By Sasha Fried, TIWP Student
I have refused to give in to the Taliban ever since they entered my home country, Pakistan, when I was 10. I have never in my life gone to school. I don’t know how to read or write. I don’t have any memory of ever seeing my mom’s hair or face. And yet, I still don’t give in.
My name is Aisha, which means Mother of the Believers. In the Quran (similar the the bible or torah) Aisha is the name of Muhammad’s third wife. She is said to be smart and kind, wise and brave. Traditionally in Pakistan, when a daughter is born, people feel empathy for the parents. When a son is born, they throw a party and receive gifts. My mother may have accepted the sympathy, but my father did not.
When I was born, my father saw something in me. Something fierce, he tells me. Something kind. That is why he insisted on naming me Aisha. So that without knowing me very well, you actually know a lot about me. My whole life he has taught me to stand up for myself, to stay true to my heart. I just wish I had grown up without the Taliban. Without their takeover in 2007, I would’ve had a normal childhood. Nice, even.
But I don’t have a normal life. And I don’t think I ever will again.
Swat Valley, Pakistan
10 years old
It was a hot summer day in my village, Hazara. I was behind the small cottage my parents, brothers and I lived in, tending to our lettuce. It was dying, for it didn’t have enough water. I didn’t either. Our village was small, without things like running water or electricity. At that age I didn’t even know those existed.
To get water in our village, you first had to hike to the small water pump on the west side. You then had to spend 15 minutes continuously pumping the water up from the well, to get only 30 oz of water. After that, you boiled it until all the germs were gone. So we didn’t have that much water.
Once I finished tending to our lettuce, I looked up at the sky. It was lazuline blue, with only a few puffs of small, dense clouds dotted around. It was the perfect day, or so I thought.
I heard the screams before I heard the gunshots. Then it was the bombs. Then silence.
The ground shook, the crashing wood and concrete drowning out the people yelling in Pashto. I ran inside to see my mother and brothers praying and bowing helplessly, while my father looked out our one window. His face was grim, and he looked older then I had ever seen him before. My immediate reaction was to go over and comfort him, but I knew better. So I started reciting the Holy Quran with the rest of my family.
By nightfall the guns had stopped, but every so often we would hear another bomb drop, feel the powerful shakes of the ground. My father still hadn’t moved from his spot in front of the window. My mother was comforting my younger brothers.
“Baba?” I said, not loud enough to wake my brothers, but not quiet enough so he wouldn’t hear me. “What is going on?” My voice trembled as I spoke, but I forced myself not to cry. I had to stay strong for him.
“I don’t know, Pisho,” my baba replied softly. Pisho was an affectionate nickname that roughly translated to kitty in Pashto, a native Pakistani language. “All that I do know is that it is not safe for you or your Ammi to go outside. And you must start wearing your niqab, or at least your hijab.” Niqabs and hijabs were forms of hair and face coverings worn in Pakistan and other Muslim countries. A hijab covered your hair while a niqab covered everything except your eyes. The more extreme -a burqa- covered everything, showing absolutely no skin.
“No Aisha. No exceptions. I’m sorry Pisho.” Baba walked away, leaving me grumbling. My 10 year old mind was more upset over the fact I now had to wear a niqab then the fact that most of my village had been destroyed that day. And that was just the beginning.
Swat Valley, Pakistan
12 years old
The smell of eggs sizzling in the pan woke up the whole family that morning. My brothers gathered happily around me as I put equal portions of that days three eggs onto plates. It was more than we had had in a while.
“Thank you Aisha!” My brothers announced in unison. It seemed like they were more talking to the eggs than to me.
“You’re welcome. Now eat up, it’s almost time for school.” My voice cracked at the word school. I wasn’t going to cry. I was just wishing I got to say it more often.
After Ammi handed them their books, I ushered them out the door, not quite pushing them but not being the most gentle either.
“You don’t want to be late! Ali, don’t forget to finish your test BEFORE you start playing,” I said. Ali is 9. “And Hamza,” I said to my 7 year old brother. “Do not push Khaan today. He will get mad again. Be kind.” Khaan was Hamza’s nemesis. They fought every day. Even though to other people, a nemesis didn’t sound fun, to me it sounded like freedom.
