Nada Among the Epics

For the longest time Nada was two things: one, greenblue peacock eyes that sparkle big whenever she readied herself to say something, and two, one of the longest, blackest niqabs I had ever seen. And I couldn’t help but wonder why she thought that was a good idea—keeping her face a secret from the rest of the world, because if her eyes were any indication, any sampling, any…. but never mind.  On the other hand, maybe it’s all about something else: a shadowy moustache, a cluster of unfriendly pimples, something to do with bad teeth?  Yet there you have it: Nada, first to arrive, last to leave, front row, unafraid to hold up her hand to declare, “Patroclus was a fool, you know, and sad to say deserved everything he got.”

Nada has never been one to hide at the back of the classroom, by the windows, or to toy with her cellphone when she thinks I’m not looking; but she is forever wondering aloud, politely: “Why does Odysseus doubt Penelope in the first place?  It makes very little sense to me.  Twenty years he has been away, yes, and for twenty years she has been his wife in exile, fighting off suitors and other silly people, sah?  What more in the way of loyalty does he need, this hero?  Why bother to test the poor woman, for goodness sake?”  And even when I nod and give her a bad answer, she can’t help but respond with a thank you, as if I have spoken wisdom, while Mariam, who sits next to her, will chance a glance her way to see if she really means it.

One afternoon, after class, with a sand storm on the way—cellphones winking and buzzing, mothers urging their sons and daughters to hurry home—and with Oedipus having just remembered that, come to think of it, he did kill his father at a meeting of three roads; it had completely slipped his mind, this killing, but never mind, things like that happen when you’re angry, Nada comes to the front and quietly waits for the others to leave before edging closer to whispering, “I have a tattoo, you know.”  Her eyes a what-do-you-think-of-that wide.

“You do?  What’s it about, this tattoo of yours?”

“About?” she squints.

“The tattoo: is it a rose, heart, somebody’s initials? What’s it about?”

“Oh no, nothing like that.  It’s more for me, not for others.”

This is a pretty good answer and her eyes tell me she thinks so too, and just when I think we are moving towards more sharing, she says, “That’s all,” and leaves in a rustle of abaya.

The sand storm comes and goes, and for two days and two nights the sky is crisp and clean and if you squint just right you can see the thin brown line of another country across the Gulf.

One day, not long after the sand storm, as I am walking by the campus Diner, thinking of bills that have to be paid but will have to wait, yet again, of an aching shoulder, of . . .  I turn just in time to see Nada sitting alone at one of the tables lifting her niqab to take a drink, a quick sip of tea.  And when she does I catch a glimpse of something red and gnarled, a twist of crimson flesh, a piece of jaw and chin gone all wrong, and as I slow, even stop, to look longer, harder, she is done drinking, and I hurry away.  For the rest of the day I can only think it was my imagination, the sunlight hitting the window all wrong.

Nada is strangely quiet and not herself when Dido decides suicide is a good idea.  In fact, she comes in late, with Aeneas’ ships already leaving the Carthaginian harbor, and slowly weaves her way to the back of the classroom.  When she finds an empty seat, somebody back there says something that others think funny.  Mariam looks at me, back at Nada and then back at me, frowning.

The next class is the same: Nada late and finding her way to a vacant seat in the back, but once done with Aeneas and Dido, their fates fulfilled, we return to normal and Mariam stops frowning when Nada returns to her proper seat, in the front. 

There is an afternoon of heavy rain that will make headlines for two days.  Rumor has it that there was even hail in Salwa and Mishref.  Meanwhile, with Beowulf having just slaughtered Grendel and about to do the same to his mother, Nada has yet to close the text, looking down into the Old English of mead hall talk, Danes and Beowulf.  Until finally, the others now gone, she snaps the book shut, announcing, “You know, I wouldn’t mind changing my name to something like a Sally, Martha, or even Jane, I especially like Jane, don’t you?  It reminds me of one of those clever 19th century British women.  Jane Akbar.  Rings true, sah?”  

“Jane is a fine name,” I say.

She gives her niqab a small tug, opens and closes the book. “But of course it is impossible.  Just a dream I have. My father would never allow it, think it childish, and maybe say something about it being too western, and disrespectful and so on.   Even later, when I marry, I cannot imagine any husband so daring—not here, not now.”

I nod to all of this, thinking we are done and she will hurry off like the last time. But she waits—another tug at her niqab–until, “Professor, can you do me a favor—just one favor?”

