Authors: A.M. Khalifa
The Jewish Neighbor
A short story by A.M.
took out a one dollar bill from her purse and
held it against the light. This was the one thing left in her possession
reminding her she was once a free woman.
read the Arabic inscription handwritten on the dollar like she had done many
times before. George Washington stared at her intently. A frilly scarf tied
around his neck. Soft tufts of sugar-white hair hardly matching his youthful
And intense eyes.
They betrayed a melancholy
that once upon a time she had confused for indifference, even arrogance. For
many years she had studied his face as part of a daily ritual until he too had
grown inside of her, just like the man who had given her this one dollar bill
and dedicated the inscription to her.
she folded it and tucked it back in her purse. Umayma had to take her
three-year-old stepdaughter Layal to her preschool and they were running late.
She frantically stuffed
water cup and snacks
in her lunch box. Her stepdaughter looked up with no particular expression as
Umayma buttoned her tiny coat and wrapped an expensive, checkered scarf snug
around her neck. They dashed out of the door with Layal strapped to the
walk to the
Montessori Preschool was usually
pleasant. But this was an arctic November day in London.
Maybe I should have
head with a thicker hat.
had experienced before her husband
Layal caught a cold a few weeks after they got married. He accused her of being
the classic, negligent stepmother. The skin on her face still tingles whenever
she recalls the moment the back of his hand struck her jawbone, pushing her to
the ground. She could never forget the mad look in his eyes. Like a silent
threat he could unleash more bottomless rage if she ever crossed him again.
exactly a year ago, even before
meeting him. He had escaped Syria in the eighties for his political activism
against the ruling regime, and built a successful life in Britain, his adopted
homeland. Umayma never figured out what he did for a living. He told her he
worked with money, but that she would find it too complicated to understand the
exact dynamics of his job. Whatever it was, he must have been quite good at it
given his abundant wealth and lifestyle.
first wife had succumbed to breast cancer, he
reached out to his family in Damascus to shop for a new bride. As a devout
Muslim, he was seeking permissible companionship. But he also wanted a young
and energetic woman who could look after Layal. She was his youngest child and
had come unplanned when
had turned fifty. His
two older sons, twins, had left home to attend college in St. Andrews and
older sisters had interviewed many women on his
behalf before finally picking Umayma. There were no men left alive in her
family who would bargain shrewdly for her and ask for a high dowry. She came
from a modest background and lived in
of the poorest neighborhoods of Damascus and a favorite spot for shelling by
the army and rebels alike. Desperate to escape the bloody civil war ravaging
Syria, there was little to ponder when
blunt offer for Umayma to come to Britain to care for his daughter first, and
be a wife to him second.
had been an English teacher in a private school in the upscale neighborhood of
. In Syria, only impoverished girls aspire to be
teachers, a profession regarded with little respect and equated with
babysitting or domestic help. But it was a career choice that had paid off. Her
command of the language was a major point to her advantage as far as
was concerned. She wasn’t exactly one of those
airbrushed Levantine goddesses who once-upon-a-time before the war ruled the
city. Hers was a more organic beauty with soft features, almond shaped and
colored eyes, a modestly plump figure with feminine curves, and a pleasant
voice. At thirty four she was twenty years younger than him— wise enough to
raise Layal, and young enough to still be desirable in bed.
the first interview with
sisters, Umayma struggled to accentuate her best physical attributes without
coming across as slutty or too eager. Granted her bulging breasts were
impossible to hide, but everything else appeared shapeless under the black,
silk tunic she wore for modesty. And modesty was of cardinal importance to the
buyer, as she had been forewarned by the common friends who had recommended her
she did seemed to have worked. Fifteen minutes into the meeting,
sisters seemed all but certain she was the one and
were talking about ‘when,’ rather than ‘if.’
had four requirements he was unwilling to compromise on, they informed her.
A virgin with big bosoms, fair skin, and straight hair.
virginity was implicit—most unmarried women in her social class had no other
option but to remain unconsummated until marriage. And her buttermilk skin and swelling
bosoms were more than evident. But it was her covered hair that was the only
question mark. So they asked her in the least diplomatic terms to remove her
scarf so they could ascertain for themselves whether Umayma had chemically
treated her hair or straightened it with a hot iron for the occasion, to
bamboozle their older brother.
procedure to get married and approved for residency in the UK was long and
humiliating. She wasn’t sure if some of the obstacles were official or had been
to ensure his investment was sound.
In addition to a battery of medical checkups for STDs and other illnesses,
Umayma had to endure a painful virginity test which left her in tears and sore
in the groin for weeks. It was a small price to pay for the ultimate reward of
fleeing a country swiftly descending into hell. Many of the people she loved
had been murdered in cold blood or obliterated in random explosions.
