Hajar – Prologue


I am here with a story which I don’t yet know will be a short story or a novel. Though the prologue has a religious touch to it, yet the story has nothing to do with religion.  It’s just a story of a girl who shares her name and perhaps fate to one of the matriarchs of history who is known for her courage in bleak times.


Those were the ancient times when people kept slaves.  I was one of those brought from my land.  A woman presented me to his man so I could bear fruit for them which she couldn’t do herself.

She was my mistress, my son belonged to her. But then, it so happened; God bestowed her a son of her own.  My son was no longer needed.  I was thrown out along with my son, left alone in the desert.  I was a mother led by courage with faith in God.  It was Him who heard my son cry and blessed us with a well out of nowhere to survive.

Slowly, people came.  They requested to settle near water.  I consented for I could help them the way God had helped me once.  Once disowned by a clan, now I had a clan of my own.

I was Hajar, slave of Sarah, and mother of Ishmael. I was Hajar, destined to wander but I was also Hajar, the one dissociated from any evil.  With trust in God, and courage at heart, I was Hajar who gave life to the lineage of Arabs.

And, I am Hajar… of this time where people are no longer slaves of people, but of prejudices and presumptions or if nothing else, their own bias and fear.  I am Hajar, with no family of my own; trying to be brave, trying to fight my fears.  Hajar, who is not an outcast, not quite yet… but will the society accept me and not throw me out, once they know and once they decide to look down upon me for reasons pre-contrived.

So, when you know me and when you decide to loathe; remember! I am Hajar and I have no sin. It is my tale; of exploitation, betrayal and abandonment.  However, it is my faith that stays.  Amongst abuse and degradation, hope and inspiration, I seek Him, I blame Him, and then I make peace with Him.

The Fire of Hajar

Poem by Syrian-American Poet Mojha Kafh

For one short span, she was our Hajar,

my bright young bride, the helpmeet

of a lonely aging couple.

How she grew from round cheeked girl

capable, aproned, baby strapped to her high hip,

into a woman beyond our ken, strange giant

straddling rocks cape, midwifing a new earth!

Twice Sarah put Hajar’s hand in mine,

as God willed, first to marry, then to desert her.

But it was I who let her hand drop.

Our last night we spent alone in God’s wilderness,

our last time to circle, in the crook of my body, hers,

the baby nestled between her breast and belly

my arm around them both.

Then I dropped her supple, girlish hand and freely

I admit the tears that wet my dusty beard,

fell brackish into that dry ground

as I walked, willingly to the slaughter

of my own bared neck, my Hajar-love,

I walked away.

She called, “Ibrahim!” She knew

what I had to do, but still she called,

let me hear my name shaped by her lips

one last single time, “Ibrahim!”

At the pierce of that cry, I wanted

to bundle her up and carry her home again,

protect her from the howling barren land.

I turned around. But one look at her face

She was already fiercer, older, a woman

I do not know. She chose too.

“To whom do you leave us?

She said quietly.

For a minute I could not answer. Fire

like the fire of the trials of my youth, this fire!

God who made the fire cool and safe for me

will make this scorched desert for Hajar

a garden surely.

When I said “God is here,”

she took my words and threw them back

at me, “Then I’ll take God. I’ll take the God

of the wilderness over your home and your city.”

She turned away. I know that turn.

I as a young man I chose to accept from God

a hard vocation. But an old man knows

what it means to drop the supple hand.

I walked away bent, nearly double, picking my ragged path back home to Sarah

I took one last look.

Hajar was walking into her own

Soul-searching days, head on,

far from me now, her shadow thrown

by the lowered sun across a wild country

turning into something stark and strong.

Be cool and safe for Hajar, fire!

The Day of Independence (Part 2/2)


Independence Day

I was taken aback by the abruptness of the rickshaw driver when he demanded, “Do you need a ride baji?” (Baji means ‘elder sister’ commonly used by strangers to address women) and then added “You will not get any other vehicle.  There is police everywhere and whoever is seen on the road is considered a marcher.  I will take you where you want but I will charge double the usual fare.”

Many fears clouded my mind.  What if we get trapped?  What if this rickshaw driver is evil and does not take us home?  News of rape, murder, and abduction, the headlines, the police, accusations, and my daughter was with me too… What was better, boarding the rickshaw or staying on the street?  I looked at the passengers in the back.  The rickshaw was already overloaded.   I could see four women with three on the seats and one crouched on the floor.  Despite that, they were willing to make room for more.  “Hurry up baji.  It’s too risky to stay at one place for long.  And also, I will only drop you as near your house as possible.  I am not going to risk my vehicle. “

Though I was still apprehensive, I had to take the risk because of the limited options.  I shared the little space on the floor while my daughter got into the lap of one of the women.  They were chatting cheerfully and I gathered that they were also teachers and belonged to the same school.  One of them was a chatterbox.

