A Son of Baghdad

My parents were married for six years before my father decided to take a second wife. It was my fault. I had taken too long in coming.

Baba considered it an act of charity commendable by God Himself. The second wife was an orphan, a young woman whose mother had died a long time before and whose father, a merchant friend of Baba’s at Shorjeh’s spice souk, had passed away after a dragging struggle with lung cancer. But anyone who glanced at the framed wedding photograph of my father and his second wife—Baba insisted on keeping it in our living room, right next to the wedding picture with my mother—immediately saw that neither chivalry nor charity drove him to marry Selweh. God and kindness had nothing to do with anything. Lust, pure and simple.

After he married Selweh, Baba’s only kind gesture to my mother was to keep his women in two separate homes. But I suspect even this was not for the benefit of his wives; it was his own peace of mind he wanted to keep.

Whenever a storm erupted over Selweh between Baba and my mother, his customary line of defense was to invoke his loyalty to his deceased friend. He wanted to convince my mother that infatuation with Selweh had nothing to do with marrying her. “It was her father’s will,” Baba insisted, although not an official, written will, but more of a promise to a dear friend, a word of honor between men. They shook on it.

When he saw that my mother was smarter than that, Baba took up his second line of defense. He wanted a son, he told her. Most other men would have married again within the first year, but he was kind and gracious and patient to wait for six. He merely took advantage of what God Himself sanctioned. Who was she to forbid what God Himself allowed, made perfectly legitimate, perfectly halal? Allah Himself said that polygamy was fine; who was Mama, a mere mortal, to say it wasn’t? It was when I heard those words for the first time that I concluded, not without an avalanche of guilt of course, that God was not always fair, not always right in the mind. If God saw how my parents tore each other apart because of Selweh and how my mother suffered for it, I think He would have changed His mind.

Exactly nine months after they were married, Selweh gave Baba the son he’d always wanted. Baba named his firstborn Sajid—he who worships God by prostrating himself with his forehead to the ground. He was a miracle, a marvel.

But for me, Selweh was the real magic. She was nothing like my mother. None of my teachers looked like her. She was unlike any of our relatives or neighbors. To look into her big, grayish-black eyes was like being sucked into outer space, and once there, you sat on the edge of an amorphous rock and gawked at the twinkling stars orbiting the universe of her pupils while Apollo strung his lyre nearby. Her hair was like a shimmering veil of reddish-brown silk, long and voluminous. She stood tall, like a peasant with a naturally regal posture. Her expression as she sat next to my father for their wedding picture blended resignation with pride, as if she were thinking, “Although I have agreed to this, I am perfectly aware that I am too good to be with this man!” She was eighteen years old; my father was thirty-five.

As fate would have it, my mother became pregnant with me some fifteen months after Selweh gave birth to Sajid. And though Baba was elated to be a father of two sons instead of one, and my mother could finally claim herself Selweh’s equal in fertility if not in beauty, the rift between my parents had pushed them too far apart, and they never forgave me my delay.

Whenever Mama twirled like a tornado at the mention of Selweh’s name in our house and my father’s usual defenses failed to appease her, Baba flailed about as if he wrestled with unseen monsters. His jaw quivered, his face turned crimson and beaded with sweat. He hurled whatever he got his hands on at my mother. Mugs, ashtrays, jars of pickles. And if those were not around, he unfastened his belt or took off his thick-soled sandals and shot them at her with the precision of a seasoned sniper. But none was as effective as his fleshy, calloused hands. They silenced her.

Whenever Mama was “disciplined” by my father, she picked up the most primitive of female weapons, silence—the weapon of the helpless and the most powerful. For days she locked herself up in her room until her scars faded, and she geared up for the next battle. Early in the morning, after Baba went to his shop, she came out to fix the three meals of the day, covered the food with foil wraps, left it on the stove or inside the oven, and returned to her self-imposed exile within the four walls of her room. From the swiftness with which she finished those morning chores I sensed that she not only feared that a neighbor or a street peddler might see her in that condition—her face swollen and greenish purple, streaked with gleaming streams of tears—but was too proud to let Sajid, the son of her nemesis, rejoice in his mother’s victory over her.

After she went into her room I often pressed my ears to the door and heard her small, anguished sobs, low and rickety like the squeaks of hungry mice. If she ever stopped crying it was only to blow her nose and take a deep, long breath in preparation for the recital of antidistress suras from the Koran. Sometimes I’d venture inside. I’d find her sitting in the middle of the bed hemmed in by a spread of time-yellowed photographs depicting idyllic scenes of young love. Picnics for two, riverside walks, dreamy gazes into distant horizons, the languid air of domestic harmony, remnants of her past happiness with my father.

It would take her a long time to notice that I came into the room, and when she finally looked up and saw me sitting at the edge of her bed, she looked at me as if I were an unreliable salvation. She fixed her eyes on me as if she wished she could transform me into something I could never be. Something worthier, something worth suffering for. Her eyes probed me, sized me up, interrogated me. She seemed to wonder why in the world she took beatings and insults over someone so disappointing as I was, someone who did not even have the nerve to defend his own mother. Then, like someone stabbed by the discovery of her wishful thinking, she started to cry again, more bitterly than before.

One afternoon, when I felt I could no longer bear to remain in the room, I got up to leave, but that’s exactly when she decided to say something. She leafed through her spread of pictures and muttered jumbled sentences, as if she were improvising captions for them, summaries of what life once was, life before Selweh and before me. She was fond of reminding me of how her pregnancy was difficult, the labor long and excruciating, her gallons of blood lost, the doctors saying she’d never survive.

She regarded me with a scalding expression, a warning not to turn into my father. For six years, she told me, Baba assured her that he was happy with things as God willed them. To be childless was not the worst fate. Baba knew men whose misfortunes were far worse. “You’re thinking way too much about this, Amneh,” Mama said, grotesquely imitating Baba’s voice and mimicking his sham sincerity. “I don’t want a child as much as you think I do.”

Baba also insisted that he was not the kind of man who questioned God’s will or even complained about it under his breath. God hates grumblers and complainers. He rarely hesitates about throwing them into hell. Since Allah always had larger, better reasons for the fates He dealt us, complaining was to deny Him this wisdom. If Allah willed that Baba should live and die childless, so be it. He told my mother that it was blasphemous, really haram, to defy God’s will at the same time he told her it was halal to marry Selweh.

I often wondered if my mother had once been anything but glum and woeful. In the pictures she wept over, she had the sunniest smile on her face. In those days Baba was young, handsome, and self-made. Before Selweh, Baba had the most scathing opinions of those men who teetered and toppled in front of beautiful women and made complete fools of themselves; after Selweh he became their commander in chief.

I too teetered in front of Selweh—not only because she was beautiful and different, but also because I was tired of my mother’s hope for me. Once she’d decided that Baba was a lost cause, my mother refocused all her energies on me. She wanted me to be her savior. She wanted Baba to take greater pride in me than he did in Sajid. She wanted me to consecrate myself to her. But I was already in Selweh’s clutches.

It started when I began to spend time at Selweh’s place, Baba’s “second home,” during my third year at Ba’ath Elementary. I was six years old.

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