How Laila saved Eid this year
“Could I hit him if he groped me again?” she thought to herself as she made a fist and punched thin air around her.
Cursing under her breath, she returned to the pile of clothes she was rummaging through. She could hardly see anything inside the dark tent. Making a blind choice in the dark, she pulled out a piece of cloth and turned around to leave. She was about to miss her truck. Cautious as to not literally step on anyone’s toes, Laila hopped about the tent silently, avoiding crushing her family members who were still asleep.
On her way out, she passed the sleeping silhouette of her father. As the head and protector of the family, Laila’s father always slept near the tent’s entrance.
“But if they come for us, it will not make any difference,” a sense of foreboding overcame her.
She recited Quranic verses under her breath and left her family under the protection of God’s verses.
Laila stepped outside her tent breathing fresh morning air. At the crack of dawn, the Beqqa valley looked serenely beautiful. Momentarily forgetting her plight, Laila started running towards the main road. The cold morning air bounced off her face as she ran towards the highway. For a brief moment, she truly felt her own age.
“This feels good! I haven’t run like this in ages,” she thought to herself.
Breathing heavily, she reached the truck spot. The truck seemed to be a little late.
“How great would it be if the truck didn’t come today… but then what would I take back home?” Her briefly careless moment of childhood was over in a jiffy.
In the distance, she heard the truck’s roar and then the babble of over a dozen children running towards the truck. The truck jolted to a halt in front of them.
Laila slowly shifted to the back trying to blend in with the other kids and then she saw his leering face in the front of the car. He emerged out of the car, a six-feet giant holding a baseball bat in his hand and started yelling at them to climb in the back of the truck. Seeing him, Laila quickly jumped aboard and sat down on the floor of a truck sandwiched between two bickering siblings. He climbed up after the children making sure the head count was correct.
Just as Laila looked up to see whether he had climbed down, her eyes met his and suddenly a cold shiver went down her spine. Those eyes were soiled; soiled with malice and lust. Scared, she looked away quickly. Making sure the headcount was in check, Akram secured the lock on the back of the truck and they started off towards the fields.
Back home, it was not a daily struggle like it was here in Beqqa. She remembered her days back in her own country before the war, before the torn streets, before grenades and explosions, ambulances and debris. She fondly remembered how the start of Ramazan was announced on the mosque speakers in her city and how she would help her mother and sisters prepare festive snacks for iftar.
Her favourite time of the year, however, was Eidul Fitr at the end of the holy month of Ramazan. It was when her father would take them to the market to buy sweets, clothes, shoes, toys and what not. But after fleeing home, she had not even stepped foot inside a sweet shop all these months. She had only caught a glimpse though, once from far.
Soon after their migration to Lebanon, they had been starving for days when her desperate father took her and her younger brother to a crowded market nearby. He had made them sit in the corner with some homeless-looking children and told them to wait there as he disappeared into the crowd. Gazing around her, 12-year-old Laila was puzzled as to why their father had abandoned them in a market full of strangers. They waited for their father for what seemed like ages. In all this time, they watched other children besides them running towards people who came out of the shops, demanding money or food.
It was then that she realised why her father had brought them there. It was then that Laila had felt utterly broken. Her eight-year-old brother was clueless and kept asking for their father. She waited for a long time and finally got up to follow the example of other children begging in the market around them. Holding her brother’s arm, she walked slowly towards a couple emerging from a fruit shop.
She had just raised her hand reluctantly when suddenly somebody grabbed her hand and turned her around. It was her sobbing father, pulling her and her brother into a crushing embrace, he had apologised profusely. He had taken them back. They had moved to Beqqa valley after that, where their father started work on a house construction site, and for those two few months, they could have two meals every day. Later on, seeing as it was neither steady income nor enough, Laila had started going to the potato fields to work with all the other refugee camp children.
In the fields, she had jobs like picking potatoes, olives or toiling in the cotton fields all day long. Her bosses were sometimes good men but then she met Akram, who made her severely uneasy with his leering gaze and untoward advances. She tried telling her mother about it once but she had stopped her from slandering her boss.
“Don’t make excuses for skipping work, Laila! Your boss is the most pious man I have seen in Lebanon. They say he never misses a single prayer!”
That Laila knew was true but she also knew older girls had been touched by him inappropriately, while she also heard a family that lived on the other side of the refugee camp had filed a report for their 16-year-old daughter who went missing from the fields. She had tried to convince her mother but to no avail. Starvation and fatigue can cloud even a mother’s judgment, especially one suffering from arthritis with five mouths to feed.
“My dear Laila, look at the young ones here. They need you right now. If you don’t work these days, we would starve to death during the Eid holidays. If you are good and if my mistress gives me a bonus, I shall take you and your sisters out to buy sweets on Eid. Okay?” Her mother appeased her, stroking her hair lovingly.
Looking into her expectant eyes, Laila nodded in agreement.
“Maybe I don’t need to be scared of him. I should just keep working like I am. Mother wouldn’t let me work if she thought I could be in danger,” she convinced herself, silencing the voices in her head.
It was the 19th day of Ramazan when Akram announced he needed to employ some children in the storage units off the fields for a few days before Eid.
“I will choose five workers myself based on two days’ work. These workers will get double wages.”
Laila thought about what her mother had said about Eid.
“If I work hard today, I might be chosen and I could really use the extra money to bring sweets for everyone this Eid.”
