By Jean Sasson
My mother is trying to murder me.
No one knows about this potential crime but me.
Even if I could tell somebody, they wouldn’t believe me. Mother is such a sweet-faced beauty that no one could possibly associate violence with her image, and certainly not murder. She’s got a delicately featured face dominated by enormous expressive, coffee-hued eyes. Even now, at my tender age, I understand that because of her dramatic beauty, mother ensnares the approving attention of everyone who sees her.
But mother does not look beautiful now. She is bounding about the room with all the frenzied desperation of a stalked gazelle. Her lovely features are those of a stranger, an angry stranger who twists mother’s sweet countenance into intense grimaces and scowls. Even the veins of mother’s neck are swollen into ugly ropes that mar her throat’s white smoothness.
Mother is lovely is so many ways, but she is most proud of her hands. She is often complimented on her hands, repeatedly told that they are graceful instruments, exquisitely slender, with svelte fingers that are generally adorned with rings.
I curve my head further downward to look at my little hands. I stretch my tiny fingers as wide as I can. My hands have only recently formed, but I think they are beautiful, too, just like mother’s fingers, long and smoothly tapered.
I quickly forget about my delicate fingers to shrivel in fear when mother gives a push against me. Mother’s hands are ugly now, distorted into tautened claws, shorn of all ornament, crimson red and grasping.
Suddenly I fear mother’s hands. I believe she’ll use those claws to rip me out of her womb.
Mother is determined to kill me. She first grapples to lift two heavy bags of rice up on a table-top; then she pulls herself off a foot-stool to climb atop a table. Once on the table, she stands quietly before she bends forward. With a big groan she tucks a sack of rice between each forearm and her waist. With bags snug in place, mother sends a heartfelt, although questionable, prayer heavenward before she launches her body into the air. She lands heavily as her splayed feet plants firmly on the hard floor. As she lands, a soft could of dust puffs from the Oriental carpet, causing mother to have a long coughing spell.
I cough, too, in my own delicate manner.
Overhead, the dainty chandelier that my father once proudly transported all the way from Paris now sways upon the impact. I sway, too, but when my little form thrusts against the liquid-filled uterine sac so carefully designed to protect me from undue jarring, I’m only bounced about, remaining unharmed.
With those long fingers stretched wide, mother carefully strokes her abdomen. She seems to understand that I have not lurched loose.
I want to tell her that I’m a stubborn little fetus and it’s going to take an enormous effort for her to tear me away.
My mother is stubborn, as well, so our battle is just beginning.
She gathers up the rice bags for a second time to plod out into the hallway, where she stares for a minute at the long stairwell. She clutches those heavy rice bags in her arms and begins to run up and down the stairs. She executes this particular exercise ten times before examining herself once more.
She grunts in frustration when she realizes that there’s a baby still on board. Her lips pucker in displeasure.
Mother makes the trip up the stairway once again. She poises on the top step, her face straining with a big effort, her jaws locked tight like a vicious guard dog. She balances quietly for a brief moment before she purposely loses her footing. She flings her body down in a whirling tumble, finally collapsing heavily on one side. Mother is breathless from the pain of the fall, but even the hard tumble fails to accomplish her goal. I am still attached.
I’m shaken, but with every breath she takes, I take one too. I rebound from the fall more easily than mother, because her body is protecting me. I want to be born, to have a chance to live on the outside world, so I’m hanging on, no matter what!
Lying prone on the floor staring at the ceiling, Mother becomes even more exasperated at me.
I want to cry out, to remind her that I am an innocent fetus in her womb and that I want to experience life in all its richness and wonder. My feelings are hurt because mother has never even pondered the life I have inside of me, or of the promise of my future.
When she finally considers me, it’s an unsettling image that flashes through her mind – she imagines my tiny fingers tenaciously hanging on to her flesh, refusing to let go of her womb. For a second or two she becomes curious about me, this little fetus nestled so stubbornly inside her. She sighs, wondering whether I am a girl or a boy, big or small, dark or fair. Sadly, the idea of my life is so disagreeable to mother that she forces herself to shove aside personal details of what I might be. I know that she is trying to push back her conscience.
Mother is wrong to try and kill me.
Although I am only a young and physically undeveloped fetus, I am so close to my mother that I can sense her every thought and action. I am a part of her and can feel her every move. I can hear every noise she makes. I can hear everything that my mother hears. I understand when mother reminds herself of her big problems. She is in a very difficult marriage and there are many financial problems. These very real tribulations have caused my mother to turn away from having more children. She wrongly believes that another child will make her life even more impossible.
