WHEN AZIZA’S VOICE LIFTED • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Ascending in kafi, Aziza’s voice was raw sugar and pomegranate syrup poured through a smoky fire. It caught in your throat when you heard it.

It didn’t lift til later. First —

Her father was a Sufi Pir — like a plumber, he kept life flowing in the right direction. He counseled the troubled and wrote out blessings, and was conveniently located. Wonderfully soothing — a handsome old man who twinkled at will.

Her mother’s earthy graciousness calmed women entering the ladies’ parlor trembling with embarrassment and yearning; they’d be giggling before she led them to the master’s study.

Aziza looked a plain though cheerful bird; her sisters were brilliant in colors that set off their fairness but she liked shades of cinnamon, honey and ginger — a plump brown gulab-jamun warm from the kitchen herself.

God in His infinite mercy gives everyone a purpose; Aziza’s fruit chaat and perfectly-textured shami kebabs were a blessing, her parents always said, in their household whose door was always open. Our comfort and our gift, they said, as they married off her peach-and-almond-blossom sisters. You are our sunflower, they said.

No hope of daughters-in-law, but God granted them one daughter no burden to keep at home.

***

All this began as insidiously as an infestation of mice — that first little bite letting everything else in.

“Will you wait for me,” asked Bakhtyaar, “til I see my way through?”

He and Aziza had been schoolfellows, and ruined perhaps by a modern education. They believed in the existence of happy endings.

“Yes,” Aziza said.

A long wait was likely. Bakhtyaar, respectful, though perhaps too advanced for the times, had asked his parents to approve the match.

“Are my nieces so hideous,” his mother inquired, “that you are forced to disgrace us?”

Bakhtyaar’s father said, “Choose any cousin you like.”

Bakhtyaar wasn’t quarrelsome, or a liar. “I will complete my education,” he said. That was all he said.

He worked hard; he gained admission to a fine institution abroad; he went quietly away, leaving a sharp but invisible rift in someone’s universe.

Aziza, kneading dough for parathas one morning, thought of him, the grace of his movements sketching parabolas in space while they talked of some mathematical concept.

The sweetness of the memory made the pain of his absence, for a moment, unbearably sharper. Aziza meant only to relieve it with a sigh, but found herself exclaiming a Seraiki kafi to the rhythm of her hands and brought the servants to tears.

To be the child of a Sufi Pir is to have in one’s blood every form of poetry.

Aziza’s father had an overflowing library; his daughters grew up speaking that Persianized Urdu birthed in the Mughal court. They recited ghazals with exquisite subtlety; all had done admirably in their tenth-year exams.

But Persian and Urdu are sweet languages, best for beautiful formalities. To voice the heart-ravishment of a created being thirsting for God requires tongues more vigorous than those where penis is rendered as the organ of procreation.

The Sufis used the languages of the plains — Punjabi and Seraiki, where “sister-fucker” is curse and endearment–to transmute every function of the body into descriptor of the soul — the bed soaked and reeking after the Beloved has possessed you, all night, in every orifice — until love has brought you deliriously to the brink of death. Such poetry allows even the most unlettered to feel who God is, unto the very marrow of their bones.

Aziza’s parents returned from a journey to find neighbor women sitting cross-legged in their courtyard, hands pressed to the ground, swaying and crying out in a joyful anguish of devotion as Aziza’s voice consumed them with gutter words.

These words, of course, expressed sublimities. But her father, liberal as he was, felt unsettled by this rapture. Were these particular sublimities suited to the mouth of his daughter?

He and his wife suspected some derangement of the bodily humors.

“Well,” said Aziza truthfully, “something pinched me inside, and it had to come up or go down.”

They dosed her with digestive remedies but couldn’t expel that voice.

She sang at unpredictable moments and her audience couldn’t be sustained; women cannot, of course, drop their cooking spoons in deference to the nourishment of their souls.

But energy once created can’t be destroyed; that voice was everywhere even when Aziza spoke and laughed and hummed in her cheerfully ordinary way.

Bakhtyaar heard it, thousands of miles away. His soul ached with shame. I shouldn’t have made her wait, he thought.

He took a week’s leave and traveled straight to Aziza’s house and paid a respectful call on her father. He described the course of his education and what God, in His infinite mercy, had enabled him to do with it.

