Our Bodies, Possessed by Light
It took two months of bombings, unpredictable as the monsoon rains, before you began avoiding potential targets: dented hatchbacks, religious schools, donkey-drawn carriages, and the maulvi who was there one second and then vanished like a magician in the smoke, leaving behind a blown-out hole. You narrate in your head as you hurry through the market to pick up milk and eggs, “You’re dead. You’re dead. You’re safe. You’re dead.” You take a pair of scissors to your beard and then scrape your chin and cheeks with a dull razor to clean up the stubble. Muhammad, peace be upon him, never dealt with beard-targeting and missiles dropping from drones as regularly as birds taking a shit.
You tell your family it is a good idea to stay in today. Never mind your son missing another day at school. Perhaps the school is next. The playgrounds and sandbox must look like a Taleban training camp for village children from a satellite. You imagine a camera, pitched into orbit, zooming, focusing, and snapping pictures of boys and girls skipping through sand.
Nobody leaves their houses anymore. You used to pick up a strawberry ice lolly for your daughter and a chocolate cone for your wife on your way home from work before Sohail closed his shop. The security shutters are bolted close. He won’t be back any time soon. You might pass one or two people in the streets, but you don’t look at each other. A raised eyebrow or a small twitch in your cheek could mean the end. You sure as hell don’t talk to each other. You feel this is an act of kindness. You are sparing their lives.
Two eras, Before the Drones and After the Drones, have hewn your life neatly down the middle re-casting your memories in gauzy, sun-bleached light like a nostalgic photograph. Before the drones, nobody stayed home unless they had piled in for evening supper.You are living in an ant hill underneath a large foot waiting to step on the first person to outside.
The cracks show in your neighbors. Shabana who lives next door to you can’t get through a whole night of sleep. Even when it’s quiet, she says she hears them. Sometimes she cries on your wife’s shoulders and says, “I hear them in my head. They’re coming.”
This isn’t the first time Shabana has heard noises in her head. Several months ago, before the Drones, she woke up half the village pinballing from door to door until she dropped on her knees at your door. Her hair was matted with blood to one side of her head where she had been slamming it against a wall. She pointed to her mashed ear and said, “Somebody is screaming in my head.” You called a doctor. With a flashlight and a pair of long, needle-nosed tweezers, he pulled out a wriggling cockroach the size of your index finger.
This was different. Everybody heard it. Every night, the low and steady buzz trepanned its way from the back of your skull into your brain. You knew a strike was coming; you just never knew when or where so you huddled your family together, away from everybody else.
There’s no telling how many were killed when the wedding was mistaken for a gathering of undesirables. Newspapers don’t make it out to the village anymore. Your whole region on the circulation map was blacked out in a swath of black paint in case news hawkers didn’t know the risk of dealing there. Your wife had been ready to go, her hand stained in floral and paisley patterns with henna and kohl dabbed around her eyes. She looked as desirable as the day you first married her. It is too dangerous, you said. Too many people in one place. She gave you a look like a child whose favorite toy had been pulled out of her hands before she could play with it. You held firm and dramatically stomped your foot which you regretted immediately.
The smoke makes you think of Afghan barbecues where quail, chicken, and lamb roast on spits and hot fat drips into a fire and pops like a bottle rocket. You can taste garlic, onion, red chili and cumin on the back of your tongue. You feel nauseated when you realize that the smell in the air is from the charred remains of your friends and neighbors. Your wife is having a hard time holding down food.
From your window, you see the men who brought this rage down on your village. The Taleban controlled small villages all across the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, using small bands of well-armed and well-trained mullahs. You want to run out, look to the sky, and point, point with your entire body to these men and for once draw one of the drones to its target. Instead, you stand by the window and dart behind a curtain before they see you watching.
Safdar Mirza doesn’t remember the drone strike that destroyed his house, fracturing his skull and nearly blinding him. Foreigners have set up a makeshift clinic outside the village where Safdar has his own hospital bed.
“I was working in the garden. I planted mint last year, but it has been taking over my entire yard. I couldn’t smell anything else. Not even the night jasmine,” he says. They patched him up the best they can. You can’t remember the way he looked before because it has been so long since you have seen him.
“I still had Farhan’s trowel, so I was digging up my mint plants. They were everywhere. I felt like I couldn’t stop them,” he continues.
There are burns all over Safdar’s arms and neck that have been swabbed with a thick orange paste that smells Burnol. You wonder if that is the best they have. They must have run out because there are large strips of burn like peeled bark that have been left untreated.
“I was putting them in bottomless containers. You still have to watch them. They’ll escape over the top of your containers. In the summer, it’s important to stay alert and clip them off.” His eyes are closed, and you’re not sure he who he is talking to. You ask him what he remembers last.
“Shaza laughing in the house. She laughs like a peacock. I remember hearing it made me smile in the garden and the day lit up. Everything was brighter like somebody turned the Sun on.”
You hold his hand. It feels like holding a bundle of pencils about to snap. You hold his hand anyways because he doesn’t know what happened after the Sun turned on.
Jummah prayer is attended by few. You decided, in the end, that it was important to still show up and face Allah once a week. Maybe Allah heard those prayers over all the others. Normally shoulder-to-shoulder, the men are spaced far apart. There is no imam to lead the prayer, but a patchy-bearded young man steps forward. He raises his hands to his ears, murmurs ‘Allah-u-Akbar’ and prays silently. The silence is punctuated every so often by a quiet ‘Allah-u-Akbar’ and the sound of a dozen old men’s creaky knees bending in worship. You can’t stop watching everybody else from the corner of your eye, and you don’t remember a single prayer.