I long to tell her that I’ll be a good baby and I won’t cry or be too mischievous, but I can’t communicate with words, at least not yet.
Mother becomes more angry because she is mired in an unwelcome battle of wills with me, an obstinate fetus. Mother just wants me to go away, but I won’t. Mother grunts from low in her throat, and the sound inside her body reverberates as a roar. I admit that his new noise frightens me.
Mother cries out to no one in particular, “Has any unborn child of a woman ever been so determined to live?”
That’s when she starts to consider all options. What else might she do to rid herself of me, an unwanted child?
Mother suddenly recalls a long-ago story about a desperate woman who had succeeded in firing an unwanted fetus out of her womb by using excessive heat. Mother can’t recall the details of the procedure, but does remember that extreme heat had dislodged that woman’s fetus.
I’m terrified by this latest idea, but mother becomes excited and clicks her tongue, wondering what she might do to heat up her insides.
With a new plan in mind, mother lifts herself from the floor, gathers the bags of rice and goes into the kitchen. She takes her new electric iron out of its special storage spot in the small room off the kitchen, plugs it into the single electrical socket in the kitchen, and waits.
I wait, too. While waiting, my tiny heart begins to pound loudly. This is a new sound coming from within my own body and I am truly frightened.
Mother splashes droplets of water on the underside of the iron until the drops spin into wee water balls that sizzle off the iron. She then presses the hot iron firmly against her abdomen. Her cotton dress provides only scant protection between the iron and her bare skin so I can feel the heat almost instantly. Mother does not seem to notice the heat, and indeed, moves the iron from one spot to another on her abdomen until a sheen of sweat wraps her face and chest.
Trying to protect myself, I draw into a teeny flesh ball, keeping the heat away from as much of my tiny body as possible. Mother thinks that this unrelenting heat will drive me to turn loose, to give up the nest I so love. But I hang tight. I’m not going anywhere! I like it here.
After long minutes pass, mother’s entire body is fuming hot. She lifts her dress to see that her stomach is redder than the red poppies in her flower garden. Still she detests no distress from me. This warmth is not as uncomfortable as mother had hoped. The liquid in the sac surrounding me is quite warm but thus far, I am mainly unaffected.
I hear mother sigh deeply then she mutters, “Allah, help me. I cannot have another child.”
Does mother truly believe that God will help her to expunge a fetus?
I don’t think so.
Finally mother unplugs the iron and leaves it on the counter to cool. I know that she is searching for other ideas. She has a thought about a sharp instrument that she might use to dislodge me. This is a very dangerous plan. I might not be able to squeeze myself small enough to avoid a sharp knife. Thankfully mother is queasy with this idea and she moves on to other plots. Mother’s eyes gleam at the sight of a large sack of yellow onions. She recalls another story she had once heard. These onions might give her the result she is seeking.
Mother fills a large pot with water and sets the pot on the stove to heat. She selects ten of the largest onions and peels away the diaphanous skin before placing the onions in the boiling water. She grimaces as the revolting odor saturates her immaculate home. After thirty minutes of boiling, mother selects her largest handled cup and dips it into the onion broth, blowing the liquid to cool it, then takes a big drink. She makes a face that carves deep furrows on her cheeks. The juice must taste really vile.
But I’m not bothered in the slightest by this onion juice. I can’t taste the stuff. Mother is wasting her time.
Still, she forces herself to drink the entire pot of onion juice. That’s when she begins to gag. Then she starts heaving and throws up all the juice.
This is no fun for me, but it’s nothing compared to the fall down the stairs.
Mother feels very sick, but enjoys a haze of pleasure over her wretched
condition. She truly believes that all this violent retching and vomiting will
discharge the fetus that torments her.
Mother is miserable, but I’m calm in my little sac.
Mother stares at the clock. She only has an hour before her four children will return home. She has an eleven-year-old daughter, Alia, an eight-year-old son, Ra’ad, and four-year-old twins, Sa’ad and Muna. Earlier in the day mother had left her four children in the care of a good neighbor. Mother told the neighbor that she had an important doctor’s appointment that she could not break.
My mother has begun to lie. Lies? Murder? Where is this ill-advised adventure leading my sweet mother?