“But we never met?” she asked me.

“I teach in the higher secondary section.” I replied.

“Oh… Okay.   The college block?” I nodded.  “We are all from the junior school.” I nodded again.

“You know if the principal wanted, she could cancel the ceremony and we could have been spared of this inconvenience” She rattled on. “But what can we do.  Despite the summer vacations, we have to come and celebrate.  I agree it’s fun but it could be exempted given the situation”.

“Principal lives in the school residency herself.  Why would she care about the situation?” Another, older looking woman said.

“You are right.  No students came.  We raised the flag and sung the anthem all by ourselves but she only cared for the pictures to show off her efficiency”.  I was stressed and jittery and wished she would shut up for once.

They kept rattling on till the last one was dropped off.  By then, I had lost all the sense of direction.  I and my daughter were alone again and the rickshaw was going full speed ahead, winding through lanes and streets unknown to me.

I was sweating profoundly, whether it was heat or fear, I do not know.  I was intently following the route and trying my best to figure out my whereabouts.  With shutters all down and the doors of rickshaw closed, I was unable to know where I was and that was making my stomach churn.  My pulse was high and I didn’t dare look at the driver in the mirror lest he get any wrong ideas.  My only resolve was to appear brave and confident.  I feared for myself but I feared most for my daughter.  She was too young and I could not even bring myself to think of her innocence getting scarred.  I was scared.  For the first time in my life, I was living through hell.  Confined in the small suffocating space behind the bars of my fear, I cursed the independence and the Independence Day.  For we were still slaves, slaves of all the imaginable (and even unimaginable) evils of the society bred by the corrupt system.  I wish I had not brought her with me.  I did not want to bother my father with her care in my absence.   I wish I had thought better.

Tired of all the goings-on, my daughter put her little head in my lap and fell asleep.  She was not afraid at all, or even concerned.  Ignorance is a blessing I’d say.  She didn’t know how grave the situation could turn.  She didn’t know this journey towards home could also lead us to hell, I shuddered.

Suddenly I spotted the main road, I knew my surroundings!  Across that main road was my home!  A new life, a new hope ran through me.  I confidently addressed the driver and told him to cross the road.  As soon as we reached the end of the street that led to main road, he slowed down and almost stopped the roaring engine.  My nerves throbbed once again but before I stepped on the rollercoaster of dreading possibilities, the rickshaw taxied to a halt at the end of the street.  I came to know why he did that and could not but appreciate his wisdom.

As feared, there was a heavy contingent of police along the main road.  “They have blocked the crossing baji.  My rickshaw will not go further” declared the driver.  “But how shall we reach home then?”  I almost cried out.  I was panicking.  Yes, I was panicking again.  “Our home is very near.  We can walk home in 10 minutes.  May be I could just ask them to let me through.”   I wished I was a bird and could fly home.  It was so close.

“If you want you can go and ask them baji, but if I were you I would never go near them.  They are always on the lookout for finding a prey and then they try to rob them off.  I would not expect sympathy from them.”

I fell silent.  He was right. Our police was not dependable.  Since childhood it was instilled in us to avoid them.

If only I could use my mobile and call my father, he would surely find a way or know someone.   My heart ached to think how worried he must be.  It was outrageous, the use of force by government to sabotage peoples’ right to protest peacefully on the very day of independence.  I was pissed off.   Didn’t we win our freedom sixty eight years ago?  Did our elders face tyranny and sacrificed their lives for this, this namesake freedom? They would be turning in their graves to know we just switched our masters.  Now there are no ‘angrez’ or ‘hindu’ to dictate us.  Now our tyrants are our own kinsfolk.  I was sickened of all that pointless oppression.

“Think, think!” I ordered all my common sense to service.  Hiding behind the bend of the road, I gradually overcame my panic.  The driver was no longer a threat as the police were there.  What a bitter sweet sentiment towards police, I reckoned.  The crossings were blocked by the police for vehicles but rest of the road as far as I could see was clear.  I asked the driver to take us a few streets away and sure enough there was no sign of any policemen.  I decided to continue on foot from then on.  Far away, I could see the policemen guarding the square, yet no one seemed to react.  I don’t know why the police didn’t stop us.  I am sure they must have spotted us.  Maybe a woman with a child far away along the road was of no interest to them.