He asked for Aziza’s hand, hinting that a quick decision was necessary — he had only such a limited amount of leave. And he expressed doubt that elaborate wedding festivities were what God, in His wisdom, required for the sanctification of marriage. Why not make a small gift towards the establishment of a household?

Aziza’s parents approved of the way he thought — practical though he was, he might almost have been one of her father’s students. Perhaps they could relinquish Aziza, after all.

Aziza agreed this was an acceptable offer.

All of them regretted the derangement of bodily humors this would cause to Bakhtyaar’s parents, but who can resist fate?

***

Aziza’s body, like kulfi, was cool and sweet and melted at just the right times. Bakhtyaar found every corner of her delectable.

Miraculous too.

“Just the laws of physics,” she said, “but thank God you had wonderful hearing.”


Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine, as well as on EDF; her posts on the craft of writing — including reviews of stories selected “From the EDF Archives” — keep materializing on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)


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 average 4.2 stars • 18 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Connell Regner

    I got the part about non-standard English being used and it didn’t seem to matter. After a few lines I got into the flow of the prose. It felt like a period piece to me. Nice for a change.

  • Connell Regner

    I got the part about non-standard English being used and it didn’t seem to matter. After a few lines I got into the flow of the prose. It felt like a period piece to me. Nice for a change.

  • Wonderful. Your writing is on a level that is a pleasure.
    Through all the passion and the rich history we have been invited to appreciate and enjoy, I found my translation guide came in handy; and often. The first read was stop and go until I was satisfied with the meaning of, let’s say, “Mughal” or “ghazals”. (Once a researcher, always…)
    The clarity and magic you put into Aziza’s parents was outstanding.

  • Wonderful. Your writing is on a level that is a pleasure.
    Through all the passion and the rich history we have been invited to appreciate and enjoy, I found my translation guide came in handy; and often. The first read was stop and go until I was satisfied with the meaning of, let’s say, “Mughal” or “ghazals”. (Once a researcher, always…)
    The clarity and magic you put into Aziza’s parents was outstanding.

  • “Aziza’s body, like kulfi, was cool and sweet and melted at just the right times. Bakhtyaar found every corner of her delectable.”

    And so is your writing. *****

  • “Aziza’s body, like kulfi, was cool and sweet and melted at just the right times. Bakhtyaar found every corner of her delectable.”

    And so is your writing. *****

  • Paul A. Freeman

    That first sentence, and a few other flowery bits, had me flummoxed. I enjoyed the subtext about marriage traditions in the Middle Eastern region and was pleased Aziza escaped a life of servitude to her parents. The plethora of non-English words I found irritating rather than enriching – a couple of non-English words, okay, but not a dozen.

    • Kathy

      I tend to agree about the italicized cultural references. I enjoy learning new words and about cultures other than my own, and a story is a much more pleasurable way to do that than reading textbooks and dictionaries. However, authors who provide meaning and context for words likely to be unfamiliar to a general audience (but do so without condescension or lecturing!)may have more enlightened, less puzzled and more satisfied readers than those who don’t.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    That first sentence, and a few other flowery bits, had me flummoxed. I enjoyed the subtext about marriage traditions in the Middle Eastern region and was pleased Aziza escaped a life of servitude to her parents. The plethora of non-English words I found irritating rather than enriching – a couple of non-English words, okay, but not a dozen.

    • Kathy

      I tend to agree about the italicized cultural references. I enjoy learning new words and about cultures other than my own, and a story is a much more pleasurable way to do that than reading textbooks and dictionaries. However, authors who provide meaning and context for words likely to be unfamiliar to a general audience (but do so without condescension or lecturing!)may have more enlightened, less puzzled and more satisfied readers than those who don’t.

  • Like Michael, I too had to look up many of these words. Something, I enjoy doing. It took me many reads to feel that I had a good grasp of the language used. I may still be off in that regard. Insomuch, I found the language used has beauty and does flow, with the exception of second and third paragraph. I stumbled there every time I read it.

    I found no reference to support what was stated as a term of endearment described later on in the piece. It appeared, to me, to be placed in the story for “effect.” But, I am limited to only my internet searches and hold no authority for the Punjabi and Seraiki languages.

    I am still trying to figure out the meaning of the last paragraph. It doesn’t seem to coalesce with the narrative.

    I believe that the love story is greatly overshadowed by the explanations of culture over the expression of physical and emotional separation of the two lovers and their eventual marriage.

