I started college just a couple months after the funeral. I held Mama's death like a secret in my mouth. It was strange at first when people asked me, “What do your parents do?” Those sorts of questions did not belong to me anymore. But I played along. I spoke about them in the present tense. Sometimes, I made stories up about how they returned to the motherland, and how I would reunite with them in Libya once I completed my studies. “That’s the only reason I’m here,” I would say. And it did not always sound like a lie. I was afraid of what may come with telling, and telling the truth felt like a betrayal of the most intimate part of who I was.
The day Mama was buried, my friend Aileen sat beside me in the musallah. The imam gave the khutbah before we pray janazah over her. Aileen interrupted my mourning and asked, “Why does the men’s side have more art on the wall than the women’s side? It’s so unfair.” Her eyes read the room, where five pieces of art hung on the walls, disgusted.
I continued to weep in the middle of the open space, touched by the hands of people who I had not seen in months and years. The imam was upright, and spoke into the microphone for all to listen: “If Nadia had obeyed her husband, this would not have happened.”
Upon hearing his statement, I felt a tightness in the space right below the center of my ribs. After we all prayed janazah over my parents, and exited the masjid, I immediately wanted to go back inside and confront the imam. I wanted to tell him how wrong he was. How dangerous it is to fault my mother for the choices my father made. But I had been powerless -- and I knew it then that my words carried no weight.
I never told anyone about the lecture that day. And of the hundreds who sat in and listened to the imam’s instruction, no one said anything. I didn’t tell anyone else what the imam said, either, because I didn’t want anyone else to look at me the way Aileen already had.
My little brother and I were sitting at the kitchen table under dim lights. Mama rested her head at the tip of her knuckles as she studied for her upcoming USPS post exam. She’d been looking for work, hustled at the flea market, managed her baking business on the side, and her latest idea had been to deliver the mail. Mama would read out loud oftentimes. Sometimes she had me read long-winded paragraphs in English to her, which she attempted to write down on paper, and had me correct it with a red pen, as if I was her teacher. Baba was in the living room right across from us watching television. He called Mama over to him.
She set her pen atop her notes and walked over to Baba. I watched her as she marched to war. Baba hadn’t hurt Mama before -- not physically -- but he frightened me. I was scared for her, and terrified of him.
Mama stood in front of him and waited for him to tell her what he called her over for, he demanded her to sit down on the ground in front of him.
He shook her whole body back and forth, then grabbed the rocking chair and launched it at Mama. She cowered and dodged it. I ran to my older brother’s room from the kitchen table, tears streaming down my neck, and screamed, “Baba’s hitting Mama!”
For the next two weeks, Mama shared my bed with me. Every night, she held me until she fell asleep. I would listen to her breathe, feel the heat of her whisper at the nape of my neck, always sure to follow her pace.
In the middle of the night, my father stormed into my room and grabbed Mama by the wrist. I awoke to a large silhouette and my father’s shouting. Mama was on her knees behind me in bed, struggling to break free from his grip. I got on my knees and spread my arms like wings in front of her.
“Leave her alone!” My older brother came rushing to the room and pulled my father back a few steps.
“Fine. But just tonight. This is the last night you sleep here,” my father said. “If you’re not back in our room tomorrow, you’ll see what happens.”
When summer arrived that year, the recession welcomed itself into our home, uninvited. My father’s small computer shop lost more and more business, and Mama spent what little free time she had selling anything we owned that people would be willing to buy, frantically posted ads on Craigslist and listed garage-sale dates in the newspaper. Every day was spent making a store outside the front of our home. We spent early Saturday mornings posting huge yard sale signs across town to direct people to our house. Families came in with nothing and then left with our bed frames, desks, tables, books, china, paintings, Libyan baskets and pottery, and the dozens and dozens of plants—mint, jasmine, tulips, lilies, and, Mama’s favorites, gardenia and lavender—which Mama had lovingly tended to for so many years. They give us the money and load the keepsakes of our memories into their cars and drive off. This is the summer we lost everything.
We moved out of our house in early July and into my father’s computer shop. It wasn’t big, and it wasn’t a home. When we carried the last of our things into the shop, after the sun went down, after the neighbors locked their doors for the night, Mama held her arms around me and my older brother and apologized to us as she wept.
“I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”
And it was impossible to convince her that it was not her fault, that we were going to be alright because we had each other.
