Editor’s Note: This short story by Fatima Mohammed is unlike any piece that explores terror. It shows the life of a couple torn apart by an unexpected arrival in the neighbourhood. We welcome submissions
They always told you that a girl’s wedding day is the most important day of her life.
You grew up hearing phrases like “magical day” or “most beautiful day.”
Nobody however told you about the knots forming deep in your gut, threatening to explode in bouts of diarrhea and stain your stupendously expensive dress. Absolutely nobody warned you that your skin would succumb to pressure and break out in red, angry rash, such that the photographer and makeup artist you hired would cry out in frustration when you appeared in the morning. And certainly, nobody told you about the bone deep exhaustion you would feel in every muscle when the wedding was over and it was just you and him left, passed out on your new leather sofa.
The first few months gradually found both of you settling into married life, rushing off to work in the mornings, meeting only in the evenings when you both returned. You took your duties as a wife seriously, as any self-respecting Nigerian Muslim woman would; waking up at 6:00 am to make breakfast, packing his lunch for work (lest he got tempted to visit those fast food joints where all those desperate single girls frequented) and brainstorming on ways to make dinner a culinary masterpiece. You even signed up online for “Kamasutra 101” and were pleasantly rewarded with his moans while you were busy calculating if his swimmers were fast enough as you were yet to miss a single period after six months of marriage.
When people ask when you began to notice the change, your mouth becomes dry and you begin to stutter while desperately trying to change the subject because you do not want to remember how it all started. Because you have rehearsed the entire fourteen months of your marriage so many times in your head that you never want to talk about it again. Because you have recounted the story to countless security officials, reporters, family, friends and even those gossip hungry neighbours of yours who tried to outdo themselves on who had the latest juicy scoop.
But how can you forget that day when he returned from the Maghrib prayer smiling excitedly and chatting about a new member of their mosque who had just moved into the new and frightfully expensive apartment building just across the street from yours? He carried on about the “bloody brilliant lawyer” who was also an Islamic scholar with a Master’s degree from the prestigious university of Madina, Saudi Arabia. He was obviously in awe of this Man who seemed to have it all: A Professor of law who spoke and interpreted the Qur’an in fluent English, Arabic and French. You listened with half an ear, as you prepared your shredded chicken stir-fry and dished out steaming hot basmati rice onto the dish you both ate in. He kept going on about the Lawyer and how it was good to socialize with neighbours, until you asked:
‘Do you want me to invite them for dinner?’
He grinned sheepishly; ‘you know me too well, darling, but I don’t want to burden you. Just make something light, maybe a chicken and potato salad?’
He had said ‘something light’ but on the day of the dinner, your husband returned from work with an armful of groceries enough to feed an army. You eyed him apprehensively;
‘Don’t worry I will help you’.
But that only worried you more. Even when you hosted his parents for dinner last month he had simply lain on the couch in the living room barking instructions. You remember shooing him out of the kitchen as you struggled to make a good impression with your grilled peppered chicken, baby potatoes and Greek salad. You ensured that everything was on the table, before rushing to wash your face and that was when you heard the doorbell ring.
As soon as you saw him, you understood the instant attraction; he stood 6-foot-tall in a gleaming white traditional Hausa kaftan with a black Asian style cap to match and a shy smile pasted on his ridiculously handsome face. He looked to be in his early forties and you wondered if he felt out of place in the company of your much younger husband.
‘Wa’alaykum salam wa rahmatullah’.
He and your husband hugged and shook hands while you stood at a respectful distance until you noticed a figure standing behind him quietly. She was clad in a black hijab and matching niqab staring at the floor, lost behind his imposing height. Her husband eventually stood aside and motioned for her to move forward while he continued to exchange pleasantries with your husband.
You approached her cautiously and chirped in that high sing-song voice of yours ‘Assalamu alaykum, how are you? Welcome to our house….….’
She replied in a firm clear voice and you reached for her hand while guiding her into the living room.
At the table, she casually lifted her niqab to reveal a very ordinary looking face with petite features. She might have been considered pretty or even beautiful had it not been for the acne scars that marred her cheeks and forehead. You wondered briefly if you could offer her your nighttime regimen of benzoyl peroxide and coconut oil, then promptly put the thought out of your mind. Still, you continued to observe both husband and wife as you all chatted amicably about everything Nigerian: the epileptic electricity supply, the deplorable state of the roads, corruption in government and finally politics.
Politics in Nigeria is like football; everybody has a strong opinion about what is right and so you were curious to hear what political party your guests belonged to. You remember being surprised when he began to talk in that clear, upper class, British accented English of his, about how he did not belong to any party and how democracy in general was a farce. You remember you husband nodding his head in agreement, completely immersed in the lecture your guest was giving about monarchy and how it was the only system of government accepted in Islam. You looked over at his wife, who was busy sampling your chicken with a bored look on her face indicating that she had heard this talk many times. You remember simply shrugging it off and attributing it to the eccentric nature of academicians.
Over the next couple of months, “Prof” as you had come to fondly call him, gradually became a familiar figure in your life. He would return with your husband from the mosque after the evening prayer and they would retreat into the study to discuss religion, politics and occasionally football. It was always his voice you heard; as if your husband’s role was just to listen and assimilate, never to challenge or ask questions. You found it strange that a forty-five-year-old man would befriend a twenty-nine-year-old physiotherapist but when you voiced this concern to your friend, she put it down to the differences between male and female relationships. Besides, she argued, were you not happy, that your husband had a mentor who was a positive influence in his life?
