God the Merciful
At first she remembered nothing. When she opened her eyes she felt, thought and saw nothing whatsoever. Then she noticed the white. White, white, all around. It was when she saw the white that she began to think that she was in Heaven. But to go to Heaven, one needs to have died first and she didn’t think that she had died. That is when she started to remember. She remembered that she had been on a night out with her friends; she remembered dressing at home in her new top and trousers; she remembered meeting Abi and Chelsea in Brannigans; she remembered drinking a lot of wine there and then going onto the club; she remembered drinking more in the club, then dancing and then snogging a guy who said that he worked as a mortgage consultant; she remembered leaving the club very drunk with the mortgage consultant and getting in the taxi with the Pakistani driver; she remembered that they started to drive home very fast. After that however, the drink took over and she remembered nothing.
It was by this time however, when she had finished remembering, that she realised that she was not in Heaven after all and that the whiteness was only paint; paint that covered the walls and domed ceiling of the room that she was now in. The brightness was caused by a skylight behind her head, through which the sun’s rays entered and illuminated the paint. No, she was not in Heaven, but in a room somewhere, lying on a bed. She sat up and surveyed that room. It was sparsely furnished, only a framed piece of calligraphy adorned the wall. ‘There is no god but God and Mohammed is His Prophet’ it read. The only other things that punctuated the whiteness of the walls were two ornately-carved wooden doors, one to her left and one to her right. The floor was covered in Turkish rugs and by one walls, some silk cushions were stacked. The only furniture was the large bed on which she sat and a small round table beside it. On the table was a leather-bound book, a silver bell and a note. “Where on earth am I?” she asked no one in particular. ‘I seem to be in some Middle Eastern country,’ she thought to herself. She leant over to the table and looked at the book. ‘The Glorious Qu’ran’ was embossed in gold calligraphy on the cover. ‘I am in the Middle East,’ she thought. Then she picked up the note and read it:
Welcome to Eden. I realise that you are probably feeling a little confused at present, but don’t worry, you are in the care of the Almighty God. When you feel ready, ring the bell and I shall come and introduce you to your new life.
Confused?! ‘You bet I am!’ she thought. The phrase ‘in the care of the Almighty God’ perplexed her, whilst the words ‘new life’ intrigued and troubled her. What did it all mean? She knew that there was only one way of finding out. She rang the bell and waited.
After about a minute or so, the door to her right opened and a woman walked through it. Well, she thought it was a woman, but at the time, that was only an assumption. The fact is, that she could not tell properly as not an inch of human flesh could be seen. Instead, the figure that entered was shrouded entirely in plain black cloth. ‘I definitely am in the Middle East,’ Sarah now thought to herself.
The figure drew near. “Peace be with you, Sarah,” it said. It was a woman’s voice. “I am Fatima. I am here to welcome you to Eden. I hope that you will grow to enjoy your time here.” Her voice was soft and melodic. She was reassured by it.
“Eden?” questioned Sarah. “But I can’t be in Eden; Eden is a garden, or at least, it was a garden, once upon a time.”
“You are in a garden, Sarah,” said Fatima, “although it may not correspond to your idea of what a garden is. A garden you see, is any place in which peace and tranquillity reign. Gardens are places in which flowers are allowed to bloom.”
“But there are no flowers here,” said Sarah, staring at the bare white walls.
“You are a flower,” replied Fatima.
The two ladies looked at one another and enjoyed a moment of silence and reflection before Fatima continued. “I am here to show you how to live here. Come, get up and follow me.” Sarah got out of the bed and stood before the shrouded lady. Fatima’s gloved hand emerged from within the black folds of her garments and handed Sarah a folded garment of white cotton. “Put this on,” she instructed. Sarah took it and unfolded it. It was a long loose dress with embroidery down the front. “It’s called a jalbaiyah,” said Fatima. Sarah put it on. It reached all the way down to the floor. “This room here is your chamber,” continued the covered lady. “It is your personal space and within it you may do whatever you please. Now, follow me.” She led Sarah through the door to the left. It opened into a small circular chamber. The sparse light – which was provided by a myriad of tiny octagonal skylights – fell down onto a large circular bath set into the floor. It was the epitome of the Exotic East. “This is where you wash and cleanse yourself,” explained Fatima. “When you have finished, there are some clothes for you on the bench by the door. Here in Eden, we have only one rule which must be obeyed, and that is that whenever you leave your chamber and enter the wider world, you must be fully-clothed, such as I am now.”