Mother is stubborn. Her thoughts return to the problem at hand. She believes that she cannot fail. Her nostrils tense with frustration. She gives another noisy groan that causes me to wiggle in distress.
I hate all this loud noise.
I know that mother is a young woman, only thirty-three years old, although with four children and a demanding husband, she is beginning to feel very old. She believes that a fifth child will make her feel older still.
I don’t agree.
Mother promptly decides that she must take stronger measures. I soon overhear her talking to another woman, someone in the neighborhood who makes extra money by selling illegal drugs to other women, drugs that will abort pregnancies without harming the mothers.
Mother doesn’t want to die.
She only wants me to die.
I brace myself.
I know that my mother would have never believed she would resort to such measures to murder her unborn child. She is a woman who loves children. But since the massacre of the royal family four years ago, along with the loss of father’s furniture factory during the same turbulent time, mother’s troubles have increased greatly. Now the prospect of an additional child feels like a burdensome yoke tethered to her neck, rather than as a joy gathered at her bosom.
I am so sad, for I want to bring pleasure to my mother. I want to be a source of joy, not despair.
Mother happily receives the pills she requests, promising the woman that she will pay her with the following week’s grocery money. I guess my siblings will go hungry so that mother can get rid of me.
Mother returns home with those deadly pills, so carefully folded into her handkerchief. She walks with a relieved bounce to her step.
I bounce, too.
Mother makes her plans. Tomorrow morning she will take care of me, the problem, once and for all. After Alia and Ra’ad are sent off to school, she will put the twins down for their naps before swallowing the pills, one by one. By tomorrow evening, I will be gone. I will be sacrificed for the good of the family.
Or so she thinks.
I don’t plan on going anywhere.
I’m so tired after all the jumping, rolling, and heaving, that I sleep soundly through the night.
The following morning, mother goes into action. Her plan goes smoothly. She gets her oldest off to school. She plays with the twins until they are tired. She puts them down for a nap. She swallows four white pills.
I am tiny so it doesn’t take a large dose of chemicals to put me out. I go to sleep very quickly.
There’s a lot of ongoing action while I sleep.
I later hear that when my older siblings return from school that they make an alarming discovery. The twins are scampering and squealing unattended in the house. Mother sprawls unconscious on the floor.
Ra’ad cries out an alarm and close neighbors rush into our home, speeding mother to the nearest hospital.
I become aware nearly at the same moment mother is aroused into consciousness.
The head physician’s voice is gentle, and his sing-song tone too low for mother to hear clearly.
But I hear.
“Kafia. Kafia. This is the doctor. You are in the hospital. Do you remember what happened to you?”
Mother’s memory is blurred along with her vision. For many long moments she stares mutely at the doctor’s shadowy face, struggling to understand his words.
I give her a good kick, hoping to bring her to her senses. She must tell the doctor about those pills.
Mother’s muddled mind fails to connect with the present time. But she is thinking, and that is a good sign. She asks, “Where am I? Where are my children?”
My tiny heart plunges. Mother is thinking of everyone but me, the fetus she tried to kill. In fact, she has forgotten all about me.
When the physician gently feels mother’s abdomen, her memory suddenly returns. She can’t decide whether or not to tell the doctor about those pills.
I leap about as much as I can, which isn’t much, considering my tiny size and the miniature compartment confining me. But my movements have the obvious desired effect, for mother suddenly remembers her previous actions.
Poison pills come to her mind. Fearful for her own life, and the real possibility that she might leave her children alone without a mother, she gestures to the physician that she has taken pills.
Mother wants to live.
I want mother to live, as well, for the sake of two lives.
The doctor asks, “You are pregnant?”
“And you took something to end the pregnancy?”
“What did you take, Kafia?”
“Four white pills.”
Seeing the worried look in the doctor’s eyes, Mother pleads with the doctor to save her, that she must live for her four children. She even starts to pray.
Mother doesn’t pray for me. She truly has forgotten me. I feel so sad. That’s when I feel something trickling down my teeny cheeks. What is this new thing? Then I realize that I am crying, the same way I’ve seen mother cry she when thinks about me, and how she doesn’t want me.
The physicians use all their medical skills to save mother. While treating her, my family, along with various neighbors are waiting in terror, worried by mother’s well-being. Mother is the person who takes care for the entire household. None can imagine life without her.
Of course, they don’t know about me yet. But they will.
Many are the times I’ve been told about that unfolding scene in the hospital waiting area.