Did you not say to her how he had become more religious, fasting on Mondays and Thursdays and waking up at night to perform the voluntary prayer? You, however did not mention to her that he had started encouraging you to wear the hijab more frequently and that the last time you had quarreled it was because he had insisted that you wore too much makeup to work and it was either you cleaned your face or wear a face cover, the niqab. You did not tell her about how humiliated you felt as you washed your face in the bathroom sink and stormed out of the house furious and ashamed that you had left yourself be manipulated by him. Since when had wearing eyeliner, foundation and lipstick become “too much”?
You remembered how you had returned home from the Gynecologist that Saturday morning feeling dejected. Everything was fine with both of you he had said and had advised on being more patient. Patience, he said, while you spat out the bile in the back of your throat. Did he not know how much pressure your mother-in-law was putting on you? Did he know about the depression and loneliness you battled while growing up as an only child with only a mother to call your family as your father had died when you were only a few days old in a car crash? No, you were not going to be patient.
You decided there and then to start researching on various fertility treatments. You therefore went in search of your husband’s laptop and settled down on the living room couch to spend some quality time alone as he had gone to visit his brother in his farm. The first thing you noticed was a YouTube video which had been paused, you tapped it absentmindedly.
At first, you thought it was some sort of documentary on the war in the Middle East but about twenty minutes into it, you realized it was a video showing a bombing followed by a brief lecture explaining the conflict in Syria and why suicide bombing was permissible in Islam.
The sermon was given by a handsome Arab cleric, who spoke in impeccable English about the need for the Muslim community to disregard the teachings and propaganda of the West and to unite against the common enemy.
You cannot remember how long you sat there, mesmerized, until your phone rang and roused you out of your subconscious.
It was your mother, calling to find out about your visit to the doctor but all that seems like eons ago. You simply mumbled a few words, then ended the call. You remember thinking to yourself:
‘What the hell?’
You began to check his search history on all his search engines and even eavesdropping on their conversations with Prof. You heard words like bomb, emigration and suicide which terrified you. You remember fasting, giving out charity and praying fervently to Allah at night to remove these ideologies from his mind and for Prof to be struck by lightning but it never happened.
Finally, you decided to confront him.
You waited until you both had your hands in the same plate, eating dinner, then casually changed the channel to CNN.
‘What is wrong with all these extremists? Isn’t it enough? How many innocent people will continue to die because they want to avenge themselves?’
‘Do not believe all that you watch dear, all these western Media stations are the same, biased’
You remember feeling a chill run down your spine but you simply pressed on.
‘How can all the TV stations be biased? And since when have you started supporting these people?’
‘All I am saying is this; we owe it to them to hear their side of the story. We cannot simply write them off as blood thirsty extremists before hearing what has prompted their actions.’
His phone had rung at that moment and so the discussion had ended abruptly.
After that episode, he had begun to send you emails explaining the Islamic state agenda and their real motive. It started with the random forwarded email, then he included your email address in their webinars and twitter discussions. Before long, you discovered that there was a teaming population of people who sympathized with these fighters, those who had migrated to the Islamic state for the sake of fighting Jihad and those who had plans to join them. They boasted about their successes in the war, all the unbelievers they had killed and places they had destroyed. It made you sick.
By now, you were fighting every day; you trying to make him see reason and him accusing you of being ignorant of religious obligations and the worst, a traitor.
Later, you remember growing weary and tired of the situation when you started to throw up in the mornings and feeling nauseous all the time. You had not seen your monthlies in over six weeks but instead of you to be overjoyed, you were wary of the situation you were in. Your husband, however was overjoyed and for a few weeks there was no mention of The Islamic State. He pampered you with your favorite chocolates, massaged your feet in the evenings and even began doing more chores around the house so much so that you temporarily forgot your woes, that is, until that fateful Sunday.
You remember that evening, when you were about 10 weeks gone and your amebo neighbour had come to visit.
“Have you heard about Prof?” she asked abruptly.
“No I haven’t, what about him?”
“He has left… just vanished into thin air and there have been rumours….”
“What rumours?” But you knew. Deep down you knew it was no rumour.
“… people said they have gone to do Jihad….”
After she left, you remember sitting there in the dark until your husband returned and met you in that state, with swollen blood shot eyes and streaks of dried tears on your cheeks. That day you lost your cool, you screamed and threw a glass cup against the wall, you poked his chest and threatened to go to state security service and report Prof, you cried and you cursed and you raged but in all this your husband only stood against the wall quietly watching you. When you couldn’t carry on any longer, he soothed your tears and carried you to bed.
You woke up at night and didn’t feel him by your side, so you crept into the living room and met him holding his phone with tears streaming down his face. That day, your husband who had never cried in your presence, lowered his head into your lap and begged you to migrate with him to join his brothers in Islam. He held your hand and bared his heart: he loved you deeply and did not want to leave you. He wanted to go and fight for the Islamic state where all true Muslims resided. He was willing to give up his parents, his brothers and his job so that he could fight for the cause of the Almighty. Quite simply, you were the only obstacle in his plan.
That night none of you slept as you realized this was the most important decision you have ever had to make in your life. You loved your husband dearly with every fiber of your being but the question begged to be asked: Was love Enough?
Were you willing to give up your everything in your life to follow a husband whose religious ideology repelled you? How could you live among murderers who camouflaged themselves as Muslims? what about your mother? What about your baby?
You wiped his tears and hugged him hard until the sun rose.