The source of my suffering and
loneliness is deep in my heart.
This is a disease no doctor can cure.
Only Union with the Friend can cure it.
—Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, eighth-century Persian philosopher and mystic
7:35 p.m. GMT+3, May 13, 2021
Village outside Siirt, formerly Turkey, tonight the Anatolian Kurdish State
She stands tall and proud in her new jelli eidi, or bayramlık as is said in Turkey, holiday clothing for the Ramadan Bayramı, the feast celebrating the end of Ramadan, which in Turkey has become the Şeker Bayramı or Sugar Feast. Standing a couple centimeters taller than her grandmother, Roza, taking more after her great-grandmother Sara’s height, this radiant Kurdish woman beams with glowing joy as she shows off the fruits of the last week spent shopping for her second-favorite holiday festival after Newroz, the spring new year feast.
“Grandma, you don’t think this white blouse is too revealing, do you?” Zara asks. She worries that her skin tone can still be barely discerned through the light fabric as she tugs a little more of the blouse out of her ankle-length navy-blue skirt with modernistic white diagonal stripes, such that the light cloth does not hug her breasts too tightly.
Her maternal grandmother shakes her head, scolding herself for succumbing to the conservatism of Zara’s paternal grandmother in teaching the adolescent Zara to abide by strict guidelines of modesty. Perhaps if she did show off her figure a little more at the Sugar Feast, a strapping man would find the courage to court her. A woman unmarried by her midtwenties is destined to be a childless spinster in their society, and her granddaughter has passed that mark by a decade already.
Roza fastens a reddish rose belt around the waist of her unwed granddaughter, then, much to Zara’s surprise, tucks the blouse in, further enhancing the shape of her bosom. “Zara, perhaps you are old enough to show more of what Xwedê has provided you. Times have changed since we first talked about modesty a quarter century ago.”
Losing her beaming smile, Zara frowns as she replies, “The changing times have only taught me even more that nothing good comes from not dressing with proper modesty.” She untucks the blouse again to obscure her form.
“Your best friend Peri’s dress allows her femininity to show in a modest, but still beautiful manner,” Roza states.
Wrapping a navy silk headscarf around her oval head, long ears, and straight shoulder-length dark brown hair, Zara rolls her eyes. “I learned my lesson too well since my dalliance with fashion as a teen. And you don’t want to know what I wore in college abroad.”
Roza feigns aghast at the thought as she wonders why her dearest granddaughter opts to stay at her mother’s ancestral home as opposed to finding a good man as Roza had done, as her mother Sara had done, and as Zara’s mother, Maryam, had done.
“I’m only teasing, Grandma,” Zara assures her, seeing Roza’s eyes. “I kept my legs covered even as all the girls wore the tiniest of shorts. I kept my shoulders and arms covered even as all the girls wore spaghetti-strap tank tops or tube tops. But I am deeply sorry I lost your favorite hijab.”
Zara’s frown dissolves as a little smile peeks out. She twirls around in her bare feet, lifting her dress up into a perfect circle and exposing only a couple centimeters of her lower calves. “I won’t be performing a Sufi whirling dance in this dress, though,” Zara says, referring to her deceased great-grandfather, a Sufi imam who inspired both her mother and Zara through his poems and wisdom and the practice of the whirling dance.
The frown passes from Zara to Roza as the latter observes the scars around her granddaughter’s feet. Undoubtedly, she has led a hard life, leading her to prefer tending the sheep to seeking a man in her life. “Perhaps, Zara, a pair of your mother’s shoes would be better with your new jelli eidi than sandals,” Roza advises, which brings an inkling of misery to Zara’s face.
On cue, Maryam comes into Zara’s room and says, “Roza, Sara wishes to speak with you.” She smiles at her daughter, who, however rough she may appear at times, is always beautiful, from the inside out, as a daughter always is to a mother. “Zara, if you are done here, please join me in the kitchen to pack the candies for the children at the festival.”