Sarah looked at the plain black shrouds and wondered. “Peace be with you, Sarah,” said Fatima, before leaving through the door from whence she had came.
She stretched herself out in the hot, steamy water and thought. Altogether, it was all too strange. One moment she is a normal English girl living a normal English life with a credit card, job, CD collection and overdraft, and then the next she is waking up in some unknown Middle Eastern country and being told to wear a pile of black cloth. Well, one thing was for certain, that was out! Clothes like that are a symbol of oppression, of men wanting to hide their women away from prying eyes, restrict them and keep them at home with the kids and kitchen. Fatima seemed nice, true enough, but she doubtless knew no different, poor woman.
But clothes or otherwise, where was this and why was she here? Eden was a pretty vague name when all is said and done, and probably not the place’s real one too. Apart from the fact that wherever she was, it was Muslim, she had no clues to go by. And then there was the question of why. Why kidnap someone, bring them halfway across the world and then give them a whole suite of rooms to themselves? It must have cost a fortune for starters and then… then…
Then she remembered. Several years before she had seen a film on Channel 5 about a New York businesswoman who had been kidnapped by some oil sheikh and forced to live in his harem. So, that was it! Oh my God! She was expected to prostitute herself for some unknown man and become one of his faceless wives and… Her thoughts trailed away; they were too frightening to continue with. She thought back to the film. She’d quite enjoyed it at the time, as the idea was rather kinky and the setting was incredibly romantic. But she’d never expected that the main character to become her! It wasn’t so romantic and kinky when she was actually in it! “Well, don’t be so fast!” she muttered to the octangonal skylights. “You’ve picked the wrong girl, Abdul, I won’t give in without a hell of a fight!” But even as she said it, she knew that she was not strong enough in either mind or body to truly resist. She thought back to the film and recalled that the girl had eventually fallen in love with the sheikh. ‘Well, that is not going to happen to me,’ she thought to herself without a great deal of confidence in her words. ‘But even so, joining a harem, being forced to lie with and screw a… No! No! No! It couldn’t be surely? This isn’t real! This can’t be happening to me! Why me? Yes, why? I’m not so attractive, I’m way too fat, my shoulders are too big and my hair…’ Again her thoughts trailed off in despair. Attractive or not, they had chosen her and that was that. She looked at the shafts of light that fell down from the skylights and pierced the steam and wondered. ‘Perhaps it wasn’t a harem after all? Fatima had said nothing about a man anyway, had she? But if it was not a harem, then what could it be? Oh Christ, what the fuck is happening to me?!’ Sarah realised that until she left her quarters, she would never know. But she wasn’t going to leave wearing those clothes! Oh no, not her! She raised herself out of the bath and towelled herself dry. Then she slipped the jalbaiyah on and made her way into the bedroom. She approached the right-hand door and grasped the handle. It wouldn’t budge. Locked, obviously. She made her way back to the bed and rang the bell and waited and waited.
A strange sound awoke her from her slumbers. It came from nowhere yet seemed to be everywhere. It was a man’s voice and he was chanting. ‘There is no god but God and Mohammed is His Prophet…’ The voice rose and fell. It was beautiful, enchanting, transfixing. Sarah rose from the bed and went once again to the right-hand door. It was still locked. Whilst the chanting continued, she returned to the bed and again rang the bell. Again she waited and waited. By the time that the chanting had finished, she had realised. If they had some high-tech hidden sound system in the room to relay the chanting, then they probably had hidden cameras as well. With reluctance she returned to the bathroom and put on the black robes.