“Yes Aisha,” Ali said, rolling his eyes and walking out the door.
“Yes Aisha,” Hamza echoed. Hamza barely said anything that Ali didn’t say first. It was just who he was.
When both boys had left, I started scrubbing the dishes over the basin. We did not have enough water to wash them, so every day I scrubbed them as much as possible with my hands and then hoped they were clean enough for my Ammi not to say anything. She had very high standards, even in our simple life.
I then retreated to to the room I shared with my brothers and laid down on our shared bed. It was a dirty double bed with a stained blue blanket and two small pillows. The headboard was scratched but an enchanting shade of burnt topaz. My parents had found it in the town dump, but knew immediately it was worth saving. I was 2 at the time.
I stared at the ceiling, with it’s dark stains and cobwebs. The ceiling that could have been exploded at so many different times. The ceiling told a story. A dark one. A sad one. A hopeful one. The ceiling told the story of my life.
I stood up, my back aching from the position I was laying in. I needed fresh air, not that our air was fresh. It was raw, smokey, and stung your lungs.
Our door was still open. I guess that’s why the entire house smelled like death. Or maybe that was just how it always smelled.
I started walking. I didn’t really have a destination, so I went into autopilot and let my feet guide me. I ended up at the town dump, which had mountains of trash so lofty I could barely feel the sun on my face anymore. I looked up at the small patch of sky I could still see. It was smokey and brown, and every so often a burst of light and sound would light up the patch.
A piece of crumpled paper hits me in the face, slowly drifting down towards my feet. I lean down to grab it and it wafts away. I walk over to try again and it does the same thing. Finally, I pick it up.
The Past and The Future
A 9/11 Surviver Talks About Racial Profiling and How The Day In Her Life Unfolded
10:45 am, Tuesday, September 11, at the Malik house
Led By Lucy Mitri
“That’s in 6 days,” I thought to myself. And it was a girl! I had to go. I just wasn’t sure how.
Back at my house, I was washing the window for my father, for when he returns from his job at the market. I knew he would be spending time in front of it.
The old landline phone in the kitchen rang. I jumped, for almost no one called that phone. Almost no one knew it existed.
I walked over, picking it up so it would stop ringing. This was my first time touching it. I had never had to before.
“H-hello?” I asked shakily in Pashto. There was a bit of static before I heard a reply.
“Aisha? Is that you?” The voice spoke broken Pashto, but had no accent. Strange.
“Who is this?” I stared at the piece of wood we used as a counter, as if I was trying to memorize every stain, every dent.
“I’m your aunt, Sania Davi. I know you don’t remember me, but I remember you.” I almost dropped the phone. I once eavesdropped on my Ammi talking to her friend about her sister, who had betrayed her family and run off with an American man. That she had a daughter now, with an American name. Daisy. At the time I thought she was joking, but now I knew she wasn’t. It seemed a little weird that she would joke about that.
“Are you- why did you- I- um… okay.” I heard a shaky breath from the other side.
“Tell your Ammi that I am coming back to Hazara tomorrow. I want to make amends. I want her to meet Daisy. I want you to meet Daisy too.”
I nodded, even though she couldn’t see me. “Okay. I will. I am looking forward to your visit.” I carefully placed the phone back onto the holder. My life was really about to change.
Swat Valley, Pakistan
The Next Day
12 years old
I hadn’t told my Ammi and Papi that my aunt was coming yet. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see their reaction, but I was the only one who could tell them. So I was going to do it. Probably.
I was thinking that all day, so you can imagine my surprise when our door opened at lunchtime. Me and Ammi were scrubbing the ground, aka our “floor.”
“Yasmeen?” A shrill voice called out. It sounded similar to the one on the phone. The back of my throat started to burn.
“Aunt Yasmeen?” A different voice called out. My throat burned more. I turned and looked at my mom, guiltiness plastered all over my face. She was looking towards the door with her mouth hanging near her ankles. That’s what I assumed, anyway. She was wearing her niqab.
“Sania?” Ammi’s voice was shaking. I couldn’t tell if it was sadness or anger.
Probably both. A woman who I assumed was my Aunt Sania glided over to our counter, a girl probably my age trailing behind. Sania was wearing nothing to cover her face, or her hair. Scandalous. Her pale yellow long sleeved shirt was low cut, not enough to make someone blush but definitely enough to show off what was there. Her long flowy pants were a light color of blue, with tan ankle boots hiding underneath.