They pass through the family sitting area into the kitchen. Their simple cinder block house is typical in this Kurdish region. With what Zara earned working for Sasha, she could easily have provided her mother’s mothers with the largest estate known to anyone in this region. But her family has chosen to live their simple, traditional lives, showing their deep regard for their faith as well as their culture. And she has chosen to tend the sheep and goats, a profession far more fulfilling than what she did for Sasha.
Mehhh. Mehhh. Her two babies, now much more robust than when she saved them, chase her into the kitchen. For they know that room means one thing. Milk.
As Zara feeds her two darlings, she finally smiles. Maryam smiles at seeing her Zara smiling and packs candies into little bags. “I am so happy you have chosen a lively, sharp, distinguished jelli eidi this year that isn’t as plain as the ones you have chosen in the past years,” she remarks. “There will be many men at the festival who will see you in your dress, men who will be interested in marrying you. You should be open to their subtlest of overtures this year. I pray that in your fear that one might actually touch your heart, one who might come to know who you are, you do not lash out at them. You need someone in your life. Someone close that you can trust.”
Zara can only roll her eyes at her mother’s not-so-subtle suggestion. “Only bad things have come from me and men, Mama. You should know better than to suggest such a thing.”
“Not all clouds bring rain, my little Zara.”
Zara shakes her head. “For every misfortune, there is always something worse that can happen.”
With this exchange of Kurdish sayings, silence descends on them as they finish packing the candies. Maryam pops a candy into her offspring’s mouth, hoping to bring a little cheer. She points to Zara’s bare feet and takes her child to her room. They pass by the house’s only room for a male, Zara’s deceased brother, Soran. Maryam keeps a picture of him standing next to his older sister in this room. Zara glances at the little boy with curly black hair like his late father’s, standing next to her in the photo from their teenage years in Kurdistan, taken just before they left home to join the Peshmerga. A twinge hits her as she laments. So annoying some days as he followed her around like a puppy dog. But he was family nonetheless, and she misses him.
With a pair of navy pumps in hand, Maryam slides them on her sole surviving child’s ravaged feet. “These should make you smile again. I know you, my daughter. You work so hard to exude a tough outer face. But that is only to protect the pain of what you hide inside. I had thought maybe you had healed yourself of that which you do not show. Why are you so glum? You were happier at the Newroz Festival only a couple of months ago.”
Trying a few steps in her mother’s footwear, Zara wobbles on the modest heels; she has worn only flats and sandals since her days in military boots. Scars of deep wounds inflicted upon her soles don’t help matters any, and she wobbles like a Weeble. She holds her hand over her abdomen as she answers, “It’s nothing more than the onset of cramps, Mama. It’s better to be born a man than a woman.”
Maryam offers, “PMS is not what truly ails you. In the past three years since you have come back to live with us full-time, I haven’t seen you so dour. It’s Sasha, isn’t it?”
Zara shivers at hearing his name, which has not been spoken in this household in many a month. “I haven’t seen him in the three years since I came back to be with you and my family. And why does he contact me now? Because he has an urgent, dire need for me to be in his life again? What has happened is best left in the past. I’m happy being a new person. A new woman with my beloved family who is true to her faith and her upbringing.”
Maryam retrieves a pair of navy patent-leather flats from her closet. As she places these on her daughter’s feet, she says, “Perhaps it is Xwedê’s will that you should see Sasha again. As much as I love to have my daughter at home, my lovely daughter should see the man who has done so much for her. Who loves her so much.”
Fondling the flats, Zara glares at her mother. “Mama, you have no idea what he made me do. I am no longer that woman, and I’m happy for it.”
Ever so subtly shaking her head, Maryam gazes at the floor. “In the old Kurdish ways, the ways of Roza’s time, the ways of even my childhood, a woman must do things that she does not like, but which she must do out of honor, out of custom, out of duty to her family.”