Smiling, she geared up for the day ahead. She worked tirelessly, even through the lunch break. Food was scarce anyways. She was making her last trip to the loading truck when Akram suddenly called her from behind. Her heart lurched in her chest as she turned around to face him. He took the basket off her head and put it on the ground.
“Don’t be scared of me. Sit here for a minute.” Laila stood as if frozen to the spot.
“Oh dear! Fine don’t sit down. I will though. Do you want me to choose you for the double wages tomorrow?” He asked Laila who was still staring at her toes.
After a whole minute, she slowly nodded still keeping her head down.
“Good! Wear your best clothes tomorrow. There will be an inspection. Look your best,” he told her, looking upon her face intently. “That’s all. Go finish your work now.”
Her heart racing, she ran to the loading truck.
All through her ride back home, Laila thought upon her conversation with Akram. There was something about his gaze; it crept over you like a creeping vine climbing up a tree. She sat squeezed among her fellows who were weary from the hard day’s work, squirming in their places, smelly and sweaty. Wrinkling her nose, she held her head up high trying to get some fresh air.
“Why did he say I need to wear good clothes, if it is just a storage area inspection?” she pondered.
Loud whispers around her shook her out of her reverie. She could see subdued faces of girls all around her who were also probably wondering the same thing as her. She couldn’t share with anyone what he said to her though. If he found out, it would all be over for her and her family. He had been controlling the permits for most families in their refugee camps. Her father also gave him a part of his wages every week as payment for utilities.
She wore her mother’s best scarf the next day. Along with four other children, one boy and the rest girls, Akram drove them away from the fields. Two other girls sitting with Laila sobbed continuously. Upon hearing their constant sniffling, Akram barked at them to stay quiet. It took almost an hour to reach the destination. It was getting dark outside. It was way past maghreb (dusk) when they reached the destination. It was a small but well-lit building in the middle of an open field. City lights flickered in the distance.
They were asked to form a line and follow Akram into the building through a backdoor. They found themselves in a long dimly lit hallway, where faint sounds of native music could be heard through the walls. They were told to wait outside while Akram went inside a room, leaving them under the watchful eye of a menacing looking guard. He made them sit on a bench on the side of the door. The only boy among them asked for some water and received a smack on his head by the guard. Nobody spoke after that.
One after the other, they were taken into the room by Akram until only Laila and the boy were left. Finally it was Laila’s turn. Her heart was hammering in her chest. This place did not look like a storage unit at all.
“You will follow me inside and don’t say a single word until someone asks you a question. You will do as I say or I will break something of yours. Understood?” He warned her.
She nodded hastily, scared witless.
“And take this off!” he yanked her scarf off her head.
She gasped loudly and covered her hair with hands.
“No! No! Keep your hands to the side.”
Nudging her forwards, he opened the door and took her inside. Laila looked around the room which was lit up and filled with chairs. About a dozen men sat there babbling, eating and drinking.
“Gentlemen! Here is the finest piece of tonight’s collection. Her skin glows like the sun, her eyes are the colour of a raging ocean during a storm and her body is fresh as a flower. So which one of you shall be with her tonight?” announced Akram.
Laila stood frozen to the spot as she heard him say all that. She wasn’t sure as to what he could mean. She zoned out of her current situation as if lost in a trance. She couldn’t hear what anyone was saying. She wanted to run but her legs were jelly. Her mother’s sad eyes swirled in front of her. Words that she had spoken to her that day rang in her ears,
“My dear Laila, look at the young ones here…look at the young ones here…look at the young ones here…”
Her father’s kind face swam before her eyes. Laila finally understood her mother’s negligence of her apprehensions about Akram and her father’s averted eyes. She finally understood.
“My young brothers and sisters will finally have sweets on Eid; maybe even new clothes.”
Akram grabbed her hand, breaking her train of thought. He then took her to a middle-aged man who was grinning; flashing his gold teeth at her. Akram then gave her hand to his. Without resistance, Laila’s limp hand was firmly grasped by him.
“Payment is upfront but I cannot give you more than two hours with her. I have to drop her back by midnight,” Akram said to the guy.
Nodding happily, the fat middle-aged bastard took Laila away with him. She went with him, perhaps because she was afraid for her life but more so because she wanted to save the Eid.
After two and half hours, she limped out of the room. Akram was waiting for her. The rest had already been assembled. Two girls had bruises on their faces and the boy was not able to stand up straight.
“You did well. Now here is your money,” Akram started distributing their wages.
He leaned towards Laila and whispered,
“He really liked you. I think I might also go for it myself, but after Ramazan. I am a Muslim after all. Here’s your Eidi.”
Laila took the money without so much as a grimace at him. On their way back, she wrapped her scarf around her head properly and washed her face with a water bottle. When she came home, her mother was sitting by the entrance of their tent. Her protecting father was nowhere to be found. She looked at her mother who didn’t look at her directly.
“Here mother, take this,” she said, giving her the money she had gotten.
Her mother took the money and looked at it in disbelief.
“This much money? What did you do?”
Laila turned around and looked at her mother, her stare so cold her mother couldn’t look at her for long,
“I did not beg on the streets for this. I know father doesn’t like us begging,” she said with a newfound bitterness in her voice.
Her mother called after her but she limped away. She had every right to.
After all, she had saved Eid this year.
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