The girl, Daisy, was wearing something even more improper. Her shirt was so short and tight it was if there was nothing there are all, the sage green piece of fabric exposing her bellybutton, if you wanted to call it fabric at all. It was a piece of thread, a headband at the most.
The same went for her shorts, which were more like underwear, as they were low waisted, washed blue denim, and putting the “short” in shorts. As if they weren’t bad enough, they had rips. When my clothing ripped, my Ammi quickly sewed it back together, cursing me for wasting Papi’s precious money. And yet it seemed this girl liked it.
Her sandals were as tall as a stray cat, an exquisite shade of cream. It seemed as if she wasn’t sure what a custom even was. And she was supposedly Pakistani. But I guess there is no shame in America. What an improper place. But then again, in America, girls could be more than just housewives. It was complicated.
My Ammi and Aunt Sania both stared at each other. Without knowing they were related, you would have never known. It looked as if they were from different universes.
At the same time, in the same tone, they started to speak. They sounded joyful, fearful, and extremely sad all at once. The last time I heard Ammi talk like this was when my father came home, the day after the Taliban invaded our village. He was bleeding and limping, his face painted in anguish. His eyes hadn’t sparkled since.
The Taliban shot him on his left ring finger, bouncing off the ring that was now forever gone. It grazed the edge of his finger, and he bled for a long time. Our house was filled with emotions that day. I cried through the night. I still don’t know why they did it. But every night since, my father left after our evening prayers. He didn’t come back until the wee hours of morning. He never explained it to me or our brothers. I don’t know if he explained it to Ammi.
I think that night shaped who I was. I hate when people leave. I hate not knowing where people are. I hate helplessness. I hate the Taliban.
But this felt different, somehow. There was less sadness, more joyfulness. But the fear stayed the same.
They broke into a rhythm, one of them asking something in Pashto, the other answering. My Ammi’s flowery use of words were so different from my Aunt Sania’s broken Pashto, and yet, their voices sounded like they were meant to be heard together.
I broke my gaze away from them and turned my head over to Daisy. She was looking at a phone, or what I assumed was one. I knew what they were but had never seen one.
Daisy suddenly aimed her icy blue eyes at me. Our eyes met, but neither of us pulled away until we heard our names.
“Aisha, why don’t you show Daisy where our garden is?” Asking me to show a visitor our garden was not something Ammi had ever asked me to do before. I was guessing she wanted to be alone with Aunt Sania.
“Of course Ammi.” I took a step and then stopped when Daisy didn’t move. I didn’t want to be rude so I kept walking, hoping she would follow me. Eventually she did.
I walked out of the broken back door, leading the way to the small lettuce garden. Seeing the dying lettuce gave me shivers. Ever since that day when I was tending to my lettuce and the Taliban arrived, I have avoided this garden. Seeing it gave me flashbacks. I couldn’t go closer, so I stopped, watching the dust around my feet adjust to me stopping. Daisy caught up.
“You know they’re trying to get rid of us, right? I don’t think there is anything here worth seeing.” Her words were sharp but her tone kind. My view of her softened a little.
“Ye-ah.” Daisy spoke English, so I did too. It sounded like I had a mouthful of molasses, the sounds twisting and turning in my throat, almost as if I couldn’t open my mouth all the way. I was fluent in English, but I hated how I sounded speaking it. My intelligence was gone, my edge gone with it.
“So, uh, what do you guys do for fun here?” She sounded so innocent I almost laughed.
“For fun? Well, sometimes I read, if I finished all my chores already. And if I can find a good book in the du-, I mean shelf.” I almost said dump but stopped myself in time, hoping that Daisy would shrug it off as part of my accent.
“You read? For fun?” She sounded pitiful, but I wasn’t sure why. “Have you ever played Candy Crush?” I shook my head, causing her to smile and pull out her phone, tapping the screen a few times before handing it to me.
I had never held a phone before. It was surprisingly light, with her smooth and cool yellow case feeling soft to the touch. I squinted at the screen until my eyes adjusted to the sun.