With a little stamping of her feet into the flats, Zara replies, “I am not that kind of woman, Mama. I love who I have become living with you again. I’ve put all that I was in the past where it belongs. To go back and see Sasha is only inviting the badness of the past to come back and haunt us.” She sighs as she puts her hand on her cheek under her headscarf, rubbing the scars that mar her face.
Up onto tippy toes, Maryam hugs her. “My dear, no matter what you have done or will do, you will be always my beautiful little Zara, who I love and cherish.”
Roza returns wearing her bayramlık, covered head to toe, but stylish nonetheless, with a little lace showing her arms. “Zara, Sara wishes to see her great-granddaughter’s bayramlık.”
With her mother’s flats afoot, Zara enters her most venerable matriarch’s room. She bends down and kisses Sara’s hand, placing it on her forehead as she wishes her a happy Bayram. In turn Sara offers her great-grandchild an envelope.
“Open it, my child,” Sara asks.
To her surprise, Zara finds two hundred-dollar bills inside. “But why, Great-Grandma? I would have thought you would want to give currency from the new Anatolian Kurdish State. I hear they’ll be exchanging Turkish bills for the new currency tonight at the festival.”
The aged Sara simply smiles with an air of wisdom older than the mountains. “I hear California is very beautiful.”
Looking very perplexed, Zara politely replies, “I thank you for your well wishes. However, I have never gone to California, nor do I have any intention of doing so.”
With more wisdom beaming from her face, Sara signals for Zara to stand up. She is as tall as Zara, which is no surprise as her granddaughter has taken after her in more than just physical dimensions. “I glean from the look in your eyes that the time will soon be here for you.” And she kisses her great-granddaughter on the forehead, leaving Zara in great mystery.
Shaking her head, Zara can only say, “I have no desire to go back to America again. I had enough of American men. And Russian ones and Kurdish ones.”
“Everything is God’s will. Praise be to God,” Sara states simply.
“Praise be to God,” Zara replies, knowing it is time for her submission.
“It is an old Sufi belief that, by knowing yourself, you become closer to Xwedê,” Sara says wisely. She sees in Zara’s eyes a devout believer who yet has a corner of doubt in her soul.
Zara bows her head. “In these last three years alone with you and my family, I have been pious, faithful, and obedient. I have faith that one day I will be as close to Xwedê as you have become.”
“You have many years to develop, my child,” Sara says sagely, walking over to her window to gaze upon the sheep. “At the risk of touching what you do not want touched, you must truly let go of the past. Only what you do from this moment on matters. What men have done—to you, to those you loved, done in the name of Xwedê, citing the Qur’an—you must understand, it is not the same as your faith. The words of the Prophet brought women greater equality with men than in the times before the Prophet. His words speak of the equality of both woman and man in the eyes of Xwedê. Only cultural interpretations and male-dominated written traditions have altered the original purity of this intent.”
The wise, aged woman turns to face Zara. “The mystical side of Islam we practice, Sufism, which was banned by Turkey and which, with the declaration of the Anatolian Kurdish State, we can now practice openly, was started by a woman, Rabi’a al-Adawiyaa. We raised you with her influence, her belief; we should be motivated not by fear of hell, not by longing for paradise, but by love. The love of God. And through love we should seek our closeness with God. The Prophet said, ‘He who knows himself knows his Lord.’ And our practice of Sufism is about opening the door to love. To our love of God.”
Zara kneels again, taking Sara’s hand and kissing it.
“We know you love us, Zara, your closest family to survive all the wars and political killings we have endured. But until you open yourself to real love again, you will only continue to be obedient, subservient to God as our faith asks. You will not know God in the way in which you seek. You need to let go of the ghosts of your past that haunt you and open yourself. Open yourself to love that will bring you the unity you seek.”
“But, Sara, I am faithful and open to the love of God,” Zara pleads, confused.