Each person sits silent, lost in confused fears, unable to understand this latest catastrophe.
My father is the most agitated. From the first moment father saw mother, he loved her. Mother was a beautiful Kurdish woman, and over the years, her exciting personality had stamped his life with a pleasure he had never believed would be his own. Now he sits and wonders: How can I live without my Kafia. He is frantic as he paces, his hands clasped behind his back, waiting.
My oldest brother, Ra’ad, is the only member of the family whose intuition tells him that his mother’s recent peculiar behavior might explain the current crisis. Over the past week, my older brother had witnessed much of what I had lived. He had slipped away from the inattentive neighbor to sneak back to see what his mother might be doing. My poor brother was frightened when he witnessed his mother jump from the dining room table, and then throw herself down the stairs. But he was most terrified when he watched his mother tried to iron herself to death. All these bewildering things go through his mind, and when he tries to explain these happenings to other family members, they quickly dismiss his wild descriptions as nothing more than silly childhood fantasies.
Soon a youthful intern with eyelids narrowed over two restless eyes seeks out the family. He fills the role of inexperienced doctor perfectly. He is wearing a blood-stained doctor’s white coat and slouching through the hallway behind a face pasted with futility. Nothing about his appearance is reassuring, but my family is so eager to leave mother’s fate that they excuse his unkempt appearance.
The intern’s spongy lips flap. “The al-Askari family?”
A neighbor points out my father. The intern does not know that my father is deaf. My father concentrates, trying to read the young man’s malleable lips.
“Mr. al-Askari, there is uncertainty as to your wife’s fate.” The intern gestures carelessly with his long fingers. “She might live. She might die. At this time the attending physician is unsure.” Without further explanation, the insensitive intern swivels on his heels and slouches back to where he had come, leaving mother’s family and friends in a great state of alarm. The doctor had failed to tell them the medical problem, only that she might live, or she might die!
Father is so stunned that he retreats to a corner of the long hallway facing the emergency area. His breathing becomes so labored that he begins to pant.
My father, Mohammed al-Askari, had lived a life of enormous challenges. At only seven years of age, he was struck with scarlet fever which left him wholly deaf. His early deafness affected his speech and soon he was unable to verbalize his thoughts. His speech grew so muddled that he ceased speaking, accepting as his mantle the deaf and mute son of Ali Ridha al-Askari. Such a malady would be a tragedy for any child in any country, but proved to be a serious handicap in a land where such deficiencies are often ridiculed. Time after time, my sensitive father was humiliated, which sowed a permanent sorrow in his demeanor. After the onset of this double affliction, father was sent abroad to France for special schooling. Those years had offered father a measure of relief, but after returning to Iraq, a permanent sadness triggered by society’s ignorance once again clouded his life.
He has other problems. The specter of physical danger has hung over my family since July 1958, when the Iraqi royal family was overthrown, with many members of the family brutally murdered. The youthful king Faisal II had been gunned down. The young king was adored by my father and the entire al-Askari family.
My father’s family had enjoyed a special connection to the King Faisal, as they had been intimately linked with the royal family from the moment of Iraq’s formation during the time of World War I. Father, along with all the al-Askari’s was a resolute supporter of the regime. Thus he was targeted. In the violence that followed the massacre of the royal family, an angry mob burned down father’s cherished furniture factory, the only one of its kind in the entire country. Father and mother and their four children were turned out of their home, finding themselves in dire financial straits. Father had never recovered from that dreadful time filled with human loss and economic disaster. Now he is fearful that he will lose his beloved wife, my mother.
After the passing of yet another long hour, punctuated by the cries of tired toddlers and the typical commotion of a busy hospital waiting room, another doctor seeks out my family to tell them what they have so feverishly prayed to hear.
My father bends his head forward, exposing his scalp. His hair is plastered against his skull in some places and sticks out wildly at others, for in his worry and despair, he has been pulling at his hair with his hands.
“Mr. al-Askari, your wife is going to live.”
Father’s spine straightens.
“Mr. al-Askari, the infant lived as well.”
And so my family finally discovers my existence. There is a chorus of gasps. They don’t appear to be pleased.
My father’s face darkens at this unexpected bit of news. He clasps his hands rightly. His wife has kept an important secret from him.
The doctor’s surprising announcement continues to set off a buzz of excitement from the family and friends and neighbors now gathering closer. All claim that they knew nothing of me. Mother has been very sly and secretive.