“You click here,” Daisy announced, pointing to a bright green button that said ‘start’. Suddenly the screen lit up with candies and colors, and I dropped the phone into the dirt. Daisy squealed like a piglet, bending down and wiping the phone off as if it had been a newborn baby. She glared at me.
“I- I’m so sorry! It was an accident!” My apology was cut short by gun shots. This wasn’t unusual, but Daisy shrunk down and an expression I can only explain as terrified masked her face.
The bombs were next, right on schedule. BOOM! CRASH! PAT-A-TAT-A-TAT! This symphony was followed up by a chorus of screams. Then it started again. My mother’s voice rang through our house.
“Aisha!! Ali!! Hamza!! Come here, quick!” My Ammi never yelled this loud. That is when I realized I could still hear the guns. They were close. I looked over at Daisy, her lofty sandals still cemented to the ground.
“Hurry! We must run, now!” Daisy looked at me but she still didn’t move. “Now!” I knew she wasn’t going to move on her own, so I grabbed her hand and tugged her towards the house until she started to run.
SLAM! The door closed behind us. Ammi, Aunt Sania, Ali, and Hamza were waiting for us. Ammi gasped.
“No! They are going to shoot you if you are wearing that!” Aunt Sania and Daisy looked at each other and their eyes widened. “Come, hide in my room! Sania, borrow my black burqa and Daisy you take Aisha’s! Go!”
As soon as the doors to Ammi and my room were closed, a pounding on the door made the rest of us jump. Ammi started to move towards the door, which led Ali amd Hamza to hug me and tremble in my arms.
“Hello, sirs. What can I do for you?” I was shocked at my Ammi’s calm voice. I could see the Taliban men’s guns poking out of the door.
“Let us look around,” a deep gruff voice said. Four men wearing traditional white clothing walked in, aiming their guns at nothing in particular. They came over to me and my brothers. “And who are you?” The middle one said, with the same voice I heard before.
“These are my children,” Ammi said in an almost pleading way. “Please don’t hurt them.” The men laughed at this.
“Where is your husband? And there is no one else here? Our sources say someone entered your house an hour ago.”
“My husband is working, earning his keep for our family. And yes, my sister arrived earlier with her daughter.” The middle man, who was the only one speaking to us, (and presumably the leader) all but rolled his eyes.
“Lead me to them. Now.” His Pashto was stern and menacing, his words commands not requests. Ammi walked towards her bedroom door. They followed, the stomping of their boots sending dirt flying everywhere.
She turned the knob to reveal and fully burqa-ed Aunt Sania, looking down and then up at the Taliban soldiers. “Hello sirs,” Aunt Sania said with a slight quiver in her voice.
“Where is the girl, the one without any covering?” Aunt Sania looked at her feet just as the door to my bedroom opened.
Daisy was wearing my best burqa, a dusty rose coloring with white trimming. I usually only wore it for very, very special occasions. I took a deep breath as my fists started to clench at my sides.
“Hello sirs,” Daisy said, echoing her mom. “Was it me you wished to see?” She mistakenly said the last sentence in English. My insides churned.
“You! You are American, are you not? You dare come to our country looking like an awful, untraditional, scandalous girl! And to speak English to us?! You must be punished for your actions,” the man said, as the other soldiers raised their guns.
“No!” Aunt Sania called out, jumping protectively in front of Daisy. I gasped.
“Take me, I beg of you, please do not hurt my child!” The sound of a gunshot banged, and I felt my head lighten as Aunt Sania fell to the floor. Then everything was black.
Swat Valley, Pakistan
3 Days Later
12 Years Old
Death does not sort the people knocking at its door. If you come within seeing distance of the entrance, there is no escape. Death does not discriminate between the sinners and the saints. The day Aunt Sania was taken came too soon. She didn’t have time to say goodbye. None of us did.
Daisy hasn’t said a word since her mom fell to the floor. My Ammi just keeps saying two words over and over again. “Too soon, too soon.” None of us have left the house. My father hasn’t returned to hear the news, if that’s what you choose to call it. We have nearly starved.
According to Islamic faith a burial must take place as quickly as possible after death. The body is covered in a sheet by family members, and then buried. No ceremony. No visitation. The family lives in its grief, each minute passing heavier than the last. I did not know Aunt Sania very well, but there is still a hole inside of me, ripped from the seams, spilling out emotions. She was taken too soon. And for some reason, I know in my heart it’s my fault.
