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Untitled – Sawsan

Illustrated by Lee El Sayed

We live in a society governed by customs and traditions. You can’t possibly escape them. It is the law that families impose on some of their members. This is what happened with Maryam, who was bound to follow the tradition that says cousins must marry each other.

Maryam’s cousin got married without telling his family, leaving Maryam to her fate. She was promised to her groom-to-be cousin, but he chose another woman and found his happiness in a foreign land away from family traditions.

No one asked for Maryam’s hand in marriage. After all, she was promised to her cousin. He was able to get away, while she stayed at home, like a mortmain property that’s never up for sale.

After her mother died, Maryam became the mother and caregiver in the family. She had to take care of the chores, follow orders and never break the rules. She was always silent, and you could rarely hear her around the house. Every night, she’d go to bed exhausted from running around all day tidying up the house, cleaning, and cooking with no help from anyone. Her father alone was a handful with his never-ending requests and orders and his meddling in every facet of her life. Without her knowing, she became a servant in her own house, and while she always listened to everyone, there was no one there to listen to her.

Saadiya, her younger sister, insisted on marrying the one she loves, and got her way. Maryam didn’t have her sister’s guts to challenge her family.

Years went by, Saadiya had her first born and was pregnant with her second, while Maryam was still dreaming of her white wedding dress. She yearned for the day when her family would give her away to someone who’d be proud of her and would bring her feminine side to life. She deserved to see a bright shiny ring in her finger that says she’s committed to someone and wasn’t abandoned. After all, she was only a child when her parents tied her name to someone who could only see her as his sister.

In every family occasion or whenever the women in town gathered around, she’d remember what happened to her and sob in confidence. “When will this end?” she’d ask herself, “won’t life smile at me?” Life for her revolved around housework and nothing else.

She asked questions with no answers; she asked, but her life didn’t change one bit. Until it was knocked upside down. Godless wars turned her life in shambles, pulling her out of her house, yet shaking up the state of stalemate that crippled her. The war erased everything in its way, leaving nothing intact.

Maryam left her house and her small hometown where there’s only one way to break the people’s customs and traditions: by splitting them up so they’re far away from each other.

At first, Maryam stayed with her father who refused to leave his house despite the shells and the destruction. A part of the house was hit by a missile, and the rest was badly damaged. You could still hear the sound of guns and aircrafts flying over the people, who moments later would be buried alive under the rubble of their own houses.

Maryam felt her life was exactly like walking between fires: with shells hitting her from all directions, she felt completely helpless.

Maryam and her father had to move to a safer village and were looking for a new house. She had no idea where to start and knew absolutely nothing about house hunting. In spite of her age, house chores were all she knew but was clueless when it comes to handling ordinary matters of everyday life.
Luckily, she met someone who was able to help them find a place to stay and brought them dinner. Maryam was very grateful and thanked him timidly, for without his help, they would’ve been left homeless.

The man had three children and was well-off. His wife had issues, and his disabled mother was also living with them. She talked a lot, and her bigmouth did more than make up for her physical disability.

Maryam was set on marrying him. She was attracted to his masculinity, chivalry, charm and generosity. But she wasn’t able to tell him or even imply that she was single and wouldn’t oppose to marrying him.

She kept her feelings a secret, even from her sister Saadiya. She kept on wishing that he’d propose to her on his own, without her having anything to do with it.

She wished he’d see the woman she really was and feel her vulnerability. She wished he’d approach her and pull her out of her misery, but she didn’t do anything to change her reality.

One afternoon, when her sister came to visit them, she noticed that Maryam was wearing old, tattered clothes. She even looked older and burdened with worries.

“Isn’t that mom’s old dress?” asked Saadiya once they got to the kitchen.
“Yes, it’s hers. Have I ever owned clothes or anything that’s actually mine?” retorted Maryam.

Her eyes started tearing up and little drops began rolling down her cheeks. She tried to change the subject and distract Saadiya with whatever was going on in the kitchen. But her sister saw something unusual in her eyes.

“What’s wrong, Maryam? You’ve changed, you never used to complain. Something’s up. I noticed your heavy sighing and you’re often absentminded. What’s the matter?”

Maryam let out a long sigh and said with much sorrow, “Don’t I have the right to complain or to express myself? You got used to Maryam the servant who doesn’t utter a word!”
“It’s not that. You’ve become too sensitive, Maryam.”
“Am I supposed to be ‘insensitive’ too? You’d like it more that way, wouldn’t you?” said Maryam mockingly.
“Now I know something’s wrong. Tell me, what’s going on?”
“Can I even have things going on in my life? I’m just tired, that’s all.”
“You mean you’d like to change your life?”
“I wish.”
“Good for you! You finally felt that you needed to change. You need to feel that you’re a desired woman. You know, someone was saying nice things about you the other day, and I was proud to call you my sister. I was happy.”
“What’s the point if no one cares about what I’m going through, I myself don’t even know.”
“Sweetie, you should see yourself so that others could see you.”
“It’s the first time I hear this. I should see myself…”

Their conversation got interrupted by a loud cry from her father, but it stayed with her and made her ask herself more questions.
She was no longer the Maryam she used to be and was entering a new defiant phase in her life. She decided to take matters into her own hands and change.
From that moment on, she became pensive and the voices inside her were materializing into acts. She now dared to say ‘no’ sometimes and ask others for personal favors.
All that she’s felt in the past triggered in her a strong backlash that shook her to the core.
One day, she woke up feeling fussy. She opened the closet and put on her sister’s clothes.
“I’m going out,” she announced.
A look of confusion loomed over the room, and everyone started asking “Who was it just there? Was that Maryam?”