The cloth was heavy and thick, the gloves made it difficult to grasp things and the veil dimmed her vision a little, but altogether she felt freer and more normal wearing them than she had expected to. She returned to the bedroom and grasped the handle of the right-hand door. It gave way immediately and she passed through.
Beyond the door was a corridor with several doors like her own on either side of it. At the end was a bright light. Sarah walked towards the light and found herself in an open-air courtyard filled with flowerbeds and lush shrubs and trees. Overhead, songbirds twittered and flew, and several feet away, a peacock opened up his plumage. “It truly is a garden!” she whispered to herself. Then she noticed the black figure walking towards her.
“No, I’m not Fatima, I’m Natasha.”
“Natasha?!” She was surprised. Surely Natasha was not a Middle Eastern name? “Are you… are you not from here?” she asked.
“No, of course not, no one is here. I’m Russian.”
“Oh. I thought Fatima was.”
“She is yes, but what I meant was that no one else is.”
“Oh. What is this place then?”
“It is Eden.”
“Eden, yes, Eden, I know that. But where is it?”
“Oh, I don’t know that. In the Middle East probably.”
“So you don’t know too?!”
“No, I don’t know.”
“Then can you tell me, is this place… is it a… a harem?”
The blank veiled figure was silent for a moment. Then she spoke. “When I first came here I thought that too. I was petrified that some sheikh would creep up on me in the middle of the night and try to rape me. But I’ve been here for ages now and it has never happened and so I guess that Eden probably isn’t a harem.”
There was a rustle of cloth behind her and Sarah turned round. Stood there was another figure shrouded in black, identical in appearance to both her and Natasha. “Peace be with you Natasha, pace be with you Sarah.”
“Peace be with you Fatima,” replied the Russian girl. Sarah followed suit.
“Walk with me please, Sarah,” said Fatima. Sarah did as she was bid. “I’m glad that you decided to leave your chambers,” continued the newcomer. “It is so pleasant out here and it would be a shame if you missed it.”
“But the clothes…” Sarah started.
“Yes, I understand, but don’t worry. Now you do not like them, you do not want to wear them. I could explain the reasons for them, but at the present moment you would not understand. Instead, all I ask is that you trust me and submit to the rule. Only through submission can we attain the peace that we all so desire.”
Sarah knew that she had to be strong. “Fatima, here… here it is very nice but it is not my place. I want to leave, I need to leave. How do I get out?”
“Oh, I can show you the exit now, but I’m afraid that it will not help you. There is nothing beyond Eden you see, look!”
She led her to the opposite side of the courtyard where a door punctuated the wall of white plaster. She opened it and walked through. Sarah followed her. The door slammed behind them. In front of the two women was a vast, stony desert, stretching out, a featureless wasteland for as far as the eye can see. “Do you see?” asked Fatima.
“But beyond that?” said Sarah.
“I have never been beyond that,” replied Fatima. “I have no need.”
“Somewhere beyond that is my home.”
Again Sarah put on the black clothes with reluctance and again she stepped out of her room and into the Garden of Eden. She had not slept well that night. At sunset and sunrise the chanting had started again in her room. ‘There is no god but God…’ She plucked out of the vast recesses of her memory an R.E. that she had been subjected to when she was about thirteen all about Muslims and how they pray five times everyday and how that prayer is led by their priest who stands at the top of a slim tower. There had been special words for all the terms which she’d had to write down in her exercise book and remember for homework, but now she could not retrieve those from the mists of memory. Still, at least the racket was now explained; it was the Call to Prayer.
But it was not just the wailing that had hindered her slumbers. A far bigger obstacle had been the fact that her current predicament had been constantly swimming around in her head. Where was she? Why was she there? What was going to happen to her? And what about her friends and family? Did they know? Were they worried about her and perhaps sending out search parties? Did they think that she might be dead? She cried when she thought of them. She cried and she cried, for hours on end, but eventually she realised that all that crying would never do any good. Nor too would worrying. That was when she had finally drifted off to sleep. Ten minutes later, the Call to Prayer had sounded again.
In the garden a shrouded figure sat. Sarah approached her tentatively. “Are you Natasha?” she asked.