We reached the lane that led to our home when my daughter spotted my father.  “Abba” she cried and ran into his arms.  My dear father was sitting on the stone outside Nazim’s office, his white hair flickered in sun, sweat dripped along the wrinkles of his pale worried face.  His eyes gleamed in relief to see us safe.  Drained and exhausted, we made our way to the safety of our home silently.

The Day of Independence (Part 1/2)


Independence Day

“Happy Independence Day” We chanted one last time before the ceremony was over.  My little one bade farewell to all my colleagues clinking away happily in her green and white bangles.

Outside, it was exceptionally hot with suffocating humidity.  After days of continuous rain, clouds parted and the sun shone in its full glory.  Monsoon had finally exhausted.  Fresh greenery washed by the rain was gleaming in the bright day, dazzling the eyes.  Yet neither the birds nor animals could be seen admiring this vivacious beauty for the air was heavy with precipitation.  Water droplets twinkled on the blades of grass before bidding them farewell, embarking on the journey to the eternal cycle of rise and fall. Not a single leaf on the trees stirred for the air was static, making breathing a strain.

Drenched in sweat, I stepped out of the huge gate trying to avoid the big puddle just in front of the main entrance.  I had to walk through two narrow damaged roads to reach the main road and get a van home.  With my oversized teacher’s bag in one hand and my 5-year-old daughter’s hand in the other, I meandered through big and small puddles to the main road.  Like a typical kid, my daughter was not bothered by the muddy water but I was overly cautious as I didn’t want her to end up in one of those open gutters that were often hidden under a seemingly harmless puddle.

My home was only a 20-minute ride in a local bus or van and I wanted to board the first one that wasn’t too crowded.  At this time of the day, public transport was usually excessively crowded, with women sitting on the seats while men stood crouched in the aisles.  One could die of suffocation and the smell of sweat if the windows were not open to let in the hot air we called ‘Loo’.

As I stepped onto the main road, I expected a crowded bus stop.  I was used to loud shouts from the conductors hailing passengers, urging them to hurry, trying to stuff their vehicles as full as possible.   On a usual day, roadside vendors would be selling cold ‘shikanjabeen’ and spicy ‘kanji’ around the bus stop.  To beat the heat, parents would allow their kids buy colorful ‘ice gola’ while savoring watermelon or cucumber bites from the many rehri vala’s crowded near the bus stop to earn their living.  My daughter also anticipated this time of the day as I would usually let her buy an ice cream or juice from a stall nearby.   I bought myself ‘thandi masala mooli’ (radish strips in chaat masala).  Despite the heat, humidity and smell, we would relish them as soon as we got seated in the van.

On that day, the scene in front of me was nothing like the crowded bus stop we were used to.  Instead, there was a hush and an eerie silence. There was sign of neither vehicle nor human.  I faltered in my step as I looked to my left and my right. Shops along the main road were closed.  There was not a soul who I could ask for a reason.   My daughter looked at me gravely.  Panic hit me and I took out my cell phone to dial home.  My heart sank as I noticed there was no signal.  The mobile service was unavailable.  I was alarmed.  The mobile service was blocked and there were no vehicles on the road.  I felt a creepy sensation that with the political unrest in the country, something had gone very wrong in the hours I was at school.  That explained why there were few students at the Independence Day Celebration program.

The opposition party had given a call for a march toward Islamabad on the Independence Day, that very day, August 14.  People feared unrest, lawlessness and even bloodshed due to the protest and felt safer to keep indoors for the day.  I looked at my daughter who tightened her grip on my hand.  I knew she sensed the unusual situation and the fear on my face was scaring her little heart even more.  I patted her back with reassurance though I myself wasn’t sure what to do.  I could try to walk home, but my home was far and my little one may not be able to walk that much.  I sat down under the shade at the bus stop and tried to think of a plan.