Maybe if I had told Ammi they were coming, she could have warned Aunt Sania. Had a burqa ready for her and Daisy. Told her to not draw attention coming into the house. Told Daisy not to speak English in front of the Taliban.
Maybe if I had been nicer to Daisy she wouldn’t have been so nervous and forgotten to speak in Pashto. Maybe the soldiers would only scare her, or let her off with a warning.
Maybe if I had been honest with Aunt Sania she would have known not to come here. That my Ammi wasn’t ready, that Aunt Sania and Daisy were going to be in danger.
But I didn’t. I didn’t do anything at all.
Daisy spoke her first words almost 5 days after her mother died. “I’m hungry.” It was both a statement and question, both a response and an answer. I wanted to say join the club, but my mother responded before I did.
“Have some rice Daisy. Later today I will go to the market.” I was shocked. She shouldn’t go to the market after such a close run with the Taliban. They might recognize her but not me, and in Pakistan you have to go to places with an older male relative. It was better I take the fall, since my father still had not returned.
“No Ammi. They will recognize you. I will go.” Daisy looked confused but I watched the realization light up her face.
“It will be dangerous, Aunt Yasmeen? Then I will go with her.” I was skeptical of Daisy’s idea.
“You don’t even know how to avoid the Taliban! Someone will die.” My words stung in my throat as I realized what I just said. “I am so sorry.”
Daisy looked like she had just watched someone die in a car crash. Her eyes lowered, and I watched her grimace.
“Aisha Aleena Durrani! You are a disgrace to this family, and a horrible host. Daisy, if you still wish to, you can go with Aisha. Bup bup! Don’t complain Aisha. Now go. Here are some coins.”
And we were off. Ammi reluctantly handed me three rupees, and Daisy and I started to trudge down the long path that led to the market. We walked for ages until Daisy broke the silence.
“It still feels as if she’s here, you know. She was the last thing I had.” Daisy didn’t have to explain for me to understand she was talking about Aunt Sania.
“But you have your father!” And us, I said under my breath. I was still kind of mad that my Ammi took her side.
“Oh. Um… I guess she didn’t tell you why we really came, did she? My dad left my mom about a month ago. He took her money and her apartment. She barely had enough from selling her belongings to bring me here. She told me that I would be better off in a place where I had more than one family member.” I gasped. Their life in America seemed so perfect. My hate instantly melted away.
“Oh my… I’m so sorry!” Without thinking, I hugged Daisy. She smelled like the jasmine tea my Ammi makes for special occasions. Realizing what I just did, I started to pull back.
“No, no it’s okay. Nice, I mean.” This was the first time I heard her use Pashto, and even though it was awkward leaving Daisy’s tongue, it suited her. We hugged for one more slow moment before Daisy sighed and started to walk again.
“Where are you going?” I asked. She looked at me quizzically.
“To the market!” I grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the way before a fast moving vehicle raced by.
“That is the way to the fighting zone. We have to cross this before we get to the market.” I pointed to the dump.
“That?” I could hear Daisy try to mask the disgust in her voice, not succeeding. I started moving towards it as my answer. We slid through the hole in the fence, and something floating in the breeze smacked me in the face. It was the same 9/11 flier I had found almost a week earlier. The date of the event said September 11 at 10:45. That was today, in 15 minutes!
“Um, okay, change of plans. We’re going to this.” I threw the flier to Daisy and started to exit the dump, much to her relief.
“What? How far is this Malik house? What even is a Malik house?” She was still talking in Pashto, but struggling.
“It’s right here,” I said pointing to a cottage a little bit up the road. “And it’s a house owned by the Malik’s, obviously. It’s a woman, so we have to go.”
I didn’t wait for whatever sassy response Daisy was going to give, and instead started charging up the hill.
“What about the market? We need food.” I could hear the desperation in her voice, but also the interest.
“We can pick up food after, promise.” Daisy looked skeptical, but started to power walk with me.
“We’re here!” I looked up and down the road, and then knocked on the wooden door. “Is anyone here?” Footsteps answered us, and I smiled at Daisy.