Sara takes her hand to rise again. “Remember, you can learn from new books but still listen to old teachers. Rabi’a’s story is a parable you should remember. She was kidnapped and sold into slavery. And each day of her slavery, she prayed to remain devout in her obedience, until one day, her owner realized she was a saint. He saw a light around her while she prayed, and freed her for fear of offending Xwedê. Even though you have been physically freed from your tormentors, you are still a slave. Free yourself, open yourself fully as did Rabia.”
The mere mention of captivity brings weakness into Zara’s knees. She recalls her darkest of days, which she has buried into the deepest recesses of her mind so they can never haunt her again, or so she hoped. “But, Sara, I find love here with you and Roza and my mother. Through you, I know some of the love of God.”
Sara kisses her great-grandchild on the cheek with the hidden hideous scar. And then with sternest of faces, she says, “Khadija married the Prophet when she was forty. You still have a few years until you are her age, and you can still find a good husband as did she. One who will help you find what you yearn for. One who will help you understand what you need to touch, to find in yourself.”
Zara leaves her great-grandmother’s room in deep perplexity. Did they all conspire to have the same talk with her today, only in different ways? Never before in her life has her maternal family put so much pressure on her to marry. Why now? Why did Sasha try to reach her now? Did he talk with them all? The thought angers her as she pulls her red pickup truck out of the shed.
Mehhh. She kisses her babies goodbye and helps her three mothers safely inside the truck cab. And as the sun begins to set, Zara drives them to meet Aunt Leyla, who keeps an apartment in the city of Siirt. The custom-built truck is one of only two gifts she has kept from her days with Sasha. Zara spies a MoxWrap hiding under her mother’s sleeve.
“Mama, why are you wearing that device? Did we not discuss never, ever using these instruments again? He can track us now,” Zara cries.
In the front seat next to Zara, Maryam only tries to hide the device under her right hand as she says, “But Zara, I only wanted to ensure we are in constant contact with your aunt Leyla. She says people in town are wary of the public festival for fear of possible attack by the Turks seeking to reclaim the new Anatolian Kurdish State, or by assassins from the Daesh offshoot groups operating from within the Arabic Confederation seeking to destabilize the new country.”
From the backseat, Roza says, “Maryam is right. We need to stay in contact with our family. I cannot forget those days when Turkish helicopters came from the skies decades ago. The sound still haunts my generation.”
“And dearest Zara, perhaps you were too young to remember Saddam’s helicopters when they attacked us in Duhok Province,” Maryam exclaims, her voice cracking with terror.
Zara shivers, not from the flimsiness of her blouse but at her own memories of the helicopters, and the men who led her father to his death. She reaches over to turn her mother’s MoxWrap off.
But it’s too late. As if the conversation were prophetic, the distinct throbbing of air pounds their ears. Dust whips up around them as a helicopter descends, taking a parallel path to theirs and shining lasers into their windows. Zara recognizes these as laser microphones, listening in on their conversation, which has turned into gasps.
The beast from the sky speeds up and then lands, blocking the road. Zara engages in emergency braking maneuvers. Men in dark uniforms jump out of the helicopter and surround the car.
Zara spies the same horror on her mother’s face as she had when her father had been taken away to be tortured. Maryam stifles a scream.
Zara finds her backup gun under her seat but looks at her terrified family and weighs the consequences of a firefight. One pistol versus three heavily armed men. Three years ago, there’d have been no question. But now, she has not fired this gun in over three years. She puts it away to save her family, for she will need to submit her body again to save the ones she loves most.
The dark man next to Zara’s window yells something in Russian, tapping the glass.
Maryam screams again as Roza holds on to Sara, shielding her from the eventual bullets.
Looking around at her family, who have lived out this scenario too many times in their lives, Zara says, “Stay in the truck. You will be safe if I go with them.”
As Zara leaves the truck cab willingly, perhaps sacrificing her life for theirs, Maryam screams out, “I can’t bear losing you too. Is Xwedê not satisfied with taking my son and my husband? Not my only daughter as well.”