    • Kathy

      RE the last paragraph
      I assumed it was intended to mean the physics of sound since “Bakhtyaar heard it [her voice], thousands of miles away” and his return to see her was why she said, “thank God you had wonderful hearing.” The author might step in and explain if this is incorrect.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        You’ve got it right, Kathy.

        • I indeed understood the surface level of the monologue. It seemed like it might have been said in humor, hyperbole, or mystification. It could not be physically possible to hear her that far away. That is what made me wonder that the monologue didn’t sit with the rest of the story.

          Thanks for commenting.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            I like big heaping cups of magical realism in some of my stories…

  • Like Michael, I too had to look up many of these words. Something, I enjoy doing. It took me many reads to feel that I had a good grasp of the language used. I may still be off in that regard. Insomuch, I found the language used has beauty and does flow, with the exception of second and third paragraph. I stumbled there every time I read it.

    I found no reference to support what was stated as a term of endearment described later on in the piece. It appeared, to me, to be placed in the story for “effect.” But, I am limited to only my internet searches and hold no authority for the Punjabi and Seraiki languages.

    I am still trying to figure out the meaning of the last paragraph. It doesn’t seem to coalesce with the narrative.

    I believe that the love story is greatly overshadowed by the explanations of culture over the expression of physical and emotional separation of the two lovers and their eventual marriage.

    • Kathy

      RE the last paragraph
      I assumed it was intended to mean the physics of sound since “Bakhtyaar heard it [her voice], thousands of miles away” and his return to see her was why she said, “thank God you had wonderful hearing.” The author might step in and explain if this is incorrect.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        You’ve got it right, Kathy.

        • I indeed understood the surface level of the monologue. It seemed like it might have been said in humor, hyperbole, or mystification. It could not be physically possible to hear her that far away. That is what made me wonder that the monologue didn’t sit with the rest of the story.

          Thanks for commenting.

          • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

            I like big heaping cups of magical realism in some of my stories…

  • S Conroy

    Just in case I haven’t raved about your talent before, Sarah: Rave, rave, rave.
    I found this quite an ominous statement: “They believed in the existence of happy endings,” so was nicely unbalanced by the happy end. For some reason Salman Rushdie and The Moor’s Last Sigh popped into my head when reading this.
    And true to form you get bizarrely low ratings. Good sign I think. Lots of great artists are only recognized when it’s too late ;-).

    • Carl Steiger

      I was thinking of Rushdie’s “Shame” as I read it. Particularly when I came to that term of “endearment,” which reminded me of one of Rushdie’s characters calling another a “sister-_______ spawn of corpse-eating vultures” (or, even worse, a “______________________________ diseased donkeys.”)

      Anyway, Sarah, I admire your ability to take me into another culture for a thousand words, and convince me you know whereof you write. You’ve left me feeling a happy glow, and also feeling kind of hungry.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        I once asked someone “why s-f but not m-f?”
        The answer: “They might hit you if you call them s-f. But they’ll kill you if you call them m-f…”

      • S Conroy

        Will have to check that one out.

  • S Conroy

    Just in case I haven’t raved about your talent before, Sarah: Rave, rave, rave.
    I found this quite an ominous statement: “They believed in the existence of happy endings,” so was nicely unbalanced by the actual happy end. For some reason Salman Rushdie and The Moor’s Last Sigh popped into my head when reading this.
    And true to form, your rating is way too low. Good sign I think. Lots of great artists are only recognized when it’s too late ;-).

    PS Thank you for making me look up Ghazal.

    • Carl Steiger

      I was thinking of Rushdie’s “Shame” as I read it. Particularly when I came to that term of “endearment,” which reminded me of one of Rushdie’s characters calling another a “sister-_______ spawn of corpse-eating vultures” (or, even worse, a “______________________________ diseased donkeys.”)

      Anyway, Sarah, I admire your ability to take me into another culture for a thousand words, and convince me you know whereof you write. You’ve left me feeling a happy glow, and also feeling kind of hungry.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        I once asked someone “why s-f but not m-f?”
        The answer: “They might hit you if you call them s-f. But if you call them m-f, they’ll kill you…”

      • S Conroy

        Will have to check that novel out.

  • debbi

    You are a poet, what a lovely compelling complete picture you paint. Thank you for sharing this wonderful multi-level (social, political, emotional,etc.) story.

