Aliaa’s alarm goes off.
With a deep sigh, she gets up and makes her way to the bathroom, leaving the alarm still ringing. Eyes closed, she performs the obligatory 3 minutes of oral hygiene before heading to the kitchen to make her father his morning tea. Her movements are mechanical, as if on autopilot, because she is: set the tea before father, sit on countertop while he drinks it, hop down and remove tray when finished. She washes the dishes, counting down 3 – 2 – 1 to his daily “khalli balik“, and absentmindedly delivers the appropriate response – “inshallah”.
Now it’s time to get the boys ready for school. Imam is self-sufficient, but Omer, the baby of the family, needs a little more coercing. It’s the same drill every morning, with Aliaa first standing at the door to Omer’s room and calling for him to get up, then walking over and gently stroking his hair, finally resorting to more aggressive measures – yanking the covers and sitting him up in the bed. “Seriously. Goom. I don’t have time for this.”
She hands them both their lunches – tuna salad for Imam, ta3miya bel jibna for Omer. It’s the only thing he’ll eat. Imam, as usual, has to argue. “I’m 12, all my friends buy lunch from school. I don’t want tuna salad, it’s gross. The other kids will make fun of me. Why can’t I just get money for lunch?” Aliaa has heard his gripes so often that she can time when they start. 3 – 2 – 1 – she intercepts, “I don’t care, Imam. Talk to Dad.”
The doorbell rings. Strange – no one ever comes to that door. Could her father have forgotten something? He never forgets anything. Something inside her tells her to be cautious. She sends her brothers off through the side entrance, and heads to the main gate. She opens the door to find a tall and oddly thin man. “Is your father home?”
She looks down the street, expecting to see her father’s car at the end of it. “Hmm. No, he’s not”, she replies, brow furrowed. She can barely get the rest of the sentence out before the man grabs her and stuffs her into a tinted white car.
The inside is dark and heavy with the stench of cigarettes and body odor. As her eyes adjust, she notices three other men in the car; her kidnapper is sitting in the passenger seat. The two men sitting on either side of her are yelling with the driver, while the third is talking calmly on the phone. Aliaa focuses on the conversation; the men are using vile words to describe her father, words he has forbidden them from using, words she uses in the privacy of her own mind. They’re also talking numbers – ransom money they’re going to make her father pay for her release. “It’s no use to speak of such things”, says the thin man in the front seat. “She’s not going back”.
The man to her left lets out a sinister cackle, then grabs her face and gruffly turns her head to face him, “Don’t worry, I’ll take real good care of you.”
He pushes her head back, bouncing it on the back of the seat. Despite the assault on her body and senses, Aliaa is abnormally serene. She closes her eyes, and lets the image of her mother’s face consume her mind. A smile, not unlike her mother’s, spreads across her face. She mouthes the word, “freedom”.
“Wake up!” says the man, jabbing her in the ribs. I’m not asleep, she thinks. She gets out of the car to see a bright blue door barely hanging on the mud walls to which it’s fastened. One of the men from the back seat pulls her by the wrist, a black cloth bag in his other hand – meant to go over her head. I’ve been kidnapped by idiots, she thinks. How humiliating.
They lead her through the door and into the courtyard, where there are two rooms facing each other, also made out of mud. They go into the room on the right, which is dark save for the light streaming in through the rickety, unhinged door.
“Do you miss your daddy?”, sneers the man leading Aliaa by the wrist, whom she’s labelled Kidnapper A. “Ma titkalam ma3aha yakh“, says his colleague, and she nods in agreement. “Yes, please don’t talk to me.” Kidnapper A yanks her arm a little harder to punish her for embarrassing him, as Kidnapper B laughs. “Quite the personality on this one. No wonder they asked for her specifically.”
Aliaa surveys the room. It’s bare, with the exception of a plastic chair and a dirty pillow thrown haphazardly in the corner of the room. There’s a large metal hook on the wall beside the pillow. Kidnapper B tells her to take a seat – “anywhere you’d like” – and that they’d be back for her later. Kidnapper A spits in her direction.
Aliaa slowly lowers herself to the ground, laying her head on the dirty pillow, and props her feet up on the metal hook. Now, I’m going to sleep.
Aliaa has only one vivid memory of her childhood.