When I was in the seventh grade, it had long been one of Mama’s traditions to gift our teachers annually during Teacher Appreciation Week in May. She used it as an opportunity to advertise her cooking skills. There was so much love and magic in Mama’s food that I believed God has blessed her with her own personal ingredient; no one else’s food tasted the same, not even Hnena’s. Mama wanted to open a bakery someday. She already had a name for it. Business cards, too, with her contact information and all. But for now, she’s just cooking from home.
That year, for each and every one of my teachers, she baked Libyan pastries that she had me deliver throughout the week. One of the pastries, my absolute favorite, is made out of a sweet dough—ka’aka. Every time she rolled the dough, Mama gave me a small portion and let me shape it however I liked. I sometimes molded a smiley face, or an uneven heart, or I formed letters to say “I love you” or “Mama,” carefully placing the words across the baking pan. Most of the time I rolled the dough up into one huge ball and sunk my teeth into it, raw, letting the mix melt on my tongue.
I walked into my World History class that early Monday morning before the bell rang, when the class was still empty. My history teacher was at his desk in his usual blue button-down polo shirt, white tennis shoes, and off-white khaki shorts, exposing his knees. I handed him the oyster pail filled with Mama’s pastries.
“What is it?” Mr. Monty asked. I saw his chest hairs peeking out from where he stopped buttoning his shirt. He placed the box on his desk, slowly lifting the folds.
“Sweets. My mom made them,” I said proudly.
Mr. Monty flatly thanked me, then, with the box half-opened, hunched his back to peer inside it with squinted eyes in mock suspicion. He grinned, then glared sideways and asked me, “Is it going to blow up?”
Three days after my high school graduation, the tension at home swelled. My father was quiet, unpredictabl. I heard my parents fighting in the back room where Mama and I used to sleep before Mama called my name and I hurried to reach her. I watched my father towered over her again, but my brothers weren’t home, so I was the one who used my body to interrupt his blows. “Kelba,” he hissed at Mama.
“Drubni!” She shouted, showing me the horizontal mark he left on the side of her forehead. Somehow Mama was and always has been fierce and fearless, even in the face of violence. “nly fear Alla,” she would often instruct me.
I pushed my father away at his chest. “Baba, just get away. Just leave her alone. Please!”
I tried to be calm and composed but all I felt was myself breaking like I was thirteen years old again, watching my father hit her for the first time from that dimly lit kitchen.
“Don’t tell anyone, or else!” he threatened, and walked out of our room.
I hugged Mama, and we walked over to the mirror hanging by the door. She looked at the mark he left on her skin, furious. She turned to my ear and told me that she was leaving for a bit, using the back door to exit, and to meet her outside once I got dressed, since I was still in my pajamas. But as soon as the steel door rattled closed, my father rushed behind. I caught his expression when he sped past my room. I didn’t know what he was capable of, but the look on his face haunted me. I felt like God was trying to tell me something. I follow behind him before I have the time to change. “Baba, just leave her alone!” I screamed. But he ignored me. This man is not my father. I pleaded for his mercy, but he didn’t listen.
He raced ahead of me. Once he was outside, he shut the door in my face to lock me inside the shop. But I pushed harder, with tears streaming down my face, landing in the hollow of my collarbone, until I was outside with Mama. I was not breathing then, just gasping for air.
I saw our neighbors watching us, some across the street peering over their balconies. Mama hugged me. “Don’t cry,” she whispered, and smoothed my face dry with her hands.
My father kept telling me, “Go inside the shop, Nour, I just want to talk to your mother for a little bit.” But I can’t go. There was no certainty of promise in his voice when he said, “After I talk to her, you two can go on your walk.”
My father blocked Mama as she tried to walk away.
“You need help lady?” one of our neighbors offered.
“No, I’m fine, thank you,” Mama said. I went over to her and took her hand and I led her down the alley to get away from my father. The only reason I was not scared of my father is because I thought he would not do anything to me. I have always been afraid of him, but I have always been more afraid or y mother. I have witnessed his anger, but that anger always manifested itself against Mama -- never us, never in the same way. I stood in front of her the entire time, like a human shield, while my father loomed in front of me, saying “Just go inside the shop, Nour. Two minutes, then you two can leave for however long you want.”
“It’s okay, Nour,” Mama interrupts after some time. “Go inside the shop and let him say whatever he wants to say to me.”
I could tell she was annoyed with my father, already certain of the words he would throw at her once I left. But I still can’t move. Mama must tell me five or six times to leave before I finally did.