A door opened and a quite beautiful American woman walked out, followed by Mrs. Malik. “My name is Aliyah. Ta sara mila washowam zrh my khoshal sho.”
“Nice to meet you too,” Daisy and I said in unison. I was still flustered for some reason. Why were there butterflies in my stomach?
Mrs. Malik was the next one to speak. “Welcome girls! Come through the house, we are set up in the back garden.” She walked away and Daisy followed, leaving me with Aliyah.
“Um- my name is Aisha,” I blurted out. I could feel my face burn.
What was happening? Why was I so nervous around Lucy?
“It’s great that you’re here, Aisha. We need more strong Pakistani girls acknowledging their strength.” That’s when I realized. I liked Aliyah. Like liked. I hadn’t had a crush on a girl since before the Taliban invaded. I was 8 at the time.
A girl around the same age as me, named Aleena, was the last girl I had like liked. We would always play together, and make crafts. I was scared at the time, but not as scared as I am now. Girls in Pakistan were supposed to marry men, grow up, and have children. Was there something wrong with me?
“I’m Aisha.” My face burned. “I mean- I already- um…” I looked down at my feet, slightly protected by makeshift shoes my Ammi and I had made.
“It’s okay, Aisha. I love your name! Does it have a meaning?” Nobody had ever asked me this before, and I was nervous to explain without sounding full of myself.
“Aisha means Mother of the Believers. In the Quran, Aisha is the name of Muhammad’s third wife. She is said to be smart and kind, wise and brave. My father named me. He told me he wanted people to know me and who I am without actually getting to know me.”
She didn’t speak for a second, but smiled. “That’s beautiful. You sound like you love your father very much. I understand that. 9/11 took so many things away from me, but the one I’ll miss the most is my father. You are very lucky to have him, and it sounds like he is lucky to have you.”
I smiled. My insides were no longer butterflies, they were birds. Aliyah was the only thing on my mind. It was as if it had been wiped clean, like a whiteboard when you spray it. She turned and started to step back inside, motioning for me to follow her. That’s when I realized. She was in her mid-twenties, and I was only 12. Even if I wanted to do something, (which I didn’t) there is no way it could happen.
I sighed quietly, and followed her inside.
Swat Valley, Pakistan
20 minutes later
12 years old
There is something beautiful about clean white laundry. Maybe it was just the fact that it wasn’t something I see very often. Washing was hard, and our clothes were almost never fully clean. A makeshift tent had been set up in the back garden, white sheets held up by freshly cut logs. The tent was small, barely large enough to fit me, Daisy, and 5 others under it.
I had said hello to Mrs. Malik, who was offering everyone a small portion of rice. I politely refused, knowing this was probably food they had saved up for days to provide. Daisy watched me and did the same, causing Mrs. Mailk to smile gratefully.
Aliyah was about to begin speaking, tugging at the end of her purple patterned hijab. She opened her mouth and closed it when a voice called out. “Hello?”
It was in accented English so lightly that you could almost not tell the accent was there at all. A boy walked out with dark hair and matching eyes, around my age. His clothes were worn, but the way he walked so confidently made it easy to forget.
“Am I too late?” He switched to Pashto, directing his question at me.
“Oh, uh, I’m not really-” I struggled to find words. Why was this boy giving me butterflies too?
“You’re just in time, no worries.” Aliyah interrupted me, and motioned for him to sit down. RIGHT. NEXT. TO. ME.
What was happening? I thought I had known myself before today, but obviously I had not. Was it possible that I liked this boy as well as Aliyah? Was that even a thing?
He slid onto the seat next to me, smiling apologetically as his elbow touched mine. HIS ELBOW TOUCHED MINE. Opposite gendered strangers were NOT supposed to touch in Pakistan. And yet, I didn’t care.
My mind flashed back to a moment with my old next door neighbor, Shahlyla. She was two years older than me, and my 8 year old self considered her much more wise.
“You’re what?!” I had asked in disbelief. She looked annoyed, yet warm.
“Bi-sex-u-al.” She sounded out the vowels for me. “It means I like two genders. For me it’s boys AND girls.” My younger self was in disbelief. You could like girls? And better yet, both?!
I was back in the present. Bisexual. Bi, she had told me. So that’s what I was. I thought clarity was going to mean relief, but somehow it didn’t.
