved yet, and you’re already losing your way.”
She bit her lip and swallowed seeing the anger on his face, “I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to contribute, wanting a better life with more choices, like getting May a nice dress from a store instead of being limited to the carts and wagons.”
He said that money wasn’t the issue, but the principle, the desire to wear pretty things marked a lost soul, one more attached to this world than the hereafter. And the desire to be seen by other people will bring on the evil eye, the sinister eye of envy that has the power to cause great misfortune. And so modest clothing is the only way to not only be protected but respected as a person of God.
Why is the new dress necessarily about vanity? Couldn’t I just want to be comfortable in my clothing? I didn’t believe living as uncomfortably as you can make you a respectable person of God, just a supremely irritable person and for no good reason.
God reminded me of a secret garden. It’s full of music, joy, dancing, color, and life. I wondered my father was the one who’d inadvertently made other people his God, with reigns of power and control over his life given recklessly to other people by worrying all the time about their opinion of him. I wondered if, to him, God is more of a prison cell than a garden,
“I think God wants people to enjoy life more and have fun,” I said, forgetting that the word “fun” was my father’s Achilles heel.
“See what kind of example you’re setting for your daughter?” he said.
“Fine, I won’t mention it again,” she said while getting up to clear the dishes. I followed her to the kitchen with the rest of the plates.
She was muttering inaudibly to herself and appeared to be so deep in thought she did not notice me standing there at first. Her long black hair hid her face as she paced back and forth, dragging her white gown across the linoleum floor.
I asked her if she was alright and she told me that she regretted bringing it up at this time, then she kneeled and whispered;
“I have some money saved up from my father, and I’ll pick you up after school and take you to get a proper dress, we won’t tell him till we get it and I suppose he’ll just have to accept it by then.”
“But that’s for your jewelry,” I protested.
“you are my most precious jewel. I don’t need more jewelry, but I think you do” she took off her floral glass bead necklace and put it around my neck.
I was overwhelmed by the many choices at the store, I suppose I feared never being in one again, and so I wanted to savor every moment. I gazed at every dress, purse, and shoe like it was a piece of museum art. And just as I was becoming dizzy with options, one of the dresses spoke to me. It was a snow leopard faux fur dress, and when I put it on in the dressing room, I felt transformed. I tucked my dress neatly in plastic and hung it in the closet. Every chance I got, I would peek in and stare at it. I became addicted to how it made me feel. I couldn’t wait to wear it to the feast.
Aunt Afaf, my father’s younger sister, hosted the feast of sacrifice. She lived in a large downtown apartment with my grandmother who’s unfortunately gone senile and doesn’t remember any of us.
The men and women occupied different areas in the house, parents chatted and ate Baklava and other pastries while the children played and ran in and out of the hallway.
Nearly everything was festive, the massive Purple balloons and streamers that dangled from the ceiling, the night sky themed party hats and colorful gift envelopes. Everything but the one staple of most parties that remained strictly forbidden under the family roof; music.
There wasn’t much of a celebratory vibe without music. The place felt cold, but my dress was warm against my skin. Though, I still felt a chill the moment I saw Hana’a walk in, with her mother, and her little sister Dottie. I liked Hana’a’s mother as she was always full of fun and outspokenness. She even brought a music tape to the party, before my aunt took it away and told her music was not allowed, and she should’ve known better.
“You’re looking nice, are you wearing one of my dresses or is it someone else’s?” she said
“it’s mine, actually,” I said
“That’s surprising! Almost as surprising as that cute necklace. I think you should give it to me, as it matches my dress better.”
“It’s my mother’s necklace, I am not giving it to you.”
“Come on now; you’ve worn enough of my things, just give me that necklace.”
“How about you wear it for a little bit and give it back to me,” I took the necklace off, and she snatched it from my hands.
“I want it, give it to me,” said Dottie.
“Let me wear it first,” Hana’a said, shoving Dottie to the side.
“It’s a bit dull down here. I think I want to go on the roof,” Hana’a announced, knowing that no one was allowed up there. That rickety old roof had collapsed several times and is now said to be hanging on by some miracle. The filthy stairs that lead to that roof were also falling apart, and giant rats infested every nook and cranny of its dark and moldy walls. I ran after Dottie as I didn’t want her to get hurt.
I asked them several times to come back down, but Hana’a decided to taunt me by going further and further up, and I reluctantly followed. They started fighting over my necklace, and before I could stop them, they tore the string. The glass beads scattered and came crashing down the stairs. I tried to speak, but no words came out, and I went back inside in a state of disbelief.
I took that tape from Hana’a’s mother and popped it into the cassette player. I began to dance and got some of the other children to join in. It felt natural, as I shook the anger away and allowed waves of joy to move through me. I knew it was right. It felt like everything was right.
I struggled to understand why my father and aunt believed music and dance are inherently evil. Mother once told me I danced every-time she put music on when I was a just a baby. Father always said babies are born pure and innocent because they come from heaven. Well, I have always loved dancing, even as a toddler. I wondered if perhaps music is actually from heaven. The dancing, the joy, the laughter, and the music stopped when my aunt walked in and shut it down before my father decided to take me home so he could reprimand me for my behavior.
In the car, he kept saying if he knew this was how I’d turn out, he would’ve never had a child.
“Maybe, because you didn’t want a child, you wanted a barrel. It doesn’t talk, it doesn’t move, It doesn’t do anything, so it doesn’t attract attention. “I said.
He gripped my arms, “you don’t get to talk back to me, ever.” As he let go, he looked at me and said: “I wish I never had you.” Then he got out of the car and mother said he didn’t mean it. “Yes, he does,” I told her.