The neighbors continued watching at the edge of the alley. I was convinced that the worst my father would do is to choke her once I leave, but I trusted my neighbors enough to know that the three of them would intervene.
I refused to go inside the shop. I just walked the few yards to the steel back door by the tree as I listened to my father yell at her, with her arms crossed the entire time, listening to the same old song that she’s been hearing from him for so long. I imagine him hurling his harsh words at her. ou’re a whore, a bitch, a disbeliever.
My father dug his hand into his back and pulled out a black handgun. The whole sun shone against it. He aimed the muzzle at Mama’s chest. Horror disfigured her face. She shrieked out my father’s name: “Mohammed!”
I watch her body collapse in the alley. A flock of birds erupted from the tree.
Another shot rings out.
This is all I can remember. According to the autopsy, there was a fifth, sixth, and seventh. Mama is dead.
And I run. I run.
My father once took Jalal and me to Amu Yusuf’s house. Jalal and I played in the garden while he and Amu sat at the patio and talked. My father called Mama a cheater. He thought that there was another man in her life. Maybe he only thought so because he felt like Mama did not love him anymore. He needed a name for his losses.
Amu Yusuf listened to him as Aunty Yasmine poured the tea and nodded in agreement. I became hot with anger. I wished I could have told my father to stop making up lies about Mama, but I had no power over him. He was the one who has power over me, and power over my mother. I didn’t tell anyone what happened that day because I was concerned that, like Amu Yusuf and Aunty Yasmine, they would believe my father over me.
The cops gather my brothers and I at the police station that night. We are placed in separate parts of the compound before we are privately interviewed. After six hours of pacing in the printing room, I am finally called in. Three male officers sit across a desk from the me. our father was mortally wounde, the one in the middle said to me. e aimed his gun at a responding officer and was taken to Kaiser. He didn’t make it. am not sad or hurt. All I feel is anger. It is all I can feel. Mama is dead, and so is the man who is responsible.
I was wearing my little brown velvet dress at seven years old. We were living in the house on Georgia Street then. I walked over to Baba, who was sitting at the edge of his
and Mama’s bed, where the sun would not reach, and turned around to let him zip the back for me. His hands were so gentle. Baba lifted the beige satin ribbon hanging down my waist and tied it into a soft bow at the small of my back.
“Ya banoota,” he would call me. My daughter.
My brothers and I moved in with one of the community members from the mosque. There were already ten people living there and, with us, it became fourteen. Over the next several weeks, my eyes became dark and sunken. I lost weight. I didn’t sleep, or perhaps I slept too much. My hair fell out in clumps. I watched the glow of the moon every night, and slept to its calm. Ramadan came and went. Everyone around me urged me to move on. Everyone around me acted like nothing ever happened.
The morning of her burial was grim. The community was gathered at the mosque early, waiting for the imam to begin the khutbah, waiting for him to hold my mother accountable for my father’s choices.
When I visited one of Mama’s old friends, she had told me, “Nour, please, don’t get upset. I’m not trying to blame your mom for what he did, but just understand: There is always something the woman can do. It’s her job to make sure the marriage remains in place, and to not anger her husband.”
I took a deep breath, as if to dissolve the anger I had built up. I swallowed all the words I wanted to say but as they slipped down my throat, they were shards of glass. I needed to say something. I wanted to tell her how wrong she was. I wanted to tell her how reckless her words were. I wanted to tell her that women continue to die because of people like her. That their murders go unnoticed in the world because of people like her.
I said nothing. I let the moment pass.
I ponder how different the outcome could have been for my mother had faith leaders and the Muslim community at large addressed the issue of domestic violence in a way that encouraged women to seek help, rather than asking for their silence. For all women, and Muslim women in particular, naming this violence is the difference between life and death. But for Muslim women, branded as submissive and in need of saving, the intersection of Islamophobia and misogyny makes seeking help even more difficult.
The coroner released Mama’s body on a morning that would have been beautiful to me on any other day. We prayed salatul janazah over her, then drove two hours to the nearest Islamic cemetery, and gardened her body in the dirt like a seed.
After living in America for twenty six years, only in death did it become her home.
Nour Naas is a Libyan writer and domestic violence advocate living in Vallejo, California. She is a VONA/Voices and Winter Tangerine fellow whose work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, The Establishment, Huffington Post, and The Rumpus. She is currently at work on a collection of essays exploring her grief in the aftermath of her mother's death and the Libyan revolution.