The doctor, finally realizing that my father can neither hear nor speak, pitches his voice more loudly. He begins to shout, as though volume alone might be the problem of the one deaf. “Mr. al-Askari, your wife took medicine to abort the child. She almost killed herself, but the infant seems perfectly normal.” He smiles, “This unborn child of yours is a little warrior baby, the victor of many violent assaults.”
For sure I’ve been fighting bravely, but only now does someone else recognize my courage and determination.
My father is not happy. His face suddenly furrows and he staggers backward, struck by the unknowns of mother’s life. He simply cannot believe the message he has been given. His wife is the most devoted mother, loving her children with marked tenderness. He cannot believe that his gentle wife could plot to murder her unborn child.
He should have seen mother tumbling down those stairs. Then he would have believed it!
Seeing father’s bewildered expression, the kindly physician finally realizes that my father was unaware of my existence. “You can see your wife in a few minutes. The nurse will come for you.”
Then the doctor nods at the large crowd of onlookers with some puzzlement before turning away. He tucks his head into his slumped shoulders as he threads his way past hospital equipment that litters the narrow hallway.
My stunned father sits down, staring ahead, trying his best to absorb the shocking information.
Now well settled into a hospital room, mother is finally conscious. She is propped up in her hospital bed, relieved to find herself alive. She is comforted, as well, by the belief that she is no longer with child.
But I am still alive and none the worse for the experience. Mother just doesn’t know it yet.
Mother’s plan had worked, nearly too well, she thinks grimly as she worries what the doctor might reveal to her husband. She stretches her neck to look past the slightly cracked door, willing the doctor to appear, knowing that she must ask him to keep her secret. To keep peace in her marriage, she will urge the doctor to tell her husband a small lie. She must say or do whatever she must to convince the doctor that it is not necessary to reveal a pregnancy that is no more.
The doctor soon steps into her room. He’s a funny looking man. The loose skin of his forehead folds forward over his eyes like a visor, his face ruggedly lined from a challenging life of a low paying job, long hours, and gloomy outcomes.
Before mother can open her mouth to voice what she believes is a reasonable request, the doctor begins to lecture her.
He stares severely at mother and when he speaks, those skin folds move along with his words! “Kafia, you nearly killed yourself. You would have left four innocent children without a mother. You tried to discard an innocent being.” He paused before starting up again, “But I believe that God sent an angel to protect this baby, for your baby is a strong warrior, and he, or she, is thriving. Your baby is healthy, Kafia, unharmed by your foolish behavior. Now, you will go home tomorrow and you will not consider this foolishness again. Be happy for this child. Your baby’s character is well formed and this baby is brave and stubborn. He, or she, is bound to bring you great joy.
I listen carefully to his words. Thank goodness someone wants me to be born! When I am called a warrior baby, I puff out my little chest with pride.
Mother would not have been more surprised if the doctor had told her that she had suddenly sprouted another head! The fetus is still living? How can that be? Mother knew that she, a full grown and healthy adult, had nearly died. And a tiny fetus survived? Mother is so stunned that she cannot speak. She sinks back against the pillows, her face frozen in disappointment.
Tear gather for a second time in my eyes because my mother is disappointed that I have not simply vanished from her life.
The doctor’s words gather in harshness, “If you try this again, Kafia, you will die. Is that what you want? To die?”
Mother gives a faint shake of her head. Her real feelings remain unspoken. She believes that no one can understand her insufferable life.
The annoyed doctor blasts his words, “Answer me, Kafia! Do you want to die?”
Mother does not want to die.
She only wants me to die.
“No,” she whispers. “No, I must live. I have children who need me. I must live.” But her mind is racing. How will she cope with an infant? And, what if she has another set of twins? She squirms at the possibility. I squirm with her. But I do wish I could whisper in her ear and tell her that her fears are unfounded. I am in the womb alone, a tiny girl. How much trouble can I be?
But to mother, Sa’ad and Muna together are too much for one woman. Although Alia and Ra’ad are bigger, they are not big enough to help around the house. Now there will be a new baby. Mother grunts, suddenly engrossed in yet a second hazardous scheme. Her solution is simple. She decides that if the doctor tells her she is having twins yet for a second time, she will throw herself into the Tigris River! That will take care of the problem once and for all!
I shiver with terror. Submerged deep inside mother’s body, I will not be able to swim to safety.
Truly, I fear that I will not get out of this womb alive.
The doctor relents a bit and pats mother’s hand.