Clarity was an odd thing. It felt like wading in cloudy water, when suddenly it turns clear to reveal everything inside. Sometimes that meant beautiful fish, coral, kelp, colors that are unimaginable above the surface. But right now? All it meant was danger, as if everywhere I looked there was something trying to hurt me.
What do I do? What does this mean? Am I making this up? Maybe I just like the idea of being Bi. How do I know this is real?
But I knew it was real the second this boy touched his skin to mine. I knew it was real when I looked up and felt tingles shoot through my entire body at the sight of Aliyah. This was real. I was going to learn to accept that.
Aliyah was speaking in a semi quiet voice to Mrs. Malik, which gave mystery boy a second to introduce himself. “Hi, I’m Noah.” The accent was still there, so he must have seen the confused look on my face.
“My Mom is American, my Papa Pakistani. I was born here though, lived here my whole life.” Okay, I thought as I mentally steadied myself.
“That’s a nice name. I’m Aisha.” For once, my voice wasn’t shaking. Something about him stabilized me, as if he was a rope pulling me out of the water.
“Mother of Believers, right? From the Holy Quran?” It was rare for even a Pakistani person to make the connection.
“That’s right!” I said, a smile creeping onto my face and shining in my eyes. “Does Noah have a meaning?” He grins, and clearly most people don’t ask him that.
“It means rest in Hebrew. My mom was Jewish.” I was intrigued, as there were little to no Jewish people in Pakistan, not even 800 in a country with more than 220 million.
“Are you Jewish?” Even I was startled at my starkness, a trait that I usually don’t show. He didn’t startle, and opened his mouth to speak.
“I don’t really have a religion, although I do celebrate both Judaism and Islamic holidays. I don’t want to choose, but I do want to honor both as a part of my heritage.”
He spoke so elegantly, switching out of Pashto and English as if they were the same language. Something about his dimpled grin made me feel safe yet still on my toes.
“That’s so cool!” I was about to say more but Aliyah broke my thought train.
“Welcome everybody! Ok good, no more surprise guests.” Everyone laughed as Noah shrugged playfully.
“We are here to talk about 9/11, a day in 2001 that not only affected America, but all Muslim people. I was in New York that day, the center of the terrorist attacks. The World Trade Center. That day I met a girl who changed my life forever when she agreed to help me save my dad. He was on the 96th floor. No one above the 92nd floor survived.” Aliyah was a vivid story teller, and a gasp traveled over the small group.
“We fought hard to find him, but it was useless. That was the worst day of my life. But also a good one. That girl turned out to be my wife.” I looked at my feet. This was for the best. She was older than me, it was okay. I shivered anyway, and Noah must have felt it because he rested his hand on my arm reassuringly. This was dangerous, but in the best way possible.
“As for you all, it affected you too. American soldiers invaded Afghanistan, our neighboring country. They were trying to find the man responsible for the attacks, but what they didn’t know was that he was right here in Pakistan. They caught him eventually, but finding him here made things worse for Muslims everywhere. People, not just in America but everywhere, decided that we Muslims for dangerous, a thing to be feared and hated. It wasn’t fair, but most things aren’t. I-”
Aliyah was cut off by gunshots and shouting in Urdu. “Get them, get them!” Screaming erupted, and everyone in the tent scattered. I grabbed Daisy, feet pounding as we followed Mrs. Malik to the side of the house. We pressed out bodies against the wall and tried to be as small as possible behind her dying rose bushed, skin split open and bloody from the thorns. There were only four of us here.
“I have to get Noah!” I shouted at Daisy, Aliyah, and Mrs. Malik. Daisy’s eyes widened and she grabbed my arm. “Please Daisy, let go! I’ll be back soon!” I took off running.
The soldiers were running towards the other side of the house, shooting at someone who wasn’t as lucky as us. I whispered a silent prayer that everyone else was safe, then spotted Noah running towards the hills. The soldiers were gonna be back, we didn’t have time.
I sprinted towards him and pulled him by the arm towards a bush, throwing ourselves flat on the ground just as the gunshots ricocheted above. He turned his head and aimed his warm eyes at me. His face was frozen in a scared expression but his eyes had already melted, warm and sweet with something else that I couldn’t understand.