  • debbi

    You are a poet, what a lovely compelling complete picture you paint. Thank you for sharing this wonderful multi-level (social, political, emotional,etc.) story.

  • Tina Wayland

    I’m not overly fond of this very thick and old-fashioned way of writing, but the poetry in some of the passages is simply divine. I also have a great craving now for a gulab-jamun or two.

  • Tina Wayland

    I’m not overly fond of this very thick and old-fashioned way of writing, but the poetry in some of the passages is simply divine. I also have a great craving now for a gulab-jamun or two.

  • Diane Cresswell

    Beautiful, inspiring and wonderful insight – love this. I am and have been always curious of the ways of love in other cultures… this wonderful story gives us insight into love that is expressed from parent to child from child to boyfriend then finally to their continuation of it into marriage. And of course I am always learning other languages – thank you.

  • Diane Cresswell

    Beautiful, inspiring and wonderful insight – love this. I am and have been always curious of the ways of love in other cultures… this wonderful story gives us insight into love that is expressed from parent to child from child to boyfriend then finally to their continuation of it into marriage. And of course I am always learning other languages – thank you.

  • MPmcgurty

    Those infernal stars! As some of you occasionally say, “this story is not my cup of tea”. It often uses lovely language, and I think this author has an instinct for diction. However, for me, sometimes lovely language can take on some bulk, as in the paragraph describing the languages of the plains or the one in which Aziza is kneading dough and thinking of his graceful movements, with the phrase “as they talked”. I seriously wasn’t sure who “they” were.

    I do have a favorite line: “All this began as insidiously as an infestation of mice-that first little bite letting everything else in.”

    More fodder for the mystery of the stars. I’m constantly amazed.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      It’s my Unfan Club. But to invoke Oscar Wilde again this week: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

      Or: There’s no such thing as bad publicity–all traffic is good traffic.

      • MPmcgurty

        I wouldn’t necessarily chalk it up to your Unfan Club. Yours isn’t the only one we’ve seen this done to in past months. I’ve become convinced that at least half of the readers vote on their visceral reactions to a story. Camille’s recent comment that EDF is a reader’s site confirms that for me. I think several of your stories are suffering under the “cup of tea” rule I quite often see here.

        I’m with Oscar.

        • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

          Cup of Marmite, as Edward said (come back, Edward…). You are likely right.

          • MPmcgurty

            Yes, I wish Edward would return.

          • Carl Steiger

            You want me to badger him some more via Facebook?

          • S Conroy

            Yes!

          • Carl Steiger

            Done. Wait and see…

          • Carl Steiger

            Alas, he says he’s found other online magazines to occupy himself with, more in line with his own preference for writer- rather than reader-orientation.

          • S Conroy

            Oh well. Thanks for trying though.

  • MPmcgurty

    Those infernal stars! As some of you occasionally say, “this story is not my cup of tea”. It often uses lovely language, and I think this author has an instinct for diction. However, for me, sometimes lovely language can take on some bulk, as in the paragraph describing the languages of the plains or the one in which Aziza is kneading dough and thinking of his graceful movements, with the phrase “as they talked”. I seriously wasn’t sure who “they” were.

    I do have a favorite line: “All this began as insidiously as an infestation of mice-that first little bite letting everything else in.”

    More fodder for the mystery of the stars. I’m constantly amazed.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

      It’s my Unfan Club. But to invoke Oscar Wilde again this week: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

      Or: There’s no such thing as bad publicity–all traffic is good traffic….

      • MPmcgurty

        I wouldn’t necessarily chalk it up to your Unfan Club. Yours isn’t the only one we’ve seen this done to in past months. I’ve become convinced that at least half of the readers vote on their visceral reactions to a story. Camille’s recent comment that EDF is a reader’s site confirms that for me. I think several of your stories are suffering under the “cup of tea” rule I quite often see here.

        I’m with Oscar.

        • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

          Cup of Marmite, as Edward said (come back, Edward…). You are likely right.

          • MPmcgurty

            Yes, I wish Edward would return.

          • Carl Steiger

            You want me to badger him some more via Facebook?

          • S Conroy

            Yes!

          • Carl Steiger

            Done. Wait and see…

          • Carl Steiger

            Alas, he says he’s found other online magazines to occupy himself with, more in line with his own preference for writer- rather than reader-orientation.

          • S Conroy

            Oh well. Thanks for trying though.

  • joanna b.