We walked a little farther from the bus stop in the direction of my home in hopes of finding some kind of vehicle or a living being who could guide me or at least tell me what happened.  I looked at the market and the flats above.  There must be eyes behind those windows but why would any soul not come out?  Was it curfew?  No, no.  It could not be, as such things are announced and someone at school would have known.  I wondered how the other teachers would reach their homes and where they would be at that moment.  After walking for a while, I heard some far-off sounds.  I turned around and saw a van emerging from a street near the bus stop. It crossed the main road rapidly and disappeared into one of the lanes across the road.  We desperately rushed back to the stop, hoping some other van might arrive there to cross the road. The crossing was a little ahead of the bus stop, so we walked past it and stood right where the crossing was.  We waited and hoped, but minutes passed by slowly.  Wearily, we made our way back to the stop. Tired and hopeless, we sat at the bench under the shade. Tears of helplessness started gathering in my eyes as I did not know what to do, where to go. I looked at my daughter, her beautiful face covered with dirt and sweat.  She was unusually silent and obedient. I could only hug her when she said, “How will we get home mama? Why are there no vans on the road?”  I wiped her face with the edge of my ‘dupatta’ and said, “I don’t know darling… but don’t worry, Mama’s with you and we’ll soon find a way”.  I tried to smile to reassure her.  The road looked bigger with no hawkers and closed shops.  It looked like a vast barren place with no tree.  Everything was a shade of yellow with the bright sun baking the last drops of water out of the soil.

There was no use sitting there at the stop, so we started walking slowly in the direction of home again. Soft wind had started blowing by then, putting more dust and dirt in our faces as we trotted off uncertainly. We had not gone far when I sensed a change in the air. There was nothing visible far ahead or behind us, but there was a hum in the air, a distant buzz that pulsated through my soul, and a spooky feeling started engulfing my senses.   I stood rooted in fear.  My daughter was looking at me with a questioning and frightened gaze.  There was nothing to be seen but a very, very distant shrill was breaking through.  As though a tsunami would emerge from tranquil waters, I saw hustle, far, far behind us.  It was so far that I couldn’t make out what it was.  If not for the silent noise, I would have considered it a mirage in the burning noontime.

As if on cue, I stepped off the main road.  It was a deserted street and I didn’t know where it led.  There were rows of shops on either side.  Further along the street after the first bend I could see rows of houses.  Houses with people tucked in safely.  With the current political situation of the country and opposition’s call for anti-government march for the very day, no one in his right mind would have left his home.

“Should we call abba? He could come and get us” my daughter asked.

“I tried honey, but the mobile’s not working.”

“Did you not charge it?”

“Unnhu” I didn’t know what to say, but she was in no mood to let it pass “I did honey… but it’s not working, dunno”.  Thank God she didn’t ask any more questions.  I was already edgy and didn’t want to scold her for nothing.

On the previous night, my father had warned me to not leave home.  I called some of my colleagues and they advised me to reach the school if I wanted my job.  They told that every government servant not reaching his job that day would be considered participating in the march, labeled anti-government, and suspended or sacked.

I couldn’t afford to lose my government job.  Despite being highly qualified, I had to pay two lacs as a bribe and exhaust all the contacts abba had made in the education institute.  I am a single mother of a daughter who is my sole responsibility.  I have to provide for her and myself.  This job is my lifeline.  I had to take the risk.  “Besides, I think the march will start somewhere in the afternoon.  I will already be back by then”, I had reassured abba.  He knew I had no other option.  He didn’t insist.

“But whatever happened to the transport! Damn it.”  I cursed my fate.  My little one was visibly frightened and reminded me of a wilting flower in the sheer sun.  We were hiding in the side lane of the market.  There was a huge water tank in the corner and I planned to hide behind it if the mob came.  The sounds were clearer now.  People were chanting different slogans.  The sounds were deafening.  My daughter was near tears.  I felt suffocated as I could see people scattering in the street at some distance. They were the marchers of course but it was not unusual for thugs and other wicked people to join the mob and take a chance at plundering and preying others.  Fearful stories came to my mind as I pictured us cornered in that dead end between the shops.  It was filthy and damp, the suffocation was corrupting my mind and the sounds were deafening my senses.

I peeped around the corner and could see a lot of people gathering and slowly marching along the main road.  They were some distance away, and I decided to leave the secluded place and go further into the locality.  Though deserted, the streets had houses, and houses had people.  I could not see them, but maybe there would be some eyes behind the windows watching over me.  I prayed to Allah and kept on walking under the shade of trees and on the ramps of houses, trying to keep our direction parallel to the main road and towards our home.  I let myself believe that each step was taking us near our home.  For the first time, I reassured my daughter with hope too.

Chanting from the march was becoming dim again and I felt relieved that we won’t be crushed in the mob, yet the deafening silence engulfing my mind was equally suffocating.  As we turned around a corner, with a loud Tuk Tuk Phut Phut , an auto rickshaw stopped by my side.