When the prayer is over, the young man does not offer a sermon. He finishes his Du’a, gets to his feet, and skips out of the mosque. This unnerves you, and you don’t bother to finish before running out, leaving your chappals behind.
“Did you walk the whole way home barefoot?” your wife asks when you get home. You don’t know how to answer. The blood is still pumping in your throat as you remember the way the young man ran out of the mosque.
Instead of alarming your wife, you settle into a low chair and read the Qur’an, but this only makes her more suspicious.
“You haven’t read the Qur’an once in your entire life. Why are you starting now?”
You widen your eyes at her and put your finger to your lips.
“That’s the first time those pages have seen your face. They must wonder ‘Who is this taking me from the bookcase?’”
You keep reading, trying to understand the Arabic that looks so similar to Urdu. Holding the Qur’an in your hands feels like a shield. You decide that you will carry this Qur’an with you wherever you go and buy two pocket-sized Qur’ans, one each for your wife and your daughter. Allah wouldn’t destroy so many copies of his message.
The next day, you see the young man who ran out of the mosque, standing at the end of your street with men you know to be Taleban. He has a desert keffiyeh wrapped over his mouth, surely to hide the mullah beard he is trying to grow. You worry they will wander too closely to your house and put your family in danger. You think of ways to head them off, distractions to point them in the opposite direction. Before you have a chance to run outside, you hear the sound of a turboprop engine approaching.
The drone looks like a starved commercial airplane, much leaner without having to carry a pilot and crew. It flies overhead, and you brace for the roof to come crumbling down under the weight of a falling missile.
Nothing comes. Outside, the Taleban have scattered like wild boar fleeing from a hunting party. You feel relieved until you realize that the appearance of a drone means it has either already dropped its cargo or is about to.
You’re watching a protest in Islamabad on the small black and white box you keep in the bedroom. The television signal cleared up after Farhan fiddled with the antennae. Several women from different embassies had formed a line in Super Market and held up signs written in English. The news anchor translated two that said ‘Fasting for Peace’ and ‘No More Drones’. The audio from the scene fades over the anchor.
In unison, the protestors were shouting something unintelligible. A few seconds later, Farhan said, “They’re speaking Urdu. ‘Band karo, band karo, drone hamlay band karo.’”
The scene switched back to the newscaster. “Some participants of the hunger strike are set to return to the United States while others will stay to attend peace conferences and more protests in opposition to US involvement in Pakistan,” she said.
After the news program, a serial drama comes on about a man named Murad trying to convince his mother to go and see a girl’s family and ask for her rishta. The story was long and confusing, but at the end, you want to keep watching.
Farhan looks like he has been shaken out of a pleasant dream. His eyes scan the room, wondering where he has found himself. “I should get going,” he said. A commercial played for the next episode and Farhan waited for it to finish before he stood up.
“Maybe I can come back and see how Murad is doing?”
You nod and walk him outside. It is too dangerous having somebody over on a regular weekly basis. You get a carving knife from the kitchen, come back, and sever the television wires.
That night, before going to sleep, you wish you hadn’t cut the cords because it was nice to lose yourself in somebody else’s story for a moment.
Nobody has heard a drone for two months. After the first few weeks of silence, we retreated further into our homes, sure that the gap in attacks was preparation for one large-scale strike. After the first month, we were cautiously optimistic about the possibility of being drone-free. When two months passed, the village somewhat returned to normal. There weren’t as many people in the streets, but there was laughter. Sohail lifted the security shutters to his store. You bought a strawberry ice lolly and a chocolate cone to bring home while Sohail filled you in on the latest episode of Daag.
There are homes that need to be rebuilt and businesses that have been chased away, but things are slowly changing. No more starving drones waiting to pounce from behind a cloud. A car pulls up to the curb in front of you and the young man who led Jummah prayer a few months ago steps out. Your body tenses up and your nerves go haywire. Nothing. Just a memory reflex from when things were bad. Those protestors must have gotten through to somebody. Band karo, band karo, drone hamlay band karo. It sounded silly in their American accents but also more capable of action as if the words in your own mouth mean less than it does in theirs.
The juice from the ice lolly drips onto your fingers as you round the corner to your street and hurry home as fast as you can. When you get inside, you hand the cone off to your wife and the lolly to your daughter. Neither of them says anything. The chocolate is melting as well, running down and staining your wife’s hands like the henna she put on before the wedding. She is crying.
“Shabana is dead,” she says.
You would have heard something, you think.
“She was in a field near Ghundi. They found her body a few hours ago.”
The last few days, you have the same waking dream of Shabana plucking ladyfingers from a field near the smaller village of Ghundi, her knees pressing into the crusty dirt and powdering off her shalwar kameez when she stands up. Pulling the ladyfingers off the plant is rubbing Shabana’s hands raw. In the dream, you want to kneel next to her and help, but you are not aware of your body having a presence. You feel nebulous and light. Shabana is smiling; pouring herself into her work has driven all the sounds living in her head away. She is happy here. You hear a click like the switch on a light bulb’s pull-chain and the world brightens, snapping you out of your daydream.
You used to think there was nothing worse than living under the shadows of planes and falling bombs, but it is the fear that is so exhausting. You want to hate the drones and the Taleban, but you only hate yourself for being alive with so much fear. The village hasn’t seen or heard an attack since Shabana died, but at night, your wife says that she can hear drones above the house. By morning, her sobs soften to a pale whimper. The drones are like mosquitos buzzing by your ear; even when you don’t see them, you hear them. You lay down at night and listen for the glide of eyeless sentinels through the black sky positioning themselves hundreds of feet above you, ready to fill your bodies with unrelenting light.
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