by Sweeta Yaqoobi
My second oldest sister was cross-eyed when she was young. That’s where she got her nickname, qeech. “Qeech” is an ugly word, uglier than the physical defect it describes. Her daughter also turns out to have extremely small eyes. “Almond shape” is how they describe them, a fake, condescending compliment that’s meant to degrade you, even more than the condition of your eyes.
I accompany my sister to the hospital the day my niece is born. They have her lie on a bed, spread her legs like a V, and push. She pushes as if her inside needs to explode. I stand on the head of her bed and witness tiny bubbles of sweat gather on her fragile face, shining under the dim light covered with housefly poop.
The room smells of alcohol and blood. To my right, another woman is lying on a squeaky bed, doing her share of pushing. Her voice sounds young as she moans. I glue my eyes to the stained baseboard of the wall for the entire five minutes I am in the room to help my sister settle in her bed. I try to avoid the young woman’s V, which is facing me.
It doesn’t take long for my niece to be born. My sister does it without much screaming, almost gracefully. After all, she is used to giving birth, aborting, or miscarrying. I guess that’s what happens when you become a woman, someone’s wife, with a big kitchen, in-laws to take care of, and a son at the age of thirteen.
“Child-bride” is not a word in our town. Every girl is either a child or a bride.
They call me back inside when the sound of a crying baby fills the room. The woman-with-her-V-facing-me is still pushing, and her voice sounds different this time when she cries. I can see from the corner of my eye that she is pushing something, perhaps the gathered corner of her scarf, inside her mouth to lower her voice, and I know she is a modest woman. Modest women don’t scream when they give birth. Modest women don’t show their pain. Modest women even defy the laws of physics on occasion. Sometimes a doctor comes in and slaps you on the mouth as you scream, and that’s how you become a modest woman in Kabul.
A nurse who seems to be mad at life hands me the baby. She is a small, sticky thing wrapped in a blanket that smells of new plastic. I hold her with confidence, becoming aware of my own age; I am much older than my sister when she gave birth for the first time. I am perhaps older than the woman-with-her-V-facing-me. It is both the shame and guilt of not knowing motherhood, not knowing one’s vagina tearing close to the anus that makes me feel old, privileged, and expired all at the same time. I am seventeen.
“Look.” I lower my arms so my sister can see the face of her baby. “I think her eyes are reeaaally big,” I say, raising my eyebrows and pointing to the baby’s closed eyes with my own eyes. The swollen skin around her eyes looks like a neat border, puffed and slightly risen.
“You think so?”
“Oh yes, definitely!” I use my I-go-to-school-and-I-know-everything voice. “Wait till she opens them, you’ll see.” I smile wishfully. My sister smiles back. A shy, modest smile.
Maryam and I have always had a bonding that goes beyond sisterhood. It is as if we are the same person, living two different lives at two different ages. It is as if I am single so she can know childhood. I am dating, secretly, so she can know love. I go to school so she can learn.
I was half her height when Maryam got her first suitor. He had a mouth full of teeth—too many teeth—when he smiled. I stood by the door frame and watched his mother and two sisters observe Maryam from head to toe as she served them tea. When they met her eyes, one of the sisters whispered something into the ear of the other while covering her mouth with the napkin in her hand. They giggled. I felt offended.
Later that day, Mom forced Maryam to walk around the block with the suitor guy and sent me along as her chaperone. We hated him instantly. Perhaps it was his big smiling mouth that almost reached the corners of his face; it made him look lousy. Or maybe it was his sisters, or perhaps the fact that he kept staring at Maryam the whole time as if he had never seen a girl before. I held tight to Maryam’s hand as we walked the entire block. No one spoke a word, and when we reached the gate to our yard, Maryam spat on the ground, as per my suggestion before we left the house. I thought that was a proper sign to let a person know you didn’t want to marry them.
That was the first time I used my I-go-to-school-and-I-know-everything voice to offer Maryam suggestions. She trusted me wholeheartedly. That was also the last time, well, only time, Maryam had a choice in who not to marry. A qeech girl didn’t have a lot of options. What was our mother supposed to do if, God forbid, Maryam couldn’t find a husband? How could she possibly manage the shame and embarrassment of having an “expired” girl while people’s daughters were getting married left and right. A girl marrying—the younger the better—didn’t only reflect on the girl’s desirability but also on her upbringing.
Not long after Maryam rejected her first suitor, Mom married her off to another man, who didn’t have a big mouth full of teeth, but who was more than twice Maryam’s age. And not long after marrying him, well about nine months, Maryam gave birth to her first son, Dariush. Then followed the series of more pregnancies, secret abortions, and miscarriages.