I feel what mother feels, and now she feels so tired, old with the knowledge that too soon I will cause her to bloat, and then after the birth, she will begin to wither.
Mother mutters, “A woman’s life is filled with burdens.”
Hmmmm. This knowledge gives me pause for I am female and one day I will be a woman, too, just like my mother. For the first time I feel a quiver of sympathy for my mother’s situation.
Suddenly mother remembers the rest of her family, all waiting to come to her, all expecting an explanation for their fright. Mother looks into the doctor’s yellowed face, a man who obviously works too many hours, all indoors. “What did you tell my husband? Mother asks.
His voice is stern once again. “What do you think I told him? I told your husband the truth. It’s important for your family to know what you are capable of. Now they will take care to prevent you from trying such a dangerous stunt again!”
Mother’s shoulders slump. It’s no use struggling anymore, she decides in a flash. She has no choice. She will deliver this child. But there will be no more, she determines with a jut of her angular chin, though she wonders how she might stop my father’s desire for the marriage bed.
I don’t yet know what that is about.
The doctor turns abruptly and quickly walks away, his energy somehow renewed by lashing out at mother. Without turning back to face her, he promises, “I will send in your family.” He slams the door behind him.
Mother stares at her abdomen in shock. She wishes for x-ray eyes to look to her insides, to view me, a super fetus who has blocked her at every turn. Mother sighs loudly. There is nothing else she can do. She must have this baby.
I sigh deeply, the sigh of the saved. Feeling secure for the first time in days, I nestle quietly, snuggling safely in my mother’s womb, the first crisis of my life finally past.
Mother is not so comfy. She stares at the closed door. Now that father knows the truth, she is dreading facing him. My father is a kindly man who loves all his children. He will be disappointed, she knows. Mother has spent her entire married life trying to please her husband. How will he accept her actions? Unexpected behavior that he will consider unspeakable?
Mother has been married to my father for eleven years now, in an arranged marriage to a man who cannot hear nor speak. The union has been very difficult for mother, for she had wed against her will. In truth, her heart had long before been stirred by another, a handsome young man in her village who had believed that the beautiful Kafia Hasoon would one day be his bride. But marriages in Kurdistan are never arranged in consideration of young hearts, but rather for advantageous mergers of family alliances. Mother’s family believed that an inter-alliance with the influential Baghdadi al-Askari’s would enhance their own status, and so she was given in marriage to a man she has never met.
Mother was miserably sad to be forced into marriage with someone she did not know, and someone who lived so far removed from her own family that she would be lucky to see them once a year. But the years had revealed my father’s goodness, and over time mother grew to respect him, even to feel surges of affection on occasion.
Father is a good man. I can’t wait to meet him.
Mother’s quiet hospital room suddenly fills with people and noise. Her family and friends are so noisy that I cannot sleep, although I am exhausted. Streams of family and friends and neighbors pour into the room, all with friendly passion to convey their relief at mother’s recovery.
Several friends shout out their congratulations on my upcoming birth, something that excites me.
“Kafia! Thanks be to God that you are well.”
“Kafia! You are a picture of health!”
Mother and father glance at once another, then break their connecting gazes.
Father is too kindly to rebuke his wife, yet his eyes speak his emotions. He stands quietly. Tears well in his eyes as he stares at his wife, his vast love now bordered with fear.
Mother waits, expecting to see his hands flash in angry sign language, but nothing is expressed.
Mother’s spirits struggle up.
Suddenly I realize that my frightening battle for life has ensured me a special spot in the hearts of all who now know about me. I have become a family legend and I am not yet born!
Whispered words travel through the community about the event, and the tenacity of my mother’s unborn child. The doctor’s prediction of the unborn child’s warrior spirit is a favorite tale of the neighborhood. Stories abound of my strength and determination to come into their world. The neighbors considered the most wise calmly predict that I am a strong male, a boy who will grow to be a warrior. Supposedly I will make Iraqis proud, as had my famous Uncle, Jafar Pasha al-Askari. This uncle had proved himself to be a confirmed military genius of World War I, a post-war diplomat, and a treasured friend of many leading Europeans and Iraqis. Jafar Pasha was an extraordinary man for any country or any century, and each time a son was born into the large al-Askari family, hope sprouted that the genetic combination that had produced Jafar Pasha would re-emerge in yet a new child in the extended family.
I hope I won’t disappoint.