In it, she’s sitting on the ground, one leg placed on either side of a pile of Legos – a gift her father brought from his last trip abroad. Her aunt walks in, bends down and throws one leg on top of the other, knocking over the structure Aliaa was painstakingly building. “Ag3udi kwayis“, she barks, “that’s no way for a lady to sit.” Aliaa takes a deep breath, readying her vocal cords to project a response, but her mother beats her to it. She walks over to Aliaa and gently uncrosses her legs. Then she looks at her, smiles, and leaves the room without uttering a single word.
The validation from that singular incident sustained Aliaa to this day. At her mother’s funeral, when all the other women in the family wailed couplets meant to wrench the hearts of those in attendance, Aliaa sat quietly in a corner of the living room, reading one of the juzus scattered on the coffee table and disregarded by everyone. When a khaala would grab her by the shoulders and urge her to cry – “Abki! Abki ya bit, kida ma kwayis” – she would smile widely back at her until the woman felt uncomfortable and walked away. Later, Aliaa would hear them argue about how her grief had driven her mad. But despite the sympathy they feigned for her, no one wanted to take on the task of helping her heal, voting instead to convince her father to remarry. “You need someone to help you take care of the kids”, his sister had insisted. “Inta rajil, ma bitagdar 3ala alkalam da.”
So at 14, Aliaa assumed responsibility of her family. Within a month, she had taught herself to make all the dishes her father and brothers liked to eat. A few awkward run-ins with well-meaning relatives had showed her father that Aliaa didn’t want nor need help taking care of things, so he left her to her own devices, and soon all the relatives retreated. Beside all the household chores, she learned how to deal with plumbers, electricians and the weekly cleaning lady, all of whom assumed from her demeanor that she was much older, and as such treated her with a level of respect not afforded a girl her age.
By nature a man of few words, Aliaa’s father recoiled deeper into himself after his wife’s death. He spent most of his time in his study, or in his office across town. His interaction with the children was minimal, his communication with Aliaa limited to formalities and inquiries about meals and household finances. In the beginning, Aliaa gently accepted her father’s silence as a manifestation of his deep sadness over the loss of her mother. But as time passed and their relationship grew more distant, she came to the conclusion that she was wrong, that perhaps he just didn’t have anything in common with his children, that the ties that bound them were less of blood and more of obligation.
In reality, the idea that he had burdened his teenage daughter with a weight even an adult would shudder under filled Aliaa’s father with a deep shame that muted him. Worse still was the guilt that her adept ability to carry this responsibility made him often forget that she was still a child. That her striking resemblance to his wife would often cause him to call out the wrong name, and that sometimes, in those moments of absentmindedness, he would lay a tender hand on his daughter’s back that was meant for her mother.
Aliaa awoke to a cold touch on her shoulder. She opened her eyes, slowly, and as they focused she was met with the gaze of the slender man who had snatched her from her home. He was crouched down beside her.
“Can we talk?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“I suppose not. Are you hungry?”
“You don’t have to pretend to be the benevolent captor. Just cut to the chase.”
The man’s long face stretched into a bemused smile. He walked across the room, brought over the plastic chair and sat down across from her. “You’re absolutely right; the playing field isn’t level. I know much more about you than you do about me. Perhaps I should start by introducing myself?” His words ricocheted off Aliaa’s steely expression. “And what difference would that make?” “It might be useful later – something to give the police along with my description”, he said with a short laugh. He was pleased to see her laugh as well. “See, now you’re just insulting my intelligence.” The man stiffened to control the ripple down his spine.
“You should ask yourself why you’re here, Aliaa. Ask yourself why you were chosen. Why one of your brothers wasn’t taken instead.” She tensed at the mention of her siblings, the first time she had reacted to anything her captors said. The slender man noticed, and Aliaa saw it register briefly on his face. She clenched her jaw, disappointed that she had given him the satisfaction. “Your mother never wanted this for you.” Aliaa leapt to her feet, fists balled. The man’s voice had now lost all trace of kindness. “Know that your father has prepared himself for this day. You might be kabdat 7ashahu, but know that for him, this is about much more than your safety.” He stood up. “I’ll come back a little later when you’re in a better mood.”
And with that, the man left the room, leaving Aliaa shaking in bewilderment, wondering what the hell he meant.
Long ago, before her mother had died, before she had brothers, Aliaa was her father’s liver. Or rather, he was her’s.