I don’t think Maryam has decided what to name this baby. I don’t ask her. It is not always up to the mother to decide what to name her baby. So much goes into naming a baby: does the father in-law approve? Does the mother-in-law like it? Do the sisters- and brothers-in-law, the husband approve? Does the imam at the masjid, who will sing her name in her ears for the first time, approve? Is the name Islamic enough for the imam? So I don’t bother asking.
I sit in the middle of the bench in the hall outside the room with the nameless baby on my lap as Maryam gets ready to leave. I look at her face and wonder how big her eyes will be. I let her squeeze my thumb, which fills her entire hand. The skin around it is wrinkly. Her nails are long and delicate, and as she squeezes my thumb, her tiny fingernails lose their pinkish color and become pale, like the face of her mother when she was pushing.
I lean my head against the wall behind me and let my gaze rove from the face of the nameless baby to the world outside the window in front of me. I see smoke come out of the worn-down chimney of the building next door, and my gaze follows the swirls as they disappear in the thick gray sky. I let my eyes follow the direction of the falling snow and back to my lap, to the face of the baby, who has now opened one eye. It is not big. It is much smaller than I feared it would be. What appeared a big frame around her eyes was just a swollen puffy hood that would soon earn her the label “almond-shaped,” and that’s how she will get her nickname.
When Maryam comes out of the room, she meets the eyes of her baby on my lap, and she smiles. There is no sign of disappointment on her face. She holds on to my bent arm as we walk the dark, narrow hall to the door of the hospital, where my brother-in-law meets us. We both sit in the back of the taxi and now Maryam is holding her baby and talking with her in smiling and tilting head language.
I watch a car drive through the flooded, muddy street and splash dirty water on some unlucky man at the bus stop. The man waves his arms up and down and opens his mouth shouting. He looks around for a stone perhaps to throw at the car, which is now long gone.
“I guess I was wrong this time.”
“About what?” She doesn’t seem to remember.
“Her eyes.” I respond in a guilty voice. “I really did think they were going to be big. I mean they looked really big before she opened them.” I start to sound like a salesperson who is apologizing to a customer about a defective item.
“Oh!” she exclaims. “I was in so much pain, I don’t even remember what you said. But isn’t she beautiful?”
“She is! She is very cute.”
“She is going to be a good girl. She didn’t bother me nearly as much as Dariush did. They say you can tell if a child is saleh, a good one, the day he is born.”
“Yeah, well Dariush was a big baby and your first one. And you were really young.”
I become conscious of my own age again, but soon the size of the nameless baby’s eyes replaces my thoughts. If they were big, she could avoid the destiny that her mother had. Dariush’s eyes aren’t that big either, but he is a boy. He finds his way around in the world. Girls who don’t have many options marry men with far worse shortcomings than having small eyes.
“You know I’ve always hated Mom for what she did to you,” I say with a firmer voice.
“You mean marrying me at a young age?”
“Yes. I mean the size and shape of one’s eyes shouldn’t dictate their entire future, at least not take their childhood from them.” I use my I-go-to-school-and-I-know-everything voice again.
“Mom didn’t marry me off because of my eyes.” She whispers so her husband sitting in the front seat won’t hear us. “You were young and couldn’t understand what our family was going through. When Dad died, Mom was still young herself. Now that you are old enough you know how people talk. Everyone started to say, ‘Fatima’s house is like a pot without a lid, anyone can come and go.’ We needed a man, someone to support Mom financially. Yes, she was young and could remarry, but who marries a widow with five children? She could either remarry and leave us all to starve, or marry me off and save all of us.” She pauses and looks at her baby again, who has now opened both eyes. The size of her eyes suddenly becomes insignificant.
“You will understand when you become a mother,” she says. The solemn passion in my sister’s voice makes me realize that age is not a barrier to a mother’s love for her child, and suddenly I feel guilty for wishing she had not experienced this love.
“But don’t become a mother yet, ok?” She laughs and I feel shy. I nod. “Go chase your dreams and become a big person. Your achievement will be enough for all of us.”
I am sitting in the back of a cab from JFK on my way to chase my dreams. I will be attending a boarding school among the elites of Massachusetts, which I cannot pronounce properly and for which I haven’t formed an image yet. I look out the window, to the distance between me and my sister, who waits passionately for me to chase my dreams. Our dreams.
Published on July 15, 2021