My mother’s early actions to abort me arouses a silent vigilance from every family member, close family friends, and knowing neighbors. Mother is rarely alone to generate further mischief, should she be so inclined. My arrival is awaited with breathless excitement.
Even mother succumbs to the mounting anticipation and begins to enjoy the unusual amount of attention. Enormous excitement erupts when mother reports on my active moments, with my every thump and kick seriously evaluated.
“Yes! This one is a strong boy, a warrior,” my mother agrees, much to my amusement.
I may be a girl, but I know that I have a warrior spirit. I believe the words I am hearing. I begin to practice balling my little fingers into fists. I’m a fighter! I practice powerful kicks, as least as powerful as one can manage while in a small womb.
Mother reports that I am more active than the twins.
I give an especially strong kick each time I hear mother brag about my strength.
Six months go by. Soon I am nine months in the womb. I am getting crowded in here and am impatient to be born, to pop out of my nest and take a look at the world. I am too small for my sac and I begin to push and strain. My movements create the first pangs of childbirth and mother sounds a cry that is answered by many. Engrossed family and friends and neighbors rush throughout the neighborhood banging on doors and shouting the long-anticipated news, “Kafia’s baby is coming!”
One old man who had served as a soldier in the Arab Revolt and is still devoted to his general, my uncle Jafa Pasha who had led the Arabs to victory over the Ottoman Turks, struck out to run in a tight circle, happily shouting, “The warrior Jafar Pasha is returning!”
Several people rush to alert my father, to tell him to leave his work and come quickly to the hospital. It is believed that he is a lucky man who is about to embrace a favored son.
I can’t wait to see his face. Thus far, I’ve only seen him through mother’s vision.
The neighborhood buzzes like a party, and with a sense of celebration and happiness, my mother and I am rushed to the hospital.
Started hospital staff wrongly believe that a dangerous riot or tragic fire has occurred when tens of people stream into the hospital. They are astonished to learn that an entire neighborhood has accompanied one lone woman about to give birth.
As mother had feared, my birthing is more protracted and more grueling than that of my siblings. I’m tiny but my little elbows and knees are especially sharp.
Mother screeches, “This one is equipped with razors!”
I try not to cause so much pain for my mother, but I’m confused by all the noise and activity. I only want to get this over with so I try to paddle out with my arms and legs.
Mother screeches even louder!
I screech with her! I want to shout, “Let me out!”
My family awaits, each lost in their personal reflections.
Father sits with his four children. He has never raised the topic of mother’s misdeeds, yet he is often plagued by the memory that the sweet-mothering Kaifa tried so hard to halt my birth, and my life. My entrance today is bringing back my father’s pain, but he suffers, as always, in silence and isolation.
My big brother Ra’ad squirms uncomfortably when he hears a neighbor stridently proclaim his desire for our mother to produce a big boy, a warrior. Brother Ra’ad is a gentle soul, loving his mother deeply. He only wants his mother to be safe, caring little whether I am a boy or a girl. My precious brother will one day prove himself to be the protector of my family.
My big sister Ali wishes for a little girl. My poor sister has been emotionally wounded time and again by the words and actions of our paternal grandmother, Mirriam. Grandmother Mirriam detests
Alia simply for being born female. She mocks Alia at every turn for her useless existence. Simply because Alia knows that her cruel grandmother is praying for a big boy, Alia is praying for a delicate girl.
All wait, all draped in their explicit emotions.
Finally I push through every obstacle and pop out into the world. I’m bewildered at the tremendous noise and I howl in protest. Too many hands are grabbing at me. People I do not know are rubbing rough cloths over my face and body. There are bright lights glowing and the unexpected brightness hurts my eyes. Suddenly strange hands squeeze me tight! I’m confused and frightened. This outside world is nothing as I thought and I’m scared. I want to go back inside my mother, to snuggle in the dark and warmth, but I cannot. I am stuck in this loud new world!
I wiggle my legs and arms and scream at the top of my lungs. Everyone is talking loudly and I hear the loudest nurse proclaim. “She is too tiny to be this strong!” I kick and scream some more, alerting them to the danger, that indeed, they are in the presence of a little warrior!
Okay! I’ve warned them! Watch out! I’m a warrior baby. Back away!
Only after I’m wrapped snugly in a soft cloth do I calm down.
My mother is taken away into another room and I’m cradled in the arms of someone whose voice I’ve never heard. This is not good. Suddenly I’m being bounced in this stranger’s arms as she waltzes through a doorway and into an area where there is even more noise and confusion.