“No, I’m Gabrielle. I haven’t met you before. Are you new to Eden?”
“Oh well, welcome then. What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Sarah. Please sit with me. It’s a beautiful place, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes, but…”
“But Gabrielle, please, can you tell me, what is this place? I mean to say, I arrived here yesterday. One moment I was at home, in the middle of a normal life and then the next I wake up here, in some Sultan’s palace or something and no one knows where I am and my family must be worried about me and I am expected to wear these stupid clothes and I don’t know what’s happening to me and…”
But by that time she had dissolved into a flood of tears. Gabrielle’s gloved hand comforted her. “Sarah, please stop crying and listen to me. I shall tell you my story and what I know. It’s not a lot but it may help. I too am like you, you see. I had a normal life in the Netherlands, in a town called Gouda – you may know the name as the cheese from there is very famous – working as a nurse. Then, one night after a meal out with my boyfriend, I started to get some pains in my stomach. They were terrible, excruciating, so I asked Joop to get me an ambulance. I passed out before it came.”
“So, you were drugged then?”
“Yes, that’s what I first thought, although I don’t know for sure. The only thing is, if I was drugged and kidnapped – which is possible – then why? When I first arrived I expected that I was to be raped or something by some depraved Arab man, but I’ve been here for months now and I’ve never seen a man, let alone a depraved one, and instead, everyone has been very kind to me. In fact, if I don’t think about my old life in Gouda and the family and friends that I have left there, then I can be perfectly happy here. This garden is so beautiful and peaceful. When I sit here my mind drifts away, it’s lovely. There is no stress here, nothing, only the routine of the Call to Prayer. That annoyed me at first, but now I’ve grown to like it; it gives the day structure and purpose and the chanting is so melodic and poetic to listen to. I even join in with them when they pray; it’s very peaceful and soothing. And the clothes too, like you I hated them at first, but do you know what, I wouldn’t be without them now! At home we base so much on our appearances. We judge people on how they look. Beauty causes jealousy and envy and we spend millions of euros trying to make ourselves look good so that we can feel good. But wearing these veils, we are all the same and it doesn’t matter. I don’t know what you look like Sarah, whether you are ugly or beautiful, elegant or frumpy, so instead I base my opinion of you solely on who you are; on the words that you speak and the deeds you do.”
Although she could agree with much of what Gabrielle was saying, some parts sounded perilously close to craziness. Had they brainwashed the Dutch girl perhaps? “So, why are we here?” she asked.
“Oh, I don’t know that. I used to ask Fatima that question all the time but she would never give me a straight answer. These days I don’t bother and to tell you the truth, I am beginning not to care. All that I can say is that whatever their purpose might be, I am sure that it is not evil.”
“Is Fatima in charge here then?”
“I don’t know exactly, perhaps so, perhaps not. She is the only one that stays though. I have been here for about six months now and Natasha only a month or two. Trang arrived a couple of months before me, Innocentia a month or so after and then you came yesterday. When one leaves, then another comes. Yukiko left a couple of days ago and now you are here. Everyone comes and goes. Only Fatima remains.”
“And where is it that they go?”
“That I do not know.”
She lay in the steaming water trying to figure it all out. So, this was obviously some sort of half-way house, a staging post. Here was where they brainwashed girls into their way of thinking before sending them onwards, probably into the bed with four submissive wives already in his harem. Here was where they prepared people to accept their fate. “Well, they’re not going to prepare me!” she declared defiantly. “I’m getting out of here!” The light through the skylights was beginning to dim and the sunset call to prayer sounded. In an instant, she hatched her plan. She rose from the bath, dried herself and dressed in her veils. If she was to do it, then night was the best time. She’d read how deserts get so hot during the day that the sand burns the soles of your feet and can melt the tarmac on the roads and you die of dehydration within minutes. At night however, it is the opposite. A severe cold descends and travellers need to wrap up warm. If she started at sunset, she could put many miles between her and Eden before sunrise. She crossed the bedroom and opened the right-hand door. The corridor and garden beyond were deserted. To her surprise, the small door at the far end of the courtyard was unlocked.