As soon as we got home, I sunk into the couch, feeling heavy and lethargic. Father walked in and stood in front of me,
“Go take that stupid dress off,” he said. I felt little motivation to get up and stared vacantly at the wall as I replayed what happened at the party.
“I’ll do it in a minute,” I said. Father folded the arms across his chest and impatiently tapped his foot.
“No, you’ll do it now.”
“I said, I’ll do it in a minute,”
“When your father tells you to do something, you don’t talk back, you say; yes Father I’ll do it at once!” his voice got deeper and louder and but after a point, all my ears could register was white noise. Like a raging bull, he had stern protruding eyes, and his face reddened with anger. With flaring nostrils and a pulsating vein on his forehead, he lifted me in the air and shook me.
My head jerked back and forth as the room spun around and with brutal force, then in an instant, he flung me against the wall and in a protective flinch, I drew my arms to my body. I let out a loud, primal scream as I hit the wall and fell to the ground.
A sharp incapacitating pain surged through my left arm. I heard a pop followed by the beat of my heart thrashing in my ears. Mother ran in and asked what happened. I was dizzy and ultrasensitive to every sound, touch, and image around me. I clutched my arm and tried to say something, but all I could muster was a bunch of incoherent sounds and urgent gasps for air.
“Your spoiled brat of a daughter doesn’t obey me and when she gets a well-deserved punishment tries to elicit sympathy with these theatrics,” he said.
I tried to move my left arm, but I wasn’t able to, I used the other one to carry it as it drooped and felt like it had disconnected from the rest of my body.
“I can’t move my arm, it’s dead,” I said crying, shaking my head and desperately trying to reanimate it.
“What do you mean you can’t move it?” she asked. Her fingers covered her parted lips as she stared at me incredulously.
“Do you believe everything the child says? How naïve are you? She is obviously making this up to gain your sympathy,” he said.
As they argued, I stumbled my way onto the living room couch. I hunched over and lay my head firmly against the cushion. The room swayed back and forth before black spots bubbled up on my periphery, and sleep took over.
I woke up to the sounds of them fighting.
“I’ll take her to the hospital,” Mother said as she paced back and forth
“You know you can’t do that,” said Father.
“I’ll tell them she fell,”
“What if she blabs?” he asked.
“She won’t, I promise!”.
Father sounded apprehensive. He’d built an amiable image of himself outside of our home; something like this could damage his reputation. He was afraid of what people would say.
After hours of arguing, he agreed to let her take me to the hospital. Doctors put me through the X-ray machine, and when the results came back, they revealed my left arm was broken. I wrapped my mother’s scarf around my neck, shoulder, and the fractured limb. I asked her when I’ll be able to move my arm again. She took a couple of deep breaths in and gazed into space as she pulled and twisted at her hair. After a moment of silence, she looked into my eyes and told me I might never be able to move my arms again.
Mother came with me to school and talked to my teacher.
“You know how weak and pale she is; so simply rolling off the bed at night just broke her arm,” she said
“She rolled off the bed?” she asked, and mother nodded.
“Ah what a clumsy girl, this does not excuse her from taking notes, she has one good arm,”
It’s harder to blend in a sea of students when you’re in a cast. As I walked through the hallway, everyone stared at me.
Hiding behind my hair, I tried to keep my gaze on the floor, but I heard my name being called and turned around, it was Hana’a. She asked about my arm.
“I fell,” I said clutching at my stomach.
“Yes, I fell; now leave me alone!” I said. As I was walking away, my knees weakened. I lost my balance and fell in the mud. I expected the girls in the yard to laugh and mock me like they do but instead everyone was silent, and I saw the look of pity on Hana’a.
Has Hana’a suddenly developed emotions? Or have I become just that pathetic? Nothing is worse than having your bullies take pity on you like you’ve become so tragic and feeble that even the cruelest of children can’t justify hurting you anymore.
“I’m fine; I’ll be moving my arm in no time, so do not feel sorry for me or anything,
“What happened shouldn’t have happened, “he said.
“No, it shouldn’t have”
“It’s obvious where the fault lies. You disobeyed your father, and the evil eye got you.” He fetched a pair of scissors, headed to the closet and took out the dress. I ran after him and told him not to cut it, but my words didn’t change a thing as he had a glazed look on his face and I wondered if he even heard me.
“It must be destroyed and rid of its evil,” he said ripping the plastic off of it as I pulled it with my right arm for as long as I could before he snatched it away and cut the dress into countless tiny black and white pieces.
That night I tossed and turned, and it took a while to drift off. I had a vivid dream;
I was following a trail of the bits and pieces of my dress. They pointed to an old squeaky door. Then, a hissing sound came from behind the door. When I pushed through I was in a mountain area, and I heard people screaming, and when I looked behind me at what was causing the scare, I saw a mighty snow leopard staring straight into me, and I saw myself in its eyes, and as my eyes drooped I felt myself transforming, and when I opened wide, I realized I had become it.
I saw my father, and as I walked towards him, I could feel myself get bigger. He ran from me, and so did others in my path. All the people who seemed big and scary ran away in terror.
The dress brought out a feeling and dormant force within me. And I woke up with the knowledge that this force will never be contained in a dress or anything but the human spirit. The dress probably helped me see it, but it’s been there long before it and will remain long after.
For the next few months, I believed I was strong, and I got stronger until I was able to move my arm again. That indescribable feeling of freedom as I took the cast off, was my first taste of what was to come. I got back from school one day to find my mother jumping for joy, we got approved for the American Visa, and it was a matter of weeks before we leave.
“We’re going to see lady liberty! You’re going to live in America. It’ll be our new home.”
“But father said we will come back soon,”
“Listen to May, I’ve spoken to a lawyer, and if I get good employment, I can file for adjustment of status, don’t tell him yet, but we are never coming back to Egypt. This will be our exodus.”