It was a running joke in their little family, a cute twist on the expression. Her father often used it when Aliaa would engage in the rough and tumble play of children her age. Once, after briefly losing Aliaa at a bazaar, he scooped her up in his arms and held her so tight that her chest hurt. ”Be careful, little one, don’t you know Ana kabdat 7ashaki?”
Aliaa’s mother disliked the expression, wincing in disapproval whenever her husband used it. Her distaste for it was so great that they would often argue about it behind closed doors. On the other side of the doors, Aliaa crouched, her body pressed to them.
“Why won’t you stop saying that to her.”
“Oh Nour, don’t be so sensitive. It’s cute.”
“She’s smarter than you think. She’s going to figure it out.”
“Figure wh— oh, you can’t be serious. How could she possibly know!”
The conversation echoed in Aliaa’s ears as she paced about her makeshift cell, a new memory unlocked by her captor. She tried to remember the rest of the conversation, any detail that could give her more context, and grew more frustrated with each step. What did her mother not want her to figure out? How did the slender man know to use that expression, or was it just a coincidence? What did it all mean?
It was nightfall before anyone came to see her. Kidnapper A entered the room carrying a bowl of lentil stew and a piece of bread atop a rusted tray. “Didn’t I tell you I would take care of you?”, he sneered, nudging the tray in Aliaa’s direction. “Ma bakul 3adas”, she cooly replied from where she was standing across the room, one leg propped up against the corner. The man, easily angered, tossed the tray and in two long strides had positioned himself in front of her. Aliaa stood up straight, both feet planted firmly on the ground, chin jutted forward, eyes fixated on his. He slapped her. “Abook law ma warraak al2adab ana aleila bawareek”, and grabbed Aliaa’s knees, pulling her legs out from under her. Aliaa fell back, her head banging against the wall behind her. Everything went black as she felt a hand clamp down around her neck.
She came to screaming, her fists swinging at the air in front of her. The cold grip that steadied her wrists alerted her that the slender man was back, and she opened her eyes, aflame with anger and fear.
“It’s okay, khalas. Don’t move around too much, you hit your head pretty hard.” I hit my head, she thought, as the incident rushed back to her. “I hit my head?! Oh my God!” the indignation in Aliaa’s voice quickly morphed into terror, and she began to frantically grab at her clothes, feeling the buttons on her shirt and jeans to make sure they were still fastened. “It’s okay, he didn’t make it that far.” “Kattar khairak walai!” she spat back. “What do you want from me!”
The slender man lowered himself into the solitary chair in the room, carefully crossed his legs and spoke.
“Once again, Aliaa, you were right. When I came in here yesterday, I assumed I was dealing with a child. But our brief exchange confirmed that I had underestimated you. I now see that your intelligence far surpasses your age. I will, as you so succinctly put it, cut to the chase. Your father is in possession of some very critical information that does not belong to him. He is a very smart man, he hid it in the one place where he knew no one would think to look. But your mother was smarter – I suppose one more aspect in which you take after her. Your father should have listened to her.”
Feeling a sudden wave of exhaustion, Aliaa leaned back against the wall. She unclasped her hands, which were gripping tightly at her sides, and let them drop in her lap. The slender man continued. “We believe your father may have hid this information on your person, which is why you’re here. We didn’t find anything when we searched you, obviously, but a visit to the hospital tomorrow will help confirm my suspicions.”
Aliaa felt a tear hit the back of her hand, then another. “Where is he?”
The slender man pulled at a thread poking out of his jacket sleeve. “Your father? At home with your brothers, as far as I’ve been told. He’s not looking for you, if that’s what you’re wondering.” He looked up at Aliaa, who was staring blankly at an indiscernible spot on the other side of the room. “But I imagine he is worried about you. I’ll admit, it’s quite the predicament for him to be in. Mu3adala sa3ba.”
The two sat in silence, the slender man watching Aliaa, whose gaze hadn’t wavered. After a few minutes, the man smoothed his slacks and rose to his feet. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. I’ll be by in the morning to take you.”
Aliaa walks out into the street and approaches the white Corolla that first brought her to the house of horrors. She opens the back door, but hears the slender man say, “arkabi giddam – it’s just the two of us today.”
“You don’t seem to have gotten much sleep.” Aliaa ignores him and continues to stare out of the window – shopkeepers are turning keys in padlocks, preparing for the day’s business; young men in checkered shirts and flip flops are swinging out of minivan doors, beckoning the swarm of commuters waiting by the side of the road; an elderly woman adjusts her tobe, messily pinning it under her arm as she steps out of a rickshaw.