“Of course.”

“Just one small favor, just this one time?”

And I say of course again.

“Call me Jane.  Just one time, Jane.”

By now the cleaning lady, somebody’s grandmother from Kerla, softly opens the door, peeking in to see if the coast is clear; she has work to do: erase the board, straighten the chairs, pick up the many plastic coffee cups left behind.  When she sees us she backs away, murmuring what sounds like a sorry, clicking the door shut.

“Alright.”

“No, Professor, I mean now, call me Jane now.  Here, now.”

I smile and she looks down at her hands.

“Jane, how are you today?”

“Once more.”

“Hello, Jane.  It’s so good to see you.”

When she looks up there is a new glistening in her eyes.  “I am fine.  Thank you. Jane is fine.”

Later, Roland having just blown out his brains, Nada misses two classes in a row, and at the end of missed-class-number-two, I stop Mariam, asking, “Can you tell me where Nada has gone?”

“I think so,” she says. There is a small waiting, before she decides to say it again. “Yes, I think so.” 

Like Nada, Mariam too wears the niqab but her eyes are nothing like Nada’s, her niqab more brown than black and shorter. That, and Mariam almost never raises her hand, is never interested in asking questions.  And why should she with a Nada by her side.

“Can you tell me more?”

She turns to look at the window at the back of the room, and when she does I look too.  Once we are finished looking, she says, “It’s all about her scar, you know.”

“Scar?”

“Yes, of course, an old scar.”

“No I didn’t know.”

She sighs to my not knowing. “Yes, they say it has to do with a gun shot, someone shooting her?”

“You’re kidding?”

Her eyes grow Nada-wide, followed by a double-dare frown.  “No, sir, I am not.  Ever since school, seventh, eighth grade I think.  That’s when it happened, you know.  A gun shot in the face.”

“You’re kidding?”

“No, I am still not kidding, sir.”

“I mean, this sounds like the stuff of rumor, hearsay, right?”

“No.  Sad to say, it is true, all of it.”

A bigger quiet until there is a siren in the street, followed by hallway laughter.”

“Sir?”

“Yes, Mariam.”

“I have to go.”

“Yes, yes, of course.”

When Roland’s Aude drops dead after hearing of his death, Nada silently shakes her head.  I await her comment, question, but in the end, nothing comes, and we move on.

As the end of the term grows near, and King Shahrayar has just sent another wife to her death and another and another, and now enters Shahrazad, trying her very best to stay alive for one more night, Nada raises her hand the moment I walk in, even before I can arrange my notes, and I have no choice but to hold up a hand and ask her to wait, to give me a moment, to . . . but she will have none of it, not Nada. “Sir, I’ve given it some thought, and there are two things that need saying: thing one: this class is all about a long list of death and dying, tales about death and dying.  It is as simple as that, sah?  These heroes do their fair share of killing and sometimes, in the end, are killed, but more killing than killed, I think.”  Mariam pulls at her niqab and nods in agreement.  “Thing two: this list of death is sometimes good, sometimes bad, and I for one, . . .” stopping to glance at Mariam and beyond, and now she too runs a finger across the rim of her niqab, touching her nose. “I for one am not against this killing for good, can you understand me?  Of course violence is no good, and yet, sad to say, it has its place, don’t you think–to rid us of certain people, our heroes tell us that, killing is not such a bad idea?” 

The class is not ready for this as they continue to gently shift, rearrange, opening books and assorted notebooks, slipping cellphones into their pockets, as a giggling trickles from here to there. But Nada is in a special hurry and cannot be bothered. “Yes, and so this killing has its place, don’t you think?  Getting rid of those, . . . those who deserve it.  Those who hurt others, who go on hurting others just because. . . because, . .”  And Mariam has turned to watch her, no pretending here, but to watch Nada, as if something important is about to happen, is about to arrive. “But never mind, sorry professor, never mind.” And Nada, as if there is only so much oxygen for talk like this, looks down and lets her fingers curl in her lap.

I say, “Yes, you are not wrong.”  Other students are suddenly interested, looking up surprised.  And so I say again, “You are not wrong.”

I watch Nada closely, to see if she really believes what she has said, but she has decided that the dull, scuffed classroom floor now deserves her undivided attention. Someone in the back, one of the Mohammads I believe, says, “Sorry, what’s that?  What’s she saying about hurting others?” 