“I-” he was at a loss for words. This was obviously his first time toying with death, but not mine.
“Shhh.” He closed his mouth slightly.
“Thank you.” Those two simple words put meaning in my life, erasing everything bad that had ever happened. There was just something about him that made every cell in my body feel more alive, every thought braided together until we were the only thing in the universe. It was something beautiful, and delicate, and special. “Thank you.”
We were there for minutes. Maybe hours. Maybe days. Every moment melted into the next when we were together, becoming a swirl of bittersweet memories. I was sure Daisy was worried- I had left in such a rush that I didn’t explain what I was doing. I know we just met, but I felt sorry for her. She lost her mom- she didn’t have to worry about me too.
The sun started to set when it was probably safe to come out. We hadn’t heard gunshots in a while. I looked at Noah, nodding slightly and we started to stand. I started to fall, legs still asleep from crouching in the dust. He quickly caught me, not letting go of my scratched arm. It was sweet.
We began the slow decent towards the house, feet quietly marching in unison. Everytime he stumbled, I caught him. Every time I quivered, he stabilized me. It was simultaneously perfect and awful.
“Aisha!” I heard what was probably Daisy’s quietest scream ever, and saw her standing near the back doorway. Noah seemed to think I was going to run towards her, so he let go. I looked at him quizzically. Why did he let go?
That’s when I remembered. This was Pakistan. Girls weren’t supposed to touch boys, be out on their own, or have their own thoughts or opinions. Boys weren’t supposed to have feelings or worries, only manly strength.
As if he read my thoughts we locked eyes. “It’s not that.” He whispered quietly. “It’s that I want our memories to be only ours.” My heart instantly melted. He was like no one I’ve ever met before.
“Aisha, thank god you’re ok!” Daisy was crying in my shoulder, embracing me for the first time in both our lives. “I was so worried!”
I hugged her back, feeling our shoulders touching, arms shaking. I finally pulled away. “Is everyone safe?”
She looked at her feet. “Aliyah was shot, along with the others. It’s only the 3 of us.” I felt the burn of hot tears on my face before I realized I was crying.
“Daisy, would you mind getting us a first aid kit? I’m sure there’s one in the house. Noah and I are pretty scratched up.” She seemed to know it was more than that, and left quickly.
“I want you to know that you are the first person I’ve ever felt this close with in my life.” He tried to interrupt but I quieted him. He nodded in agreement.
“There’s something about you that I just can’t put my finger on. Something safe, and warm, and comforting. I want to feel this feeling for the rest of my life.” Our eyes locked and I stared into the ocean of brown, sparkling with gold even though it was getting dark.
“I couldn’t have said it better. I know I just met you but now I never want to be apart. You saved my life, in every way possible. You saved my future, my past, and my present.”
Now we were sitting down, backs pressed against the house, shoulders rubbing against each other.
“So what now?” My voice was whisked away as he leaned in closer, closer, and then we were kissing.
It was short and sweet but it cleared my mind. I wasn’t thinking about the Taliban, about my sexuality, about my future. I wasn’t thinking about Pakistan, my family, being a girl in a sexist world. The only thoughts on my mind were Noah, and his face close to mine.
9 years later
American Embassy, Islamabad, Pakistan
21 years old
“Noah, did you find the papers yet?” I power walked through the main hallway of my office, in the central section of my department. My brothers and mom were waiting for us, for we might be late to Daisy’s rehearsal wedding dinner. I smiled as I reached the end, happy that Daisy had found someone who made her feel what I felt with Noah. A sentence on the door read Aisha Alvi, Head of Pakistan Peace Relations. The door next to mine read ‘Noah Bukhari-Hoffman, Head of Pakistan Religious Freedom Department.’ I smiled, thinking how 9 years ago I would have never believed these words could be on a door. How back then this life didn’t feel like reality.
Noah and I were married 3 years ago, as soon as we were of age in America. That wasn’t needed in Pakistan, but it felt important for us. We worked together every day in jobs that we adored, jobs that actually had an impact on the people we cared about. We were changing lives every day, fighting not only the Taliban but every injustice we could find.
Sure, we had had our struggles. Fights, deaths, illnesses, heartbreak. Our lives weren’t easy, but nothing was. At least we were living them together.