Blankness is a language I’ve been writing in for years. Where I come from, girls are only called girls because they weren’t born boys. There, they teach you how to drink water, but never to address thirst. Or to take more than you need. To want, my mother says, is to poke holes into your own dress; to bring shame onto everyone you’ve ever met.
So the mornings are spent praying; learning to avoid eye-contact. God is everywhere is recited but it sounds more like a threat than a safety-pin. In the afternoons, I’d blend into the damask couches and listen to the things women were supposed to speak about. I’d sit big-eyed and gape at the kohl-caked eyelids; at the silver anklets. I’d close my eyes and slip into a version of my future where I sit right here, draped in reds and blacks, the bracelets around my wrists made only of gold. My husband this and my husband that, I’d say. Their crystal plates full of baklava and a sense of entitlement that I recognized even at the age of 11. These were women who did not wish to compare their grass to anyone else’s. Their pockets were green enough. They breast-fed and boasted of new furniture and avoided reading at all costs.
Sometimes, an aunt or some other woman would find me perched on a countertop, and tell me to go play outside. But why? I’d ask. And why do you have to cover your hair, Auntie? And Why can’t I stay here? I had a thousand questions. I had no interest in throwing pebbles at other kids and spending whole summers eating oranges straight off the tree branches. I needed to know why weddings were celebrated for weeks. Why if you said the word pregnant, your mother would pinch you until skin turned purple. I had to figure out why we prayed like we’ve already sinned a thousand times,
And who exactly we prayed to.
I can remember the first time an orgasm rippled through me; the phrases Touching Myself and Shaming Myself interchangeable.
That day, I decide I’m hell-material.
(My mother would years later get on her knees and howl. Where did we go wrong, she’d shriek and I’d almost feel sorry for her.)
But that day, I wear my hair in a ponytail and meander to the school gates; the principal hints that I’m a slut, the boys actually say it. I am sent to the office for 12 days straight. Every morning we go through the same conversation. Are you not a believer, the principal would ask, his hand already on the piece of wood that is his conviction whip. I shake my head. He asks me to cover my hair. I say no, I can’t, I don’t want to. That’s his cue. He takes my hand and then the wood is splintering against my skin and the welts don’t even have time to bloom before he strikes again. I almost never cry.
Still, I go to the classes and get the highest grades. I am the only pianist in the school. The teacher says my voice is half honey half husky, so I get to read the national anthem every morning, voice so poised it makes the other girls squirm. I get to mast the green flag as the whole school watches. I compete across the country, wear short white skirts and stand on stages; recite poetry and get given bouquets of red flowers. Best Voice Award goes to this doomed girl. The people with prebooked heaven tickets sit in their scarves and clap.
Once, I was walking down the school passage, and two boys decided their hands deserved a little treat. One stood in front of me, the other had his hands slide down my ass and squeeze, my hips, my breasts, my neck — slut, he spat. He pulled my hair. Said this is why I didn’t cover it, isn’t it. This is what I had coming. Said he’ll get me alone soon enough. The other one just watched as I stood there muted. I think I must’ve known I was leaving. I think I was already gone then. This slut fled the borders one autumn night. This slut is sipping tea, sitting in a town called Stellenbosch where the mountains flirt back and the sky is overeager to shower her in tomorrows. This slut accidentally found your obituary on Facebook and grinned so hard her lip split. Nineteen-year-old fatally wounded, the post said. This slut hit Like. Maybe all those prayers didn’t go to waste after all.
Before a girl is born, the parents sit down and spend weeks, sometimes months, trying to decide on a name for her. They look up meanings and practice the names that make the cut; see what sounds sweetest. And fair enough, when a girl is 2, and begins to recognize her own name — what it means to possess one, she responds. But do you know what happens to the girls whose biological names no longer stir them? What happens to the ones who are called sluts-immodest-hungry-shameful so often they forget that their passports say something else?
They chew their way through dictionaries.
They go missing.
Sarah Uheida was born in Tripoli, Libya. She is 21 years old and is currently busy with her undergraduate in psychology and linguistics at Stellenbosch University. She learnt to speak English at the age of 13 when the civil war in Libya forced her to start a new life abroad. She is compiling a poetry collection Beautiful Women and Where to Find Them, and penning down her memoirs of the war, A Girl’s Plethora of Knives. You can find her strolling through the streets of Stellenbosch and reading Sylvia Plath. Her work features in the literary journal New Contrast, and Blindeye.