The desert was still and black. Not a sound punctuated the night air. Noiselessly, Sarah removed her faceveil so that she could see more clearly and started to walk around the complex. She suspected that whoever it was that had built Eden would have provided a second entrance to the outside world; a bigger entrance that could accommodate a camel or horse or perhaps even a motor vehicle. If she could find that entrance and steal a mode of transport, then progress would certainly be much easier. To her surprise though, the wall was entirely blank and after walking around it all, she arrived back where she had started, stood in front of the tiny carved wooden door. ‘Never mind,’ she thought defiantly, ‘I still have my feet!’ She started to walk away from the building across the stony ground in a straight line. After several hundred yards, she looked back. She’d half expected them to come chasing after, particularly since she knew that they had a camera hidden somewhere in her room, but to her surprise, the desert stayed empty and silent. Eden was just a rude square block of plastered mud bricks with several domes on the roof. From the outside, its beauties were entirely concealed.
She continued on her way. She walked and she walked, onwards in a straight line across the stony ground. As she walked, she kept her gaze downwards. Not a sprig or shoot of vegetation grew in the earth. This place truly did deserve the title of ‘desert’.
She continued on her way. She walked and she walked, onwards in a straight line across the stony ground. When she tired of looking downwards, she gazed ahead instead. It was dark, but she could still make out from the faint light of the stars that the landscape was perfectly flat. It was flat to the left and it was flat to the right. It was flat ahead too and it continued to be perfectly flat until the black earth blended into the black sky.
She continued on her way. She walked and she walked, onwards in a straight line across the stony ground. When she tired of looking ahead, she turned her gaze to the sky instead. Up above her were a billion stars twinkling in the black. As she walked, she wondered about those gigantic gas balls burning away for eternity and of the worlds and the creatures on those worlds that they supported. Then she thought about how the ancient mariners of the sea and desert had used the stars to find their way across the waves and sand. She wished that she too had learnt that age-old skill, but she couldn’t even pick out the pole star, let alone the any of others. She didn’t even know if she was heading north, south, east or west.
She continued on her way. She walked and she walked, onwards in a straight line across the stony ground. As she walked, she realised that she had no way of telling the direction and no way of telling the time. But even if she had, what use would either be to her anyway? She knew not from where she had come from, nor to where she was headed. Nor did she know how far she had travelled and how far was still to go. For the first time in her life, time and space were absent. When she thought about it, she also realised that she couldn’t even find her way back to Eden if she wanted to. Her feet left no prints on the stones. When she thought about it, that scared her a little. There was no shelter here and in the scorching desert sun she would surely perish. She realised that she was now in the hands of God alone. For the first time since her childhood, she began to pray.
She continued on her way. She walked and she walked, onwards in a straight line across the stony ground.
She continued on her way. She walked and she walked, onwards in a straight line across the stony ground.
She walked and she walked and as she walked, she prayed. She prayed that she would reach somewhere sometime. That shelter and hope would come along. But despite her prayers, the horizon never changed. Then the sky started to get lighter and she started to pray and walk harder.
The sun appeared, at first a slither, then a little more, before eventually blossoming into a full orb. She continued walking but the horizon never changed.
As the sun rose, so too did the temperature. And as the temperature increased, her speed decreased. But nonetheless, she carried on walking, following that imaginary straight line.
The sun rose to full height and she slowed right down. There was no shelter and she was glad of her veils now; they shielded her from the satanic glare. But even they could not save her; in a way all they did was prolong the agony. She was hot, she was tired and by now her walk was barely a stagger. She was out in the middle of a vast, dry desert with no shelter and no strength left. She was about to die and it was entirely her own fault. Why had she left Eden anyway? Was it so bad, a life of ease in a beautiful garden? She had chosen to leave that paradise without a proper plan. She would be responsible for her own death. “God, I’m sorry,” she whispered into the nothingness. But once again, no reply came and instead the sun beat down on her harder than ever. She fell to the ground but still would not give up. She started to crawl, clinging to that vain hope that over that distant horizon lay shelter and shade. But she had not gone even four yards before her body failed where her mind hadn’t. It was the end and she knew it. “God please save me!” she cried out. “I don’t want to die! Please save me, I’m sorry!” But as ever, God was silent and as the midday sun burnt at its fiercest, she closed her eyes and the world went blank.