Including the man who had given her the one dollar bill.
illusion of a better life in London was shattered within the first few days of
elderly parents were living with
him in the house, and unbeknownst to her when she agreed to marry him, he
expected Umayma to care for them as well. They both seemed relatively healthy
and independent for now, she consoled herself. But it wasn’t so much the two
extra bodies that needed to be fed and cared for that vexed her. From day one,
parents looked down at her and only ever spoke to
her when they needed something done. No sooner had Umayma arrived, than
promptly terminated the services of the Bosnian maid
who she was now expected to replace. Umayma had to hit the road running,
including learning how to shop in a foreign country, care for the house, and
tend to Layal.
was not born with
anything in her mouth and
had taking care of domestic chores for as long as she held memories.
the woman of this house now and it’s my duty to care for my husband and his
she often reminded herself
had also been forthright from the start that this was a marriage of
what she wasn’t expecting to hurt so much was to what extent her role as his
wife would be so devoid of any affection or emotional connection. Stripped of
the normalcy of what should transpire between a man and a woman in wedlock.
Perhaps out of respect for
had decided Umayma would sleep in a separate room. He
didn’t say for how long, so Umayma assumed just until the young girl accepted
her as a surrogate mother. But for a couple of months after she arrived,
didn’t so much as acknowledge
presence, let alone visit her room to consummate their marriage.
when he finally came in the dead of the night, he raped her.
woke up to find him mounted on top of her like a bull. And before she could
willingly give herself to him like the chaste wife she wanted to be, he tore
her lilac nightgown off, pushed his hand on her mouth to drown her screams,
pulled her from the hair, and penetrated past her knickers through her hymen
like a derailed freight train. Never touching or caressing her.
Never looking in her eyes.
a single word.
He fucked her like a worthless hooker, never once
stopping to tend to the excruciating pain of losing her virginity, or the
gushing blood on the bed sheet.
he was about to erupt, he withdrew quickly and emptied himself on her like she
was a sheet of toilet paper. He sullied her chest and face, then got off her
and slithered out of the room. Just before he walked out of the door, he turned
to her and said, “I can’t always do this,” without the slightest hint of
empathy in his voice.
what?” she whimpered through her muffled tears.
out in time. You need to get yourself fixed so you don’t get pregnant. I don’t
want any children from you. I’ll arrange for it next week.”
nodded, her own hand now covering her mouth.
week later she was sent to a gynecologist who implanted something in her to
halt her fertility.
Like neutering a domestic pet.
that day onwards
only ever came to her room to
rape her. It was as if she really was a maid and sleeping with her was a
shameless sin he could only commit in secret. Or maybe it was more exciting for
him this way. He ordered her to go to bed naked every night, just in case he
decided to take her on a whim, he wouldn’t have to bother with her clothes.
Because short of tearing her clothes off like he did the first time, the act of
undressing her had a certain tinge of tenderness he seemed intent on denying
he would fondle her breasts or lick them until they would firm up and fill her
with forbidden excitement. Even the prickliness of his salt and pepper beard on
her starved areolas was a welcome taste of intimacy. And when he did these
things, she tried to engage with him in foreplay to make the act feel less like
rape and more like lovemaking.
To endear her to him.
Invoke some sense of sympathy for her. But it never worked. He always shunned
her with decisive brutality.
As if anything other than
screwing her violently with little concern for her needs was a buzz kill.
the worst was when he took her from behind. That was real hell. How could a man
so devout commit a sin so forbidden in Islam?
On the day of
resurrection, Allah will not look at a man who had intercourse with his wife in
. She remembered the religious saying every time he pounded her
insides. Faith aside, this was one of the most painful things she had ever
experienced. With no lubrication or prior warning, it always left her feeling
plundered and even more ashamed of her lowly existence.
realization she was worth no more to
slave or a concubine was a gradual one. When it finally dawned on her, she was
devastated. A slow-burning fear spread through her heart, like a wounded, caged
animal would feel. What if the only way out was for her life to end prematurely?
had taken possession of her passport because she
“wouldn’t be traveling anywhere soon,” he had explained. A premonition of her
future bondage she later realized. He only disbursed her enough money to attend
to the house for one week at a time, and she had no credit cards or a bank
account to her name. Her daily existence was micro-choreographed by
who kept her on a short leash. She had no friends or
peers to confide in. And his parents did nothing to suggest they believed her
status to be any higher than what their son had relegated her to.
once a month was she allowed a few minutes to call her mother and sisters in
Damascus, always with
hovering nearby. There
was no chance she could vent her true feelings without him finding out. Not
that it would have made a difference. Even if she wanted to escape his tyranny,
had made it clear her only option was to go
back to Syria. Without him, she had no legal permission to stay in the country.
no matter how abusive life was under
compassionless roof, it still measured far better than the threat of going
back. Her only flicker of hope was to fulfill the three-year residency
requirement for British naturalization, then leave
and find a way to bring the rest of her family.
If the war
didn’t take them first.
Road, then turned left on
stepdaughter’s hair was tied in two pigtails bobbing up and down in the air
every time the stroller passed on a cracked part of the pavement. The road had
been under construction for a few months now and was always a challenge to navigate
in the morning.