    Your voice is truly unique, Sarah. We are all lucky to have it on EDF. This particular story is a melody. I read it several times. Each time was a pleasure. It manages to be ancient and modern at the same time. And your hero is a charmer, all right. The description of Aziza as “a plump brown gulab-jamun warm from the kitchen” is inspired. Congratulations. Five stars.

  • joanna b.

    Your voice is truly unique, Sarah. We are all lucky to have it on EDF. This particular story is a melody. I read it several times. Each time was a pleasure. It manages to be ancient and modern at the same time. And your hero is a charmer, all right. The description of Aziza as “a plump brown gulab-jamun warm from the kitchen” is inspired. Congratulations. Five stars.

  • If this were a story about Bobby and Betty Lou, and Bobby’s going away to college leaving Betty to get a job at the hamburger stand; an Betty hanging out with her peeps doing this and that; and her parents and Bobby’s parents thinking low of each other; and Bobby coming home captain of the football team with a letterman’s jacket (they still have those?) and getting married and moving next door to mamma’s house in a foreclosed trailer home and was written in this voice then I can see how it wouldn’t work.

    What I read is a glimpse into unfamiliar culture through authentic eyes and voice, with every word chosen with care (no sale items here 🙂 ) It was delightful to read; I only looked up one word that I thought critical, the others were obvious in a general way. I am so grateful that it speaks to me.

  • If this were a story about Bobby and Betty Lou, and Bobby’s going away to college leaving Betty to get a job at the hamburger stand; an Betty hanging out with her peeps doing this and that; and her parents and Bobby’s parents thinking low of each other; and Bobby coming home captain of the football team with a letterman’s jacket (they still have those?) and getting married and moving next door to mamma’s house in a foreclosed trailer home and was written in this voice then I can see how it wouldn’t work.

    What I read is a glimpse into unfamiliar culture through authentic eyes and voice, with every word chosen with care (no sale items here 🙂 ) It was delightful to read; I only looked up one word that I thought critical, the others were obvious in a general way. I am so grateful that it speaks to me.

    • S Conroy

      Jeff, I think you could make a pretty good go at that alternative story.

      • Actually I have already. Kinda. But it’s over 1000 words so will never make it here. I wold like to send it to you but cant figger out how to contact you privately.

  • macdabhaid

    ‘When Aziza’s Voice Lifted’ by Akhtar, while cleverly and masterfully written
    with dry “humour”, and extolling the pleasures of the beautiful languages and
    culture of a people currently derogated, has little in the way to offer as
    plot. It is Cinderella without the depth.

  • macdabhaid

    ‘When Aziza’s Voice Lifted’ by Akhtar, while cleverly and masterfully written
    with dry “humour”, and extolling the pleasures of the beautiful languages and
    culture of a people currently derogated, has little in the way to offer as
    plot. It is Cinderella without the depth.

  • disqus_5RXgycx5ff

    So . . . am I reading this correctly? [remainder of comment redacted]

    Moderator Note: Please refrain from such bluntness (approaching vulgarity) in your comments. I have ever confidence the commenter can find a more suitable way of expressing his/her dismay

  • Connell Regner

    Write some more for us.

  • Connell Regner

    Write some more for us.

  • Lucinda Kempe

    I gave it five stars. Not for the beginning, which could have been excised. This reader wouldn’t miss it at all. But for the wonderful first sentence of part 2 (which I preferred as a beginning – the reader really doesn’t have to know everything.) “All this began as insidiously as an infestation of mice -” That sentence is a great example of an opening tell. It’s a brave sentence, a moody sentence, and very atmospheric and metaphoric in a good way. It tells me I am in the hands of a storyteller who will tell me a story in an unusual way, her way. Liked the end too. A lot.

  • Lucinda Kempe

    I gave it five stars. Not for the beginning, which could have been excised. This reader wouldn’t miss it at all. But for the wonderful first sentence of part 2 (which I preferred as a beginning – the reader really doesn’t have to know everything.) “All this began as insidiously as an infestation of mice -” That sentence is a great example of an opening tell. It’s a brave sentence, a moody sentence, and very atmospheric and metaphoric in a good way. It tells me I am in the hands of a storyteller who will tell me a story in an unusual way, her way. Liked the end too. A lot.

  • JD Evans

    What a beautiful love story in spite of the foreign words.

  • JD Evans

    What a beautiful love story in spite of the foreign words.