EXCERPT: Zulaikha by Niloufar-Lily Soltani

Niloufar-Lily Soltani is a fiction writer, poet, and translator based in Vancouver. She is a graduate of the Humber College creative writing program. Zulaikha is her debut novel.

The next day, as Zulaikha and Madineh were browsing the market, Zulaikha found a little boy crying in the corner of the bazaar. She took his hand, and they led him to the nearest police station. The boy’s mother was already there. She screamed his name, “Rafi,” when she saw her baby. From her gold and jewels,  it wasn’t hard to guess that she was an Arab Sheikh’s wife. 

Madineh and Zulaikha knew a little Arabic, and the woman,  Aliah, spoke Farsi. She was from Bahrain and frequently came to  Abadan to visit relatives. Madineh invited her for lunch the next day. 

Aliah appeared to be in her thirties, slim and tall. She entered their house like a queen and sat on the floor with her three children, Hashem, Saba, and Rafi.  

Madineh placed a cushion between Aliah’s back and the wall and asked Zulaikha to bring her coffee. Aliah, excited by the warmth of their hospitality, said, “Come sit down with me,  habibti. Let’s get to know each other.” 

“Don’t worry, sayidati. We’ll be done in a minute.” Madineh tasted the stew as if she was the head chef and Zulaikha was the cook. “It needs twenty more minutes—more tamarind paste,  too,” she muttered. 

“Why don’t you go and sit with her?” Zulaikha frowned. “I  don’t need you here.”  

Zulaikha served ghalieh mahi, a special Arab Khuzestani seafood stew and rice.  

“Why didn’t you marry after your husband?” Aliah asked  Madineh. 

“I didn’t want a stepfather for my children.” 

“Good for you. Men can be problematic.”  

“What about yourself? Where’s your husband?” Madineh passed a dirty plate to Zulaikha.  

“He’s in Bahrain. I married him when I was very young—I’m  tired of him.”

Madineh laughed and offered Aliah a smoke—they went to the courtyard together.  

Zulaikha glanced at the children. Saba, the girl, went to sleep.  She turned on the television for the boys and let them watch  Tom and Jerry on a Kuwaiti channel. She looked out into the courtyard. It was a cloudy day—a bit cooler than other days.  She didn’t want to sit with Aliah and her mother and hear them talking about men. Besides, all that smoke made her dizzy. She made more lemonade and put some Danish pastry on the plates while waiting for them to finish smoking.  

“How delicious!” Aliah said. ”Would you like to come to  Bahrain with me?”  

This must have been only a joke. “Me? Of course, I would.”  She put a small plate of Danish down and glanced at Madineh.  Why does she look so serious? 

“I was just talking to your mother about my life in Bahrain,”  Aliah said. “I want to propose on behalf of my husband. You’ll  look after him and our children and be my friend, too.”  “Mother?”  

 Madineh showed no reaction.  

“He’s a good man,” Aliah said. “Girls marry like this. Trust me,  it’s not only you. I’ll give you a good life there.” She glanced at  Madineh, expecting her to elaborate. 

Zulaikha stood near the door to the courtyard with a steel tray in her hand. Hessam and Kia were planning to swim with Abbass today. The sky was cloudy—a good day for them to swim and not get burned. She glanced back at the kitchen sink and the pile of dishes she had to wash. She might as well start doing the dishes. 

“This is very nice of you, Aliah khanum,” Madineh said. “We feel honoured. Right, Zulaikha?”  

Zulaikha kept rinsing the dishes as she stared at the running water on her hands, cooling her uprising temperature.  “More lemonade?” Madineh asked Aliah. “Do you, by any  chance, have any pictures to show us?” 

Aliah opened her purse and showed her a family picture inserted into her passport. Madineh looked at it with satisfaction as if it was she who was to marry the Sheikh. She called  Zulaikha, but she ignored her. She kept tidying up the dishes on the counter. “My hands are wet. Don’t you see?” 

Madineh apologized for her daughter’s rude behaviour. “No need to apologize.” Aliah got up and returned the picture to her purse. “Think about it as a responsibility toward your  family, Zulaikha jan.” She dressed Rafi to leave and told the others to get ready. 

What kind of mother would plan like this for her daughter?  As Zulaikha glanced at groggy Rafi, the little boy, then  Madineh, leaving this house didn’t feel too tragic.  “She’s old enough to understand,” Madineh said. 

“No, habibti, she’s just a child. We both know that.” This stranger suddenly sounded more reasonable than her mother. 

“How about if I take you to the market so you feel better about us? I think my kids like you already.” 

Zulaikha grinned at the children. 

“I’ll make sure she’s ready for tomorrow morning.” “I’ll be here around ten,” Aliah winked at Zulaikha. “Please come for lunch after that,” Madineh said. 

“Oh no, we’ve been too much trouble for you already. We’ll bring you food from a restaurant. How does that sound?”  “God bless you.” Madineh hugged the woman and kissed her cheek.  

Zulaikha couldn’t sleep that night. She climbed the stairs and looked for the geography book she had stored with her other schoolbooks in the attic. 

“Who’s there?” Hessam was sleeping on the roof again. “My geography—I’m sure there was a map to Bahrain.” “What’s going on, Zulaikha?” Hessam’s eyes were half open. “Nothing,” she said. “Mother wants to send me to Bahrain to  marry a man.” 

“Maybe it’s her trick to make you obey her more, Zulaikha.  We’ll sort it out tomorrow. Go back to sleep.”

She found her book. Bahrain wasn’t that far. It wouldn’t be hard to visit Abadan, maybe for the Nowruz. By then, maybe her mother would regret her decision. A lizard moving fast on the wall startled her. She hoped she wouldn’t share a space with a  lizard in her new house. Instead, she hoped she would find a  friend she never would have made in Abadan. But it wouldn’t be easy on such a tiny island.  

■ ■ ■ 

In the early morning on the day of Zulaikha’s departure, Hessam was still asleep, his face covered with a blanket. She bent down and uncovered his face. He opened his eyes and asked, “Is it time?” She nodded.  

“Yesterday while you were out shopping with that lady, I  asked Mother why you had to go, but she told me to shut up.  She screamed at me, asking how much longer she could keep working. She said girls should get married and asked me to grow up in a hurry, too. Can you believe it? She thinks I can get bigger  if she yells at me.” 

“Hurry up, Zulaikha,” Madineh shouted from the courtyard.  “I wish you were bigger, too, Hessam,” Zulaikha said. “Get bigger and taller fast, so no one can force me against my will.  Okay?” 

“Then I’ll send for you. Would you come back to this hell  hole?”  

She kissed his forehead. “I think I would.” She ran outside.

James M. Fisher

James M. Fisher is the Editor Emeritus of The Miramichi Reader. He began TMR in 2015, realizing that there was a genuine need for more book reviews of Canadian literature. It has since become Canada’s best-regarded source for the finest in new literary releases. James has been interviewed about TMR on CBC Radio and other media sites. He works as a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Technologist and lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick with his wife Diane, their tabby cat Eddie, and Buster the Red Merle Border Collie.