My family sees a tall, brawny nurse holding a newborn walking in their direction.
I have decided that I do not like this nurse, even though her arms are muscular and she is holding me safely. I only want to find my father. I’ve heard his grunts, his struggles to speak, so many times that I’m bound to instantly know him. I begin to writhe so powerfully that I threaten to wiggle away. A few female friends of the family squeal their concern but a hushed silence of nervous expectation falls over the rest of the crowd.
The nurse beams a big smile. “You have a beautiful little daughter, Mr. al-Askari.”
There is a concert of gasps. Kafia’s little warrior, her troublemaker, is a girl?
Big sister Alia laughs loudly.
Big brother Ra’ad smiles broadly.
Everyone crowds around, craning their necks for the best possible view. I am the center of everyone’s attention and I bask in the adulation.
When they catch a glimpse of my little body, everyone gets their second shock. Not only is the warrior they were expecting a female, the warrior baby is tiny.
I gurgle, laughing inside at their surprise. Just wait until I get the chance to give each of them a powerful kick.
Then I see my father’s face for the first time. No one has to tell me that it is him. I know him instantly. He gratefully accepts me into his massive hands. He is gentle. I love him. I’ve never felt so safe. I instantly calm down.
Just because babies cannot talk, does not mean that they cannot understand. I can read my father’s mind through the expression in his eyes. To him, I am a miracle baby. I am perfection. My father is an emotional man and wet streams move down his face. Yes, I recognize that wetness as tears, for I have wept while in the womb. Father then lifts me high above his head so that everyone present can admire me.
“She is far too exquisite to be a warrior,” one person whispers.
“Yes. She is a unique beauty. Look how petite she is.”
“That creamy skin is the color of ivory.”
“Look at that delicate face!”
“No! It is the hair. That black hair will make her a star. She has hair just as beautiful as Kafia’s beautiful mane.”
I yawn and raise my tiny fists. I smile, then try to laugh. But I can’t really smile or laugh, not just yet. But I wiggle in excitement.
I hear laughter and more praise. I begin to kick my feet and wave my arms. I’m happy one minute but miserable the next after several women step in to tighten the white cloths around my body.
I can’t bear to be restricted! I want to be free! I scream as loudly as I can.
“She is threatening us,” someone says approvingly.
“Our little warrior baby,” another remarks with a gentle laugh.
Hady, a kind and gentle young man who I learn is a distant relative, speaks, “This baby is no warrior. She is a great beauty. She is so beautiful that she must be given a very special name.” Hady pauses to scan the faces surrounding him, then announces, “Her name should be Joanna.”
In the Kurdish language, Joanna translates into beautiful.
I like the name and I wiggle and gurgle, drawing all attention to myself. I’ve waited for this moment for many long months, a moment I almost missed, and now I want to milk it for all its worth.
The joy of my new life is infectious. I now decide that I like the outside world!
When my father takes me back to my mother, I am as happy as I have ever been. Everyone is rejoicing that I am alive.
Mother surprises me when she expresses joy. The quiet accumulation of my mother’s love is soon firmly affixed to me, and my life suddenly has meaning for her.
The following hours bring more happiness. My siblings can’t get enough of me. Everyone wants to stroke my soft skin or my long black hair. Best of all, though, mother gazes only at me, ignoring my siblings. First she examines my tiny fingers and toes. Then she looks intently into my little face.
I’m startled and confused when mother starts slapping her own face!
“Oh Allah!” she cries out.
Since her previous actions to try and kill me are not a secret, indeed, her plots of murder are now known by everyone in the family and the neighborhood, she surprises all when she professes shame and guilt that she tried so hard to murder me. “Did I really try to get rid of this precious baby? She exclaims.
I look into her eyes and long to say, “I told you so,” but mother is unable to read my mind the way I can read her mind.
But I’m so very happy to realize that finally, my mother truly does love me.
Thankfully, I am greatly loved by many others, as well. And so it is with the greatest happiness when my father and mother and my four siblings escort me from the hospital to our home.
My nickname sticks and I’m known for all time as “little warrior baby.” I like it.
But most of all, I’m really glad that I fought so hard to live.
Living the human life is going to be a lot of fun!
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I hope all of you get to read Joanna’s true life story, which was very exciting and is told in LOVE IN A TORN LAND, available in eb00ks and in paperback.