Groggily she opened her eyes but could see only white. “Am I in Heaven?” she asked.
“No Sarah, you are in Eden.” A black shape invaded the whiteness. She recognised it – and the voice – as belonging to Fatima.
“I died,” she said. “He abandoned me.”
“He did not abandon you,” corrected Fatima.
“Yes He did. I called out for Him to save me but He didn’t come.”
“Yes, I know, but I asked Him.”
“But are we not all instruments of Him? Perhaps I didn’t come. Perhaps He sent me?”
“Like an angel?”
“Yes, like an angel.”
The days passed without her even knowing that they had done so. Everyday was the same. Everyday she was woken by the Call to Prayer. She lay in bed and listened to that wonderful, lilting, swirling, poetic chant. Then she bathed and dressed and went out into the garden. In that beautiful place she would talk to Natasha, to Gabrielle, to Trang, to the new girl Chloe or to Fatima. She learnt of Natasha’s old life in Russia, of Trang’s husband and children in Vietnam, of Gabrielle’s old job in a supermarket and of Chloe’s love of her native village. Most of all though, she learnt of Fatima’s passion in life, her faith, Islam. Other days however, she would talk to no one and instead simply sit and watch the birds and insects, wonder at the beauty of the flowers or merely stare into nothing, letting the tranquilty and peace of Eden envelope and strengthen her.
How long it was after that feeble attempt to run away I do not know. Even Sarah herself does not know. After that morning when she had woken to find Fatima at her bedside, Sarah – so glad simply to be alive – lost all track of time and forgot all thoughts of ever leaving. True, on occasions when she was sat in the garden, she still thought of her family, friends and old life in England, but those thoughts were now but happy memories only, the past and not the future. No, how long it was no one knows, except perhaps God Himself of course, but one day, whenever that day was, when Sarah was woken by the Call to Prayer, she glanced at the table by the side of her bed and decided to open up the thick book that lay on it.
Praise be to God, the Lord of all creatures, the most merciful, the king of the Day of Judgment. Thee do we worship, and of thee do we beg assistance. Direct us in the right way, in the way of those to whom thou hast been gracious; not of those against whom thou art incensed, nor of those who go astray.
She was surprised. It was poetic. It was beautiful! It was closer to the Arabian Nights or Shakespeare than to the Bible. She was no a reader of religious books of course, but this one did at least seem to be readable. Intrigued, she turned the page and started on the next chapter…
“Fatima, may I ask you something?”
“Yes sister, what is it?”
“Can you tell me something about your Bible… I mean, the Qu’ran…?”
“Why certainly. Have you been reading it?”
“Well… yes. I was bored you see and there is a copy in my room, so I decided to pick it up and have a look.”
“And how do you find it?”
“Well, I don’t know. It’s more interesting than I expected it to be.”
“And very poetic and beautiful…”
“…but is it true that God Himself revealed all that to Mohammed on the mountain?”
“Well, not all on the mountain, but yes, that is what we Muslims believe, that it came from God Himself to Mohammed through the Angel Gabriel.”
“But isn’t that… well, do you have any evidence?”
“Well that depends on what you mean by ‘evidence’. What most people would call ‘solid evidence’, then I’m afraid that the answer is ‘no’. Mohammed says so, and we Muslims believe that. Of course there are many indicators to the divine origin of the book. The very poetic style that you mentioned for example. Mohammed was nothing more than an illiterate merchant, yet the Qu’ran is a work of prose and poetry equal to anything on earth. How many merchants do you know who can write like that? Who else could have been the author but God?”
“Well yes, I see what you are saying, but well, there are other things that concern me too. He gets his facts wrong for starters. He says that Jesus was never crucified, that another man took his place. That can’t be true; everyone knows that Jesus was crucified; there’s a whole religion based on it after all!”