The car comes to a stop, but Aliaa does not notice. “Ara7”. She gets out of the car and is led into the building by her captor. They walk through dimly lit hallways until the slender man abruptly stops in front of an office. He knocks and then enters without waiting for a response. The doctor inside immediately stands up and comes out from behind his desk, as the slender man takes a seat by the door. “Ta3ali”, says the doctor, and Aliaa silently follows him out.
A short while later, Aliaa is brought back to the office.
“That was quick. Did you find anything?”
“Nothing from the physical exam.”
“What about the X-ray?”
“Aljihaz ma shaghal.”
The slender man lets out an exasperated sigh.
“Typical. So what is working, then?”
“We’re in the process of getting new equipment, but it’s being held at customs.”
“Unbelievable. I guess our only option is surgery, then.”
The doctor begins to protest – “We don’t even know where or what to look for“ – but he is interrupted. “This isn’t up for discussion. Get your team together.”
Lying on the operating table, Aliaa closed her eyes and tried to block out the commotion happening around her. She mouthed, “freedom”, but it didn’t give her the same sense of weightlessness that it did before. Her ears began to ring, a piercing noise that formed cracks in the darkness behind her lids, inducing an explosion of bright spots, out of which emerged the image of her mother – brow furrowed, lips pursed, eyes grieving.
Aliaa opened her eyes to find the slender man, now in scrubs and a face mask, standing over her. “It’s unfortunate that it had to come to this. But on a personal note, this marks the end of a journey for me. I’ve been searching for this information you’re carrying for a long time. You could say that this case has been the defining point of my career. To think it’s been hiding in plain sight all along. Sub7an Allah.” He shook his head. “Your father has inconvenienced a lot of people with this stunt, including myself. I would have much rather spent my time doing something more productive.”
“And the irony of it all? This information that your father has withheld all these years, this information for which your body was made a vessel, the information that was made my life’s work to find – I’m not even privy to know.
You surely won’t relate to this, but I for one am overcome with an overwhelming sense of relief.”
“You said my mother was smarter than my father. What made you say that?” Aliaa hadn’t spoken in quite a while, and so the sound got lost in her throat. But the slender man heard her. “She was against involving you in his nefarious affairs. Well, I’m sure to him they were more noble than nefarious, but it’s all a question of perspective, I guess. Regardless, what kind of father hides behind his child? That is essentially what he was doing, you know this right? The level of cowar–” He is interrupted by Aliaa. “How do you know that?”
“How do I know what? That he’s hiding behind you? I mean, look where we are, Aliaa-”
“No, how do you know she was against it?”
“Oh, your mother? Well”, he paused. “That’s a good question. I guess I don’t really know that for sure. But none of our surveillance came up with any results showing your mother’s involvement, and we know that she was very protective of her children, so I assumed that she should have been against putting you in harm’s way.”
Aliaa’s jaw relaxed, but her eyes, which were fixated straight above her, did not. “How did you find out about me?”
The man started, then hesitated, pulling the face mask from over his mouth. “Why is this question coming now?” he asked. “Curiosity killed the cat on its deathbed”, she replied, her lip curling into a smirk, eyes still staring into the bright operating room lights. For the second time since they met, Aliaa caused a shiver to run up the slender man’s spine.
“Process of elimination, mostly. We knew your father was too smart to keep it on himself, and for a long time we waived the possibility that he could have entrusted it to someone else. But as time passed and your father’s confidence grew, we started to revisit some of our more farfetched ideas. Your father’s interaction with you had always intrigued me – he seemed strangely protective; at first I thought it might just be parental instincts, but he didn’t seem to show the same concern to your siblings. What others called ‘abu khayif 3ala bittu’, I call excellent perception on my part.” The slender man looked down at the ground, an abashed smile on his face, at once proud and humbled by his ability to see evil where no one else could.
“Anyway, it took a significant amount of effort to convince my superiors that I was onto something. They too believed that no father could expose their child to such danger. A surprising reaction, really, considering the ruthlessness with which my superiors normally carry out their affairs. Of course, this rare-” he licked his lips to find the words “-sensitivity, if you will, didn’t stop them from signing off on this procedure. So there’s that.”
Just then, the doctor approached the man, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Oh, I guess we’re finally ready. Any last words?”, he asked.
“Check the liver”, she replied.