As if that is all she needed for a second wind, Nada looks up with a new bigness in her eyes and says, “Because these men of violence are no good, we need to turn the violence on them, to show them what it means, this death and dying.”   Somebody coughs, a shuffling of feet—eyes looking my way as if to ask, ‘What do you think of that?’

 Mariam looks at her and I try to help by saying, “Because. . . ?”

“Because, because they are men and that is what men do.”

It sounds like a question, but I can’t be sure.

By now a large classroom quiet has arrived, and when it does Mariam turns to frown at me, as if I have done something wrong, as if to say, ‘Now are you satisfied?’

The Amir is not feeling well and for two days his high blood pressure makes the front page.  On day three, he feels better, and his blood pressure with temperature and sore throat move to page two. Nada is quiet today.  But then after class: “Remember that part of the Old Testament?”

 “What part are you talking about, Nada?”

“The part about an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. That part.”

“Ok, well, that’s part of it; the passage in Matthew reads something like ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, but then goes on to say . . .”

“That’s enough,” she insists.  “Stop right there please.” And who knows, she might be smiling, even grinning as she drums her fingers on the desktop.

“But there is more, you know, in fact, it goes on to say…”

But Nada waves me off, saying, “Never mind, the rest is not important, I choose to stop at eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.  I like that part and that is enough, I think.”

Another early-morning walk past the Diner and there she is again, but this time not drinking, not eating, but hands on the tabletop, staring out the window at me, and I hold up a hand of hello, and either she does not see me or does not care and continues to stare, her niqab a black mask.

“Nada could not make it today.  She is sick.”

“She is?”

“That’s what she said.”

“Nothing serious I hope?”

But by now Maryam, her message delivered, is already headed to the door.

The class has been a flurry of ancient tales and big stories, and now, with the end almost here, Nada stays behind as the others file out, wave good-bye, or not, cellphones against their heads.  Mariam says something to her, and Nada shakes her head no.  Mariam shrugs and leaves, saying bye-bye as she goes.

“Good-bye, Mariam.”

Nada carefully unfolds herself from her front row desk, as if she knows something about being old and tired.  I am ready to leave as she steps forward.

“We did it,” she says.

“Yes, we did.”

“Yes, we did it but it was not easy, was it?”

“It wasn’t?”

“No, nothing like easy,” she squints at this.

When she uses both hands to smooth her abaya, to make straight the black folds, for the first time I notice her fingernails, they are bitten to the quick.  Her blackness made right, she says, “Professor, now that we are done, and all this talk of epics and heroes and ancient murders is behind us, may I yet again ask a favor of you?  One last favor? It would mean a lot.”

“Again?”

“Yes, one last time, if you don’t mind. Jane.  Call me Jane.  This one last time now that we have finished.  Jane.”

A siren wails long and loud somewhere, and I wait for it to stop, to go away before saying, “Jane.”

“Yes, professor, can I help you?”

But the siren is not done, and restarts.

“Jane, will you do me a favor, too?”  This part comes out of nowhere but I say it as if I have given it much thought, as if practiced, rehearsed. “One last favor, Jane?”

This surprises the both of us–her eyes a bluegreen large.  “Of course, Professor, anything.”

“Jane. . .”  the siren louder, bigger.  “Jane, show me your face.  Just this once, your face.”  The siren a blare at the window.

And of course like always, the cleaning woman is at the door, thinking the coast is clear, and when she sees us she sighs a sigh that says not again but this time walks in, determined to clean the white board that needs no cleaning.  We wait for her to finish her wiping, until finally, all done, and as she moves to straighten the desks and chairs, picking up bits of paper as she goes, I say, “A moment please.  Give us a moment.”

Her sad brown face looks up as if startled to see us still there, and with her job only half done, she nods and leaves.

Nada’s eyes have not stopped being large and bright… “I am sorry, Jane, . . .” I wave a hand to show her what my sorry looks like. “. . . this is stupid of me, so very sorry.  It’s just that I was wondering… It’s rude and all wrong,” another wave of hand, “. . . and you have every right to storm out, report me, do whatever you believe necessary but…”  I feel my face grow hot. “It’s just that . . .”

The classroom has bright sunny windows along the back wall, and with just the two of us, the emptiness is bigger, brighter, even golden.  Jane looks at me with the slightest lean, squinting, as if to make sure she is seeing it right, before whispering, “As you wish, Professor,” and slowly removes the niqab.

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