“But why is it wrong? The Christian accounts say that Jesus was crucified whereas the Qu’ran says that he was not. Who is to say which one is the truth? Only God knows that and we believe that God was the author of the Qu’ran. It is with faith that the Qu’ran must be read, for without faith it is nothing but a poetic fancy.
From that day forward, Sarah continued to read the Qu’ran, a little each day. In it she read of many things; of the creation of the world; of the Battle of Bedr; of the Magians and the Jews and of the Christ uncrucified. Most of all though, she read of God, the one and only God to whom all things are accountable; the God with ninety-nine names and a multitude of instructions for His people. The God whom they pray to five times daily. The God who creates all and looks after all.
She now began to take more notice of the Call to Prayer. She followed the words and even recognised some of them from the passages of the Qu’ran that she had read. Then, one evening, without even fully realising it herself, when that Call sounded, she knelt on the floor as Fatima so often did and started to bow. Her actions shocked her – they didn’t make any sense – and yet, at the same time, they were somehow fulfilling. She did not stop until the call ended.
…take in marriage such other women as please you, two, or three, or four, and not more…
… Men shall have pre-eminence above women, because of those advantages wherein God hath caused one of them to excel the other…
Before she had entered Eden, even before she had run away from Eden, if Sarah had read those words, she would have been horrified and disgusted. Previously, she had always disliked Islam because of its attitude to women; sexist, backward, simply wrong. But there, in that strange maleless place, reading the Qu’ran, she began to see things in a different light. True, there were many aspects of it that she still couldn’t grasp, but in terms of the polygamous marriages, they were more to protect widows and orphans than to suppress females and fulfil male fantasies, and as for the pre-eminence, was it not true that man is pre-eminent in physical strength and had not God made him so? Sarah thought of her old schoolfriend Rachel who had been beaten regularly by her partner and shuddered. Such things were firmly forbidden by the Qu’ran.
The pattern of her days changed. She herself did not even realise it, but slowly more and more of her time was spent reading and less chatting. And when she did decide to talk, it was now normally to Fatima, asking her about the things that she had read that day. Not that Sarah was now being unfriendly towards the other ladies, for she wasn’t. Instead she was just less interested, and had less time to fill. Yes, slowly, imperceptibly, surely, Sarah was changing.
She finished the Qu’ran within a month. Two days after that, she had commenced her second reading.
The air was still and the night was black. She sat up and blinked. Why? Why had she woken up? There was no light, no sound, no disturbance, nothing.
But of course, she knew. A strange feeling, a feeling that had been welling up inside her for some weeks now, ever since she had reverted in fact; a feeling that had now got so strong that she felt as if she was about to burst. Automatically, she rose, put on her veils and ran down the corridor to the garden. There, lit only by a crescent moon, she stopped. She bent down and picked up a pebble. She ran it through her gloved hand and let it drop sown onto the pathway. With a chink it hit the stone.
With that chink, she realised.
“God is merciful,” she says.
“God is merciful,” agrees Fatima.
She turns around and stares at the shrouded figure behind her. “I have been here for almost a year now,” she says.
“You have been here for almost a year.”
“And I haven’t eaten.”
“You haven’t eaten.”
“I haven’t drunk anything.”
“You haven’t drunk anything.”
“And I haven’t used the toilet.”
“You haven’t used the toilet.”
“We wear the veils for a reason.”
“We wear the veils for a reason.”
“There is nothing to see underneath.”
“There is nothing to see underneath.”
“What I saw as myself was only my imagination.”
“What you saw as yourself was only your imagination.”
“Based on seeing myself when I was in that other place.”
“Based on seeing yourself when you were in that other place.”
“All the girls here are the same as me.”
“All the girls are the same as you.”
“But you are not.”
“I am not.”
“God gave me a second chance.”
“God is merciful.”
For a minute the silence of the night reigns.
“It is time.”
“It is time.”
They walk towards the small wooden door that leads out of Eden. “Are you ready?” asks Fatima.
“God is great,” says Sarah.
As they open it, the light is blinding.